Why did you choose a career in copywriting and how did you get into it?
I started as Advertising Manager at the student radio station at Loughborough University. I was doing a degree in Ergonomics at the time, but I already knew it wasn’t for me.
As Ad Manager, I got to do the whole process from going out and selling ads, to writing them, producing them, voicing them, trafficking them and billing them. The bit I liked best was the writing so I stuck with that, but the experience of the whole process was really useful when I got a job at a real radio station.
Radio is a great place to start because there are no limits on what you can do, as long as you can do it in 30 seconds. You can really let your imagination rip. Yet at the same time, you learn discipline, brevity and how to make every word in every sentence count. There is no time to waffle, so you learn to stay focussed on getting the required response.
What work are you most proud of?
At the risk of sounding like a Miss World contestant, I like it when I feel my work can make a difference. For instance, I have written widely about fertility treatment, which could have helped some couples to have kids. I also wrote an extensive series on cancer a couple of years ago, including articles on the personal side, such as telling your children and dealing with dying. I hope those helped some people to get through a horrible time.
I have done a lot of financial services stuff in my career, encouraging people to take loans when they probably didn’t need them, like to pay for Christmas or holidays. That never made me feel good about myself. I also pushed PPI quite hard in those pieces, so I should take some of the blame for that mess.
What piece of copy do you really wish you’d written?
It’s not advertising copy, but the description of the Victorian festive street scene from Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is my favourite passage of writing:
“There were great, round, pot-bellied baskets of chesnuts, shaped like the waistcoats of jolly old gentlemen, lolling at the doors, and tumbling out into the street in their apoplectic opulence. There were ruddy, brown-faced, broad-girthed Spanish Onions, shining in the fatness of their growth like Spanish Friars, and winking from their shelves in wanton slyness at the girls as they went by, and glanced demurely at the hung-up mistletoe. There were pears and apples, clustered high in blooming pyramids; there were bunches of grapes, made, in the shopkeepers’ benevolence to dangle from conspicuous hooks, that people’s mouths might water gratis as they passed; there were piles of filberts, mossy and brown, recalling, in their fragrance, ancient walks among the woods, and pleasant shufflings ankle deep through withered leaves; there were Norfolk Biffins, squab and swarthy, setting off the yellow of the oranges and lemons, and, in the great compactness of their juicy persons, urgently entreating and beseeching to be carried home in paper bags and eaten after dinner.”
I can remember it from school and it was part of my inspiration to be a writer. I can still close my eyes and be on that street with all its incredible colours and amazing smells. It is just so evocative. If we can come even close to that as writers; if we can engage our readers and leave such a lasting impression, then we have done our job.
What do you do if you hit a bit of writer’s block?
Write anyway! It’s always better to just start writing, even if you end up throwing it all away once you hit your stride. Staring at a blank screen will never get you past a block. Start writing and you will find your idea or your voice along the way and you can go from there.
I think most professional copywriters would agree that they have no time for writer’s block anyway. We have deadlines to meet and bills to pay, and so writer’s block is a bit indulgent for the working wordsmith. No other profession would tolerate it.
You never have your filling cancelled because of dentist’s block, or your dinner reservation cancelled due to chef’s block.
What makes writers so special?
What are your favourite and least favourite writing-related tasks?
I love blogs because the free flowing chat style comes very naturally to me. Blogging feels very intimate and personal with the reader, as if we are chatting over a pint in the pub. Blogs also give you the opportunity to go off piste in a way that web content or brochure copy doesn’t allow. If the idea takes you off on a tangent, you can just go with it and have fun.
Probably rewriting is my least favourite task. Fixing someone else’s work is usually harder than writing it fresh from scratch, yet you generally get paid less because the client thinks the job is half done. You also have to tread a fine line between fixing terrible copy and upsetting the ego of the original author, who is usually the client.
Any copywriting pet hates?
People who correct what they think are wording or grammatical errors, when you have actually bent the rules deliberately for style and effect. It’s partly the insulting assumption that I don’t know the rules in the first place, and partly the fact that they have missed the smart thing I have done with the sentence. Like Les Dawson on the piano, you need to know the rules really well to be able to break them effectively and deliberately.
What’s the best piece of career advice you’ve been given?
I am eternally grateful to the friend who advised me not to go on my degree year out, but to take the Ad Manager job at Loughborough Campus Radio. It was one of those moments where my timeline split off in a whole new direction. Who knows where I’d be now if Jon hadn’t needed a pee at the same time as me. ‘Turn Left’ as Dr Who fans would say.
I guess his message was to do what makes you happy and excites you, rather than taking the safe option. You only come around once, so you have to go for it, otherwise you’ll wake up one day and think ‘what if…?’ and it will be too late.
After all, what’s the worst that could happen?
What advice would you give to people starting out on a copywriting career?
Don’t be too proud about who you work for or what you do. I have taken some very silly, very poorly paid work over the years, which has led to long term, lucrative relationships. If you wait for the big break, the prestige contract or the big money, you could be waiting for a long time.
On a related note, try and put the same effort into your writing regardless of what you think about the product or the client. You can be just as creative with a baseball cap description as you can with a big money corporate pitch, and it never hurts to exercise those muscles. That’s how you turn those silly, poorly paid jobs into so much more. People will notice if your work stands out.
What’s your favourite thing about being a copywriter?
Getting to do for a living what I’d do for fun anyway. I am a frustrated novelist and even completed a masters degree in screenwriting at Liverpool JMU a couple of years ago. I’ve always been a writer, so to write all day is literally my dream job. I know so many people who hate their jobs and live for the weekends. You don’t get many accountants doing taxes for fun in their spare time, but I write both for work and for fun.
Life is too short and your job takes up too much of that time to be doing something that bores you. As a freelance copywriter, no two weeks are the same. My current clients include everything from bouncy castle hire, to a project to professionalise farmers in East Africa, to blogs for the Association of Registered Colonic Hydrotherapists. Never a dull moment!
Where can people find out more about you?
You can visit my website www.simonthewriter.co.uk to see how I work and read some kind comments from clients, you can give me a call on 07837 407688 or you can firstname.lastname@example.org