For many years, I was a copywriter in ad agencies that specialized in pharmaceutical advertising, writing copy about prescription medicines. Outside of any feelings anyone may have about that industry, it was a great challenge for any writer to wed hardcore medical science with the soft fuzziness of marketing.
One aspect of this industry that can be hard is that every piece of marketing that goes out to consumers is heavily scrutinized by a cadre of internal experts. This is done to make sure that all the information that they put out about any medication is completely accurate and balanced, making sure that any possible side effects are clearly indicated.
So my copy was always heavily edited.
Even though I know a great deal about every account I work on, there are times when my copy will be rewritten in order to speak more correctly about some aspect of that medication. One day, a lawyer will try to reword how I wrote about the possible side effects of a drug. The next day, a doctor will write a new section about how the path to diagnosis is characterized.
Each new person that adds in their two cents is also adding something else: their writing voice.
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They almost always write in the way that they speak. But they’re used to speaking to each other and doctors about the medication. They don’t always have the perspective of the patient in mind. This experience always reminds me about how important it is for an editor to give you direction and not becoming another writer.
The role of a writer in an advertising agency, at its very core, is very simple: You have to know how to speak to your intended audience.
Even though that makes the job of a copywriter sound simple, it’s actually very hard. It can be hard to separate what your client wants (and how they speak about it) from what your audience wants.
So before I start writing anything, I always stop for a moment and ask myself these questions. They are stupidly simple, but they help remind me what my job is and where my head needs to be as I write.
Who am I talking to?
Write all of these answers down, and you’re starting to get a better idea of your target audience. It should read something like this:
“Young men in the U.S., living in big cities and using our product for social reasons, looking for ways to connect with friends and find new experiences.”
What are they like?
On a daily basis, I visit some of the websites that my target audience would visit. I wanted to know what the latest news was in their lives, things they were paying attention to. I wanted to know what he or she is talking about with friends.
Very little of this research makes it’s way, word-for-word, into my writing, but it all helps. Just as an actor may find a subtle mannerism in his research to flesh out the character he is playing, all of this research helped me in small ways to connect with my target.
As you’re doing your research, take notes of interesting turns of phrase, touching quotes, cool ideas and funny jokes. Then you can go back and drop versions of these same ideas into your writing.
What do they want?
The answer to this question is specific to what you’re writing about. For instance, visitors to this site want answers to questions they have about becoming a writer. They may have doubts about themselves, they may just have questions about what they need to do, or they could simply be searching for inspiration.
This is the hardest question, as well. People spend their whole careers studying anthropology, sociology, psychology, and economics to be able to answer this question. The tricky part is that members of your audience don’t know what they want. Getting the answer to this question even partially right will make your writing more impactful than almost all of the marketing out there.