Can copy-writing be taught?


by Magnus Shaw.


In the distant past, I trained to be a croupier. A roulette dealer, to be accurate. Roulette is fairly complicated and the dealer must be aware of every aspect of the game in progress - monitoring when the bets go down, who has won, how much to pay out and whether anyone is attempting to cheat. It's a fast moving combination of observation, concentration and mathematics and I was hopeless at it. In spite of a very efficient and forgiving six week course, the first time I worked a shift it was a shambles. I know, because at 5.00am the casino's manager told me so. The resulting altercation ensured my croupier career didn't go much further.

The fact was, no matter how much coaching and practice I undertook, my mental capabilities were just not suited to the job. Whatever a 'natural born croupier' looks like, I was the opposite.

The same goes for sports. My instinctive inability to perform in anything resembling a ball game is quite remarkable. But I could always write.

Throughout my education, my school reports were shocking (sorry, Mum). Rather than suggest I wasn't bright, they tended to say I didn't apply myself to anything other than creative writing. And they were right.

So could it be that the ability to write was ingrained in me - hard coded in my DNA? Or had I just been taught well? And, if a wordsmith's skills spring from nature, can a person ever learn to copywrite?

Actually, I think the situation is more nuanced. Just as I may have absorbed the finer points of roulette, rugby or algebra - given enough time and application - I don't see why an individual couldn't be taught to be an effective copywriter. However, if creative writing has never come easily, nor been enjoyed, by that person, I wonder how inclined  they would be to commit to the process.

Human nature dictates we gravitate to the activities we do well. And when we find we are achieving in a particular field, that is where we invest our efforts and derive our enjoyment. Andre Agassi has claimed he always hated tennis, but happened to be very good at it. If we believe him, then we would be a very striking exception to a very solid rule. Therefore, I'd be amazed if every successful copywriter didn't display some enthusiasm and adeptness for the writing art before they entered the business.

From time-to-time, I'm approached by a stranger considering a career in copywriting, asking how to get started. My answer is almost always the same. First of all, start writing. Review the last movie you watched; pick some advertisements from a magazine and re-write them; think of a new product and devise a name and a strapline. I also have a couple of dummy briefs for those who request them. Only a very few correspondents ever take up the challenge. Not because they're lazy or don't trust my advice (at least I don't think so) but because they realise they don't have the innate drive to write habit. I'm sure they rapidly see they are more naturally inclined to another endeavour and set copywriting to one side. Interestingly, I am almost never asked to teach somebody copywriting. Occasionally I have been inflicted on a class of students, with a need to cover creative or commercial writing as part of their course, but no individual has ever requested personal instruction.

I suspect this is because those who are determined to be make a living as writer are already writing. They understand - as I do - that honing their skill and adapting it to a specific area is a process which never ends, but they also know that writing isn't a craft that begins from a standing start, it's an activity which evolves from a childhood interest to an adult profession.

That is not to say the desire to be a copywriter is pointless unless you are already a budding scribe, but the ambition is certainly much more realistic if some inherent, raw talent is already present.

So, can copywriting be taught? Yes, I'm certain it can. But if the teaching is to be worthwhile, the student must already have an irresistible desire and capacity to write and write well.

Magnus Shaw is a copywriter, blogger and consultant.

A collection of Magnus Shaw's columns is now available as a Kindle book.


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