You’ve got a major writing assignment to submit tomorrow and you’ve dedicated all day and night to getting it done. Although you promised yourself you’d get started once you found the right motivational video, somehow you find yourself falling down another YouTube wormhole – forcing you to pull yet another all-nighter lest you feel the wrath of your boss.
Prolonged procrastination (also known as the plight of copywriters and college students) becomes even more serious when confusion about your task arises as you try to race against the clock. Imagine the embarrassment of being reprimanded by your supervisor for not bringing it up earlier! What if we told you that procrastination and writing uncertainties can be avoided with the right prep work? Let Wordsmith help you get the lead out…
Breaking Bad (Briefs)
If you’re the kind of person who receives a writing assignment and then doesn’t touch it until moments before the deadline, you’d better be completely certain about your brief and what it entails.
According to a study conducted by the UK’s Direct Marketing Association, more than 68 percent of British copywriters believed poor briefs to be the greatest barrier to good work. So, what constitute a good brief? Steve Harrison, author of the book How to Write Better Copy, argues that good briefs must address several questions:
Who am I writing to, and how do they feel about the thing I’m selling?
Viewing your readers as part of a demographic often results in writing that feels distant. Instead, Harrison explains that readers should be treated as individuals who have a personal connection with your brand – this entails empathising with who they are, and recognising their feelings towards your brand. Harrison suggests examining your brand from the consumer’s point of view: “Do they like it? Are they indifferent? How important is it to the reader?”. Doing so not only helps you target your copy to make readers feel understood, but also bolsters empathy and believability as well.
What does your reader think about your brand?
“Are you British Airways – established, professional and respected? Or are you Virgin Atlantic – disruptive, fun and liked?” This question will help to determine your brand’s tone of voice and promotes consistency across your communications.
Despite both being UK airlines, British Airways and Virgin Atlantic appeal to their distinct audiences using very different brand tones and visual styles.
What does your reader think before receiving this message?
This question establishes the challenge(s) that your consumers are facing, and establishes why your brand provides a suitable solution for readers.
What proposition are you making to your reader?
Harrison feels this is the “most challenging but ultimately satisfying part” of both the brief and writing process: identifying the promise you are making to your readers. To Harrison, the most effective proposition style is the “elevator pitch”, where you must clearly convey your offer to readers within thirty seconds.
How do you back up the promise you’ve just made?
“Facts beat flannel every time,” writes Harrison. “They [readers] want to hear the hard facts that back up the claim you’ve made.” In your brief, compile a list of facts or features that you’ll need to cover in your piece. Consider including testimonials from users or influencers and positive statistics (from a respectable independent body) to strengthen your argument.
Netflix’s call-to-action is crafted to target customers concerned about committing to an extended membership service.
What do you want your reader to do?
A clear call to action ties all the other points together and motivates consumers to further interact with your brand. What do you want audiences to do after reading your copy? Tell them!
Master procrastinator Tim Urban on the challenges of procrastination – a situation that arises when the “instant gratification monkey” in our mind is left unchecked.
Getting into the zone
Even with a clear brief, there still lies the problem of psyching ourselves up as we try to write. Rather than searching endlessly for the right motivational video on YouTube, Daniel McGinn (editor at Harvard Business Review and author of Psyched Up: How the Science of Mental Preparation can Help you Succeed) believes that we already have most of what we need inside our heads.
Through a technique he calls “the Greatest Hits”, McGinn describes that we have to briefly seclude ourselves and recall a time where we performed to the best of our abilities – perhaps it was years ago when you felt a sudden stroke of inspiration and cranked out article after article in quick succession, or perhaps it was last Tuesday when you interviewed satisfied consumers and turned their feedback into stellar customer testimonials. It sounds incredibly simple, but it certainly seems to work for professional athletes and wrestler-turned-neurosurgeon Dr. Mark McLaughlin!
Listening to music while we work is nothing new, and studies have shown that it can raise productivity as well, but McGinn explores how listening to music before we perform can enhance our performance – especially with songs that we’ve developed an emotional connection to (for this writer, “Guile’s theme” from the game Street Fighter is the go-to song before any exam, project or… anything really). Music is highly personal, so it’s all about finding a song that speaks (or sings) to you. Not sure where to start? McGinn's website offers a convenient Spotify playlist of hype songs.
McGinn also explores the science behind pep talks. Studies have shown that hearing a simple motivational statement like “You can do this” or “I’m going to try as hard as possible” enables subjects to think more constructively and boosts their performance as well. “It sounds cheesy,” McGinn tells Harvard Business Review, “but it does work… The messages there are to be relentlessly upbeat and positive… psych yourself up with the idea that you’ve done this before and can do it again.”
Sylvester Stallone (as retired boxer Rocky Balboa) gives a motivational speech to his son using anecdotal references from his former boxing career.
Trying to write without doing the necessary prep work is like intentionally handicapping yourself in a marathon – sure, you could probably still make it across the finish line, but it would be an uphill climb all the way.
By formulating a proper brief and making the right motivational preparations, you’ll know precisely what your writing needs to cover and be able to tackle your assignment with confidence – even if you do put it off until the last possible moment.