Copywriters: ghosts of their writing selves?

Guest post by Manuela Boyle
I write five days out of seven. Some weeks maybe more. Original prose no less; raw materials plucked from different vocabulary sets and arranged into a new word order.

But here’s my dark secret: I write for other people. What am I talking about? It’s not a poetry collection or a longed-for first novel that keeps me out of trouble most of the time: I’m a copywriter. Better out than in, folks.

I’ve been copywriting at a wonderful design agency for five years now and am in a position I’ve dreamed of since I was a wee thing, when I’d make my own miniature books like the Brontes did: writing for my living.

I have an open-plan desk of my own and more than £500 a year, a portfolio I’m proud of and but still one question haunts me: can I be a copywriter and my own woman? Can I write on demand and to deadlines all week then switch pens (well ok, PC to Mac) and craft a magnus opus in my spare time?

Of course, what we’re talking about here is the age-old creative’s dilemma: art won’t pay the bills, but it’ll keep your soul nourished and your practice keen.

Trust me, I’m a writer

And there are lots of us writers who make their living doing the thing they love; and yet as a result, don’t make their living in the way they’d really love.

Make no mistake, there are as many sorts of wordsmiths as there are doctors: witty folk are columnists, pedants are copy-editors, sparky types ad copywriters and nerds manual-writers …hang on a minute, maybe that last category expired in the seventies.

What I’m trying to say is that the writing skillset is like France: much bigger than you thought when you get there, and that if you’ve got talent, then hell, make like Simon Cowell and put it to work.

But let’s pause and think about the writer’s gentle soul awhile. Some of the copywriters I know have literary or non-fiction ambitions; others quite simply, don’t.

Some are lazy when it comes to that magnus opus, some think they’ll eventually get round to it, and others know their own creative practice is good for them, like greens are, but don’t want to participate.

A handful – and here’s the type that impresses me most – do both. They write copy in the day, and create worlds of their own by night.

The editor of this very blog falls into the latter category, dear reader, and he has my utmost respect for it (he’ll try and edit this sentence out, but I’ll exercise my creative temperament if he does).

Poetry please

Here comes the second confession: like a schoolgirl, I need pressure and deadlines to motivate me. I need the teacher to say ‘Hand your essay in tomorrow and no dog excuses’ to put pen to paper.

Does that make me a bad writer? I don’t think so, but it probably explains why I chose poetry over other creative writing forms when I first began to write.

I don’t know about you, but I like quick fixes, I like an immediate sense of completion, I like to see the end in sight. We’ve all done the clean the house/clear your desk trick to get an instant reward whenever something bigger and harder is looming.

Of course the poets among you will rightly cry: ‘poetry’s no walk in the park’ and you’d be right, but then my ill-assorted olla podrida of poems from the past 15 years ain’t going to win the TS Eliot in a hurry.

Peaking early

I did have a glimpse of What-Could-Be aged 19, when I came runner-up in a national poetry competition, got to meet Mr Roger McGough and record my poem for Radio 4.

Years later, when I with anxious heart sent a bundle of precious poems to my old tutor and esteemed poet himself David Constantine, and got told to work harder, I kind of put down my pen there and then.

Lucky for me, a group of us writers from work (including your goodly editor) set up a spoken word night in Sheffield, Words Aloud, which ran successfully for two years, a broad church that saw a crazy radio spectrum of writers bare their battered souls in a darkened room to like-minded ears.

Suddenly I had regular reason to write again, and I wasn’t the only one. But soon life got in the way, and I resorted to reading other people’s work and not my own. The ‘bad writer’ cloud reappeared again.

Spring clean

It lifted just in time for spring last year when I decided to enter the Harper’s Bazaar short story competition and produced a short story I was happy with.

That time of year’s come around again, and as sure as the crocuses are coming up, I’m stockpiling my tools and readying myself to knuckle down to it once again.

So where does that leave our copywriter conundrum, readers? The premise that what’s good for the wallet ain’t so good for the soul?

I sure know I need to eat my greens more often to dispel that damned cloud, but what about you? Is writing for someone else effectively ghost-writing or can it shape your practice and make you a better writer?

