Oops! 7 steps for handling a major copywriting screw-up

August 23, 2010 by Dean Rieck
Filed under: Business Smarts 

Oops! Copywriting screwupIf it’s happened to you, you know how devastating it can be. If it’s not happened yet, get ready, because it will.

Sooner or later, you’re going to screw up big time on a copywriting project. You’re going to make a mistake so serious, you’ll think your life as a professional copywriter is over for all time.

And the question is, how will you handle it?

I’ve been fortunate. In my long career as a freelance copywriter, I can remember only one serious screw-up. It happened when I had just started out and was writing copy for a local agency.

The agency had volunteered to create a mailer for a prominent award show. That meant thousands of area advertising professionals would see the piece. The agency wanted to make an impression and was putting their reputation on the line. They were also putting their own money into the project.

My job was to work with the designer to create the mailer. It looked simple enough to me. Headline, some descriptive copy about the show, a list of VIP judges, and so on.

I worked hard to write the important copy I thought the designer needed. And, being inexperienced, I figured that I didn’t need to worry much about all the routine things that went into every direct mail piece.

Oops! That’s when I made perhaps the most incredibly stupid mistake of my career.

I didn’t write copy for the reply piece. After all, every designer knows you need a reply piece, so why spend time on it? She’ll know to just fill in that part. Right?

You can see where this is going.

The designer took my copy and laid out the piece, a multi-fold self-mailer. The project manager then sent it to the printer because we were under the gun to get the piece finished and mailed.

The samples came back and the nightmare began.

I still remember sitting in the designer’s office looking at the piece with the project manager. We all realized at once that we had a problem.

“Where the hell is the reply piece?” the project manager screamed.

“I thought you’d know to fill that in,” I gasped to the designer.

“I just used the copy you gave me,” the designer squealed.

Then the agency owner stepped in. “What’s going on?”

The project manager should have caught the error. The designer should have known better. So should the printer. The whole process was screwed up. But ultimately, it was my error.

And there was only one answer. I had to write the missing copy. The designer had to do another layout. And the printer had to reprint the mailer.

It was terribly embarrassing. I felt 3 inches tall. How could I make such a massive muddle of things?

It didn’t feel good at the time, but I handled the situation as best I could and recovered in short order. In fact, I continued to do work for that agency for years, learning and building my confidence along the way.

How to deal with your own big copywriting oops

If something like this ever happens to you, if you are ever responsible for a stupendous foulup, I suggest you follow these 7 steps:

Admit the mistake. Like everyone else, you’ll have the gut instinct to blame the mistake on someone else. Don’t. If you screw up, admit it. People can forgive a mistake, especially if you have done good work for them and they realize this is an isolated incident. But people cannot forgive someone who passes the buck.

Accept responsibility. When you admit your mistake, you have accepted fault. But you must also accept responsibility. That means you can’t sheepishly hide under your desk. You must take charge of the problem.

Fix the problem. It’s your mistake. You’ve taken personal responsibility for it. Now fix it. Do whatever it takes to make things right. Work longer hours. Go beyond the budget. Do what needs to be done, then go a little further. Don’t stop until you’ve done all you can do.

Prevent the problem. You’ve fixed the problem and the heat is off. But you’re not done yet. Ask yourself why this problem happened and decide how to prevent it from ever happening again. Often this results in a checklist so you won’t forget something or a step-by-step procedure to make sure you never skip any step in the writing process.

In my case, the prevention was simple. I would never again assume anything when preparing a copy document. I would write every word, even for routine elements. Never again would I depend on anyone else for filling in a single word.

Apologize once. If you’ve caused a major problem, you owe an apology to the others involved. However, don’t become a whimpering weasel. Say you’re sorry once. Then move on. Any further apology will simply annoy people because what they want is for you to fix the problem, not beg for forgiveness to make yourself feel better.

Get over it. Making a major blunder can be embarrassing, especially if you’re trying to project an image of professionalism. But you can’t let this crush your ego. Everyone makes a mistake at some point. What defines you is how you handle it and move past it.

Learn from your mistake. When the smoke clears and you’ve climbed from the rubble, sit down and think about what happened. What have you learned? How are you a better writer now? What other areas of your work could be improved? Major mistakes provide major learning opportunities. My mistake gave me a new perspective on the range of my responsibilities and the extent to which others rely on me. It changed my perspective forever.

