People aren’t supposed to share their industry secrets. Whether it’s the eleven mystery spices in your crispy chicken batter or your evil plans for world domination, anachronistic fear and paranoia says you should keep schtum about how you work your magic to keep your competitive edge.

Times have changed.

As digital creatives, we work in an industry with new rules. We grow and improve through openness, sharing and collaboration. And when rules don’t exist we make them up as we go along, then we break them again.

So in the spirit of community and evolution of the copywriting art, I’ve decided to share my workflow: how I plan, write and develop copy for my clients.

It goes something like this

(Note something because no two projects are the same and every client’s different. Plus there’s nothing worse for strangling your creativity than following rigid rules.)

1. Chat

This is when the client approaches you, so listen carefully, ask lots of questions and take notes. Whether it’s copy for a sales leaflet, an email campaign or digital copy for a web site – lurking beneath their idea is a fundamental problem that needs to be solved and this is the chance to understand it.

Ideas and solutions are already bouncing around, but it’s prudent to put them aside for a moment and consider what’s the best way to fix things. Sometimes that might be copywriting with photography or no copy at all. I think of this as due diligence. You owe it to the client to choose the best tools for the job, otherwise you end up with a project you’ll struggle to deliver.

Time for a break. Let all that information and inspiration soak in.

2. Project brief

Your chance to check you’ve understood everything. Here’s how I describe it to my clients:

“This document explains the problem, your preferences and recommendations on how to solve it.”

Keep it light (mine are always one page with five sections) to make sure your busy client reads it. It should cover the origin of the problem, what outcomes they want to achieve and who you’re writing for. Any references to the ‘how’ bit might feel pre-emptive, but assumptions you’ve already made about the solution are so important that it feels foolish to leave them out on principle.

3. Read & research

Time to see what the client’s incumbents are up to. Who does it best (and worst)? How do they speak to their customers? What can you improve on?

I recall Paul McCartney talking about how kids who learn too much classical piano find it hard to invent new tunes – there’s a lesson in there for every copywriter or creative. Absorb too much of what’s already been done and you’ll end up regurgitating it.

Don’t forget research into your target audience too. Use it to build up a mental picture of who you’re writing for, their world view and what motivates them.

This part is all about feeding your imagination in preparation for the next step.

4. Ideas, facts and angles

Brainstorming/knowledge jacuzzi – call it what you like. This is where you throw all your notes down on a spider diagram or a mindmap. There’s no order or priority to the ideas yet and not all of them get used, what’s important is that you form a plan of attack. That’s your angle.

Your angle forms the foundation of your copywriting structure. The skeleton around which you add your fleshy copy.

5. Ask important questions

  • What are you trying to say to the reader?
  • How do you want them to feel after they’ve read your copy?
  • What should they know?

These fundamental questions are often overlooked so it pays to remind yourself of them midway through your workflow.

This also feels like a logical place to end part one. Before I do, I’d like to remind and warn (mainly myself) about analysis paralysis. It’s possible to overdo your workflow and end up entrenched in the science of copywriting, at the expense of art. I believe it’s a delicate mixture of the two. So you must strike a careful balance between logical thought and preparation for what remains a subtle form of expression and communication. Otherwise you end up with a process that’s too prescriptive, cumbersome and inflexible.

Read part 2 »