Who needs copywriters anyway?

My first few weeks as a copywriter made me feel worthless. There was a lot of talk around me at the time about the 80/20 rule, the Pareto principle. It was a term coined by Italians at the turn of last century and brought into the mainstream more recently, largely driven by Tim Ferriss and the 4HWW crew. The idea is that 80% of your results come from 20% of your efforts. And my role? Well it certainly did not sit in the 20%. If the product we were selling was a table we’d constructed from wood, I was the polisher.

Those of you who’ve previously experienced my sentiment towards Mister Ferriss will likely guess that his unwitting exploitation of this insecurity is at the root of those feelings. His new age focus on finding the 20% that really matters left me believing I added no value. Exploring that feeling, however, was also the primary catalyst for pushing the boundaries of my role and hence becoming a better copywriter.

Insecurity has been described as the mother of greed, fear, poverty, aggression and intimidation. In fact, some have gone so far as to accuse insecurity of being the mother of all evils. What this ignores is that insecurity, once one becomes aware of it, is a great motivator for change.

The Words

In the early stages of my copywriting career, I was often handed a block of text – let’s say an email that announced a new technical feature – and tasked with getting it ready to send out to the masses. Being in a startup environment, this email typically came to me from the product team (basically the people involved in engineering whatever it was we’d be selling).

Their drafts were already great at detailing the functional improvements that we’d made to our systems. In fact, the most dramatic change I ever felt the need to make was converting bullet points to complete sentences; other than that it was all spelling, grammar, and a little bit of stylistic tweaking. I was a glorified sub-editor, soon to be rendered redundant by a spell check tool that would no doubt do a better job than I.

As someone who prides herself on her ability to construct prose (a dangerous comment to make in the middle of a piece), I felt utterly useless.

The Tone of Voice

After then moving to Paris, I took on contracts with some French startups. They were clever, inspiring, and spoke English with far more ease than I speak French. But their copy took a little bit of anglicising. I started to play the role of translator, taking the French-influenced English and making it sound native.

In the process, I realised that I could have an impact on the final product. It wasn’t about taking the words the teams had already chosen and correcting the grammar; I needed to decipher the meaning, the message we wanted to communicate, and write that in a way that represented our brand well.

I started to play with language again, embracing a passion for puzzling out the perfect way to convey a message.

That seemed to be it, the epitome of copywriting. I’d adopted the ‘it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it’ mentality, and the result was producing work that painted pictures of the brands’ personalities, work that my clients loved, and that I was proud of.

The Reader

I revelled in that feeling of success, whilst working with a couple of friends to launch a startup. It was an exciting time, giving me the opportunity to speak directly with our testers and potential users. One of my French clients had me doing the same thing as we were in the early stages of private beta testing. And through this experience, another layer of the copywriting picture emerged.

I’d forgotten the reader. Fixated on conveying a message in a way that was on-brand and stylistically sound, I’d forgotten to step back and think about the person reading it – beyond CTAs and analytics.

  • What about the way they talk? Think? Live?
  • What about their experiences, worries and desires?
  • What do we really mean to them?

This shift in perspective changed the way I work and helped me realise the value in what I do: a great startup copywriter tells a story in two languages.

They understand the culture of both the product team and the target market; without them, you may as well be speaking Mandarin to an Egyptian. From a technical conversation, they absorb the details and dig out the relevant story to pass on to users in language they connect with. And from interacting with the users, as part of the community, they’re able to feed back to the team to inform product and marketing decisions. They move fluidly between technical and consumer language.

Copy is a part of it, it’s the tangible output, but doing this well takes more than choosing the right words. The satisfying part of a role like this is becoming the interpreter; the person who sits between two parties, ensuring they understand each other.