The art of creative thinking.
How do copywriters think up winning ideas every day?
Frankly, it’s not easy. Copywriting is a discipline. And it’s precisely that discipline that enables pro-copywriters to get themselves in the creative zone. Whether they feel like it or not.
There’s a horrifying truth that every writer, creative person, or indeed anyone that needs to generate ideas will recognise: at any time, the well of inspiration can very inconveniently dry up.
And it’s always at the worst time. When you’ve got a deadline hanging over your head like the sword of Damocles.
So how do copywriters approach creative thinking?
How does a copywriter keep those ideas flowing day in day out?
Here’s 10 tips that copywriters use to kick-start the creative thinking process and generate exceptional ideas.
These techniques are invaluable to the creative aspect of the copywriting craft. Yet, they can be applied to virtually any job, industry or situation, where idea generation and creative thinking is imperative.
Tip 1: Think Laterally.
Lateral thinking is about thinking in a specific way. A specific way that, sadly, is often reduced into a single, hateful cliché. You may have heard of it: thinking ‘outside of the box’.
Edward de Bono invented the term ‘Lateral Thinking’ in 1967. Here’s what the man himself has to say about it:
"With logic you start out with certain ingredients just as in playing chess you start out with given pieces. But what are those pieces? In most real life situations the pieces are not given, we just assume they are there. We assume certain perceptions, certain concepts and certain boundaries. Lateral thinking is concerned not with playing with the existing pieces but with seeking to change those very pieces."
So how does one ‘think outside the b… (there’s that term again, and I feel the anger welling up as I type it for second time). Scrap that. Let’s go one better. Let’s aim higher. Let’s take the stinking box and blow it up… Let’s aim to think outside the stratosphere.
Here’s some useful steps one can use to think laterally.
Step 1: Solve a problem – from a different perspective.
A big part of marketing is problem-solving. To solve a problem you have to think outside of the obvious options. To quote Albert Einstein: ‘we cannot solve our problems with the same kind of thinking we used when we created them’.
Here is an example of a problem that requires lateral thinking to solve it:
Acting on an anonymous phone call, the police raid a house to arrest a suspected murderer. They don’t know what he looks like, but they know his name is John and that he is inside the house.
The police burst in on a carpenter, a lorry driver, a mechanic and a fireman all playing poker. Without hesitation or communication of any kind, they immediately arrest the fireman.
How do they know they’ve got their man?
Think about it. Laterally.
What’s your answer?
The fireman is the only man in the room. The rest of the poker players are women, and therefore none can be the suspect.
Ever since we were young many of us were taught to view the world in terms of black and white; a situation is simply bad or simply good, there’s a solution or there isn’t, there are two choices and two choices only.
Step 2: Change the question.
Lateral thinking suggests that we escape these conventions.
Approach a problem from an unusual perspective and throw away preconceptions. If you don’t like the answer to a question, change the question.
If you are given two roads to go down, choose the third road.
Step 3: Open yourself to the possibilities.
Sometimes we can feel as though we are tied down by constraints; in fact, there are possibilities and perspectives we haven’t opened ourselves up to. These constraints are often self-imposed.
Stubbornly trying harder in the same direction may not be as effective as simply changing your direction altogether.
This can be especially true in marketing, and copywriting where creativity and flexibility is central to idea generation.
Here are a three points to take away:
- Be aware of your own perception.
- Embrace new perspectives.
- Do not feel tied down by a problem – try to think of new solutions by framing the problem in a whole new way.
It may seem irrational, but behaving irrationally is sometimes the most sensible thing you can do.
Tip 2. Research, research, research
Copywriters work to deadlines on a daily basis. So how do they ensure they have enough inspiration for their work?
If you’re working like hell, but you haven’t done the necessary preparation on a project, you can sometimes end up staring at a blank page.
So fill yourself up.
That way even when you don’t have your pen pressed to paper, your subconscious will bubble away of its own accord. Starting work without doing the necessary research may be glaringly obvious in your work.
Still no ideas? Research more.
Think of your mind like a machine that requires fuel.
You may be disappointed if you expect it to spring to life with a thousand ideas out of nowhere. However, if you fill it with ideas, concepts and theories on the subject you are writing about, you may be pleasantly surprised.
So begin early, but take your time. How can this be done?
