When you work as a copywriter, it can be quite easy to forget who you are. Not in a soul destroying, career doubting kind of way, (although that does happen too, at least every other Wednesday,) but more in a way that makes you forget how you speak.
As you first learn how to write, you’re encouraged to develop your own tone of voice, your own distinct style that makes you stand out from the crowd.
This is what gets you praised at school. This is what will make your English teacher stop and pay attention. This is what will help you pass your degree and get those early gigs as a features writer or social media manager. (Personal history. Follow your own path, yeah?)
Your tone of voice will define your early portfolio and get you those first steps on the career ladder. People will want you because you are you. Or just accept you because you’re there, one or the other.
However, the longer your career goes on, the more being you becomes difficult.
Clients don’t want you because you can write in an irreverent, witty way. They don’t care much for your imagination and personality when simple, clear copy will do the trick just fine. If you can sell their product in plain English with a strong call to action, they’ll take that instead of the option you’ve given them that includes a dragon wearing chinos.
The more you write, the more this becomes a problem.
You learn to speak in other people’s tone of voice instead of your own, adapting your writing style to suit different briefs and different demands. Now, this isn’t a bad thing. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Any copywriter worth their salt can change the way they write. To be able to slip seamlessly into writing for Client B when you’ve just finished a job for Client A is a skill not many people have, and it will stand you in good stead with anyone who relies on your words.
But by doing that, you can very easily forget how to write as yourself.
Some feedback I got the other week reminded me of this.
“This is great, but it’s a bit too Ash.”
That was the kind of comment I used to receive all the time. In fact, I’d respond to every brief with my own tone and character, offering it a twist that no-one else could and hoping that, this time, the client and my words would see eye to eye.
But recently I’ve been hearing it less and less. I’ve had to tone my ‘Ash’ down and ramp my clients up, and that’s a good thing if you’re my employers, or the people who pay my employers to do work.
But it’s a bad thing when it comes to Brand Billinghay.
This is a brand I’ve been building for 28 years now, and at its peak it saw me writing for numerous indie publications, a major British broadsheet, countless blogs, several arty creative types and some of the biggest clients in the UK.
Now I just do the latter, which I guess you can look at in two ways:
- My career is now shit hot. I mean, listen, haters, look at me now. I got paper.
- I don’t blog as much as I’d like to, and when I do, I struggle to remember how to be cool and alternative.
So which one of those matters the most?
The answer is neither and both of them. Somehow, in order to achieve true Ash happiness, or Ashiness as it shall henceforth be known, I need to combine writing fluently in client tongue with writing utter nonsense in my own language.
I need to rediscover what makes me, me. Otherwise I’m just the same as everyone else.
You’ll see countless copywriters who are very good at their jobs, but write just like any other good copywriter could. They’ll do their work well, but it won’t be memorable or cause any debate in the office. They won’t be told they’re being too Dean, or too Susan, or too Robert.
They’ll make life easy for their account managers and plod on with a perfectly happy career until they hit 40 and are no longer deemed relevant to their agencies, at which point they’ll go freelance and write some more perfectly good words for other people.
No problem with that. Good for them.
But I don’t want to plod. I don’t want to write like anyone else, or settle for doing things well.
I want to do things my way and make my own mark. I want to hit 40 and be looked at as a pioneer, invited into universities to deliver talks on how to stand out in, what by then, will be an industry full of jargon and data, all producing the same kind of work.
I want to write books, change mindsets, and make ads that people will still be talking about in the future.
Can I do that by writing like anybody else?
Maybe, but the best chance I’ve got is by writing just like me.
Be the client when necessary, but when it comes to my own time, be as Ash as it’s physically possible to be.