Writing is rewriting.
A teacher in Ohio asked her class what creativity means. A big question that many people with big names have tried to answer. But one seventh-grader gave a response that I think beats all the others ever produced. Her post-it note read:
‘Creativity is doing more than the first thing you can think of.’
I hope that girl becomes a writer: she’d make a terrific one. She understands that anyone’s first idea is usually poop. Obvious, expected, unoriginal, blah. The same goes for first lines: they usually suck. So the only way to write a lot of great sentences is to write a lot of bad ones. The difference between mediocrity and brilliance is that brilliant writers keep going instead of settling on something okay-ish.
That’s why writing is rewriting. You’ve got to get your first, second, third, and who knows how many other crappy lines out of your system — until your brain figures out a better way of saying the same thing. You rewrite your thought again and again and again [cue one of those ‘2 hours later’ film captions] …and again until your sentence is no longer just okay or decent or pretty good, but great. Clear, clever, snappy, funny, catchy, bold, or whatever else it needs to be.
This works both for creative writing and copywriting — but with copy, the pressure can be even higher. If you’re writing a headline, you probably only have one sentence to play with — so it had better be good. Especially if thousands of people will be seeing it on a billboard.
Next time you spot a great line — the kind that makes you go ‘Damn, I wish I’d written that’ — remember what you’re NOT seeing. Think of all the rejects that came before it, written by the same person but wisely scrapped for being so-so instead of spectacular.
Can you imagine what the examples in today’s email (you'll need to scroll down a little to see them) would have looked like if the writers had stopped at their first, third, or some other not-quite-there-yet version?
That legendary Nike Air billboard would have read something like 'Defy gravity' (though, knowing Tim Riley — never!). And the La Vie ad that made me stop, smile, and share a snap with a friend (plus all of you) would have just said 'Discover vegan bacon that tastes like bacon' or 'Vegan bacon, reimagined' or 'Being vegan has never tasted this good' or some other instantly forgettable crap that wouldn’t have excited a single person (or pig) in its short, pointless existence.
So with every good headline from now on, try retracing the writer’s steps. Where do you think they started? This should be a plain and clear message, no bells or whistles just yet. Something like 'Nike Air trainers are lighter' or 'La Vie makes vegan bacon that tastes like real bacon'. Now, how might they have got from that to the jealousy-inducing copy you’ve just read? Get into the habit of doing this mental exercise with all great copy you see. And of course, now you know you have to push your own writing further than your first five or ten attempts.
That’s it. From now on, you’re not a copywriter but a copyrewriter.
I’d love to tell you that it gets easier with time and experience, but that would be a lie. You’ll arrive at better copy faster, that’s true — but your standards will keep growing at the same time, so what counts as 'wow, I’m a genius' today will likely feel a bit “meh” in a year. The good news is, the moment you arrive at a great line will still feel bloody great every time.
Here are a few tips to make it happen a little bit sooner.
Don’t try to get too clever too soon. Start by writing down the message in its simplest, plainest, clearest form.
Now say in ten, fifteen, twenty, forty more times — differently. Hit it from every angle. Write it in different voices and from different perspectives. Pause, re-read, tweak the lines that are going somewhere, abandon those that aren’t.
No need to cross anything out: those aren’t mistakes, it’s literally the only way of producing good sentences known to humanity. Eventually you just learn to get those truly terrible ones out of the way in your head, without having to put them on paper or screen.
Play with it until you know you’ve said it every way you could have, and your brain begins to hurt a little. Then stop. You might not crack it the first time, even after fifty attempts, but don’t worry — your brain will keep mulling it over long after you’ve moved on. The answer might come to you in the shower or halfway though cooking dinner. I keep a notebook by my bedside because a significant percentage of my best lines come to me in that twilight state of mind just before I fall asleep.
Sometimes the real eureka moment strikes just after you’ve sent the work to the client. Try to sleep on it instead, or at lest give it a few hours to rest — then come back to your writing and see what your brain makes of it this time.
In the wild.
You can probably guess what the task will be. It’s simple, though not necessarily easy.
Take a plain and clear message and say it another way. And another. And another. Until you’ve said it 20 times.
Then share all of them — ordered from worst to best, in your opinion.
The message you'll be working with comes courtesy of Transport for London:
'Please refrain from using your mobile phone on the stairs, as this can lead to falls and serious injury or death.'
This is your Line Zero. Just 20 more to go. For context, let's say you're writing for a poster or a radio announcement.
Here's an example of what it could look like, to help you get started. I chose a different safety message instead of playing with yours — just to avoid cramping your style:
'Sound levels have hit 100 decibels. Even a few minutes at this level can cause temporary hearing loss, while prolonged or regular exposure can damage your hearing permanently.'
[Context: message from a sound level measuring app that warns you about dangerously loud environments.]
(10 instead of 20, just to give you an idea)
1. Hey, sounds like you’re in a really noisy place. Get the hell out if you don’t fancy temporary hearing loss. And don’t come back, unless you want it to become permanent.
2. Wow. Now that is some mighty noise: 100 decibels strong! Stay a few more minutes if you want temporary hearing loss. And do this more often if you want to make it permanent.
3. Oi! Your ears speaking. What’s all this racket? Get outta there — we refuse to work in these conditions. And if you keep doing this, you won’t be hearing from us ever again, literally.
4. HEY YOU! 100 decibels — what the heck? If you don’t get somewhere quieter, we’re going on strike in a few minutes. And stay away from here in future if you want to keep us. — Signed, Your ears.
5. Sound levels have hit 100 decibels. If you’re trying to go deaf, stay where you are. If not, go somewhere quieter and stay away from noise levels like these.
6. Hey, remember that song you love? Make sure you do. Because with your current sound levels, soon you won’t be able to hear a thing.
7. Hey, wanna learn a new language? British sign language, that is. You might need to, if you don’t GTFO of the dangerously noisy place you’re in right now.
8. You’re somewhere dangerously noisy — the sound levels are over 100 decibels… I! SAID! THIS! IS! REALLY! LOUD! GET! OUTTA! HERE! BEFORE! YOU! GO! DEAF!
9. Around 430 million people in the world are deaf or near-deaf. Want to join them? Then stay right where you are.
10. Being deaf is great. No screaming babies, noisy neighbours, or James Blunt songs… But if you’d rather keep your hearing, go somewhere quieter asap.
Dare to share.
Post your rewrites in the comments section below — anonymously, if you want.
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Thank you for reading — and writing.
Until next week!