COPYWRITING TRAINING: Men frozen in steel sperm tanks, two dollar dinners, and stains that we just can’t find

Or how Henry finally discovered that he didn’t need to learn how to write (by reading Strunk & White’s, The Elements of Style, Fourth Edition)

As part of my ongoing struggle to become the greatest copywriter EVER, today I picked up a copy of William Strunk Jr. & E. B. White’s, The Elements of Style from Homerton library.

Why?

The reasons were twofold:

  1. There isn’t a great selection of instructional books about writing in Hackney, and
  2. My sister, an English grad, keeps telling me that my blog posts are complete hokum (she uses big words because she’s super smart).

At 85 pages, the book’s small, but appearances are deceiving as it’s jammed with loads of life lessons that are meant to make you better at writing.

The edition I borrowed was really old, published in 1979, but the English language is ancient and definitely hasn’t changed since then, so it probably didn’t matter.

Having now finished the book, I can confirm six things:

  • My writing will forever be hokum (whatever that means).
  • I was always right to tell everyone that they should never use exclamation marks!!!! (thanks Fitzgerald).
  • Business words are been purposefully designed to help people feel better about their life choices.
  • Some of the most common words in advertising are portentous and should never be used.
  • SEO, search engine optimisation, is ruining the written word for everyone.
  • Copywriters are the lowest, seediest, and most despicable people in the world.

All six of those lessons came as a bit of shock.

I’ll explain exactly why they are definitely true below.

Epiphanies happen in the garden. Especially when you’re a twat with an instagram account.

1. Why my writing will always suck

The book’s first four chapters are dedicated to lessons about proper grammar and punctuation.

After reading them, I decided to ignore them. That’s because:

  • I didn’t really understand any of concepts (what the hell is present participle?)
  • None of the lessons seem to apply to writing on the internet.

The book also emphasised that Copywriting, apparently, is about writing improperly; aka, in a way that the plebs understand, which I understood as an instruction to ignore everything it said.

If you, the reader, don’t think I made the right decision, get ready to be surprised.

You’d think I was an idiot if I started doing anything of these things (adhering to proper grammar):

  • Omit the s after apostrophes that follow conscience. The correct vernacular being, “for conscience’ sake
  • You can’t use a colon to sunder a sentence in two like a garden worm, instead that a full sentence must proceed it, for instance “A shrink needs: a degree, psychotic patients and a lot of patience.” is incorrect. It should instead be, “A shrink needs three things: a degree, psychotic patients and parents to blame.

2. No one should ever use exclamation marks, ever! (except sometimes)

The book agreed with me and said no one should ever use exclamation marks.

Between the lines it also said we should murder anyone who does, unless they’re being dramatic!

I’ve adapted this lesson for 2019 and now confirm that you can also use them when you’re being ironic too.

But that’s it.

You can only ever use an exclamation mark if you’re being dramatic or ironic!

Have you guessed what I’m being?

3. Corporate language is designed to make business sound like it’s about slaying dragons rather than counting paper clips

Here’s what the book said about business chat:

Portentous nouns and verbs [like deprioritise, action those reports, relations with the secretary] invest ordinary events with high adventure; executives walk among toner cartridges, caparisoned like knights.”

p.82, The Elements of Style

The book goes to length about how these words are about expressing the user’s dreams, rather than the explicit meaning of what they’re doing.

So, I learned that when writing for business people, you need to make the banality of their lives seem more like jumping the shark; full of exciting cliches that they think are new, definitely not overused, and completely non-applicable to their lives.

4. Words that I now know you should never use

There are a load of words you should never use. Here’s a few of them and why:

  • Meaningful is a bankrupt adjective. In place of meaningful you should shoot yourself.
  • Chaired is not a verb (or even a word). You should instead write, “the iguana acted as chair of the meeting.”
  • Personalise,“A pretentious word, often carrying bad advice.” Which means it’s still applicable for your mobile data plan.
  • Pistons thrust, restructuring programmes do not. (You’re not allowed to use the word thrust in business, even when you’re, you know, talking about sex)
  • Unique means ‘without like or equal’, so you can’t have a unique coffee machine. Looks like William Strunk Jr. & E. B. White’s were the forerunners of introducing the modern term, snowflake generation. So, um, Chuck Palahniuk, maybe you should publicly admit that coining the term wasn’t that special an achievement?

