Stop writing and learn to be a better writer

Andy Maslen has been persuading people to think, feel and act differently since 1986, when he first started working as an in-house copywriter.

He is managing director and head copywriter at Sunfish, the writing agency he founded with creative director Jo Kelly in 1996, and the author of five books on copywriting, including the best-sellers Write to Sell and Persuasive Copywriting.

A woman walks up to a construction worker in Manhattan.

“Excuse me young man,” she says. “How do I get to Carnegie Hall?”

He puts his pickaxe down and wipes his brow. Finally, he speaks.

“Lady, you gotta practise.”

He’s right. Every skilled, or would-be skilled, tradesperson needs to practise. But what does practise mean? For copywriters, specifically? It might seem obvious. You write. As much and as often as you can.

Ads. Blog posts. Emails. Landing pages. Scripts. Sales letters.

The more you write, the better you get. Right? Wrong.

Suppose, for a moment, you were not a copywriter, but a carpenter. Thing is, you haven’t worked out how to fashion a proper joint yet. Your master has picked you up on it.

So you decide to fix things. By making dozens and dozens of pieces. Chairs. Tables. Shelves. Cabinets. Pipe racks.

And guess what?

Every single one has loose and wobbly joints.

What you should have done is study how a master carpenter makes furniture.

Now, we copywriters work in words, not wood. So to study how a master writer makes copy, you need to read.

Ads, certainly. Direct mail, of course. But much more important than studying our narrow linguistic niche is to study how the true masters of the language do it. I’m thinking novelists, poets, dramatists. Speech writers, essayists, satirists.

These are the people who, free from the tyranny of a brief, have wandered further than anyone else in their attempts to make the written word perform its trick of conveying ideas from one human brain to another.

(Which, lest we forget, is the only purpose of language.)

So why do so few copywriters read?

And, at the risk of igniting a generational war, why do so few young copywriters read?

I run the occasional workshop for copywriters, and from time to time I like to ask who’s read a book about advertising. (I used to pick a specific book, but the results from the show of hands were so dismal that nowadays I broaden it out.)

The breeze created by the few hands to flutter upwards would hardly disturb a dandelion clock. (Incidentally, I discovered, while reading a French crime novel by the excellent Fred Vargas, that the name for a single dandelion seed is achene.)

On one of my workshops, a young dude told me cheerfully that he avoided reading because he didn’t want to follow somebody else’s style. He wanted to develop his own.

This is breathtaking intellectual arrogance.

Why should a copywriter be exempt from a method of learning that has served genuinely creative people for centuries: studying those who went before them?

Art students sit in galleries copying old masters.

Creative writing students read Tolstoy.

Jazz students listen to recordings of Oscar Petersen.

But copywriters? Read great writing? Pah! The very thought!

This misplaced idea – that to read might somehow pollute one’s natural talent – reveals not just intellectual arrogance but also a lack of intellectual depth.

Its proponents haven’t stopped for a moment to consider the silliness of their belief.

If you work with words but you refuse to read, then where, exactly, are you going to go for ideas of style, semantics and syntax?

How will you broaden your vocabulary to the point that merely thinking of an idea leads you to the exact words you need to express it.

Some dim memory of English lessons?

A blog post?

Your “feeling” for language?

Copywriters are not a special breed of writer, at once immune to, and above, the ideas that shaped Sophocles, Maya Angelou and Stephen King. We swim in the same waters, we breathe the same air, we inhabit the same world.

They studied. They read. They learned.

And guess what? They developed their own style just the same.

My advice to copywriters. My plea to copywriters, is to read everything you can get your hands on.

Be voracious. Be catholic. Be brave.

But most of all, be humble.

You may one day become a linguistic titan, bestriding the world of advertising and marketing.

A virtuoso copywriter changing the minds of millions with fewer words than you have fingers.

A teacher of other copywriters, inspiring them to create truly good advertising by choosing their words carefully.

Just pick up a book first.

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