Posts tagged “Creative writing”
Clarity is everything.
If people can’t make it through your messaging, how will they ever get to your product or service? Writing isn’t just about writing; it’s about conveying an exact message. That’s what the old saw “writing is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration” is talking about. The easy part is putting down a bunch of thoughts. The tricky part is arranging all those letters and all that punctuation into something that truly grabs your target audience by the lapels and makes them remember what you said.
There’s truly no point in putting out confusing messaging. It’s a waste of time, space and money.
A local doctor did a landslide business after creating her own billboards. That’s a rather unusual occurrence. But she understood the importance of simplicity and clarity – especially in billboards. Hers were made up entirely of her smiling face, name, phone number and a large headline that said simply “I cure acne.” Those were the only words. And they were the only words needed because the people who needed her help found her.
I’m by no means advocating that every advertisement be that basic. But I am saying that honing your message can really pay off. Hers did. Her business boomed.
Imitation is for amateurs.
People who don’t know where to begin often begin by copying. Example, the “Got milk?” campaign that was so effective and compelling that a local land developer copied it with “Got land.” (Down to the all-black background and white type.) But … notice the punctuation? Did he miss the fact that the question mark was key to the milk board campaign? Or was he trying to say that he has land? (God, I hope not.)
It only confuses things to have writing that sounds like something else. You’re actually making the reader think of the original rather than you and your message.
Another common error is copying style, if not content. People will imitate a tone thinking, for example, that if they sound like Mercedes Benz they’ll be perceived like Mercedes Benz. But … that doesn’t really work, does it? Especially if you’re Subaru. (Not saying they do; only how silly it would be.)
The essential lesson here is: don’t write the way you think others expect you to write. Write the way you want to write. Write in a way that conveys not just what you do but also how you feel about what you do.
A recent LinkedIn article by Vivek Wadhwa described how he worked his way through the challenge of writing articles with advice from journalist friends: “What they said was that I should just write down my thoughts as though I were telling a story to a friend: forget all I had learned about structuring high-school essays; and be brief, hard-hitting, and to the point.”
Extremely good advice. My version is very similar: “Pretend you’re writing to one person, a close friend. Be direct and honest. Be unafraid of judgement.”
Be brief, be clear, be compelling.
When I got my first job at an ad agency in New York, I spent the first few weeks having panic attacks. Every time I got an assignment, I stared at the blank, white page in front of me, thinking I was expected to put down perfect, award-winning thoughts. So, naturally, my brain seized up each time.
I knew full well, however, that I wouldn’t keep my hard-won job very long if I didn’t produce. So, after struggling this way for a while, I got tough with myself one day and thought: “Just put down everything you can think of and edit it later.”
That breakthrough turned out to be every professional writer’s approach. We all do that. So can you. Just start writing. E.L. Doctorow describes the process of placing one word after another as “… just like driving at night. You can only see as far as the headlights illuminate, but once you’ve gone that distance you can see the next piece.”
The first time I did it as a copywriter, I put down an entire page of copy … then crossed out nearly all of it. I ended up with one or two sentences. But they were the perfect thing to build on. And when I did, I made sure the copy was brief, to the point and entertaining.
Then I repeated that process with every assignment. Little by little, I began putting less unusable stuff down and more “perfect things to build on.”
That’s because writing is like any craft – the more you do it, the more you know which steps to cut out and which to keep. You begin to have the ability – before even putting anything down – to separate the valuable thoughts from the merely distracting.
Write for them, not you.
One of the hardest things to learn as a writer is that we don’t write for ourselves – we write for our target audience. So we have to cull what will bore them and only keep what will make them respond.
That means, as so many writers have written about, “killing off your little darlings.” That, too, is what it means to be a writer.
Writers who fall in love with what they’ve written and are unwilling to change it – even after being told that it’s not relevant – would be better off keeping a journal. Writing is communication. If your objective is to communicate with a potential target audience, you’d better know what they find interesting, and what they don’t.
Or, to pass on the advice I was given in my first few months on Madison Ave., “if you won’t be there to explain it to every reader, then your ad better be able to stand on its own.”
