Copywriting and the creative power of envy

Andrew Boulton is a senior lecturer on copywriting and creative advertising at the University of Lincoln. He’s also a copywriter with over a decade of scribbling experience at top creative 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. You can follow him on Twitter @Boultini.

Copywriting, in its dark, inky heart, is a jealous business. Few of us have never experienced the piercing jab of professional envy at a fellow writer’s brilliance. Most of us, I suspect, are pierced so frequently that if you dropped us into water we’d percolate like a teabag.

Such a covetous approach to work could easily be debilitating. Allow yourself to be pummelled too frequently by the excellent things you aren’t doing and you could find yourself desperately adrift from any excellent things you could be doing.

And yet the idea of envy as a wholly destructive emotion comes from the same primary school morality that teaches you to share your toys, write within the lines and carry your remainders.

In reality, envy can be a powerful and positive emotion for any copywriter. We exist, after all, in a tunnel of inspiration – and by necessity must first draw in the things that inspire us before we can expel the things that will inspire our reader.

Naturally that inspiration will come from words. And though inspiring writing is hardly in short supply, a copywriter who fails to properly filter their inspiration quickly blurs the distinction between poetic and persuasive.

It makes perfect sense then that our creative inspiration should primarily be guzzled directly from copywriting’s own swollen udders.

And it’s a churlish and self-defeating copywriter who sees taking inspiration from great copy as an affront to their originality.

On the contrary, seeing the very best example of the kind of line you’re hoping to write, is a wholly constructive way to begin your process. Firstly, it gives you the highest possible bar against which to measure your own efforts (which is a remarkably effective way to filter out weary lines that a less critical eye might have been willing to submit).

More importantly, disassembling the elements that make a great line of copy so effective is like a map to a more compelling solution. Following someone else’s impeccable reasoning is not cheating (and it won’t end with you ripping off the line that inspired you in the first place). Like a computer game cheat code from the 1980s, it will merely carry you over the hazards and plonk you down on a more rewarding path.

Envy is a daily part in my own copywriting process. I’ll seek out the lines and ideas that make me want break my pencil-holding hand and start a new life emptying dog poo bins in the park. But, I’ll invariably find something in that annoyingly flawless copy to help me create something better – or at least, better than a page of work that can be measured against nothing more rigorous than itself.

Now, this is not to say that copywriting must fall into a withering loop of cannibalistic voyeurism – peering over our neighbour’s shoulder while we pucker ourselves into a human centipede.

Copywriting, like most creative occupations, has a nasty habit of making a fetish of the past – devotedly gobbling the flakes from the shoulders of giants. But, as long as the inspiration we take is fuel for imagination, not imitation, there’s nothing wrong with seeing an ad, wishing you’d thought of it and (perhaps, just a tiny bit) hating the clever f*cker who did.

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