“Hello everyone, I’d like to introduce…
Joe Jeffries – Freelance Copywriter.
Here’s the part where we’d sit down and try and look comfortable next to the microphones. Are you sitting comfortably? Then let’s begin…
Can you name the business book that’s always on your desk? (I’m talking about the one that’s covered in pencil marks, coffee stains and has turned down corners…)
My desk is tiny, so I don’t keep any books on it. But the Copy Book is never far away. The Advertising Concept Book and the Economist Style Guide also see a lot of action.
What’s your all-time favourite advertising campaign?
I love this old Fisher Price press ad by Frank Budgen. I doubt I’ll ever do anything as good, but it’s the kind of work that inspires me to try.
“Everyone has a book in them…” Or so the saying goes. What do you think/know/believe is the secret to good writing?
Knowing what to leave out. The Fisher Price ad is a great example of this. The headline and visual invite you in but leave you to join the dots, making the pay-off all the more satisfying. I think all the best art does this in some way.
If you were just starting out, what advice would you give yourself? Which book or books would you read first?
Chill the f#@% out. My background is in translation, where linguistic correctness (whatever that means) is a key measure of quality. Perfectionism is valued and encouraged. And I thought it’d be the same when I moved into copywriting.
Perfectionism strangles creativity. It buffs off the rough edges that make things interesting. And it kills promising ideas before they have the chance to grow. As a copywriter – or any kind of creative – you just can’t work like that.
So I’ve had to rewire my brain a little bit. And I understand now where best to channel my fussier side.
I’d never want to lose that part of my personality completely. It can be useful and it’s something my clients value. But I feel better, and do better work, now I know how and when to take the handbrake off.
As for books: Tom Albrighton’s Copywriting Made Simple wasn’t there when I first started getting interested in copywriting, around 2010. But I wish it had been. It’s by far the most thorough and accessible introduction I’ve read.
Silence? Radio? Or music while you work?
Music, but it has to be instrumental. Post-rock, trip-hop, lo-fi – that kind of thing. My current favourites are the Japanese band toe.
What are your top three novels of all time – and why?
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. I read it in the back of a Citroën Synergie, surrounded by tinned food, camping gear and my four sisters, on a nine-hour drive to the south of France in the early 2000s.
It was impossible to read without comparing my family’s comfy, air-conditioned privilege to the desperate plight of the Joads and other Dust Bowl migrants in the book. It affected me deeply as a 16-year-old and shaped my politics for life.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou. Not a novel, but another book that stayed with me long after I’d finished it. And, like The Grapes of Wrath, it takes on a new power and relevance when you reread it in 2020.
A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway. Again, not a novel. But it makes me want to move to Paris, hang out with artists and sit in cafes all day pretending to be a writer.
What’s the best thing you’ve ever written? Why did it rock your world?
How’s your cheese tolerance? Because it’s about to be tested.
In 2007 I moved to Lyon for my year abroad. One of my new flatmates met me at the station to help with my stuff. I saw her and it was a cartoon-style, hearts-popping-out-of-my-eyes kind of situation.
For reasons I may never understand, she liked me too. And I knew early on that I wanted things to last … like, a really long time.
Problem was, I had to go back to the UK at the end of the year. She still had a year of her degree left in France. And neither of us wanted to do the long-distance thing.
My options were to go home and watch it all fizzle out. Or somehow wangle an extra year in Lyon. So I fired up Word and wrote a letter to my head of school.
I told them my French hadn’t improved as much as I’d hoped, as my uni had been barricaded by strikers for most of the time I was there (this was true – see photo). But I was also honest about the romantic bind. Faculty heads have hearts too, after all.
I asked them to let me stay in Lyon and defer my final year. In exchange, I promised I’d immerse myself in everything French and come back a better student.
They approved. My girlfriend finished her degree and moved to the UK with me. I finished mine and got a first, with distinction in French. We’ll have been married six years this September. And our little boy will soon turn four.
What’s the last thing you bought? And yes, that packet of chewing gum counts.
Three day passes for Platf9rm – a wonderful coworking space in Hove.
Who was your teenage crush?
Nico Collard from the Broken Sword games.
Can you describe the best meal you’ve ever eaten?
A huge, steaming plate of pierogi ruskie in a roadside cafe just across the German border in Poland.
It was Christmas 2007 and we were driving to meet my now-wife’s family for the first time. Outside it was -10C and there were two-metre-high banks of snow around the car park.
They served me this hot pile of cheese-and-potato-stuffed dumplings, covered in caramelised onions and crispy lardons and drenched in butter, and I knew right then I’d found my people.
What’s your favourite tipple? Is it wine, beer – a cask-aged malt?
A cold pilsner in the hot sun on a busy terrace in a foreign place.
If I were to give you a private jet, David Attenborough as a tour guide and a month off work – all expenses paid – where would you go and what or who would you write about – and why?
We’d do a football-themed tour of South America. And I’d take advantage of the month off work by writing absolutely nothing at all.
What’s in your pockets?
A Lego steering wheel.
