3 things I learned as a copywriter with a humanities background
One day I decided to become a copywriter. It happened when I was getting ready for my year abroad and realized that I had no money. Copywriting seemed like a great option after watching a couple of YouTube videos and reading an article. After all, I was a Literature student who had taken one marketing class and Business Management from the IB curriculum.
I felt confident that I could write for social media and websites. All I ever did in my classes was write essays and articles anyway. I had read the post-structuralists and analyzed experimental Latin American literature. Of course I could face writing online.
I got my first client from a Facebook group. A woman that needed someone to write social media copy for her small consulting firm. My first job as a self-proclaimed copywriter. Exciting. It only took two days, angry emails and plenty of feedback from my boss to realize how much I had underestimated copywriting and content writing.
So I got to work. I started reading the books, watching the videos, taking the Coursera courses, and so on. Given that I had no real marketing or copywriting experience, there were a couple of things that stood out to me from the very beginning. Here are the first 3 realizations that I had as a copywriter through the eyes of somebody with a humanities background.
1. People are still obsessed with the hero’s journey.
When I first began learning more about copywriting, one of the first things that showed up was the importance of “storytelling”. Being a Literature student I believed this to be my strong suit. I had read it all. From the classics to pretending to understand A Thousand Plateaus, I thought I knew about structure. During my second year, I even took a class called “Narrative structures”. Of course, Joseph Campbell was part of the curriculum. We can’t deny his influence on pop culture and contemporary writing. But my professors also knew that while the monomyth applies to characters such as Ulysses, it does not apply to characters such as Antigone. It’s a reductionist view that became too popular. Easy to say that I learned to be cautious around the hero’s journey.
When I first started reading about marketing and the importance of storytelling for copywriting, the same example came across time and time again. The hero’s journey. The same formula, the same steps, everything.
It seemed as if Star Wars and Harry Potter were the only examples available and the only person to ever write about stories was Joseph Campbell. And I am not saying that marketers don’t read. Of course they do. An awful lot of self-help and productivity books but they definitely read. Yet, whichever book or article on copywriting or storytelling I came across, the hero’s journey was right there.
We cannot reduce all stories to formulas. As we have seen over the last decade or so, the way we tell stories is slowly but surely changing. We now have the sidekick’s journey, the magician’s journey, the heroine’s journey…
What’s true is that stories help build strong brands. Who you are, what you do, and why you do what you do are all core elements to creating a powerful brand story. It helps convey emotion and helps establish a relationship with your customers. Stories should be relatable, funny, emotional. It does not always have to be this strict structure that begins with a call to adventure nor does the protagonist have to be the hero.
2. Editing is the most crucial part of copywriting.
Like in Literature, editing can make or break a text. In my first job as a copywriter, the editing process was infinite. Over and over I checked and double-checked my words. I wrote it with different tones, trying shorter words, longer words, not forgetting keywords, and so on.
I understood the importance and the craft of editing from my literary background. Authors such as Nabokov knew this well:
“I have rewritten — often several times — every word I have ever published. My pencils outlast their erasers.”
And the great masters of copywriting like Eugene Schwartz also knew this:
“Copy is not written. Copy is assembled.”
I quickly learned that in copywriting, you must try a thousand times before getting it right. The first draft always sucks, the second one sucks too, the third one is still unclear and needs work. Copywriting takes patience. A key aspect that I’m still working on.
Writing good copy is a process that, for me, is harder than checking a paper. Many technicalities go into copy, especially in SEO but that’s another story. I realized that although I had experience with editing from my classes this needed a different set of skills. This time, it was also a billion times more annoying. So little time, so little space…
3. Being concise is hard.
As a student, I became an expert in writing long essays. Those 25 page long papers that you had a whole month to do? I could write it down in a couple of days and get a good grade. But writing short copy? It can sometimes take weeks. Finding exactly the right words and the right tone and getting your point across and making sure you are addressing your audience correctly and and and… Keeping it short is hard. I’m still learning how to do it every day.
While long-form copy like blog posts and articles allows for more freedom, it should always have an goal in mind. A clear call to action and other small elements that don’t let you forget that you are writing for marketing and for the sales team to meet their quotas. Writing as a literature student was a long road of trying to prove my weak arguments with the help of critics whose works I had to force into my thoughts. Good copy is short, it is concise and it is direct.
At first, I didn’t see copywriting as something exciting or fun like literature. It was just a fancy way of writing for companies.
I have always known that words have power. They shape how we see the world. It was hard for me to see how that was true (or genuine) for a business or a company.
But I know that my Spanish degree helps me in many ways. For once, it allows me to understand stories at their core and what makes them good. It makes my approach to copywriting story-centered. I always strive to tell a good story. Great writers read and take inspiration from anywhere, copywriting must do the same.
It’s often expected from English or Spanish majors to become academics or fiction writers, at least in my university environment. There wasn’t much talk about what else this degree allows us to do. In copywriting I found the freedom of creative writing as well as the structure my brain needs. And my love for reading fits between it all. So, here’s to the beginning of the journey.
If you need words for your business or want to talk about books you can find me here: https://www.linkedin.com/in/andreazu%C3%B1iga/