Interview with Doug Jenner of Best Words, by Jackie Barrie, Copywriter, Trainer & Author at Comms Plus
Q. What makes a good brief?
Coherent client branding, detailed knowledge of target audience, shared understanding of purpose and messages to be communicated. Plenty of background material and a good communication channel with the client. That’s what makes a good brief. And one day I’ll get one!
Q. What comes first, copy or design?
The copywriter’s concepts and ideas must always lead the creative process. Another way of looking at it — the ‘what’ must come before the ‘how’.
Q. What’s your copywriting methodology?
Information-gathering first, asking the key questions: What does the client want to do? Who are the people we’re speaking to, and what’s likely to make them respond?
The assimilation process follows, and this kind of merges into the writing process.
I liken my wordsmithing to blacksmithing. The muscular effort is mental, as I push, cajole, and bash red-hot words before shoving them in a bucket to cool off, while I cool off.
Then I come back and re-work until the piece is finished. Interestingly, I find it impossible to complete a piece in one sitting. There’s a moment at the end when you just know it’s just right, and that can come suddenly.
Q. Noise or quiet when you work?
Perhaps some music during the ‘assimilation of knowledge’ process, but once I’m into the ‘nitty-gritty’ word-smithery bit, it MUST be absolute silence. And woe betide any poor unsuspecting unfortunate who distracts me.
Q. How do you beat writer’s block?
I find I can’t just push through it. If I try that, I usually get distracted and things become worse. Get thee behind me, Facebook.
I prefer to change scenarios by going out or just going for a walk and a think.
When I come back I look at the piece and invariably delete the sentence or paragraph I was stuck on. I think you have to be ruthless with yourself and be prepared to ditch any words you’ve written, however brilliant or correct you may have deemed them, because they could well be what is blocking you.
Q. What’s unique about your writing style?
Nothing really. Any copywriter worth their salt should be able to adjust their style to suit the audience and the purpose. My writing style is whatever the client needs.
Like many copywriters, I’m sure, I am highly critical about copy and extremely picky over words. I can’t look at a brochure, ad or cereal packet without questioning its phraseology and sentence construction. If you’ve got to read a sentence in marketing copy over again, it’s not a good sentence.
Q. Biggest frustration about being a copywriter?
Knowing what companies are losing through their poorly-written copy and seeing so much poorly-written copy every single day. Aarrgh.
Q. Without naming names, what was your worst client, and why?
The one who gave me a brief to write a letter for specific CEOs and then rewrote the piece himself (badly), published it on the net and messaged people to tell them how I had written it!
Q. What’s the secret of injecting personality / sizzle into the written word?
Picturing and liking the person you are talking to, then conducting a relaxed and entertaining conversation with them.
Q. How does journalistic writing differ from marketing writing?
I generally find journalistic-type writing easier to produce than marketing writing. Not always, but usually. When readers of journalistic prose ride the wave of a finely turned phrase and enjoy the experience, the writer has done a good job.
Marketing writing must go deeper, right into the core of a reader’s desires. The writing must be much more carefully researched, much more finely wrought. And usually much simpler. That’s why good copywriters command better fees than many journalists.
Q. What tips would you give upcoming copywriters?
Learn the basics of salesmanship, and read, read, read. Collect junk mail, study it and know why it is good or mediocre.
Read two books: The Well-Fed Writer by Peter Bowerman and The Copywriter’s Handbook by Robert Bly. Do pro-bono copywriting work, build up a portfolio and cold-call the living daylights out of local businesses until you get some paid work.
Q. What’s your favourite punctuation mark and why?
The em-dash — as a great way to add a qualifying idea, phrase or clause to a sentence.
Q. What are your views on txt spk?
It’s the work of the devil. I mean ts th wrk f th dvl. Did I get it right?
And there’s just time for one shameless plug...
If you’re interested in more of Doug’s illuminating and sometimes humorous thoughts on marketing, advertising and language, visit his blog The Copy Lounge.
Doug Jenner is Director of Best Words, a PR and Marketing Communications Agency in Hertfordshire.
Originally an English teacher, Doug had a brief spell as a freelance journalist before starting Best Words in 2006. In the intervening years, Doug has become widely respected as a copywriter of excellence.
Words are Doug’s work, but they are also his recreation. Away from the copywriting desk, he writes poetry, produces and directs plays and is currently working on the screenplay of a film for his new production company.
Visit Best Words to see more of Doug’s work: http://www.bestwords.co.uk