Lots and lots of words

I’ve been a copywriter for a long time. And it’s excellent.

You get to make stuff up, play with words, write about everything from icebergs to lettuces via cats, dogs, cars, ferries, planes, films, TV, sports. You can become an expert on anything for as long as the job takes to do (or as long as you want). Then forget it all and move on to the next topic, and the next.

What I’ve done

Everything. From small clickable buttons to big TV advertising campaigns. I’ve caught the eye with smart headlines and caught the ear with stand-out radio ads. I’ve won shelf-loads of awards of various colours – some gold, some silver, some that look like chips and some in fancy perspex.

How I’ve done it

Whatever I do, I always try to be fresh. I approach every job with the same enthusiasm. Let the white page challenge me. It challenges me to fill it with the right words, the right tone of voice, from eight-word headlines to big chunky brochures.

Anything to share, Simon?

Yes, yes there is. I’ve picked up a lot of tips and skills over the years which are sitting in my brain waiting to spring into action. I don’t use them as a checklist, but they quietly influence everything I write, and the way I do it.

So here are my tips on being the best copywriter you can be.

  • Read ‘Hey Whipple Squeeze This’ by Luke Sullivan. Trust me. If you have read it, read it again. You can read other people’s books too, but you don’t need to. The end.

  • Come on in, the knowledge is lovely. Throw yourself into everything. Read whatever you can. Call it research if you want. But pick up Empire magazine, Heat, Inside Soaps, BBC History, Wisden, whatever. It all goes into your memory banks and you can use it now or later.

  • Frankly, I do give a damn. Be enthusiastic, give it energy. Give everything you write a lift. Be positive but be on brand.

  • Be fresh. Give it a twist. Think beyond the ordinary turn of phrase. Write with a smile on your face and a glint in the eye. This is exciting. Not mundane.

  • If something feels familiar, it’s because it is familiar. Find a new way of saying something. Make it feel different if you want to grab attention.

  • Avoid cliches like the plague. Everyone in advertising or marketing has a certain level of writing ability. And everyone’s seen a lot of marketing material. So it’s easy to slip into shortcuts and cliches. But it doesn’t make for fresh ways of talking and getting people’s attention. If you look at your copy and think ‘could my client have written this?’. If the answer is yes, do it again only better.

  • Don’t be the Punisher. Puns can be funny, but can be overused and feel off tone – and some people just don’t like them and it will immediately turn them off your copy. Of course, you can always justify a pun by calling it clever word play.

  • Here come Rhymin’ Simon. Sometimes something works because it rhymes. Nothing more complicated, no justification needed.

  • Think about your incredible adjectives. ‘We’ve got some amazing offers on sport’ doesn’t cut it. Everyone could say that. ‘We’ve got some all-action sporting offers’ is already better.

  • Totally think about your adverbs. If you’re feeling the need to scatter adverbs everywhere, then you’ve probably chosen the wrong verb. Pick a verb that gives you drive or emotion or whatever you’re looking for.

  • There is too much pepper in this paprikash but I would like to partake in your pecan pie. Don’t overdo the alliteration. It makes it feel unnatural. A small amount is perfectly palatable.

  • Exclamation marks! There is no need to shout, so don’t. It’s like saying ‘geddit’ after you’ve written a jokey headline. Some people call exclamation marks Dog’s Cocks. So try this. Ask yourself ‘would my headline look better without the dog’s cock on the end?’ Answer is yes, every time.

  • Write hot. Edit cold. Write everything you want to say. Then edit, edit, edit and make it better, sharper. Distil it down. Always chunk up to copy to make it easily digestible. Get rid of the self-indulgence.

  • Vary sentence length. Short balancing medium. Never long. One-word sentences? Fine. Change the rhythm so it’s not all the same. Sentences of all the same length make readers tired.

  • Don’t hold your breathe. Never have a line that you can’t read easily in one breathe. Read your copy out loud. Does it sound natural?

  • Write like you talk. Unless you’re a marketing robot. Or Boris Johnson. Which I doubt.

  • Be a good human being. Don’t use jargon, keep it light and remember we’re people and so are our customers. Think like a human rather than someone from up high looking down on the people we want to ‘educate’.

  • Benefits not features. This is so obvious, but it’s often overlooked. Yes, we have some really good features, but they are only good because of what they do. By showing the real benefits to our existing customer’s lives, we give things real meaning for them.

  • Copy is a four-letter word. Shorter words are better than longer. This isn’t dumbing down, it’s simplifying. It’s writing like we speak.

  • Don’t try to say too much – what’s the most important thing we need to say, not everything we’d like to say.

  • Could do better. See me. Break the established school rules of English grammar if you want to (But not spelling. Always spell things rite). Sorry Mrs Lockjaw, but I am going to bluntly split infinitives if it sounds better. And I’ll start sentences with And (honestly, despite what your O Level English teacher tried to force on you, you can start a sentence with And). However, I won’t start every sentence with And because stylistically that’ll be boring and repetitive.

  • Keep it real. Keep it personal. Think about who we’re talking to. Start by thinking about an actual person not Mr Sample, not a middle-aged man. Ideally, think about someone you know. Think of your younger sister. Your mother. A friend. Put a name to them in your head – it makes it easier to be personal and authentic.

  • Who said that? If we’ve thought about who we’re writing to, think about who we’re writing from. It helps it feel more relevant and personal. Yes, you might sign off from the EE Team, but think of someone who’s personally invested in getting someone to buy it. It helps.

  • Don’t be embarrassing dad. Yes, use current references, tap into the zeitgeist. But don’t force it, don’t make yourself sound like a middle-aged man trying to be really groovy cool cat, man.

  • It’s all about you, you, you. Make it about them and not us. This is simple. It shifts the focus on what they can do with us – immediately making it more personal.

  • I feel you. Show empathy. Understand their needs, and show we can help them do their thing – whatever it is.

  • No-one likes a smart arse. Keep it simple. Don’t try to be too clever or show people how well-read you are. Don’t overwrite it. Be clear, simple and unambiguous. What do we want them to feel? Let’s leave them in no doubt.