September 9, 2011Do you need to be passionate to be able to write?

I caught up with another freelancer this week and we got onto the subject of “danger words” in client enquiries. The classic is the phrase “it’s only a little job” which usually means “it’s an ordinary sized job but I have very little money”.

It’s also worth counting the number of buzzwords a client uses in their enquiry. One recent enquiry opened with “we’re looking to engage with a copywriting solution”. This solution politely rejected the client’s offer to get engaged. Knowing in my heart of hearts we were incompatible, I was sure I’d be jilted before invoice day.

My friend added another one to the list. ‘Passionate,’ he said. ‘Beware anyone who tells you they’re “passionate” about something. And if they want you to be passionate too, run a mile.’

I thought getting “engaged” was bad enough. But, apparently, everyone is passionate about what they do. And they expect you to be, too.

The word “passion” worries me.

In the course of my career as a freelance copywriter, I have met people who are passionate about design. Fair enough. But I have also met people who are passionate about carpet cleaning, picture framing, and even data entry.

If it’s your day job or your living, it’s possible — albeit unlikely — you’re passionate about data entry. But I’m still surprised every time I see a brief, enquiry, or RFP that asks the copywriter (occasionally: “copywriting resource”) if they are “passionate” about xxxxxxx.

Most people aren’t passionate about their own jobs — let alone someone else’s. So why ask?

It’s about engagement, stupid, or:

When people are passionate, they want to get engaged.

In other words, the client is looking for someone who understands them. They’re looking for someone who thinks the way they do. They’re looking for someone they can relate to. They’re looking for a relationship. And they assume this requires passion.

For some reason people think you need passion to be in a relationship. Anyone who’s ever been married will tell you this isn’t the case. For most people, a job’s a job. They might have a passion for numbers, but not merchant banking. But they’re in banking rather than teaching because the money’s too good. They are using their skillset to earn a living. Personally, I’m passionate about words, about writing, about books, about literature. Copywriting, less so. I simply try to do a good job.

Builders probably aren’t passionate about the houses they build, plumbers aren’t passionate about toilets. Frankly, you’d be worried if they were. That doesn’t mean they don’t do a good job building your house or mending your leaky pipes. They’re professionals, doing a job. No passion required. Just an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work.

Why are passion and creativity inextricably linked?

It all comes back to the myth of the starving artist, the guy who’d rather buy paint than buy next week’s food. Unfortunately, when it comes to the “creative” professions, people believe you need to be passionate to do good work. Not just passionate about your craft, but passionate about your subject matter too.

Do you need to be passionate about something to write about it?

The answer is no.

Journalists sent to cover a story aren’t passionate, they’re objective. They might be passionate about writing — but not always about the assignment they’re given. They’re professionals who tell a story and convey information. Copywriters do a similar job. One week, you’re working on an ad campaign for women’s fashion (which you might care about), the next week, you’re writing long copy for the back of a cereal packet, or a 4000 word financial services brochure. Such is the life of a professional writer.

So should you be worried when someone asks you if you’re passionate?

My friend argued that people used the word “passion” to mean dedication to the job — dedication that could often be exploited for lower wages or poorer conditions. I’ve known chefs, for example, who work up to 12 hour shifts for near minimum wage in 5* restaurants because they’re passionate about food, even though practically any other highly skilled job would pay more and demand less.

So when someone asks you if you’re passionate, my friend decided it was because they wanted you to be dedicated enough to work for less, to redraft documents for free, to wait for payment, etc — and he considers it a danger phrase as bad as “it’s only a little job…”

Personally, I think people are just suffering from the illusion that you have to be passionate, rather than professional, to be able to write.

We don’t demand passion from plumbers, bank clerks, or reporters.
So why demand it from copywriters?

What do you think?

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This entry was posted on Friday, September 9th, 2011 at 4:40 pm and is filed under Blog, Copywriting. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.


  1. I think a lot of people assume that ‘passionate’ writing makes their product more interesting to customers. The irony is that they approach you as a ‘copywriting solution’ rather than a person who would be capable of passion in the first place.

    Of course, what they are looking for is exactly that – a solution. As a copywriter you solve their time, cost and skill problems around writing. Any passion should only come into it as tone of voice, if that is required in order to make the copy believable.

    I also get the sense that people who hire freelancers approach us as though they are conducting a job interview. You have to show you are ‘passionate’ in order to deserve the job.

  2. al says:

    It’s interesting. It’s only in the “creative” professions we expect people to be passionate about their work, even though it is just that — work. I’m passionate about a lot of things, but writing copy about data centres is never going to be one of them… what I can promise is experience, a proven track record, and a pride in my own work: to me, to do a bad job would be something to be ashamed of. That’s commitment. Alas, when push comes to shove, I can’t always offer passion.

    Definitely agree with you on the irony. Definitely, not all relationships — or jobs — are passionate.

  3. Rich says:

    My career as a copywriter is just getting started, but already I’ve found myself looking for better ways to say “I really enjoy this particular topic.”

    I agree that being “passionate” about that certain thing is not really using the word correctly; life would be rather odd if it were. It doesn’t seem to express the correct sentiment to say “I’m overcome with emotion when it comes to plumbing, and find myself sexually ambitious at the mere suggestion of an Essex flange.”

    I’ve heard a large number of people claiming to be passionate about something, and seen very few examples, but I think it’s better that way. After all, I don’t fancy eating at a 5* restaurant if the chef has been passionate all over my supper.

  4. Aldi’s food label informs me that they “passionately” source their chicken. For goodness’ sake.

    Their copywriter needs to read your blog. And this.

  5. al says:

    Thanks for your comments guys! Obviously I’m not alone in thinking the word “passion” is odd and out of place.

    @bristolcopywriter that’s a great link!

  6. This is a fascinating piece, Al. My reactions are twofold.

    One: ‘passion’ has become a derivative of personal self-fashioning. There are so many who claim to give ‘110%’ or worse (clearly ignorant of a law of diminishing returns), with the assumption that it displays their ‘passion’ to exceed themselves. And yet, as you point out, it’s the wider world of commerce that’s driving this. Most jobs don’t require anyone to be spectacular, but to work solidly and, where the creative is concerned, use skills or talents to better the material. They say of football that the sign of a good team is one that plays badly and still wins. What’s the great attraction behind a person that gives “110%” and produces the same result as the stoic run-of-the-mill guy who takes it in his stride every day? You know that if you pay the latter properly for his time, he could be spectacular…

    Secondly, I think you’re absolutely right to bring the financials into it. We’re both passionate about words and literature. You’ve gauged yours properly. Through a PhD, I’ve pushed myself towards ‘passion’ through the sacrifices of scrimping and saving. For what? Writing a book of criticism about poetry? That’s mad. You don’t sign up for an aggregate loss of £30K over 3 years without some sense of passion. But it has become a love/hate affair because it doesn’t provide. I find passion for my studies when I’m not resentful of how financially detrimental they are. The ‘starving artist’ I cannot be. We need to make a living, pure and simple. And ‘passion’ is not in any way a sustainable part of that.

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