Thanksgiving has just come and gone in the U.S., and we’re moving on to the holidays that soften everyone’s hearts … while forcing wallets open. These are the in-between days when we know that the coming new year is another chance to address regrets and disappointments – to change direction, if we feel that’s needed.
This year, in the days leading up to Thanksgiving, others sent and posted messages of thanks, taking the holidays rather more seriously than I recall before. It made me think I should add my own.
I’m thankful for:
- clients who happily pay appropriate professional fees for the services we happily provide.
- clients who understand the effort we put into writing and designing, and appreciate what we do for them.
- the opportunity to help new clients introduce products and services with the best possible language and marketing materials.
- returning clients who appreciate the level of professionalism we provide.
- clients who appreciate and value the skills, talent and effort required to produce effective marketing.
- clients who understand what it takes to create materials that break through the clutter and stand apart from the competition.
- clients who express sincere appreciation for how we polish copy, craft sentences, perfect paragraphs and marry that copy with design.
- clients who understand the value of the concepts we create for them so that their marketing materials are more effective.
- the opportunity to do what I love and be paid for it.
- being in a business that means partnering with other creative professionals.
- the opportunity to work with people who nearly always teach me something new.
- the fact that honing copy for marketing helps me be a better writer in every way.
Life is not a straight line. And neither is marketing. There are always ups and downs; periods of perfection coupled with challenges … even disasters. How we respond to those times and events defines who and what we are. How we address all the challenges that life brings defines what our lives add up to in the end.
So, most of all, I’m thankful for the opportunities to do the right thing, every day.
Our calendar is barely 430 years old.
Any marketing person with training and experience begins any assignment by looking at context and environment – perspective. I can’t help approaching New Year’s that way. While we may think our calendar is now 2,012 years old, it is in fact (as of this writing) only 429 years old, and was created not to mark the passing of 365 days of our revolution around the sun, but rather to know when to celebrate Easter.
As you likely know, the calendar we use is the Gregorian calendar, also called the Western or Christian calendar because it’s based on significant dates in the Christian bible. It was introduced by Pope Gregory XIII via a papal bull, a decree, signed on February 24, 1582, and took several centuries to be adopted throughout the western world. The motivation for the Gregorian reform was that the Roman Julian calendar placed the time between vernal equinoxes (a year) at 365.25 days, when in fact it is roughly 11 minutes shorter per year. (Pretty cool stuff for 1582, huh?)
That 11-minute error added up to about three days every four centuries, which resulted (back in Pope Gregory XIII’s day) in the equinox occurring on March 11, and moving earlier and earlier in the Julian calendar. You know what that meant, right? The date for celebrating Easter wasn’t reliable. And Easter is the single most important date for the Roman Catholic Church.
Easter, by the way, was calculated using the Hebrew calendar to accurately fix the date of “the last supper,” which was in fact a Passover meal that Jesus was attending with his disciples. Pope Gregory XIII wanted to be sure that Easter was being celebrated on the correct date, year in and year out, so the date of the last supper was the starting point for the development of his new calendar.
Today, of course, we think of the calendar as a business tool rather than a way to keep track of religious events. And commerce was the main reason the Gregorian calendar was slowly adopted over time through much of the world. But it’s worth remembering that its origins were entirely based on religious celebrations.
Think about this: anybody who uses a computer, anywhere in the world, inevitably is following the Gregorian calendar.
Is it New Year’s everywhere?
2012 may well be the year that globalization truly takes hold. We, in the U.S., have come to grips with the fact that we are no longer an island unto ourselves, dictating “what comes next.” Our clothing, computers and customer service (sadly) can come from anywhere in the world … and usually do. Our economy is clearly affected by global events and our export markets can be countries that not long ago did not even appear on our maps. Brazil has taken a monster lead on the global stage, moving ahead of Great Britain in 2011. So, too have Russia, India and China moved up. (Investors call them the BRIC nations and place “emerging markets” investments there.)