5. SEO is ruining writing for everyone

Ok, so the book didn’t come up with this one, I figured it out by reading it instead.

We all know what SEO is, right?

It means optimising your written, online content so that search engine algorithms will list it higher on their results pages.

It’s pretty simple. Here’s how to do it:

  • Consider what you’re writing about and how you can make it relevant to what people search for on the internet.
  • While thinking, write down a list of keywords (both long and short) that are related to your content and people are likely to type into google (sexy, porn, why my mother won’t stop crying every time I call her).
  • Delete your previous article or other written content and write some monstrosity indiscriminately littered with your new keywords.

In doing this, I’m confident that everyone is probably just inserting phrases that do not belong in the articles they’re writing. Which, I learned from The Elements of Style, is how you write badly.

Great one Google. You made writing shit for everyone.

6. Copywriters are soulless

Deep down, I knew this one already.

I can’t express why Copywriters are the scum of the earth without it sounding really pretentious though, so I just copied the quote below:

“Your whole duty as a writer is to please and satisfy yourself. The true writer always plays to an audience of one. Start sniffing the air, or glancing at the Trend Machine, and you are as good as dead, although you may make a nice living.” (p. 84)

p. 84, The Elements of Style

Evidently, proper writers hate copywriters.

Damn.

Conclusion

So, now I’d finally read something about writing, I’d learned that what I was trying to do by becoming the greatest copywriter EVER, was completely selling myself out.

I also noticed that nice living was pretty much guaranteed.

Well, at least it was a better choice than working in a corporate environment.

If you think I’ve completely misinterpreted the lessons of the book, please let me know.

Then I can tell you exactly why you’re wrong (now I know that I don’t need to write adequately to communicate).

Seven point plan to become the greatest copywriter EVER

It was settled. I was going to become the greatest copywriter EVER.

How it started

Easy. I needed to lay some sturdy foundations and figure out exactly what copywriting was.

To the foundations!

And where do you learn about laying foundations? Wikipedia!

I looked up the definition of copywriting:

Copywriting is the act of writing text for the purpose of advertising or other forms of marketing. The product, called copy, is written content that aims to increase brand awareness and ultimately persuade a person or group to take a particular action.

Copywriters help create billboards, brochures, catalogs, jingle lyrics, magazine and newspaper advertisements, sales letters and other direct mail, scripts for television or radio commercials, taglines, white papers, social media posts, and other marketing communications.

That was definitely manageable.

With an in depth understanding of copywriting I started looking for a new job.

Looking for that first copywriting job

I went straight onto LinkedIn (actually my girlfriend sent me some links. Impressed aren’t you? I’m getting pretty good at twisting the truth, aka advertising).

One position came out with a swift kick to the teeth: Junior Copywriter at Dr Martens.

Before I’d even read the ad I knew getting the job must be a piece of cake. Why?

  • People call those boots Doc Martens not Doctor Martens, hence it’s safe to assume that their head of advertising department can’t read and is highly incompetent.
  • They are probably desperate for a cool new, left-leaning junior with a lot of hair (yours truly) to help them shake off the image of skinheads and neo-nazis.

As my first potential position I knew I’d be more than happy to put in some extra work and help Dr Martens completely reinvent their brand for 2019.

Feeling confident, I looked at the job spec.

It was the first time I realised that copywriters are a pretentious as hell.

Getting my first ‘gig’ might prove difficult than I’d initially thought.

Take a look for yourself:

Doc Martens, Junior Copywriter

To be our Junior Copywriter, you will also possess the following:

  • Experience in a full-time copywriting role. Preferably in the retail, fashion or music industry
  • A love of music, DM’s, fashion and footwear
  • A track record of managing tight deadlines and multiple projects simultaneously
  • A passion for language and a flair for writing original, unexpected copy
  • Strong commercial awareness and knowledge of key copy KPIs
  • Enthusiasm and an inexhaustible supply of ideas
  • The confidence to tackle all forms of copywriting: from click-worthy captions to scroll-enticing articles
  • A degree-level qualification in a relevant subject such as English or Creative Writing

Damn the requirements were high and this was only for a junior role!

