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A case of the copywriting ‘yips’ – when writers can’t let go of their voice

Andrew Boulton is a copywriter with a decade of scribbling experience at places like Egg the online bank, some top agencies in the Midlands and once for a man who carved dolphins out of cheese.

He was nominated for the Professional Publishers Association Award for Business Media Columnist of the Year despite having little or no grasp of the semi colon. He has decent hair but a disappointing beard. You can follow him on Twitter @Boultini.

For those of you unfamiliar with the burly, beery world of professional darts there is a condition known as the yips. In its most extreme form it can manifest in the player being unable to let go of the dart. And letting go of the dart is, unsurprisingly, a big part of the experience. Here ends your lesson in darts.

On the face of it, copywriting may not share a great deal in common with darts. Yes, many of us will only ever enter a room draped in a velvet cape to the blare of our hard rocking theme tune (mine is ‘Babylon’ by David Gray). But, aside from such theatrics and a fondness for billowing short-sleeved shirts, copywriters do often share the same vulnerability to our own form of the yips.

Most copywriters I know have, at some point in their career, developed an inability to let go of their own unique writing style. And, just as damaging as this can be for a darts player whose fingers fail to launch, the copywriting yips can be catastrophic to the fundamentals of our job.

The most chronic examples of copywriting yips I’ve witnessed tend to feature a particular word, phrase or sentence construction that the patient in question becomes unhealthily obsessed with.

Delighted by how this new trick feels on their fingertips, copywriters can easily find themselves bulldozing it into every brief.

Effectively, it’s a breakdown of the filter that every copywriter needs to do what we do. The carefully controlled segmentation of the way we love to write and the way we have to write.

Experienced copywriters will develop a ‘locker system’ of some description – removing their own subjective loves and hates just like you roll up your socks inside your shoes before a paddle.

This allows us to approach the page without the kind of baggage that will force any brief down our own favourite, familiar cul-de-sacs.

But, if those personal preferences find some way to smash out of the locker and creep into your thought process, you soon end up with a stack of work that reads like you have written it purely for your own gratification.

And, as we know all too well, there is no room for this kind of alphabetical onanism in a profession defined by our capacity for speaking in every voice but our own.

Yes, many excellent copywriters will tell you that it is ok to retain a piece of yourself in any copy you write. But there is still a fundamental difference between creating a message that does what it’s supposed to and one that does what you’d prefer it to do.

So, if you find yourself with a juddering, twitching case of copy yips, what can you do? In my own bouts I find the only solution is to read. Read ads. Read books. Read magazine articles. Read the full spectrum of language, from the great to the unbearable.

For me, this acts as a reset button for my writing. In exposing my over-excited little mind to all these words I become more interested in absorbing the great examples (and avoiding the worst) that it helps me break the loop of my habit.

It’s not a permanent solution – I’m not sure a lifetime inoculation for copywriting yips even exists. All you can hope is that, the next time you’re afflicted, you don’t hand in too much work before you even realise the yips have taken hold.

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Andrew Boulton

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