The nine circles of copywriting Hell

2 years ago

I was agonizing trying to fit a client’s every desire into a 500-word article, while secretly longing to pen my own awe-inspiring opus, when my mind wandered to the work of Dante Alighieri. I felt like I was on the epic journey through the 9 circles of Hell (as referenced in his “Divine Comedy).” I wondered, how would the writer/client roles appear in these evil circles? Based on Dante’s original geography, the underworld is organized in circles according to their degree of wickedness. The inner core is the final, and worst, degree of Hell.

I present to you the nine circles of copywriting Hell. Mind the cinders!

Circle 1 – Limbo
Limbo is the giant waiting room in the afterlife, designed for pagans and the unbaptized. It’s annoying, but not all-out agony. You’d probably have a TV with one channel tuned to fake news. Magazines are doctors’ office rejects, and the floor is scuffed beige linoleum.

This is where copywriters hang out while their clients drag their feet getting back to us with feedback on a first draft. You would also park here when waiting for an editor at your dream publication to give you a yay or nay. 

A writer can reside here for an interminably long time. Inevitably, this causes imposter syndrome and writer’s block that will kill everything else you try to concentrate on. Particularly an opus.

Meanwhile, clients are slogging through stacks of copy that bears no resemblance to what they thought they requested, having not yet uncovered your relevant masterpiece. “Why,” they’re thinking, “are these writers not delivering gold when they have such pretty websites?”

Circle 2 – Lust
This circle is battered by unceasing wind, and the final destination for anyone controlled by their libido. 

From a writer’s perspective, this is where a client or editor finally gets back to you and says something like “It’s okay…but we need something sexier to appeal to Gen Zs and millennials.”

You can expect this place to be full of panicked marketing execs and digital magazine editors trying to communicate with hormone-fueled teenagers, social media influencers, and reality television stars.

Circle 3 –  Gluttony
This wintry circle is dedicated to those who want everything, even if they haven’t read the menu and don’t care whether or not it’s good for them. 

These lost souls possess a huge appetite, a fear of missing out (FOMO), and a big budget. They create a never-ending workload that rolls out like an opulent buffet, the likes of which are only found in the high-rollers’ dining rooms in the swankiest Vegas resorts.

To be fair, many copywriters attempt grabbing onto this brass ring too. Rather than admitting we aren’t experts at everything and referring out, we can end up over our heads and gasping for air in the jacuzzi. Not the jacuzzi at the swanky resort, but the motel down the street with the neon sign on the fritz.

Circle 4 – Greed
This circle of Hell is reserved for the frugal yet materialistic. It’s similar to the gluttony circle – except the food’s not as good. 

These souls also want everything, but would rather not compensate you for it. If playing cops and robbers forever in the way of endless proposals, change orders, and bartering sounds like your idea of a good time, then the fourth circle would be Nirvana.

Circle 5 – Wrath
After going through Gluttony and Greed, a writer can end up in wrath desperately trying not to become a jaded a-hole. Sadly, by the time you arrive here, you can find yourself oddly triggered when a potential employer asks how you came up with your pricing schedule. 

This misplaced anger may surface at odd times and seriously derail a Zoom meeting when attendees notice your hair standing on end, veins popping out of your forehead, and start questioning if you need an ambulance.

Dante tells us wrathful souls spend eternity waging battle on the River Styx. For copywriters, it’s over weak coffee and leftover donuts in the conference room.

Circle 6 – Heresy
Here, heretics spend eternity entombed in flaming crypts. 

In the world of writing, this translates to pitching ideas that are bold, out of the box, creative, and non-trendy, then being told they are too unorthodox. Until…a CEO loves one of them, and suddenly you are a “God.” 

Circle 7 – Violence

This level is composed of three rings, and very sketchy people. Suffice it to say, most have committed heinous crimes and landed here for punishment amidst burning sand, termites, blood and fire. Oh my!

Typically the most violent a writer gets is when we have to “kill off” or “murder” our babies. In other words, edit or cut perfect copy that we created in a labor of love. It feels like the most beautiful thing you have ever written, yet doesn’t quite fit with your assignment. 

Circle 8 – Fraud
Apparently all sorts of con artists lounge around in ditches here. Picture a communal office where fraudsters make phone calls to the elderly and hackers try to break into your bank accounts. Fallen writers compose the scripts for these insidious calls and phishing emails.

Other copywriters can land here by failing to follow best practices, not doing proper research, source checking, or the worst sin of all, participating in downright plagiarism.

Circle 9 – Treachery
The final circle of Hell is an icy tundra where Satan is held in bondage and the world’s worst traitors mingle. Like Washington, DC depending on the time of year.

This is where you have a wonderful, lengthy discovery call, and expect to gain a new client and hefty retainer. Instead, you find your ideas have been written up and implemented by someone else – leaving you with no credit and no paycheck.

Avoiding the burning rings of fire
This is a tongue-in-cheek look at the business of writing that I’ve been having some fun with. Thankfully, most client experiences are positive, though I have heard quite a few hellish stories from fellow writers. I’ve also encountered some disappointed clients, who felt burned by the scribe they hired.

No one wants to visit, let alone wallow in, any one of these circles. To ensure the best working relationship between writer and client, following these 5 simple steps will save everyone some angst:

1.   Vetting on both sides is important: do your research and get your referrals. It’s always a good idea to enter into any partnership with eyes wide open.

2.   Consider working on a trial assignment before entering into a long-term contract or retainer.

3.   Only accept, or pay, a fair rate. This alleviates clients from getting off on the wrong foot or losing talented writers, and writers from feeling bitter before they even begin.

4.   Communicate! Being open and honest about your thoughts and direction is what make any project a true collaboration. You can avoid total re-writes and scope creep by checking in regularly.

5. If the work feels like torture, know when to call it quits. Writers and clients should go together like cookies and milk! Or perhaps wine and cheese. 

Good luck, Godspeed, and remember to keep a fire extinguisher on hand.