Write again. Write better

by Tom Albrighton 11 February 2014 Copywriting

I’m not a proper copywriter.

I started out in publishing. As an editor, I never had to create the raw material for our books, just process it. Text arrived from authors in varying states of dishevelment, and my job was to spruce it up for publication.

Actually writing the words myself was a bit of a shock. Then I realised that I still needed my editing skills – just for my own stuff. As I quickly discovered, the best way for me to create a decent draft was to write something – anything – and then work it into shape.

Writing isn’t writing. It’s rewriting.

Writing certainly isn’t ‘writing’ as some people seem to imagine it.

It’s not an inspired outpouring, an intense unburdening or an irresistible force of expression. Yes, there’s the odd moment of clarity. But if you want your everyday writing experience to be that romantic, you’ll be waiting a long time.

In my experience, a great piece of writing can no more ‘flow’ from a writer than a symphony with dozens of instrumental parts can spring, fully formed, from a composer.

Writing is more like sculpture, chipping away everything that isn’t the statue. Or maybe it’s like negotiating a maze, never knowing quite where the exit is. Either way, there are no short cuts, and it’s about sustained concentration as much as flashes of inspiration.

‘Writing is easy. You just sit at your typewriter and open a vein.’

Quotes like this don’t really help. At least, I don’t think they help commercial writers. Maybe they help poets.

While there may be times when you need to let your emotions flow – to empathise with the buyer of a product, for instance – that mindset won’t carry you to a finished draft.

Hemingway famously said ‘write drunk, edit sober’. But he didn’t necessarily mean that we have to be physically intoxicated before the words will flow, or that editing was a dull, second-rate job that could safely be done with a hangover.

He meant that we need to be liberated, playful, and divergent when we’re generating ideas, and disciplined, focused and convergent when we’re refining them.

You can be drunk on beauty, humour, mystery or whatever else gives your writing its soul. But that animating spirit must pass through the ‘sober’ rewriting phase before it can manifest for your readers. The clay has to be fired, as well as formed, before it can be used.

Making it look easy is the hardest job of all.

Whenever you read something that’s so perfectly expressed you feel it’s coming straight from the writer’s mind, you can bet they spent hours, if not days, obsessively honing it. And that they started with a draft that was just as messy, vague and disordered as any first draft of yours or mine.

Because I am 42 years old, one of my favourite albums is Peter Gabriel’s So. It has a sound that’s warm, organic and spontaneous. But that relaxed feel was actually achieved through obsessive studiocraft, sifting and splicing the best bits from dozens of takes.

Gabriel saw this granular, incremental working method as a strength, not a weakness. He called it the ‘tortoise effect’. All that painstaking revision didn’t mean that his music was weak, or that he wasn’t confident in it. It was just what he needed to do for the result he wanted to get.

To find the right way, we have to take a lot of wrong turns.

I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.
Thomas Edison (attributed)

Is there anything more dispiriting than a blank page?

Yes, there is actually.

An otherwise blank page with a single crap idea on it, that you’ve just written, after an agonisingly long period of thought.

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Sometimes, very rarely, it’s a case of ‘first thought, best thought’. Your instincts take you straight to the destination before your intellect can pull you off course. Far more often, though, your first ideas will be derivative, obvious or just dull.

Welcome them.

Not because you’re going to use them. In fact, precisely because you’re not going to use them. Welcome them because they’re the stepping stones you’ll use to reach the good ideas that are out there, if you’re willing to go far enough.

The good ideas are over there, behind the bad ones.

By getting the weak ideas out of your system and onto the page, you clear the road for the strong ones to come through. In self-help language, you ‘get out of your own way’. Success lies on the far side of failure – and, of course, there is no such thing as failure, only feedback.

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.
Samuel Beckett

Suspend your embarrassment. Remember, no-one has to see this stuff. You’re not on the dancefloor, you’re getting ready to go out – and you can try on as many outfits as you like.

Making a start is crucial. You get your hands dirty; you begin to work the clay. Forget the destination for the moment; just to be out on the road is enough.

Suddenly, you have power. The brief is no longer daunting and monolithic, but something you can engage with on equal terms. You may not have conquered it, but battle has been joined.

Any problem can be solved if you spend enough time with it. You could compose a symphony, as long as you spent long enough learning and practising. And writing is exactly the same – the longer you sit with a brief, the closer you get to the ideal answer to it.

Online marketing wisdom often emphasises producing content in particular quantities, or to certain timescales. But you might get a better return on your time investment – that is, more popular content – if you comb through that blog post (yet) again and see how you can improve it, rather than just bunging it out and starting on a new one.

You are not a robot.

Writing is more than the conscious effort to shovel words. Before you can improve a piece of writing, your unconscious mind has to process the symbols and structures that lie beneath the surface of language, finding new ways to break them down or fit them together.

Your brain isn’t a computer, so this process can’t be rushed or forced. It’s also very much affected by your mood, your surroundings and your physical state.

If you can, it’s always worth sleeping on your draft, or at least working on something else for a bit. While you sleep, your unconscious will work. Don’t be surprised at what comes out the next time you sit down to write.

If you’re a freelance, you might want to keep this in mind when proposing a timescale to your client. Even though you’ve got Monday free, your brain might need until Wednesday to come up with the best answer.

If you really can’t take time off, a change is as good as a rest. Give your brain some different food – a view of trees, the smell of coffee, the sound of birdsong. Laptops were invented for this. Personally, I find running invaluable.

