Is it really possible to teach people to write better advertising and marketing copy? It’s perhaps easy to think of copywriting as an inherent or innate skill. Some people have a natural flair with words and others don’t.
While there’s a clear element of truth in this (and people who work as writers would certainly love to believe it), the idea is perhaps a little overblown. I wouldn’t run courses in copywriting if I thought they were a waste of time. Feedback from these training sessions suggests that people with all levels of natural writing ability can improve their existing skills, although their managers and directors can sometimes be a little sceptical in advance.
Why the doubt about training people to write? Well, there can be too much of a tendency to confuse copywriting with creative genius.
A good parallel here would be comedy. We recently lost two giants of the entertainment world – Robin Williams and Joan Rivers. Both of them fell into that rare category of truly exceptional talent. You couldn’t teach the stuff that they did. Their brains just seemed to be wired in a very peculiar way, allowing them to make all kinds of lateral connections and generate what seemed to be endless quantities of spontaneous gags.
I have absolutely no doubt that many of their talents were in-built, which at a superficial level lends credence to the argument that creative skills can’t be taught.
But how typical were these two individuals of comedians as a whole?
My argument would be that they were entirely exceptional. Other comics – even highly competent and well-established ones – would watch them and wonder how the hell they did what they did. In fact, for every Robin Williams shifting effortlessly between characters on stage, there are 50 guys slogging their guts out in motel rooms, scribbling gags down on the back of a cigarette packet, which they then throw away in frustration. For every rocket-fast, wisecracking Joan Rivers, there are 100 would-be comedians painstakingly rehearsing material so that they can make it look spontaneous on stage.
It’s not that these gag-scribblers who stand in front of their bedroom mirror are terrible. Far from it. Many of them are very good indeed. When they perform, they have honed their material in such a way that it genuinely makes people laugh. But the process involves hard graft on their part.
So coming back to the copywriting, there will always be some people who just have exceptional and unusual talent. But most people who write copy for marketing purposes – even when they’re employed full time as writers – will be individuals who have a good brain and some sparks of intuition, but who also understand the importance of experimentation, pure application and hard bloody work.
When I started my career writing direct mail many years ago, my boss went through the letters I wrote with a red pen. He was undoubtedly a talented guy, but he’d also learnt an awful lot from the American marketing business that employed him. I was lucky enough to be able to learn, in turn, from him. I had also been on training courses organised by the forerunner of the Institute of Direct Marketing. These sessions didn’t teach me everything I know today, but they played a part. They exposed me to ideas I otherwise probably would never have considered.
The process continued when I started working in agencies. New colleagues gave me additional tips. And, today, when I write as a freelancer, I’m still looking out for advice and inspiration, which I often find through books or articles online.
When I work as a trainer, I’m always learning too. I’m fortunate enough to meet people from organisations throughout the UK and Europe, across the private, public and voluntary sectors. I get a glimpse of the work that they do. And secretly, while I’m giving them my own advice and experience, I’m picking up knowledge and insight that will help me improve my own writing and training material. It’s a virtuous circle.
Strangely enough, a young man who attended one of my courses recently told me that he’d previously worked as a stand-up comic. He’d given it up because of the very long hours and the difficulty of driving long distances from a late-night gig and having to start early in his ‘day’ job the next morning. This guy said he was struck by the parallels between the advice I was giving to aspiring writers and his own experiences as what tabloid newspapers like to call a ‘funnyman’.
He worked hard at his gags, rejecting many along the way.
I know the feeling. Sometimes, I create a number of drafts of copy before I’m happy with what I’ve written or I generate multiple headlines before finding one that hits the mark. In books on creativity, the advice is usually that to generate high-quality ideas you need a large quantity.
He knew that he had to judge his audience and adapt his material accordingly.
Again, writers will recognise this as one of the trickiest aspects of the trade. Not only do we have to please the ultimate reader, but we often have to satisfy intermediaries such as creative directors, account handlers and clients.
And although I don’t think we discussed this directly, I’m sure he was picking up tips from other comedians on the circuit.
Other copywriters aren’t always your competitors. They can be your comrades. They’re people who’ve been in the trenches just like you. And believe me, if they’ve worked out a way of making their rations stretch further or of reinforcing their body armour, then you’d be a fool not to take note.
That doesn’t require genius. Just the ability to listen and learn.