A lesson in less – why a copywriter should never do too much

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.

Image of a cat

‘There’s more than one way to skin a cat’ is one of those strange, unpleasant sayings that feels increasingly uncomfortable to drop into a modern conversation. Far removed from the days when actually skinning a cat was as normal a practice as blithely trepanning demons out of one’s skull, most modern citizens are more likely to support the public hanging of an obnoxious X-Factor contestant than to tamper with Tiddles.

But however disagreeable (and vividly sinewy) that idiom happens to be, no one has been concerned enough to propose an updated version. Which is probably understandable given that ‘there’s more than one way to froth a hazelnut latte’ lacks impact.

So, rather than objecting to the gruesomely antiquated content of the saying, this week’s ramble is more concerned with its meaning. Namely, whether you are in the business of skinning, or scribbling, there are plenty of ways to go about your task.

This is, of course, demonstrably true. It is no exaggeration to say that a copywriter, approaching virtually any brief, could probably find dozens – maybe even hundreds – of ways to write a solution. However it is poor copywriting, and indeed questionable logic, to mistake the quantity of options for the richness of possibilities.

And copywriters, perhaps more so than our hairy, meat-faced counterparts, the designers, can often struggle to streamline our inspiration.

I have frequently seen copywriters with years of experience and a portly, twinkling book of work turn up for a presentation with 10 different ways to say the same thing.

Often, the majority of those 10 lines have been good enough to make even the glummest clients gasp like a small boy who has just discovered his hamster is actually a wizard.

But, even the gaspiest amongst us are unlikely to be astounded 10 times in a row. In fact, by option four most clients are beginning to lose their place, muddling up the routes, mashing together the propositions, generally churning up your hard work like they were trying to sew a button with a shovel. And this is especially true if, as is often the case, the distance and distinction between options is not that well defined.

It is, I suspect, partly a copywriter trying to demonstrate what fabulous value they bring to a project – mitigating that latent, unshakeable misgiving that every client secretly wonders why the fuck anyone gets paid simply to write words.

Also though I feel there is a whiff of ego about it. I know I have presented lines to clients that I certainly should have strangled, purely because I thought they were delightfully clever and I wanted to glug down their admiration before we all agreed that the line was ’really good, but not quite right for this’.

Both reasons are as understandable as they are unhelpful. A good copywriter must have the confidence to recognise that the value they bring is through the effectiveness, not the mass, of their words. Likewise, they must have the self-discipline to present distinct, purposeful and effective ideas – discarding, however painfully, anything that is brilliant but irrelevant. The only good darling in a copywriter’s notepad is a murdered darling.

So while there are many ways to skin a brief, the craft is not in accumulating possibilities, but rather than in having the judgement to do as little as is needed. In other words, don’t mess with your pussy too much. As it were.

Follow Andrew on Twitter

Join us, it's free.

Become a member to get access to:

  • Exclusive Content
  • Daily and specialised newsletters
  • Research and analysis

Join us, it’s free.

Want to read this article and others just like it? All you need to do is become a member of The Drum. Basic membership is quick, free and you will be able to receive daily news updates.