James Joyce on Copywriting

April 11, 2009

James Joyce while writing his great novel Ulysses came down to dinner one evening and when asked how he was getting on, answered, “I’ve finished.”

“What the book” his friend replied.

“No the sentence I started yesterday,” Joyce responded adding, “What I am seeking is the perfect order of words in the sentence.”

James Joyce

James Joyce

If I had known this when I first started working in an agency as a copywriter I might have understood what my first two days were all about. The first brief I was given was for a bird charity. They needed an ad to persuade people to send for a free wall chart identifying garden birds and with it details of membership. All within 60 words in a single column just three centimeters long. Simple for a chap like me who had already been knocking out four page letters for insurance companies as a freelancer.

60 Words of Ping Pong

I delivered the copy to the owner of the agency half an hour after getting the brief. He called me into his office where we discussed the ad and he told me to go away and rewrite it. I did and after another half an hour I was sitting in front of him again being told I needed to rewrite it once more.

Like a game of table tennis, we batted the copy back and forth across his desk for the next day and a half until he was happy that every single one of those 60 words was going to tear at the heart-strings of little old ladies, was persuasive and would get the response the charity needed to pay for their tiny ad.

It was a great lesson and taught me two things. Firstly, the importance of finding the right words and secondly the importance of polishing until the text is perfect.

So today, when I have to write 157 characters for a Meta Description that’s attractive to search engines and human readers, I’m grateful for the lesson I had all those years ago and the practice I’ve had in between.

A version of this article first appeared in Portfolio, the magazine of the Swedish Direct Marketing Association (SWEDMA). If you would like a copy of it in Swedish let me know.

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