Who else has never read a book since school?
Now that may seem like a bizarre question to expect from someone who writes for a living. It might even freak you out.
But the truth is that I’ve never actually read a single book since I left high school.
OK, I’ve read a fair bit of non-fiction – and I’ll get onto that in a minute – but not so much as a single novel, play or any other book of fictional or creative nature.
I detested English Literature at school. I couldn’t even get beyond the first couple of pages of a novel without hyperventilating with boredom.
So how on earth did I end up becoming a copywriter?
Because there’s a demand for people like me – that’s why
Yes, you read that right, there is a massive market for copywriters just like myself.
Maybe you think we’re illiterate or something, but writers like me just aren’t interested in stories, poetry, sonnets and inspired moments of self-expression.
Instead, all we’re interested in is information. In particular, practical information that makes our lives easier or more pleasurable.
Give me a book or blog post that shows me how to learn a foreign language, pitch a press release or market my copywriting then I’d much rather read that any day.
Because it helps me get where I want to go.
And here’s the kicker: Most other people who are searching for content online are doing just the same.
Think about the stuff you read when you’re browsing or searching online. Most of it’s just informational or commercial material. It’s so different from literary writing that it may as well be in another language.
A Bad Education
Now this is the controversial bit – but trust me, as an outsider, I’ve often seen the signs of this in other people’s writing. Basically, if you’re a copywriter then reading books may end up doing you more harm than good.
By reading literature you could be subconsciously learning a writing style that’s no use whatsoever in the straight-talking world of website copywriting and blogging.
A Reality Check
And, while we’re at it, here are another few home truths.
Most prospective copywriting clients really don’t care if you:
- are an avid bookwork who’s always loved words
- have a dedicated poetry section on your website
- can impress them with your artistic talents as a writer
All they really want to know is whether you:
- get what they’re trying to achieve
- can embrace the subject they want you to write about
- are able to write in a clear, concise manner that their visitors can understand
So avoid those whimsical musings on your blog and telling prospects your ambitions of becoming a book author – because most business clients won’t be interested in the slightest.
A Methodical Approach
So you may be wondering how on earth I write when I never read.
Well, as I said, I do kinda read. It’s just I don’t read literature.
But does that make writing any harder?
If anything, it makes it easier – because, for me, writing isn’t a creative discipline. Instead, it’s just a series of systematic or methodical steps.
Here’s how it goes:
- First, I study the client and their proposition. In particular, I look at any existing copy they have, such as their website.
- Secondly, I look at competitor websites and make note of all the great ideas and copy that I want to steal from them.
- Next, after discussing features and benefits with the client, I list the most important sales points. Any that set my client apart from their competitors go right at the top.
- Then, just like a jigsaw, I piece together the content for each web page. And even if it’s a blog post, I still methodically plan out what I’m going to say.
- Finally, I write the copy. This is where I recycle, rephrase and reuse any ideas I’ve borrowed from elsewhere.
The great thing about working to a set procedure like this is that, in the end, the copy practically writes itself. And, by the time you’ve finished, you’ve still got a whole new original piece of content.
Now, for all you book fanatics reading this, I’m not of some deranged notion that reading fiction is somehow bad. The world is full of people with different interests and it just so happens it isn’t one of mine.
But the point I’m making is this: Most of the killer copywriting gigs out there aren’t for bookworms and aspiring novel writers. So if you wanna make a real go of freelance copywriting then you’d better keep the two things totally separate.
Have Your Say
Who else has never read a book since school? Do you agree or disagree that reading literature is bad for your copywriting? Leave your comment below.
In our next post: Does it matter if no-one ever comments on your blog? Find out why it does and what you can do about it.
About the Author
Kevin Carlton is an IT copywriter and blogger based in Stafford in the UK. He is owner of freelance copywriting service Write Online, which helps technology companies get the most out of their online presence.
I agree with some of what you’re saying. Especially that copywriting and creative writing should be kept separate; that’s critical. I also agree that to be a killer copywriter, we need to study the mechanics methodically and objectively. I also agree that most clients care only that we can do the job.
However, I disagree with some of your other points. The best copywriters I know read as much literature as they can. It keeps their mental muscles flexed and their reading comprehension skills sharp. It also trains them to take different approaches and see different points of view. Even poetry shows how to make the most of every word, down to the syllable. Most of all, reading prevents copywriting burnout.
It’s true that if one isn’t careful, bad habits can creep in. But truly professional copywriters should be able keep their professional writing and creative writing separate when they’re on the job.
