We’ve all heard the phrase “think outside the box” too many times. Whether we’re talking about creative endeavors or participating in a business meeting, suggesting someone needs to think outside the box has become a cliché.
I’m not here to complain about clichés, though. What I do want to talk about is getting stuck in a copywriting rut, because what the box really symbolizes is complacency. It’s when you’ve done something the same way over and over and have lulled yourself into habits. Habits aren’t inherently bad, but they can lead to less-than-amazing copywriting because they don’t require you to challenge yourself.
Professional copywriters write a lot and they often have to write the same types of copy over and over—like blog posts, white papers, social media posts, emails, and ads—and frequently about similar subject matter. If you’re someone who writes for a single business or works with specific clients on an ongoing business, how do you prevent yourself from falling into easy patterns? If you don’t assess your habits once in a while, you risk not recognizing what’s still good and what’s become stale.
Creative Exercises for Copywriters
So here’s my suggestion: Get out of the box you’ve been put in—either by the constraints of a project or by doing something repeatedly—by constructing your own box.
That’s right. Build. A. New. Box. There’s nothing wrong with constraints. In fact, they tend to spur creativity. (You’ve surely felt intimidated by a blank page at some point, right? Endless choices aren’t great, either.) Try some of these exercises to boost creativity, explore something new, and find your way to better copywriting:
1. Ban words
Ever notice yourself using the same word over and over in your copywriting? Ban it. I once wrote copy for a website filled with language like “product X ensures …” and “this warranty ensures … “ The word “ensure” got banned, and the writing got better because of it. (Don’t worry, you can bring back banned words eventually.)
2. Change the format
Most copywriting projects already have formatting restrictions. Social media posts have character counts, blog posts have word counts, e-books have target page ranges. But that doesn’t mean you can’t experiment with format. Bulleted lists, for example, can break up long chunks of text. Lists can make text easier to read. Sometimes small formatting changes can help you see the structure of what you’re writing in a new way.
3. Assign yourself a theme
Here’s a fun one. Pick a theme and see if you can subtly fit it into your writing. A holiday, a current event, or even an era of music could be a theme. Keep in mind theme doesn’t necessarily mean topic. You can send out a newsletter about technology in October that subtly references mummies and vampires while still covering the actual subject matter of a business, but this way you’ve added something to make the copy stand out. Before you click send, though, make sure it makes sense for your audience.
4. Cut, cut, cut
Think your writing is short enough? Make it shorter. It’s almost always true that you can cut some words without hurting the impact of the piece, especially for longer projects. You wrote 600 words for a blog post? Make it 550. One hundred characters for a social media post? Try 90. The fluff just prevents your reader from getting your message faster. Plus, making yourself cut words forces you to try new sentence structures, which is usually a good thing.
5. Master the art of the swipe file
You’ve probably heard that you should “steal like an artist,” which was popularized a few years back by this book. There’s plenty of truth to the fact that seeing what other people have done can inspire you to try new things. I’m not talking about plagiarizing here, but perusing what others in your industry are doing (or even others not in your industry) is definitely worthwhile.
When you see writing you really like, it’s also worth saving it in a swipe file. There are multiple ways to set up a swipe file. I have a Google Doc where I put screenshots of emails, landing pages, social media posts, and other writing that catches my eye. Then when I need some inspiration, I have some good examples to look at.
6. Do some research
Once upon a time in school, I had to write a thesis project about whatever I wanted. I had some ideas, but they felt vague and unorganized. My thesis advisor told me to go home and do some research. So I read a 450-page book about the location where some of my thesis was set, and that actually helped ground my ideas quite a bit.
I’m not suggesting you run out and read any long books, but research is important. It can help you get unstuck when your ideas feel unclear or boring. Research could mean reading articles (in which case you might end up like me with a dozen browser tabs open at all times) or going out into the world to actually see something. Either way, research gives you ideas, images, facts, and all the other good building blocks of writing to work with. It might just help you think about things in a new way.