Recently, I completed a web writing commission for Derrick Ibbott, a bespoke furniture maker based, like me, in Norfolk. It was the sort of project I often price very keenly because I’m interested in the client and want to work with them. It’s always great to work with a small business or sole trader, in an industry I’m unfamiliar with, with an unusual product or service. In interviews to support the writing, I get to chat in depth with another business owner about where they came from, how they work and what makes them tick.
I wouldn’t put myself on the same level as Derrick, who is far more artist than artisan. (In 2010, he won the coveted Claxton Stevens award, the foremost honour of the bespoke furniture world.) But as I worked on his copy, I was struck by the parallels between the craft I was describing and the one I was practising – between woodwork and wordwork, as it were.
Derrick’s work uses simple, natural forms to let the natural grain of the wood shine through. During our interview, he expressed uncertainty over how to describe his craft – before doing exactly that. He already had the words; my contribution was to put them down on the page and polish them.
Like him, I’ve learned that the raw material – whether it’s timber, or language – has more than enough beauty and meaning in itself. There’s no need to add a lot of fancy embellishment. For the woodworker, that might mean missing out ornate carving or turning unless it helps the overall effect. For the copywriter, it means favouring direct, simple and uncomplicated words.
However, just as the carpenter uses the right timber for the look and function they want, so the writer is never afraid to use the right words, even if they are long or unusual.
Does conquering your own urge to complicate things really count as a skill? Can you really justify being paid for omission and commission – what you’re not doing, as much as what you are?
Emphatically, the answer is yes. The ability to keep things simple is a measure of experience – as is the ability to sustain and justify the stance. ‘Newbies’ who are anxious to impress sometimes gravitate towards the complex solution. Seasoned operators have the confidence to do what’s right.
Another good principle Derrick observes is ‘one client, one job’. He works solely on commission, producing totally unique pieces that are perfectly shaped to the clients’ needs or wants. Having developed his own unique style, he prefers not to model his work on others’, and doesn’t re-use elements of his own work unless the client requests it.
In copywriting, some techniques are so useful that they inevitably get used over and over. But even so, the selection of forms is still unique for each client – or should be. Each company, and each brand, has its own identity, and the copywriters should reflect that.
In the rush and tumble of running a freelance copywriting business, it’s easy to lose touch with the fact that writing is a craft, or an art if you prefer. So I think it’s good, once in a while, to get back in touch with a love of writing for its own sake – it can only help the quality of our commercial work.