It presented a real problem.

I had no experience in a full-time copywriting role, I thought DMs (dungeon masters) were totally uncool, I was bemused by how words could have key performance indicators (‘boot’ needs to get at least 4,000 views today) and definitely did not have a degree in creative writing. Who does have a degree in creative writing anyway?

How the hell was I going to get a job like that?

I needed to tear down my soft, non-copywriting self and to begin rebuilding immediately. It was daunting but exciting – I was about to become the slickest creative machine in Hackney and I knew it would probably involve stickers.

So I decided to systematically strip myself down. The best way to do this: a foolproof seven point plan (to do list):

Henry’s seven point plan to become the greatest copywriter EVER

1. Do way more research

I needed to become fluent in the language of copy. Yes, I had to develop an understanding of advertising, marketing and all of the associated acronyms (CPM, CTA, IAB, SOV, SEO and more). I also needed to know something about psychology. Why? How else was I going to trick someone into giving me a job?

2. Get good at writing

I wasn’t immediately convinced that this was necessary but I knew that I needed to sell myself as more qualified to write than anyone else. To do that, I had to at least trick myself into believing that I’d got super good at writing. The first step was probably to write and read more. Decent outcome.

3. Develop a kickass portfolio

For a profession that spends all day playing with words it’s surprising that it can’t just take me on mine, but life’s confusing. I needed to develop a killer portfolio with a shed load of original and creative copy. It had to have the best adverts selling bubble mixture, jingles explaining the dangers of not eating enough carrots, all potentially topped off with a radio advert for the mayor on today’s most biting issue: public urination.

4. Get some experience (and references)

Just a portfolio wouldn’t cut it. I had to get some real experience so I had references. References would mean that other people would suddenly become accountable for my eventual employment. The easiest way to do that would probably be to do some writing for free. I needed to do some copywriting volunteering.

5. Find a special subject and stick to it

All the advice that I’ve read online says that generalist copywriters fail and copywriters with a special subject succeed. The problem was I didn’t know or really care about anything. The options were limited too. What subject can you specialise in as a copywriter? Trains, video games, legal regulations and hatred of men? I didn’t want to write about any of that. Then it struck me. I could write about technology or digital or ‘the internet‘. It seemed like a safe bet, as it could cover anything from sex dolls to how to talk to your toaster! Perfect.

6. Build a professional network

To secure work employers need to think you’re the real deal. Humans are social creatures so association with other humans is important. I was going to have to meet other copywriters and make friends with them. Maybe I could meet them at Westfield Shopping Centre? There are lots of things that need copy there.

7. Rebrand myself as the coolest kid in Hackney

The Doc Marten advert said it all: creatives need to be cool. I was already super cool, but deep down I knew that not everyone knew this. I was going to sacrifice some of my current cool to make sure that everyone found out (unfortunately self-promotion is not cool). I’d begin by developing a social media presence (here’s my instagram), take pictures of myself doing cool things and buy more thrash metal t-shirts.

It was settled. I should probably start.

What better place than Homerton Library?

I had a shower and set off.

How I decided to become the greatest copywriter EVER

It’s Sunday and the clock’s ticking. Tomorrow and it’ll have been a week since I quit my job and no, I still don’t have anything to show for it.

So today, out of necessity, I decided to figure out exactly what I’m going to do with my life.

I’m glad to report that I figured it out (and it only took the afternoon).

Hello world, can you hear me? I am going to become the greatest copywriter EVER.

I don’t know how or why or what a copywriter even is, but I really need some direction so my mind’s made up. I mean, I can always figure out the details next week. Yeah, that’s exactly what I’m going to do, I’ll figure it out on Monday.

Honestly, does anyone actually know what they want to do with their life? Probably not.

It hit me that I could help people figure it out!

That’s why I’ve taken the time to write down how I came to my own magnificent conclusion today.