Sometimes, revising on your own can feel like being stuck in a tailspin. To jolt yourself out of introspection, stick some new stuff in your head and give it a shake. Every time I open The Copy Book, I get an idea (one of my own, not a stolen one). But almost anything will work. Watch a film, read a book, listen to music. Deliberately choose something unrelated to the brief. Get as far away from the work as you can, and see what’s in your head when you come back.

Writing takes as long as it takes.

The graph of ‘time’ against ‘quality’ is a curve. Whatever tactics you use, diminishing returns will soon set in, with each successive revision delivering a smaller improvement.

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Beyond a certain point, you’ll find yourself beset by uncertainty, going back on your own changes and unable to see the wood for the trees. If it’s a commercial job, you’ll probably have spent more hours than you budgeted for. Sooner or later, for whatever reason, you’ll reach the point when you can make no more improvements. And then, when you’ve finished rewriting, you’ve finished writing.

I hope you don’t find all this dispiriting. It’s not meant to be. In fact, it’s meant to be liberating. The feeling that you have to get it right can be oppressive. By giving yourself the time and space to explore, rework and make mistakes, you give yourself permission to do the best writing you can do. And if this post helps anyone do that, I’ll be happy.

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  • http://www.mycustardpie.com/ MyCustardPie

    Bookmarking this to read again and again Tom. Fantastic.

  • RibsSusiaho

    Excellent post, Tom. A brave opening line too, with which I identify, having come to copywriting via editing myself. Getting something on the blank page is definitely the most important step for me, no matter what kind of drivel it is.

    Your point about timescale is very pertinent. I try to give myself a week of “cogitating time” if at all possible. Most of that time I’m working on other stuff, or just pootling along in my day-to-day life. When I come back to the copy, my brain has rewritten it while I’ve not been paying attention.

    I also find that I cannot write if I am working on an hourly rate – the pressure stops me being creative – so I generally estimate the time it will take me and then quote a price for the job based on that. The ensuing calm allows me to relax and write better copy.

  • http://www.abccopywriting.com/ Tom Albrighton

    Thanks!

  • Lorraine

    Good stuff, Tom.

    William Zinsser, my favorite “writer on writing,” notes, “Rewriting is the essence of writing well: it’s where the game is won or lost.”

    Unfortunately, most of us have the understandable but destructive habit of writing and editing simultaneously.

    I find it helps to try (hard) to keep the two processes separate. Easier said than done, of course. Any writer who has spent an hour torturing a single sentence–while on deadline and only to discard the phrase in the final edit–understands the perfectionist, addictive nature of writing and editing at the same time.

    In-house copywriters face their own set of challenges to the writing-editing balance. Here, huge daily copy volumes, unrealistic deadlines and non-writing management very often assure writing teams have little time to rewrite. Under these conditions, it takes superb time management and dogged will to carve out time to rewrite.

    P.S. Looking forward to learning more abut “The Copy Book”–a new title for me.

  • hugolargo

    Absolutely wonderful article, Tom. Definitely one that I will refuel with frequently.

    I work the same way, and often spout the old adage “Great reads aren’t written; they’re rewritten.” (Is that an old adage, or did I snowclone one?) When possible, I even apply this approach to more structured content under tight deadlines. I’ve found that heavy fact-gathering in the upfront and a solid outline enable me to write more freely (and swiftly). Nimble search resourcefulness definitely helps. Then, years of editing kick in and I switch over to Ruthless Editor.

    Writing, editing, outlining, sculpting, planning, researching, honing — they’re all just different muscles in your writing body. You just have to keep them all toned.

    Here’s another old adage I may have made up, “Write like Carver. Edit like Lish.”

    Thank you so much for the post.

  • http://www.abccopywriting.com/ Tom Albrighton

    Thanks for the kind words, Ribs.

    I definitely agree re hourly rates. I much prefer to set a flat fee based on the nature of the job and a rough idea of how long it will take, then forget about timings and concentrate on adding as much value to the brief as I can.

  • http://www.abccopywriting.com/ Tom Albrighton

    Thanks for the kind words Lorraine. As a trained editor, I find it almost impossible to write without editing straight away. I normally have to tell myself I’m ‘writing notes’ or ‘jotting down ideas’ in order to suspend that impulse.

    The Copy Book is definitely worth a look. It’s a compendium of advertising writers talking about their work and how they produced it, with examples. Quite traditionally focused (print mainly), but lots of long copy in there, which is always fascinating.

  • http://www.abccopywriting.com/ Tom Albrighton

    Thanks Seven. My own homegrown adage is below…

  • Destiny

    Absolutely spot on!

  • writewood

    Abso.

  • http://www.juliansummerhayes.com/ Julian Summerhayes

    The trouble is Tom there are as many writers(!) telling us how to write as there are writers. For me, it’s a case of sitting down each day and writing something. It might only be a few hundred words but in that moment, no matter how disjointed things appear, something happens both physically and emotionally (no I don’t cry) to make the exercise wothwhile. Of course, if I’m working to a deadline or on a project, I find that it’s a good discipline to write as much as I can in one sitting and then come back the next day and the day after and edit like a demon. Also, I think writing by hand is important. Even a Haiku can be enough. I may be a old, ex-lawyer cynic, but I do think that this writing thing is a bit overdone. It may be apocryphal but apparently Azimov cranked out a book every six weeks. (And S King does his in 12 weeks). What’s stopping the rest of us?

  • http://www.abccopywriting.com/ Tom Albrighton

    Thanks for commenting Julian. Writing by hand is definitely a good idea, especially for shorter and more ‘creative’ briefs. I don’t always do it, but it always works, or at least allows me to move forward in some way. Computers definitely help you work, but whether they help you think is another question.