Why good copy goes bad (you’re not dumb, you’re just ignorant)

ignorant copywriterOne of the worst mistakes copywriters make is to assume their job is about writing. It’s not.

Now I know that sounds a bit odd. After all, the word “writing” is in the word “copywriting.” So it’s understandable why you might misunderstand.

But writing and copywriting are two very different things.

When you write a novel or a poem, readers wants great words. They enjoy the rhythm, the imagery, the wordplay. People expect this kind of writing to deliver a certain art and beauty.

When you write websites, ads, white papers, or other business materials, readers simply want information. They don’t care about the artistry. They aren’t looking for beauty. They just want to find out how to solve a problem or meet a need.

This isn’t to say that copywriting can’t be well-crafted. It should be. But it should be crafted in such a way that the words disappear and the meaning shows through. I like to think of good copywriting as if it’s a toy store window, clean, polished, and invisible, providing a clear view of the wondrous goodies inside.

So when copywriters forget that their job is to convey meaning, to connect with needs, to influence and persuade, they focus on the words alone and create, well … crap. When you do this, it’s not that you’re stupid. It’s just that you’re ignorant.

Ignorant of the purpose of your copy. Ignorant of the meaning of your product or service. And ignorant of the perceptions of your readers. In other words, even beautifully-crafted copy can go bad when you pay too much attention to how you say something and ignore the meaning of what you’re saying.

How do you avoid being ignorant?

You must reach into the world other people live in. For example, if you’re a liberal and you’re writing web copy for a conservative website, you have to abandon your own views and immerse yourself in the world view of people who think differently.

You must empathize with the feelings and beliefs of your readers. They say you can’t understand someone until you walk a mile in their shoes. So become a shoe thief, walk, jog, run in as many shoes as you can. You have to feel what others feel to write copy that connects with them.

You must have an interest in everything … and then some. In a recent conversation, a writer told me that he hates projects about things he has no interest in. How can you be a copywriter if you’re not curious about new things? You should know a little about everything.

You must be a quick study. Copywriting is always on a deadline. You have to inhale information and understand it rapidly. You have to be a pregnant woman in the morning and a retired trucker in the afternoon. A senator on Monday, a heart surgeon on Wednesday, and a champion cyclist on Friday.

You must always do your homework. Read everything. Ask questions. Take notes. And when you think you know it all, keep digging. As Edmund Burke said, “Fact are the mind what food is to the body.” (Edmund Burke? Could I have chosen a more arcane reference?)

You must be willing to change your copy to meet a goal. You can’t be a diva. Yes, you spend hours or days or weeks writing and rewriting. But if the copy doesn’t do the job, you have to let go. Top writers are ruthless editors and heartless revisionists.

You must recover from mistakes and learn from them. We all make them. What separates good writers from great writers is that great writers learn from mistakes and become greater. Other writers make excuses and seek to avoid similar situations.

To help myself with this, I use a copywriting cheat sheet, a series of questions to help me start to understand who a client is, what they’re selling, and the people they’re selling to. Depending on your area of specialty, you might want to adapt this sheet to your own needs, adding or deleting questions.

If you’re a copywriter, you’re probably pretty smart. What you have to watch out for is being ignorant.

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