Or do you need to lock yourself in that garret and eat beans from a tin to hit the creative jackpot?

Order, order! Your comments please.

  1. Thanks for the great article!
    I’ve been struggling with this ever since I got sick of pouring pints whilst trying to finish a manuscript. Copywriting was a logical career choice, and though I have to write what clients want, within brand guidelines, at least I’m writing.

    The manuscript is still coming along.

    At least now I’m drinking the gin instead of pouring it.

    Whenever I get frustrated with my day job, I think of leering men leaning over bar tops, and post a blog about why copywriting is a great day job for an aspiring author.

  2. […] My only consolation is that I’m not alone. Other writers experience the same damn issues. In her post on writeforyourlife.net, a site about writing that I read in lieu of writing myself, Manuela Boyle writes: […]

  3. I do some copywriting and tons of ghostwriting of books for clients and balancing my own work (writing novels) with work for clients is my constant struggle. Most of the time it works out pretty well, but once in awhile the client work gets overwhelming and I abandon my own stuff. Until I get totally frustrated and strike a new balance. I dream of not having to do the client work, and yet I know I would miss it.

  4. @iainbroome thanks for having me. And kicking things off.
    @Charlotte you’re in my much-admired category! Sometimes I think you need to be cranked up on full, busy with client work, in order to reach your full creative/literary potential too. Then it just gets to be about hours in the day!

  5. @BlankWhitePage thanks for your thoughts! And congrats on your manuscript and for balancing on that tightrope. Gin might be mother’s ruin but it’s probably writer’s elixir. The leering men: ain’t no better motivation. Let us know how you fare!

  6. Hi,
    A great post.

    I trained at J Walter Thompson as a copywriter, because I wanted to be a writer. Now, what’s called ‘above the line advertising’ doesn’t require much actual writing – it’s all about concepts.

    Still I wanted to be a writer, so I went freelance and years and years later I had a massive ms to hawk around. No takers, but some encouraging responses.

    Then I joined a DM agency – I’m still there, actually. I specialise in fundraising copy for clients. I write letters asking people to give to appeals and they always have a case study at their heart and that case study is a little story in itself.

    About 18 months ago I felt I had to write another novel. So I did. I’ve found it much easier this time and I’m sure it’s because of the day job. I know how to construct a story.

    Over these 18 months I’ve written most evenings – even if it’s just rearranging commas – and every weekend. It would be easy to put it
    off – and I’m a great procrastinator – and watch Masterchef. But if you want to write you have to ‘turn up’, to quote Woody Allen.

    I would love not to be a copywriter anymore – I’ve done it for too long. But if this novel finds a home it’ll be because of the years I’ve sat and written about poorly pets and wounded soldiers.

  7. @Lizzie thank you! The way you just told your story was totally gripping. And that’s the thing, especially when you talk about the fundraising newsletters: finding the story in what you do, and inviting your reader in. I think if you’ve got that, you’re home dry, notwithstanding the sheer endurance, whatever kind of writing you do. And The Woody Allen quote is a bon mot to remember!

  8. […] Boyle ponders whether writing copy for a day job helps or hampers your personal creative writing in Copywriters: ghosts of their writing selves? on Write for Your […]

  9. A really interesting post and it’s had me thinking… I’ve always had a passion for words, language and communication. I used to use my ghoulish tendencies to haunt the corridors of hospitals, solicitors and immigration services. I was a translator. Then a refugee project manager.
    But although my grass roots profession demanded a resourceful and creative approach to work, I was still bugged if not haunted by the need to write and live by my pen. I have a social-worker friend who maintains that social workers are often repressed artists, I’m not surprised.

    I discovered copy writing having retrained as a broadcast journalist. Maybe it’s because I came to the profession later in my career, or maybe its because my circuitous route has included one or two challenges, whatever – chameleon, intermediary, ghost – I love what I do.

    Like any phantom though, I’m restless and like any journalist I’m nosey. So this article has had me musing over who I would like to be a ghost writer for, if I could choose anyone – one of the unheard Afghan voices I used to work with? A New York northen soul singer in Pitsmoor who once coached the south african national athletics team? Or a rags to riches business man who started life selling shirts on the Sheffield markets?

