The Story Economy Blog

Good Copywriting is Good Hearing

dog listening with big ear

I got the best compliment from another writer a few weeks ago. She said, “When I read your blog, it really sounded like you. It’s as if you were sitting here talking to me.”

I was thrilled, because that is my exact goal!

It wasn’t always this way though.

I remember the very first piece of copywriting I ever did. In fact, I have it right here in front me as I write this (I save everything). It’s a brochure, circa 1999, about digital printing. In 1999, digital printing was revolutionary. I know this, because one of my paragraphs starts with, “It’s a revolution.”

I was feeling slightly less than revolutionary in 1999. I had taken a job as a proofreader at a package design firm—the final proof that I wasn’t going to be an academic. Only months before, I had passionately defended a Master’s thesis about nineteenth century women’s domestic fiction. It was sinking in that I wasn’t going to spend my life writing about that. About anything. I was going to proofread cereal boxes until I died.

So when the owner of the company handed me a mocked-up brochure one day and asked if I could maybe do a little something with the copy, I jumped at the chance to write something. In fact, I decided I was going to write the shit out of that brochure.

He gave me all of the background on the client and what they did, and for three days, I sat in my cubicle and worked that copy. I pulled out my thesaurus and made lists of words. I tried out phrases. I looked at other brochures as references. The only voice I really knew was my academic one. I had worked hard to make my academic voice readable and more personable than the great majority of academic writing out there. I instinctively knew that copywriting needed to be even more conversational than that.

On the other hand, I wanted my writing to be impressive. This was my chance!

At the time, I thought I balanced it perfectly.

I would write it so differently now. But I embraced my beginner status, and made the most of the skills I had.

It worked out, because the client was really happy with the brochure. So was the owner of the company—in fact, it was the first time someone took note of me in the professional arena. Slowly, creative directors started giving me more copywriting projects . . . and I became a copywriter.

Picking that brochure back up again today after so many years, it’s not as horrifying as I expected. In fact, I still recognize my pacing and particular way of coaxing aspiration. I definitely recognize my ambition (it takes me immediately back to that cubicle and my open thesaurus)!

The biggest difference between then and now (other than 16 years of practical experience) is I didn’t yet understand the nuance of how to write the way people talked, while still keeping the prose clean and polished. I used words like “outmoded,” “paramount,” and “conceptualizing.” I used too much passive voice and too many wordy sentence constructions. The writing was good (definitely better than if their account manager had slapped something together last minute); it was perhaps just a few clicks out of earshot.

Writing copy is about hearing more than writing. This is the biggest lesson I’ve learned since that day my boss handed me that brochure and said, “Wanna write, kid?”

When I write for myself (this blog or essays), I hear myself talking. A voice in my head chitchats away, and I simply write it down.

When I write for clients, I hear the brand stewards talking. I hear the company owner, the brand manager, the designer, the marketing director, the account executive, the sales rep, the producer, the development director, the membership coordinator, the volunteer, or any number of other stakeholders talking. I transcribe it, and then mold it.

I write through my ear.

(This is why it’s really hard for me to come up with decent copy when I don’t get to talk directly to anyone. When I don’t get to hear, I struggle to write.)

I’m blessed that in my career, I’ve had so many clients put their faith in me to listen to them and make something of it.

Want to write better copy?

Hear better. (I would say, "listen better," but it turns out, you can listen without truly hearing.)

And if you ever catch me using the phrase “of paramount importance” in marketing copy again, please call me out on it!

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