Back to School | Learning How to Write Aged 49 and Three Quarters!

So today I went back to school!  I was surprisingly un-nervous about the whole thing considering I haven’t set foot in a classroom for something like 10 years – and that was for a Spanish evening class. Admittedly it’s only a two day course, but the prospect of returning to the ‘big smoke’ after a long absence and having to mingle with grown ups and hot young digital executives plying their trade on an IDM Digital Copywriting course, should have made me quiver in my dinosaur skin boots. The prospect of having the luxury of a total of three hours on the train to focus on my long ‘to do list’ soon evaporated any fear!

And sure enough I was pleasantly surprised. I didn’t feel old at all, despite the fact that when I actually looked around the room, I had 20 years, if not 30 on most of the people in it.  That was with the notable exception of the course tutor,  who looked exactly how you would imagine a communications lecturer in the mid 80s to have looked! That at least hasn’t changed. The subject matter has of course changed dramatically. He introduced himself as somebody who had been writing since ‘before the internet’ was invented, and that gave me much comfort indeed.

He was of course exceedingly knowledgable, which also gave me hope that there is value in the digital world, and some inspiration in the creativity, flexibility and freedom that it allows you. He addressed his varied audience appropriately and enthusiastically, and I felt like I belonged in that room – a very pleasant surprise.

So why did I feel the need to ‘go back to school’? Well, I have been thinking about that. I have always loved to write. Apparently I was okay at it at school, but somebody forgot to tell me that, which was why an A in my English ‘O’ Level was a bit of a shock to me.  But in all honesty I assumed that it was because I hadn’t had to revise for it!  Ds in RE & Sociology seemed to bear that out!

As my life has gone on, people have said things like, ‘I love the way you write’, ‘you’re a good writer you know’ and ‘I love getting your letters’. And over time, I have slowly come to realise that writing is not only something that I love to do, but that sometimes people actually enjoy reading what I’ve produced.

Thanks to the extraordinary age of the internet, it has become gloriously easy to ‘publish’ yourself for the enjoyment of others, but mainly yourself, these days, with absolutely no experience or qualifications to justify it.  I finally took that plunge about three years’ ago creating not one but two blogs, and I’ve never looked back. To write is a joy – to have it read, an even greater one, to have web stats confirm that even strangers have read it, and have people say nice things..a dream come true.

But the truth is, despite having worked in marketing, and having written many many pieces of copy over the years, I have never actually been paid to ‘write’! Writing has been part of my job, but a very varied job indeed. I have never felt that I was getting paid to do that specific thing – partly also, I am sure, because I’d blagged my way into most of those jobs with other skills!

One day last year I got a phone call asking me if I was interested in a freelance copywriting role. I didn’t get it, but almost immediately I realised that that is what I wanted to do. At that point I didn’t have the confidence to even consider charging people money for my writing, and even though I write a lot of stuff for free for various organisations, that leap seemed too great. Writing for free is easy to do – nobody is judging you for something they don’t pay for, and they are often even grateful.

All of this prompted me to think that I needed some benchmark to make me feel like I actually knew what I was doing. Despite having spent almost 8 years doing some sort of social media, blogging and online marketing entirely self taught, I just didn’t feel like I did.  After some research I found a lovely little 2-day course run by the Institute of Direct & Digital Marketing specifically on Digital Copywriting – a perfect way to check in and make sure that what I’ve been bluffing my way through had some value.

And after day one I’m feeling pretty positive! Yes, I need to adopt some disciplines specific and important to digital copy and think things through in greater detail. But when the lecturer went round the room and asked what we would take away from the day, I said I would be thinking about who I was writing for in future.  Because in all honesty, I have always written for me, the act of splurging words a pleasure in itself. Which is probably why I often feel embarrassed about what I write – because it’s self indulgent.

To write for a living would be a dream come true – of that there is no doubt, but to do that I must learn to write for others. And that has to be my overriding lesson from my first day back at school!  That and that according to Ernest Hemingway, every first draft is shit!  Well that’s a relief!

PS. I think I’ve just broken just about every single rule that I have learned today, but practise makes perfect, and I’ve always been a bit of a rebel in the classroom!



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