Write better, not more

by Tom Albrighton 13 April 2011 Copywriting, Popular

Before you play two notes, learn how to play one note – and don’t play one note unless you’ve got a reason to play it.
Mark Hollis

The recent Guardian Q&A on ‘breaking into copywriting’ featured 11 copywriter hosts, including me, plus guests.

In just three hours we generated a record 385 comments or around 30,000 words for young writers to chew through. I’ve edited books that were shorter than that.

No wonder one of the aspiring copywriters Tweeted that she was ‘still spinning’ with ‘information overload’. You and me both!

Too much words

During the Q&A, distinguished copywriter Oliver Wingate stopped by and made one post.


I can still remember it, almost word for word. (No, I’m not going to quote or link. If you care enough, you can go and find it.)

Later, I headed to Oliver’s site and read his thoughts on ‘unwriting’: removing superfluous words rather than writing new ones. As he says:

There’s just too much words in this world and it’s a shame that people aren’t more careful with them.

That rang true for me. I realised that I didn’t want to be scrambling and scrolling through the Guardian’s unthreaded blog, blurting out wordy, hasty responses to questions I’d answered in the same event a year earlier. I wanted to make a telling contribution, not a yelling one.

The medium says go large

Most of the content of the Q&A was the usual stuff about impressing people and getting them to give you money. But what did the form of the discussion say?

If the medium is the message, our message was ‘hey, write loads – some might stick.’

In his follow-up post on the Q&A, Oliver noted that ‘voices arguing against writing needlessly were few and far between’. He also made the link between copywriting and poetry:

The connection between copywriters and poets is something of an old cliché, I fully appreciate that. And it was alluded to yesterday as if it was some kind of affliction, or indulgence. But the two are closely related, because they’re about compression, reducing to the bare minimum…

Copywriters who have not learned about this connection with poetry, or who refuse to learn about it, don’t deserve to be called copywriters, in my view…  I don’t see why we should proliferate words for people, when they’d be much more grateful to you for brevity.

Oliver’s post crystallised thoughts I’ve been trying to express for a while.

With care and forethought, the poet puts a lot of meaning into a few words. Having unfolded that meaning, readers are changed. From that moment on, they think differently in some small way. And that’s just what copywriters want to achieve. The motive might be different, but the means and the end are the same.

I asked two of my fellow copywriters, who also write poetry, for their thoughts on that idea. Here’s Rishi Dastidar:

At root, both my poems and copy are trying to get the reader to do something: to call a number, to click on a link, to remember an emotion, to trigger a memory. And that generally means some deftness and some sort of beauty needs to be in there…

As poets we want to find language that lodges in the memory, articulates things we can’t easily do otherwise. Any good copywriter, whether consciously or not, should be doing this already.

Mark Owen, who trades as I Do Words and writes poetry as Mark Antony Owen, sees common elements but feels that copywriting and poetry should stay separate:

A beautifully crafted piece of copy could almost be a ‘found’ poem, and be no less valuable artistically for that. But generally, I’d say the two disciplines are discrete, and should – in the main – remain that way.

Good poetry is not read once and forgotten. It demands attention, and repays it. It hangs around. It becomes part of you. Copy should be like that – something you read and re-read (or replay in your mind), finding more fascination each time.

You say I must write another book? But I’ve just written this one.
You liked it so much that’s the reason? Read it again then.
Stevie Smith, ‘To an American Publisher’

Poetry is concise. (That’s Stevie Smith’s whole poem above, not an extract.) But I’m not arguing for short copy, or long copy. I’m arguing for the right amount of copy – 500 words, 10 or three. Or none. Every word should justify its place, or be dropped from the team.

I’ve seen the light

I blame my upbringing. Although I studied literature, I had any airs and graces beaten out of me by five years at a trade book publisher, where words were a commodity to be bent and shaped to fit the layout.

That prepared me well for a life as a jobbing copywriter who wasn’t all that creative – someone who bashed out the words, got paid, would never win an award and didn’t particularly care.

Anyway, who needs poetry as long as the copy sells? That’s what David Ogilvy, the overbearing, always-right uncle of modern advertising would say.

Until recently, I’d have agreed. Authoritative rationalisation for a situation I can’t change? Yeah, I’ll have some of that.

But I thought again when I read the famous Hey Whipple, Squeeze This by ace US copywriter Luke Sullivan. The book’s subtitle, ‘A guide to creating great advertising’, which at first seems throwaway, actually embodies Sullivan’s whole position. We should create (not just do) great (not just OK) writing – or at least try.

