Bad language – the positive power of reading terrible copywriting

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.

Your granddad, with his flinty wartime gaze and workman’s fingers as thick as a hipster’s shin, may not believe that copywriting contains its own hazards.

Admittedly, nicking your thumb with an over sharpened HB is not precisely the same as blasting a coalface or scrapping with Hitler. Nevertheless, I should respectfully brawl with any octogenarian who fails to acknowledge the peril in our profession.

For example, one of copywriting’s craggiest downsides is the fact that reading for pleasure becomes a supreme effort. Whereas normal human eyes can drill through pages of text without deviation, most copywriters leave work in a state of attentional impotence, staring at words in the same way an off-duty submarine captain blinks vacantly into his calamari.

Yet while it is both inconvenient and inappropriate to find yourself reflexively proof-reading an Agatha Christie novel, there are more professionally harmful consequences to such a disorder.

Chief amongst them is that consuming excellent writing, in whatever form, is how a copywriter fattens their blubbery reserves of creativity.

And so many copywriters will force their drifting and treacherous eyes to focus on the best writing they can find – even if it takes us longer to complete a sentence than it would have taken a chicken to type it.

What many of us neglect however is the hidden nourishment within terrible writing, or more specifically terrible copywriting.

Copywriters react to copywriting. If we see something clever and remarkable the temptation to reflect or attain that specific brilliance is an itch most of us have experienced.

And this, properly acknowledged, can be a positive beginning to a brief. After all, the pursuit of any great solution rarely begins by clambering up a mountain when someone has already installed a lift.

Our responsibility, however, is to use this loftier vantage point to find a way to improve, rather than intrude on, something already excellent.

But, reading the worst examples of copywriting in the territory of your brief can be equally stimulating. It isn’t an exercise in sneering or easy superiority. Instead, it’s an opportunity to examine the most lazy, obvious, obscure and self-indulgent types of answer this particular question attracts.

And, as most of us will learn in the gloomy cavity of our own inky coalface, understanding the mistakes is much more motivating than admiring the triumphs.

So shut up granddad, our job is tough too. (But thanks for the freedom and stuff.)

Follow Andrew on Twitter

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