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How to be a stoic copywriter

Jamie Ryder

stoicathenaeum.com | Philosophy-led content marketing | eCommerce, hospitality and mental health writer

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Content marketing and philosophy have a lot in common. Both mediums involve searching for answers to important questions, developing a framework for accepting the things that can’t be controlled, sharing important stories, and building stronger connections with people from all walks of life.

That’s how I see the connection anyway. I think bringing philosophy into copywriting can help to build a foundation for becoming better at what we do and a worldview that’s certainly helped me is Stoicism. 

With that in mind, here’s how to apply Stoicism to content writing and follow in the footsteps of philosophers like Marcus Aurelius and Seneca. 

What is Stoicism? 

When thinking of someone who’s stoic, the image of a person that doesn’t feel their emotions and buys into the notion of a stiff upper lip might come to mind. This is ‘little s’ stoicism, a character trait.

‘Big S’ Stoicism is a philosophy that has existed since the days of Ancient Greece and started with a bloke called Zeno of Citium. A merchant, Zeno was shipwrecked in Athens and lost everything he had. 

Searching for answers, Zeno went to speak to the local Oracle, who advised him to seek the wisdom of dead men. Scratching his head at this obscure advice, Zeno wandered through Athens until he stumbled into a bookshop and picked up a book by the philosopher Xenaphon.

Awe-struck by the words he found on the page, Zeno asked the owner of the book shop where men like Xenaphon could be found. At that moment, a man called Crates of Thebes was strolling by, spreading the philosophy of Cynicism. The book shop owner pointed Crates out and from that day onwards Zeno became his student. 

After learning what he could from Crates, Zeno went out on his own and started speaking in the Athenian marketplace at a place called the Stoa. Also called the painted porch, the Stoa was a public place where people could have debates. That is how Stoicism got its name.

Zeno’s philosophy was built on four cardinal virtues:

  1. Justice
  2. Wisdom
  3. Temperance
  4. Courage

These principles promoted living a good life by being an active member of the community, helping people because it was the right thing to do, acting appropriately in every situation and more. 

So, to be a Stoic isn’t to suppress emotions. It’s understanding how to feel appropriately and developing ways of coping with things like anger and sadness. 

How to apply Stoicism to copywriting 

Now that you know what Stoicism is, a lot of techniques within the philosophy can easily be applied to copywriting: 

Focus on what you can and can’t control 

The essence of Stoicism boils down to what you can and can’t control. While this sounds simple, you’d be surprised at the number of things we believe we can bring within our sphere of influence and that is true of the copywriting profession.

The tone of a blog. The direction of a video. The knowledge that we know better than the client. These are the pitfalls of the proud copywriter and when things don’t go our way, it’s easy to get frustrated.

By remembering this Stoic precept, it’s a good reminder that we control how we react to a situation. A client may be difficult, a blog may need editing several times before it’s accepted. Taking the time to assess the situation can put things into perspective and help to overcome these challenges.

Take the view from above with clients 

The view from above is a Stoic technique that takes a kind of big picture perspective. It’s stepping back from a situation and expanding the mind outwards until you imagine you’re looking down from a great height.

Marcus Aurelius frequently employed this technique and he paraphrased Plato in The Meditations.

“One who would converse about human beings should look on all things earthly as though from some point far above, upon herds, armies, and agriculture, marriages and divorces, births and deaths, the clamor of law courts, deserted wastes, peoples of every kind, festivals, lamentations, and markets, this intermixture of everything and ordered combination of opposites.”

This zooming out technique can be good for handling difficult conversations with clients who may be unhappy with your writing. By looking at it from an objective, ‘top view’ perspective, it’s a reminder that such a small thing isn’t worth getting angry or frustrated over.

Far better to state how you can find a solution to the problem e.g. asking more questions about a client’s tone of voice and incorporating it into your content. 

Practice the premeditation of adversity 

Another popular Stoic technique is premeditatio malorum, also known as the premeditation of evils or adversity. This mind trick is useful for preparing for setbacks and involves imagining some of the worst possible scenarios on a regular basis as a kind of stress inoculation to certain situations.

The Roman power broker Seneca was fond of this technique, writing about it extensively:

“What is quite unlooked for is more crushing in its effect, and unexpectedness adds to the weight of a disaster. This is a reason for ensuring that nothing ever takes us by surprise. We should project our thoughts ahead of us at every turn and have in mind every possible eventuality instead of only the usual course of events.

Rehearse them in your mind: exile, torture, war, shipwreck. All the terms of our human lot should be before our eyes.”

It’s important to note that the premediation of adversity is not a pessimistic or fatalistic attitude. It’s about learning how to prepare for the worst so we can be primed to respond better in the likelihood of the rehearsed scenario.

In a copywriting context, it might be that you have an upcoming meeting with a client and your copy is key to the big pitch. You could imagine yourself being face to face with the client and them asking you different questions about the direction of a campaign.

You could then create content that solves these challenges before they arrive.

Keep a journal 

Journaling is a wonderful exercise for indulging your creativity, reflecting on the day or jotting down thoughts. 

At the end of a stressful day, you could write down points about what you think went well and reminders of what needs to be improved. Or you could generate a list of titles for a new blog or video series. 

The beauty of journaling is that it can be whatever you want it to be and many of the ancient Stoics kept their own journals, which helped them to make progress one step at a time. 

No copywriter is an island unto themselves

Content writing is an exciting profession. It offers the ability to flex creative muscles, be at the forefront of new ideas, feed off the energy of like-minded people and win new business and awards. 

It’s also a solitary job that requires long stretches of time sitting in a chair and the temptation to block out the rest of the world is always lurking. It’s easy to get lost in the writing and not see beyond anything else. It’s easy to be stoic and not talk about any of the problems that you’re facing with a brief, misgivings about clients etc.

This is the bad kind of lower case stoicism. Upper case Stoicism teaches that we need to feel our emotions, react appropriately and ask for help when necessary. 

As Marcus Aurelius said:

“Don’t be ashamed of needing help. You have a duty to fulfill just like a soldier on the wall of battle. So what if you are injured and can’t climb up without another soldier’s help?”

Check your ego at the door and embrace every second of what you do 

Copywriters can be egomaniacs. Sometimes, we think we know how to tell the greatest story ever told. Other times, we dial it in because we’re confident we know a client inside and out and that we don’t need to put the extra work in. That’s not the attitude of a Stoic content marketer.

It’s important to take ego out of the workplace and focus on writing the content that is appropriate for the brief and the situation. It’s about showing up and doing the work and fulfilling the role that has been given to you that day. 

It won’t always be easy and it won’t always be fun. It will be the way to grow as a person and become better at your craft.

Originally published on stoicathenaeum.com

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