Pen and ink, pencil and paper or keyboard and screen? What’s your writing style?
I write out key bits from the brief longhand, as it helps me process and remember them better. Same for brainstorming and structuring ideas. There’s something about that connection between thought, hand, pen and page.
I don’t touch my keyboard until I’ve done all the thinking and my fingers are ready to type by themselves.
Do you read any blogs or magazines about writing? (And I mean read, not just subscribe to and delete/leave on your desk and recycle?)
I did in the first few years after I started out, but not so much anymore. The only blog I still read daily is Ad Teachings. It’s a mine of inspiration and Suzanne Pope is great at explaining the thinking behind the work.
Tea – or coffee? What’s your poison?
Espresso first thing. White coffee around 11. Then a vat of tea just after lunch.
Do you have a favourite cup or mug? Can you describe it?
I try not to get too attached to my mugs. It helps lessen the pain when I inevitably smash them.
What was your most adored children’s book? And character?
The Elephant and the Bad Baby. The recurring “rumpeta, rumpeta, rumpeta!” line used to spark some crazy bed bouncing.
Your favourite word?
Your most loathed word? (You know, the one that makes you shudder and say “Ew!”?
Tidbit. Its definition – “tasty morsel” – also makes me gag.
Where can we find you? – Browsing online or lost in the aisles of a bookstore?
Online. I do most of my reading on Kindle.
Favourite song lyric of all time? And why?
Said the apple to the orange:
“Oh, I wanted you to come
Close to me and kiss me to the core
Then you might know me like no other orange
Has ever done before.”
Name the artist who is guaranteed to get you up on the dance floor.
There are no guarantees where dancing and I are concerned. But if the stars align and the mood and company are right, I will dance to anything.
Do you have any strange writing rituals you’d like to share with us?
It’s not really a ritual. But I like to narrow the page margin right down until it’s almost mobile width, to keep my writing tight and easy to read.
If a paragraph runs over four or five lines, it starts to look cluttered and stress me out. And it’s a sure sign that things need cutting or breaking up.
How your words look is as important as what they say. I find this trick keeps everything on the page light and inviting.
What are you working on today? What’s in the pipeline?
I’m about to start a big piece of brand voice work, so I’m getting my head into that today. That’ll keep me busy for the next month at least.
Can you describe the last photograph you took?
It’s a picture of my parents’ dog looking tired and aloof. She’s part Clumber spaniel, so she can’t really help it.
What piece of advice really changed you as a writer?
Write shitty first drafts. Anne Lamott talks about this in her book Bird by Bird.
I used to feel huge pressure to get things right first time. I’d edit myself as I went along, and I’d only put a sentence down once it was perfect in my head. It was an exhausting way to work. Everything took twice as long as it needed to, and it sucked the life out of my writing.
I know now that writing and editing are two completely separate tasks. These days when I write a first draft, I set a timer and just vom whatever’s in my head on to the page. I write without fear or shame, throwing every cliche and seemingly useless line down until the clock stops or there’s nothing left to say.
I then try to get as far away from the draft as possible – often literally by going for a run.
When I get back to my desk, I’m usually faced with an embarrassing, 4,000-word mess with seemingly no redeeming qualities. But I can deal with that. I know the gold is in there somewhere. And I’ve learned to trust that I’m good enough to bring it out.
What was the last thing you wrote that had nothing to do with your job?
A note to our neighbours about some noisy work we’re about to have done.
What’s your favourite quote about the process of writing?
“If you believe that facts persuade (as I do), you’d better learn how to write a list so that it doesn’t read like a list.” David Abbott.
Who is your favourite Mad Man – or Woman?
Can you name your favourite film – and tell us why you love it?
This Is Spinal Tap. It’s endlessly quotable and just so brilliantly observed. It also happens to have the perfect scene to show clients if they ever question the need for a proper creative brief.
Which book or books is/are by your bed today?
Changing the World Is the Only Fit Work for a Grown Man by Steve Harrison.
Who was or is your greatest teacher?
I had a brilliant and very funny tennis coach when I was 11. He gave us all aliases and had names for our best and worst shots. I was Judge Jeffries and my pathetic second serve was known as The Sunday Best.
Everything was fun, and he could teach difficult technical skills without you knowing you were being taught. Like all the best teachers, I guess. I still remember it all now, 20-odd years on.
A year or two later, I had my first French classes at secondary school. My teacher was from the same mould: she turned everything into a game and had us listening to songs and watching films at every opportunity. It’s thanks to her I did languages at uni.
I later found out the two of them were a couple – they’d been together since their student days – and I gather they still are. I couldn’t imagine a more perfect pair.
Who is your favourite artist?
Where do you like to work best – is it at a desk, in an office or in a coffee shop? And would you send us a picture of where the magic happens?
I’m happy working from my home office most of the time. But recently I’ve been craving a bit of background buzz. So I’ve been doing a few days a month at a local coworking space, where I’m writing this from. I don’t really talk to anyone when I’m here – but it’s nice to know I could if I wanted to.