Start as early as you can on a project by jotting down ideas, building up research, and immersing yourself in information. Find out all you can on the subject.
You can’t begin the creative thinking process until you’ve filled your mind with research.
Still no ideas? Research more.
It may be that you simply need another piece of information that will prove to be a missing piece in the puzzle. You can never know your subject too well. Read, then read some more and it will help you make connections you might have missed.
Tip 3. Fuel for inspiration
What if you don’t have enough time to 'take your time'?
In that case, make a habit of building up material that sparks your creativity. Make a file on your computer with things that inspire you – articles, marketing material, inspiring or humorous uses of language.
When you are faced with a short deadline, you never know what could be useful.
Never underestimate what could electrify your mind and set off your creativity.
Tip 4. Embrace small ideas.
What does a good idea look like?
The struggle to find the perfect idea can sometimes blind copywriters to their smaller, more valuable ones.
A lot is said about our ‘inner critic’ – the voice inside your head that says you can’t do something, that your work isn’t good enough and that you might as well not even try. It’s probably something that is cultivated early on in life, when we hear the word ‘no’ enough times for us to start thinking of it as the best possible answer to most questions.
If the most idiotic idea for a project comes to mind, write it down.
For some people, this may not be a big problem, or even if it is, it may be one they can at least keep at bay. For others, it can halt productivity in its tracks.
Here’s a tip from the copywriters’ toolbox that offers a new approach: embrace the small ideas you have, as well as the good, the bad, and the unbelievable: if the most idiotic idea for a project comes to mind, write it down.
When you come back to it tomorrow, it might seem better than you first thought.
If you have a selective filter on your ideas, you may end up discarding an idea from your mind that could later become your best. However, if you have a habit of writing things down and coming up with a ton of ideas, you’re more likely to include a good idea in the pile. Even the ‘bad’ ideas may shake loose an option you hadn’t considered.
There’s an old saying that writing is re-writing, but you have to have something down on paper first to rewrite.
One of the biggest challenges copywriters can face is feeling like they have to produce a masterpiece every time they put pen to paper.
Well, of course, as a copywriter, you do.
Nevertheless, practice trial and error, until the inside of your notebook looks like gibberish to anyone apart from you. Also, you may want to be careful who sees it.
You never know, they might pick up the ideas that you missed.
Tip 5. Embrace strange ideas.
It’s time to get weird. Are you making the most of your strange ideas?
Creativity isn’t always easy to cultivate. The truth is that it goes hand in hand with unconventionality. Learning to see unusual connections, thinking of new and unusual ways of looking at the world. This is creativity.
However, being unconventional is hard.
From an early age, we learn that to gain acceptance we need to conform and adapt. We are conditioned to think that anyone out of the ordinary should be ostracised.
Unfortunately, this can also lead to the rejection of odd (but amazing) ideas.
Don’t be afraid. Be weird.
Tip 6. Abandon logic.
When working in an arena that requires you to produce big ideas on tap, it’s important to find ways to keep the creativity flowing. As we’ve established, creativity is all about seeing an old thing from a new perspective. And what better way to do that than lose perspective altogether?
It’s time to go crazy.
We’re not talking underpants on the head or squawking like a chicken (though if that helps, then sure, why not? Go right ahead…).
Crucially, you need to play around with your ideas.
If you are coming up with an idea to sell a new product, for example, write down some features and benefits even if they seem utterly ridiculous. You can polish them or take them out in the second draft.
Tip 7. Take a walk.
This is an old idea, but a good one. If you’re stuck behind a desk, staring at a blank screen, the best thing to do may be to get out. It’s important to have a routine, but a routine can also be a death sentence for creativity.
In a way, creativity is an act of rebellion against rational thinking.
Take a walk on the wild side (or just get out of the office for a while).
So it’s important to shake up your perspective, and walking through a part of town you’ve never been can transform your outlook.
So our advice?
Take a walk on the wild side (or just get out of the office for a while).
A recent study by Microsoft found that just 11 percent of people would say that they’ve had their best ever work ideas while sat in the office.
Is this surprising?
It can be hard to concentrate and really focus when there’s so much going on around you. People on the phone. People eating crisps loudly. People watching the world’s best air crashes on YouTube.
