What Novelists Can Teach You About Copywriting

9 minute read

You probably know Heather Robson as Digital Copywriter’s Managing Editor and a freelance copywriter.

But do you know she also writes fiction?

Heather started her fiction-writing career about a decade ago, and she loves it when she finds crossovers between writing fiction and writing copy. To that end, she shared 19 quotes from novelists with me — half of them from one prolific author — along with her thoughts on how it can help you be a better writer and business owner.

“Happiness is a garden walled with glass: there’s no way in or out. In Paradise there are no stories, because there are no journeys. It’s loss and regret and misery and yearning that drive the story forward, along its twisted road.” – Margaret Atwood, The Blind Assassin

This quote describes how, in order to move from one place to another, you have to desire some change or transformation.

As copywriters, we’re always trying to lead our audience from where they are to a more desirable place. Heather’s a fan of using positive messages in copy — it creates a better user experience — but even when you’re writing from a positive place, you have to recognize and address your reader’s pain points.

The bridge from where someone is to where they want to be is often the product or service you’re selling. Your copy always starts with the recognition that, for the reader, there’s something missing. You have to find that pain point.

The equation is simple: no pain point, no story.

“The first draft of anything is [crap].” – Ernest Hemingway

Whether you’re writing fiction, content, or copy, you can’t rely on your first draft. Your first draft is not supposed to be golden.

With that in mind, build a writing schedule that includes time to look for weak spots and missed opportunities.

Many writers spend more time on research and revisions than they do on drafting. And often, great writers spend as much as half their writing time editing their draft to make it as strong as possible.

Formulate a revision process that works for you. Heather writes the first draft and lets it sit for a while. Then she goes back and pulls it apart. She’ll revise it, and maybe have a writer friend look at it and pull it apart again.

Then she goes back and focuses on flow, pacing, and clarity. Finally, she polishes it into a final draft.

Even once your draft is final, it’s a good idea to let it sit overnight and then give it one final pass before sending it off to a client or publishing it on a website.

Give yourself plenty of time to revise your draft, and don’t doubt your writing skills if you have a lot of work to do after the first draft. That’s just part of the normal writing process.

“You’ve got to be prepared for hitting wrong notes occasionally, or quite a lot. That’s just part of the learning process. And read a lot. Reading a lot really helps. Read anything you can get your hands on.” – J.K. Rowling

Girl in bookstore, framed by books

This is essential advice for copywriters.

Your “wrong notes” are experiments you can learn from, not failures. Try things, and don’t be afraid to be wrong.

Reading will help you to improve your writing. When you read widely, you’ll have more to draw from when you’re coming up with the connections that can turn into Big Ideas.

“When people talk, listen completely. Most people never listen.” – Ernest Hemingway

Most people aren’t skilled listeners. That can hurt you whether you’re writing copy or fiction.  You lose track of the things your reader really wants. You lose track of all the things that bring richness to the story you’re trying to tell.

Listening is especially important when you’re discussing your project with your client.

Have you ever turned in a project and had your client tell you, “This isn’t exactly what we asked for”? It’s probably because you started thinking of ideas while they were still talking, so you missed some of what they said.

You also need to listen to your audience. The more you listen to and understand your audience, the better you’ll be able to write copy that resonates with them.  

Start by really listening, and then ask probing questions to dig deeper. Summarize your understanding and really listen to the response. When you listen in this way, your work will improve, and it will help your personal relationships, as well.

“Human beings, who are almost unique in having the ability to learn from the experience of others, are also remarkable for their apparent disinclination to do so.” – Douglas Adams, Last Chance to See

Don’t be like that!

Study other copywriters, look at landing pages, review the sales letters that land in your inbox. See what’s working, what grabs you, and what could work better.

Read posts on data-driven sites that share testing results. You’ll be able to see how changes to the copy improved results.

And talk to your clients about testing. You don’t have to be the testing expert, but you can offer to provide two headlines to test or two calls to action. Just make sure, if you’re doing extra work, that you build that into your fee.

“Never confuse movement with action.” – Ernest Hemingway

Our culture tends to value busy-ness, and that can easily lead you to spend time on things that make you feel busy, but might not be moving you forward.

Make sure you take the steps that make you feel uncomfortable. Building a list of prospects is a valuable step, but only if you actually contact those prospects. That’s the step that’s uncomfortable… and has the potential to yield results.

“People in their right minds never take pride in their talents.” – Harper Lee

We all have things we’re good at, and things we have to work to be good at.

You can take pride in being a natural-born writer, but then you might not work to hone your talent further.

Creative talent can be innate, but it’s also something you can develop and hone. The more you work at your craft, the better you’ll get.

“As a writer, you should not judge, you should understand.” – Ernest Hemingway

Of course, when it comes to writing about products, you have to make a judgement call sometimes. Is it a good product? Is it an ethical business? You want to answer these questions with an unequivocal, yes.

But outside of that, in copywriting, it’s important to understand your audience without judging them. You come across people from all walks of life, with different problems. Understand their goals, desires, and pain points, but don’t judge them. If you do, that judgement will come through in your copy and be off-putting to your reader.

When writing fiction, your goal is to understand your characters, not to judge them. With copy, your job is to really understand and have compassion and empathy for your audience, not to become critical of them.

