5 secrets professional copywriters won't tell you, Jon Maxim, Freelance copywriter

Pssst: 5 secrets professional copywriters won’t tell you

Whispering angels - copywriting secrets

I’m going to let you in on a secret. Actually, five.


Well, five seems like a nice round number.

No, seriously.

I want to share some secrets to help you when working with a copywriter. Things you might not have realised. Things they probably won’t tell you.

They’ll give you an idea of what makes a copywriter’s mind tick. (Or your own, if you’re the writer.)

Hey: I’m sure there are more than five. Feel free to let me know yours. But these are the ones that spring to mind.

The insights I’ve always wanted to share.

So here goes, with number one.

1. It’s a mess until the deadline

Copywriting secret 1 - it's a mess until the deadline

Yep. If you call before the work is due and ask ‘how’s it going?’, you don’t want to know the answer.

The answer I’ll give you is that it’s ‘looking really good’.

The real answer is that I’ve got an opening line. A couple of scribbled thoughts on my desk somewhere. An article I’m reading that might help (although I haven’t quite found the connection, yet). Another client that’s bumped your brief down my list.

And a growing sense of panic.

Not what you want to hear. because then you’ll just panic, too.

But should you?


I’ve been a copywriter for over 35 years – a freelance copywriter for almost 30 of those. Spoken to dozens of other copywriters over that time. Read thousands of books and articles.

We all have the same process. Research. Research. Then research some more.

When we feel the pressure of the looming deadline, we start to write.

But that’s good. The more research we do, the deeper the understanding and insights. That’s great for the end result.

The actual writing comes last. There’s not much to show for it until just before it’s due.

And, of course, the writing is a work in progress. There’s always a word that can be tweaked. A piece of punctuation to play with. A thought you haven’t quite nailed.

Which brings me on to secret number two.

2. The copy is never finished

Copywriting secret 2 - Unfinished paving

I remember one particularly-frustrated client demanding (after I’d complained yet again about the timing): ‘So, Jon: what is the ideal deadline?!’

My response: ‘the nanosecond before I die’.

I will never have enough time. Give me a week, I’ll take a week. Give me a month, I’ll take a month. Give me an hour, I’ll take 61 minutes.

In fact, if a copywriter gets your copy to you early, you should be worried. There’s always something that can be improved, pushed, refined.

Reminds me of one of my favourite quotes, from Douglas Adams, the author of The Hitchhiker’s Galaxy: ‘I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.’.

Yep: the copy’s always late.

I’ve been lucky enough to win several copywriting awards over the years. I look at those pieces of copy now, and cringe. ‘Uh-uh: that word’s totally unnecessary’. D’oh!

At my last agency job in London, I was given six weeks to write three double-page spread ads. Weeks, not days.

I’d come into work in the morning, and change a word. Then go for lunch (well: it was the 80s).

Come back in the next day: change that word back. Go for lunch.

Crafting away, day after day. Still never satisfied.

I read those ads now, and struggle to find where the copy could be improved. (But give me time…)

So, assume the copy is going to be late (if the copywriter really cares). And that they’re never going to be 100% satisfied with it.

Onto our next secret.

3. They read the brief just before they start work

Copywriting secret 3 - Office wall clock

I know, I know. That’s frustrating when you’ve spent hours working on the brief.

You send it across, and expect the copywriter to drop everything and dive in.

Sadly, not the case.

We’ll notice it. Log it. Move back onto what we were working on before you interrupted us.

So if you get a call or email from the writer hours (or minutes) before the work is due asking for clarification, don’t worry.

All par for the course.

It doesn’t mean they don’t care. They saw the brief, they know it’s coming. Part of their brain is mulling it over in the background.

I like analogies. So, think of a dinner party.

You might talk and think about some of the elements in the weeks before. Who to invite. Seating arrangements. Timing. A theme, perhaps.

But, for really fresh ingredients, you pop out on the day (or day before).

Just like copy. I want it all fresh in my mind when I actually start to work on it.

No disrespect to the work you put in. You should still get the brief across as soon as you can. It plants the seed.

But I won’t read it for a while.

Talking of briefs…

4. We’re never happy with the brief

Copywriting secret 4 - crying baby

Some writers I’ve worked with ignore the brief.

For them, it’s boring paperwork.

I’m the opposite.

I believe the brief is the springboard to an idea. Gives us a head start. And, often, has the germ of an idea in it, already.

I’m pretty lazy. A good brief will give me the clues I need. The insights to start my customer role-play journey. Kickstart the ideas.

And I’m never satisfied with the kickstart you’re giving.

I’ll mumble about the proposition (if it’s got too many ideas in it).

Roll my eyes at audience description.

Harumph at the budget.

But I won’t tell you. Oh, no. If you ask me what I think of the brief I’ll say ‘It’s fine’.

You see, if there’s anything I’m not happy with in the brief, I start digging.

That’s good news for you (the brief writer). I’m going the extra mile. Really getting my head into it.

You want me to dig, discover and uncover. That’s where I find the magic, the unexpected. Let me: it’s only going to add value.

And, last but by no means least…

5. We actually care

Copywriting secret 5 - Smiley faces drawn on toes

This might surprise you. Copywriters (well, the good ones) genuinely care.

About the audience. About the subject matter. About you. About getting it right.

We put our heart and soul into the concepts and copy. We draw on our life experiences, and role-play, to create empathy and understanding with our audience. Share personal experiences, doubts and heartaches.

We interrogate the product or service we’re writing about. Do our homework, become a (temporary) subject matter expert.

Worry endlessly about the headline.

There’s a little piece of us on the page.

We desperately, genuinely want you to like the copy (and us).

Be gentle with your feedback. Know that, although we try not to, criticism will hurt. A little.

Start with the good stuff. What did we get right? A little praise, before you enlighten us to where it could be improved.

Then we can start the re-write, feeling as positive as when we began.

Key take-outs

Burger chips and drink

So what does this all mean?

For one, expect the copy to be late. Not weeks or months late: maybe a day or two. If it is, celebrate: the writer’s doing their job. They care.

If you haven’t heard from them, and the deadline’s slipped past, don’t worry. I can assure you that your brief, and you, are top-of-mind.

Maybe create a false deadline: give them the day before you actually want it.

Second, don’t ask how it’s going. That really doesn’t help.

Perhaps ask if there’s anything else we need. That gives us the excuse to ask what we should have when we got the brief (and didn’t read it).

Third, be gentle with your feedback. We’re all on the same side, here. We all want the best copy and ideas. Help the writer to keep up the passion and momentum by pointing out the good stuff, before hitting them with the not-so-good.

Hope those insights help.

And – pssst: tell me yours.

Image sources: Pixabay


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Jon Maxim

Jon is a multi-award winning copywriter. For over 30 years, he’s helped clients – large and small – develop engaging concepts, content and copy. For 25 of those years, he’s been teaching people how to do it themselves. His courses on copywriting, ideation and presentation skills are highly sought-after and highly effective. Jon lives in Sydney, Australia: but is often found on a plane, heading to where he’s most needed.