Here, you can find some selected nuggets and brain pickings I've written down about the finer arts of copywriting, marketing and language in a professional context in general. If you like what you've read (or if you disagree!), don't hesitate to drop me a line, or maybe get on Twitter.
You can also read older insight posts from before 2018 right here.
SO YOU WANT TO BE A COPYWRITER (FIN)
DECEMBER 8, 2018
Copywriting can be as exhilariting and exciting as it can be tedious and mind-numbing. In that respect, it's no different from any other job.
When I was a fresh graduate in English and German from my local university, I accepted copywriting jobs simply because I was fast, good at English and I was cheap (and I didn't want to be a teacher). I'm quite sure my advice is not the best there is. It's simply a collection of lessons I've learnt from over a decade, and my biggest hope is that you may find some value in them.
Do you have feedback or opinions on all of this? Please contact me: firstname.lastname@example.org
SO YOU WANT TO BE A COPYWRITER (6)
NOVEMBER 3, 2018
16. American vs British English. If you're writing copy in English, be consistent in either adopting American or British spelling. Most companies will prefer American English (even if that's not an official policy of theirs). I should note Dutch is in a similar boat, though there vocabulary is a much bigger marker than spelling.
17. Make face-time count. If you physically meet a customer, this is much like going on a date with a desirable potential partner. This means that you don't have to be you, but the best you. This will give the other person or people the feeling they didn't waste their time, and they'll end up being more positively disposed towards you, even if over half of your conversation was mainly about non-copy-related things.
18. Be aware of cultural differences. German and Belgian people tend to hate uncertainty. French businesspeople are more hierarchical. Dutch people are usually more direct. British people enjoy lots of smalltalk and banter before getting down to business. Learning business habits of other cultures is quite rewarding. Even if clichés are dumb, it is a good idea to acquaint yourself with the business culture of a foreign customer.
SO YOU WANT TO BE A COPYWRITER (4)
OCTOBER 14, 2018
10. Learn how to code-switch to become a chameleon. Within one language, there are several 'codes'. Statements from the British queen have a different style and lexical make-up than a mailing campaign that advertises chapstick. Building a sales pitch into every piece of copy is a typical rookie mistake if you're writing for consumer companies, as is turning everything into a quagmire of features and data if you're working for a more technically-oriented company.
11. Revisit your older copy. Yes, some of it may make you feel bad because that copy is, in fact, bad. But it also lets you know how you've grown and keeps you on your toes. Today's good copy may be tomorrow's trash. Keep evolving.
12. Work with as many CMS as you can. Back around 2010, I gained a colleague who was in his early fifties, and while he was clearly good at writing copy, his understanding of content management systems (CMS) and user experience (UX) was non-existent. This made him slow and unreliable, and he got eventually sidelined on account of his lack of knowledge of the digital world. Many types of CMS exist: WYSIWYG editors, barebones near-raw HTML editors, homebrews and commercial blog platforms. Take the opportunity to learn the ins and outs of as many of those platforms as you can.
SO YOU WANT TO BE A COPYWRITER (2)
SEPTEMBER 9, 2018
4. Know your audience. It's not about you, it's about who reads you. People who consume your content are either looking for specific information or are simply killing time. Become familiar with the best content in your area of expertise (or the area someone has asked you to write about). Try to put yourself into the shoes of the average person who lands on your content page.
5. Write early, write often, write fast. Stole this one from software developers. It's no use editing and editing and editing to get the perfect piece of copy (unless you have the luxury of time, which is something copywriters generally never have). Most copywriters aren't good at all three of these (I'm good at the latter two but not the former since I'm an evening person). Develop your strengths rather than paper over your weaknesses. My first employer used me well in that regard - when they needed a press release done in under 2 hours, I was their man. Another employer wanted me up and running by 8:30. Didn't work out. I was only physically there.
6. Learn jargon, then ditch it. Each sector has its own specific jargon and you should familiarize yourself with it so you know what it means. I've seen copywriters throw around jargon like it's free candy, but outside of a select few insiders with a hard-on for jargon or buzzwords, their copy didn't connect to outside people, which is what you want to get more leads and build a brand. Learn to use jargon sparingly and only when there is no other option.
BACK IN THE GAME (2)
AUGUST 11, 2018
4. Too many companies look for black swans. Honestly, I came across a LinkedIn job ad that listed requirements that fit someone with 10 to 15 years of marketing expertise, and offered only a temp job or a salary at starting level. That's insane. Either that vacancy was just put out to artificially bloat the numbers of available jobs to look good, or it was created by people who have utterly unrealistic expectations.
5. Loyal customers are the best. In my Eisbär gig, I've gained some customers who keep coming back. They're awesome. We have great meetings, a good conversational flow and I deliver on time. I don't have a secret recepe for this kind of loyalty, but availability and sticking to your own deadlines goes a long way. Apart from work quality (which is #1, always), it also helps to show genuine interest in what your customer is doing, even if it won't necessarily advance your work for them.
6. Be receptive to branch out. I recently got a request to edit PowerPoints. I'm glad I spent some time in my career to become good at this program. It's a corner case where graphic designers feel PPTs are a bit beneath them, but many copywriters struggle at making PPTs attractive. For me, it's a golden opportunity.
