Why did you choose a career in copywriting and how did you get into it?
Until I was about 15 I wanted to become a vet! But my English teacher at school convinced me that my real skill was writing. Just as well, as I went on to fail biology O level.
This was the 1980s and there weren’t really any copywriting degrees – art colleges and universities more or less ignored the writing side of advertising – so I did an English and History degree with a view to becoming a journalist (the only career in writing I could think of). My first job was as a publicity assistant, writing press releases, ads and mailshots for a company that sold into schools and colleges.
That led to a job in an ad agency as a copywriter and the rest is history. Journalism’s loss!
I combined copywriting with PR for a number of years. I’d always wanted to work for myself and after a decade or so as a professional writer I took the plunge and haven’t looked back.
What work are you most proud of?
I’ve always enjoyed the ‘unglamorous’ side of copywriting, and have never been that interested in being ‘cutting edge’ or winning awards.
I am proud of anything I do that makes a difficult or complicated subject, product or service understandable to the target market.
Many companies just push out a message without thinking about who’s reading it. I do a lot of business-to-business work and see my job as translating the client’s thoughts into a message their audience will believe in and respond to.
What piece of copy do you really wish you’d written?
As a copywriter you’re taught to be as short, snappy and succinct as possible but some subjects demand a more thoughtful approach. I admire so much the work of Indra Sinha and his long-running campaign for the victims of the Bhopal disaster of 1984.
Perhaps it’s the frustrated journalist in me but these ads reveal a real and horrifying scenario, pulling no punches and helping keep the tragedy of these poor people front of mind, raising funds along the way. The best communication tells a story, and this is storytelling of the highest order.
What do you do if you hit a bit of writer’s block?
Take a break! Staring at the screen is no good. I often find my best ideas come to me in my sleep or while I’m walking the dog, so I keep a pad and pen by the side of my bed so I can write stuff down as soon as I wake up. The memo function on my phone does the job when I’m out with the dog.
What are your favourite and least favourite writing-related tasks?
My favourite task is finishing; my least favourite is starting!
Seriously, I love writing websites – not just writing the copy but doing the tagging, keywords and so on. SEO is normally left to the website builder but I believe it’s more important than ever that the copywriter takes control.
You have the dual task of making sure your work can be found via a search engine – and then keeping the reader hooked once they find it. I love that challenge.
I don’t enjoy working with clients who don’t respect what I do – I don’t mean clients who don’t like or want to change what I write, but those who pay good money to employ a copywriter and then ignore what you write and rewrite it themselves, or go with what they wrote in the first place.
Luckily that doesn’t happen often but it’s such a waste of their money when it does.
Any copywriting pet hates?
Loads! Jargon, over-complication, treating the reader like an idiot, showing off, failure to proofread… don’t get me started.
What’s the best piece of career advice you’ve been given?
Be true to yourself – follow your instincts and don’t be side-tracked into something you’ll hate because the money is attractive or your mum thinks you’d be good at it. Have confidence in your abilities and the quality of your work.
What advice would you give to people starting out on a copywriting career?
Read loads – novels, newspapers, the back of cereal packets… immerse yourself in words. And, most importantly, write for the reader, not the client. Don’t be sucked into corporate-speak.
What’s your favourite thing about being a copywriter?
Absolutely my most favourite thing is the fact I can be freelance and my own boss. It’s been a godsend as a working parent – it’s still a juggling act but it’s a hell of a lot better than having to factor an employer into the equation.
I also like the variety of work I do – I can be writing for a Commonwealth charity one day, a financial services firm the next and a machine tool manufacturer the day after. I get to know a bit about a lot of subjects. It’s great in a pub quiz.
Where can people find out more about you?