5 Tips to being a better corporate writer

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Remember the Wizard of Oz?

I’ll always remember that creepy, disembodied head surrounded by pillars of FIRE.

That wizard was SCARY, man.

And Dorothy went up to that dude and asked for a favor like it was no big deal.

Sure, half the room was on fire and the wizard’s temple veins looked like they’d explode at any second, leaving everyone covered in wizard-brain-goo.

But whatever, man. Someone needed to get her home, right?

The interesting part to me, was what happened when she got a peek behind the curtain.

That little old man was working feverishly to keep the machinery running, and it instantly changed her perspective.

Before the howling winds of extended metaphor carry me away, let me clarify:

I had a Dorothy moment recently.

Like her, I’m a pretty ambitious, pretty mouthy chick.

I would often go to my boss, the company’s Copy Chief, with endless requests and idea pitches, and I’d even leaned on him for inspiration from time to time when I got stuck.

But last month, he went on a much-deserved vacation.

And he left me in charge (I suspect as payback for so graciously handling all my demands?).

Suddenly the curtain was pulled back and it was up to ME to keep the machinery running.

Thankfully, nothing imploded when he was gone. And I was so happy when he returned that I bought him a bottle of wine to celebrate.

But that struggle taught me a few things and really opened my eyes to the background operations of a corporate copy gig.

Today I hope to give you a glimpse – a tiny peek into the world of retail copywriting.

Aspiring full-timers and freelancers looking to connect with corporate clients – here are my top 5 takeaways from my time as Temporary (Retail) Copy Chief:

 

  • The ego has got to go.

When you’re the copywriter, you get to spend a lot of your time dreaming of big possibilities, big hooks, big ideas. You get to challenge comfort zones and shake up the status quo.

But when you’re making decisions on behalf of the business, risk becomes a much higher factor. It’s less about what I think will work creatively and more about how the creative fits within the bigger picture.

That said – NEVER stop dreaming of the big idea.

Without that fresh, creative input, things just wouldn’t grow and get better.

But know that if an idea doesn’t gain traction, it’s typically not personal. No one behind the scenes is judging YOU on your idea (unless they’re just an asshole to begin with). They’re simply trying to make decisions for the good of the biz.

 

  • The team is everything.

My days were SO stacked with projects and edits and approvals that at night I got home and crashed shortly after dinner.

The most challenging part was not having time to connect with my team, to explain and clarify. I needed them to pick up what I put down. And then, I needed them to run with it.

For you, this means that getting hired isn’t as much about technical skill and wordly prowess as it is about relationships and your own personal drive.

If you are good at knowing which questions to ask and when to ask them, digging up information when you need to, and self-editing, you’re already ahead of the curve.

In a nutshell, don’t ask me (or your future contact) for the answer to a question you could figure out yourself with a little digging.

Come to the party prepared to do killer work, and let people know you’re someone that can be counted on. I know that’s what I’ll be doing.

 

  • Other copywriters aren’t competition.

Talented, dependable freelancers can bail your ass out when you’re swamped.

Without freelance help (and the hard work of my team), I don’t know that I ever would have been able to leave the office.

This is counter-intuitive to most modern-day business wisdom, but it can be your secret weapon.

By connecting with other copywriters (rather than competing), you’ve got someone you can refer work to when you’re swamped, a nice source of referral business, a person to ask advice, and even someone who can support you when you’re in a jam.

 

  • Set (and get) clear expectations.

To me, this seems like it should be common knowledge and even common sense.

But you’d be surprised how many are comfortable assuming everyone’s on the same page (with 10 different perspectives of what “same page” means) rather than making sure.

Find out who the decision makers and stakeholders are. Figure out objectives and challenges, pitch the idea, set deadlines, and define deliverables. Do it in writing, and FOLLOW UP.

Confusion is the enemy of success.

 

  • Protect your head and control your time.

I wouldn’t have been able to do my work if I hadn’t set very clear boundaries.

I put a tri-fold screen at the entrance of my cubicle. On it, I hung a sign warning people that I had on headphones and did not wish to be disturbed unless it was something that needed immediate attention.

I designated a filing cabinet outside my cube as the area to drop off projects that weren’t super hot. From time to time I’d open up my “door”, grab the mountain of projects, and start plowing through them.

I didn’t feel bad about tuning people out during that time, because I simply needed to get both my work and my boss’s work done.

