I had an interesting chat with my copywriter colleague, Imi, the other day. All sorts of subjects pop up in our daily check-ins – style guides (we love them), Oxford commas (mixed feelings), who doesn’t wash their hands after using the office toilets. (Seriously! Eww!) Recently, the subject of interruptions popped up.

Picture the scene. You’re head-down, buried hundreds of words deep in a huge copy deck of social ads, video scripts and landing pages. You’ve found your groove. The words are flowing. You can feel that it’s good copy. And suddenly, your colleague pops up at your desk with a quick question. They probably think this only costs you three minutes of your time. But that’s not how it works.

You’re killing me

Interruptions can be a creativity and productivity killer for copywriters. A one minute interruption can derail the writer’s mindspace and thought process for over 23 minutes. It takes time to refocus and try to recover that flow state. After all, when you write, you have to carry so many threads in your head. The brief, the resource material, the aim of the piece, the copy that’s gone before so you maintain the flow, the style guide etc.

And with creative work, it’s not just the time that’s lost. It’s the potential for what you might have written had you not been interrupted. All those ideas and phrases that were rolling so effortlessly before have just vanished.

The person from Porlock

There’s even a term for this type of ‘creative loss’ – “The person from Porlock”. This was coined from an incident when the poet, Coleridge, was interrupted whilst penning Kubla Khan after a fabulous, opium-induced vision.

This is how Colerige put it, writing about himself in the third person.

“On awakening he appeared to himself to have a distinct recollection of the whole, and taking his pen, ink, and paper, instantly and eagerly wrote down the lines that are here preserved. At this moment he was unfortunately called out by a person on business from Porlock…”

And after that person departed…

“though he still retained some vague and dim recollection of the general purport of the vision, yet, with the exception of some eight or ten scattered lines and images, all the rest had passed away like the images on the surface of a stream into which a stone has been cast, but, alas! without the after restoration of the latter!”

I’m sure every copywriter can relate.

What’s the balance?

I’ve been in agencies all my working life. I know getting questions answered makes the wheels turn. And if it’s truly urgent, then immediate interruptions are necessary. But what about non-immediate enquiries? How do you spot a good time to ‘interrupt’ your copywriter without derailing their creative flow?

Body language – is your copywriter staring at their screen like they’re in a world of their own, or typing away madly? These are usually signs they won’t enjoy an interruption.

It’s much better to try and spot when they are already ‘interrupted’, eg making tea or moving around the office, and pounce with your question. After all, face-to-face chats can be so much quicker than messaging.

Another simple idea if your copywriter looks really busy – Slack them and ask when they’ll have 5 minutes? This lets them pause when they reach a natural break and respond.

I’ve also seen copywriters use red and green signs on their desk, with green signalling they are open to questions and chats. One chap I worked with had red headphones and blue headphones. It was best not to bother him during red headphone sessions.

The happy ending

With fewer, well-timed interruptions creativity is protected, and your copywriters have the best chance of doing their best work…and that makes our job feel really satisfying. It also supports speed and productivity – useful when we all work to constant deadlines.

There is only one way to round off this blog and that’s to share the genius of the fragment of poetry known as Kubla Khan, so you can marvel at the images it conjures…and wonder what could have been.

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43991/kubla-khan

sarah compton
Sarah Compton
Senior Copywriter