So, bearing that in mind, does January 1 have the same significance to all inhabitants of planet earth? How about to the Chinese or Indians? Or those who follow the Hebraic and Islamic calendars, which were both based on lunar rather than solar cycles? For the Chinese, 2011 was 4708 (or 4648 depending on their epoch starting point). For those following the Hebrew calendar, 2011 was 5771. And for those using the Islamic calendar, 2011 was 1433. India has as many calendars as it has religions, though in 1957 they settled on the Indian national calendar (Saka) to align themselves with the Gregorian calendar.
That diversity of global populations is one of the reasons that New Year’s celebrations have always struck me as a tad odd. First of all, Father Time is winning, whichever calendar you use. Every new year means that we’re all a year older. And the yearly cycle is hardly celebrated the same way by all people on earth. Perhaps some of the old Roman superstitions lurk in our Bacchanalian New Year’s celebrations. Perhaps we truly think that we and the world will be magically different when the ball drops and the calendar changes.
What do we measure when we measure time?
Clocks, watches, calendars … do they measure actual time, or the experience of the passage of time? It seems that we “mark time” rather than inhabit it. We tick off the time we’ve used, or lost. And we look forward to the next calendar event, such as a religious holiday or vacation, which will only arrive after we’ve marked off the appropriate amount of time.
But time, according to Albert Einstein, was an indication of our relationship to space and gravity – how fast and how far we were able to move through space. And, in a way, that’s what we measure when we say “day, week, month and year.” A day is the spinning of the earth on its axis (creating the illusion of sun up, sun down). A year is the time it takes for our earth to orbit the sun completely – an elliptical journey that takes us closer to and farther from the sun, creating our seasons. Days and years are actual markers of time/space travel, while other calendar-based measurements are an artificial construct that in fact measure simply the passage of time as it relates to us.
Einstein and Paul Langevin addressed that “relativity” with a theory of time that has come to be called the “twins paradox.” One twin leaves the earth traveling at the speed of light and returns; the other twin stays behind. For the traveling twin, only seven years have passed, so he has only aged by seven years, but for his brother back on earth several decades have passed and he is now elderly. How can this be? (For a practical demonstration, watch the Jodi Foster film “Contact,” from a story by Carl Sagan.)
It’s all relative.
My point? Time is not as fixed as we think it is, or as our Gregorian calendar would have us believe. In fact, time is entirely relative. So we do not measure time objectively, but rather subjectively, based on our experience of time on our planet and the calendar we’re using. We subjectively say, “one year has passed,” “our child is two years old,” “we have a doctor’s appointment next Monday.” All of these are important, yet create a slightly false or inaccurate sense of time, an imposed sense of time, one that doesn’t matter to or affect the movement of the planets around our star.
Think of it this way: if we were still using the Julian calendar, we’d experience time differently. The same goes if we were using lunar calendars. Which is why I just can’t help remembering that the actual calendar we use isn’t even 500 years old, and that it has a back-dated, subjective starting point.
In fact, the new year did not always begin on January 1 for everyone everywhere. It depended entirely on which calendar was being used. What we now call New Year’s day is a very recent innovation, and an entirely subjective event. New Year’s used to be celebrated on days such as the vernal or autumnal equinox – days when you can actually feel something new is coming.
New Year’s resolution? Nah, thanks anyway.
The title of this article is from Abe WalkingBear Sanchez, who posted this on LinkedIn: “Words are magic. The very idea that by making sounds we can paint pictures in the minds of others, is magic. We choose whether we practice white or black magic.” – Jack Brightnose, Cree Medicineman.
That post really made me sit up and take notice. A writer’s life is all about communication, yet how often is it about the magic? WalkingBear’s teacher knew a great deal more about what was to become my life’s occupation than I did. I’m sure I had some teachers along the way who understood what Jack Brightnose taught. But what I remember most was their individual preferences for certain authors and certain kinds of phrasing. Not the reverence for the pure power of words shown by Jack Brightnose.
The dark side is always there.
Everything we do in marketing is about communication. But everything we do often becomes so habitual that we forget about the magic of words. In the world of marketing, the ultimate objective of communication is to influence, and perhaps sell something. In many cases, such as tobacco, liquor, fashion and pharmaceuticals, that’s leaning toward black magic – designed for profit, not for the good of the public. And I’m not making judgments about tobacco, liquor, fashion and pharmaceuticals – I’m talking about how they’re sold, how the words and images are used.
