The life of a copywriter is often fraught with procrastination, lots of briefs, conflicting advice and the occasional spark of creative brilliance that keeps us all paid and functioning from day-to-day. Andrew Boulton is one such copywriter who’s seen his fair share in the industry and has plenty of war stories to tell.
The author of the insightful Copywriting Is, Boulton was kind enough to share his process on writing the best-selling book with The Comic Vault. He also discusses why he’d make a terrible writing mentor, why his book isn’t meant to be taken as the gospel of content marketing and how good writers will always be at the heart of a successful content marketing strategy.
Thanks for taking the time to chat Andrew. Before we get started, it’d be great to know more about your copywriting background and how you got started in the industry.
Entirely by accident (the only honourable way). With nothing more than a love of writing, a reluctance to do grown-up work and a handful of badly paid writing assignments, I wangled my way into a copywriter role at the internal agency in Egg, the now sadly disbanded credit card company.
From there, I continued to bumble and now find myself teaching copywriting and creative advertising at an excellent (it really is) course at the University of Lincoln.
Congratulations on the publication of Copywriting Is. The book offers a lot of relatable insights into the life of a copywriter and I’m interested to know what sparked the idea for the book.
Glory, basically. I wanted to be someone who had written a book, but suspected I was also someone who didn’t have the discipline to write a book. And I didn’t really have that discipline, I just managed to squeeze out some words between bouts of chronic inertia.
The book I wanted to write was never going to be a guide to becoming a copywriter, like Read Me (excellent) or even Junior (also excellent). I didn’t want to write that kind of book, and wouldn’t be able to do it properly even if I had.
Instead, I wanted something that felt a bit more like a window into the life of copywriting – and all its peculiarities, frustrations and joy.
At the start of Copywriting Is, you make it clear that the book isn’t about offering conventional content marketing advice with ad examples and techniques.
How important was that distinction for you when writing the book and was there ever at a time when you found yourself slipping into the style of offering that kind of ‘traditional’ advice?
I’m one of those awful knobs who can’t help but dispense advice, but I’m also very aware that the advice I give is purely designed to make somebody think and write like me – which, I suppose, makes it pretty poor advice.
It’s why I was very wary of teaching, and why I still feel like I would make a terrible mentor for those who ask, because all I can provide is my own views, processes and path – which are scruffy and strange and difficult to replicate.
I saw the book as a way to share my thoughts on the way I do things, and why I do it that way – but I tried to make sure it never felt like there was anything that could mistaken for ‘instructions’.
I really enjoyed the number of pop culture references that you used to illustrate points throughout the book. My favourite had to be the Ryan Gosling Effect. How do you feel pop culture has influenced copywriting over the years?
My references are slightly odd and not always appropriate for the briefs I’m given (I think there are four or five references to Nic Cage films in the book). But that’s just the way my mind operates, and I’ve learned to make that work for me.
I think the key to pop culture is knowing what to use and what to leave alone – there is nothing more boring that reading a piece that’s wildly enthusiastic about something you’re not. Pop culture, like any source of inspiration, is there for writers to nibble, never to chomp.
I was also struck by how your writing comes across as lyrical and poem-esque. Was this how you intended to write the book from the start or did that style develop throughout the process?
I try not to reflect at all on my style, simply because I don’t want to know too much about it. I am petrified that I will one day try and take it apart like an old toaster and not be able to reassemble it. When it comes to writing, the book especially, my only intention was to do what felt like an acceptable day’s work (usually a few hundred words) and then bask in a thoroughly overinflated sense of achievement.
You make a lot of great references to other marketing books to read in Copywriting Is. If you had to name your favourite piece of writing advice that you’ve ever heard, what would it be and why?
There’s an essay Flannery O’Connor wrote where she says ‘Every now and then the novelist looks up from his work long enough to become aware of the general public dissatisfaction with novelists’ and I think about that a lot.
With copywriting especially, I think it’s easy to get lost in our world and think everybody beyond the bubble cares and can be made to care about our words in the way we do. They cannot, and it’s a relief to let go of that particular illusion – because then, in your secret heart at least, you can just do it for you.
How do you see content marketing developing over the next decade and what trends do you think will come and go?
I think we need to become a bit clearer and more comfortable with the very word ‘content’ for a start. As for trends, I think ‘come and go’ is the perfect phrase – what will be a constant is the dependence on good writers to say witty and original and persuasive things.
The mediums and the platforms and the formats may all change, but the skill of good writers writing good things remains, and will forever remain, the difference between poor and effective content.
If you could change one thing about the content marketing industry, what would it be and why?
I’d want more businesses and brands to realise the value – the real value – of writing. How can you be a business that pours time and money and worry into a content marketing strategy and then regard professional writers as an unnecessary expense or even an indulgence?
Invest in your fucking writers, that’s a content strategy that will actually pay off.
Are you planning on publishing any other marketing books in the future?
Absolutely fucking not. But maybe.
What’s your best advice for someone who’s starting out as a copywriter?
Never chew the pointy end of the pencil.