I didn’t, really, other than numbskull jobs as a student. I was utterly useless at everything else at school, apart from English and creative writing. My career choice was narrow!
What made you want to be a copywriter?
In fact I “qualified” as a journalist before I became a copywriter, serving my apprenticeship on a local newspaper. I switched a) because copywriting paid better and b) because it was more interesting. Funnily enough I use my journalism training a lot more now, since the advent of blogging (see below).
What types of copywriting do you do, and for what clients?
Back in the dark ages of the 1980s I worked in agencies (freelance) on standard stuff, but gradually moved over to corporate video and business theatre which was HUGE in those days and on into the 1990s. I became the Grandma Moses of bizcomms during that time and was described by some incredibly important wallah at the time whose name I have forgotten (because he was soooo important…) as “one of the UK’s top 10 business scriptwriters.” So there.
Actually it was a wonderful time. Largely because many of the producers and directors I worked with were off their trolleys on recreational substances, I had to learn to do their jobs when they were trashed and so became a producer/director as well. (I only got trashed when off duty; I’ve always been boring like that.)
These days I have moved well on from those laborious bizcomm media and just revel in the online environment … oh YEAH! Most of my fee-paying work these days is through ghost blogging; online comms have thrown up thousands of people who think they can write commercially but can’t. So I tend to cash in where clients have tried to make do with amateurish text and found that it sucks.
I also have developed a successful niche website to help DIY writers, called HowToWriteBetter.net. This gets around 1,000 – 1,500 page views a day and is growing. It’s a lot of fun to do and acts as a showcase for my nonfiction books, of which I’ve had more than 30 published so far.
What do you enjoy most?
Humour. Definitely. Of all the books I have written and had published, the one that is consistently in the Amazon category best sellers lists is a joke book. This should tell me something, e.g. that writing serious business books is a w*nk and I should focus entirely on humour. Lesson to be learned for everyone here, I think.
What sort of working setup do you have?
Very simple: one room in my house devoted to being an office. (Animals excepted: the two dogs have a chair each in here and humans have to stand, plus I use all four cats as paperweights.)
I’m lucky enough to have sufficient space to seal off one room for business, but I know that many other freelancers don’t have that luxury. One thing I would recommend to any other homeworking copywriters is that they try to isolate even just a corner somewhere to be an exclusive work place. In my view it really helps a) to focus your concentration and b) to split your work life off from your personal life.
What one book should copywriters read, and why? (Not necessarily about copywriting.)
Believe it or not I am only just, now, reading On Writing Well by William Zinsser. It is superb and I am enjoying every page – would strongly recommend anyone, copywriter or not, to read it.
A couple of my books are handy reference for all writers, so here are two shameless plugs:
- Banana Skin Words and how not to slip on them
- English to English: the A to Z of British-American translations
How have things changed in the time you’ve been a copywriter? What’s better, and what’s worse?
Worse: the advent of the internet and qwerty keyboards for all means that now everyone thinks they can write, because it’s physically possible to do so. In addition, as the cost of production of advertising, video and most other media has shrivelled, people’s valuation of the related human skills has shrivelled too. Hourly / daily rates for writing copy and other text simply can’t keep pace with that downward spiral, which probably explains why there is so much crappy text online. Clients find it hard to justify reasonable “people” fees when they – now – represent such a large proportion of total budget. Go figure.
Better: freedom. End of. Although we still work as ghost writers, we have the opportunity to go online and be whoever we want to be. Provided that we know how to handle ourselves online it’s a perfect showcase for our skills, and it’s free, albeit time-consuming if you do it properly.
What are you most proud of in your copywriting career?
Having two best-selling books on Amazon … they won’t make me rich, but at least they make me feel I haven’t been struggling all these years for nothing!
If you could change one thing about your working life as a copywriter, what would it be?
For clients and the industry generally to realize that no matter how fancy the whistles, bells and whizzing bowties they use digitally to enhance their brands and their businesses, human creativity is not something you can buy as a cheap app, and should be valued – and remunerated – for what it’s truly worth.
What advice would you give other copywriters?
Keep your sense of humour! And keep delivering high quality work because in the end that’s what clients will value – OK, maybe after they have tried the cheap cheerful digital crap – but with luck will come back to value of real human skills and talent.