If you’re as confused as I was this morning then I strongly recommend you read on.

1. How it started

Earlier today I didn’t know what I should do with my life, so I asked google.

Google, oh great oracle, what should I do with my life?

Google directed me to this page on the The Muse, 7 Ways to Answer “What Should I Do With My Life?”

The article recommends seven actions you can take to figure out what to do with your life.

I don’t recommend reading it because it’s crap.

But I do recommend that you read my responses to the seven recommended actions. It’s a much better way to gauge whether you’re doing everything you can to figure out what to do with your life.

2. Seven ways I’m already working towards finding the answer of what to do with my life

While reading The Muse’s article it struck me that I was definitely already doing everything that I possibly could to find direction in my life.

Take a look for yourself:

  1. Talk to people – yesterday I spoke to some weird Australian outside Dalston’s Loading Bar about how ridiculous it is that teachers are expected to be social workers. I agreed with him because it is. Then I spoke to someone else.
  2. Get started – I woke up this morning, didn’t I?
  3. Gather inspiration from others – I’ve read John McAfee’s wikipedia page twice and feel inspired to become a door-to-door seller of snake oil.
  4. Prepare for a long journey – I washed my clothes on Friday. They’re now strewn across my bedroom floor. Very easy to pack quickly ahead of setting out on a long journey.
  5. Leave your comfort zone – I quit my job last Monday (I’ve said this one already).
  6. Be ok with failing – I am. I’m the best at failing.
  7. Enjoy not knowing – I stopped using visual stimuli for arousal and now just use my imagination. Yep, no more Tate Modern for Henry.

Realising that I was already doing everything that the internet could suggest I had an epiphany.

Yes, I was going to have to figure this out myself.

3. Understanding why my life needs direction

To find some direction, I first had to understand exactly why my life needs direction.

I got out my very shiny bic biro and listed every reason I could think of:

  1. To pay for stuff (rent, organic wine, scratch cards, to give to charity to look like I have a heart, etc.)

I tried to think of other things that direction would enable me to achieve but came up with nothing. So it was settled, the only reason my life needed direction was so I could have money to pay for stuff.

But I knew there must be a better way of articulating it.

After some intense thinking (thank you Jeremy Bentham) I figured it out:

I need a long term means of securing more money than I can realistically spend in the manner that is least painful to me.

It was settled.

I had to find the least painful way to get the most money.

4. Turns out direction is a job

How do you get money? I wasn’t sure, but I knew that I really didn’t want to get a new job.

To try and avoid getting a new one, I assessed some of the most realistic alternatives:

  1. Marry an old rich person – I didn’t want to admit it straight away but I’m too old to marry an old rich person.
  2. Inherit some money – I called my mother and then my grandfather. Both hung up as soon as I started asking for money (it’s a good thing that greed isn’t genetic).
  3. Win some money – I bought scratch cards. I always buy scratch cards. I didn’t win anything.

I knew then that I was going to have to get another job. Damn.

5. Which job do you do?

How do you figure out which job is right for you?

I was going to ask Google but I’d got this far on my own so I kept using my own initiative.

I made a list of all the jobs that a man of my vast talent could do and then noted down the positives and negatives of each one. (You can already tell that I’m a master of analysis can’t you?)

Here are the five jobs I could probably do (be bothered to do):

Cosmonaut

An astronaut employed by the Russian Federal Space Agency. The train driver of the universe.

Positives:

  • It’s probably an easy gig to get (apparently 25% of Russian men die before they’re 55 or is that just propaganda?)
  • There’s no rent to pay on the international space station.
  • You can legitimately change your ringtone to the original Star Trek theme (or whatever the theme tune to Kosmicheskaya Militsiya was)

Negatives:

  • Space probably sucks.
  • Potential to get embroiled in disputes between super powers.
  • It would make my mother very proud and she’d only just refused to give me money for absolutely no reason.

Your shirt

The sum of two sleeves, a popped collar and a long hem. A noble but often overlooked occupation.

