I wish I were a writer

Sep 21st, 2016

A few weeks ago, I read my esteemed colleague, Andrew’s blog ‘I wish I was a designer’ with great interest, as it turns out, a similar thing frequently happens to me when I try to explain what it is I do for a living. So, I decided to write this companion piece, to try and demystify the art of copywriting just a bit.

Picture this scenario; a friend’s party, two people who have recently been introduced and are asking the obligatory ‘getting to know you’ questions:

Person A: So, what do you do?

Me: I’m a copywriter.

Person A: (Pause)…oh, so if I invented something you could make it my invention, that sort of thing?

Me: No, not really. More like Mad Men – have you seen it?

Person A: No.

Me: Ah. Well, I write stuff, adverts, websites, that sort of thing.

Person A: Oh right. (moves on to something less confusing)

Another scenario – similar situation, different person:

Person B: So, what do you do?

Me: (Considering previous confusion decides to opt for a more succinct answer) I’m a writer

Person B: Oh really? What kind of writer?

Me: Well, a copywriter actually

Person B: Ah, so not really a writer then.

Me: …

Now, forgive me for minimising for the benefit of mutual understanding, but the last time I looked, writing was an all-encompassing profession. I didn’t claim to be a novelist, a journalist, a screenwriter or a poet, but I do still put words together for a living. So why is my job – of writing commercial or advertorial content – not deemed to be in the same realm as the more common forms of creative or opinion-based writing?

I could almost guarantee you that Person B had, at some point in his life, chuckled at, ruminated over, disagreed with or even been persuaded by a piece of copy written by a copywriter. Because that’s what copywriters do. We encourage people to feel a certain way about something, to empathise with or understand an idea, to desire a product, or to consider an opinion. There is copy EVERYWHERE. Just look around you. Is there a food packet? Maybe a takeaway menu or leaflet for dry cleaning services? A newspaper with adverts for new soft drinks or trainers with a witty tagline? That’s copy. It’s all around us, all the time. And I can vouch for this – it IS creative.

Trying to convince an ever-aware population that a certain product or service is more desirable than their competitors is no mean feat. There’s a reason that some brands do better than others, and oftentimes it’s because they simply have better advertising. Think of a brand of smoothies. I bet you’re thinking of Innocent, right? They are one of the beacons of copywriting how-to, as they’ve cornered a market using a strong, recognisable brand voice that’s at once informal and persuasive, fun and informative. People listen when their adverts come on the TV. I wonder if Person B would tell the head copywriter at Innocent that they weren’t a real writer.

Or maybe I’m just being overly sensitive. I’ll admit it, it’s one of my deeper flaws; creative people can be touchy because it’s a hugely personal process – even when I write for other people’s voice, I’m still using my own in a certain way, so it always feels like a little bit of me goes into every job I do. It’s all too easy to get defensive when someone questions the legitimacy of your creativity.

Andrew mused over the merits of defining different types of design by their individual media, and in my opinion, design of any sort still counts as design. Whether that means you make a beautiful piece of art on a screen, with your hands or out of an old plank of wood with some glitter sellotaped to it is irrelevant – it’s the creative process that counts as design. And the same is true of writing; no matter whether you’re crafting a novel, a newspaper article, a blog or a tagline for a new car, you’re still writing something for people to read.

Maybe the sort of writer you are depends on what kind of people actually read your work. A sort of literary ‘if a tree falls and nobody is around’ conundrum. But without getting too bogged down in almost Barthesian semantics, I think I can say without quibbling that what type of writing I do – or who the intended readership is – is irrelevant. I write, therefore I am a writer. Case closed.

And if you take nothing else away from this post, I hope you at least now know what not to say when you meet a copywriter at a party. You’re welcome.

When Emma isn't writing copy and trying to be as cool as Don Draper, she's probably drinking coffee. Or watching RuPaul's Drag Race. Or both.