PR and Content Marketing would be nothing without the power of words. That’s reason enough to take a closer look at copywriting. All authors know how frustrating it can be that there is just not one perfect recipe for a good text. The ingredients need to be searched for anew each time. However, some insights into the functioning of the brain and creativity are helpful – especially because they may contradict one’s first intuition. Here’s a glimpse into my personal toolkit of storytelling.
1) Don’t start at all
The best protection one has against writing a bad text is not to start at all. All right, this approach might not be helpful for each and every case. After all, someone usually has to write the PR or marketing content in the end. But maybe I can get a more suitable person for the copywriting job instead? To find the best writer, it’s worth asking what specific requirements the text needs to meet.
When I left freelancing and joined Mashup Communications, I was particularly intrigued by all the different writers who supported each other with headlines, PR stories and social media captions. However, if you have so many writers at first it felt like a jungle in which I had to orient myself. Who are my colleagues and how do they approach writing copy? Writing style has a lot to do with personality and which hemisphere of the brain is more dominant: the right or the left. Some rely more on a logical-analytical approach to learning, others on a feeling-creative one, and this also shapes our copywriting. Those who approach a text analytically have its structure in mind before they reach for the keyboard. For me, the exact structure usually emerges only through the writing process. Good storytelling however requires playing with the left and right hemispheres of the brain. So, I structure in advance and then trust the creative process.
2) Throw copywriting discipline overboard
Discipline is important, but not quite as important as joy. When I start a text, the very first thing I ask myself is: Why do I want to avoid it at all? Because that’s what I always want to do. However, when I was a child, this was very different: my writing was naturally characterized by joy and spontaneous ideas. I recently found my very first story, which I wrote when I was nine, buried deep in a box under my bed. While it didn’t deserve a Nobel Prize in Literature, I was surprised when I reread it. It had conflict, climax, crisis, turning point, and even an ending – everything I was taught many years later in writing courses about how the structure of a story is supposed to work.
As an adult, I had to make a conscious decision to throw discipline overboard and let the right feeling-creative side of my brain work. I write best in the early morning. Daily expectations are on hold and stressors on the left brain are low. Less inhibited and a bit dreamy, I get into the flow easily that way. Just like when I was a child.
3) Deliberately write bad content
It’s early in the morning and my external environment is well organized, but still, something stops me from writing. The blank page stares at me like a declaration of war. I give up and procrastinate by watching some Tiktok videos. In my feed, a music lecturer tells me about an assignment he gave to his students: write the worst song imaginable. I like the video and put the phone down. I resolve to trick myself in the same way. In fact, the students were no longer concerned with comparing themselves and trying to prove the richness of their abilities. Instead, they focused on their best skills and used them playfully. The result was that each student presented her or his best song in the next lesson.
But why is such a trick necessary? There is a scientific explanation for this, which also has a lot to do with the way our brain works. First, the human brain ignores what it is best at, concentrating instead on more pressing problems. Second, people learn by copying other people, which is what makes comparison with others so useful. When writing a song or lyrics, however, this biology gets in the way. So goodbye! I start writing the worst copy imaginable.
4) Don’t meet a deadline
It worked and the copy is written. It’s time to bring out my inner critic and check the written words for logic with the left hemisphere of my brain. I adjust, correct, and revise. Big leaps of thought are erased, everything tracks, but that certain something is still missing. What saves me is my foresighted thinking: I set my deadline before the actual deadline. I allow myself to let the nearly finished text rest, keep an open mind, and continue to search for ideas to arrive at a more comprehensive perspective.
The creative progress at its core is characterized by the resistance to arrive quickly at a solution. One example of this is the creation of the film “Toy Story”. Pixar tried to completely rewrite the rules of the animated film and failed for a whole year. In a TED Talk with filmmaker Andrew Stanton, he tells the story of how he was advised to integrate those very elements he deliberately wanted to avoid: songs, “I want” moments, a happy village, a love story, and there shouldn’t even be a villain. In the end, Stanton didn’t listen to any of this, and “Toy Story” became one of the most successful films of all time. Slowness is by no means to be confused with unproductivity. And delaying a deadline is often the best thing that can happen to a story. Ideally, it’s the deadline I set myself.
5) Ignore feedback
When the deadline is due, the inevitable question arises: Did the writing turn out well? But what does that even mean? My first story at nine, for example, I like better than much of what I wrote years later. I don’t write better stories with more experience. However, I handle feedback completely differently: First, I seek it out. My first story no one ever got to see. Second, I’ve learned not to take criticism personally or as criticism of my thinking (a thing I liked to do when I was an intern). Today, I think that there is nothing more valuable than scathing criticism – preferably from someone who has a writing style completely different from my own.
Sometimes I get annoyed and then I remember “Toy Story” again. Because when Steve Jobs came to Pixar, he had a lot of smart people in front of him, but they got in each other’s way. Because it’s much easier to criticize an idea than to develop an idea. Pixar used the “plussing” approach in which criticism can be made only if it also contains a possible solution. The team dynamic turned 180 degrees and led to Pixar’s success – starting with the film “Toy Story”. I still think about this today when I have interns write copy. Plussing also helps me to distinguish useful from destructive feedback – and to decide which advice to ignore.
Conclusion: Let people write better texts
Whether we write content or have it written, there is no one recipe for a good text. An approaching deadline, high demands on the text to be written, required discipline and feedback loops can be helpful in certain cases – and destructive in others. However, if you are willing to abandon assumptions and trust the creative process, you open up a space in which writers can fully exploit their potential and learn from each other.