Copywriting Is

6 December 2022

‘Unique’ is an overused word in just about every walk of life, and nowhere more so than marketing. And yet ‘unique’ is a fitting adjective to describe Copywriting Is.

With Copywriting Is, Andrew Boulton has given us a collection of short reflective essays on the art of copywriting. It’s audacious in every way – even down to the absence of page numbers. It’s as far removed from a how-to guide as a book on copywriting can be.

I’ve never read anything like it.

Idiosyncratic themes like Small and Exploding, which double up as chapter headings, aren’t what you’d recognise as professional hot topics or best practice. But this is because Boulton is concerned with the spirit of copywriting, not the rules. If you’re looking for a primer or advanced guidance, move along the bookshelf. You need to be in the mood for Copywriting Is.

The creative state

His themes are plentiful as well as unorthodox. But let’s focus on the area that he returns to over and over again – ‘the creative state’.

Boulton is a vocal advocate of allowing your mind to wander as a prerequisite for creative thought. At CopyCon 2022, an annual UK copywriting conference, Boulton delivered a session characteristically entitled Thoughts of an Idle Fellow. “Do we have proper access to our own imagination?” he asked. And he argued that process is the enemy of creativity.

His clarion call for a slower style of working certainly made an impact. One speaker after another referred back to his contention with their own viewpoint. Whether people agreed or not, it was the dominant idea of the day.

In the book, he returns to the theme again and again.

When we rush, we skim the surface, and fail to make real connections with the world or other people.

Boulton can easily come across as other-worldly. At one point in the book he argues against time management, something even medieval scribes had to pay attention to.

And yet Boulton is a 21st century university lecturer. Deadlines and targets will be his lived experience. Not only that, Copywriting Is focuses exclusively on copywriting in agency environments (a failing of the book, in my opinion). So he can’t easily be dismissed as an idling hermit out of time with the way we work today. But he leaves it to the reader to work out how to manage client relationships and survive the cost of living crisis without time management.

Back to the creative state, Boulton argues convincingly against working in the same surroundings every day – same desk, same office. He soothes us with his understanding of our love of the habitual then delivers a devastating blow to our habitual ways:

But in our line of work, controlled and consistent can provoke an unusual sort of chaos. At the very least it breeds a stale sort of fluency that gradually erodes the need for imagination.

The desk may not be a conducive environment for creative thought after all, not least because where sources of distraction can thrive.

Reading is not a lifestyle choice

I was delighted to see how vehemently Boulton advocates reading. It’s more than a hobby; it’s the only way to hone your writing skills.

Reading as a way to prompt your own writing is as close to an infallible method as you’re likely to find in copywriting.

We are unlikely to develop the understanding of what works and what doesn’t work, Boulton says, without broadening our reading horizon as widely as possible. And Boulton demonstrates his broad reading throughout the book by scattering literary quotes to support his arguments.

10 copywriting tips

Although it’s undoubtedly discursive and reflective, Copywriting Is does offer some valuable copywriting tips. Here’s my top 10:

  1. Step away from the rule book. As Boulton says, “Good copywriting is a fluid, emotional craft and, at the risk of sounding wanky, it is a product of following your instincts rather than the rule book.” (He swears a lot, by the way.) Rules can be broken for the right reasons.
  2. Everywhere you go, always take a notebook with you. Great ideas can flit in and out of your head before you’ve had time to capture them. A notebook or notes app will do the job.
  3. Believe in the power of envy. Envy can be a destructive force, overshadowing your successes with the stuff you aren’t doing. But it can also be a dynamo for change if you channel it positively.
  4. Limitations are your friend. As Boulton argues, there’s a direct relationship between quality of writing and the constraints within which it was produced.
  5. Don’t start at the very beginning. Avoid over-setting the scene. Get stuck into the action straight away. Consider deleting the opening paragraph when you’re editing.
  6. Writing and editing are like red and green. They should never be seen together. “Today’s you is in charge only of splattering the walls with imagination. Tomorrow you is the one who has to tidy up.”
  7. Write in time to the rhythm divine. Rhythm is essential to good copywriting. “Flowing, rhythmic writing is more pleasurable to read and therefore more likely to be read and remembered.” It’s essential to read aloud everything you write.
  8. Set your words free. You do not get the final say on what your own words mean. Your audience will decide. You need to make peace with that reality.
  9. Don’t be a sore loser. Learn to love feedback. Mistakes and failures can move you forward. Boulton quotes the wise words of Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Let me never fall into the vulgar mistake of dreaming that I am persecuted whenever I am contradicted.”
  10. Small can be beautiful. For me, this was the killer lesson of the entire book. Marketing can involve promoting a product or service (or individual feature) that only offers the tiniest benefit. As Boulton says: “Your response to such challenges needs to reflect the nature and size of the problem.” Right-scaling your copy is more likely to resonate with your audience than hype.

Andrew Boulton is his own man and he lives successfully by his own values. He seems oblivious to commercial realities and marketing metrics. This is what sets Copywriting Is apart from other copywriting texts I’ve reviewed – notably Andy Maslen’s Persuasive Copywriting and Steve Harrison’s Can’t Sell Won’t Sell.

But we can all learn from Copywriting Is. It’s an enjoyable read and reflective journey written by a creative purist. There’s a real risk that you’ll take nothing away, but if that happens, maybe you’ve skimmed over some valuable insight and failed to take it all in a little more slowly. Because ultimately, Boulton is correct. Production line writing lets us all down, whether we’re writers or consumers. We need time and space to write well.

Buy Copywriting Is on Amazon.

What author Andrew Boulton said in response to this review

Had I written a copywriting book where everyone agreed with everything, I fear I would have written a bad copywriting book. Individuality, whim and the peculiarity of each and every writer in this most whimsical and peculiar profession can, and should, be a necessary barrier to any universal truths or templates coming into play.

My book was only ever intended as a window into my own strange and scruffy experiences and observations – if there is advice in there it could only ever be advice based on stuff I have experimented with (or stumbled upon) myself.

Parts of my way may work for parts of the readership part of the time. I would be worried if none of it was of any use to anyone, but I would be mortified if all of it was mistaken for some sort of ‘solution’.

What this is all building up to is that Sarah’s review understands the book perfectly – which is both enormously gratifying, and something of a relief. I didn’t set out to write a deliberately weird book about copywriting – I’ve simply had a weird (and wonderful) time as a copywriter and wanted to capture some of that oddness on the page.

It is always slightly unsettling to read what someone else thinks about what you have written – even for a copywriter who squeezes through that particular wringer on a daily basis. But to see someone embrace the chaos, impracticality, confusion, curiosity and sheer slipperiness of writing creatively and commercially for a living – which is what the book was intended to capture – makes me glad I forced my lazy arse to write it in the first place.

An enormous thank you to Sarah, not just for ‘getting’ and sharing my little book, but for showcasing such a wide and valuable range of the books creative folks like us might like to lean on every once in a while. I’m proud, and delighted, to have been a part of it.


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