In my case, my professional copywriting is nothing like my creative writing. Or my blogging. They’re two different worlds, which is how it should be and how I treat them. My copywriting pays my bills and I love it, but I also pursue other writing forms because at the end of my life, I want a body of work to show that’s my own. Not just a portfolio built on other people’s visions.
Now, books are one of my greatest passions. For me, the only thing better than unlimited time in a bookstore is unlimited time in a book. But I still study copywriting as its own discipline.
Reading for fun isn’t for everyone (including my fiancé because the universe loves irony). And that’s okay, too. Some people love skydiving and rock climbing. I’m not one of them but hey, to each his/her own.
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I absolutely love your response. I couldn’t cover all bases within this post, so your comments really help to add another perspective.
It’s funny you should mention that some of the best copywriters you know are big literature fans – because, as it happens, the great Jon Morrow is an English Literature graduate. Although I’m sure I did read somewhere that he felt this wasn’t exactly the best background for a professional blogger.
Nevertheless, I suspect it actually worked well for him. I just reckon that, while reading literature is beneficial to some writers, it’s actually incredibly harmful to others.
Just like you and your fiancé, Erica, my partner and I come from Venus and Mars where it comes to reading.
And one final thing. Although I hate fiction, I just love learning and speaking foreign languages. Maybe that’s where I get a similar kick and where our interests are more similar than we initially might think.
Love this material, Kevin. Maybe one day I will gather my courage and become a copywriter too!
For me, it wasn’t a case of making a deliberate and conscious decision to become a copywriter. As client demand for the work I did gradually shifted, I slowly evolved into a copywriter instead.
In other words, I was fortunate in that I didn’t have make that big leap into the unknown that you refer to.
But if you’re reading up and visiting loads of blog posts like this one then you’re sure to be in a much better position to make that move.
I love all books, including fiction. But I love this blog post, too, because it’s right on point. And looking at your process, that isn’t surprising. :)
I know it’s Monday, but… POST OF THE WEEK!
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Somehow I suspect you often have to bring this point up in your one-to-one mentoring sessions Sophie.
Thanks for adding your weight to the conversation.
I’ve actually written about this on a reading and writing web site – aptly entitled, “Why I Stopped Reading.”
Though I loved reading all kinds of books as a kid, required reading killed my passion.
But I do agree with Erica that if you are going to be covering numerous topics, you need to read all different kinds of writing – even the fluffy fiction. :-)
I’ve just checked out your “Why I Stopped Reading” post. What I really liked was your comment:
“Opening a book became totally associated with studying.”
For anyone else wants to check out Willi’s post, you’ll find it here:
Thanks for sharing Kevin!
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You’re welcome Willi.
Glad you put in a CommentLuv link to your latest post here – that post has some great bitesize tips for writers to think about.
I’m in a completely different boat as far as love of literature goes, but I’ve still been thinking a lot about what you’re talking about here — if I really want to be the best copywriter I can be, does reading good books really help?
I’ve come to the conclusion that it really doesn’t; it’s just something I do because I love it, and because I write for the love of art in my other life. I think the ability to compartmentalize your existence without losing your mind is a huge asset for anyone who’s involved in marketing. It makes things a little bit more complicated, but I think my head would explode if I tried to keep my head in marketing-space all the time.
I don’t think being a literary type necessarily hurts the aspiring copywriter, as long as you learn to separate style from content. That seems like a pretty valuable skill for the aspiring creative writer all by itself. Maybe I’m just coming up with ways to rationalize why everything I do is the Right Thing.
You got me thinking too: Just because someone loves listening to music, doesn’t make them a good musician. So you could say that just because someone loves reading doesn’t make them a good writer.
I know this is a little simplistic, and Erica made a good comment about keeping those mental muscles flexed, but the analogy does at least help to underline my point.
Namely that reading literature and copywriting are two very different things.
Okay Kevin, you probably haven’t been out of school all that long either my friend. Trust me, when you’ve been out as long as I have you’ll be interested in reading something.
Not that I want to tell on myself but computers hadn’t even come on the massive scene when I left high school and no, there was no internet, cell phones or cable TV my friend so you had to keep yourself entertained some way.
Of course I’m also not a copywriter or even a writer for that matter so I guess maybe if I had different interest then this might be another story.
I do appreciate people such as yourself though who can entertain us with words or easily teach us something we need to know. That’s the way I learn best and trust me, there’s not a lot of that out there today. Most of it is way too technical or over my head so I appreciate it when someone takes the time to really care about helping others learn.