“This invasion of one’s mind by ready-made phrases (lay the foundations, achieve a radical transformation) can only be prevented if one is constantly on guard against them, and every such phrase anesthetizes a portion of one’s brain.” – George Orwell

It’s important for a writer to be an original thinker. Conveying your ideas through the use of clichés and familiar turns of phrase is easy, but your work will be stronger if you avoid that temptation.

There are times when a cliché might be exactly what your copy needs, but if that’s the case, be deliberate about it.

As you convey your ideas, consider your words. Falling back on clichés because you don’t know another way to express an idea can read as lazy. And that creates a credibility problem, because it leaves the reader with the impression you don’t fully understand what you’re writing about.

“Write hard and clear about what hurts.” – Ernest Hemingway

Talk about a profound quote for copywriters.

Although it’s uncomfortable to deal with painful or scary things, as copywriters we have to really connect with that vulnerability.

We have to see the pain points, and then help the reader make the changes that will alleviate them.

Sometimes copy can seem a bit manipulative, but when you write hard and clear about what hurts, you can arrive at a place of honesty with your reader.

“You wanna fly, you got to give up the [stuff] that weighs you down.” – Toni Morrison

That’s a beautiful way to encapsulate the importance of choosing your priorities.

Life is all about choices, and if you want to be a writer, you have to find time to write. If you want to have a successful business, you have to make time to tend to it. That doesn’t mean you need to give up quality time with your family or your daily workout, but there are always things you can move aside to accomplish what’s important to you.

If you’re spending time doing things you don’t consider a high priority, give them up for a while and see what happens.

“All my life I’ve looked at words as though I were seeing them for the first time.” – Ernest Hemingway

In the crowded world of the internet, it can feel like everything’s been written about already. But even if your ideas aren’t completely new, you can always find a fresh, insightful way to convey them.

“It’s the job that’s never started as takes longest to finish.” – J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

This is great advice for fiction writers, and essential advice for copywriters.

When you land a project, the client provides a deadline. But a deadline is only part of the equation. You also need a start date. Choose a date to kick off the project and share that start date with the client. When that date arrives, make sure you spend at least part of it working on your new project.

When you receive emails and documents from the client, open them immediately to be sure what you’ve received is what you expected. There’s nothing worse than realizing a week later your client sent you the wrong document and you didn’t catch it.

“The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shockproof, [BS] detector.” – Ernest Hemingway

The internet gives us all unprecedented access to information. But it comes without gatekeepers, so you need to become an expert at sifting through information, with your BS detector set on high.

When researching information, ask yourself questions like:

  • Is it believable?
  • How was that statistic arrived at?
  • What does it mean?
  • What was the methodology for this study?

If you find something that doesn’t add up, don’t use it. If you use it, and your client catches it, it makes you look bad. If your client uses it, and a reader catches it, it makes the client look bad. Neither scenario will be good for your chances of getting another assignment from that client.

“What you hope for, you also fear.” – Alice Walker

Everyone starts with an idea of who they are, what they’re good at, and what level of success they deserve. When you start a new career as a freelance copywriter, you challenge those assumptions.

If you can acknowledge that you’re heading into scary territory, you’ll be better equipped to move forward.

“There is no rule on how to write. Sometimes it comes easily and perfectly; sometimes it’s like drilling rock and then blasting it out with charges.” – Ernest Hemingway

Do you believe you can write only when you’re feeling inspired? It’s not true. Sometimes you have to just sit down and write whether you feel like it or not.

Remember, your first draft doesn’t need to be good. Once you have that draft, you have something to work with.

If you’re always waiting for inspiration to strike, you won’t write a whole lot. And if you want to be a working writer, you’re going to need to write a lot.

Fortunately, the act of writing often brings inspiration. And that’s something you have control over.

“Anyway — because we are readers, we don’t have to wait for some communications executive to decide what we should think about next — and how we should think about it. We can fill our heads with anything from aardvarks to zucchinis — at any time of night or day.” – Kurt Vonnegut

When you read broadly, you’ll become one of the type of person marketing managers are looking for. That’s an idea person, someone who can not only write great copy but come up with the Big Idea you’re writing about.

As an idea person, you’ll be in greater demand and deliver more value to clients.

“I don’t write beautifully — I just write reports about our condition.” – Philip K. Dick

This quote from science fiction and futurist writer Philip K. Dick ties in well with Hemingway’s injunction to “write hard and clear about what hurts.”

As a copywriter, it’s important you don’t let your writing get in the reader’s way. You want to:

  • Connect with your reader
  • Reassure them that you understand what’s hurting them
  • Offer help

Copywriters don’t write to impress. We write to persuade.

Reading your copy should be effortless. You don’t want your reader to stop or stumble over anything. If you’ve written a section you feel proud of because the writing is really good, consider pulling it out to see if your copy is stronger without it. Often, it is.

Knowing what to cut and how to write without being fancy is essential for copywriters.

“It isn’t what we say or think that defines us, but what we do.” – Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility

Saying you want to write, or you want to be in business for yourself, or thinking about those things doesn’t define you.

Doing those things defines you.

Action is always available to you. You can sit down and start writing any time you want to. You can start networking on LinkedIn right now. You can write a blog post, send an email, or publish your website.  

These are all things you can do. But you have to do them. And the more you do, the more successful you’ll get.