The nine circles of copywriting Hell

Jonna Jerome

As a writer, I wear multiple hats. I am a digital marketing consultant and content writer, and I author other creative pieces for publication as well. I feel the following observations apply to writing in both the artistic sense and business applications – as they overlap.

One day I was toiling away trying to fit a client’s every desire into a 500-word article, while secretly longing to pen my own awe-inspiring opus that dominates the New York Times bestseller list, when my mind wandered to the work of Dante Alighieri. His epic journey through the nine circles of Hell (as referenced in his “Divine Comedy” and conveniently condensed by Matt Staggs), struck a chord in me. How might the writer/client roles look 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.

So, although I don’t have the angel Virgil to guide me, I present to you the nine circles of writing Hell. Here we go!

Circle 1 – Limbo
As far as I can tell, Limbo is the giant waiting room of the afterlife. Annoying but not all-out agony. You’d probably have a TV with rabbit ears, and all of the channels will be set to fake news. Any magazines are leftovers from doctors’ offices. The floor is made of scuffed beige linoleum tiles.

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. Do they love it? Hate it? Are they out shopping for a replacement?

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, editors are likely still 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 the final destination for the lustful and adulterous — or basically anyone controlled by their libido. All of the world’s most passionate lovers get tossed here.

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. We need 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 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 – so the never-ending workload 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, a lot of copywriters attempt grabbing onto this brass ring too. Rather than copping to not having the expertise to do 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 tight-fisted and the overly materialistic. It’s vaguely similar to the gluttony circle – except the food’s not as good. 

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

According to Dante, those cast into the circle of Greed are condemned to spend eternity fighting over money and valuables, not unlike distant relatives who show up out of the blue after a well-heeled (but actually bankrupt) family member dies. 

Writers may experience the backlash of those languishing in Greed after they’ve been killed off and replaced by more and more “specialists” hired to do expensive edits on their work, before ultimately everyone reverts back to the original draft.

Circle 5 – Wrath
This is where, after experiencing the circles of Gluttony and Greed, a writer ends up desperately trying not to become a jaded a-hole. Sadly, you can find yourself oddly triggered when a potential employer asks how you came up with your pricing schedule. Are dentists asked the same thing?

You might then take out your misplaced anger at a guy who cut in front of you at your caffeine bar of choice, as well as the driver with road rage who almost ran over you on your way there. Not that those aren’t despicable things, but the reaction has your hair standing on end, veins popping out of your forehead, and people questioning if you need an ambulance.

Dante tells us that the wrathful and angry souls of this circle 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
Dante wrote that heretics spend eternity entombed in flaming crypts in the sixth circle. Heresy is a rather obscure sin today with the plethora of beliefs that are more acceptable now – though belittling others for having a different faith than yours is still rampant.

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 high level exec loves one of them, and suddenly you are a “God” and someone’s star writer again.

Circle 7 – Violence
This level gets pretty sketchy. It’s composed of three rings. The outer ring is filled with blood and fire, and murderers and thugs have a standing reservation there. The middle ring is for suicide victims, who are transformed into trees and fed upon by something akin to termites. The inner ring is filled with burning sand, and home to “blasphemers” and “sodomites.”

Dante certainly spares no compassion here and goes into grim detail about punishing people for suffering from mental illness or exercising freedoms now protected as basic human rights in many societies.

Okay, I don’t know this relates to copywriting. It all just sounds heinous and it makes me want to throw something – which is violent. 

I suppose if we view violence as on par with torture, much of what we have lived, written about, and read during the pandemic could easily fall into this circle. 

While it’s been hard to avoid exposure to vernacular torture in the media, we can try not to be dominated and deterred by continuously reusing words like “pivot,” “navigate,” “unprecedented,” “new normal,” “uncertain times,” and definitely not Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s term “speaking moistly.”

Circle 8 – Fraud
Con artists of all sorts populate the eighth circle. Dante describes a bunch of ditches. I picture a communal office (fishbowl) with identical cubicles, where fraudsters make phone calls to the elderly and hackers try to break into your bank accounts. Some fallen writer must be composing the scripts for these insidious calls and phishing emails.

Other copywriters can land here by failing to do proper research, source checking, or the worst sin of all, not crediting other writers and participating in downright plagiarism. In a nutshell, not every detail is above-board.

You can’t just write a sentence that begins with “They say…or I’ve heard,” without quoting a reference. Who are they? A third party, such as the friend of a friend of a friend?

I also refer to this dilemma in “Who are ‘they,’ anyway?” Writers can get sued by not doing their due diligence and following best practices. No one minds this as much as you, because it’s your career if you get caught.

Circle 9 – Treachery
The final circle of Hell is a frozen wasteland where history’s greatest traitors come to mingle, and Satan is held in bondage. I’m dying to say like Washington, DC depending who’s in office!

This is when you have a wonderful, lengthy discovery call, and are expecting to follow up with a project green light, as well as new working relationships with colleagues you respect. Later 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
I’ve been having a bit of fun here. Thankfully, 99.9% of my client experiences have been positive, but I’ve heard quite a few hellish stories from fellow writers. I’ve also encountered some disappointed clients, who felt let down by the scribe they hired.

No one wants to visit, let alone wallow in, any one of these circles. It’s simply a good idea to go into a partnership with eyes wide open. Not every situation will be a proper fit. 

The best way to ensure a successful working relationship between writers, clients, and editor/publishers is through mutual respect and communication. This is critical, and makes any project a true collaboration. There’s a reason there is a drafting process. A piece that is completed before any review may require an entire re-write. 

Also, observing these guidelines are useful:

  • Vetting on both sides is important: do your research and get your referrals. 
  • Consider working on a trial assignment before entering into a contract or retainer.
  • Only accept, or pay, a fair rate. No one should work for free. This alleviates clients from getting off on the wrong foot, or losing, talented writers. By paying too low a fee, you may get inexperienced or struggling writers. 

If either party sees red flags, it’s okay to move on to a more perfect pairing. Writers and clients should go together like cookies and milk! Or, depending on your preference, wine and cheese. 

Either way, writers, clients, editors and publishers need each other. In the words of Rodney King, “Can’t we all just get along?” Good luck, Godspeed, and cheers to your next amazing opus.

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