A good copywriter knows how to write. And he knows when to hold his tongue.


A guest post by Alastaire Allday. 

Strong and Silent Copywriter

As a freelance copywriter, I have fought against copy mills, bad clients, price-per-word estimates, and B2B jargon. But now I’m going to take a stand against something more controversial. Words.

No, I’m not losing my marbles. Speaking as a writer, sometimes I don’t think words work. Consider the art of seduction. You’re alone. You see her across a crowded bar. Your eyes meet — a thousand different things are said, but not a word is uttered. You communicate by signals alone.

Despite being a copywriter, fictional lothario Don Draper has never suffered from verbal gastroenteritis. Ever wonder how sometimes you can spend an eternity looking for the right words but fail to find them? That’s because sometimes there simply aren’t any right words.

A good copywriter knows how to write. He also knows how much to write. And he knows when to hold his tongue. This is the part of the job that so many writers fail on.

How do you offer value for money?

As writers, we feel as if we have to offer clients their money’s worth. With digital copywriting, there’s no word count, there’s no page length, there’s only our discretion. So we suggest more, and more, and more.

Why write fifty words when you can write five hundred? Why write five pages when you can write fifteen? Because the customer won’t read them, that’s why.

One of the main reasons I’m against price-per-word jobs is because it incentivises superfluity. Pay me 10p per word and I’ll make sure you get 10,000 words. Pay me a flat fee and I’ll give you a thousand words that sell.

But even when you’re not being paid by the word you feel obligated to deliver value for money. Often, unfortunately, that means quantity, rather than quality. Quality is hard to judge. But a client can rest assured they’ve got a full day’s work out of you if you send them thousands of words.

This needs to stop. There are other ways we can demonstrate value for money.

Over on my blog, my esteemed colleague Stephen Marsh has suggested that words are an excellent way of keeping your brand in the public eye. You don’t need a fancy campaign or a new tone of voice. Just something new for your customers to read. And of course he’s right.

When my clients ask me what they should be doing, I tell them to blog. To blog, blog, and blog again. It’s great for SEO, it increases long tail search traffic, and it puts a human face on your business.

But as copywriters we have much, much more than just words to offer.

Although we work using a verbal skillset, our job is to come up with ideas to sell. My colleague, web designer Spencer Lavery, recently tweeted:

When a new client first approaches me, most of my ideas are on how to improve their business, not their website.

Although Spencer is a designer, his job is sales. Although we are copywriters, our job is sales. We each have a unique skillset that enables us to view the world through a certain lens, however, our goal is the same.

We don’t have to write to be able to demonstrate our value — nor to make a positive contribution to our clients’ business. Using my knowledge of tone of voice, I can instantly see whether a website’s design is on message. And using my knowledge of what has worked in the past for other clients, I can instantly suggest alternative methods of driving traffic — from email campaigns to social media.

I can even tell the client whether or not the font they’re using works with the content they’re producing. Believe it or not, it makes a big difference. Maybe even as big as the words themselves.

Although these are design choices, they affect our words — so we have an opinion, and we should have a say. But most importantly, though, our skill as copywriters is knowing where words aren’t working — and instead of suggesting alternatives, suggesting deletion.

Part of a copywriter’s skill (a skill he should be charging for) is knowing when to shut up. Learn when to stay silent, like Don Draper. Don’t be the cheesy loudmouth at the bar.

TL;DR?

You might have a vested interest in writing lots of long copy. Your client might be a belt-and-braces type who wants every possible feature described. But put yourself in the customer’s shoes. Start by asking yourself how many words you actually need to sell the product.

Then start asking yourself what things, other than words, the customer would like to see. Using the knowledge you’ve developed over the years as a copywriter, figuring out new ideas should be second nature.

Take your ideas to the client. If you’re worried about not offering enough words, write them a marketing report. Realise that your objective value and possible contribution to their business is far more than a simple word count.

Realise this and you’re well on your way to becoming more than just a copywriter. You’re also a marketing and business consultant.

Charge accordingly.

Alastaire Allday is a freelance copywriter based in London, England.

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