The After School Club for Copywriters

I wrote a little book. The After School Club for Copywriters is a collection of nine lessons I’ve learned over the past year talking to other writers about writing, and it’s available now via Lulu.

I’ve been blogging here about the breakfasts I’ve had with the Club since last summer, and this collects the things that have changed in my thinking and working since I started doing that. It’s short and slips nicely into a coat pocket/satchel/handbag, as all good books should.

It’s not a playbook, and it doesn’t have clever things to say about specific points of copy style. It’s just a bunch of process hacks and approaches that have helped me.

What it is is badly titled. Lots of this stuff was most useful when used in the product and marketing work I’ve done over the last year, rather than the actual paragraphs I’ve produced for people.

Anyway, you can pick it up for a few pounds at Lulu now. Huge thanks to Chrissy, Russell, Anne, Quinns and Kat in helping me put it together, and to anyone who’s talked about process with me over the last year or so.

Look at that word, sitting beside that other word

Anne accidentally came up with a new way of testing copy. I’m going to call it the Lee-Morgan Method.

When you do something – anything – with words it’s often a good idea to speak them aloud to see if the sentence scans. But there’s a problem with that; if you’re familiar with the words, or comfortable with the rhythm of your writing, you can probably make it sound okay even if it isn’t.

Instead, try reading your work aloud as if you’re Stewart Lee doing an impression of Morgan Freeman.

(If you need to, you can listen to Stewart Lee doing an impression of Morgan Freeman on YouTube. If you aren’t wearing headphones, it’s not at all safe for work.)

(The actual logic here is that the Lee-Morgan Method slows my voice down quite some way. Picking any accent that snaps your usual cadence has pretty much the same effect; might I suggest the Bremner-Brown Method)

Bubble bursting

Misty morning, and the first meeting of The After School Club for Copywriters in ages. Kat joined Quinns and I today, and after a few introductions we got stuck into the most varied chats we’ve had over brekkie in ages.

The mantra ‘Be Interested‘ got rooted deep in my head a little while back. That’s been rubbing against a filter bubble I’ve found myself in recently, frantically trying to burst the bloody thing. Last week Tom offered to listen to my talk Campire Stories to help me think about it in new ways, and after doing so I’ve found myself swamped with links and perspectives as well as a desire to process them – really process them.

This morning felt like a really great way of doing that. We looped from R&D process to Quinn’s crazy new work to stand-up comedy to Inspector Spacetime, and somewhere along the way I started thinking about new ways of presenting talks and different takes on reviewing working practices. That’s the benefit of meeting as ‘the club’ and not just meeting; my brain’s ready to be in a working context. If I went to the pub ready to think about work then, well, it’d be a waste of a good whisky.

I have a tendency to try and work some of this stuff out in my own time, but feeling threads join up through chatter is amazing. After a bit of information overload last year I retreated from that kind of stuff, and in retrospect that was silly.

Lesson Eleven: Conversations can be extraordinarily efficient ways to process information.

Actually, you know what, I think this is what I was trying to get at with Lesson Seven. So how about this;

Lesson Seven: Talk about what you’re up to.
Lesson Eleven: Conversations can be extraordinarily efficient ways to process information.

Lesson Seven: You can process information extraordinarily efficiently with a conversation.


An initially agenda-less meeting of the After School Club for Copywriters this morning turned into a pretty comprehensive ‘What are you going to do with 2012?’ chat.

For my part, I’m hoping to make this year a little bit more about me. Paper Science will come to a natural stop with issue #7 – it won’t be gone forever, but a hiatus feels healthy – and I want to spend the next few months writing pitches for some longer-form comics projects. Whether they’re accepted or not, I want one of those to be robust enough that I take it full-length by the end of the year. That’s one thing.

Secondly I need to remember how to write about what I do. Not things like the club or the Lego stuff, where blogging is an expected output, but things like product launches and documentation. I take too much of what I do for granted.

And I’ve got to get better at collaborative projects. I treat too many things like briefs, and it’s important to get out of that mindset. The Thought Bubble residency only worked because I threw in with the collaboration, and I need to do more of that.

