Twenty years ago when I was a young playwright, I thought copywriters were soulless hacks.
I remember smirking when I heard advertising writers called themselves “creatives.” How could their jingles, taglines and “copy”—i.e., “words”—compare to the soaring works of Tennessee Williams, John Guare or Tom Stoppard?
Oh the irony.
Today, after 18 years as a professional copywriter, I still hold that copywriting is more craft than art. But time and experience give me new perspective: I not only believe copywriters are creative—I’m convinced the discipline of writing persuasive, positioned words encourages and supports our creative process.
7 ways hack copywriting supports your creative process
Notice how I used the word “hack” to get your attention? Worked, didn’t it? A lot of hack formulas pack power.
But I employ “hack” in its original 19th century sense—short for “hackney,” a horse for hire. And I hold that writing for hire bolsters your inventiveness, originality and vision—your creativity. Because the discipline of daily copywriting…
- Forces you to battle Resistance. In The War of Art, the writer’s must-read book on writing, author Steven Pressfield describes Resistance, a negative, procrastinating, self-sabotaging force. Writers face Resistance every single day and must consciously and actively fight it. Pressfield uses daily rituals to help him wrestle Resistance. Copywriters develop similar customs: Because our work is deadline driven, we’re constrained to organize ourselves, keep a schedule and produce words within a timeframe. We are Resistance whuppers.
- Obliges you to write every day. Writers write. It defines us. If all you do is think about writing—no matter how beautiful, inspiring and life-changing those thoughts may be—you aren’t a writer. On the other hand if you write—even if it’s website content or blog posts or collateral—if you regularly produce words and sentences, you’re a writer. Maybe not a good writer, not a great writer, but you are a writer—and you have the potential to be good or great if you keep writing. And nothing prods you to write like the carrot of a paycheck and the stick of a deadline.
- Imposes structure on your work. The blank page. Endless possibilities. Infinite potential. They should make you incredibly creative, right? But no. Boundlessness is crippling. It gives you nowhere to start. And really, nowhere to go. Without structure, strictures, boundaries, you can wallow in conceptualization forever—and never write a word. Copywriting, on the other hand, always provides structure. Landing pages. Home pages. Contact forms. Direct mail. Brochures. They’re framed and organized in a particular way. And you have to fit your words into that frame and organization. When thoughtfully approached, I believe the process makes you think creatively.
- Hones storytelling skills. “The market for something to believe in is infinite,” writes artist, cartoonist—and former copywriter—Hugh MacLeod. As a copywriter, you are a storyteller. Most copy formats are relatively succinct and don’t allow you to develop The Six Core Competencies of Successful Storytelling as fully as, say, a novelist or screenwriter. Good copy incorporates elements of Concept, Character, Theme, Story Architecture, Scene Construction and Writing Voice. Copy-as-storytelling makes sense when you understand that your reader—your customer—is always the story’s hero. His pain points and core desires create conflict. Your product helps him find resolution.
- Pushes you to write under less-than-perfect circumstances. Here’s a partial list of excuses I use to avoid writing: My kids are home from school. My neighbor is blasting the leaf blower. I’m a morning writer and its 4pm. My back’s out and I’m lying flat in bed. The weather is gorgeous. The weather is miserable. I’m worried about my family. I’m annoyed with a client. I’m anxious about money. My mind is blank. My feet are cold. I can’t get behind the product. I had a terrible night’s sleep. I’m working on too many projects and can’t switch gears. I’m depressed. The dog just threw up. These are real distractions. Why do I call them “excuses”? Because when pressed, I can push through them and produce. Deadline-driven copywriting teaches you to stretch self-imposed limitations. Will you always produce stunning, award-winning prose? No. Can you consistently write solid, serviceable, quality copy that delivers results for your client? With practice, yes. Because copywriting…
- Purges you of perfectionism. Copy is never “done.” If you didn’t have to deliver on a certain date, you’d keep pruning, rearranging, revising and polishing forever. That’s not an option for for-hire hacks. And good thing. Because perfection is an ideal, not a reality. Ask yourself: Do your super-high standards really serve your work? Or are they part of the Resistance that keeps you from moving forward? Copywriting’s down-and-dirty daily routine, deadlines and client-centric imperatives help you discern.
- Stretches your skills—and your soul. Like all craftsmen, beginning copywriters learn by, well, copying. Some master copywriters insist apprentices copy out successful sales letters by hand. Three times. Even when we mature, we crib catchy phrases, retool heads and use cheat sheets. But as we grow in confidence we start to think and write more independently. And we have the courage to admit when copy sounds…stale. I notice my copy’s become hackneyed—there’s that word again!—when the formulas stick out, instead of invisibly supporting content. Maybe I’m using the same kind of ledes—or calls-to-action, or subheads—again and again. That’s when it’s time to step back. Pause. And refresh. For an antidote, I revisit inspiring creative writers—hello Williams, Guare, Stoppard. Or take “art breaks” at museums, the theater or in nature.
Does copywriting distill or destroy your creative juices?
What do you think? Do you see creative benefits to commercial writing? Or is copywriting just a means to an end, a way of earning bucks while you pursue your real work—your novel, poetry or play?