Mighty mouths

Bad copy can undermine the best graphic design, so Fay Sweet offers tips on getting words that work

Since the pen is mightier than the sword, American writer Truman Capote really knew how to inflict serious wounds with an economy of effort and the flash of a pen nib. With one neat cut and thrust, he dismissed the work of fellow novelist Jack Kerouak, saying: “That’s not writing, that’s typing”. His withering words may have raised a few smiles, but he didn’t stop

Kerouak fans parting with hard cash to read the “typing”… and going back for more.

As any journalist knows, writing is a subjective business – and judging it is equally subjective. But the very best writing must be that which elegantly conveys a message or story to its intended audience. And that is precisely the role of copywriting.

The old cliché runs that graphic designers simply perceive text as “messy stuff that interferes with the pictures”, but there’s every sign that this old-fashioned nonsense can now be laid to rest. However, still facing the designer are the complex problems of identifying and briefing appropriate writers, negotiating fees and coping with appalling copy.

“Good design and good copy go hand in hand. I can’t see how one can work well without the other,” says designer Andrew Wolffe of Edinburgh’s Tayburn McIlroy Coates. To prove the point he cites the example of Tayburn’s work for recycling company Hannay, where the company brochure, written by Liz Holt, has won prizes for the joint qualities of its copy and design. He adds that the consultancy has a range of writers to draw on. “In-house we have Barry Whitehead, who comes from an advertising background and brings a conceptual copy-based contribution, and then we use outside experts who may be specialists in anything from whisky and food to technical writing.”

Wolffe firmly believes that the best results are achieved by drafting in the copywriter early. “If possible, we’ll invite him or her in at the concept development stage so that he or she can contribute to shaping the project and get to know exactly what it involves.” Knowledge of the job’s history helps clarify the brief. And having direct access to the client is invaluable – the writer might just be able to focus the copy a little more accurately. Tayburn’s rate is negotiated by job, complete with inbuilt time for adjustments, with the fee scale ranging from 200 to 600 a day.

Many groups opt to write as much as possible in-house. “It saves briefing time as well as money, and, of course, insiders know the company and its projects inside out,” says Fitch PR manager Ruth Somerfield. “We employ external copywriters for other projects as necessary. All are experienced journalists who know about current issues and can bring that vital bit of extra knowledge or fresh insight to a project,” she adds. As for fees, the rate is either fixed by the client or Fitch assesses time for writing, research and amendments and suggests a fee for the complete job. Says Somerfield: “Paying by the word can make things difficult if amendments need to be made at a later stage. You know what you expect to pay when you negotiate a set fee.”

Dud copy is ditched and put down to experience. “If the copy is not up to scratch then it has to be rewritten. Luckily this rarely happens,” says Somerfield. “A copywriter who turns out to be hopeless and produces lacklustre copy is not used again.”

Colchester design group Silk Pearce draws on the skills of a team of freelance copywriters. “We are occasionally approached by new writers – they might bring in a portfolio of published work or send a letter – but like any mailshot, it only works if it lands on your desk when you’re looking for what they’re offering,” says consultancy founder Peter Silk. When using new talent, Silk asks for a sample of text following the briefing. “We wouldn’t expect someone new to go away and do the whole job without being sure they were headed in the right direction.”

He also points out that computer compatibility has become an issue. “We’ve found it’s worth checking what systems the writer uses as incompatibility can waste time down the line. To prevent any hold-ups we’ve got translation programmes that can open just about any disk.” Silk adds that a hard copy is essential for back-up.

While the delivery of unusable copy is virtually unheard of, Silk says that there have been occasions when the client has been unable to appreciate the finer points of the text. “The real problem comes when clients think they know about writing. If they are selling widgets, that’s all they want to see in the text. The subtlety of another approach might easily be missed.”

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