Look It Up

Long long ago, I was preparing for my English Master’s exams. I was to be tested on every major era of English/American literature (Renaissance, Romantics and so on). I had a problem: I had never studied the Victorians (and one of the major texts for the essays was by Matthew Arnold). I knew they were out there. But I knew zilch about them. I was in a quandary.

What did I do?

I was a Teaching Assistant: a sort of/kind of/junior member of the Faculty. So I went to see Bob Chianese, who taught Victorian Studies (and whose classes, therefore, I had never taken). I sat in his office and explained my plight, and asked if we could discuss the Victorians for an hour or so.

He listened. And then he said:

“So. You want me to tell you during my office hour everything I’ve learned in 20 years of studying Victorian literature?”

I left his office chastised, chastened and just as clueless as when I entered.

But he made sense didn’t he? After all, all I really had to do was read some Victorian writers and a little bit of background.

That mixture of outrage and bemusement is what a copywriter’s clients feel when they’re asked to tell the writer everything he needs to know in order to write something compelling and convincing and powerful and so on. When the writer sits in front of them with eager eyes and a blank piece of paper, waiting to learn who, what, where, when, why, how, in what order, in what color, to solve what problem. And so on.

Some copywriters even ask their clients to fill out questionnaires—I should have tried that with Dr. Chianese:

Bob, I’ve got a date, but if you’d just fill out this form I titled “everything Mike needs to know about the Victorians to get his Masters,” I’ll do a great job.

Our job as professional copywriters is to relieve the client from the burden of teaching us. Part of our job is to learn on our own what we need to know: not to come to the client asking for a free ride to knowledge. It’s to study, to research, to do the hard work of figuring out something that’s sometimes completely new to us. When you encounter a term, an acronym, a concept that you don’t understand, don’t make a note to ask the client. Look it up. And when you don’t understand something about what you find when you do look it up, look that up too.

That’s one of the things that separate Wordsmiths from Professional Writers.