Here he is on the creative process:

Eventually, you get to an idea that dramatizes the benefit of your client’s product or service. Dramatizes is the key word. You must dramatize it in a unique, proactive, compelling, and memorable way.

We may see our writing as poetry or drama, but the point is we aim for something that has resonance or appeal beyond the product it’s written about – but without becoming irrelevant or indulgent.

Handfuls of mud

Earlier in his book, Sullivan tackles head-on the argument of sales vs quality, quoting Norman Berry, who was a creative director at Ogilvy & Mather:

If sales are achieved with work which is in bad taste or is intellectual garbage, it shouldn’t be applauded no matter how much it sells. Offensive, dull, abrasive, stupid advertising is bad for the entire industry and bad for business as a whole. It is why the public perception of advertising is going down in this country.

Copywriting shouldn’t just add value; it should have value. It’s part of our economy and our culture, and that brings responsibility. While I still believe the idea of ‘creativity’ can be unhelpful, I do think we should always do the best work we can.

Even Ogilvy himself quotes this:

When you reach for the stars, you may not quite get one, but you won’t come up with a handful of mud either.
Leo Burnett

Will clients allow us to do ‘good’ work? Not always. But it won’t happen unless we want it to.

The internet doesn’t help

The adman’s ideal of tight, economical, poetic writing is fundamentally opposed to the way things work online. With no real publication costs and no real penalty for second-rate writing, you might as well stick that content on your site – what have you got to lose?

Sometimes it’s a commercial strategy. Knowing they can hit and miss, digital marketers and SEOs strafe the internet with as many words as they can afford. Some rank, some don’t; it’s a game of numbers rather than words. At the grotesque extreme is Demand Media, the content equivalent of carpet-bombing.

Broad-but-shallow coverage brings search benefits, which is why the Guardian wanted 11 copywriters all banging away at their Q&A: eight more pages of keyword-rich content for their site, and eight more URLs where banner ads could appear.

For smaller operators, it’s as much to do with excessive self-expression as commercial benefit. Some writers think we should blog every day. While that can certainly be justified on SEO grounds, true quality can’t be turned on like a tap. It takes time and, even when it doesn’t, revisiting and revising are nearly always worthwhile.

Draft, draft, draft, revise, revise, revise. In the same way that your copy needs to be hacked, finessed, cudgelled repeatedly into being gleaming and diamond hard, so similarly a poem has to be coaxed again and again into showing its true face. Any writer or poet who tells you they don’t re-draft a lot is a either a bad liar or a bad writer.
Rishi Dastidar

Writing every day might be a good idea; publishing every day might not be.

Blanket of words

But let’s not point the finger. We all play the content game – or at least, anyone using the internet to generate business does. I do it myself when I publish potboiler posts like this, just to keep the blog ticking over, chalk up another URL, maybe get a link. It may be small, but it’s still part of the problem rather than the solution.

Let’s be honest. Most of what we call ‘quality content’ in digital circles is actually just adequate. ‘Quality’ means ‘good enough to rank higher than your competitors’, or ‘good enough to attract reader interest’. It rarely means ‘fascinating’, ‘hilarious’, ‘memorable’ or ‘heartbreaking’.

Few firms are willing to engage a copywriter at all. Of those who are, even fewer are willing to invest the time (i.e. money) required to produce something really distinctive. The idea that words are bought by the yard is just too powerful. Why would I pay £1000 for three words? (Answer: because if you get the right writer, no-one will ever forget them.)

Words can be a security blanket too. Use thousands and you feel you’ve covered everything; use a few and you feel exposed. On an intellectual level, everyone understands that the more you write, the less gets read – you’re diluting, not adding. But emotionally, it’s hard to bet it all on black.

Can any firm rise higher and sell more, just with content? I think so. The more I talk to business owners, the more I realise that every company, every brand, has a story – and a story can be made dramatic or poetic if you put in the effort. It may not be something that everyone wants to hear, but it will engage the relevant readers like nothing else can. And the journey starts with a refusal to accept second-best content.

Writing is more than writing

Being a writer isn’t just about writing. It’s about testing, editing and rejecting too. But more than anything, it’s about thinking: setting down the pen, or switching off the computer, and journeying inwards to find a great unexpressed idea. And that applies whether it’s a blog post, an advert or a B2B service website.

