One of my favorite scenes from Rob Reiner’s 1987 cult classic film “The Princess Bride” is the one in which Inigo and Fezzik bring a “mostly dead” Westley to Miracle Max. Because “The Princess Bride” is one of the best movies ever made, I’m going to assume you’ve seen it and spare you all but a very small recap of the scene in question: Inigo and Fezzik need Westley in order to go after the bad guys, so they visit Miracle Max (brilliantly played by Billy Crystal) to see if he can bring Westley back to life. Luckily, he can. But Inigo and Fezzik are in a huge hurry, and bringing someone back to life—no matter how talented a Miracle Man you are—requires time. So, he tells Inigo and Fezzik to cool their jets.
“You rush a miracle man, you get rotten miracles,” he says.
In my former life as a freelance copywriter, this phrase often rang in my ears. Clients need many things: press releases, executive bylines and CEO quotes written; survey questions drafted; reports copyedited—and they need it all yesterday.
It is amazing how often I was able to give them these things with little time and little source material, seemingly out of thin air. But when I was able to do my most impressive work and achieve the best results was when I was granted all the things I truly needed to succeed.
If you want your copywriters—in-house, agency or freelance—to be producing solid gold instead of just polishing turds, here are a few pieces of advice.
‘I make a mean cup of coffee, if you give me the right ingredients.’ – Ice Cube
To make a cup of joe, you need—at a bare minimum—coffee beans, a coffee grinder and water. If you want to make a good cup of joe, you’ll want good, freshly roasted coffee beans, purified water and, depending on how you take your coffee, cream, milk or sugar.
You can’t make a “mean cup of coffee” out of Sanka. It simply can’t be done.
Likewise, beautiful bylines and press releases aren’t made out of sloppy source material, insufficient source material, corporate gobbledy-gook or—my personal favorite—no source material at all.
Here are a few best practices to follow when assembling source material for press materials:
- DO answer the source material questions thoroughly
- DO include as much company messaging as possible
- DO include relevant product information
- DO give some thought to positioning
- DO explain the product or announcement in clear, simple terms—what is new and why it matters
- DON’T give one-word or one-sentence answers to source material questions
- DON’T answer source material questions with bulleted lists
- DON’T explain the announcement in corporate gibberish and buzzwords
“Writing good copy and messaging can be deeply gratifying,” said Bospar Chief Content Officer Tricia Heinrich. “But your copywriters can only be as good as the source materials with which they are given to work. To paraphrase another movie classic, ‘help them help you’ by giving them everything they need to succeed.”
‘Rushing toward a goal is a sublimated death wish[.] It’s no coincidence we call them ‘deadlines.’ ― Tom Robbins, Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas
Your content people probably don’t mind deadlines—in fact, they probably thrive on them.
What your content people could probably do without, however, are moving goal posts, rush requests and deadlines that suddenly move closer, aggressively and without warning.
Problem: the moving goal post
Moving goal posts happen when a copywriter receives a request for, say, a “copy edit” that turns out to be a complete rewrite. Or a request for a piece of content—a release or a CEO byline—that turns into an infinite game of revisions.
Solution: Be clear with your requests. If the request has come from a different department, make sure to review it before you throw it over the fence to your content people.
Problem: the rush request
We writers have accepted the rush request as a part of our lives. Things come up, and sometimes you just need a magical piece of content in your hands at warp speed. But other times, you don’t.
Solution: Sometimes, the day is moving by rapidly and you’re passing requests along as fast as you receive them. But before you put in a rush order with your go-to content creator, count to five. Do you really need it “ASAP?” The more time writers have to write whatever it is you need, the better it will be. I promise.
Problem: one-sided deadlines
You promise your copywriter source material on Tuesday; in turn, the writer promises you a news release on Friday. But then you forward the source material on Thursday. You can’t still have your release on Friday.
Solution: Get writers the source material on time or extend the deadline. You can’t have your cake and eat it, too, as the mysterious saying goes.
‘If you try to shortcut the game, then the game will shortcut you.’ – Michael Jordan
Remember, your copywriters want the same thing you want: for every single piece of content to be perfect and amazing and earn a feature story in the New York Times. But if you want great content, you’ve got to play by the rules. And the rules are simple: provide ample time and ample source material.
Give them what they need, and they may even whip you up some miracles.