My daddy writes things

by Tom Albrighton 10 September 2012 Copywriting

As I write, I’m nearing the end of four straight days in the house on my own. Regular readers will know that I have absolutely no problem working alone. And, if I’m honest, it was also nice to take a break from family life, with its rigid schedules, mutual button-pushing an endless painstaking explanations.

Endlesss painstaking explanations. Not a million miles from the day job really. And, thinking about it, there’s a lot that having a daughter has taught me about copywriting. (Childless cynics, stop reading now.)

Who cares? It’s you, not me!

This remark, which is a direct quote from my daughter, attests to the astonishing, overpowering self-interest of the young. Sometimes, it seems that growing up is a long process of learning to treat others as you would treat yourself – let alone put their interests before yours.

Beat this, designers

As a parent, it can be depressing to think that, deep down, adults are just children who’ve learnt, to varying degrees, to conceal, mitigate or rein in their selfish desires.

But desire, like all powerful forces, can be turned to your advantage. And where would the copywriter be without it? Because it’s exactly that self-interest that we’re hoping to kindle or cultivate. Copywriting is all about awakening the reader’s inner child and dangling sweeties in front of their surly, pouting little physog.

No wonder, then, that paternalistic commentators want to rein in the deleterious effects of marketing. They’re rather like parents who are exasperated when some unthinking non-parent blithely blurts out that there’s an ice-cream van outside the park. Copywriters plant the seeds of desire in all-too-fertile ground – and once the genie of desire is out of the bottle, people won’t be satisfied they get their wish.

What did you say Daddy?

On the other hand, it’s easy to overestimate the reader – or, to put it another way, to flatter your own powers of expression. The reader’s attention and cognitive resources are almost certainly much more modest than we imagine. Or, if they’re not, the reader isn’t using them as much as we’d like. Basically, attention and commitment are limited.

If you accept that adults, deep down, are like children, then this is not news. Concentration is a formidably difficult skill, and some people never acquire it. And as parenting demonstrates time and again, you cannot teach people anything when they’re tired, grouchy or otherwise inattentive.

Unfortunately, it’s easy to forget all that when you sit down to write some copy. Unless you get into the product and its benefits, you can’t write about them convincingly; some commitment is essential. But even as you imagine the reader’s interest with one half of your writing brain, you also have to conjure up their apathy and indifference with the other.

One of the most effective ways to critique your own work (or someone else’s) is to ask ridiculously blunt, childlike questions like ‘Why?’, ‘So what?’ and ‘Who cares?’ – not only about each point in the copy itself, but about the underlying strategy too. Writing that has convincing answers to these questions is bulletproof.

Daddy, who made the world?

I’m always amused by the contrasts we draw between themselves and children. How little they understand! And how clever and omniscient we are in comparison!

Belief in your own intelligence is part of being a grown-up. The child is constantly told that they are incomplete adults-in-waiting – they need to acquire more knowledge, think more deeply or take more care. But as adults, we take on the expectation of competence and comprehension. That arbitrary designation makes us hopelessly over-confident in our own faculties – and others’ too.

I like answering children without filtering concepts or vocabulary, savouring their bemused silence as they try to figure out what the hell I’ve just said to them. But the truth is that plenty of adults don’t understand what you’re telling them either – they’ll just make some appropriate noises to avoid looking stupid.

Helping a child build their knowledge of the world is one of the most rewarding aspects of parenting. Apart from handling crackerjacks like ‘What happens when we die?’, it’s also a fun challenge to explain new words and ideas in the simplest possible terms. (I was particularly pleased with my definition of the game Scramble as ‘making words with the letters that are next to each other’.)

Like the parent, the copywriter must build a bridge from existing knowledge to new knowledge, explaining the unknown in terms of the known. And, just as with a child, it pays to stay close to the reader’s own concerns, or risk their attention wandering.

As I often say to clients, no-one ever complains that things are too simple. And I mean no-one, ever. Over-simplify and the reader may smile at your naïveté, but at least they’ll get their heads round your stuff. Over-complicate and half of it will sail over their heads, but they’ll never admit it. You’ll only find out later, when they completely fail to do whatever you were hoping for.

No girls allowed

Pre-parenthood, I’d have confidently stated that gender roles were social constructs, imposed on individuals by social conformity and tradition. These days, I’m not so sure. It’s hard to ignore the evidence of your own eyes, and mine show me that the differences between the sexes are overwhelming – from the very earliest days.

Put two girls together and they’ll soon be sitting cross-legged facing each other, softly conferring as they collaborate on a daisy chain. Meanwhile, the boys will be yelling pointlessly, repeatedly jumping off something or trying to ninja-punch each other in the goolies.

Nature or nurture? If you’re a liberal parent, accepting the latter means acknowledging your own role as the agent of an oppressive culture, which is kind of a bummer. But if you accept the former, you must also subscribe to a host of unwelcome implications for equality and opportunity.

Turning to copywriting, the question is whether male writers can truly write for a female audience, or vice versa. Can you think your way into the head of someone of the opposite sex? Or is it like trying to imagine the experience of something completely ‘other’, like a frog?

False equivalence

It’s a subject that arouses strong feeling on both sides. Some writers maintain that a good writer, like a good actor, should be able to play any role. According to this argument, it’s simply part of the writer’s basic discipline to put themselves in someone else’s shoes.

Uncomfortably, though, it usually seems to be men claiming they can write for women, rather than the other way around, which makes me suspect a case of false equivalence. Men, empowered by the largely masculine culture of marketing and advertising, are free to write for whoever the hell they want, which enables them to claim that the playing-field is level. Meanwhile female writers struggle to establish their relevance outside ‘feminine’ products.

As I write, I’m trying to think of a highly respected female copywriter, past or present. Wikipedia has just two in its list of 11. But if you’re a woman writer who’s written loads of car ads, or who has an otherwise different experience, please put me right in the comments.

Natural range

Increasingly, I’m tending towards the other side of the fence. As I argued in this post, every writer has their natural tone and ‘range’, to borrow a term from acting. If you accept that, you surely have to accept that gender plays a big part in shaping that writing ‘personality’.

Of course, I simplify grossly – crassly, some would say. We all have feminine and masculine aspects to our characters, in different measure and at different times. But for me, there’s no getting away from it: however socially constructed or modulated, men and women are fundamentally different, and that must surely have a big impact on the way they write for each other.

In summary, then, writing is a lot like parenting, if narrower in scope and less edifying in intent. And, in my view, there’s a lot to be said for thinking like a parent as you write. However, that’s not to say you should treat the reader like a child – or, indeed, end up speaking like one yourself. Now eat your peas!