Although I’ve hardly achieved either aim in this post, that’s what my 1400 words boil down to: let’s write better, not more.

Thanks for reading.

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  • An addendum to the mention of Ogilvy. If memory serves me, in his ‘on Advertising’, rather than ‘Confessions’, he quotes William Maynard:

    “‘Most good copywriters fall into two categories. Poets. And killers. Poets see an ad as an end. Killers as a means to an end.”

    Ogilvy adds the comment: “If you are both killer and poet, you get rich.”

  • The most effective writing exercise I ever undertook was during my History degree, years ago. I had to write three pieces that said as much as possible on a particular subject, keeping inside a strict 100 word limit.

    I wrote and redrafted those pieces over and over until every word or phrase was packed with meaning. I’m reminded of the lessons I learned every time I come to the keyboard.

    BTW that exercise was conducted when I still wrote with a pen and used a typewriter to create the final version. Pre-word processing.

  • Kind words, Mr Albrighton, thank you. Here’s my exalted (sic) post from the Q&A, in case you can’t be arsed to run through it all:

    I’ve been a copywriter for 38 years. (Sigh.) I’ve been in and out of agencies for years, both as a writer and then as a creative director. (Sigher.) And I’m still earning a living out of it, albeit as a freelance. (Sighest.)

    It took me years and years to get into D&AD and then it only happened because I stopped trying. Now, I do as much unwriting as I can.

    My tip – my only tip – is to look up the Five Wits in Brewer’s Phrase and Fable: if you haven’t got one (shame on you), they are: Imagination, Fantasy, Estimation, Memory and Common Sense, but not necessarily in that order. Let them be your inspiration, keep them in the toolbox and they’ll keep you sharp.

    People still want good reading. You just have to find them.

  • Isn’t this just about the longest post you’ve written for a while?

    I’m not disagreeing with anything you’re saying, I just appreciate the irony.

  • Too many writers don’t do the research. Why let facts get in the way of a good story? (At this stage, I put my hand up.) You’ve done the research AND come up with a good story.
    Good post. Good read. And good God!
    You had better point out the subtlety of Oliver Wingate’s joke: “There’s just too much words in this world…”
    Some ‘professional’ writers will miss the point…and I’m not only referring to their punctuation.

  • Long, but beautifully written, Tom.

  • Thanks for all the comments and kind words.

    @Andy – yes, the irony isn’t lost on me. This is actually a combination of two posts – one about poetry, which included Rishi and Mark’s thoughts and with which I’d been grappling for ages, and another one prompted by Oliver’s post. Once the two came together, they created a monster. And this is the short version – I cut out loads, believe it or not. Whenever I tried to take out a theme – like digital/SEO – and put it in another post, what was left just didn’t work. So after a week of revision, I came to the conclusion that it ‘wanted’ to be this long. And I got fed up of obsessing over it.

    @Peter – Sometimes criticism or explication just obscures the poetry, so I’m keeping quiet…

  • Alicia Rudzka

    As someone returning to “serious” writing (rather than PR puffery)for a living after many years, I am encouraged and inspired by your post. I’ve been drafting and re-drafting the words for my website for months. I have resisted constant exhortations to “just get something up there” because deep down I believe I would have something to lose by uploading content that is barely adequate. Thank you for your wise words.

  • Information, data, junk, server overload.
    Best web copy is less copy.

  • Well, of course I can only applaud this. I never managed to get through the whole Q&A, though I did dip in and out; and I’ve always touted the poetry/copywriting link, though employers aren’t always so sure… Then again, my friend Clare, who has a PhD in Old Norse poetry, became known in her financial workplace as ‘The Professor’. Wonderful!

  • The silence of the night emboldens another post. You’ll know the latin phrase ‘reductio ad absurdum’; in the right hands, the fine art of compression, it seems to me, knows where this point is and stops just short of it. The best works – in whatever field – are the ones that walk a tightrope: on either side, a sheer drop to certain death, but if you keep your head, hold your nerve, stick with it, you stand a better chance of pulling it off. Creative tension keeps ideas up, just as engineering tension keeps buildings up.

    I suppose it’s called risk-taking; for me, it’s a sure sign that I’m still alive – and so is the text that I might write. “Clients” might agree with the principle, given a gin and tonic or two; but when confronted with a decision to make, all too often they err on the side of safety. There’s no tension in that; and it shouldn’t be confused with getting it right.

    Oo-er, get me.

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