How about you? Have you ever experienced a major copywriting screw-up? How did you handle it? How did it change the way you approach copy projects today?

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Smart Comments

9 Comments on Oops! 7 steps for handling a major copywriting screw-up

  1. Andy Bartling on Aug 23rd, 2010 9:58 am
  2. One of my all-time ‘favorite’ personal screw-ups happened nearly 30 years, when I had been working full time as a copywriter only a few months. I wrote copy for a Citicorp statement insert that was going to be mailed to hundreds of thousands of people. It had a great offer, with an expiration date of November 31, 1981.

    There ain’t 31 days in November.

    I’ve sharpened my proofreading skills a bit since then.

  3. Paige Jeffrey on Aug 23rd, 2010 11:08 am
  4. I haven’t had a major online copywriting screw-up yet, but I’m young, and just starting out – so I know it’s going to happen one day.

    But just thinking about it can really get your guts in a twist if it’s ever happened to you before.

    It’s almost worth it to keep a checklist of what to do when you screw up, like this post, in order to curb down those icky feelings of guilt and shame. Once you get moving, you’re usually fine, but it’s that initial “Uh oh” that can really waylay you.

  5. Susan Hamilton on Aug 23rd, 2010 11:18 am
  6. So true, I think points 5 & 6 are so important and I’m glad you included them. If you keep beating yourself up and returning to the problem instead of the solution you’re going to take much longer to recover. The solution should always be the focus, and not kicking the dead, smelly horse. Once repaired, spend some time figuring out how to avoid the mistake in the future – but not during crisis. Thanks for bringing it full circle!

  7. Chris Miller on Aug 23rd, 2010 12:14 pm
  8. Apologize once. That’s something a lot of people miss – professionals screw up, admit it, then move on – because it’s external. The mistake is on a website or paper somewhere, and it’s fixed or not fixed. Repercussions are what they are.

    When the mistake becomes internal though, you’re asking your clients to work for YOU by repeated requests for validation. Learning the difference was probably my biggest oops ;)

  9. lawton chiles on Aug 23rd, 2010 1:49 pm
  10. I love the fact that you tell people the truth-admit the mistake, own it, resolve to fix it, and only apologize once. It’s tempting to apologize over and over again sometimes, but this is just not professional or necessary.

    Good stuff!

  11. Dean Rieck on Aug 23rd, 2010 2:24 pm
  12. @Susan: Thanks for the image. The dead horse is not only dead, it’s also smelly.

  13. Dean Rieck on Aug 23rd, 2010 2:27 pm
  14. @Chris: Many writers are naturally insecure. So while a hardball salesperson or executive naturally leaves mistakes behind them, writers often carry them around for a long time.

  15. Chris Miller on Aug 23rd, 2010 4:57 pm
  16. @Dean, makes sense. I love to write, but I do not fit the mold of a writer by any means – which I think makes it a little easier for me to separate myself from my product. I can write a couple paragraphs and throw it on a website for someone else and say “here ya go”, and even if it’s good copy, I don’t really think anything of it – because it’s just a product to me. Like a table, for example. Is it sturdy? Is it level? Ok done. Oh wait there’s a screw loose in one of the corners? Let me tighten it for you. Ok fixed.

    With photography, however, I’m over-critical to the point where other photographers will get frustrated in talking with me about it. Even if they don’t see what I see as a mistake, I can’t shut up about it because I’m so emotionally attached to the image. I had a photo in a gallery earlier this year, and a few minutes before opening, I almost took it off the wall and left – because there were so many things I wished were better. It wasn’t a studio shot, so it couldn’t have been reproduced – but mistakes and all, it ended up being one of the more talked about pieces at the show.

    All this to say: I think the emotional attachment is what (can) cause insecurity levels to rise; but when we separate ourselves from the art we produce, it’s easier to act objectively.

  17. Joshua Black | The Underdog Millionaire on Aug 24th, 2010 11:19 am
  18. Since the majority of my copywriting is to support my 15 different products and email list, the biggest blunders that I have made were to send people to the wrong order page through a hastily-placed link, and to send a handful of really poorly-proofread emails to my list.

    My email mistakes have cost me dearly with “unsubscirbers,” but I pulled up my “big kid” pants, got over myself, and now know that I need to “edit twice, cut once.” …or in my case, hit SEND.

    -Joshua Black
    The Underdog Millionaire