Positives:

  • I could hug you while you work and hug you while you don’t work.
  • Risk of being donated to a charity shop (good start to a new career as a charity shop robber).
  • Good holiday perks and minimal washing required (imagine going from showering daily to a weekly or even fortnightly spin).

Negatives:

  • Limited earning potential (shirts don’t earn money).
  • Risk of being donated to a charity shop (may be purchased by an eco-warrior who doesn’t wear deodorant and has dreadlocks).
  • Long days.

Bank robber

One of the oldest alternatives to a weekly or monthly paycheck and attractive given that a lifetime serving one machine is [apparently] ten times worse than prison (or so I hear).

Positives:

  • Opportunity to become a foot soldier in the fight against capitalism.
  • Good excuse to avoid social commitments.
  • Great excuse to change your hair colour.

Negatives:

Indiana Jones II

A globetrotting professor with a doctorate in grave robbing and Nazi slaying.

Positives:

Negatives:

Copywriter

Home-working, word-spinning, confidence [man, woman, other] with a reputation for being a creative even though they don’t paint or play an instrument.

Positives:

  • Freelancing potential (possibility to work in boxers).
  • Could get paid to twist the truth or even lie (that’s totally in now, isn’t it?).
  • Peers more likely to think it’s cool compared to public service.

Negatives:

  • Work might include writing product descriptions on Amazon (yes, the top earning UK copywriter on upwork appears to focus on writing Amazon product descriptions – the glamour).
  • Networking requirements (bore).
  • Limited desire to be promoted to ‘Spin Doctor’.

I tallied up the scores and it was immediately clear:

I should become a copywriter!

And explaining my decision to myself and others would be easy.

6. Why I concluded that it’s a good idea for me to try and be a copywriter

If I was a copywriter I’d get paid (unlike Your shirt), I wouldn’t make my parents too proud, I probably wouldn’t have to go to jail (maybe I could be a Bank robber if this didn’t work out) and even though I’d probably end up metaphorically grave robbing someone, it wouldn’t amount to actual grave robbing.

Perfect!

So it was settled. From Monday, I, Henry, would start working towards becoming the greatest copywriter EVER.

But where should I start?

I don’t immediately know. But I do know that this has surely been enough work for today.

I unscrew a bottle of organic wine.

Yes, I’ll work out the details tomorrow.

Six realities of quitting your job without a plan

I quit my job on Monday with immediate effect.

Now it’s Friday and in hindsight I admit that it was a brash decision.

My exit could have been a lot smoother.

Instead of inspiring memories, like a lover fallen out of love, I slipped out silently leaving a handwritten letter sealed atop my manager’s desk. Hopefully the blow was softened by the return of my work things: a laptop, a phone with a cracked screen and an adaptor that I liberated from being cable-tied to a desk on the floor below.

There wasn’t any applause. I didn’t get to say those two fateful words [take your pick], or see their pupils dilate. They probably wouldn’t have anyway.

But now it’s Friday and while the whole episode felt like a reenactment of Jack’s smirking revenge (that scene in Fight Club when the unnamed protagonist beats himself up in front of his manager), it wasn’t. It definitely wasn’t.

Instead I’m sitting in what I am now keenly aware is an extremely expensive room, in an extremely expensive flat and I’m at a loss.

Maybe living out your resignation fantasies will never be any good unless you have your own Project Mayhem or the warm reassurances of a barrel of space monkeys (yes, more Fight Club references).

So, for everyone’s benefit, I’ve listed six realities I’ve encountered since quitting my job.

1. Money comes before dreams

This one’s obvious. Money, or lack of it, is one of the most painful consequences of quitting your job.

It’s only day five, but I’m already considering throwing out everything in my fridge and replacing it with cheaper items from Lidl. Grim.

But, as a warning, while money was one of my biggest concerns ahead of quitting, concerns are not the same as realities. No, concerns are imaginary and that’s a great life lesson.

I’ll try and rationalise why I didn’t realise that this would be such an issue with an extremely clear analogy:

Having a job is like brushing your teeth, but the benefits are less immediate.

