Copywriters, choose your words

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.

For a very public and brutal assessment of your ability, nothing beats playground football. For those of you unfamiliar with the process – you lucky, unbroken bastards – it works a little like this:

Two members of the class are assigned as captains. Occasionally this role is awarded for utilitarian reasons, for example, the bringer of the ball. Mostly, however, it is allocated under the harshest evolutionary terms to the popular kids, the big kids, and the kids too tough and unpredictable to welcome a discussion over democratic principles. What these leaders offer in terms of status, talent, physicality or knuckle size, is generally offset by a distinct absence of compassion and discretion.

Therefore, when it comes to picking teams, there is no concession given to feelings. If you are judged to be fast, big, strong, skillful enough by these scab-kneed Stalins, you are picked. If all you have to offer is a pure heart and asthmatic lungs, you are not.

It is an unpleasant way to learn about your standing amongst peers. It is an equally unpleasant way to join a team, knowing full well that if the other boy at the bottom of the draft didn’t have both narcolepsy and rickets you mightn’t have been picked at all. But while the playground parade of your weaknesses does little for self-esteem, it’s a method that every copywriter should be looking to incorporate.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but I can’t think of a single copywriter who began their career with a fully formed sense of ruthlessness. I don’t mean ruthless in the way some writers will spike your hazelnut latte with whizz 30 minutes before you meet the ECD. I mean ruthless in the way they deal with words.

One of the many odd paradoxes of being a copywriter is that you probably got into it through a love of words – but will only ever succeed by thrashing them until they whimper.

Copywriting, I believe, is that rare writing profession where there is no room for alphabetical indulgence. A delicious phrase that doesn’t in any way advance the plot can probably still make it into your novel, if you’re willing to out-tantrum your publisher. A spot of lofty self-puffery can creep into a newspaper article, if you make a tactical, too-late-to-change submission. But in copywriting, every word must be chosen to do a job that no other word can do.

It puts us in the uncomfortable (ok, secretly triumphant) position of playground team captain. Words are lined up before us, sweating and shuffling and hoping to be picked or, at the very least, not publicly mortified. There goes poor ‘discover’, unpicked again, weeping into the dinner lady’s spongy hips.

What’s more, unlike the break-time captains, we actually have to turn our selected players into a cohesive team. Picking thirty goal-thirsty glory-boys may work in football matches that regularly end in eighty-all draws, but a copywriter’s choice demands a more balanced and complementary selection.

That’s the power a copywriter has and must be prepared to wield. Even when it leaves your most darling words standing on the sidelines, bitterly willing someone to hoof your ball into a tree.

Follow Andrew on Twitter @Boultini

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