07 June, 2017

Why write beautifully if nobody cares?

When it seems like everyone’s a copywriter, decent punctuation is unfashionable, and you can get a book written for $300,
what is the raison d’être for an exceptional wordsmith?

Tl;dr version
»Even people who claim they don’t care still tend to show a preference
for well-written copy

»Over a wasteland of mediocrity, beacons of excellence blaze all the more brightly
»When content must be crafted to more ambitious expectations than
the status quo, many writers lack the skill and judgement to deliver
authentically moving material

How is it that so many people who surely have the common sense to know better, nevertheless suspend their disbelief as they read a fabricated backstory about how some stay-at-home mum is now a millionaire thanks to her online forex trading? Yes, the allure of getting rich quickly is undoubtedly the overriding cause, but there’s more to this than simply touching a nerve of desire.

Why do these documents -- some of which are positively nonsensical -- manage to hook thousands (if not millions) of readers? The trend seems all the more absurd in light of the fact that myriad truthful ebooks are routinely disregarded by the masses, despite being penned by sincere individuals who have a genuine wish to help others.

The answer is that an author seems to know what they’re talking about when the writing has qualities that resemble what we usually associate with published hardcopy material. Not many people born in this millennium (or indeed, several years earlier) have ever seen inside an analogue encyclopaedia, but even the cheapest tabloid adheres to strict editorial conventions.

Time and again, I have witnessed readers who actively describe themselves as not caring too much about the quality of the written word show a distinct preference for tightly crafted and properly punctuated text. This has fascinated me for years, and on several occasions, I have had the opportunity to quiz people about which version of a given excerpt they think is better.

If one sample has had a professional once-over, while the other is still raw copy, the most common answer is something along the lines of, “I can’t put my finger on it... that one just seems more legit.” And with only one or two exceptions that I can remember, the edited version is indicated, regardless of whether it was read before or after the other piece.

I was unable to dig up a peer-reviewed study to support my anecdotal evidence, but if I ever commission one, I believe it will only serve to verify this assertion. We may not be consciously aware of it, but we do tend to presume that copy which bears the characteristic hallmarks of professional editing ‘must be true enough to publish’.

It doesn’t take a particularly outstanding wordsmith to deliver grammatically sound copy that is clear and engaging to read -- and that is why this band of the spectrum is so desperately over-saturated. The usual approach to online content production (by which I mean copywriting) is to pulverise everything into a relatively thin layer of linguistic airspace defined by a rather limiting set of assumptions.

It’s not even a race to the bottom: it’s a race to the median, the pedestrian, the predictable. Every hotshot copywriter, online publisher and boutique ad agency announces stridently that they are the new thing, the different thing, the original and special and unique thing. If that’s the case, then why are so many of them still rearranging the same tired procession of clichés and idioms as everyone else, while also borrowing liberally from one another in the process?

Superlative writing is immediately dazzling to behold in that great field of clear air above the dense, overpopulated and polluted fog of mediocrity below. There is very little competition up there, so if you find a writer who can elevate your message to a stratospheric altitude, you can reliably differentiate yourself from the pack -- while also positioning yourself visibly above it. Such is the power of words.

Premium work commands premium coin, and writers are like tattoos in this respect: the cheap ones aren’t good, and the good ones aren’t cheap. This is not a criticism of services such as Upwork or freelancer.com, especially when artwork or web design is involved. I would be the first to agree that online creatives commissioned through such websites can deliver material of a surprisingly high standard for an affordable price. However, this is not necessarily true of written work -- regardless of whether or not the author is a native speaker.

Popular opinion among employers about what constitutes ‘good writing’ doesn’t help, considering it’s often based on a one-dimensional expectation of return on investment. I’ve seen many job ads stipulating that the successful applicant’s work must attain a high score in site analytics: in other words, the writer is mainly there to pull visitors, with the ultimate aim of extracting their money. That’s the role of a salesperson, not a wordsmith -- and again, there’s nothing wrong with such work, but it’s unrealistic to stack it under the rubric of writing when it has more to do with selling.

Rare though this may be, sometimes a client actually needs something written to convey meaning in an eloquent, memorable and evocative way, rather than exclusively for the purpose of moving units. And I know from personal experience that the formulaic platitudes pushed out by ‘senior copywriters’, whose articulacy is limited to advertising-speak and whizz-bang blogging style, simply do not make the grade.

I realise that in our standard daily business, we need to thrash those keywords, we need to rank as high as possible after the ads that top the SERPs, we need to win a click, we need the page to convert. And that’s OK. But what if, one day, we are commissioned to create something… beautiful? I can almost hear you gasp with incredulity at such a near-heretical thought.

What if we want people to remember something we’ve written, truly remember it, for how it makes them feel, for how it becomes a landmark on the vista of their lives? If all we’ve ever known is following the SEO fashion du jour and taking a powerdive to the lowest common denominator, the outcome can be summarised in two words: we fail.

How much an article is shared, or how many visitors it sucks down the funnel, or how much it lights up social media, only carries significance as far as the bank. By contrast, a piece of writing that is painstakingly executed, with mastery and love and finesse, has a real chance of finding its home in a reader’s memory. When judged by that criterion, it doesn’t matter whether or not the author’s work endures exclusively in the reader’s psyche, never amounting to sales or even shares.

By affecting a person emotionally, by making someone’s world a brighter place, by conveying a lesson that enables them to improve some aspect of their life, such priceless words are afforded a fragile echo of immortality.

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