This is the dark side – the black magic – from which we professionals avert our eyes when asked to write copy for things that we might never ourselves purchase, or allow anyone in our family to use. It’s always there, in the background. And it’s hard to avoid when you enter the world of business. After all, that’s why agencies are hired, to help sell stuff. And as soon as anyone is trying to sell us something, motives become questionable.
Clearly free will was taught by Native Americans. Our choices define us. If we choose to profit by using words to convince people to buy our stuff, stuff we know can harm people, we have chosen black magic. But somehow that has been completely forgotten. The idea of profit as justification has wedged itself between white and black magic like some form of religious indulgence. In modern society, the profit motive excuses the intentional use of black magic.
Communication makes us human… sometimes.
What struck me when I read what Jack Brightnose had taught WalkingBear was how little respect is left for the magic that is communication. It’s virtually the only thing that sets us apart from the world of beasts. Sure, we have clothing and automobiles and iWhatevers, but would we have any of those things without the ability to form and understand words? Clearly not. We’d still be among the beasts, with bodies covered in hair, as we foraged and hunted for food and shelter.
Words lifted us out of that prehistoric life. Words gave us the lives we have today. It’s a little disheartening, though, to think that in only a few thousand years we went from “In the beginning was the word …” to sitcoms. No doubt that particular road to hell was paved with a loss of respect for the magical power of words. Instead, the shine of silver and gold became the lure, and the use of words to get the booty became the meaning of the words, not the magic inherent in communication.
So choices had to be made and we made them. Landing and keeping jobs became the new hunting and gathering. And we’re often asked to make tough choices as a result. The words used to force us into those choices are definitely not white magic. If only it were easier simply to walk away.
Can’t forget why we communicate.
Am I undergoing some sort of religious awakening? Nah. I’ve simply been reawakened to why I first fell in love with words when I was a boy. WalkingBear’s post reminded me of that. I’m sure the magic was what attracted anyone who chose to live as a writer. But being reminded that there’s always a choice between white and black magic is the real awakening.
In an almost indefinable way, I think that Jon Stewart’s Daily Show gets its mojo from calling people on their misuse of communication. He calls out liars and connivers and deceivers. He pulls back the curtain to reveal that The Great Oz is in fact a fake. And we all instantly recognize the truth of the revelations. We laugh, but recognize that what we laugh at is tragic. His show reminds us that we’ve learned to ignore the deceptions, because they’ve become standard operating procedure. We don’t pay attention, until our attention is drawn to the deceptions.
The Internet has both exponentially increased communication and brought it down in ways we could never have imagined. Not long after the explosion of the Web onto our psyches, it became obvious that sites (early on given the ludicrous euphemism “portals”) were only of value if they provided relevant information. Content (could there be a more demeaning term for writing and communication?) became critical. Site owners became desperate. So “content writers” were born, largely manipulators of existing content into mash-ups. Most of them are rank amateurs, often linguistically challenged, who are apparently happy to make a few dollars per day.
Here’s another fascinating quote that goes beyond marketing: “All poetry begins as self-expression. But if I only write for myself, who’s going to want to read what I’ve written except me? I tell my students that, at some point, writing stops being self-expression and starts being communication, or it fails. Whether you read me or not, I’m writing for you.” – David Kirby [Kirby’s “Thirteen Things I Hate About Poetry,” in Lit from Within: Contemporary Masters on the Art & Craft of Writing].
That was from a post by Erika Dreifus who has a blog and newsletter titled “Practicing Writing.” And it’s about the other side of what Jack Brightnose taught: in order for words to be magical, we have to remember that we’re not using them for ourselves alone – we’re using them to communicate, to paint pictures in the minds of others.
Can the answer be in a book?
There was a rather interesting question posed on a LinkedIn group: ”What ‘must-have’ copywriting book do you recommend?”
That seemed to imply that reading a book on copywriting could allow anyone so inclined to become one. Nothing could be more misleading. Of course, if the question was meant to learn how to become a better copywriter, then it’s slightly more possible. But it’s still the same answer: copywriting is a craft, like any other, which will only improve with continual, ceaseless practice and experience.
