The copywriter’s toolkit - part 1: The secret archives

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Building your library of spell books

If there was a stereotypical mug for copywriters, it would have a slogan along the lines of ‘You don’t have to be a bibliophile to work here, but it helps!’ Actually, it would probably be something far more erudite, but you get the point. Copywriters on the whole tend to be voracious readers, because you never know where that next little nugget of inspiration or that next highly-nickable couplet will come from.

Except, that sometimes you do…

Because one of the things that all copywriters have in common is their toolkit. This isn’t a wholly material thing; not for them the sheet metal box that fans out to reveal trays of pens, inks and spanners. The copywriter’s toolkit is generally a mixture of skills (physical and mental) and actual items (usually physical, often quite mental as well). And over the course of a few posts, I'm going to have a rifle through the contents of mine starting with the most important of all: the secret bookshelf.

‘Incredibly rare, and each a power in itself’

That shelf doesn’t contain Roget’s Thesaurus, the Guardian style guide or any of the frequently-contradictory advice books that you’ve bought on Amazon. These might help with the mechanics of assembling a functional bit of copy, but honing your style and putting your own bloodied thumbprint on it requires a different set of grimoires altogether.

Yep, I saw that: the way your eyes just flicked nervously not to the pristine tomes on the bookshelf, but to the well-thumbed paperback on the sofa, the one with the spine bent back and pages feathering out like a startled pelican. Or maybe to the hardback that’s currently on top of the cistern in the loo which, despite being a first edition, has enough crumbs in its pages to assemble a whole packet of Hob Nobs.

Or maybe just to a magazine from 2003 whose stained pages track your changes in dining preferences for the last decade-and-a-half. It hardly matters.

Your dark materials

What links all of these tomes is that they’ve provided essential building blocks for your own style. It might have just been one phrase in one passage in an otherwise-awful Science Fiction novel; it might have been an incendiary article in that back issue of NME; or it might have been the entirety of a long-out-of-print travel book whose first impression was also its last.

But their impression on you was a different matter. You’ve read and re-read each one countless times, but never forgotten how you found yourself crying with either laughter or emotion the first time you came across that key passage, or just felt your jaw drop at the audacity of an incendiary bit of text. And at some point you’ve taken inspiration or ideas from each – or even an entire paragraph. Yeah, I said it.

Don't worry too much; you’re not alone. As the tired old aphorism goes, stealing from one is plagiarism; stealing from many is research. That in itself has been paraphrased and outright pinched countless times since it was first scrawled down by Rev. Charles Caleb Cotton in 1820. And he probably stole it anyway.

Neverending stories

Whilst your secret archive can consist of anything as long as it’s important to you, the chances are that, just like a medieval sorcerer, you’ll particularly treasure the rarer and more obscure texts. It’s easy to spot the influence of Douglas Adams or Martin Amis in someone’s style; it’s harder to gauge the impact of the talented geography major who had a column in your university newsletter.

As time goes on, your archive is likely to expand, and with it your style. Each of those lines, tones and approaches become to your writing what bottles of pigments, stains and inks are to a painter. You’ll find yourself judiciously using each when the moment demands it, sometimes sparingly, sometimes in broad strokes, much like this increasingly-laboured analogy.

But that expansion won’t always be smooth. For every lucky find in your collection, there’ll be a long-lost but fondly-remembered story or book from your childhood that you badly need to track down. You can’t recall the words exactly, but you remember how you felt when you read them – and when you realise that that’s exactly the feeling you want to get across to your own readers, the hunt begins.

It’s a big clue that you’ve become serious about this writing lark when you find yourself spending significant time and money in the attic, the British Library or eBay tracking down a single paragraph from a long-pulped children’s novel in order to get the tone of an article on digital banking just right. It’s dedication all right, but it’s dedication with passion.

And if even a fraction of that passion makes it into your copy, you’re on the right track.


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