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f you want to know about brilliant copywriting then it seems
like a good idea to ask some brilliant copywriters how they
work. So that’s exactly what I’ve done. These interviews give
a warts an’ all insight into how copywriters really go about their
business. I didn’t want a polished, fairytale version of life as a
copywriter; I wanted the grubby, dirt under the fingernails truth,
and that’s exactly what I got.
The people I’ve interviewed represent a broad spectrum of copy-
writing. Clearly there is great diversity, but one thing come
across loud and clear: there’s no arcane knowledge known only
to initiates. Brilliant copywriting is about improvement by
inches, not great leaps forward. It’s about the patient accretion
of ability through a process of practice and study. If that sounds
suspiciously like hard work then don’t worry; what also comes
across is just how enjoyable this job can be. As a copywriter
you’ve the opportunity to do incredibly satisfying work, mix with
interesting, creative people and – if you’re any good – earn a very
comfortable living. They sound like good reasons to keep plug-
ging away. So while there’s no big secret to brilliant copywriting,
there are lots of little secrets, as these interviews make abun-
At the end of each interrogation I’ve summarised what I think
are key pieces of advice, and I’ve listed my faves below. It’s no
exaggeration to say that this material represents the distilled
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wisdom of some of the sharpest, smartest writers around. You
may disagree with the particular points I’ve picked out as
important – in fact I encourage you to challenge my choices and
find your own favourites. What I hope is beyond dispute is the
value and interest of listening to these copywriters talking can-
didly about their craft, their ideas and their ideals.
There’s no overwhelming agreement on what to call this thing
we do. It’s true that ‘copywriter’ comes out top, but there are
plenty of alternatives. I must admit I’m not sure myself. Odd,
isn’t it? Most professions know exactly what they’re called.
It’s the same story over and over again – people fall into this job
rather than deliberately seeking it out. Most interviewees profess
an early love of words and a desire to earn their crust that way,
but many also said they didn’t realise that was a possibility.
Perhaps we need to work harder spreading the word about our
profession to young people instead of leaving them to blunder
into it unaided.
Many interviewees mentioned a significant boss who helped
shape their thinking. If you’ve got such an individual in your
organisation I suggest you seek them out and beg/blackmail
them into acting as some sort of mentor figure.
Another theme is the way many of these writers managed to turn
their early experience – often only tangentially connected with
copywriting – into the foundation of their professional
110 brilliant copywriting
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Most interviewees read voraciously, and they’re endlessly
curious about the world. Beyond that it’s pretty much up for
grabs, although a couple of people did emphasise that copy-
writers tend to be introverted curmudgeons. Guilty as charged.
Again, many opinions, little consensus. The admen David
Ogilvy, David Abbott and Tim Delany come up a couple of
times, as do writers Graham Greene, P.G. Wodehouse and
Planning and preparation
The general approach seems to be to read everything and more,
then let the magic happen. A little more helpfully, many intervie-
wees talked about not starting until they’re full to bursting with
ideas and know exactly what question they’re trying to answer.
Formal techniques like mindmapping don’t figure highly.
Copywriting really seems to be an instinct-led activity, which
slightly undermines the aim of this book, but there it is.
Tips and tricks
My favourite has to be the Churchill quote (‘Begin strongly,
have one theme . . .’) provided byWill Awdry. I’m also very taken
with yoga lady Sarah McCartney’s suggestion that standing on
your head makes the ideas fall out.
It seems we all do it, and hurrah for that. The collection and
recycling of choice phrases, ideas and approaches seems to be
part and parcel of our work. I can’t improve on Jean-Luc
Godard’s maxim, ‘It’s not where you take things from, it’s where
you take them to.’
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