It turns out the project coordinators were grateful too – they didn’t have to interrupt my flow or ask me questions. They could email me and know that when I came up for air, they’d have their answers.

It was a much easier way to work than being available to everyone whenever they needed me, at the expense of my work.

So now that you’ve had a peek behind the curtain, has your perspective changed?

How will this info help you further advance your career goals?

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Angie Colee
Angie Colee
Angie Colee is a Senior Copywriter in retail by day and rockstar blues vocalist by night. She is obsessed with marketing strategy, simplifying complex ideas, and making her cat the next internet sensation. Life goals include trademarking her awesomely red hair and figuring out how to drink hot coffee without burning herself. If you’re ever in the San Francisco bay area, look her up.
Showing 11 comments
  • Cezary
    Reply

    “The ego has got to go.” – yeah, it’s “goodbye ego, hello payroll-making”.

    “The team is everything.” – great reminder, because people *do* want to help and be useful!

    “Other copywriters aren’t competition.” – this is BIG. Every employee needs this slapped on their forehead.

    “Set (and get) clear expectations.” – also huge. I actually believe “setting clear expectations” went extinct along with the dinosaurs, because it’s so rare.

    “Protect your head and control your time.” – sadly, this is no longer humanly possible with smartphones and social media. Not. Possible.

    This should be a printable cheetsheet!

    • Angie Colee
      Reply

      Eh, I disagree with the whole smart phones/social media thing. It can be ignored – just takes discipline a lot of us don’t have.

    • Dan Ludgater
      Reply

      Cezary — it’s tough, but it’s possible. Put your phone in another room (even better if it’s on DND or airplane mode)… Block social media from your browsers during your productive hours… And simply place a higher value your own agenda than the one everyone else wants to palm off on you.
      It comes down to one thing: removing the option of checking them during times you’d be better off working on something more important.

  • Tim
    Reply

    My favorite tip is “set (and get) clear expectations”. There’s a phrase I hate that my office uses…”Well, I think he means…” All it tells me is that nobody knows exactly what to expect from each other. It kills me.

    But this isn’t limited to only “corporate mindset”. I bet freelancers often mutter to themselves, “Well, I think he/she wants me to…” and that’s a recipe for disaster.

    Spot on advice, Angie. Looking forward to see more from you.

    • Angie Colee
      Reply

      Yep – that’s been a red flag for me for some time. If I hear, “Well, if I heard them correctly…” or “I thing s/he meant that I need to…”, I know it’s time to start digging. Do you think, or do you know? Knowing is key.

  • Wendy Gardner
    Reply

    Did anybody get a picture of your tri-fold screen? I loved the way you got everything done, done properly, in a way that respected your team and yourself as humans. That’s real balance… normally it’s project achieved vs team morale vs personal life. As always a great article!

    • Angie Colee
      Reply

      The real heroism is definitely in the team – boss made sure we had a freelancer in office that I could assign certain types of projects. The project managers knew to prioritize things according to importance/deadlines. As it turned out, the system worked so well that I think there was one or two things for him to do when he got back into the office.

  • Ross O'Lochlainn
    Reply

    Awesome post here Angie, with some real, down-to-earth, no nonsense lessons.

    If more copywriters followed these, they’d be miles ahead!

    Often it’s the soft skills that make you stand out, instead of technical ability.

    And abiding by these lessons means you’re adding value in so many more ways than just your copy.

    • Angie Colee
      Reply

      Thanks, man. I think it took longer than it should have for me to connect value to some of these more “soft” skills. Hell, it took me longer than it should have just to develop soft skills. But the funny thing it isn’t necessarily big things that build immense value.

      Your word, your dependability, your flexibility, your work-with-ability. Those count for loads more than we give them credit for.

  • Cathy Goodwin
    Reply

    Love your suggestions on controlling your time. That in itself could be a post for a career or productivity blog! I admire your ability to function at such a high level in a corporate setting.

    • Angie Colee
      Reply

      Appreciate it, Cathy! It took a lot of trial and error (and reconciling myself with the fact that I’m not necessarily the most popular person at work) to discover the balance.

      I definitely pride myself on ruthless efficiency when I’m head down, in the trenches. But I don’t know that I’d be able to do it if I also didn’t have a super supportive boss.

      It’s much easier to guard that time at home where I can’t be dragged into meetings or discussions of the Walking Dead (I’d babble on and an hour would be gone before long).

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