Personally, I never thought I had a preferred “writing environment” before I started writing professionally. During school, I’d almost always written at a desk in my dorm room, maybe with some music on. When I would write for personal fulfillment after graduation, same thing, except in my apartment.
I didn’t realize at the time that, though I may have chosen these environments out of convenience, they fit my writing personality. They were comfortable, generally quiet, and I could shield myself from outside interruptions. That all changed when I got my first “real” writing job and was given the little kid desk at the back of the office, against the wall.
It was - no joke - a piece of wood supported by two file cabinets.
I learned then that a professional writer doesn’t often have the luxury of choosing their work environment.
That realization struck me when I tried and failed to come up with a list of vanity URL options for the better part of a day because I couldn’t concentrate. It wasn’t until after 5, when people started heading home, that I was able to finish that list. I put some music on and I was done by 5:30.
When you’re a professional writer, you suddenly have limitations on when and where you work. Not only that, but you have no control on how long you have to work. No more sweet talking your way out of a Thursday deadline.
These may seem like small barriers that you have to get used to as a writer, but they are real obstacles. Learning to overcome them is a big part of establishing yourself as someone who can consistently write well, no matter the situation.
You can’t control your environment
Ad agencies are crazy, silly places. Over the last few years, most of them decided on an open space layout so that everyone can be in one big room like the ball pit at a Chuck E. Cheese. In ad agencies, the noise level can be anywhere from “morning at the library” to “dodgeball in the high school gymnasium.” Often both within the space of an hour.
In these spaces, it’s easy to get distracted. Sometimes you’ll be working on something and getting your momentum going, and then a coworker asks you a question and you lose your train of thought. Some studies suggest that interruptions and the resulting loss of focus can end up costing you up to 3-5 hours a day.
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What you can do about it
The most obvious solution is that you can leave. If you know you need to concentrate and won’t be able to do that at your desk, go somewhere you can concentrate. A coffeeshop, park bench, empty conference room, even working from home. Just let your coworkers know where you’re going and how to get in touch with you if they need to.
One technique I’ve found surprisingly effective is to put on some large, over-ear headphones and look busy. People can tell you’re deeply involved in whatever it is you’re doing then. This doesn’t work with in-ear headphones, as well, because, inevitably, people won’t see them and interrupt you anyway.
Finally, you can get in early or stay late. There will be less people in the office and you’ll have some interruption-free time. Added bonus, you’ll get a reputation as a particularly hard worker.
The most important thing is to figure out how you write best - and then do that.
You can’t wait for your muse to find you
Anyone who’s ever written on a deadline knows how stressful it can be to hope inspiration strikes before time runs out. That’s doubly true when the deadline is driven by a magazine’s publication date, and there’s hundreds of thousands dollars invested in making sure that ad is effective.
I’ve often thought it was funny that I could spend the better part of a day working on headlines. When it’s all said and done, I could have spent 6 hours working on what ultimately becomes a six word headline. At one word an hour, that seems like a really inefficient use of my time. But more often than not, that’s how it works.
It gets tricky when you don’t have that time. Often, something happens last minute and you have 2 hours to come up with something brilliant.
How to write fast and brilliant
“Work faster,” seems like the solution to this problem, right? But that’s easy to say, harder to do.
I’ve mentioned a few times the importance of having a process when writing, and that is never more important than when you’re working on a deadline. You need to know where to go to find that inspiration, and find it fast, or else you’ll bang your head against the wall. It can be hard when you’re stressed to slow down and go through the steps of your process, but that’s when you need to most.
I’ve also found that the longer you have worked on a brand, the easier it is to know what they should say and how they should say it.
You can’t fix that… one… last… thing
Da Vinci said “Art is never finished, it is abandoned.” I don’t believe it’s helpful to think of advertising as art, but I do think this quote applies. Tinkerers find it hard to work in advertising because they can’t keep improving their work. Eventually, it has to head out the door.
Learn to let go
You can make letting go easier on yourself by tinkering up front as much as possible. While it’s true that everything you write can continue to be improved, force yourself to make as many of those improvements early in the process as possible.
The best way I’ve found to do this is to focus on what you’re trying to improve.
Often, within the agency you’re asked to provide options. Say I’m working on headlines for a website. At the beginning, my goal will be to offer 3-5 options for the client to choose from. That may mean I need 5-7 options to share internally at the agency so that we can pick the best of my options as a group.
I might quickly come up with 10 rough options for the headline that have some promise. The first thing I’ll do is kill the 3 options with the least promise and never think of them again. Now I have my 7 options to share internally, but in rough state. This is when I start editing, polishing these rocks until they all shine like diamonds.
This both saves my time and energy, and ensures that the options I share are stronger. In advertising, more isn’t better. Better is better.
You can’t write what you want
I’ve mentioned this before, but when you’re a copywriter, you don’t get to write whatever you want. You’re given projects to work on and you have to write in the style that best fits your clients and your target audiences.
This can become troublesome after a while, because if you’re like me, writing is part of how you express yourself. If you can’t really express yourself in your writing the way you’re used to, something starts to feel like it’s missing.
Find yourself in your writing
The nature of the business is not going to change. You won’t be asked to all of a sudden write your novel because you have a client who feels like they need more literature in the world to help them sell their product. But you can make room for yourself.
The first way to do this is to force yourself to write for yourself. Maybe start blogging. Or write your novel or screenplay. One nice offshoot of working in advertising is that you get to meet directors, producers and editors who sometimes work in TV and film. So you could pass a screenplay off to them, who may know someone who knows someone who can get your script into the right hands…
Hey, it always helps to be optimistic.
Writing on your own time isn’t easy, though. As I’ve said before, writing is exhausting. And that’s true if you’re writing for a client or for yourself. You have to make it a priority and carve out time - and energy - for it when you can.
The other way to find personal meaning in what you write is to try to incorporate elements that have personal meaning to you in your copywriting. And to try to find clients whose values reflect your own.
One reason I’ve worked for so many healthcare organizations is that I like helping people and believe in healthy living. Writing for a hospital system affords me the opportunities to write about things that matter to me.
You can’t do it alone
When you’re in school and you hear about writers, it can seem like they lock themselves away to slave away on their work in solitude. You hardly ever hear about their editors.
When you become a copywriter, you learn that everyone is an editor. Or, as I’ve been known to say on more than one occasion, “Everyone’s a writer.”
Not a single piece of writing you’ll ever do will go from you fingertips to the consumer’s eyes without going through rounds and rounds of revisions. That’s because you’ll get feedback on your work from everyone. Sometimes you’ll disagree with that feedback, but are forced to implement it because it’s from a client or your boss.
Learn to embrace it
Feedback is how you become a great writer. No great writer is simply born, and no writer graduates school and has achieved greatness, either. So accept it, because you need feedback to grow.
Feedback is how you incorporate ideas you hadn’t thought of.
It’s how your rough edges as a writer get smoothed down.
It’s how you learn if your ideas actually make sense to other people, or have the impact that you intended.
If you have the right attitude, you’ll learn to at least appreciate feedback as the valuable teacher it is. And you’ll come to see just how much better your work becomes because of it.
What you learn about working in an ad agency is that nothing great is the product of one person. It involves the collaboration of all your coworkers, and your job as a writer is to incorporate all of that great thinking into something that makes sense and makes an impact.