10 Lessons from a Lifelong Copywriter (Part 2 of 2)

Earlier this year, I started looking back on my 25 years as a practicing copywriter and realized, “Hey, I know some stuff!” So, I started writing a list of the ten most important lessons I’ve picked up over those years in the trenches, and broke it into two parts. Part 1 can be found here. Part 2 is what follows. Use them in good health and with endless curiosity.

6. Remember to write for two audiences.
If your target audience is ever going to see your work, you need to get it approved by the client first. Now, imagine your client is a 57-year-old white guy. You show him your concept, via a spec TikTok that communicates an inside joke to an audience of 16-24 inner city kids. When his face twists and he says, “I don’t get it” — and means, “I hate it” — you’ve already lost the game. You can’t go back and re-pitch. There are no second impressions. The value of a powerful creative idea isn’t always self-evident. Make sure you set the context in such a way that the client “gets it” (the mind of your target audience, that is), before you unveil your work. Pull a Don Draper if you have to.

7. If your copy sounds like copy, write it again.
If you read or listen to typical ad copy, you’ll notice a certain sound and feel. That’s because most copywriters play a character when they write: the character of “copywriter.” And “copywriters” write in a certain way — with a certain tone and bounce, and with certain ten-decibel words that are never used in real life. That’s bad practice. Your job, after all, isn’t to write copy that “sounds like copy”; your job is to persuade an audience. And you do that by writing as if you’re talking to a friend. David Ogilvy advised: “Write the way you talk. Naturally.” When you do, your audience will feel it … and respond accordingly.

8. Write the headline last.
A lot of copywriters start at the beginning: with the headline. Don’t. The headline is the hardest thing to write. It’s job is to deftly deliver the big, bold idea you’re ad message is centered upon. And at first, your big, bold idea may not be fully cooked yet. So, instead, start with the body copy. Work out your idea through writing. Good writing is good thinking, after all — so write/think your way through that process. Take your first good draft and edit, edit, edit! Once you have your “ready for prime time” draft, then and only then, use what you got — all that relevant copy, all that background, all that good thinking — to work up your killer headline.

9. Let your creative breathe.
So, you’ve written this awesome new ad. You’re excited and want it push it into existence. But, be patient. Sit on it overnight. Never send your copy to your art director or creative director the day you write it. Let it breathe. Look at it the next morning with fresh eyes … and see what needs to be fixed. (Because there is always something that needs to be fixed.) Same rule for your creative comps. Even if you and your AD are excited about what you created, wait a day before sending it to the AE or creative director or client. Important things (read: problems and opportunities) reveal themselves in the cold light of morning.

10. Playing it safe is the riskiest thing of all.
This is a global/philosophical rule, not a tactical one. Still, it’s worth saying: As soon as you decide to go with “what works” or the “tried and true,” you’ve unintentionally agreed to be unspectacular. No one gets excited by the same-old, same-old (which is, by definition, the same and old). If you’ve been directed to do something “because it works,” or because that’s what your competitors are doing, or because the data says blah blah blah, you need to figure out how to zig to their zag. Take the tried and true and put a new spin on it. Use the MAYA principle. A great ad message makes a meaningful impression and gets people talking. A derivative also-ran makes nothing but white noise. Plus, why did you choose writing as a career? To get rich?! 😄 No. Because you want to create something great. And greatness carves its own path. So … go for it!


Additional braindroppings:

> Always keep your tone consistent and on-brand.

> Be less concerned about “the writing,” and more concerned about what’s being communicated.

> Hyperbole is the worst thing EVER! It feels amazingly desperate and crushes your credibility!!!

> When brainstorming, use the most meaningless paper you can. (There is no pressure when you’re scribbling on the back of an envelope.)

> When you think your copy is done, try reading it out loud. If something sounds weird or forced or unnatural, change it.

> Your guiding thought when you start any new project should be: “How can I help the people I’m reaching?”

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