In Praise of Slow Copywriting

by Lorraine Thompson

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Today life moves at warp speed. Work, family time, community responsibilities—even weekends and vacations—overlap and blur.

To keep up, you rush ahead. To take a breather, you work harder. You push yourself to learn, think and move faster.

Unless you decide not to.

Want fulfillment fast? Slow down.

The Slow Movement began as a reaction to the frenzied pace of modern life. It started in 1986 with Slow Food—a one-man protest against the opening of a McDonald’s in Rome’s Piazza Espagne.

Since then, Slow Food has grown into a worldwide network with over 100,000 members. In addition to reshaping restaurant and food industries, Slow Food has also had an impact on journalism and publishing. In recent years it’s helped create aligned movements such as Slow Travel, Slow Money, Slow Design and more.

To the growing number of Slow Movements, I’d like to suggest one more: Slow Copywriting.

Copywriters’ dilemma: More work, less time

I know it sounds insane. Today professional writers—journalists, marcom copywriters, web content creators—feel compelled to work faster than ever before. Reportage that once took months now takes weeks. Copy packages that required weeks take days. And blogging? We’re urged to research, write, proof and publish posts in minutes.

If the professional writing Zeitgeist is all about haste, why the call for Slow Copywriting?

A brief history of Slow

Let’s get a little perspective. Thirty years ago, we didn’t call food, travel, design or copywriting “slow.” We called them food, travel, design and copywriting. We accepted that these activities take time.

Back then, you couldn’t force a seed to sprout faster—this was before Monsanto, mind you. You couldn’t push a horse beyond a gallop. And you couldn’t rush writing.

Then along came Burger King, jumbo jets and eLance. Today we still want the same tasty food, leisurely travel and quality copywriting. But in a fraction of the time.

But here’s the rub: they’re not the same. A Whopper isn’t beef stew. A 747 isn’t a horse and carriage. And generic content isn’t quality copywriting.

Why does it take so long to write good copy?

Every copywriter can tell you—in detail—why the process takes so long. Here’s why I write “slow”:

  • Research. Before I write anything—marketing copy, feature story, corporate communication—I ask 20 questions that help me write strong, strategic content. While it may take you 5 minutes to read my queries, it sometimes takes me 20 hours to answer them.
  • Rumination. To write effective, original, persuasive, quality copy you need time to daydream, muse and let ideas stew, connect and coalesce. I’m not talking about procrastination: You must execute, not just dream up creative concepts. But good ideas get better, much better, after marinating.
  • Rewriting. Writers’ secret: Good writing is about rewriting. And rewrites take a loooong time. Most writers spend far, far more time rewriting than writing the first draft.
  • Reading. Good writers read. Books. They also read long articles, industry-related publications, newspapers, magazines, ads, blog posts, cereal boxes and shampoo bottles. But most writers will tell you challenging literature is crucial to their work. It takes time to read Anna Karenina.
  • Rejuvenation. Guess what? Occasionally, copywriters like to spend time with family and friends. They need exercise. And food—hopefully Slow Food. Their work benefits from seeing plays, listening to music and looking at art. They enjoy a glass of Beaujolais. They celebrate holidays. They get sick and need to rest in bed.

But some writers write fast and well.

Is fast always the enemy of good? Of course not. Just as some people eat Lindt chocolate and still zip into size 6 jeans, some writers work fast and turn out quality copy. Like my friend, Louise.

And even copywriters who write slowly get faster. The more years you put in, the more tens of thousands of words you slog out, the faster you get. But apropos of speed and quality, there comes a point of diminishing returns.

6 Slow Copywriting suggestions

The demand for speed writing isn’t going to reverse itself anytime soon. What’s the remedy for less-than-lightning-speed copywriters?

Here are a few suggestions that make sense to me:

  1. Specialize. Clients seem to understand that writing about say, industrial cheese equipment, biologic drugs or cigars—yes, I’ve written for all these markets!—requires a little extra time. You can often ask and get fair pricing for a niche industry or copy specialty.
  2. Keep learning. No matter how experienced you are, you benefit from staying on top of copywriting trends. To increase your range of copy projects—and command the decent pay you deserve—learn the basics of SEO, HTML, UX, IA and other digital practices related to your work. And blog, tweet and update—in moderation.
  3. Price fairly, i.e., high relative to content mills. You simply can’t compete on price with low-rate content creators. Don’t try.
  4. Turn down work. I hear you howling. But sometimes you need to work with fewer clients to stay on deadline—and stay sane. And sometimes you need to walk away from work or risk sliding down the slippery slope to oDesk.
  5. Own your slowness. Admit that producing quality copy takes time. No, you don’t need to stress out clients by blabbing about Slow Copywriting. But you do need to assess project timing accurately and set prices accordingly.
  6. Speed up. Don’t shoot me. I’m not reversing myself and suggesting you rush your process. I’m suggesting you write every day so your work speeds up naturally. In between client projects, work on your blog, novel, poetry or play.

What’s your take on Slow Copywriting?

In our harried era, do you think Slow Copywriting has a chance? If you write slowly, how do you manage the industry’s demand for speed over quality? Please share your secrets.

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