You really have to want it.
I’ve never known anyone who woke up one day and decided they had to be a copywriter. To want that, you’d have to desperately want to earn your living crafting finite messages in an enormously competitive field. You’d have to want to perfect the use of language, metaphor, euphemism, vernacular – all of it – so that what you write might not only stop readers, viewers, listeners and visitors, but might also convince them to focus on your message. You’d also simultaneously have to be far subtler than the morning news.
Screaming headlines do not make any of us more interested in marketing messages. To be universally appealing, copy must be clever, enticing and compelling. And if you’re targeting a very specific audience, you also have to be unerringly relevant.
So before you count on a book to guide you into this parallel universe to diamond cutting, you damn well better have some relevant life experience – as a reader and writer – before jumping into these shark-infested waters.
Further, no book on “copywriting” will get you a job. Only your samples will. And you’ve got to have the chops to get there.
Catch 22, again.
With a nod to Joseph Heller, copywriting is one of those professions in which you can’t get a job until you’ve had one. No, that wasn’t a typo. You have to have extraordinarily impressive samples of the craft to even be considered for a job. The wormhole we’ve all found is to create a portfolio of spec samples until we have actual, produced ads to show.
To pass on the very sage advice I was given when I was starting out: “only do samples of things you really love so that that will come through in the writing, and get a young art director to help you so that you both have samples to show.”
I took that advice to heart and created a pre-job campaign for my favorite Indian restaurant. If they ever did much advertising, they certainly would never have done the full-page, four-color ads I created for them. But they were great ads, in all humility, because they were fun. The first headline in the campaign was “There’s no such thing as curry powder in India.” Which is true, and educational. I had fun doing the sample ads, and people had fun reading them.
It took several months of working on my spec book along with willing art directors to get to the point when I actually landed my first ad agency job, on “Madison Ave.” In advertising, you’re only as good as your last campaign. That’s why everyone’s portfolio is worth its weight in Au (http://bit.ly/lM7nWn). So like many others I knew, I had duplicate portfolios in case one was lost. Why would a portfolio be lost? Because advertising headhunters were forever shuttling them around to various agencies looking for copywriters and art directors.
And that’s another fact of life about advertising: to grow your portfolio, you often have to keep changing jobs. (My first assignments were on Seagram’s 7-Crown and Crown Royal, and Schaefer beer. All booze, all the time. I needed a change after a year of that.)
The book I recommended.
So was there a single book that everyone agreed on? Ha. Every single answer was different. And each showed the author’s background, preferences and proclivities. Nearly all advertising books are either memoirs, which don’t help neophytes get past square one, or self-advertisements, which are equally unhelpful.
That’s why my recommendation was: “Get yourself a copy of Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style.”
No book can ever guide one into how to write – the most any book can do is describe what it”s like to write. You really have to work and work and work. You have to find your voice, play with tone and style, and ultimately just keep doing it. Inevitably, as you do, questions of grammar and style will come up. The NY Times Manual of Style and Usage is great, along with the Chicago Manual of Style and the AP Stylebook. But for something small, handy and wholly reliable, I most often turn to the The Elements of Style.
The digital age has changed everything.
If you read the biography of John Adams by David McCullough, you know that that wonderful book was based entirely on letters from the lifetime of one of our country’s most important founders. Think about this: if John Adams were living today, how much of his correspondence would survive?
Being part of the digital age means that we are required to do more than merely write – we must know how our particular computer works. That knowledge is now part and parcel to knowing how to use that digital tool to write. We don’t sit down to draft a letter; we create a “doc,” assign a sub-folder, give it a title, and then we save the doc and fiddle with it multiple times before actually using it.
When we e-mail, do we know if our messages are saved? I certainly don’t save every single e-mail I receive. Why? I’m thinking about my computer’s e-mail program more than the messages. I’m thinking that it’s overwhelming to see 4,000+ messages in my in-box. So, every few months, starting from the bottom, I highlight and delete. And that would seem to be common practice for pretty much everyone.
Imagine what that means for our written history.
