Continuous partial argument

NB: the following was written as putative entry for a ‘future of copywriting’ competition. While writing it, the terms of entry changed, so I’m no longer eligble. Hence why you’re seeing this here.

1. The following are some thoughts on the future of copywriting,

2. There may, or may not be, some reference to the craft skills that we – by which I mean those of us who have the word ‘copywriter’ in their job description – are commonly considered to have.

3. I do not know yet, as I am proceeding to write this without any sort of plan, or guide as to what I want to say, let alone how I want to say it.

4. In this, then, we can safely say that this piece – I hesitate to call it an ‘essay’ as I doubt it will reach the smooth, polished form that the word ‘essay’ implies – is not going to be a particularly good exemplar of the craft of copywriting itself.

5. Or rather, it will be an exemplar of a form of copywriting that I think is going to become dominant in the next few years.

6. By the way, I am taking it as read that everyone who is reading this knows what I mean when I use the word ‘copywriting’. We do not have to waste time defining the term, agreed?

7. Or at least, I will be capaciously and grandly broad, in taking the word to mean ‘the writing of words that are intended to have the effect of persuading people into taking an action or making a decision of a commercial nature’.

8. Or, less grandly, ‘writing words that help to sell things’.

9. Which should still be sufficiently loose and baggy for all of us in this tribe to feel at least, unaggrieved with being labelled with the banner.

10. You will excuse me for a bit, now, while I go and tweet, and generally bugger about on social media, and wait for some more bits of the argument to arrive.

11. Right, back now.

12. And that absence, however temporary it was for me – and non-existent for you – hints at the thing that is going to change, if it hasn’t already, both how we write our words, and how they are received.

13. The glory days – those of Abbot and Ogilvy and Bernbach – suggest many things, but one thing in particular – that a flow of words written to sell, was composed in, if not a flow, but a gathering rush, and then hopefully consumed in one gulp, one savour, by the willing, soon-to-be consumer at the other end, reading the newspaper or flicking through the magazine.

14. (“If all else fails,” said David O, “I drink half a bottle of rum and play a Handel oratorio on the gramophone. This generally produces an uncontrollable gush of copy. The next morning I get up early and edit the gush.”)

15. And now, of course, the idea that one might be able, let alone willing to carve out a block of time for something like a press advert, something that has been copywritten, well, I can hear the sniggers from here as you read this and shake your head at my middle-aged naiveté.

16. After all, we live in the age of what has been called ‘continuous partial attention’ – where we flit to and fro between information source, jump from one digital toadstool to another, graze on multiple screens continuously, and tell ourselves, it’s OK, it’s all going in and we understand everything as much as we ever did.

17. Well – it’s one response to the overwhelming explosion of data that we are experiencing and causing: to try and absorb more of it.

18. I mean, who is judicious at the all-you-can-eat buffet?

19. But another effect, less commented upon, of all this continuous partial attention, is the one that it is having on our collective ability to make a full, fluid, flowing argument, as one might have found in a piece of copy 10, 20, 30, 40 years ago.

20. That ability, I would suggest, for our field, is beginning to atrophy.

21. As evidence, for example, consider the very form in which this argument is being delivered – borrowing from our legal friends, but very much lacking their robustness. Instead, a series of gobbets, mostly pithy, and eerily, there or thereabouts the ‘ideal’ length of a tweet or a status update.

22. Let us call this form of copywriting the ‘continuous partial argument’.

23. It is something you will have to get used to reading, to writing. For I am sure we are going to see much more of it.

24. I think that was prediction number 1.

25. Consider that, now, for some, no most people in agencies, and their clients, long copy is considered to be anything over 150 words.

26. Let that sink in for a moment.

27. 150+ words = long.

28. I know.

29. (Trust me, I have been in these meetings.)

30. And yet, and yet…

31. It is hard to argue that large chunks of words, sequentially arranged, are not popular.

32. I mean, you are reading Game of Thrones.

33. (I am not reading Game of Thrones because, as you might have already guessed, I am a snob, and see enough bloodshed happening in the real world not to need to wallow in a fantasy version of it.)

34. But what is not popular is, apparently, large chunks of words, sequentially arranged, in order to sell.

35. And to that, might I suggest, to copywriter and client alike: why don’t you try it? Why don’t you try writing an advert that sets out to be as entertaining as George RR Martin makes his bloodfests?

36. Why don’t you give vent to your ambition in your words? Why don’t you try and be ambitious full stop?

37. Why don’t you say, “I will buck the trend of the continuous partial argument, and write so many words that are so entertaining, gripping, exciting, packed with drama, replete with logic and emotion, that people will have no choice but to read”?

38. I think some of you will. Let’s call that prediction number two.

39. But those of you who do will be in a minority.

40. Because, in the main, of the seductiveness of the continuous partial argument – its choppiness, its discreteness, its bite-sized attractiveness.

41. And I think the positives that it brings will be outweighed by the negatives that it brings.

42. For one, it will cement the idea that words can be treated as data. Our clients, who at the moment need little encouragement to reach for spreadsheets and charts, who when they hear the word ‘creative’ cross themselves as if they have been cursed, will feel ever-more emboldened to ask us to write directly into Excel.

43. Because then the copy can be counted more accurately. And things that can be counted are things that can be trusted.

44. But we know that while numbers might persuade, they can never seduce.

45. This, however, is not an argument that will be much heard by our clients, and their masters, who are currently doing their best to render capitalism – the most creative and life-changing force humankind has ever developed – dull and predictable and boring and flat.

46. These are people who see the promise of algorithms, of computers being able to write stock market and sports reports on their own, or news of earthquakes rattling along, and think: could we not do this for our slogans too? And then our words beyond than that, when we cannot avoid using them?

47. Perhaps they already do.

48. I mean, “I’m lovin’ it”, “Open happiness”, “Designed for humans”, “Life’s good”, “For those who do”, “Ask why”, “High performance. Delivered”… are these not the first stumblings of a bot, grappling with an unfamiliar language, and making passable stabs at something that sounds like a human might have said it?

49. You are not telling me a human actually said these?

50. And what are we, we grumble of writers, we inkwell of scribes, we depressed scriveners, we tribe of Bartlebys, what are we do as the devices and the screens that we write copy for get smaller and smaller still?

51. Go back and watch the launch film for the Watch.

52. Done? Now tell me – where do you think the space for words will be on that screen?

53. And heck, who will need words when we are communicating by pulse, as we will when we are all wearing these watches?

54. Let alone when the singularity arrives, and we become one with the machines. I suspect at that point, code will win as a language, and the ‘writing’ that will take place will be very different indeed. Let us call that prediction number three, the one with the long long view.

55. But I am getting ahead of myself.

56. What do I think about the reasonably here and now?

57. I am anxious. I am a pessimist. Of course I am: I am a writer.

58. It is the designers, the art directors, the visual thinkers amongst us who are the optimists. Why wouldn’t they be? They’ve been winning since the 1960s.

59. Who is it that is falling out of the window in the credits of Mad Men? It’s not an account man, or an art director, is it? It is the writer.

60. However much the internet might have started as a vehicle for words, soon those words will be relegated to the digital hard shoulder, the digital gutter that runs alongside the hard shoulder, the digital grass verge set well back from the rest of the road.

61. So here is prediction number four: unless you can master this form, this chunked up, bitty, snack-sized way of writing, you are doomed, dear writer.

62. To become a mere poet.

63. So, please, become a master of the continuous partial argument.

64. It will keep you out of trouble, until the singularity arrives.

Hunger, Fire, Harrumph.

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