My name’s Andy Robb and, for the last seven years, I’ve been working for BigStar, as one of their copywriters. In my other life, I’m an author. I think it’s OK to say that, now; I’ve got two books out and the first was shortlisted for the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize 2013. But this isn’t going to be a thinly-veiled advert for my books; what I want to do is explain why I think working as a copywriter has helped me out along the road to publication.
My first book was the result of two other manuscripts not making it past the net. Those two were collaborative stories, in which me and my mate played email tennis, pinging chapters back and forth, editing them and carrying them on. It was great fun, but it didn’t work out and our agent separated us, telling us that our respective styles diluted each other’s; that we hadn’t found a ‘voice’. So we decided to write our own stuff.
The voice that everyone in publishing bangs on about seems to be the key in getting anywhere; your story needs a stylistic hook to hang its hat on and that’s what the voice is. It gives your reader an insight into how your characters think, feel, act and speak and delivers a tone. But, to me, it’s more than just about deciding whether a character is identifiable by his ability to swear or something; it’s about their point of view, the way they interact with the world around them.
When you’re copywriting, you’re given your brief and a bit about the preferred style of writing. It might be journalistic or chatty or a mixture of the two – but it’s got to be engaging. And the only way you get to work out which style is appropriates to have a gander at their websites, the material they send your way and by doing a bit of research. And, as you do all that, you pick up on their point of view. You learn why they’re doing what they’re doing, how they’re doing it and who they’re doing it for; you learn that company’s philosophy; you learn their point of view. Whether you agree with what they’re doing or not, part of your job is to embrace that philosophy completely; to put yourself in their shoes – albeit, temporarily. You’re finding the voice of that company/brand/individual and learning to communicate in it.
What’s said and what’s heard
Once you’ve picked up on your client’s mindset, you’ll tend to find that your vocabulary changes. On your research travels, you might find that there are recurrent, yet pertinent, phrases that get across that point of view, quickly, concisely and within the parameters of that particular industry. They might be phrases or words that you would never use in your daily life but, because you’ve embraced your client’s philosophy, you know that they will resonate; that they’ll strike a chord.
Resonating is a watchword in my limited experience of the publishing world. One of the questions you will be asked as you submit that manuscript is: “Who’s it for? Who’s it aimed at?” And you’re supposed to be able to answer that question; you’ll need to say whether it’s for men, women, boys, girls, teenagers, toddlers, adults – the list is endless, but it’s up to you to pigeonhole it before anyone else does. The same question pops up in copywriting; as much as you know what your client wants to say, you need to know what their customers want to hear. Often, this rears its head when a client is going for an overhaul of their existing copy; they might’ve found that what they’ve been saying so far just doesn’t punch the right buttons. What they need is someone who can bridge the gap between them and their punters; they need you to create copy that resonates, which means knowing who their clients are, how they think and speak and, probably most importantly from a copywriting point of view, what they want.
Inside and outside the box
The other thing that copywriting gives you is tight parameters. You need to be able to write in a certain style, use the right jargon, possibly include keywords, write within a time-frame and use only a certain amount of words. While I’m copywriting, the part of my brain that likes to come up with no end of fluffy ideas looks at the structure I’m writing within and tries to make it fit; if I was pitching my idea or summarizing a plot, could I fit it within these guidelines? Can I make as much sense of it in these restrictions as I can in the infinite rambling space offered up by my head?
On top of that, restrictions give your creative brain something to kick against; boundaries are meant to be broken. If I’m in deep on a piece of copywriting, there will be part of my head dedicated to seeing what else I would do with an idea, if I wasn’t limited by the guidelines of the brief. On more than one occasion, I’ve been able to chase an idea beyond the confines of SEO pages or word restrictions. Plus, you might stumble across those beautiful moments when you stitch a handful of words together that make your point, perfectly. If you can do it as part of a brief, there’s no reason you can’t do it in your own story. In many ways, the boundaries of a brief force you to be more creative with the way you use words and you can let this bleed into your storytelling; you’re not writing a piece of copy that needs a killer tag-line every five minutes, but having the ability to condense an idea can really help you when it comes to surviving an edit. In my experience, it tends to be the florid, flowery passages that are given the boot and those little shiny gems that make the grade.
Organising the disorganised
I started out writing this piece to try and explain why copywriting can really help creative writing, but as I’ve rambled on I’ve come to realise that each can help the other. As a copywriter, whether you like the title or not, you fall into the creative bracket. As an author, there are certain technical skills that it might help to get your head around. But, and I say this on the rare occasions that I’m asked about being an author, this is all within the field of my own personal experience. I don’t know how other people write books or, to a degree, how I write mine; I have a very disorganised nature. I think the main thing copywriting has given me is that all-important structure; the ability to separate and structure the beginning, the middle and the end.
Find out more about Andy on his site here