Secret Copywriter

18 February 2016

Secret Copywriter: I feel like an impostor

Person covering face with a mask made of aluminium foilCan I tell you a secret?

I’m not really a copywriter.

I’m a chancer. A phony. A charlatan.

I snuck in by the back door a while ago, and I’ve been getting away with it ever since.

Luckily, I haven’t yet been found out, and I’ve been fortunate enough to hit on clients who must not have met any proper copywriters yet. But it’s only a matter of time. One day the whole house of cards will come tumbling down.

People who feel this way suffer from impostor syndrome. They don’t believe in themselves because they can’t internalise their achievements. Objectively, many ‘impostors’ are actually very successful, but something stops that information from going in. The warmth of accomplishment never reaches their hearts.

In the real world, I can now look back on quite a few years as a successful professional writer. My earnings have grown, as has my list of clients, and their feedback has been almost universally positive. I even get less experienced copywriters asking me for advice.

From the inside, though, all that seems cold and hollow. I can’t take my achievements seriously; my career is a story I just don’t believe. Those testimonials may sound good, but the clients only wrote them because I asked. God knows what social followers see in me, beyond a way to grow their own networks. And novices seeking help are clearly confusing age with wisdom.

Sometimes I think it might be easier with the right qualifications or awards. But actually I’ve seen top writers confess to severe anxiety, particularly at the start of a job. Faced with the blank page, the open brief, even those at the top of the tree must rewrite their story from chapter one, every time they pick up a pen.

Throw in some actual problems and it gets even worse. Evolutionary psychology says we’re hardwired to give more weight to bad news than good, to make us pay attention to threats in the environment. That’s all very well for foraging on the Serengeti, less so for hermetic seclusion in a home office. A pointed comment here, a request for a rework there, and I’m plunged into self-doubt.

More seriously, I feel revolted by the act of writing itself. To put words on a page, even in the voice of a brand, feels crass and presumptious. I don’t dare disturb the universe. But needs must.

I know lots of copywriters write fiction or poetry too. For me, that would just shovel creative angst on top of commercial anxiety. Outside work, I go for physical tasks and pastimes that I know I can accomplish, like climbing or woodwork.

It’s easy to confuse impostorism with appropriate modesty. If you’re British, it just feels wrong to trumpet your own achievements, even inside your head. But there are times when a bit of constructive pride is exactly what you need – the sort of pride that goes before a rise, not a fall.

Social media can be friend or foe. Personally, I find it makes a good mood better, but a bad mood worse. If I’m feeling confident, I can trade some wit and wisdom with journalists, novelists and real copywriters, which feels great. But to my inner impostor, the Twitter feed is just an infinitely scrolling succession of people being funnier, more intelligent and better informed than me.

Social media also encourages professionals to push their opinions to build intellectual and professional authority – to be the followed, not the follower. Peering out at these experts from the cave of the impostor’s mind is as baffling as it is depressing. How can they be like that? Aren’t they afraid of being challenged? Are they disgusted by their own arrogance, or do they just see it as the price of success? Is it all an act, or do they really believe? I guess you have no choice but to honour your personal brand, even if you’ve come to find it flimsy or risible.

NLP suggests we can simply model the behaviour of those who’ve already achieved excellence. To be confident, just copy what confident people do. Perhaps it does all come down to ‘fake it till you make it’. Maybe even those who’ve made it are still faking it, on the inside. Who knows?

Being a copywriter, albeit a fake one, I think it’s more about the words. If you don’t let the positive ones inside your head, all you hear is the negative ones that are already there. So beating impostor syndrome is about learning to listen in the right way. Put like that, it sounds so simple. I’ll let you know when I manage it.


Secret Copywriter is our anonymous blog series where PCN members can share their experiences of professional copywriting. Find out more here.


What do you think?

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Charlote Fleming

February 18, 2016 at 8:43am

I get the same feeling. I’ve been building my business now for eight years, and most of my work comes by referral so my clients must think I’m doing a good job. But I still get anxious when someone asks for a rewrite, or suggests a different way of laying out the information.

It’s probably a universal problem; just don’t let it become a debilitating one.

Honor Clement-Hayes

February 18, 2016 at 10:02am

(I think we’re all pretending)

PRO

Andy Nattan

February 18, 2016 at 10:26am

I don’t think I’ve met another copywriter who doesn’t or hasn’t at some point suffered from impostor syndrome.

A big part of it is that we compare every single piece of work to other people’s carefully curated portfolios.

Not every piece is going to be award-winning. Constraints of time, tone, reader and even client preferences means that most of the work we do is simply “good.”

But we never compare that work to other “good” work. We compare it to the most successful campaigns in history, or the portfolio of someone with 20 years’ experience.

I’ve found that sometimes taking the time to read crap copy helps settle the nerves. A “bad writing” swipe file, taken from the adverts you see in pub toilets, or the local free newspaper, or client sites on the day they phoned you to ask how to improve their efforts.

Just try and keep your own early sub-par efforts out of that file. Or you’ll start the whole cycle over again.

PRO

Kirsten Irving

February 18, 2016 at 11:39am

Preach! It’s so good to hear someone else say it, even though on some level, as Charlote and Andy verify, we all get it. It’s partly a freelancing thing too. Constantly having to pitch and convince can be wearing to the confidence, and since there’s no set tenure track in this industry, there are few markers of officialdom along the way. I love Andy’s Bad Copy Swipe File idea. It’s satisfying to be casually observing and adding to a project as you go along, and to recognise that your critical faculties are sharp. Thanks so much for sharing – this is exactly what The Secret Copywriter is for.

Graeme Piper

February 18, 2016 at 7:18pm

Wow. What a post. I didn’t write it (obvs), but the bells of familiarity are ringing loud and clear. I always fear the reply to my email that contains the first draft. I fully expect to see something like “you missed the brief entirely” or words to that effect. When I open it and it’s positive feedback (with possibly only very minor tweaks), is usually the only time I think I can do this copywriting thing. But I have clients and I’m making money, so what do I know!

fullbeamcopy

February 24, 2016 at 1:08pm

Wonderful post. I’m in full agreement.

To a degree, we’re all making it up as we go along. We’re all the sum of our experiences, and that’s what makes us all unique.

We have good days and bad days. One day, it will all flow out perfectly, the next, a whole day’s effort might only be fit for the digital bin. The key is to accept this and just keep on writing.

Don’t forget, even Mozart and Beethoven wrote some stinkers…

Gary Wiles

February 26, 2016 at 9:35am

“The Insecurity of the Copywriter” is part of our DNA. It is what makes us great, what makes us constantly strive to do better work and prove to our clients and colleagues that what we do is something they CAN’T DO. The problem is, everyone thinks they can write copy. Our profession has always suffered from a lack of respect and the idea that anyone can come up with a few memorable words.

If we didn’t feel like an impostor there would be something wrong.

Bethany

February 28, 2016 at 8:13am

Yup, I feel like this too.
I started freelance writing full time a few months ago and I haven’t starved to death yet… which makes me wonder. Some people must be paying me. Why? Have they not figured me out yet?

Larner Caleb

November 9, 2016 at 12:26pm

As a copywriter, you’re paid what you’re worth to a client, an agency or the industry in general. If you’re not good enough, you’ll soon get found out, so for me, if you’re still in the game and putting food on the table, you’re not faking it.

And don’t be put off when your phone hasn’t rung for a week or two, or someone else is rewriting your words. Because anyone can tap on a keyboard, there’s always a queue of fakers waiting in line, trying to cut corners. The good news is, you don’t get real customers with fake copy.