Richard Owsley — ProCopywriters Member Spotlight Revisited

How has your business changed since your first Member Spotlight interview?

I struggled with this question until I looked back at the things I was working on at the time (three years ago). One client is the same – RTL, the big European TV broadcaster and production company – and has been for 12 years. All the others are completely different.

I think that’s always been the case with our industry, clients come and go for various reasons — people move jobs, strategy changes, projects change. It means the work is varied, but it also means I’m constantly looking for new clients. Eek.

What’s been your biggest success since your first Member Spotlight interview?

I’ve developed a good process for working with businesses on their tone of voice and general writing guidelines. And we’re getting to help all sorts of different organisations with it, including one that was established in 960AD. Westminster Abbey, in case you’re wondering.

Why did you decide to focus on the kind of work you’re doing now?

Aside from the above, much of my work is in corporate reporting. I did my first annual report in 1995 and realised I enjoyed helping communicate business strategy and fundamentals. Once you’ve got a bit of a CV in that, clients seek you out.

What are you enjoying most about your industry or niche?

The annual reporting has led to quite a bit of corporate responsibility reporting, and that’s enjoyable. It’s for such a wide audience you can always defend trying to write in everyday words, even if the industry language is all a bit stakeholder-tastic.

What are you working on just now?

Web copy for Europe’s largest ethical bank (UK HQ a five-minute walk from my office, which is handy).

I’m also pleased that one of the major government departments has decided they need our help with a key strategy document. And I’m helping with a pitch for a major international sports event.

Describe the view from your window

From my office window, I look directly at a theatre that’s been operating for 252 years — Bristol Old Vic. Unfortunately, for the last two of those, it’s been a noisy building site as it gets refurbished (productions still going on, enter by the stage door).

So, one summer I overlooked daily outdoor matinees of Treasure Island, and I waved down to HM The Queen when she visited.

But at the moment, I have to cope with visiting stonemasons with broad Northern Irish accents shouting loudly to each other about what they did at the weekend, over the noise of them cutting paving stones into shape.

Tell us about your side projects

I keep meaning to start a blog of my non-work writing, but I’m afraid it’s a bit of a busman’s holiday really.

How has your writing process evolved?

I’ve actually got a bit more methodical I think. I used to get the argument in my head and bash it out in a stream of consciousness before editing.

Now with most sizeable projects, I go section by section, having pasted in all the relevant raw material. I think it’s because clients send more diverse material now – written background, humongous Powerpoints, a video link and then chat on the phone, and so the sources are all over the place and need pulling together.

What do you wish copywriters were more honest about?

Hmm, difficult question. Maybe sticking to their guns about all the silly abstract words clients fill their pages with – engagement, empowerment, innovation, collaboration, partnership, customer focus, agility. Words that make it sound like they’re doing their job but that actually don’t tell anyone anything.

But after trying once or twice to remove them, it’s sometimes easier just to give in and take the money.

What advice do you often hear given to newbies, but you don’t agree with? Why?

I often read advice saying “Find your own style” or “Put some of yourself into your work”. That’s not what it’s about at all. It’s not about you. You’re meant to be following or finding a style for the brand, client, product or intended audience.

George Orwell said, “The best writing is invisible. It’s like a window pane: revealing its subject with beautiful clarity, but never drawing attention to itself.”

My own analogy is like a football or rugby ref – if you haven’t noticed they’re there, it means they’ve had a good game.

Often you get inexperienced copywriters or clients who use that horrible “look-at-me” style so beloved of Virgin brands: “Hi there, how ya doing? Yeah, me too. Anyway, I’m a copywriter (cool, eh?) and I’m here to tell you all about Virgin Media’s amaZing – yeah, that’s a big Z for Zing – data centre solutions for local authorities.” Pass me the sick bag please.

Any lessons you’re still learning?

Always. If you think you know everything, you’ve got a problem. But please don’t let my wife and children see this, I told them I know everything.

What’s something about your work that makes your inner copywriting
nerd happy, but you’re not able to chat about enough?

It’s nice when people compliment you on how fresh your wording is, or something like that. I have to bite my lip sometimes or I’d say, “I removed 90% of the uses of the word ‘that’, changed every use of the word deliver (all three hundred of them) into something more appropriate, and weeded out the many passives. So all I did was three things.”

What do you think?

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