The 15 B2B copywriters I don’t want to be
Every time I walk past Tim (our Head of Operations)’s desk, he gives me a look that says, “We need more copywriters, Doug”. He doesn’t say it (well, sometimes he says it) but I know he’s thinking it.
And I’m thinking it, too.
We need more goddamn copywriters and we need them now.
But, while it’s really, really hard to find great account people and designers and developers and data analysts and marketing automationists (we’re hiring all of these) it’s ridiculously hard to find great B2B copywriters.
Why so hard? Because they don’t grow on trees. If they did grow on trees, we would have planted an orchard by now.
Yes, there are lots of copywriters out there. You can tell because there’s so much content. But most of that content is not very good and that’s either because the writers aren’t very good, or they’re not being asked to write great content, or both.
So we end up looking at a lot of writing portfolios before we ask one writer to come in for a cuppa. And we might ask a handful in for a cuppa before we offer one a job. Do the math: a handful times a lot is, like, a shitload. So our copywriter hiring ratio is a shitload-to-one.
Why so picky?
Because we think writing is the very heart of the content artichoke. And we know that a well-written piece will out-perform an averagely-written piece by 16 to1600 times. If you’re in the ROI biz (who isn’t?), that’s the biggest-ass of big-ass returns.
The weird thing is that I’m a crap writer too. We all are. Every writer at Velocity is capable of being exactly the kind of writer we reject. We all fall back on bad habits. We all cut corners under pressure. And we do it with alarming frequency.
The key is to be alert to the many different kinds of hack writers within us and to take away their keyboards before they can do any serious damage. To catch our own inner yadda-yadda merchants and prevent their effluent from reaching innocent readers.
Who are these inner hacks? I’ve discovered 15 distinct types hiding under my desk and inside my shirt:
Writing isn’t about making pretty sentences. Yes, great writers spend a lot of time crafting every line, but a fine sentence is just the veneer on the credenza.
Under the veneer is a lot of carpentry, with dovetail joints and, like, nails and shit. Harry captured this in his excellent post called “B2B writing: it ain’t just writing”.
If you build the credenza well, applying the veneer is the easy part. It’s rewarding as hell but it’s not the whole job.
The clever wordsmith
I do hate this guy — mainly because he hijacks my work so often. The clever wordsmith is the writer who is so proud of his newborn pun or metaphor that he fails to see how distracting it is from the story he’s being paid to tell.
I love a good pun and have beaten some sweet metaphors to death (see credenza, above). But clever ain’t copywriting. It’s showing off. As a card-carrying show-off, I exhaust myself trying to suppress my inner diva-demon.
The press release writer
Press releases aren’t writing. They’re typing.
Almost anyone can fill in the blanks of this highly constrained corporate template (“We’re thrilled to welcome Atilla to our growing Hun team.”) but no one will ever read a press release even though lots of places publish them.
So, writers, if you’re briefed to write a press release (or any other over-templatised format), ask about the goal of the exercise and recommend one of the dozen-or-so better ways to achieve it.
A good copywriter needs at least one ear. And that ear should be able to notice if a sentence curls up its own ass and dies. Or stumbles off to nowhere, groping for support that is never going to arrive. Or is so grammatically correct that it’s virtually unreadable.
I’ve written some shockingly clunky paragraphs. That’s part of the work. The key is to read your own stuff before you send it. If you’re at or above your minimum allocation of ears, you’ll catch the things that go ‘clunk’.
But if you don’t re-read your own stuff as a new reader would… you won’t.
B2B copywriting isn’t pituitary gland surgery – but sometimes it’s about pituitary gland surgery. That means the writer is going to have to learn things. Technical things.
Good copywriters love learning things. Good B2B copywriters love learning technical things. Things they can never share at dinner parties (but far too often do).
In the mean streets of B2B, shallow doesn’t cut it. If I’m about to write something that I haven’t learned enough about, I can feel it in my gut. I’m faking it. And I will be caught out. It’s time to pause to learn more about my subject.
Bad writers sit up straight when they write. This is so they can bear the weight of their Writing Hat.
Good writers recline and slouch and cross their legs and make those snow angels. Because they don’t own a Writing Hat. They just speak, using a keyboard.
Some of my early English teachers (and one or two of my early bosses) were convinced that writing had to be stiff and formal to be effective. An awful lot of marketers still feel that way. Which sucks.
If Shallow is a species, then Lazy is the genus (or maybe the kingdom, given its prevalence).
Lazy writers can’t be bothered to pick up the phone and talk to a member of the target audience. Or to spend a few hours doing desk research so that they’re not talking utter shite. Or to Google ‘genus’ so they don’t use it when they meant to use ‘kingdom’. (Sue me).
Copywriting may not be coal mining but it is a form of work. The better writers recognise this. Of course, we all deserve the occasional lazy day. Just don’t make it the day before the deadline.
Every once in a while a lost poet wanders into an agency that left the door open and tries to make a living there.