Again, it’s really good to get Quinn‘s and Anne‘s take on how best to develop skills and focus my work. I think there’s a narrow line between these meetings being productive ways to discuss what we’re facing and them simply being an opportunity to whinge, but we’ve kept well clear of anything especially ranty or self-obsessed so far. It feels good.

Stating goals too seems to make the whole process more manageable and more significant. And that’s probably the lesson from this meeting;

Lesson Ten: State your objectives.

Always be talking

This week Quinns, Anne and myself were joined by music critic Chal; four’s a neat number, and I imagine we’ll stay about that size for a little while now. It was a good moment to recap where we’re at and what we’re up to, and why we’re doing this in the first place.

We’re four young writers, all of us doing a blend of copy production, product marketing and product management. We’ve had no formal training in what we do, and we’ve come at it sideways from other disciplines. We are hoping, with these meetings, to share a little bit of what we’re up to, to swap lessons, learning and ideas. To ask for advice from people finding their feet too – an important qualifier for all of this.

I skipped a lesson a few weeks ago – something Molly mentioned – because I thought I’d find a better time to surface it. Now seems to be it.

Lesson Seven: Talk about what you’re up to.*

On the surface of it, Lesson Seven is similar to Lesson One, but that was more about broadcasting your work; finding ways of framing your process and thoughts for other people to digest. Talk and discussion is as important as the connections you make by being interested.

It’s an especially pertinent lesson for me, because I’m a terrible collaborator. I’m much better directed at briefs and feedback than actually hammering work out in parallel with others. I’m lucky to have found ways around that so far, but it’s going to be sorely tested by a couple of projects quite soon. I need to get better at the discussion/feedback/let’s-all-work-together stuff.

By contrast Quinns and Anne were both super-enthused this week by their recent opportunities for successful collaboration. It’s forced on Anne by the nature of film production and the medium itself. By contrast it’s something that Quinns actively seeks out. I am learning from their enthusiasm that it’s something I need to work on.

* Actually, Lesson Seven totes got revised. Take a look at it here.

Another idea

Lesson Nine: Be Interested.

Simple, really. Bernbach’s book started life as a talk. It’s super-short, and the only thing he really dwells on is the importance of general interest. It’s the useless but interesting stuff that helps everything fall into place.

Not unrelated, Russell’s talk for Radio 4 is online now. Listen to it.

EDIT: 06/10/11
“The minute I dropped out I could stop taking the required classes that didn’t interest me, and begin dropping in on the ones that looked interesting.” – Steve Jobs, 2005

Rules about rules

Lesson Eight (i): Break all the rules.

I met up with Molly from We All Need Words today. She had some lovely stuff to say about coming sideways at copywriting from other industries, a lot of which I could identify with, but some of the things that rang truest boiled down to one command; break the rules.

The process of copy production can be mired in structure and restrictions. Some of it comes from a good place, but a lot of that process gets in the way of actually doing the job.

With a confidence in core brand messages you’ll learn how to shrug off the parts of the process that get in the way of creating – and publishing – the copy that best suits the voice. It’s with that confidence that you can demand a little less talk and a little more action.

Lesson Eight (ii): Break all the rules.

Because, also, why the fuck not?

Copy is best when it surprises people. Letters don’t have to start in a certain way, especially if the brand’s voice isn’t best served by standard openings. Does the press release really need that bit at the beginning or the end? Really? How many people need to see this blog draft? How much strategy can a tweet need?

It’s through ‘throwaway’ copy like error messaging that you reveal the spirit and personality of your brand, the kind of thing that makes users feel an awful lot more comfortable with your site doing things like breaking.

It’s one of the things that I really enjoy about Flickr; its staff bleed through interface copy there in the most unexpected of ways.

( already does that – from time to time – and there’s some lovely stuff buried away on internal docs written by Matt Brown about why that kind of thing is important.)

All the on-brand calls to action in the world be damned; if you’re not revealing who you are in more subtle ways then the cracks will show.