Less is more
No matter how much natural talent you have as a writer, you can always get better. You’re never a master, always a student.
As a young journalist, some of the best lessons I learned were the most painful. The newsrooms of the 1980s, when I came up, were savage places, unbothered by the calming influence of an HR department. Editors, news editors and chief sub-editors would turn the air blue as they tore your copy to shreds. But you never forgot the lessons.
A very grumpy chief sub-editor once asked me (I’m paraphrasing him for good taste here) to imagine my bare behind was on a swiftly warming hot plate as I etched my copy onto a slab of granite with a feather. “Now,” he snarled, “would you use any extra words?” The answer was a hard, “No.”
No matter how wonderful you believe your prose to be, it is always better after an edit by someone else. This blog has been edited and is better for it.
If you want to write, read
The best way to become a better writer is to read, as much and as widely as possible. You come to understand, by literary osmosis, what is good writing and what is not.
If you read Truman Capote’s famous novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s or his true crime book, In Cold Blood, there’s not an unnecessary word to be found. He’s already taken them out. The late A. A. Gill, the fabulous British food critic, could be brutal and utterly hilarious. He removed all the clutter around his barbs, so they glinted more brightly. Sally Rooney is another hugely popular writer around the world. Her style is beautifully clean and spare, so her ideas are laid bare.
It really doesn’t matter who you read, as long as you read. Someone else’s great words will help you write your own great words.
Nothing is boring
To write great copy, you need to understand that it doesn’t matter what you’re writing about — cryptocurrency, coffee cups, cats or cabbages – the job is to use your chosen tool, language, to make it as interesting as possible. While it’s much easier to write a book about your favourite subject than website copy about hydraulics, the trick is to enjoy the challenge of being as creative as you can with everything that comes across your desk.
Understand your audience
Copy is always better when the writer keeps their audience in mind. Who are they? What do they want to know? How much time do they have?
The audience for a website on concrete mixers will have different tastes and requirements to, say, the patrons of The Australian Ballet. What they have in common is they deserve, and should expect, to read clean, engaging copy that best serves their needs.
What’s the point?
It’s important to understand the purpose of the copy you’re writing and make sure the style fits the job. An advertising headline must be bold, engaging and tell a story at a glance. The call to action should leap at the viewer or reader. Social media captions and blogs need to be chatty, conversational and easy to consume. Descriptions of products and businesses should carefully present the hard facts.
This is why Twitter is so beloved by the writing community. Communicating as much information as possible in 280 characters is a great writing challenge — even better if you can do it elegantly.
Readers will warm to copy written with joy and authenticity. If it’s a grim grind, they’ll sense that too.
Every blog, website and EDM a copywriter produces will teach a small lesson. Over time, the sum total of those learnings becomes experience to draw on when it’s time to rip out a perfect three-word slogan that becomes an international campaign classic.
Become your own editor
Once a copywriter has produced a piece, it’s a great habit to read it again, checking for missing words, spelling and style mistakes, and meaning. See if there’s a better way to arrange each sentence. Snip out those unnecessary words.
If you enjoy writing, it’s a privilege to be paid to do it. Most keen writers will write for the joy of it and, like designers, illustrators, photographers, videographers, editors and others in the creative industry, will have their own side projects running simply for the thrill of creating for creation’s sake.
Now, please excuse me while I read this again.
Phil Barker would like to be a rock star or a racing driver if he wasn’t a writer, but those things are looking increasingly unlikely.