Blank Paper, Blank Mind: Or, the Struggle of the Copywriter

by mnkcopyblog

Easy writing makes hard reading. 

So thought Hemingway about great prose.

It’s true for great copy too.

You might think a great headline would flow naturally for the great copywriters, but it can be a struggle for them just as it is for mere mortals.

In most cases good copy is the end product of a long, frustrating process.

They say James Joyce used to nail a couple of sentences a day. On his good days.

I hate writing, I love having written.

So said Dorothy Parker.

The notion that great ideas and writing of any type just comes from sitting at your desk and concentrating couldn’t be further from the truth.

Just think of the great ad campaigns that have been conceived in unlikely places.

Terry Lovelock of CDP came up with the Heineken tagline ‘Refreshes the parts other beers cannot reach’ after waking up at 3 in the morning whilst in Marrakech shooting another ad.

He’d been flummoxed by the Heineken brief for weeks until then.

‘Happiness is a cigar called Hamlet’ came from CDP too. Both copywriter and art director were stumped on the brief.

So they left work one night, got on the top deck of the bus, sparked up and one said ‘Happiness is a dry cigarette on the number 34 bus.’

David Ogilvy conceived the Guinness Guide to Oysters riding home on the train one night and reading a book about shellfish by a Yale Professor.

‘Beanz Meanz Heinz’ is said to have come to copywriter Maurice Drake of Young and Rubicam after two pints at the pub.

Reading through The Copy Book and Ogilvy on Advertising you’ll find the masters of the advertising art acknowledge the difficulties they’ve faced – and how to get past them.

James Lowther of Saatchi and Saatchi counsels getting out the office completely and go and watch the world go by. Failing that make up some gags or stories about the product.

David Abbott suggests never start writing until you’ve got too much to say. In other words keep researching the product or service – and work wherever suits, if that’s at home, in the office or in a hotel room.

Likewise David Ogilvy wrote: ‘Stuff your conscious mind with information, then unhook your rational thought process. You can help this process by going for a long walk, or talking a hot bath, or drinking half a pint of claret.’

And Alfredo Marcantonio thinks you’ll need to find everything possible relating to the product – technical data, rivals’ ads, press reviews. Then reducing it all down gets easier.

Steve Hayden, the maestro behind the early Apple advertising, suggests reading things like The Bible or Country and Western lyrics to get you inspired.

Lyrics like…

I’m So Miserable Without You, It’s Like Having You Here

I Wouldn’t Take Her to a Dog Fight, Cos I’m Afraid She’d Win

If I’d Shot You When I Wanted To, I’d Be Out By Now

Velcro Arms, Teflon Heart

I Got In At Two With a Ten, And Woke Up At Ten With a Two

And Malcolm Duffy suggests hitting the Thesaurus and writing out lists of connected ideas and words to your brief.

Once you’ve written something, start re-writing it, playing with the words.

And don’t forget lots of great lines are simply recycled lines. The Stella Artois line ‘Reassuringly Expensive’ was lifted from an old ad’s body copy.

‘I’ll bet he drinks Carling Black Label’ started out as a line promoting milk for Milk Marketing Board pitch that Wight Collins Rutherford Scott didn’t get.

They just substituted Carling for milk and used it.