Find the angel in the marble, Jon Maxim, Freelance copywriter

Find the angel in the marble

Chip at your copy Like Michelangelo chipping at the marble

Michelangelo was once asked how he went about the sculpting process.

His answer?

‘I saw the angel in the marble, and carved until I set him free’.

How amazing is that? To see a thing of beauty in an unwieldy block.

For me, this sums up a key element of copywriting: the editing process.

You can’t create a statue out of nothing. Just as you can’t create a piece of copy from a blank page.

You have to start with lots. Of marble.

And words.

Writer’s block

Writer's block head in hands

I remember when I told my dad I was going to be a copywriter.

He responded by warning me about writer’s block: becoming burnt out quickly.

Fortunately, dad was wrong.

Writer’s block – or fear of the blank page – is easily fixed. Like Michelangelo, you just need a block of marble.

Even if that block is unappealing, messy and not much to look at.

So, to start the copywriting process, just write out exactly what you want to say.

Now, I know that sounds simple. It is. But it’s incredibly hard to do.

I know. Because I’m doing it right now. Trust me: place your fingers on the keyboard, and type.

Faced with the blank page? Just start.

Just start writing

Hands typing on keyboard

In your head, you have a whole load of ‘stuff’. Noise.

It’s a mess. And you’re expecting perfect copy to appear on the page.

That’s the writer’s block. That’s what stops you. The disconnect between what’s in your head, and what you expect to see.

So, just start writing. Even if it’s rubbish. In fact, it’s bound to be.

Got room for 30 words? Don’t worry: write 3,000.

Just 24 characters to write? Write 24,000.

Pour your heart out. A stream of passion and insights.

I call it verbal diarrhoea. A sea of words, a tsunami of them.

When you’ve run out of things to say, stop.

There’s your block of marble. The raw material.

A lovely quote from author, Jodi Picoult: ‘You can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page.’.

And Louis L’Amour: ‘Start writing, no matter what. The water does not flow until the faucet is turned on.‘.

We’ve got our ‘bad page’: we’ve turned on the tap.

What next?

Time to chip

Chisel and hammer

I’ve got my block of words.

Now, switch hats. From passion (pouring it out), to brutality.

Out with the chisel: time to start chipping away.

I start with the first word. Is it 100% necessary? If not, delete.

Then the second word. Same question: keep, or delete?

Word by word, I work my way through. Always questioning, being brutal.

Every word is a chance for the reader to switch off, get bored. I have to make sure every piece of ink (digital, or real) has been considered. Has purpose.

As copywriter Jim Durfee once said: ‘There’s no such thing as long copy. There is only too-long copy. 
And that can be two words if they’re not the right two words.’

The more I chip, the more the marble crumbles. In fact, the copy starts to edit itself.

Trust the process. Sometimes (when they’re your own words) that block of marble looks perfect.

Find a crack. Jam the chisel in there. Start chipping.

Let’s see how the process actually works.

A working example

Sculptor standing back

Take this (rather clumsy) block of marble:

When you have to start writing copy, just write out
exactly what it is you want to say and then delete
any words that aren’t 100% necessary to the meaning.

A total of 30 words. Waaay too long.

Start with the first word: do we need ‘When’? What happens if we delete it?

A favourite phrase of mine is ‘when in doubt, chop it out‘.

So, let’s delete. We’re left with:

When you have to start writing copy, just write out
exactly what it is you want to say and then delete
any words that aren’t 100% necessary to the meaning.

Ah: when going through this process, it’s important not to change the sense.

We have. The opening ‘you have to … ‘ now sounds like an instruction.

But don’t be tempted to add back in: keep chipping. We’ll delete the next two words, leaving:

When you have to start writing copy, just write out
exactly what it is you want to say and then delete
any words that aren’t 100% necessary to the meaning.

Better.

I’ll keep ‘To start’. But I’m going to question the word ‘copy’.

Why? Because you’re reading an article about copywriting. If I say ‘To start writing … ‘, you know it’s copy we’re talking about.

In fact, I’ll go one further: you know it’s about writing. So I’ll delete ‘writing’ as well. Leaving:

When you have to start writing copy, just write out
exactly what it is you want to say and then delete
any words that aren’t 100% necessary to the meaning.

Stop. Read it. Does it still make sense? Yes? Then I’ll continue. (If not, add back in).

There’s (deliberate) fluff in there: ‘just’, ‘out’ and ‘exactly’. Let’s get rid of those:

When you have to start writing copy, just write out
exactly what it is you want to say and then delete
any words that aren’t 100% necessary to the meaning.

The trick is to say the same thing. In fewer words.

Let’s just stop and check what’s left:

To start, write
what it is you want to say and then delete
any words that aren’t 100% necessary to the meaning.

It’s working.

Next: if I take a chisel to the ‘write what it is you want to say’, I can get it down to ‘what you want’. Our statue is starting to take shape:

To start, write
what it is you want to say and then delete
any words that aren’t 100% necessary to the meaning.

The ‘and’ is unnecessary.

To start, write
what it is you want to say and then delete
any words that aren’t 100% necessary to the meaning.

So are the ‘any’, ‘100%’ and ‘to the meaning’. We’re left with:

To start, write
what it is you want to say and then delete
any words that aren’t 100% necessary to the meaning.

I’m feeling the ‘that aren’t necessary’ isn’t necessary:

To start, write
what it is you want to say and then delete
any words that aren’t 100% necessary to the meaning.

Now ‘words’ seems unnecessary. The marble’s beginning to crumble.

To start, write
what it is you want to say and then delete
any words that aren’t 100% necessary to the meaning.

Again, keep checking at every stage. Does it still make sense? Communicate the main points? Good.

What’s left is my new block of marble:

To start, write
what you want then delete.

I’ll start from the beginning, again. And I reckon the ‘to start’ can go:

To start, write
what you want then delete.

Hmmm. Can you see the statue? The pure essence of our message? We end up with:

Write
then delete.

Not a pixel, letter or word wasted. And it’s 90% shorter. Thirty words reduced to just three.

Here’s the shape of the statue in the original block:

When you have to start writing copy, just write out
exactly what it is you want to say and then delete
any words that aren’t 100% necessary to the meaning.

I haven’t re-written it. No: I’m assuming my verbal diarrhoea, my passion, is what I needed and wanted to say.

I just deleted.

Anyone can write copy

Baby at laptop

What I love about this process is it’s mechanical.

You don’t need any innate skill. You’re not born a copywriter. Anyone can do it.

But: not everyone can do the homework. Researching what you’re writing about. Walking in the audience’s shoes. Developing a compelling proposition.

Those are the subject of my ‘Don’t start your writing by writing’ article.

But the copy? Easy stuff. Just remember to be brutal.

And how beautiful the end result – like Michelangelo’s work – can be.

Go sculpt.

————————

Join me on Tuesday 27 August in Sydney for Maximum Copy: a practical, powerful, fun workshop to explore these and other great copywriting insights.

Image sources: Pixabay

Article first published November 2018, updated July 2019

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Jon Maxim
Jon Maxim
jon@themaxim.flywheelsites.com

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.