Make Your Copy Work Harder: Think Like a Stonemason

It’s hard to believe, but I started my work life as an apprentice stonemason, working in a quarry in the south of England. It’s the kind of work that leaves you with a lot of calluses, lost fingernails, and a respect for the permanence of stone.

Whether you’re cutting, carving, or chiseling, stone doesn’t allow for errors. Which is why my boss used to remind me, while we sat by the cliffs, looking out over the sea and eating our lunchtime sandwiches, “Think twice, cut once.” Good advice when you’re working with stone. There’s no mason’s equivalent of the “Undo typing” command. No whiteout. No erasers.

With stone you take care because you know that mistakes can’t be corrected. And also because you know that the marks you make will endure for millennia. Stone lasts for a long time, and that frames the way in which you work with it.

Not so online. The Web appears to have all the permanence of grime on the trunk of a car. “Wash me” is a message designed to be seen and then washed off. Easy come, easy go.

But the appearance of impermanence online can be deceiving.

While the Web makes the act of writing as fast and as simple as dragging a fingertip across that car’s trunk, the purpose of what is written does not share the light disposability of “Wash me.” Yes, it’s easy to write and upload some email text that will be sent out to a million people tomorrow, but the purpose of that email may be to build a long-term relationship. The medium is disposable, but the purpose is not.

With that distinction in mind, think of how so many emails and site pages are written: quickly, almost casually, and with a “let’s just get it up there now — we can always improve on it later” attitude.

This apparent sense of impermanence encourages writers to send out their work in its first draft. For the same reasons, managers encourage just about anyone to “knock off” a few words for their site. As copywriter Peter Kaufman recalls:

    I worked in a company that was 100 percent technical and operations-focused until they realized that our clients buy creative and don’t give a flip about how the SQL servers work. In the middle of a huge push to get a site done with no help available, one of the big honchos said, “Can’t Jim help you?” Jim, I reminded him, was in Application Development. “But I’ve seen him write reports; he’s good.”

The moral here is: Don’t be deceived by the notion that writing for business online is either easy or disposable.

Every sentence should be crafted as carefully as if it were to be printed on paper. Or carved in stone.

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