40I wouldn’t usually write about me, me, me. But this month is my 40-year anniversary of being a professional copywriter, and I was asked to share what’s changed since I started.

I always knew I wanted to be a writer.

My first memory is aged 4 when my Mum told me to put three random letters together to make a word. I kept running into the kitchen (where she was peeling potatoes) asking: “Is this a word? Is this a word?” Eventually, I spelled CAT.

I got more positive feedback, aged about 8, in junior school. We were clustered round the teacher’s desk and I was asked to spell out the word ‘coffee’. I said: “CO double F double E” and was praised. Apparently, most children my age would have spelled it out letter by letter.

Then I won a writing competition when I was 14 or so. At that age, adults can’t resist asking what you want to do when you grow up. I replied: “I want to be a writer”. My mum’s friend invited me to enter a competition to write about the country then known as Zaire (formerly the Belgian Congo, now Democratic Republic of Congo). She gave me a National Geographic that I could use for research. No Google back then, obviously! I won the competition. They didn’t even award a second or third prize because my entry was so good. *Blush. The story I wrote is in the loft somewhere…

Getting started

After A levels (English, French and Art), I was offered a place at the prestigious Watford College of Advertising, even though they thought I might be ‘too diffident’ for the industry. Their feedback was partly why I chose to do a periodical journalism course at the London College of Fashion instead (now University of the Arts). The diploma I attained is equivalent to a year of NCTJ and equipped me to write for newspapers and magazines.

Then, as now, journalistic work was hard to find. Everywhere I applied told me I needed office experience. So I started working at AMP in Croydon (the world’s largest insurance company) calculating alterations to policies. Me, a wordsmith, working with numbers. Eek!

I did my best, but still feel sorry for anyone whose endowment policy or school fees plan didn’t quite work out due to my dodgy maths. Meanwhile, to feed my urge to write, I contributed three articles to the staff magazine, which had won gold awards in Australia. Those were among my first published pieces. They’re in the loft somewhere…

Happily, Freemans hired me to write catalogue copy in 1983, and I’ve worked as a copywriter ever since. 18 years in-house, then 22 years’ freelancing. It’s been great to make a living doing what I love.

Ancient history

To produce catalogue copy, we had to handwrite product descriptions for the typing team. The typed versions would be couriered to the typesetters who’d send back galley proofs, printed on A3, for us to proofread. Copywriters would mark amendments in blue, designers in green, and buyers in red – a simple way to show who’d made which comment. The practice is so engrained in me that I still feel uncomfortable if I write using a pen in any colour other than blue.

Then I moved to the Promotions & Publications Department and got my first typewriter. But it couldn’t type the letter O. They told me to type a C and fill in the rest with Biro.

I ranted at my boss: “I’m a professional writer! I can’t be expected to work this way! If I throw the typewriter out of the window and it lands on someone’s company car, I can’t be held responsible!”

In response, they gave me an electronic typewriter (which only directors’ secretaries had!), then an Amstrad, with its tiny green-on-black screen. The ability to cut and paste paragraphs was like a miracle. Later, our team of 12 copywriters and designers used to share three Apple Macs.

I find it extraordinary that I now have instant access to the Internet via my own iMac, MacBookAir and two iPhones.

Ch-ch-ch-changes

When the 2008/9 recession hit and marketing budgets were cut, clients were choosing cheaper copywriters than me. I wondered what I could do that those other copywriters couldn’t. Training! I realised I have useful experience and am happy to share it.

Before lockdown, I had three main strands to my career. Speaking and training generated most income. Copywriting was about a third.

Then, when no-one could travel anywhere, my speaking opportunities were all cancelled and training switched to Zoom.

Now, the balance of copywriting and training is about 50:50, with a trickle of income from my mentoring programmes and books.

What next?

These days, my team and I mostly write case studies, web copy, blog posts, thought leadership articles, email sequences and social media content. We still write copy for printed marketing materials, but there’s not so much demand for that, because paper, ink and distribution costs so much more than pixels.

A couple of months ago, I asked my social networks how I should celebrate this anniversary. Most responses said: “Retire!”

But I have no plans to stop. I’m good at writing copy, I like writing copy, and people still need it. And they pay me for it.

That said, I’m not committing to another 40 years…

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