As a copywriter with a few years of solid experience under my belt, I've encountered briefs of all shapes and sizes. Some of them are a paint by numbers affair, with the client providing all the guidance and detail I need to deliver precisely what they want. Others are more flexible and open-ended, allowing me to stretch my creative wings and take the initiative. In almost all cases, I run into the same issue - my clients are terrified of breaking the rules. Here's why breaking the rules is sometimes a good thing...
Good copy, bad copy, let's call the whole thing off.
One of my main anxieties as a copywriter isn't whether my words have hit the mark or not, it's whether they're actually being read. I'm convinced that many of the businesses and agencies I write for don't read what I produce - they just publish it. I sometimes have these devious thoughts about misplacing an apostrophe or sneaking in a few lines from Star Wars just to see if they'll notice, but those pesky ethics get the better of me.
This morning it dawned on me: if I'm worried about my clients reading my work, do my audience even bother?
As copywriters, we'd all like to think that the piece of copy we wrote on the difference between steel blue and royal blue paint is being lapped up like the latest episode of Game of Thrones, but in reality it's probably just filler. Filler is okay. I, like many writers, started out writing filler content and I still do to pay the bills occasionally. It still has to read well, but you know as well as your client that nobody outside of a cardigan and a pair of well trodden slippers is going to even cast their eyes over it, much less engage with it, but that's okay.
What I'm worried about is the good stuff. The articles we labour over. The statistics we pluck from the depths of the internet and cleverly spin into meaningful prose. The witty metaphors we conjure out of thin air. The late Friday nights spent hunched over a keyboard, eyes darting to the unopened bottle of wine in the kitchen every time we hit a full stop.
Did you know that when you read something, you also ‘hear’ it inside your head?
Don’t worry, this doesn’t mean we’re all going stir crazy. Science types have simply concluded that we use that little voice in our head to process what we read, and how it ‘sounds’ internally can have a massive impact on whether or not it holds our attention.
Feeling slightly wired after my morning coffee, I decided to do some research into this. I found a few compelling sources that claim our ‘inner voices’ are pivotal in how we absorb written information, most notably this article from New Scientist, which went as far as discussing methods of ‘eavesdropping’ on someone’s inner voice to advance research in helping those who can’t to communicate.
“If you’re reading text in a newspaper or a book, you hear a voice in your own head,” says Brian Pasley at the University of California, Berkeley. “We’re trying to decode the brain activity related to that voice to create a medical prosthesis that can allow someone who is paralysed or locked in to speak.”
I then convinced myself. If we didn’t ‘hear’ words as we read them, things like cadence, lyrical flow and rhythm simply wouldn’t matter. We’d just pick up raw information from words on a page and construct some form of meaningful output in our minds. Of course, it is still up to us to extract and construct information, but grammar, tone of voice and how we balance words within sentences really helps us out; we do hear words and sentences when we read them, and how they sound in our heads directly impacts how we engage with them, and how well they engage us.