Copywriter Brain: An exposé

Copywriting is a largely internal pursuit. And yes, it’s largely solitary. But there is a certain amount of teamwork that takes place, and just as much “brainstorming” as, if not more than, you’d get in any bullpennish office with folks flinging headlines and ideas back and forth at each other, just to test them.

The teamwork takes place between me and my client, me working off of information and feel that I’m getting from them. The bullpenning takes place in my head. It’s loads of fun, honestly.

Most rewarding about the process is the one crystallizing moment, kind of like the ping you get in your ears when a four-part harmony comes together, when you’ve struck the right tone for a line of copy or for a brand whose voice you’re trying to nail down.

If I’m doing my job right, this happens with all my clients.

Sometimes, I get to use the process on myself.

I ran out of business cards recently.

Here’s what they used to look like, and say:

oldcard

That’s my twitter handle on one side (different colors every few cards) and the copy on the back. (It reads, “Generally sparkling writing; pithy, creative copy, and editing so accurate it’s curmudgeonly.”)

I took a good long while to come up with that tagline for myself a few years ago, and here’s why.

  1. Your business card is often your first point of permanent contact with someone. Handshakes; phone numbers tapped in; even a shared drink or a laugh–all that stuff is ephemera, compared to a piece of collateral that someone will carry around with them and have to reference at least one more time if they want to keep in touch, or file away, or do any kind of followup on their meeting with you.
  2. At the time, over the course of a working day, I was handling everything from copyediting to writing copy to helping individuals to write their own books. So I needed something that reflected that.
  3. Although I take my work quite seriously, I don’t take myself very seriously. I think it’s kind of funny–and a little bit sad–that I get bent out of shape over things like misplaced apostrophes and “lie” vs. “lay.” So I wanted a line that would reflect that part of my personality, and somehow relay the idea that I’m fun to work with.

Aside from the two people I met who didn’t know what “curmudgeonly” meant, my tag line has always made people smile, and (maybe I’m just imagining this) pocket my card with a little bit more care. At the very least, I know it gave me a leg up by helping people to remember me. And no, I don’t really mind being remembered as a curmudgeon.

So. The new tag line felt like it had a lot to live up to. I really mourned losing the curmudgeonly editor act, but someone once told me creatives should be open to re-inventing ourselves once every six or seven years, and I believe that. Finally, I really didn’t want to copy-edit anymore. So I batted around a few iterations of new taglines:

  • pithy, smart copy; generally sparkling prose. –>first part’s just okay; second part is too precious
  • pithy, articulate copy; crackling prose. –>”crackling” too close to “cracklins”; I’m not a pork rind
  • pithy, articulate copy; firecracker prose. –> *shrugs*

I was too close to the whole thing. It’s hard to describe yourself! So I turned to a friend who has a good copy ear. Over a couple of gchats, we quickly nailed down that a few things were off:

1. Three times makes a pattern, so the rhythm of the tagline was off by one item.

2. What was really lovely about the original tagline was the line that *might* be a throw-away line, but that worked really well in making people take a second look and actually revealed something about the card-holder.

So we went to adding a third “thing”.

  • pithy, articulate copy; firecracker content; bright-eyed, bushy-tailed writing. –-> ugh.
  • pithy, articulate copy; firecracker prose; shiny-new-thing writing. –>double ugh.
  • pithy, articulate copy; firecracker prose; generally frisky writing. –> somehow stomach-turning.
  • pithy, articulate copy; firecracker content; unicorn-poop writing. –>closer? closer? f***.
  • pithy, articulate copy; firecracker content; generally sparkling writing. –> just okay.

With the need for a third thing apparent, now we were stuck looking for something that was somehow self-deprecating while still revealing something about me as a writer and–okay, as a person, since so much of copywriting is also the personality of the copywriter him- or herself.

I turned next to a friend who works at LinkedIn, and who knows me and my body of work really well. After he mocked me for still having a business card, we worked on the premise that three items was right; that the existing two items said enough about my work. So where did that leave the third item?

After a few beats, Larry sent over this gem of a photo, a movie prop from an adaptation of his favorite book, and one of mine, Lonesome Dove.

pigs

It’s the sign at the entrance to Lonesome Dove ranch.

I love this sign for many reasons. One is that the the Latin that’s written at the bottom of the sign is only there because Gus McCrae, who’s  a bit of a self-inflated puffshirt but totally loveable, thinks it sounds educated. He doesn’t actually know what it means.

The second is the line above it: “We don’t rent pigs,” which seems completely unrelated, but that has something to do with the ranch itself, and which tells you something about not only the ranch, but the folks who run it.

I said to Larry, “If I could ‘We don’t rent pigs’ my business card and get away with it, I’d totally do it.”

And that was the kernel that made it apparent: What we were looking for was something totally off-the-cuff that would make people look twice, but that still made them either curious enough to want to learn more, or at least made them remember.

And so, after considering “killer peanut butter sandwiches,” “a mostly positive attitude,” and a few other things, we came up with this:

newcard

Combined with MOO’s Printfinity service, which allows us up to 100 different images on the back of each card, this is a tagline that allows me to showcase a modicum of personality and pique some interest. And, of course, it’s all true: I really do have a certificate from the New York Bartending School, although I don’t practice regularly. I just enjoy it. Finally, a bit of mystery and magic is what you’d expect from someone’s who’s trained to take quotidian ingredients like words and make them into something palatable and interesting.

So that’s a bit of what happens when we copywriters work, and when the process works right. Aren’t you glad you know, now?

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6 Comments »

Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

6 Responses to Copywriter Brain: An exposé
  1. Amalia says:

    Excellent prose today, my dear.

  2. Larry says:

    Gus McCrae and Larry Curran mentioned in the same post. Life is good. UVA UVAM VIVENDO VARIA FIT

  3. Yes, I AM glad I know, now! Helpful tutorial – makes me want to get some of those cards.

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