James Joyce’s bad advice
James Joyce wrote:
“…a book in my opinion should not be planned out beforehand, but as one writes it will form itself.”
But then he wrote Finnegan’s Wake, which is a big bag of insane, and, let’s face it, Ulysses is pretty… well… we’ll say sprawling.
So, while he may be one of the greatest writers who ever lived — and all props to him — I don’t think this particular nugget of knowledge is especially helpful for the anxious copywriter who, when sitting down to write even a thousand-word blog post, feels like they’re deputizing for Sisyphus.
Writing copy without any direction in mind makes writing copy infinitely harder to write.
There are countless times I’ve cursed myself an hour or two into struggling with a piece because I didn’t think about what I wanted to actually say.
If you don’t know what point you’re trying to make, you can be sure you’ll spend many more hours than you should anxiously wandering around for any words, let alone the right ones.
It’s why when it comes to any piece of copy, be it a hundred-word blog or ten thousand-word sales letter (but especially if it’s a ten thousand-word sales letter) you should swerve Joyce’s opinion on this one.
You should plan.
It doesn’t mean you have to lose all spontaneity and creative flair in your work. You can still write in whatever experimental way you’d like. Covered in bees if you must.
It just means you’ll have some moral support… some stabilizers if you find yourself wobbling… or a safety net if you find yourself anxious about falling from the tightrope of a tricky idea.
And different writers plan in different ways.
Human dictionary Will Self jots his ideas down on hundreds of Post-it notes, which he sticks in his study, considers over time, and rearranges until they finally find a form to guide his writing.
Starting out with a loose contents page is another helpful way to guide your thoughts. It’s something I always do myself, regardless of how long a piece of writing might be.
Rather than trying to keep everything floating around in your thoughts so you’re forced to stagger vaguely around the page, I recommend you bullet point key elements you want to deal with.
Doing so will give you a more visual representation of what’s in your head.
With a small piece of copy, you might have three points you wish to make, in which case, you can create a simple three-bullet content guide for the piece, three subheads perhaps, each helping you stay focused on making each individual point before moving to the next.
And longer projects work just the same, really.
Having struck upon the idea for a recent long copy sales letter, I knew I had various issues I wanted to explore so marked each one down and formed a possible contents page.
Throughout the writing and editing, the plan changed a lot as I encountered dead ends, developed the scope, or realized something in one section should be elsewhere…
But crucially, because I had the contents page as a guide from the very beginning, it served not only as a path through the copy itself but as reassurance in those moments I got lost and doubted myself (there were many).
Having a plan of some kind, however loose, also serves another stress-relieving purpose…
You see, it is only natural, especially with longer pieces of copy, that you’ll get stuck on a particular line or an entire section.
Sometimes a little elbow grease will get you through (and it’s rewarding when you’re able to challenge the words in this way, shift a sentence, or find a new phrase that fits).
But there are moments when head-scratching over a tricky line or section turns from engaging challenge to full-on doubt-inducing disaster.
When you have a plan in place for your writing, you can move around much more freely.
Rather than sitting down at your desk at the same half-finished page you’ve been sitting down to for the last two weeks, you can tackle another part of the project.
Instead of being so anxious about your inability to progress that you start creeping past your desk like you would a sleeping grandma who, should she catch you, would demand a toothless wet kiss… you can instead storm into the room, wake Nanna up, and demand she crosses your palm with silver.
I mean, whatever happened to pocket money, eh?
Anyhow, this is how Nobel-prize-winning writer Orhan Pamuk handles it…
(The jumping from section to section approach — not the whole granny pocket money thing.)
He explains that when he’s stuck on a project, he:
“…continues with whatever takes my fancy. I may write from the first to the fifth chapter, then if I’m not enjoying it I skip to number fifteen and continue from there.”
Interesting here too is the fact Pamuk points out he skips from one part to another if he isn’t “enjoying” what he’s writing.
No good comes from forcing yourself to write copy and, in turn, doubting your very credentials as a copywriter.
It serves no purpose to wonder why you’re not enjoying the thing you have your heart set on doing.
If you’re stuck on a particular piece or you’re simply not enjoying it, do something different for a while.
Of course, without a plan of where you’re going, this is almost impossible. You could be waiting days, weeks, even months for a breakthrough and, in the meantime, you’re not making progress and the self-loathing has its chance to surely resurface.
As well as questioning your own ability, you’ll begin to question your whole idea, see problems that aren’t really there, and naturally, you’ll find yourself procrastinating, doing anything you can to avoid facing the impasse.
Or, with a plan in place, you can acknowledge the fact it’s just one bit you’re stuck on at the moment, work on another bit instead, and figure out the problem another time.
In my mind, that’s much more sensible.
Bottom line is…
Even a rough and ready contents page for longer pieces or a quick, bullet-pointed list of touchstones for a shorter one could be the difference between a piece of copy falling apart completely or succeeding.