While a digitized data world means that now we can store an entire basement’s worth of files on a tiny hard drive, managing that trove has proven overwhelming. And it’s become a problem for corporations of every size since data retention is now a legal requirement for many business and government sectors.
Our society is now our data.
The modern world could not function without information. We cultivate and harvest information the way our agrarian ancestors worked the land. We no longer work directly to produce what sustains us – instead we produce goods and services that are proffered and supported with communication, from marketing to manuals.
We also no longer identify ourselves, when challenged, as the son or daughter, brother or sister, niece or nephew of so-and-so, but instead must produce documentation that defines and validates us.
This information is also not limited to the kind referred to as “data.” While data is a product of the “Information Age,” the kind of information that forms the core of our society is significantly more far-reaching. Birth certificates, school records, social security statistics, building plans, mortgages, aircraft records and nuclear facility specifications make up the kind of information that’s vital to our continuity. It just happens to be a fact that much of it is now digitized.
Too often, the importance of this information isn’t recognized until it’s urgently needed. Personal lawsuits, corporate litigation and disasters can impact the need for information that was once considered not worth saving. And not being able to access this much-needed information can change the course of lives.
Old, paper-based filing systems had the advantage of transparent logic. Ever try to find a doc on someone else’s computer system? I have and it can prove an impossible task.
The way we save data keeps changing.
Gordon Moore, one of the founders of Intel, stated that digital technology would be virtually re-invented every two years. (Specifically, he was talking about the number of transistors in a CPU doubling every two years.) That statement became “Moore’s law,” which defined how rapidly our data management systems would change. Today, that time period can be as short as six months.
In the face of such continual technological change, it’s not surprising that we’re all faced with increasingly rapid computer obsolescence. And every time we replace a computer or data device, we may be losing more of our written history.
The author of a New York Times article titled The Virtual Attic describes some of the changes through the years that have meant replacing the computers on which work was done and writing was saved. The first computer I bought (an IBM PC) had two 5 1/4″ floppy drives and no hard drive. (It also had a “green” screen – no color, no graphics, just green, glowing text – and cost $3400.) Do you remember loading programs that meant swapping out a dozen or more of those floppies?
I was living in a Manhattan co-op apartment when I’d bought that computer and when I put the apartment on the market Joyce Carol Oates and her husband, Raymond Smith, came to look at it. But they were far more intrigued by the monster computer on my desk. “Doesn’t it give you migraines?” Smith asked. They were both writers who had not yet begun working with computers, and I found myself spending more time describing what that was like than the renovations of the West 67th Street one-bedroom.
What will be left of your story?
Eventually I migrated what I felt needed saving onto the “newer” 3 1/2″ floppies, then onto CDs, and now anything that seemed important over the years has been backed-up onto hard drives. But what was lost? What was left behind? While I may have been using computers since the mid-to-late 1980s to write, I certainly don’t have any of the e-mails from that far back. Do you?
What will people know of us when we’re gone and all that’s left is a hard drive or e-mails account that’s very likely password-protected? Will people scour our e-mail to see what kinds of thoughts we put down to good friends and life partners as David McCullough did with letters for his book on Adams? Will our personal history evaporate when our computers are donated or recycled?
I find it fascinating and mind-boggling that the letters of people who wrote with quill dip pens may ultimately be more durable than anything from this digital age.
The message matters most.
Can we exist without communication? I think not. Can we prosper without communication? I’m sure not. Who produces the communications that help us prosper? You guessed it, writers.
No matter what the product or service, no matter where in the world, in order for commerce to take place, there must be communication. Communication is the keystone of commerce. From the days of merchants rolling carts through villages, shouting their wares, to the half-time commercials during Super Bowl games, communication is key to making the sale.
Everyone knows that. No one gives it a second thought. But where would companies be without written communication? Where would the global economy be without written communication?
Our entire economy – indeed the economy of the majority of the world – is based upon competition. The message is frequently “why our product is better,” “how our product improves things,” “why you’ll be happier with our product.”
On this first morning of this new year, I sing the praises of the creators of the messages that make the world go ’round.
The writers craft the message.
