Break the procrastination trap
Perfectionism is the enemy of good copywriting. Or great is the enemy of good. Or, wait, how does that saying go? I’m doing it already. Tinkering, that is. It’s very hard to actually finish writing something – even something as simple as a sentence.
I’m a copywriter. I’m not a writer of fiction, but I imagine they struggle with this more than anyone else. Getting your ideas out of your head and onto the page is hard enough – making them perfect is nearly impossible. And without a deadline for motivation, I don’t know how anyone finishes anything.
As copywriters, we’re not only driven by our deadlines, we’re also writing for other people. That means, although we want to write well, we just don’t have the level of personal investment that someone writing their first novel might have (sorry clients). That makes it easier for us to say ‘good enough’ and send it off.
In copywriting, as in life, perfect isn’t possible.
The thing is, writing is so subjective that perfection doesn’t even exist. Of course you can work on your sentence structure and spelling, and avoid rambling run-on sentences like this one, but you can’t write something that every reader will like.
This is true of advertising copy and 50,000-word novels. There are plenty of famous and well-regarded authors that I don’t enjoy. And there are plenty of headlines out there that I think are stupid – even though someone must have liked them enough to put them on a billboard.
Getting your message out there – whether you’re selling something or baring your soul – is more important than perfection. An authentic voice is what makes writing great and compelling, and you risk losing that if you tinker away for too long.
Feedback is your friend
The combination of a deadline and external feedback helps. I find my writing is actually better – more fluent and less stilted – when I write quickly and let my ideas flow. If I’ve got hours to spend picking over every single word, my copy might not have any mistakes, but it can end up lacking that natural fluency.
I also know that if the client, or my boss, doesn’t like something I’ve written, they’ll tell me and I can change it (or argue my point). That’s a valuable safety net that other writers don’t always have.
Stop tinkering with your copy – 5 steps
I don’t think the copywriting model is perfect, by any means. Often our writing is judged by people who don’t really know good writing anyway, they just want you to shoehorn in as many references to their amazing product as possible. But there are some parts of the copywriting process that can be applied to all types of writing.
1. Get a deadline
Some people have the internal fortitude and self-motivation to stick to their own deadlines – I’m not one of them. You can give yourself excuses that you wouldn’t dream of giving to a boss or lecturer (oh, I had a bad night’s sleep, I felt slightly headachy). So it’s helpful to have an external deadline. Whether you hire someone to review your work, and tell them when you’ll send it, or ask a trusted friend or colleague to read it (and nag you about it), having an obligation to another person makes you much more likely to finish.
2. Don’t be afraid to send a draft
If you send someone work that isn’t perfect, nobody will die. Unless you’ve made really silly spelling mistakes or gone entirely overboard with your metaphors, nobody will even think less of you. It’s perfectly fine, and I would even say helpful, to send a first draft that you know needs work, rather than endlessly fiddling. Tell the person it’s a draft if it makes you feel better – that way you have an excuse for any awful metaphors that may have slipped through.
3. Get feedback on your copywriting
Choosing a person you trust – another writer, for example – is key here. The sort of feedback you get from your mum – “I loved it all! You’re amazing!” or your best friend “I didn’t like the name of the main character” – isn’t really all that useful. You don’t necessarily need to choose someone in exactly the same field as you, just someone who can look at your structure and make sure it flows, point out your more egregious errors, and help you clarify your message.
Make sure you ask for the feedback you need. Make sure your reader knows whether you want them to be general or specific, to focus on language or tone, or to talk about plotting or pacing.
4. Take criticism without crying.
As a copywriter, I don’t usually have a deeply personal connection with my work. Of course I want to do a good job, and I love language so I am affronted by clumsy sentences and poor grammar, but I don’t feel that every website or brochure is my masterwork or the outpouring of my artistic soul. This objectivity is useful because it means I’m not personally offended by criticism or feedback.
If you are writing a novel, or even a long form article, that sense of personal connection is obviously stronger. It’s harder to be detached and take criticism without feeling that it reflects on you.
However, if you can try to distance yourself a little bit, feedback can be incredibly helpful. It can help you clarify what you need to work on, whether that’s tightening up your language overall or moving paragraphs around.
5. Focus only on the feedback
Responding to feedback isn’t useful if you just throw your draft away and start again. Tell yourself that you’ll focus on only the parts of your piece that got feedback – don’t be tempted to start tinkering with other bits again. Those bits are good. Leave those bits alone. Ideally, the feedback process is about polishing your writing, not completely reshaping it.
Depending on what you’re doing, you might need to go through a few rounds of feedback and changes. Hopefully by the end of this process, you’ll be fiddling with individual words and pesky commas, but be happy with your work overall.
6. Walk away
Finishing a piece is the hardest part. For a novelist, the pressure to end a book with a big reveal or emotional payoff can make it difficult to feel satisfied with an ending. But even copywriters need that sense of completion that comes with a tidy final sentence. Sometimes, the only solution is time. Walking away from your work – for an hour or a day or even a couple of weeks – gives you perspective. Sure, there’s always the chance that you might come back and hate everything, but it’s more likely that seeing it through fresh eyes will help. I often find that my work seems more coherent when I come back to look at it – as if taking a step back from the detail helps me see the overall patterns and structure more easily.
7. Just send it, and hope
But none of this helps you make that final call. That’s something you have to do yourself. Again, having a deadline helps – I’d rather send my boss something imperfect than nothing at all. But if you’re writing for yourself it’s harder. I still think it’s better to press send – whether you’re sending that first novel off to a potential publisher or publishing a blog post.
Then you’ll be able to stop obsessing over it and move on to something else. And there’s something incredibly satisfying about getting your writing out of your head and into someone else’s. What’s the worst that could happen?