Hard working words: An interview with Andy Maslen, copywriter, speaker, coach and author. Part 1

I’m a little giddy about this month’s interview. I’m delighted to be joined by copywriting expert/god/guru Andy Maslen, who’s also a well-known speaker, coach and author. During our conversation we discussed everything from Andy’s latest book and the future of copywriting to content mills and Andy’s goal-setting paperclip system!

We talked for a while. So part two of this interview is tomorrow.

Turner Ink: Hey Andy. Thanks for taking the time out to chat. I’ve just finished reading 100 Great Copywriting Ideas, which I found extremely useful. Your latest book, The Copywriting Sourcebook, has just hit the shelves. Tell us a bit about it.
Andy Maslen: Hey Sarah! Good to hear from you. The Copywriting Sourcebook came from a couple of places. One was me thinking back to my early days as a corporate marketing assistant. I had to write for loads of different formats – as I still do – from press releases and exhibition materials to direct mail letters and press ads. I guess I was lucky we didn’t have to write for the web back then – it would only have added to the stress!

Nobody could really tell me much so I spent a lot of time struggling to understand the requirements of the format itself before I could even attempt to write copy. I wanted to create a reference book that would give people lots of shortcuts – on structure, what to include, tone of voice and so on – for 12 formats from web pages to case studies. In an early attempt at coming up with a title with the publishers, we tossed around the idea of Copywriting SatNav. You plug in your destination and the book takes you there by the quickest route.

TI: So it differs quite a bit from your first book Write to Sell?
AM: Yes. In Write to Sell, I wrote a lot about the techniques and principles of good copywriting, but didn’t really give many real-world examples. Both 100 Great Copywriting Ideas and The Copywriting Sourcebook provide examples of actual working copy.

TI: So who’s the Sourcebook aimed at Andy? Other copywriters? Or those people that get dumped with ‘writing words’ as part of their jobs?
AM: It’s aimed at anyone who writes copy, from ‘dumpees’ to pros, but there are three main audiences. In-house copywriters and marketers. Freelancers who maybe want to get someone else’s take on the jobs they write every day. And entrepreneurs who have started a business and need to write copy for their website and offline marketing materials.

TI: I know you’re a busy copywriter, coach and speaker. So how do you find the time to write books as well?
AM: I’m lucky in that I can write fast when I’ve got something to say. When I’ve got a book on the go I set a daily word target, which is the agreed word count for the final book divided by the number of working days till the manuscript submission deadline. Then I put five paper clips on my monitor every Monday morning and put one back in the box for each day I hit my target.

TI: In Write to Sell, you have a useful toolkit for stimulating creative juices (which is stuck to my wall, by the way!). Do you still have times when the words don’t flow? What do you do to get going? Do you use your own toolkit?
AM: I do have moments when it all feels like a grind, but thankfully, the older I get the fewer those times are. I think that’s a product of having a deeper well of past projects and ideas to draw from. I do use my own toolkit – it’s a real list! (And I’m really flattered you have it pinned to your wall!) What works best for me is walking in the garden, and exercise.

TI: Lately we’ve seen the rise of certain sites where you can buy web content for as little as £6 a page. Where does that leave professional copywriters like us Andy?
AM: It leaves us exactly where we were before, writing intelligent, responsive copy for our clients. It’s not in competition. It’s there to a do a different job, which as far as I can see is some very mechanistic SEO ratings improvement. I don’t even believe it will last, as Google is smart enough not be gamed by these tactics.

TI: But do clients recognise quality writing any more?
AM: I think some clients recognise quality writing … and some don’t. You just have to choose who you’re going to work for! I have clients who would give you the bum’s rush if you quoted £20 for a 500-word piece of copy. Others, I know, are dropping their regular writers in favour of the content mills. You can’t argue with that reasoning, you just have to move on and find other clients.

TI: So what’s the future of copywriting? And copywriters?
AM: How long have you got! Here are a couple of predictions. One, it’s not going to go away. Every new technology gives rise to more written communication, not less. Just look at all the white papers, blogs and special reports about social media.

Two, the distinction between web copywriting and print copywriting will gradually disappear. Either because eventually all print media will disappear (unlikely) or because the technology will become so seamless that the focus will shift back to selling/influencing skills rather than PageRanks. Copywriters have a golden opportunity to raise their game – and their income. As more and more people start businesses, the market for copy will increase. But copywriters need to learn or polish some fundamental business skills, like price-setting, negotiating and selling.

TI: Yes, that an interesting point. Great writing skills are essential to being a good copywriter. But you need great business skills to run a successful copywriting business.
AM: That’s right.

TI: You and I chat on Twitter, Andy. What other social media channels do you use, if any?
AM: I use LinkedIn occasionally and now it’s linked to Twitter I like the cross-flow of ideas and readers between the two. I have a blog, which I have recently started posting to much more regularly, again powered by the Twitter effect of being able to tweet about longer and more involved blog posts. I’m on Facebook but very half-heartedly. Jo Kelly, our other copywriter is our Queen of Facebook!

TI: But with the onset of blogging, Twitter, Facebook, etc. do you think writing standards are slipping? Is it now more acceptable to have apostrophes in the wrong place and to write their instead of there?
AM: Writing standards are moving in every direction, all at once. Some people are getting better and better, some not. But what Twitter does is make bad writers more visible. I think the ease and speed of Twitter and the rest, particularly if you’re sending your tweets via your mobile, mean you’re less careful to proofread your stuff. I mean, who proofreads tweets anyway!? (I do – sad.)

TI: I do as well! I also punctuate my text messages.
AM: [Laughing] Well for me, it’s not acceptable to punctuate wrongly or break basic rules of composition, but clearly others feel differently! It does make me smile (ruefully) when I see tweets from professional writers that say “your” instead of “you’re”. Not much of an ad for your abilities, is it?

See part 2 of this interview tomorrow where Andy discusses his next book, his best project of all time (it involves Jeremy Clarkson!), and which company he’d really like to work for.


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