The psychology of a copywriter

By Andrew Boulton

February 8, 2016 | 4 min read

Poking around the mind of anyone in this peculiar crocodile-wrestle we call marketing is a good way to see some strange and terrible things. So, to jab a chubby finger into the wasp nest that is your own professional psyche is less the subject of a whimsical blog and more the act of a dangerous lunatic.

Nevertheless, the psychological arrangement of the common copywriter contains the kind of conflict, delusion and outright mania that compels us to peel away the tin foil helmet and expose the gibbering truth. (I’ll warn you though, this blog contains a dangerous amount of wild generalisation and no small degree of insincerity).

In many copywriters there exists a peculiar sense of entitlement. Not that we demand a dressing room filled with expensive pencils and precisely chilled Vimto, but more a requirement to be listened to. The very nature of the job is to be, not the loudest voice, but the most compelling – to say something conventional and familiar in a way that feels extraordinary and unavoidable. How often have you seen a copywriter deflated by a message that, within the marketing maelstrom, whimpers meekly to be noticed?

We’re also guilty of a simmering indignation, a righteous contempt for those who believe that anyone with fingers, eyes and access to ink is capable of copywriting. And we see these characters everywhere, even lurking in the shadows of our best and most productive client relationships.

A feeling that our contribution isn’t quite as valued by some as we know it should be is perhaps the fuel for another common anxiety – a crippling, obsessive, maddening perfectionism. Leave some copywriters alone with a perfectly constructed headline and they will tear it apart, showering the walls with a splatter of increasingly unsatisfying synonyms. I’ve known many a copywriter hunt down a final draft on its way out of the door, paralysed by a dread that there may be too many, or indeed not enough, commas.

Your classic, corn-fed copywriter is also unsettlingly comfortable with their own professional schizophrenia. We are characters with dozens of voices and perspectives rattling around in our heads, with the ability to argue for and against any particular point with equal conviction. And yet, while we’re capable of cultivating all kinds of disparate voices, we never truly let go of our own. Even in that 600-word manual for a rotary lawnmower, our own unique style murmurs quietly around the grassy edges.

We are, I suppose, beasts of imagination tethered inescapably to reality. We define success by creative brilliance, knowing ultimately it is only properly defined by commercial performance. And amongst all this, we yo-yo in and out of an odd state of immersion – rapt by a brief about bacon, or shoes or cat blankets all the time knowing that none of it really exists. Copywriting, like marketing, is the art of sculpting fog.

And that’s just a few of the neuroses and peculiarities I can recognise in myself and copywriters I’ve known well. There are some of us who share these, just as there are some with no recognition at all for this slightly shambling portrait of our profession. There are some, I’m quite sure, with an even more complex relationship with the work.

Whether it’s the fundamental strangeness of the job that sends us this way, or whether it’s our inherent idiosyncrasies that navigate us to this outlandish working life, I’m not sure.

Ink on the page, ink on our fingers and, without doubt, ink on the brain.

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