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The three stages of writing a great line

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.

Stage 1 – Realisation

You are working. The office air twitches with Wotsit dust and the residual heat from your pencil. You stare at the page as if it had just spat into your mouth. Did you really just write that?

Somewhere, in amongst the lazy fluff and the quite-good ideas that you haplessly twisted into something grotesque, there is a great line.

You are joyful. This lasts for eight seconds.

Then your treacherous brain convinces you that a line this good could only have been stolen. You think back to every great piece of copy you’ve seen since ‘Babe’ by Take That was number one. You rifle through the bulging notepads marked ‘Great Ideas I Will Definitely Steal at Some Point’. Your line is not there.

You blackout. Someone writes ‘Words are shit’ on your forehead.

Stage 2 – Persuasion

You have come to terms with the greatness of your line. Your manner is no longer anxious and shuffling. You are alphabet Jesus. You are Han Solo with a HB.

Now all you have to do is convince everyone else what a great line it is. You begin to sweat. Lynx Voodoo increasingly seems like a bad choice.

You start to explain your idea. You notice your voice sounds strange, as if you were underwater, screaming at a dolphin.

You catch someone’s eye and, rather than admiration and vague professional lust, you see confusion. You’re messing it up. You are crumpling your beautiful written words with your pathetic spoken ones.

Someone else helpfully suggests that you shut the hell up and show them the line. You do. They read it and love it. Of course they do. It’s a great line.

You ask if you can go home and shower. Everyone agrees that would be best.

Stage 3 – Panic

You have gone a bit peculiar.

You thought you’d be slurping down the bubbling glory of your great line. You are slurping nothing but fear. Warm, flat, bitter fear.

Your great line is out of your hands. It could be throttled at any second. There could be a sudden realisation that it doesn’t mention the product enough. The marketing director’s nephew (who’s in a book club) might recommend a devastating word substitution. The legal team may get twitchy and lock your great line away in a crate so it can be worked on by ‘top men’.

You are in agony. Had you written a less great line then you wouldn’t be feeling this way. You would not especially care if your quite-good line passed through the intestines of the marketing gut and came out caked in poo.

But this line is your great line. You may never again match its greatness.

It could be the line that marks you out in the mean streets of copywriter town. With this line, you could be mingling in the halls of copywriting fame with Mr I-never-read-the-Economist and Miss Go-to-work-on-an-egg.

But until that line is printed, plastered and peered upon, you feel like a big wasp is sleeping restlessly under each eyelid.

Then it arrives, unmolested from the machinery, and enters the world. You breathe.

You are hailed as a genius. People name their children after you, and not the middle name either. The MD pats you on the back and only gets your name slightly wrong.

This lasts for roughly 45 seconds.

You are given another brief. They semi-joke that, thanks to your great line, expectations are now through the roof.

You blackout. Someone writes ‘Words are shit’ on the back of your neck. You do not disagree.

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