If you’re going to produce the best work you possibly can, you just need to find what works best for you. The Microsoft survey revealed that the most popular places for people to have a eureka moment included the shower or bath, on the commute into work, in the car – and some even dreamed their best ideas up while fast asleep at night.
If you’re a creative, working in the creative industry, or someone who needs to come up with an idea or solve a problem, it’s no shock that being sat at a desk day in day out means your thinking can become stuck in a rut.
Dig yourself out of that mental ditch and see what you can come up with. You might find yourself pleasantly surprised with the results.
Tip 8. Start in the middle.
Starting is never easy. And it only gets harder until you finally do it. The worst thing you can do is to worry about ‘the first sentence’.
You may feel like you need to get the first sentence right otherwise the rest of the piece won’t work. This is not the case. If you’re worried about where to start, the solution is the same as it is in many aspects of life: cheat.
Don’t start at the beginning, start in the middle. Begin at any point, write a chunk of text even if it feels out of place. As you write down your ideas, you should begin to get a feel for the work, and eventually you can go back and shape an opening paragraph that works with everything that follows.
Remember: don’t worry. Sometimes many of us block creativity just by standing in our own way and trying too hard. Find a way to stop doing this and you may be surprised by how much easier your work can be.
Tip 9. A new idea
Even information that is only loosely related could be good for your work. It may jog something loose in your mind that you hadn’t considered.
Metaphors can be extremely good for our thinking. They are the sun that lights up the world of ideas (that’s a metaphor, right there). They can be a way of illustrating an idea in a perfect and succinct way.
Learning to think in terms of metaphors can be extraordinarily helpful in moving the creative process along, and another idea may help you understand the subject you’re working on.
Tip 10. Don't fear rejection.
In our everyday lives we conform all the time, it’s how we work together in society. Yet being the same as everyone else has it drawbacks.
One of those is that life may be a little less thrilling. Another is that our ideas may be a little less exciting. The problem is if everyone is the same, then nobody is special. Your desire for safety and conformity may prevent you from being as special as you could be.
For example, you may have a strange idea, but what if it is rejected? What if you are mocked and laughed at?
Common sense is the collection of prejudices acquired by age eighteen.
This kind of thinking can lead to a deafening silence. Everyone wants to conform so much, they say nothing, for fear of their ideas being dismissed as too strange. Albert Einstein said that ‘common sense is the collection of prejudices acquired by age eighteen.’ That’s why you need to start using some uncommon sense.
You CAN take that kind of rejection...
Ask many people what they are afraid of, and they may confess that their biggest fear is rejection. Failure. Unfortunately, we often have to fail before we can begin to perfect our talents.
That’s the good news out of the way.
The general view of failure projected in popular culture is one of a tragic fate that must be avoided at all costs. It’s as bad as death.
When a comedian fails on stage, they refer to it as ‘dying’. A person who is afraid of failure may never put their skills on the line. In fact, they may never put anything on the line. They’re too afraid of being a failure, and everything that might involve.
Yet people who are creative, and ultimately find success, are those who are willing to take risks.
A simple fact about failure
People want perfection, and they want it instantly.
Yet there is a simple fact about failure that some have discovered, that no one else seems to know – it can ignite creativity. If you’re in a creative profession, with a project to complete, try to get your first draft finished well in advance of the deadline. You may fail sometimes, but in this case, you can fail without anyone else knowing.
A different person
You can vastly improve your ideas in the editing process. That way you can fail early without anyone else even knowing about it. Then when you come back to do another draft, you can look at it like you’re a different person, and turn it into a success. You may repeat this process again and again until you have your winning idea.
Progress comes about through trial and error, and your evolution as a copywriter can come through learning to solve problems. Perfection may not always be a reality, but sterling work can be.
Remember, many of the great creative geniuses throughout history started as people with weird ideas. Where would they be if they had been too afraid to speak their mind?
You wouldn’t be sitting in a well-lit room for one thing. And you wouldn’t be reading this – because Charles Babbage wouldn’t have had the utterly bizarre idea for the first computer.
How many amazing ideas have never seen the light of day, because of this fear of rejection?
How many ideas have you discarded, for that reason?
If you are confronted with an idea (whether it's your own or brought to you by someone else) that seems too weird or unconventional, don’t be so quick to reject it. It may turn out to be the best idea you ever had.