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There’s a scene in Goodfellas that relates to copywriting, for me. Henry’s in prison. He was caught dangling a debtor over the lion’s den at a Florida zoo and he’s been sent down for 10 years. We expect to see him languishing in a dingy cell, scowling through the bars.

But prison life isn’t like that for Henry and his fellow wiseguys. They have a cosy set up, four of them living together in one large room, with beds on one side and an improvised kitchen on the other. They get regular deliveries of lobster, steak, salami, wine and whisky. They’ve pretty much set up an Italian restaurant in there.

Goodfellas: Dinner in Prison

In a corner of the room, we see Paulie, slicing garlic with a razor blade. There’s a close up on his hands. He slices slowly, carefully, cutting the garlic into shavings so fine they’re translucent. They pile up on the wooden chopping board next to the herbs. There’s no hurry in this method. If it takes a hundred cuts of the razor to prepare each clove of garlic, that’s what it takes.

Paulie bows his head over the task. All around him, there’s frenetic activity. Vinnie’s cooking a vat of tomato sauce, Johnny Dio’s in charge of the steaks, a huge consignment of lobsters arrives at the door. Occasionally Paulie lobs a comment across the room without looking up, his gaze fixed on the garlic.

There’s something about the way that Paulie slices garlic that reminds me of how copywriters work. It’s to do with the quality of focus, the intense attention and concentration.

At the start of a project, we investigate our client’s world, following the scent of every promising detail, tracking down stories that will add piquancy and flavour. We squeeze every drop of juice from brainstorms with the client and design team. Greedily, we amass our raw ingredients and pile them up on the workbench beside us.

That’s when the garlic shaving begins. We become absorbed by the task in front of us, focusing on everything from the big picture to the tiniest detail. How can we use these ingredients to shape a strategy? Which stories say something meaningful about the organisation’s values and attitudes? What are the precise words and phrases that will distil our messages?

In another parallel with our garlic-loving gangster, copywriters can easily melt into the background. We tend to listen more than we talk and you’ll often find us sitting in the quietest part of the office, wearing noise-cancelling headphones.

That’s why it’s wonderful that the Writing for Design awards shine a light on copywriters’ work. They celebrate the garlic slicers – the people in the creative team who love language and its power to work with design to influence, inform and change minds.

I can’t wait to see all the brilliant new copywriting that will be on display at the Truman Brewery in April.  

In the meantime, where’s my chopping board?

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