HOW TO KILL THE ENGLISH MAJOR TO BE A BETTER COPYWRITER
Updated: Oct 2, 2020
People with English degrees are often labeled as pretentious know-it-alls, verbose bookworms prone to whimsy and daydream, introverts able only to communicate through the written word. And maybe that’s because most of these markers hold some truth.
While it’s been seven years since I got my English degree, it still feels like I hold a lot of residuals from a very impressionable time in my life. It was during these years I was reading Baldwin and Nabokov and Faulkner—all writers known for their beauty, sophistication, complex human truths. But not for their brevity or ability to provide crystal solutions.
I, like other copywriters, had to navigate through an awkward transition of living in the world of literary lyric to the world of short-tail keywords and readability scores. As a poet, the transition was probably easier than some (brevity is in my DNA). But it did take some time to let go of the beautiful language I knew in physical books to the simple, useful language of web content and e-commerce (professionally speaking, anyway). Here’s how that evolution looked:
Everything I write must be beautiful, clever, and complex! (Yes, even that white paper promoting a program management division for a construction company.)
Following some discouraging feedback and word slashing from clients, I guess it’s time to tone it down. Bare, simple, boring boring from here on out.
After a handful of projects that are all starting to sound like the same dim alteration of the same six words, the work is looking less and less like actual writing. How do I make B2B copy interesting? How do I make B2B copy about brass grommets interesting?? Is this why I went to school for six years?
As a reprieve from my depression, I start digging for inspiration. To my surprise, I find some solid examples of simple, concise web copy (and with personality to boot). Not just personality but creativity, function, humor. Maybe simple doesn’t have to be boring?
After a few projects under this mindset, I develop that sweet spot of writing copy that’s simple and helpful but also delightful to read. Quick and clear while cultivating the emotional pathos needed to connect with another human through language.
True, I don’t always hit that elusive sweet spot, but I’m much more tuned to that direction after shifting my writing behavior. An obvious statement but one that people tend to forget: Different kinds of writing serve different purposes. Too often, we feel the need to swing in one direction or the other. Either Dostoyevsky or smarmy, sales-pitch language that comes off as oversimplified and insincere.
For better or worse, the internet has sprouted whole new genres of writing. Microcopy, UX copy, YouTube scripts. When we’re interacting with big ol’ web, our minds are wide open, distracted, we want to find what we need as quickly as possible. Amidst a rapidly growing digital landscape, we’re still human, with that powerful, mystifying hippocampus tucked away on top of our shoulders. So yeah, we want info. But we also want to feel something. We want an impression that will make us buy into whatever you’re selling or telling us. We want an experience that will help us forget that we’re online and remind us that we’re still humans interacting with other humans to garner whatever meaning that brings.
There are some great examples of this, like Amazon’s “Alexa Moments” campaign or Medium’s “Our Story” page. But these are just examples of advertising aimed at selling products, yeah? Sure. These kinds of efforts nudge us toward a purchase but they also make us feel good.
As a copywriter especially, it’s not easy to find that simple-but-evocative honeypot. At times, it seems impossible. But without quality copywriting, we’d be left with a web that reads like a dry output of words sourced from a machine. No one wants to read that.
But maybe we’re just approaching this the wrong way.
The truth is, these topics are thornier and more complex than a handful of data sets can tell us. (Data can be biased too, folks.) A fantasy novel serves a different purpose than a news article serves a different purpose than a landing page for an HVAC business. Depending on the context, writing can be dense or lilting or funny or concise or highly emotional. A dose of English degree knowledge that I lean back on nearly every day in my career: know your audience.
Blue light is keeping us awake. Notifications are triggering us with small hits of dopamine. For better or worse, the Internet is training our brains to operate like this. After all, the web was built on the idea of creating an information hub, so why do we criticize people for wanting to find the info as quickly as possible when they’re plugged in? (Unless you’re trapped in an Instagram loop—a subject fit for a whole other blog post.)
If approached correctly, I’d argue that the web can be a hub of quickly accessible information that we can use to get what we need in order to spend more valued time in the real world. I see this in emerging technologies like voice interface (getting rid of the physical interface entirely), completing tasks and transactions without ever leaving your inbox, Amazon 1-Click Ordering, Google semantics search, and on and on. By juicing up the speed at which we do things online, maybe we can learn how to navigate the digital world in a healthier way. (Can we finally kill endless scrolling?)
As copywriters, we have to be willing to let the English major die and let go of the boring stuff of the timid copywriter so we can actually create a positive user experience for a modern, plugged-in audience.
Looking for examples of stellar copywriting? Industry tips? Check out some of my favorite sources below: