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Life lessons and copywriting parallels

Thirty something years in this business has taught me a fair bit.

Most of it has little use in the world of grown-ups and much of it is shoved down the back of my mental filing cabinet. But the important bits come to the rescue time and time again.

Here are a few life lesson-y nuggets (and how they relate to copywriting) worth passing on.

1) Know what you’re actually trying to achieve.

In a tricky life situation, stopping to answer this question can save a lot of pain. A squillion times more potent than the classic ‘Stop and count to ten’, this gives you room to pause and analyse your motives. It’s especially useful when anger or self-righteousness threaten to queer the pitch.

When we stop and remember what outcome we are looking for, it helps us to re-calibrate and stop emotions getting in the way of doing the right thing.

In copywriting terms, this is the equivalent of understanding the essence of the brief. What’s the most important thought to leave behind? What do you want your reader to think, feel and do? Until you’ve sussed that out, everything else is just clever word juggling.

2) Don’t add to the stink.

At school, I was taught that ‘nice’ isn’t a good word. They were wrong. Toast and marmalade, the sun on your back… mmm… nice.

There’s enough negativity in the world as it is thank you very much. So just be nice.

Maybe I’m naive, but it seems that the nicer I am to others, the nicer they are to me. Naive or not, being nice makes me feel all warm and gooey inside, so I won’t be stopping any time soon.

When it comes to work, try to treat even the most difficult clients with respect. This doesn’t mean you have to be a human carpet. This doesn’t mean you have to work with people who aren’t a good fit, but even when severing relationships, it does no harm to be polite.

If we can leave a trail of happy people (clients and otherwise) behind us, I reckon we’ll have done a pretty decent job.

3) Make your decision, then let it go.

What’s the point of hanging on to things? The ifs and buts, the should’ves and could’ves serve no purpose whatsoever.

Is your intention good? Have you weighed up the odds? Is your conscience purring contentedly? If so, do it and leave the consequences in the lap of the Gods.

Life, love and career. You’re going to have to make decisions. They won’t all lead to where you thought they would, but that’s kind of exciting.

There’s no point in dwelling on the past. Learn from it and pop back now and again for little reminders, but set your sights on where you are and where you’re going, not where you’ve been.

4) Get organised.

Multi-tasking is great, but sometimes we need to focus on one thing and do it properly. Here’s a fabulous trick learned the hard way. We live in a rambling house, so the amount of time I’ve wasted trying to find things ‘I just put down 2 minutes ago’. Glasses, mobile, pen, screwdriver, didgeridoo… where the hell did I leave it?

If you want to remember where you put something, stare at it with eyes exaggeratedly wide open for 5 seconds. It’ll be imprinted on your memory – it works, try it.

Similarly with your work. If it’s important, ‘imprint’ it in your notebook or on a spreadsheet. As a freelancer particularly, sometimes you’re juggling lots of jobs with more bubbling in the background. It’s easy to let things slip. Keep your to-do list up to date. Put important things in their proper place. Stick documents in their folders. Get your work world and brain in order.

5) Take risks.

Every time you get out of bed you’re taking a risk. Picture the scenario:

Bleary eyed, you trip on the cord of your ill-fitting pyjamas and take a tumble down the stairs, spilling hot coffee on the cat. The cat leaps up onto the hallway shelf sending your prize cactus flying. It lands on your foot. You hop around the house banging into furniture, screaming and swearing. The neighbours hear the noise, call the police and the next thing you know you’re doing community service for disturbing the peace. Pyjamas!

The point is, calculated risks are where it’s at. In business and in your everyday life.

I’d go as far as to say that playing it safe is one of the biggest risks you could ever take.

Trudging the same path can work for a while. Using writing formulas, following the rules – but it’ll get you in the end. Mix it up, approach your copy in different ways. Take on projects you have no experience of. What’s the worst that can happen?

6) Karma isn’t just for Buddhists.

I thank the day I realised that everything I get, I’ve earned.

No more blaming the weather, the politicians or my gene pool. The seemingly good, bad or middling; it’s nobody else’s fault.

I’m not a Buddhist, but the great man sums it up beautifully:

“What we are today comes from our thoughts of yesterday, and present thoughts build
our life of tomorrow: our life is the creation of our own mind.”

If life’s a bit crappy now, it’s because of past mistakes. If you want it to get better, stop moaning and put the work in. This applies equally to your freelancing career and all the other bits that make up your life.

I wrote a guest post loosely based on this subject for – Negativity, creativity and our online, collective Karma

7) Respect your elders.

We’re all following in the footsteps of those who’ve already walked the path. What we’re about to do, chances are they’ve already done it. They have a huge bank of knowledge that’d be crazy not to tap into.

To a toddler, a teenager is old. To a teenager, everyone over 25 is past it. We all think we know better, but without experience, we probably don’t. So whatever your walk of life, you should respect those who already have the T. Shirt.

If you’re a copywriter, you need to tip your hat to the likes of David Abbott, Rosie Arnold, Tony Brignull, Malcolm Duffy, Mike Everett, Richard Foster, Adrian Holmes, Barbara Nokes, Dave Trott, Chris Wilkins… If you haven’t already, check them out. They have oodles to teach us (apologies to all the great copywriters I’ve missed out).

8) Time is a great healer.

Everything that’s rotten in your life will change, go away or eventually become irrelevant. Pain, fear, anger… it all subsides over time.

Blank page syndrome is every copywriter’s nightmare. Next time you come up to a brick wall with your writing, walk away and think about something else. Even half an hour can make all the difference. Pain, fear, anger… it all subsides over time.

9) Believing you can do something is one step closer to doing it.

Little children don’t give up trying to walk, swim or ride a bike because they can’t. They keep going because they believe they can, or at least, that one day they will.

Self-belief is your best friend. Not cockiness (that’s the enemy), but a gentle self-belief and determination to overcome obstacles.

How many times have you had to tackle a creative brief outside your comfort zone? How many times have you written something in a product category you previously knew nothing about? Remember that, next time the spectre of self-doubt comes rattling your windows.

10) Ultimately, the only person you need to make happy is yourself.

It’s tempting to try to please everyone, which on one level is a good thing. Other people have feelings too (see No. 2), but self-satisfaction helps you sleep at night.

It doesn’t matter how many awards you win, how many pay rises you get, how many people pat you on the back and tell you you’re great. If you’re not happy, it’s all a waste of energy.

It’s the same with your copywriting. Keep going until you’re satisfied. Deadlines permitting, it’s worth giving it one more read through. We all know there’s no such thing as perfection, but if you have the time and you know it could be better, why wouldn’t you.

Every dodgy bit of copy is another nail in the misery coffin. Compromise, yes (it’s part of life), but there’s little worse than knowing you could have done better.

Here endeth the lesson. x

Jonathan Wilcock (that’s me) is a Senior Freelance Copywriter.
You can drop me a line here, or email