One of the interesting things about The Great British Bake-Off – perhaps the only interesting thing, actually – is the chance to immerse yourself in the ways, language and lore of a specialised field.
As you watch, it quickly becomes clear that the more you know, the more there is to learn. You’re hurtling headlong into a vertiginous Mandelbrot spiral of ever-increasing detail, where each new revelation opens up another horizon of discovery. As one door opens, so do another dozen.
For over seven years, I’ve been working with Bucher Emhart Glass, who make equipment for glass forming and inspection – or, as I might have said in 2006, bottle machines.
Glass-making was one of the last industries to be automated because glass is such a troublesome material – it’s fiendishly difficult to melt, mould and cool in an accurate and repeatable way. Over a century ago, Emhart’s founders invented the IS technology that is still used, fundamentally unchanged, around the world. Since then, the firm’s engineers have devoted entire careers to improving the process – occasionally making big breakthroughs, more often achieving only incremental refinements or just ending up in a dead end.
Having written a book-length history of the firm, I now can’t crack open a Beck’s without thinking of all the struggles and triumphs that brought that everyday bottle to my hand. But of course, everything in our world has such human stories behind it.
All of the buildings, all of the cars
Were once just a dream
In somebody’s head
Peter Gabriel, lyrics to ‘Mercy Street’
The question is, how deep do we need to go into those stories before we start writing? They may be fascinating, but are they helpful?
Facts and figures
As a copywriter, you have to get up to speed with new subjects quickly – sometimes, during a single conversation. Like a detective or a journalist, you get along by knowing a little about a lot. Over time, you form myriad little islands of knowledge from which you can set sail into the unknown.
Many writers believe you should learn all you can about the product before you start writing. The idea is that devouring everything indiscriminately gives you the best change of unearthing the nugget that could become a killer idea – particularly if you’re writing an ad.
Here’s Barbara Nokes (DDB, BBH, Grey, five D&AD pencils) in The Copy Book (p250):
The point is, in my view, a copywriter can’t have too much information at his or her fingertips. Copywriting is, after all, the art of saying a great deal in as few words as possible. (And, in that way, can be closer to poetry than prose.) So, I assemble my facts and figures. Then I might list the few ingredients instinct tells me will best make this particular cake. And then, and this is the important bit, I think myself under the skin and into the head of the person I’m addressing.
But is information the same as empathy, or can the one lead to the other? Is poetry really made from compressed prose? If you shovel enough coal, will you end up with a diamond?
If you can talk to an end user of the product (as Nokes suggests elsewhere), then the answer is probably yes. But in my experience at least, such opportunties are rare. Instead, I’m usually reliant on what the client tells me about the product and the experience of using it.
Ignorance is strength
In that situation, ignorance of the subject is arguably a strength, not a weakness. By definition, the client went native years ago, making it impossible for them to see their product objectively. They may take knowledge for granted that people who are new to their offer just won’t have. As a writer, your ignorance lets you step into the customer’s shoes, offering a useful reality check: if you don’t understand it, neither will the reader.
More subtly, what the client thinks is interesting may not resonate with outsiders. Since familiarity breeds contempt, they’ll often be preoccupied with recent novelties rather than the basics. But everything is new to a newcomer, and those elemental things may hold more fascination than bells and whistles.
When I was having my house damp-proofed, I found that most local firms only did the proofing itself – a half-day job – while only one would sort out the time-consuming preparation and subsequent ‘making good’, as builders call it. But they all presented their respective prices without comment, apparently indifferent to the huge difference this distinction made to me. To them, it was a question of who sorted out a few tradesmen, no biggie. To me, the worst handyman in all Christendom, it was the difference between a headache and a solution.
At a more rarefied level, there’s the question of aesthetics. Writing poetically about a product may mean neglecting the nuts and bolts in favour of some obscure angle that the client might feel is marginally relevant, or even downright silly. It’s important to be open to everything, but the more you know, the more you tend to discriminate.
In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities. In the expert’s mind there are few.
‘Beginner’s mind’ is a strength, and once it’s gone, it’s gone. So maybe you should make the most of it while you have it, or even actively preserve it by avoiding too much learning.
Tight briefs or skimpy?
Some clients help you in that by providing almost no information. This is particularly likely if they haven’t worked with a writer before and/or work alone, and aren’t used to collecting and collating their thoughts for someone else to read.
Interviewing by phone (and recording the call) is one very good way round this, with the added advantage of generating conversational language about the product. But it isn’t always possible.
Another approach is to ask the client to complete a briefing form, with fields for ‘target customer’, ‘USPs’, ‘benefits’ and so on. Ostensibly, these focus the client’s mind on what’s important, but I think they can come across as a bit uptight and bureaucratic, passive-aggressive even. And if they don’t give you what you need, you’ve got to go back and ask again, which can be embarrassing.
I try to be flexible. If my knowledge is sketchy, and my copy ends up being a straw man that provokes debate, or elicits information I ‘should’ have had earlier on, so be it. As long as we reach the goal, and my price covers the time, who cares?
Other clients will provide a deluge of notes, information sheets and weblinks. Personally, I get a bit jumpy when working through reams of data without synthesising or re-expressing it. Like Homer, I worry that ‘every time I learn something new, it pushes some old stuff out of my brain’.
My natural inclination is to research and write in parallel – often quite literally, with the client’s notes on the right of the screen and my draft on the left. It can involve backtracking, but it dispels the paranoid sense that I haven’t ‘done anything’ yet.
Really, it’s a matter of personal choice. We all have to decide how much information we need, and how much to ask for. All we can do is take the approach that makes the writing easier for us – and let’s face it, we need all the help we can get.