You too, huh?
The “I’m not good enough” mantra is the universal affliction of writers – whether we write fiction, copy, poetry, or prose, doubt resonates from our bones.
With copywriting, one facet alone makes it “good”: does it make money? This is the goal of good copy, and when you’re pitching yourself to clients, should be the focus. Unpicking this facet is more difficult because what makes money varies from product to product and brand to brand.
To write good copy, you need to understand who will benefit from the product and why, and then create a persuasive and compelling message that clarifies these points and delivers the message to the right audience in a voice that connects.
Researching the product and customer is essential. Understanding how to write persuasively and in a suitable voice is paramount. You can find many articles, books, and courses on these topics (Ogilvy’s “On Advertising” is the leading voice here).
What people rarely talk about is doubt, which in actuality is the fear of creating words that nobody wants to hear. The SHAME we feel when that happens – as if it tarnishes our inner world – is enough to send us scuttling to the Job Centre to find another, more suitable, career.
To be a good writer, conquering our fears is as important (maybe more so) as understanding our products and customers. As Frank Herbert wrote in Dune, “I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration…”
This fear stops us from writing. It overtakes our creativity. It shuts us down. This is also the reason why procrastination is a big issue for most writers.
Stop Stressing About Doubt!
Easier said than done! You can’t just “switch it off”. Can you?
Well, no, probably not.
But understanding more about doubt can help you put it in perspective – many world-class authors suffer through doubt: you aren’t alone and it isn’t a sign of bad writing.
Here’s a little excerpt from the foreword of Strunk & White’s ‘The Elements of Style’ (a great book for any aspiring writer), where E.B. White’s nephew talks about his uncle sending copy off to The New Yorker:
“When the copy went off at last…he rarely seemed satisfied. ‘It isn’t good enough’, he said…’I wish it were better’”
E.B. White wrote ‘Charlotte’s Web’ and ‘Stuart Little’. He was also a successful copywriter – and clearly full of doubt!
He’s not the only one with such stories, far from it. Do a little digging and you’ll find anecdotes from all over the writing world: Steven King, J.K. Rowling, Anne Lamott, Franz Kafka, and Ernest Hemingway; apparently, Shakespeare had writer’s block with Romeo and Juliette!
Doubt appears to be universal to writers; perhaps it’s an essential ingredient in successful writing.
There seems to be a few key reasons why doubt is so common amongst writers…
Writers Are Rejected – A Lot!
Rejection is something you’ll experience repeatedly throughout your career as a writer. Writing is like food. Some people might rave about a particular dish, whilst others can’t stomach it.
You could write the best work of your life and still the critics will weigh in: it’s their job. You’ll face submission rejections, too. It’s disappointing to send a great piece of work to a copywriting agency, only to have it sent back.
But don’t take this as a reflection of your writing: everyone has their writing rejected from time-to-time.
In Steven King’s book, “On Writing”, he talks about a nail in the wall of his bedroom. Each time he received a rejection slip, he’d stick it through the nail. He built up quite a collection!
J K Rowling took the Harry Potter series to 12 publishing houses before one agreed to publish.
One of the worst types of rejection is rejection that comes from other writers. It’s common to hear, “If you do X, you aren’t a writer”, “Writers are born, not made”, or “You can’t teach someone how to write well”. Insufferable arrogance runs deep within certain sections of the writing community and if you listen, it can weigh heavily.
If writers are born, why didn’t Shakespeare emerge from the womb with a quill, some parchment, and the first act Henry VI Part 1?
There IS an element of natural talent, but everyone can improve his or her writing skills through effort and practice.
Perseverance is the key to fighting the internal doubt, and, the external doubt of the naysayers: carry on when you want to give up.
We Aren’t Privy to the Workings of the Muse
As a writer, you probably understand that your creativity comes from somewhere beyond your conscious awareness. You face the blank page with no idea what to write, but as you start to put words on paper, a form starts to emerge – seemingly out of nowhere – and you have your story, your copy, your advert.
Creativity seems to sprout from nowhere. Some people refer to this source of creativity as the “Muse”. In Greek and Roman mythology, the Muses were the daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne, who acted as the source of inspiration for artists, including writers.
Ideas arrive to the artist, writer, musician, through the ether. Many artists talk about their creativity coming from divine inspiration, e.g. in Ghetto Gospel, Tupac says, “I feel his hand on my brain. When I write rhymes, I go blind and let the Lord do his thing”
Because creativity is emergent – it comes out as you write – we are filled with doubt. We have no way of knowing if an idea will arrive. It feels as if we have nothing in our heads to drive us forward, so how can we ever believe we can write?
It’s only once you put pen to paper (or fingers to keys) that the ideas come out and the writing comes together.
You Don’t Really Belong Here, Do You?
We add fuel to the flames of self-doubt ourselves. “Imposter Syndrome” is common amongst all professionals – from writers to doctors, teachers to lawyers.
Imposter Syndrome makes you believe you’re only here by chance: you fluked your way into your career. You have no skill or talent, just everybody else is too busy to notice that you sneaked in.
You think of yourself as a “Plastic Writer” – someone who’s just playing at writing, but has no real talent.
It’s the feeling of being a fraud. And it’s common amongst writers.
Will You Ever Conquer These Doubts?
It should be clear now that your doubts are a natural part of being a writer. Understanding the issues outlined above will help you to push through these doubts because you’ll realise they’re part of the process.
As with all skills, you’ll improve your writing the more you write. Write a lot; write about a broad range of subjects. Read other people’s writing; read a lot.
With copywriting, Ogilvy recommends you read his most successful copy and write it out repeatedly – like doing lines at school. You’ll get those underlying principles into the unconscious: this will help to train your Muse.
Can you banish the doubts? No, but to complete Frank Herbert’s quote “…I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”
And what remains of you is hopefully some decent copy!
Keep knocking on doors.