Word Nerd: Conversation with a Copywriter
Copywriter Joanna Wing is one of the wittiest wordsmiths around. She’ll knock you off your feet with her clever social media captions, and she usually has everyone on Slack lol-ing with her puns and zingers. She started working at Ingredient 17 years ago as a project manager, and eventually wrote her way into the copy ranks — a natural fit for her love of storytelling, penchant for crafting strategic messaging, and grammatical instincts.
On a drizzly Friday morning in March, Joanna graciously took some time away from her keyboard to chat with fellow copywriter Courtney Bade about her early love of writing, email copy, and of course, cooking.
Courtney: When did you first start getting interested in writing?
Joanna: You know, it’s funny, my mom saved everything from when I was a kid, so I have boxes and boxes of things I wrote — mostly stories, and books I made by stapling construction paper around notebook pages. But I also really enjoyed writing satirical stuff — I have pages and pages making fun of fairy tales. I was constantly writing as a kid. And then I stopped for a while because I thought I wanted to be a doctor … and then I wanted to be in television. I took a very roundabout path.
C: I think that’s probably pretty common with writers. We’re curious people, so we think we want to do all these other things. And then eventually we realize we don’t want to do these things; we just want to write about them.
J: And the interesting thing is, my dad is a retired professor. He presented, gave talks, and wrote books and papers. Now here I am, writing for a living, so clearly he influenced me in some way.
C: Was your dad really hands on with your writing when you were younger?
J: Oh, yes. We would have grammar lessons at the dining room table. I’d also show my dad all of my papers, and he would mark ‘em up in red pen — he was ruthless. So even though I was never formally trained as a writer, those instincts were ingrained in me.
C: So, I know you write a ton of email copy for various clients. What do you think makes email copy different from other types of copy — social media, website, blogs?
J: Number one, it has to be succinct: you really need to boil down the message, and have powerful subject lines, headlines, and calls to action. Those calls to action are so important because, number two, it has to be compelling enough to make people want to click.
C: Since you brought up keeping email copy short, I have to ask: What do you think about the new trend in the food industry where brands are sending out longer, letter-from-the-editor-style emails? Like New York Times Cooking or Chrissy Teigen’s Cravings emails — or sometimes even King Arthur Baking?
J: One thing I like about those emails is that there’s a person behind them — Chrissy Teigen or Sam Sifton at the New York Times — to connect with. Even Food52, which at its heart is an e-commerce company, has made itself into an editorial brand with lots of culinary content creators.
C: I think King Arthur Baking is a great example of that too because, even though they sell flour, they’ve built this prominent test kitchen “character” through email and social. And their longer, newsletter-style emails are written from the test kitchen manager — it works really well.
J: And that comes back to this influencer culture we’re living in: we’re so tuned into this idea of connecting with an individual — of getting that “They’re just like me!” feeling. Nowadays, brands really have to find that magic formula to connect with consumers on a personal level.
C: Well, and the beauty of email is you’re building this ongoing relationship with a consumer; your email is landing right in their inbox on a regular basis. It’s more intimate.
J: The other thing with email, I suppose, is that the consumer asked for it. You already know they’re interested in the value proposition you put out there — and because they signed up, you know who they are, demographically speaking.
C: So would you say you like writing email copy best, then?
J: It’s a toss-up between social media and email. Social copy is just so fun. But part of me likes the challenge of writing email copy, especially subject lines. I love trying to fit as much as I can into those 47 to 50 characters — it’s so dorky. It’s like this mathematical puzzle to find the right set of words that fit perfectly into a given space.
C: I’ve said this a million times, but I think copywriters are different than, say, novelists, in that we have this desire to solve problems and puzzles with words.
You write a lot of short bits of copy. How do you keep it exciting — for readers, of course, but also for yourself?
J: It’s just my personal challenge to make each bit of copy slightly different. And every time I sit down to write something, even if it’s for the same content I wrote about a month ago, I’m in a different mindset.
Coming up with fresh copy is definitely a challenge, though — especially when you’re working with a lot of similar content. It’s like an exercise they’d have you do in school, where you write the same thing six different ways. It wasn’t always a fun assignment; it was really hard.
C: Yeah, but it made you a much better writer.
J: It’s funny, I was in charge of an intern a while back, and I’d have her write eight different subject lines for one email — because that’s life for a copywriter. It’s not glamorous, and it’s certainly not for everybody.
When you get someone who’s meant to be a copywriter though, you know right away — it’s like finding a kindred spirit. It takes someone who likes to nerd out about words and appreciates the power and beauty of writing.
C: Absolutely. Well, we could probably talk about copywriting all day, but I know you love cooking, too. Where does that love come from?
J: Well, one of my roommates from college is half Thai, and the other is Indian — and we would cook for each other. I really only knew how to make salads though, so at first I was their sous chef and learned how to help cook authentic Indian and Thai food. But eventually I learned to cook my own. And I’m sure I fed them some really crappy stuff — but it lit a fire under me to discover different ways to cook and eat. We’re still good, good friends to this day though, so I guess I didn’t scare them off.
And then about 15 years ago, my husband and I started doing monthly supper clubs with three other couples — everyone needed a grown-ups-only escape once we all started having kids. Usually the host makes the main dish, and everybody else brings either an app, a side, or a dessert. It’s made me love cooking for other people.
C: That’s so fun! I don’t even have kids, and I need that. Do you have favorite things you like to cook?
J: I mostly just love to experiment with different flavors and recipes from various cultures — and really anything new. I’m not always successful, though. I always tell my kids that if it’s gross, I won’t make them eat it. Seriously, there are times when I take a bite of something and say, “Nope! This is bad, bad, bad. We’re having cereal.”
You can also work with a writer like Joanna: just give us a shout at email@example.com, and we’ll set something up!