When a colleague or client tries to point out that “ere” is an archaic way of saying “before” or that “e’er” is an odd way to say “ever” and that neither are viable options for a blog post about oscilloscopes, they get the stink-eye.
Alas, ere long, the poet will be compelled to wander on. And those left behind will make the wank gesture whene’er their name is spoken.
(I house-trained my inner poet early in my career but sometimes he pops up with a too-interesting metaphor and looks all hurt when The Better Me deletes it.)
Good copywriters defend their choices, sometimes stubbornly.
Bad copywriters fight for every word even when they’re wrong.
It always amazes me how precisely inverse the relationship can be between prickliness and talent. (Note to self, to be read in these hot-headed moments: get over yourself.)
Writing that simplifies and clarifies a complex, technical subject is hard to achieve and should be applauded.
But writing that does that with a voice – a distinctive sound, energy and attitude – is rare. And writing that creates and maintains momentum – so that the reader can stop but would really prefer not to – is even rarer.
We don’t want to see voice crammed in every noun-based nook and copy cranny. It has to be right for the piece and natural for the context. But a good copywriter can summon a strong, compelling voice when needed.
When my inner drone-writer takes over it’s always because I don’t actually find the subject I’m writing about very interesting. That’s my fault not the subject’s. I need to find the flicker of interest and fan that sucker or my writing will be dull, dull, dull.
The one-voice pony
The voice needed for a rant against the forces of evil is not the voice needed for a data sheet. Some writers only have one voice. That’s better than no voice, but only marginally.
I have been guilty of over-voicing my copy. It tends to be when I’m in show-off mode. Fun but distracting as hell. Edit.
Some writers have a strong voice and a clear head — but they can’t structure a story or build an argument. So they just start writing and meander around the subject for a while and then write the word ‘Conclusion’ and stop.
A lot of B2B copywriting is long form (we’ve written pieces that were over 120 pages). You get in serious trouble by page twelve if your structure is weak. Been there. Don’t want to go back.
When you’ve written your fiftieth iteration of any kind of piece, it’s tempting to paint by numbers. Like making every case study go “The Company/ The Challenge/The Solution/The Result”.
But formulas are as boring to read as they are to write. (Irene did a great post on why so many B2B case studies suck and this is one of the reasons.)
When I find myself writing to a formula, it helps to examine that formula, tease out its hidden conventions, and break a few. Way more fun.
A lot of writers are essentially print writers. They can write linear stories with beginnings, middles and ends but they can’t adapt their writing to the new generation of weird and wonderful digital formats. Formats that encourage the reader to branch and browse and swipe and scroll
As B2B marketing becomes almost entirely digital, copywriters need to craft copy for all kinds of experiences, not just the ‘Once-upon-a-time’ kind. (Adam showcases one of these in a post about an online quiz tool).
This continues to be the hardest battle for me. I am essentially an ink-head. But I love learning new tricks, so I’m in the right job.
The search slut
I hate the whole idea of an ‘SEO copywriter’ almost as much as I hate the idea that Donald Trump could be a viable candidate for any party on any planet in any universe.
SEO copywriters are writers who understand search spiders better than they understand the people they’re writing to. And it shows.
About eight years ago, when SEO got hot, we had to make a choice: get good at ‘writing for search engines’ so we could out-smart Sergey Brin; or stick to writing for humans and wager than Sergey would get better and better at delivering relevance and quality in his SERPS. We chose the latter, and we’re pretty sure we won.
But the inner search-slut is very hard to suppress. It’s so tempting to insert that keyphrase into that intro, just this once…
[UPDATE: Rand Fishkin of Moz fame objected to this one. He points out that I don’t know my SEO Ass from my Anchor Text Elbow; that SEO took off WAY before 2008; and that a keyword in an intro is hardly malpractice. All excellent (and indisputable) points. I guess the ‘Search Slut’ thing is a cheap shot: there are lots of smart, professional SEO-wonks in the world — and many more thanks to Moz’s amazing work. I was teasing the lazy ones. But maybe my aim was a bit off.
I’m a card-carrying Rand Fan (yes, they issue cards), so I feel chastened by his criticism. But I figure an update is better than actually changing my original text. A bit of public shaming will do me good.]
Fighting the hack writer inside of you
Every copywriter makes all of the above mistakes, all the time.
We all fall in love with our clever wordsmithing.
We all go through clunky, lazy, shallow, stiff, voiceless or over-voiced spells. In any given week.
And we can all be bolshy and precious when we’re caught out by anyone other than our own inner reader.
The difference is this: really good B2B copywriters recognise these potholes, pitfalls and buzz kills – and work hard to fix them. That’s the job.
None of us have even come close to the mythical end of the learning curve. And the writers who say they have are the ones to watch out for.
[Hey really good copywriter: Get in touch. This whole rant was just a glorified recruitment ad in thin disguise.]
Hey everybody else: Get Ann Handley’s book Everybody Writes and follow her advice as if she were sitting right next to you, watching you type and poking you in the ribs every time you started a sentence with, “In these competitive times.”