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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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Richard Moldovanyi October 18, 2011 at 10:38 am

It’s certainly tough to be “slow” when writing for the web, but I see your point. Content mills have sped up the process and lowered the rates, which is dangerous for all copywriters. However, taking your time and producing quality written content is still appreciated by many people and when you can produce a quality product, people will want to pay you for it.

Paul Hassing October 19, 2011 at 1:49 pm

As usual, Lorraine, I agree on all points. It took me many years to gain the confidence (and solvency) to sack nasty clients, reject impossible deadlines and abandon evil sectors.
Like school-yard bullies, the instant you stand up to them, they flee. My life (and writing) are significantly better as a result.
I learn daily and read voraciously. I charge (and get) $600 for a resume in a $45 market. It really is true: people treat you how you let them.
Best regards, P. :)

Lorraine Thompson October 19, 2011 at 7:16 pm

@Richard: You’re so right–it’s really about finding clients that share your sensibility.

@Paul: Bravo to you for commanding the pricing you deserve. I’m sure your clients are thrilled to get an incredible resume for only $600–a pittance when it lands them the right job.

Joe Bulger November 4, 2011 at 6:39 am

As busy as our days get, our online activity ramps up the pace that much more. Madness! I still enjoy slowing down to savor good words like the ones you’ve shared here.

“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.”

Sonia Simone shared your words at Copyblogger Radio and I was compelled to read the rest of your post.

Here’s what popped into my head…

The first challenge is to actually be better at what you do. The second is to position your business so you can move off the generic shelf. The third is demonstrating to potential clients why your position matters so they’ll reach past the generic ones and choose you.

That last challenge is all about copywriting. It all hinges on that.

sharon slater November 4, 2011 at 1:29 pm

lorraine, I struggle writing original content for my sites as I tend to hop from topic to topic which does not help, but I persevere because it is only that which will help me improve, whether that be better quality work or faster work. Quality will do for now though!!!
I really admire all you copywriters, the quality of your work is amazing, Just want to thank you because your advice is so helpful and useful for struggling bloggers/ article writers like myself! Thanks.

Susan (Between Naps on the Porch) November 4, 2011 at 8:04 pm

I’m working on this now…finding a better balance between writing for my blog and making time for relaxation and recharging. The days fly by…way too fast. I love what I do, so work feels like play…most days.

Lorraine Thompson November 8, 2011 at 10:24 am

@Joe: Thanks for your thoughtful comment. For me, positioning is key–and making an extra effort to market myself to clients who want what I provide: Expert copywriting, knowledge of marketing and content strategy, professionalism. I’m not a good fit for people looking primarily for a low price point (often business owners who’ve never worked with a professional copywriter). Unfortunately, no amount of educating helps if there’s no flexibility with budget.

@Sharon: I sympathize. But you know what I find helpful? Making an editorial calendar. I set aside an hour or two and use a white board to brainstorm ideas–I like to “mind map” rather than outline. Here at MarketCopywriter Blog, I post post weekly. When making my editorial calendar, I try to map out posts six weeks in advance. It really helps me get an overview, explore themes and series–and avoid hopping from topic to topic. : >

@Susan. Good for you. Unfortunately for me, my work rarely feels like play. After 20 years as a copywriter, I still find writing to be hard work.

sharon slater November 8, 2011 at 11:16 am

thanks for your advice (very informative) and I will take try to implement these strategies. all the best .

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