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Why is writing short copy so hard?

Masterclass trainer and strategic creative director Will Awdry sheds light on why we tend to overcomplicate copywriting

Illustration by Julia Wytrazek

You can say a lot in just a few words, but finding those words can be a challenge. How can you distil complex ideas into snappy, short copy? We spoke to Will Awdry, strategic creative leader at Sutton Young and course leader of D&AD’s Creating Short-form Copywriting for Impact, Masterclass about common copywriting pitfalls and how to fix them.  

The worlds of communication and advertising, Awdry says, are beset by contradictions. “People want to keep everything very simple, but they always talk about complexity. They want to make things very short, but then it gets too long.” He thinks we have a tendency to overcomplicate when it comes to working with words: “copywriting… is really just talking with a pen.” 

For Awdry, the best copywriting is the clearest. “The longer it goes on, the more you realise that you always try to bring it back to the truth, pure and simple.” He likens it to the work of Margaret Calvert, who revolutionised British roads in the 1950s with her easily interpreted system of pictogram signs. “She did in visuals what copywriters do in words, which is to take everything out.”

You’re afraid of getting it wrong

Awdry thinks one of the main reasons it’s hard to write simple copy is fear. “People just get quite scared, because they think they're going to be judged or evaluated,” he explains. It’s a common problem. “Almost everybody suffers from imposter syndrome. As soon as you sort of start to get involved you think ‘it’s not good enough,’ [but] you want to appear brilliant in front of your colleagues.” When you’re nervous about where you’re going, it’s easy to obscure the point – or try to be overly funny or clever to make up for your own sense of shortcoming.  

“Try to depersonalise what you've written: write it, go for a walk around the block, or make a cup of coffee… and then just judge it yourself,” Awdry advises. “You simultaneously become both creator and editor. Don't be harsh on yourself when you're creating but do be harsh on yourself when you're editing."

You’re putting too much of yourself in

When it comes to copywriting, it can also be hard to leave one’s ego at the door. “Everybody wants to put a little bit of them into the piece,” Awdry says, reflecting on the ways in which we can be our own worst enemies. “The temptation is to go ‘Oh, look, this is a wonderful bon mot, this is a clever turn of phrase, this exquisite piece of language.’ But you have to chuck all that stuff in the mincer. Because you're just trying to keep it really, really direct.” 

It’s a common impulse – one that Awdry compares to a dancer wanting to show off their pirouette. “I look at my own stuff, and want people to like it. You'd be mad if you didn't. But it is about trying to keep your ego separate from the [brand] identity that you're talking about.” 

Ultimately, copywriting has a clear purpose: to link a brand, in its own voice, to its audience. “If you want the fun miasma of joy and ego to be stoked and kept alight, go and write a novel, or a poem or a play, or a film script,” Awdry says. Understanding this distinction should be a freeing moment. It should remove some of the fear – “no one's going to turn around and immediately castigate you or take you to pieces for what you've written” – and also give you direction. “It's never about you. It's always about the subject.”

… But you’re also unwilling to have an opinion

This doesn’t mean, however, that you need to produce copy devoid of individuality. When it comes to a new brief, Awdry recommends starting by asking yourself questions. “What's my opinion? What do I feel? You turn it into a subjective view. As soon as you have an opinion, you can be more passionate about what you're writing about. And as soon as you're more passionate, it's more interesting for your readers,” he says. 

“The fault of an awful lot of commissioning and communication advertising is that it’s fairly obvious the people doing it aren't that excited by what they're talking about. Unless you can really work yourself into a frenzy about what you love or what you hate, you’re going to miss the point.” He gives the example of Marmite as a brand built on strong feeling (their campaigns are based around their tagline ‘You Either Love It Or Hate It’). “They have taken that to the absolute max,” says Awdry.

You’re stuck in the middle

Remember those tensions Awdry mentioned? Another one comes in the very process of copywriting. “You have to bring it to life, in your own words. You amplify it and make it bigger, but almost in the same breath you then get out a chainsaw and cut all that stuff away.” It can be enough to make one’s head spin. “You’re constantly building up and cutting down or growing and shrinking,” Awdry explains. “That's what really banjaxes a lot of people, which is why they think something so simple is so complicated, because they don't know whether they should go forwards or backwards.” 

The answer, he says, is to embrace the pendulum swing. “You have to do both at the same time, like rubbing your tummy and patting your head.” Being aware of this in advance – the distillation of ideas, the trial and error, the creating and editing, the natural back and forth – will stand you in good stead. “You have to pack your mental pencil case before you pick a pen up. It's making sure that everything's in there.”

Will Awdry’s D&AD Masterclass ‘Creating Short-form Copywriting for Impact’ combines world-class insight with interactive exercises and group discussion to help energise and distil your copy. Aimed at writers and advertising practitioners who want to refresh their approach, this workshop aims to revitalize the relationship between writing and thinking to unlock new levels of brevity. More information and sign-ups here. You can also explore do at your own pace courses here, as well as upcoming in-person and online teaching here.

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