Not every lesson comes from the classroom. Discover what Michael Scott taught me about how to approach copywriting.
There are so many great authors to turn to for writing inspiration. Mark Twain, Jane Austen, Oscar Wilde… The list goes on.
But the person I take advice and motivation from is Michael Gary Scott.
OK, he’s not an author (“Threat Level: Midnight” screenplay aside), Steve Carrell’s character in The Office: An American Workplace was just a cringe-inducing manager at a local paper company, but he offered weirdly solid life advice at times. Advice that I have taken into my writing style.
Sometimes you have to think outside of the box and ignore traditional processes – and there’s not many who exemplify the untraditional way of working (while still getting results) more than the regional manager of the Dunder Mifflin Scranton Branch.
Here are a handful of Michael Scott quotes that, for better or worse, resonate with me as a copywriter.
“I knew exactly what to do. But in a much more real sense, I had no idea what to do.”
Sometimes it can feel like you know exactly what your plan is. Other times, it might not feel that way. An important part of copywriting is being able to get past these roadblocks when they stand in your way.
It’s great when the idea for an article, or the structure for a piece, instantly forms in your head and takes shape on the page with no fuss. But this isn’t always the case. In fact, it’s not even usually the case.
That’s the unglamourous side of writing: knuckling down and getting past step one.
You might know exactly what to do (write an article), but not how to approach it. My favourite way to solve this problem can be summed up by this next Michael Scott quote...
“Sometimes I'll start a sentence and I don't even know where it's going. I just hope I find it along the way.”
This is the absolute best way I find I’m able to get past the roadblocks mentioned above.
If I’m stuck for any reason, rather than try and rationalise things in my head, or map out an intricate plan, I will literally start typing.
Often it’s just the name of the object or topic I’m writing about followed by the word ‘is’. Or ‘can’. It sounds basic, but it absolutely sets me off on a path, in the full knowledge that I can come back and edit it all later.
As many copywriters will tell you, getting started is often one of the trickiest parts when tackling a new piece of content. HubSpot’s own advice is to skip the introduction altogether and dive into the body of your article before top-and-tailing it afterwards.
Using my approach, an idea might form instantly after typing a few words and letting it all flow freely. Other times it might take a few attempts at finding a key trigger word or phrase to get going properly. Either way, this approach constantly surprises me with routes into a topic or a particular angle that I wouldn’t have considered if I’d over-thought it.
“OK, too many different words coming at me from too many different sentences.”
When I’m really focused and in the zone, I’ll just keep typing. Once I stop it might seem like a blur of words and thought processes on the page when I read it back. But that’s what editing is for.
Getting my thoughts out of my brain and onto the page sets me up perfectly to make sense of them all and pull everything into one coherent thread. This is where I clean up my copy, ensure the message comes through, and make sure I haven’t over-complicated anything.
This can be particularly difficult if I feel really attached to certain words or phrases, only to find that the flow or the narrative could do without them. The old advice to kill your darlings feels like an evil, but it’s a necessary one. This is the time for the backspace key to shine.
A side note on editing what I’ve written: I am very much on Team Oxford Comma. I feel the Oxford comma provides clarity and there are only positives to using it. (This is a hill I’m willing to die on.) Obviously though, they’re not to everybody’s taste, and stylistic differences like these are down to individual preferences, which have to be respected.
Now, instead of finding a nice smooth transition to keep the flow going, I’m going to take a bit of a Michael Scott-like parkour jump to another topic for the next quote.
“I like to be liked. I enjoy being liked. I have to be liked. But it’s not like this compulsive need, like my need to be praised.”
This one doesn’t necessarily mean that I need constant praise and admiration (although that’s always nice), it’s more to do with feedback.
Particularly when writing for clients remotely, it can be hard to judge how well your content is going down internally. So getting regular and honest feedback about articles is vital.
Constructive feedback helps me become a better writer for each client’s specific needs. Doing so early and often will keep me happy because I’m keeping others happy. I’m very much a people pleaser.
Copywriting can be a solitary existence at times, so some contact from the outside world to set my mind at ease about being on the right track is very much welcomed.
“I'm not superstitious, but I am a little stitious.”
I’ve never been one for refusing to walk under ladders, step over cracks in the pavement, or salute a magpie. But I am very much one to not make assumptions, because I expect them to blow up in my face the second I do.
Even if I feel like I’ve written a great piece of content that perfectly encapsulates what a client has asked for, I never take it for granted that the piece is complete.
Of course, I have confidence in my abilities as a writer, but writing is incredibly subjective. So it shouldn’t be assumed that what works for one client will work for another. Or even piece-to-piece.
Communication is the key here. A bit of back and forth early on can set the tone for what will hopefully become a long and happy partnership. I want to find out early if there is a disconnect between what I’m thinking and what the client actually wants — that way I can correct it and make sure I’m aware before starting the next article. Did I mention I’m a people pleaser?
“The only time I set the bar low is for limbo.”
This is the big one, the best piece of advice from the mouth of Michael Scott. Although I’d take this quote one step further and suggest that I don’t even set the bar low for limbo. (I’m just not flexible enough.)
But with content the bar can never be high enough. The aim should always be to create the best-quality content you can produce. Not seeing the point in an article, or not having the heart to go at it full throttle, sets yourself up for a fall.
In research, in SEO, in copywriting, and in editing (note my beloved Oxford comma there), it all needs to be approached with the right attitude. Never settling for mediocre in any part of content creation will make a piece of work far more than the sum of its parts and is key to producing content that stands out from the crowd (and in the SERPs, for that matter).
“That’s what he said.”
So there you have it. Ernest Hemingway, J.K. Rowling, Charles Dickens: yes, they’ve all got some valid advice and are masters of their craft, but it’s Michael Scott whose pictures I have framed in my office for when I need some inspiration (this may or may not be true).
This might all sound like heresy to writers who have a much more structured and traditional approach, but I find my own weird way of writing is how I get the best results. And that’s what’s important, so that’s what I’ll continue to do.
“You have no idea how high I can fly.” – Michael Scott.