An editor’s diary: 5 lessons I’ve learned from coaching writers this year
Isn’t the quality of writing subjective? Why should I care about the personality of my copywriter? Our #EditorInResidence, Sam Whitlock, reflects on what he’s learned from coaching writers this year.
I used to spend most of my time writing. These days, I spend almost as much time reading the work of others and talking to them about it. 2021 was a year of putting down the pen and learning to coach university students, mentor interns and teach RH&Co’s small team of trusted freelance writers.
Somehow a lecturer and a friend also duped me into marking a mega drop of university coursework. And sometimes I can still feel the headache. But hey, that’s how I get my kicks – and at least I learned a few things along the way.
1. Writing is a science
When I told people I was handing out marks to student writers, some people asked, “But how do you do that? Writing is so subjective, isn’t it?”
Well, after placing a grade on 40ish student writer submissions, I passed them over to a second marker. They proceeded to give them the same marks, give or take a point or two. We had our own preferences but the margins weren’t wide at all.
While writing leaves room for subjectivity, it’s not merely a matter of opinion. Disagree? Let me point you to my friend: neuroscience.
Our brains chemically respond more to some sentences more than others. Is the writing short, clean and clear? Good, you’ll create processing fluency. Does it have a strong rhythm and cadence? You’ll hear it even if you’re not reading it aloud. Does it pick a route using an audience’s existing frames of reference? Your cognitive shortcuts will give the reader less time to get bored and look away.
One of the most rewarding tricks is surprise. To create it properly you need to subtly subvert a person’s existing frame of reference (sometimes called a schema). Twist too far and you’ll miss the point. Play off the reader’s expectations just right and you’ll release dopamine, shift neocortical patterns and even reinforce long-term memory.
It’s like magic, except it’s science – and an art. Some of the best copywriters I’ve coached are more instinctive about these things but they’re still able to pull a new animal out of the hat every time.
“The best writers I’ve coached haven’t just been able to write like you. They’re able to draw on their understanding of adjacent industries, ask the right questions and begin to think like you too. ”
2. Not every ghostwriter is invisible
No matter what brand they’re writing for, every writer I’ve worked with leaves their own fingerprints on the page – but some know how to press more lightly than others.
There are a lot of good writers that have a go-to formula for sentence composition. And they’ll use it every time, regardless of context. You’ll see the same turn of phrase, the same writing rhythm or the same metaphors creep into their work, regardless of whether they’re selling flower arrangements or HR consultancy.
But some writers are natural ghosts. I’ve seen them adapt their voice to sound just like the director general of the National Trust. Or shapeshift into the guise of a certain consultant. Or evoke the distinct personality of a founder. Just as a voice actor can play the role of Mrs Doubtfire, these writers can fade into the background almost anywhere – perhaps advising you on your housework, or maybe on your career in law.
3. Not every copywriter needs to be invisible
Not every brand has a distinct personality yet. A company might be at an early growth stage, or they might just never have locked in their brand tone of voice guidelines. Or they might have adopted a generic businessy voice that doesn’t actually resonate with their target audience.
It’s here that you want more than an absence of writer fingerprints.
Some of my favourite experiences are when a writer passes me work that snaps me out of my reverie, inspires me or even makes me laugh out loud. And it’s because they’re using what in rhetoric is called using ethos to create a sense of arête – a relatability or likeability.
In other words, they’re using their own voice to turn up the heat on a company’s personality. And they warm me to a brand I felt previously indifferent towards, along with the target audience of the piece. So while not every ghostwriter is invisible, not every copywriter needs to be.
4. Good writing is easy; good thinking is hard
Shifting gears, I’ve noticed that sometimes a writer’s best quality isn’t their writing. Good writers can often get away with relying on rhetorical devices, deft turns of phrase and an instinctive grasp of tone of voice. But when you’re dealing with expert-led businesses, that’s often not enough.
The best writers I’ve coached haven’t just been able to write like you. They’re able to draw on their understanding of adjacent industries, ask the right questions and begin to think like you too. Sure, they might not understand the intricacies of data science until you tell them. But with just enough explanation, they can create new roads between the expertise you have and the issues your audience cares about.
As we’ve written about before, outsourcing your blog to the right people doesn’t just help establish your expertise, it builds it. You’re not just inviting someone to get words down on a page and out into the world. You’re inviting an outside perspective to help you join the dots in new ways – and articulate your expertise in ways that will be convincing, refreshing and even exciting to readers. It’s fair to say that you’re not just buying words.
5. You can teach people how to write
Honestly, I’m pretty hot on this one. Sure, not everyone who undertakes a writing course is going to turn out the winner of the next Man Booker Prize. But a solid routine of learning, writing, receiving feedback and writing again will elevate anyone’s words to another level.
One of the best moments I had this year was when a writer, who was always clear and concise, learned how to leave some personality on the page. A second was when a writer abandoned cliche descriptions of an Italian city for their own original ideas. A third was when a writer drew on what they’d learned about UX design and began to invent knockout one-liners about a highly technical product.
You can’t hack expert copywriting. While some people instinctively know their way around a good sentence, it still takes years to learn to make writing (and the thinking behind it) land with audiences every time.
But it can be taught. I’ve seen it. The best writers aren’t usually born that way, they’re the ones who have learned the most from the editors, clients and readers they work with. Even as an editor, I still have an editor. And I wouldn’t trust my own words if I didn’t.