I’ve gotten a few copy critiques in my day. I crave them, no matter how harsh, because that’s what makes the writing better.
I’ve also given a few copy critiques, too. And I’ve discovered that when I’m on the handler side of the red pen, there’s one essential element to making those recommendations more effective: “ego butter.”
Let me back up.
Some years ago, I was part of a conference call with a freelance copywriter. He’d been commissioned for a small job, which was tweaking the lift letter on a much larger, longer control (one I’d written, in fact).
Leading the call was friend and mentor o’ mine, the inimitable Michael Masterson. The letter was, well, weak. Michael took control of the call and made a series of what I thought were brilliant suggestions. We all concurred, except for the freelancer.
After the critique was over, the receiving end of the call went conspicuously silent. “Hello?” we said, thinking he’d slipped on a kumquat or something equally plausible.
“Mail it,” he said. “Mail it and see if it works? Then I’ll revise it.” Clearly, he was peeved. Not, dear reader, the protocol of a copywriter seeking much repeat business.
This guy, no matter how slighted by the review, clearly lost his cool. And with that, he also lost a repeat client. It was really too bad, because I distinctly remember plenty of high-paying work to go around. With some guys, there’s nothing you can do. Their skin is so thin, you could pop it with a tossed marshmallow.
But here’s the thing…
While I despised that copywriter’s behavior, it does occur to me now that, at some level I couldn’t help but sympathize.
See, while not all copywriters are the egoists and temperamental “artistes” like this guy might have been, there are reasons why — if you’re on the critiquing side of a creative exchange — you might want to take the writer’s position into consideration.
First, remember we’re only human. Remember too that good copywriters put a lot of work goes into what they produce. They spend a lot of time with it too.
By the time we’re finished the first draft, we’re connected with the result. In such a way that criticism — even the good kind — can’t help but set one back at least a little bit.
Again, if you’re a great writer and a smart one, you’ll take even the sharpest comments with a smile. But on the flip side, if you really want results from a hired gun copywriter, there’s a step you could take to get much better results. And it won’t cost you a dime.
Very simply, start with the positive. Not excessively so, not insincerely. But clearly and immediately.
Example: “I liked the headline. And oh wow, the typing was nice. And hey, is this scented paper? Nice touch. Now, let’s talk about your lead. I think I see a way to make it even stronger.”
Okay, of course I’m kidding here.
The point is, if the copy is salvageable, there’s something in it you like. Don’t save it for last. Talk about it up front. You can be honest about the stuff you don’t like to. But lower the resistance to your suggestions first.
Is that pandering? Perhaps.
But ask yourself, in any situation alike this, what’s the goal of the critique? Is it your aim only To toughen the writer’s skin… or are you out to get the best possible copy you can get?
The latter, I’d assume.