    I sense many an untold story belonging to people unable or unwilling to tell it for themselves. I’d like to write it for them, will I be able to rest if I don’t?

  10. My experience is similar to Lizzie’s, in that the writing I do for clients has improved my creative writing. But it can be difficult to find the right balance between writing for money and creating to nourish my soul. I’ve been doing it for years, and it’s still a challenge!
    ~Sandy

  11. Tough one. A truly, truly tough one. I used to write creatively quite a lot, and in my last year of university I had an anthology of short stories and poetry published with two other writers.But since starting work (which has ranged from writing for b2b magazines to writing freelance – ghostwriting, celeb biographies, etc) it’s been really hard to find the motivation to write creatively. Sometimes my brain is just drained after hours and hours of mashing thousands of words together for other people, and it can feel like there’s nothing left for me to give my own creative stuff.

    But in January this year I started reading the book The Artist’s Way, by Julia Cameron – some of it is a bit self helpy for me, but I’ve been writing morning pages every morning and they’ve been a revelation (basically three pages of stream of consciousness every morning before you do anything else). The book also has a lot of stuff about replenishing yourself creatively, so you have a lot of energy for creating when it comes to it – so indulging yourself in downtime, having a lot of fun.

    And for the first time in ages, I feel like writing creatively is actually fun again! I wrote some haikus last week and been working on a poem this week. So I recommend that to anyone reading this blog who’s feeling a bit stuck creatively – because they write for a job, or for any other reason. Another thing I’ve been thinking about doing recently is joining a writing group – I too feel like the pressure of deadlines (and the encouragement of a group environment) would be helpful for creative writing.

    Great post by the way – I always enjoy reading this blog 🙂

  12. @Lu Harper Thanks for your thoughtful comment Lu! I’m glad the post got you thinking about what sort of writer you are. Plus you’ve made a powerful case for a certain sort of ‘ghost-writing’ – using your writerly skills to help people find a voice and get untold stories out there! Nice.
    @Strangling My Muse Thanks Sandy. I am glad you find your copywriting feeds your creative practice – this is ideally how things should be! With experience comes the right balance, and it sounds like you’re well versed in getting things on an even keel. Of course we writers need our downtime too, and I know I sometimes find it hard to settle down to my own work at the end of a long day! Good luck with all your writing!

  13. @helia phoenix Thanks for commenting! You’ve got an interesting story, and lots of helpful suggestions. I think you’ve put your finger on it: how do you muster the energy for your own work when you’ve been giving your all for clients? So often it’s down to mindset and regular creative practice. The book you mention sounds like a great resource (self-help aside 😉 ) and I’m sure will come in useful for many of us on here. Keep the fire burning!

  14. I hate the idea that in order to be a legitimate writer you either have to starve doing it or make your living with the words you publish. I’ve said it before on my own blog, there is nothing sex about starving. As a creative person working in Real Estate office, I feel any job where you can express yourself to even the smallest degree and exercise your creativity is a godsend. I’m in the process of finding my own niche in the professional world. That way – I can continue to eat and write.

    1. @Candice I know what you mean. There are times when I might get fed up with the constant deadlines and occasionally repetitive nature of being a copywriter, but I always try to remind myself that things could be a lot worse. And that I’d rather write for a living, in whichever format, than do anything else.

  15. I’m a copywriter and I hate it. I want a career change but I’m not presently equipped to do anything else that pays. I appreciate that copywriting requires particular skills, and I’ve got a lot of them, and I’ve learned some techniques that may be modified and used elsewhere in the name of good, but I’ve never been able to afford copywriting itself any respect or credibility. It’s like all the shallowness of western culture in microcosm. Also, I’m sick of having to be accountable to slack-jawed, greedy, insensitive, bean-counting dullards who can’t spell, and having to listen to the word ‘creative’ used to describe yet another endless repetition of a dismal cliche. I fully accept that these sentiments are attitudinal and subjective. But copywriting gives me the bloody horrors and strikes me as a complete misdirection and waste of anyone’s talent. My friends sometimes say to me, ‘at least you’re writing’. ‘No, not really,’ I tell them. I’d rather not write than be a copywriter, so I’ll be looking at finding some other kind of work in the year to come.

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