Copywriting can be a funny business. Fundamentally, it’s all about wordcraft, but the skills involved in producing great copy can be put to use in drastically different ways depending on the project.
Take medium form content, for instance. Typically ranging from 800 – 1,200 words per article, this kind of copywriting requires the ability to present an idea, argument or story in a clear, concise manner. You want some detail and reference to wider reading and/or research, so it’s clear you know what you’re talking about. But this is no deep-dive. Keeping the reader’s attention is crucial, so this kind of article should be treated as more of an introduction to the wider topic.
Articles of this length have long proven to be some of the most impactful, and are now so commonplace you’d be hard pressed to find a copywriter who isn’t well-versed in producing content like this.
For anyone with some existing knowledge of the sector or topic they are covering, to a degree the writing takes care of itself. There’s no need to pad out the core message, but nor does every word carry any substantial weight to it, either. Put simply, it’s a comfortable medium.
Less means more
However, if we venture further down the word count spectrum to short form web copy, things get a little trickier. Space – and attention – is at a premium. So is the need to cut through the noise and differentiate yourself from the competition.
This is where tone of voice guidelines can come into their own, while others also employ what Eddie Shleyner’s “Cross-Out-Test” as a way to ensure copy isn’t generic. But whichever way you look at it, when it comes to standard copy for websites, some serious thought needs to go into what you say and how you say it.
And if medium to long form content is sometimes priced up on the number of words (although I wholeheartedly disagree with this approach), the opposite is true when you reduce the required number of words even further.
The more exact, the more precise the copy needs to be the harder it is to get right. Every word is weighted. The sound of each consonant a conscious choice as it plays and interacts with others. Could a play on a familiar saying work? Would it be too obvious? It’s a world where the omission or addition of punctuation can elevate a few simple words into something more rarefied (see below).
But make no mistakes: we’re fully into head-scratching, hair-pulling territory for copywriters. I know all-too-well the feeling of agonising for hours over a combination of ten words or less.
Unlike longer form content where you can add another reference or sentence to fully flesh out an argument, short form copy is a minimalist sculpture.
So next time you ask a copywriter to produce a snappy catchphrase or slogan for your brand, remember: fewer words means more time, because killing your darlings is no mean feat. Budget accordingly. If you can hold your nerve and allow for a copywriter’s thinking time, you’re far more likely to get the results you’re hoping for than if you rush to get over the line in the name of saving a few quid.
1. Staying positive
One of the major plus sides to freelancing is the freedom it affords to choose who I work with. With that said, there are times when freelancing can also be a bit of a slog. Spending days developing leads, writing proposals for prospective clients or pitching to editors without so much as an acknowledgement can be soul destroying at times. And after a bad run of knock backs it’s all too easy for the demons of self-doubt to intrude.
However, there is a readily available antidote. One thing swathes of hip hop provides is a constant stream of lessons in self-worth. Of course, braggadocio and freelancing aren’t necessarily the most obvious of bedfellows. No-one likes a show-off, after all. But within the self-aggrandising so commonly found in the genre there’s a lesson to be learned: Back yourself and believe in your abilities and services. If I don’t believe in their value, it’s going to be a hard sell to get anyone else to. As Biggie put it: “Stay far from timid. Only make moves when your hearts in it, and live the phrase: 'sky's the limit.’”
2. Pen inspiration
Self-confidence is a natural by-product of success. And beyond putting up numbers, the greatest MCs are masters not only of ceremony, but their craft. The amount of imagery and information some rappers are able to cram into 16 bars should benefit any copywriter searching for inspiration for concise, impactful copy.
I’m not saying we should all start working in double entendres, metaphors and punchlines into our funding materials. And I’m definitely not saying we should co-opt all of the vocabulary or content specifics (see: misogyny, homophobia, drugs, violence). But if I find myself struggling to fit an application answer within a restrictive word count, I simply put on some of Nas’ back catalogue (The Message is a great place to start) for a few spins and soak up the wordsmithery on display.
3. It's all in the telling
Using words to their fullest brings me to my next point. Everyone loves a good story. And the importance of storytelling in marketing, fundraising and communications cannot be overstated. But don’t forget: the true impact of a story is all in the telling. If I’m lucky enough, some stories will almost write themselves. But more often than not they need a little TLC to really make them shine.
Once again, hip hop provides me with the reference points to kickstart my copy. The most obvious reference point is Slick Rick’s all-time classic Children’s Story, but from Eminem’s monster hit Stan to Common’s I Used to Love H.E.R., it’s a fact that some of hip hop’s greatest tracks are from rappers spinning yarns. My personal go-to is Kendrick Lamar’s DUCKWORTH. – a masterpiece from a man who has spun stories to span multiple albums.
You’d be hard pressed to find better examples of efficient, effective storytelling. Listen to how they create context, build momentum and take you on a journey, with the impact of the reveal testament to their authors’ narrative talents. I always try to keep these in mind – especially when working on case studies or beneficiary stories – to remind myself to bring the reader with me. If I’m able to translate even some of these techniques into my work, I feel like I’m onto a winner.
4. Keeping it real
I’ve touched on the importance of authenticity before, but such is its importance it demands another mention here. I firmly believe there’s nothing less inspiring for clients than an overly refined, sterile or corporate approach. This is especially true as I’m often speaking directly with the decision makers.
Developing a strong portfolio is vital, but will only get someone so far. Because when it comes to those vital personal relationships, I’ve found it crucial to be my authentic self. If we don’t genuinely see eye to eye in the early stages of a working relationship, it’s likely we’ll run into far bigger problems down the road.
Hip hop is a really useful and constant reminder of this. I’m a huge fan of how some artists like Kanye and Andre 3000 have pushed the boundaries of the genre. But there’s a lot to be said for artists like J. Cole and the Griselda crew, who steadfastly hold their own as old-school rappers in spite of the rise of new sub-genres and styles.
To give you a flavour of what inspires me, I’ve put together a helpful Spotify playlist of all the tracks referenced or mentioned, along with a few others that stand out for me as particularly strong points of reference. Give it a spin!
I've been working with charities and other non-profits for the past six years, much of it providing public relations support. And as anyone who has worked in the sector for any length of time will know, that often means scrabbling to get your story into a handful of sector-specific publications or sections of national publications like Society in The Guardian.
From a PR consultant's point of view, this is hardly the perfect set up. More importantly, as someone who has worked in and for charities, it's a terrible state of affairs for the sector as a whole. I know for a fact there are countless stories, opinions and voices that are simply going unheard because of a lack of access to relevant platforms.
With the effects of coronavirus effective laying waste to countless organisations and relatively little in the way of coverage for the plight of hundreds of charities across the country, this is a situation that seriously needs to change.
When working as a freelance consultant, you rely on your ability to identify and secure customers. Your existence depends on it. But having worked as a service provider for a reasonable portion of my career, I've learnt that business development and the process of finding and onboarding new customers, clients or partners is rarely what you think it might be.
It's not often I take inspiration from comic book villains in my professional life, but I have to admit Heath Ledger's Joker struck a chord with his comment on the importance of valuing your skillset. For those less familiar, the quote goes: "If you're good at something, never do it for free". Now, I firmly believe it's our responsibility as professionals to ensure our craft - be it public relations, fundraising or copywriting - is appreciated, respected and, ultimately, valued. The same is true for many professions. Yet should this always be the case?
Ramblings on a freelance mindset from yours truly.