Thank you for this interesting post. I wasn’t quite sure what I would find here but I appreciate your viewpoint.
It was 1983 when I left school, Adrienne, so I guess that’s quite a while too. In other words, that’s 30 years since I last read a book from cover to cover.
I have tried. But I’ve never got beyond the first chapter. There are always other things I’d rather be doing.
I guess this puts me in quite an unusual position for a writer – and is why I felt more able than most to get across an alternative viewpoint.
Many thanks for your contribution.
I don’t know, Kevin, it seems terribly sad to not read books. I get your point about the separation between career writing and the language of literature. But it still seems sad. There are so many great books, and so much that you are missing. I’m a writer and I write everything from hard news journalism to published poetry to award-winning creative nonfiction to novels. I read everything, too. Heck, I even read the toothpaste box before I throw it away.
Does reading subtract from my writing style? Maybe. But if so it’s a subtraction well worth taking. Life is short and I want to live fully. If a certain book or style impedes my writing for a few days, so be it.
Or put it this way: You can stay up late for date night with your partner and be tired the next day at work. Yes, you probably won’t be as productive but you will be much happier. I feel the same way about a good book. There’s something sensual about sinking down inside a novel or memoir or long piece of nonfiction, something that speaks of time, and commitment. It’s an interchange between the author and reader, a type of pact, an blending of ideas and outlooks and time. Unlike shorter reading, books offer readers a chance to step inside another world, to linger amongst the smells and sounds and emotions.
I wouldn’t give that up for anything.
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Thank you so much for taking the trouble to voice your opinion here. I really appreciate it; I really do.
I also kinda expect a fair few people to feel the way you do, as I’ve made quite a bold and controversial but genuinely heartfelt point in this post.
However, how I see it is that, fundamentally, reading literature is a hobby just like any other.
If I’d written a post suggesting that stamp collecting or pony trekking could have negative impact on something then some people would feel it terribly sad that I didn’t get a kick out of them too.
Speaking foreign languages, which I love doing, also offers the chance to step inside another world – albeit a very real one. But it doesn’t particularly bother me that other people similarly deprive themselves of this pleasure.
Maybe your post should have been titled “Don’t let the classics turn you into a fossil” :)
I agree that the old-school literary style doesn’t excite many web users (except history geeks like me) but that doesn’t mean you can’t read books!
There are loads of modern novels that contain awesome conversational dialogues and descriptive writing – using conversational language that we all use every day. Personally I love Nelson De Mille (heck, even Dan Brown is OK). And another thing, it’s not every writer who has an easy-going conversation style when they SPEAK – in fact some writers are total introverts who get insanely tongue-twisted in interviews and writing workshops. If you’re that type of writer, you need to learn how to be smooth :) Books can teach you that.
Anyway, that’s me chipping in. Feel free to disagree with me :)
Thanks for your comment PS.
One thing though – I wouldn’t have used the blog post title you suggested. It’s neither specific enough to my audience nor optimised for search engines.
I needed to mention the words copywriting and gigs in there somewhere:
– Copywriting because that’s what this blog is about
– Gigs because getting writing gigs is one of the main challenges for any freelance copywriter
I’m not sure reading novels can teach you this.
To date the best segregation formula that I have ever heard is from great copywriter Bob Bly who says, “Keep your love for the literature separate from the business writing, it will help you stay sane and pay the bills”.
For starters he proposes a percentage of 80/20 with 80 being business writing/copywriting.
And I am in sync with him here.
This 80% business writing will, in fact, buy us the resources and time to actually enjoy our more creative and subtle side.
Makes lot of sense to me.
Irfan, that’s undoubtedly a really good tip for all the book lovers out there.
But as I don’t read literature anyway, it’s not something I need to worry about.
I’m sure there’s creativity in the writing work I do too. But I just apply it in a more logical and scientific way.
What you’ve said really hit me hard, to be more specific “subconsciously learning a writing style”, and believe me someone who took a little wrong approach on writing and found myself in this pit and i didn’t even know it until….a series of ‘something’ happened to me. Especially for those who dabble in story-writing industry. Last but not least, awesome content. Keep it up.
Sharma, this is also why I don’t like people banging on about story telling all the time.
These people are dead right, as stories do work as a marketing tool. But it also sends out the wrong message, as copywriters can easily start thinking like novelists rather than marketers.