SO YOU WANT TO BE A COPYWRITER (5)
OCTOBER 28, 2018
13. The 33% rule. Feedback is both a good thing and a constant in a copywriter's career. Not all of this feedback will be valuable. For especially demanding or egocentric approvers, I use the '33% rule': accept one third of their proposed changes or ideas, modify another third of them, and ignore the final third. This gives them the feeling they had a say in the process without you compromising on quality. Exceptionally, some people will come along whose commentary is nearly 100% valuable. Cherish these people. They may seem harsh to you, but consider that their comments take time from them as well and that they're coming from a good place, especially if they are fellow or former copywriters themselves.
14. Structure first, content second. In bigger copywriting projects, start off with the structure of your content and get that approved before you begin writing. Many a copywriter has been sunk by offering fully fleshed-out copy only to be met by hesitance and vague criticism because the structure of their piece isn't clear.
15. Your skills outside of work matter. So you have a nice audience on your social media platform? An excellent way of soapboxing your copy (don't let them suffer the ignominy of having to digest your work content though). You like football? Why not apply that knowledge to your latest thinkpiece about IoT. You like jazz? Open your corporate blog post with a quote from a famous jazz musician.
SO YOU WANT TO BE A COPYWRITER (3)
SEPTEMBER 26, 2018
7. Pick up trivia and read. The hallmark of a bad copywriter is a copywriter who sucks at trivia. The reason for this is that copywriters often end up writing about very disparate topics and thus have to do lots of desk research. This results in a lot of trivia buzzing around in their skulls. In addition, sprinkling trivia over your copy can give it a small edge over similar work. Also: read a lot. As much as you can. Articles, novels, manuals. Anything goes. As a note of caution, some types of copy are worse off if they feature trivia, typically the more 'serious' work.
8. No hedging, no hollow claims. In natural speech, people hedge. They use words like 'probably', 'maybe', 'very', 'almost' to take the edge of their statements or provide themselves with an umbrella of plausible deniability. The same is true for "everyman statements" like 'it is known that' or 'many people think'. In copy, this reads as lazy work or comes across as unconfident. Prune your copy of as much hedging and hollow claims as possible.
9. Function determines form and form determines function. A sales pitch of 10,000 words is doomed from the onset and so is a white paper that is only three pages long. Conversely, a company's home page without microcopy (small potatoes like 'let's get started!' or 'get your free deal') will fall flat on its face, whereas including such copy in a glossy annual report for investors would be baffling and unprofessional.
SO YOU WANT TO BE A COPYWRITER (1)
AUGUST 30, 2018
Would you like to earn money writing? If yes, I've got good news and bad news for you. The good news: human writing isn't going to be replaced by robots and AI anytime soon. The bad news: you'll have to learn how to be both fast and precise.
1. If you're going to write in English, you have one huge disadvantage: there are about 1 billion English-speakers in the world. So, unless your English is near-native or better, don't bother trying to make it as an independent. Companies that employ full-time copywriters or an FTE from a third party tend to be more forgiving, especially if the company isn't from the Anglo-Saxon world. Even so, pursue English improvement relentlessly and frequently invite feedback from native or near-native speakers.
2. In Dutch, the stats look a little better. There are 'only' about 25 million people in the world who speak Dutch as their first language. Still, there's a difference between people from the Netherlands, Belgium, Surinam and other places. Assuming Dutch is your native language, you are already aware of some of these differences. In this particular case, Belgian speakers of Dutch are at an advantage. Most of them do have an idea of what 'Netherlandic' Dutch is like. Another advantage is that Standard Dutch (as spoken by news anchors) in Belgium is more intelligeble across the entire Dutch-speaking world than whatever patois Dutch people speak.
3. Start a blog about a topic you're passionate about. It can be about anything from fashion to African railways. But it will build some reference material for potential employers. Also, some fledgling media sites welcome unpaid contributions, reviews or opinion pieces. Those are great to start out on, too, unless their target audience is really niche or politically very sensitive (e.g. I wouldn't hire someone who wrote for a neo-nazi site).
BACK IN THE GAME (1)
JULY 25, 2018
Although I don't expect many regular visitors on this site, here's an update: I spent most of 2017 and half of 2018 fully employed with two companies, and boy did those experiences teach me some things.
1. If your boss doesn't like you, pack up. When I was at the consultancy firm, the man who hired me dropped out with a severe burn-out and was replaced with someone I had trouble connecting with. Small issues got blown out of proportion, and soon I was on an 'improvement' track that would have basically required me to achieve 2x the results of my other colleagues. I tried. I failed. It's not that I was blameless. It's that I quickly got to the point where if my manager claimed my hair was green, it was green, despite it not being so.
2. You have a physical limit. At the end of my time at the consultancy company, I had a major panic attack - my first in three years. Your body sometimes tells you things your spirit is not prepared to handle.
3. Start-ups are exciting, but risky. Three weeks into my new job, I had an inkling that that company actually needed a sales person, not a content marketeer. That hunch was proven right when they fired me a few months later, stating it wasn't my fault, but that they needed a salesperson (or a much cheaper marketeer) more than me.
Eisbär Communications, HR 0885.342.457