Some trilogies get better with each installment (see: Linklater’s “Before” triptych). Some trend toward the terrible (ugh, both “Mockingjay” movies and “The Matrix Revolutions”). And others, while not technically trilogies, are holy trinities that will stand the test of time (looking at you, “Three Flavours Cornetto.”)
I can’t promise the highly anticipated final chapter of the “Copywriter’s Grab Bag” trilogy will be a Krzysztof Kieślowski opus, but I can promise it’ll be something. (Here’s part one and part two if you’ve had your head in the sand.) The more I practice my craft, the more my existential dread sinks in. Am I being genuine? Is what I’m creating making a difference for my clients? Will artificial intelligence really come for my job?
Grab your unnecessarily loud empty-calorie movie snack of choice, strap in, and let’s start with a hot take.
Be a language luddite
Because Bonfire works closely with technology companies in the software and hardware spaces, I write and read about AI all day long. I can tell you the difference between deep learning and machine learning. I know what a convolutional neural network is, and I’m low-key fascinated about the convergence of AI and high-performance computing.
The rhetoric of the day is that not only will AI help you do your job better, but AI is going to do your job better than you ever will, blah blah blah.
AI will never understand inflection. AI can’t understand a customer on a person-to-person level because (shocker!) it isn’t a real person with real-person feelings and real-person empathy. ABM (and all marketing, for that matter) requires a nuanced, person-to-person approach. The one good thing about AI coming for our jobs is that we’ll eventually learn how to spot human writing versus AI writing. No, we really will.
Point is, yes, AI is coming for your job. But not in the “I’m sorry, Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that” sort of way. We’ll depend on AI to guide our grammar, but we’ll always need humans to reach other humans on their level.
Read bad writing—and learn from it
Again with the hot takes and movie references: I’ll defend Nancy Meyers’ “The Holiday” as a feel-good, non-traditional Christmas movie till I’m worm food. But it’s not a good movie. In fact, it’s pretty painfully written. By watching bad movies, I’ve learned how not to compose a frame, when a cut’s two frames too long, and how not to write female characters (and never will). Marketing demigod Neil Patel has some great advice for thinking objectively about a craft that’s highly subjective in nature.
Keep in mind, too, that defense is just as important as offense. When you learn what bad copy looks like, you’re not only able to apply those lessons to your own writing. You can take those lessons to your clients and show them what makes bad writing bad and impress them with your bangarang copy.
Accept the fact that you’re not a writer
We might as well omit the “writer” part from the word “copywriter.” Because when you’re slinging copy, you’re not a writer. You’re a salesperson. That’s your only job. I’ve seen countless Ivy league graduates with master’s degrees in rhetoric and Medieval poetry and whatever else try their hand at being a copywriter and fail miserably.
By the time I finish typing this sentence, the term “B2B” may very well have gone the way of the dodo. It could have been Adobe, or maybe it was Avanade, who first coined the term “Business-to-Everyone” early this year. The concept, as both point out, isn’t new. It doesn’t require a new set of teeth, though.
Most writers—and I mean writers in the purest sense of the word—write for themselves. But you can’t do that when you’re trying to disappear into your clients’ world. You have to think objectively and resist the urge to use the flowery language you usually reserve for NaNoWriMo (*shudder*). Leave your ego at Yale or Vassar or wherever you wasted your money and learn how to become invisible. It takes practice.
Keep it simple, not stupid
Full disclosure: I’m an Apple Stan and will be until they inject me with some technology that turns me into a soldier to fight in the Great Apple–Amazon Wars. Frankly, though, Apple’s copy sucks. When Apple released the HomePod in 2018, it came with a fanfare of the most flowery copy we’ve ever seen. (Now that you know how to spot bad copy, you can see what I’m talking about.)
It’s pretty clear that this copy was written by several writers and went through umpteen revisions. It’s a Frankenstein (or his monster, anyway). It mostly doesn’t say anything. I’ve mentioned it before, and I’ll scream it into your mouth a thousand more times: Concision is key. Clarity is king. Using five-dollar words and silly synonyms doesn’t make you a good writer. It just means you really like crutches. By the way, our pal Neil Patel doesn’t necessarily share my sentiments. I will concede that even a blind squirrel/pig/dog finds a nut/truffle/bone every now and again.
Maybe in a few years my rabid fans will fund a Kickstarter that calls for a fourth installment of the Grab Bag, but don’t count on it. You don’t need this grump to tell you how to write. I’ll simply leave you with this parting advice: Trust your instincts, steal from everything, and—as my screenwriting mentor Max Adams always says—write like hell.