The many sounds that meet our ears
The sights our eyes behold
Will open up our merging hearts
And feed our empty souls
Stevie Wonder, lyrics to ‘I believe (when I fall in love it will be forever)’
I’ve been listening to the Art Garfunkel cover of this song since it was released in 1975. But it wasn’t until the other day that I noticed that the lyric touched on something completely outside the writer’s experience. Stevie Wonder’s eyes haven’t ‘beheld’ many ‘sights’ at all – he’s been blind since just after he was born.
Does his blindness mean he can’t write about seeing? Of course not. His ‘innervisions’ are just as valid as our real-life sights; perhaps even more so. As an artist, it’s his prerogative to use imagination to travel wherever he wishes – and take us with him on the journey.
Mark Twain said ‘write what you know’. But Gore Vidal observed that ‘write what you know is the advice we give to people who shouldn’t be writing at all’. The truth is that recording experience is a tiny part of what most writing is about. With the exception of purely factual reportage, or perhaps keeping a diary, all writing involves some level of imagination.
And that most definitely includes copywriting. A while ago, there was a mini-debate on Twitter about men writing for a female audience, and vice versa. While some saw a real divide between the mindset of the genders, most copywriters felt that putting themselves in someone else’s shoes was a basic part of the job.
That’s not to say that writers should work in an ivory tower. There’s enormous value in meeting those who make a product or deliver a service, or interviewing the people who have to sell it. Talking to customers and actually using the product yourself can be a real eye-opener.
But at the end of the day, the copywriter’s job is to write something that connects those experiences with people’s emotions – and that requires a leap of imagination. All the research in the world won’t add up to an idea.
So I fully sympathise with Richard Hollins’ frustration, expressed in this post, with people searching for a writer with a particular style. As Richard says, it’s the writer’s job to adopt the style appropriate to the brand and the project – not to bring their own personality to the party.
Of course, every writer ends up doing more work in certain areas, which gives them more facility with particular industries and tones of voice. But all else being equal, a good copywriter should be able to engage with any product, any brand and any customer experience.
Copywriters aren’t artists, expressing themselves for the edification of the audience. They’re more like actors, with the brand, tone of voice or advertising strategy as the playscript. (It follows that if these foundations haven’t been built, the resulting performance is likely to be weak – like an actor who has to improvise.)
The copywriter interprets the brand or product for the audience, making it engaging and relevant to them. The brand is always the same; different writers bring it to life in ways that are different in approach but united in purpose. Jesus has been played by hundreds of actors, from medieval passion players up to James Caviezel – the performances have varied widely, but the character and his purpose are always the same.
Seen from this perspective, it’s clear that what matters is not a writer’s experience, but their ability. Experience is a rough indicator of ability, but that’s all. Clients shouldn’t feel hesitant about engaging their chosen writer to work on their brand, even if their previous work is in completely different areas. In fact, you could even argue that a writer from ‘out of town’ is more likely to bring the new perspective that a brand needs to become fresh and relevant once more. To paraphrase Mark Twain, ‘write what you don’t know’.