Get the Information, Forget the Muse

There’s a prevailing idea (mostly among non-writers) that good writers are endowed with access to various muses that can magically supercharge them with ideas and inspiration. Once the muse has entered the fray, the words come divinely gushing out, loaded with pixie dust and all. The reality is often much different, and sadly, less attractive. Writing well is hard work that’s almost invariably the result of discipline over inspiration. Waiting for ideas to appear can be about as fruitful as (forgive the decidedly pretentious literary reference) Vladimir and Estragon waiting for Godot (in the play “Waiting for Godot,” Godot never shows up). Instead, good writers roll up their sleeves and get to work, whether they’re “feeling it” or not.

For copywriters, the right information trumps the most ecstatic inspiration every time. To make my point, I’ll throw myself under the bus and obliquely cop to an incident in which inspiration on my end (without the complete information) led to exasperation on a client’s end. Client X offered a variety of products and services that weren’t clearly defined on a website that navigated like a maze instead of an open highway. My first order of business was to add sequences of copy blocks that more clearly described what they offered and how it could uniquely help their customers. Their product seemed straightforward and highly beneficial to their customer base. Blinded by the potential for skyrocketing visibility on their end and what I knew to be vast improvements to their website, I hastily got to work with the energy of a demolition crew, gutting, stripping and trashing their old, tired, ineffective copy and replacing it with new, inspiration-infused words that felt like gifts from Mt. Olympus. I couldn’t type fast enough.

Eager to please, I sent my recommendations on after some careful edits, feeling better than ever and ready to give myself a big pat on the back for a job well done. No: a job superbly done. Client X was going to be thrilled, possibly even enlightened. As it turns out, of course, I missed the mark. In my excitement, I’d written some strong, compelling copy but slightly exaggerated Client X’s capabilities. Missing by a little is no different than missing by a lot. Instead of fielding the triumphant phone call I expected, I dealt with a client in need of a total rewrite. Fortunately, it should only take one humbling experience like this to get back on the right track and stay there. I believe the opposite of this is called masochism.

Avoiding the humiliation of rookie mistakes isn’t difficult. It all comes down to understanding the client’s message and needs, doing a little homework and asking questions. Although this list is by no means comprehensive, copywriters shouldn’t write a word until they have their hands on this information:

  • Marketing materials – This seems like a no-brainer, doesn’t it? What better way to dive right into the nexus of a client’s products, services, voice, value and customer needs than by utilizing all the time and energy they’ve spent defining them? If they’re unhappy with their marketing materials, you have a great opportunity to understand why and make the necessary changes.
  • Who is your target audience? – You have to know the audience if you’re going to write effectively for them. Your client should have a detailed answer here. If the client’s answer is vague or uncertain, you’re both in trouble.
  • Who are your competitors? – Getting a list of competitors and studying them is a great way to understand the bigger picture of your client’s market and who they’re up against.
  • How are you different? – Knowing your client’s differentiators is the same as understanding your client’s value proposition. Once you have that, you’re in great shape to help your client stand out.
  • What is your client’s pain point and how do you solve it? – If your client offers a valuable product that makes customers’ lives easier, speak directly to that pain point. If a customer can clearly see how your client’s product will be beneficial, conversion follows.
  • Is there any language you need to avoid? – The copywriter needs to be acutely aware of what can and can’t be said.
  • Who has creative control? – Some clients have a clear idea of what they want; others leave it in the hands of writers. Identify how the creative relationship will work so no toes get stepped on. It’s also efficient.
  • Who has final approval? – If you’re dealing with multiple contacts, determine where the buck stops so you know who to contact, can get familiar with her/his style, and develop an efficient working relationship.

Nothing pleases clients more than a copywriter who knows their business and can relay their message well. Although inspiration can be a good thing, a successful Internet marketing campaign is dead in the water without the right information.

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