For example, if you don’t brush your teeth for a day or two, if they’re honest, your [girlfriend / boyfriend / other] will tell you that you stink. But I’ve not had a job for a whole five days and I don’t think my flatmates have even noticed.

So, in conclusion, the consequences of not having a job take longer to materialise than the consequences of not brushing your teeth. And who hasn’t forgotten to brush their teeth at least once this week?

(Yes, that analogy didn’t make any sense. That’s the point.)

2. Some people will have an opinion and it’s hard not to let it affect yours

Since leaving a lot of very kind people have checked to see if I’m ok.

Thanks everyone. YES, I’M OK. I know you all read my blog. YES, I’M OK. LEAVE ME ALONE.

Most people have given me space, good advice and occasionally unwarranted commendations for having the ‘balls’ to do it (thanks, you really shouldn’t commend me).

But some have let me know that they disagree with or are bemused by my decision and I wasn’t prepared for how that would make me question myself.

I guess that’s the point. Quitting a job in large organisation where you’re reasonably well paid, regularly praised for your work and have a good relationship with your colleagues could be interpreted as an assault on other’s fundamental beliefs about life. Maybe part of it is.

Facing even limited conflict can erode the certainty of your decision. I’m certain that I understood my reasons for quitting on Monday better than I do today.

3. You develop the ‘unemployed mentality’ and your confidence starts to disappear

Now that I’m liberated, I’ve taken to swimming at London Fields Lido in the morning.

I only mention this, because yesterday when I went to the pool, something strange happened.

When I exited the pool, changed and proceeded to walk barefoot from the changing rooms to foyer, which is the only area that the dictators of London Fields Pool allow you to put your shoes back on, I was accosted by the woman at the desk.

Why? I didn’t immediately know. She explained by pointing at some yellow signs reading ‘DANGER, WET FLOOR’. She then asked me why I’d ignored them and hadn’t taken another route. I hadn’t got this, but the floor had just been cleaned and my feet were messing it up.

I promptly apologised.

I knew straight away that I shouldn’t have apologised. Those yellow signs are always littered about pool and I wasn’t even wearing my shoes. I realised then that to maintain my extremely attractive and confrontational attitude to life, I was going to have to put in some effort.

Unemployment hits you hard and fast.

4. A lot of your social life is work

After I quit, I messaged all of my friends gleefully:

Hi [insert name], it’s me, Henry! I know I haven’t been in touch for about six months because I’ve been having so much fun at work, but I quit this morning and we should go out tonight to celebrate.

It turns out that spending excessive amount of time at work and using that as an excuse not to make time for your friends is a pretty shit thing to do. It’s a shock that any of them are still talking to me.

So with no-one else to go out with I had to settle with my girlfriend. She took it well and bought me chow mein at New Noodle Bar, Hackney.

But over the course of the meal, I realised that her way of dealing with the situation (more time with me) might be slightly sinister.

I mean, what sort of restaurant proudly displays a print out of their Hygiene Certificate Level 2 on the wall when they only got 60%? Yes, I think she knew that the dish she ordered was too spicy for her palate. She wanted me to be the only person eating there. And for it to be my last meal.

As I ate, I realised that the saddest part of no longer having a job was that I no longer had any work colleagues to tip off to the fact that my girlfriend’s a psychopath (and that I’m getting paranoid).

5. More time doesn’t equal time better spent

Ahead of resigning, my main work gripe was that I didn’t have enough time. Now that I have a lot of time it’s overwhelming.

So I’ve found that I need to develop a plan. Having spent the last year in project management, the most obvious solution is to make a spreadsheet.

Even outside of work I’m still trying to find new ways to use excel. That’s shit.

6. It’s still the best thing that I’ve done in a very long time

I spent six years working in jobs that I found to be absolute drudgery.

Quitting was the first conscious decision about my future that I’ve made in a very long time.

It’s only day five so I really can’t predict how this will turn out, but despite the five unexpected realities that I’ve listed above, this still feels like the best decision I’ve made in a long time.

It could have been prettier, but as Jeff Goldblum probably says to his dog, “Life always finds a way.

I mean, there must be opportunities to earn money some other way. And maybe eating rats won’t be so bad.