“Writing a book is an adventure. To begin with it is a toy, than an amusement. Then it becomes a mistress, and then it becomes a master, and then it becomes a tyrant and, in the last stage, just as you are about to be reconciled to your servitude, you kill the monster and fling him to the public.” – Sir Winston Churchill, 2 November 1949, Grosvenor House, London.
Sir Winston Churchill is famed for being the ‘British Bulldog’ whose speeches galvanized a nation against seemingly insurmountable odds.
He was also a writing workhorse. Over his lifetime, he wrote more words than Dickens and Shakespeare combined. His published speeches stretch to eighteen volumes, while his memos and letters run into the millions and fill over 2,500 boxes. He even won a Nobel Prize for his writing, much to the chagrin of his critics.
Although Winston Churchill was a writer of historical non-fiction, he’d no doubt have a few droll words to share on what it takes to be a top copy dog.
Here are four rules I believe he’d have drilled into any copy cub lucky enough to have him as a mentor:
1. Spend two thirds of your time on research and one third on writing
Describing the internet to someone in the 1930s would have sounded like the ravings of a mad fantasist. Yet, as one of the first people to fly a plane, Churchill would have been enthralled.
He had a contemporary equivalent he called his ‘factory’. It consisted of a cavernous library of 60,000 leather bound books and a small army of researchers, secretaries and literary assistants. With a few barked commands, he’d send them scurrying down to search for facts or texts, in the manner of his own rudimentary search engine.
After handing over their findings, Churchill would absorb them into his elephantine brain to be processed and his thoughts verbalized in concise, lucid prose. His dictation sessions could last an entire day and late into to the night, when he’d continue to reflect while sat, naked, in a bath.
Without enough research, your copy will fall flat. Unless you understand the market inside out and your reader better than they know themselves, your copy is unlikely to create a deep emotional yearning in their gut.
Conversely, when you do enough research the writing part is easy. The challenge is then keeping the word count down rather than knowing what to say.
2. Review your copy three times before you publish
Churchill’s writing process had three stages.
First his typists got his spoken thoughts on paper. Then he’d go through the text with a fountain pen to cross out dull sections, rephrase clumsy syntax and, as a beholder of brevity, replace long words with shorter versions.
He’d then have the whole thing typed out again to be reviewed a third or fourth time before he’d deem it worthy to be sent to the printers.
After completing the ‘ugly’ first draft, we’re blind to our own writing. The only way to be able to spot typos, mixed metaphors and clunky phrases is to go through a ‘gestation’ period.
This is like rebooting your brain from the head space you were in when writing. Wait at least one day. Or go for a walk, watch a movie or clean the bathroom. Do anything to take your mind elsewhere.
Then when you sit down to polish, you can assess your copy with fresh eyes and review it from the reader’s perspective.
3. Write how you talk and put the reader first
In an era when people wrote post it notes like it was a job application, Churchill’s writing stood out for its ‘lucid self expression’ and ‘rich and rollicking readability’.
He wrote with crisp, punchy sentences that took readers racing down the page. His writing style may not have won him admirers in literary circles. But the public loved it. And he got paid handsomely for it too.
Underneath their power suit, even hard nosed business types have a beating heart. And a new generation of marketing managers is ready to embrace the benefits of copy that speaks to their prospects as individuals with challenges to solve, rather than someone you have to impress with superlatives and sales speak.
4. Be trustworthy
Churchill often wrote from the front lines and wasn’t shy about exposing the horrors of war. He’d write about the machine gunned corpses and men without legs crawling to the Nile because they were dying of thirst as well as the bravery of cavalry charges.
This was at a time when politicians were eager for war to be glamorized as noble and heroic. His brutal honesty won him few friends in the military. But readers trusted him to pull back the curtain, as it was said that Churchill ‘cannot really tell lies.’
In this era of ‘fake news’ and militant cynicism, you have to start every page as though the reader is staring across the table from you with a furrowed brow.
So consider how you can add a trust element to everything you write. Point out your product’s faults (while subtly turning them into an advantage). Explain who your product is NOT for and call out the lies told in your marketplace.
A show of brutal honesty will help position you on the same side as your reader against a common foe, and build trust that you have their interests at heart.
Who inspires you to write better copy?
These were just four rules I noted down while reading about Churchill. I could easily have written down 20 more.
Perhaps the biggest takeaway is that Churchill’s attitude to writing reinforces that tactics come and go. But the fundamentals of clear, persuasive writing never change. So consider replacing some of the time you spend in Facebook groups and forums with re-reading the classics. You’ll find more gold in Hopkins, Caples and Schwartz than hours spent panning in most threads.
Who inspires you to set higher standards for yourself as a copywriter? I’d love to know.
N.B. This post was inspired by ‘The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History’ by Boris Johnson (yes, that Boris Johnson).