Doing Versus Teaching

Turns Out, Different Skill Sets Are Required

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I recently agreed to teach a brand writing course. Simple, I thought. I've been a copywriter at a branding agency for over seven years. How difficult could it be imparting the lessons I've learned to others?

It's not so easy, I quickly learned.My experience and knowledge didn't directly translate into an inspiring lecture or exercises. What was I doing wrong? I wondered.

There's an old adage: those who can, do; those who can't, teach. But those who "can" can't necessarily teach what they know. Before I started teaching, the question "How do you craft a strong headline?" would have stumped me. Not because I don't know how to write one. I didn't have a ready answer. Even though headlines and brand copy are things I compose on a daily basis, I'd never broken down the process in a manner that's easy to convey. There's no magic involved in what I do, but instructing and teaching is an entirely different skill set. It's taking the "doing" and clearly articulating to others how the "doing" is done.

One of my first jobs was as an account executive at a large advertising firm. I served as the conduit between the creative team and the client. The client always wanted the project done yesterday. The creative team needed time. My job was to be the intermediary and find a balance between having enough time to create good work and meeting the client's needs. That often meant pushing back on the client on timing—and pushing hard on the creative team to get a job done.

Successful creative campaigns seem effortless. But creating something that seems effortless takes a ton of effort. It takes a lot of trial and error, a lot of tinkering, and a lot of going down a path only to abandon it later. I learned this first hand when I decided to shift careers and become a copywriter. My first step: going back to school for writing. It was there that I found that to produce a hundred compelling words, I had to first write a thousand. And then the real work began. I'd cull through what I'd written, cut it down, revise it, and often do a complete rewrite until I found the right language, the right tone, and the right messaging.

Graduating from medical school doesn't make a person a good doctor. The same is true of graduating with a Masters in writing. The degree didn't make me a good writer. At best, it gave me the tools I needed. It gave me a clear understanding that I'd have to work really hard if I wanted to excel. And it made me realize that, after three years of school, my journey as a writer was just beginning.

Listening to others, watching how it's done, and studying successful writing are vital to becoming better. So is making a ton of mistakes. Trial and error is a huge part of learning -- at least for me. When I can't make the copy work, I take note and then try a different tact.

The ability to let go is imperative. Sure, you can love your work. But be ready to kill it if you have to. There's no room for ego. You can't let criticism crush you. You have to accept the fact that there's always room to become better, to improve. And you have to have fun doing it. Yes, we all need to make a living, but that doesn't mean we can't enjoy doing it.

My first class quickly approached. I struggled with coming up with relevant lessons and exercises. I worried I'd fail as a teacher -- and fail to give my students what they needed. So what did I do? I applied the same structure I have for writing: I listened to other teachers on how they teach, watching them in action, taking note on how it's done, and studying successful classrooms in action. I carefully thought through my writing process and broke it down so that I could describe it clearly to my students. I leveraged my experience, incorporating it into my lesson plan.

When class time came, I didn't stand at the front of the room and claim I was an infallible authority on brand writing. I told them the truth: I was someone who'd been doing it for long time. Someone who was willing to share the insights and experience to help them become better brand writers.

Did I have fun teaching? Definitely. And I made my class fun too.

Did I make mistakes? Of course. But I learned from them and used that learning. It's part of the journey. It's all part of becoming better.

About the Author

Douglas Light is a senior copywriter for Monaco Lange. Douglas' goal with any of his writing is to create indelible connections with people -- unforgettable moments in time.Before joining Monaco Lange, he worked at Rapp Collins, Grey Worldwide, and at Ogilvy Interactive on names like IBM, WebMD, and Chase among others.In the evenings, he teaches writing at NYU and Rutgers University.

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