Could Coke be Coke without the commercials and ads that proclaim its unique benefits? Could Mac be the rising star in the computing world without the commercials and ads that inform us why we should choose their offering over a PC?
Would we even be seeing and hearing those commercials and ads without TV, radio and print media? And would we even have those forms of “information and entertainment” without the writers who create the content?
When the Web was born, its progenitors announced, “content is king.” And you know who creates content …
You could justifiably ask, is there too much of everything these days … too many messages, too many puerile shows, too much competition for our eyes and ears? Yes, indeed, but again I say that thanks to writers we have the choice of what to watch, what to listen to … and what to buy. Communication informs us of our choices.
We vote with our choices, and in doing so we guide what the future brings us. If there are way too many ‘reality TV’ shows, it’s our own fault. We’ve chosen to watch them and reward their advertisers. What we have in the way of choices reflects the choices that have already been made.
It all starts with communication.
I worked on the introduction of the Sony Mavica – one of the very first commercially available digital cameras. It cost between $5,000 and $10,000, and when I asked my Sony clients, “who will be the target audience for this amazing device,” they answered, “probably just the national news media.” They had no idea what they’d helped spawn. Digital photography had been introduced to the masses. Sony also brought about digital music, as well as CDs as a medium, and look where that’s gone.
Sony knew, as every major manufacturer knows, that inventing something – however spectacular – is hardly enough. You have to get the word out. And who does that? Yep, the writers. We ask the key questions and put down the key answers so that the most appropriate target audience will get the most relevant message.
Marketing is about communication, not sales.
Sales comes after the message. First you have to inform, then you can seek the sale. But forget the sale if the message isn’t clear and compelling. That’s what we do. We’re the writers. We craft the message, and we do our damnedest to make it clear and compelling. We form the communication. We get the word out.
Without writers, companies wouldn’t be known, their products wouldn’t be known and their futures would be uncertain. The better the writer, the better the result.
It all starts with the message, the communication. Everything follows from there. Everything. And that, folks, is what it means to be a marketing writer.
Have you noticed sloppy, even grossly inaccurate writing on “how-to” Web sites? Or on travel and food sites? How about oddly similar articles showing up on multiple sites? Or enticing headline links for articles that entirely disappoint when you click on them?
There’s a reason. A new animal recently emerged in the online world: content mills. They are brokers of online content, and they’re quite uncaring about writing quality, let alone writers. And every self-respecting writer is outraged by what the mills claim as “fair pay.” So self-respecting writers won’t work for them. And that’s why you may have become disenchanted with so much of what you see online.
What kind of writers are producing this muck?
The only writers actually writing for the mills are the desperate kind. Writing, after all, is a lonely, cerebral, isolated profession. That fact alone seems to have made us ripe pickings for this mostly Internet-based phenomenon. Some examples of mills are Associated Content, examiner.com, Demand Media, Elance, and Seed. They all follow the same business model: pay as little as you can for words to fill up online pages.
What exactly do they pay? Demand, for example, claims to pay $5-15 for 500-1,000 word articles. Consider the fact that it takes a decent writer 2-4 hours to do a decent 500-1,000 word piece. So what do you do if you’re only making $2.50 per hour? You rush, you “borrow,” you plagiarize. Your mission in life becomes writing as many articles as you can, as fast as you can, so that you’re making slightly more than $2.50 per hour.
Hence, we have “mash-ups:” material grabbed from all over the Web and “re-purposed” for an article. Associated Content and examiner.com are even worse – they only pay writers by the click. So writers have to become promoters of their own sloppy writing to make anything.
Do mash-ups equal plagiarism? In many cases, yes. When the original author isn’t even given credit, what else can it be?
What should writers be paid per word?
The average good-quality magazine article pays $1-2 per word. So a decently written1,000-word article should pay $1,000-2,000. Not $10. But before you think of dashing off 1,000 words and looking for the $2 per-word market, you should realize that to get to 1,000 really good words for the really well-paying markets, a writer typically puts down 4-5,000 words, then works, re-works and polishes their material. And that can take 20-40 hours.
So, how can writers survive working for the mills? We can’t. And that’s my point. The mills don’t actually care about writers because quality has nothing to do with what they’re after. They only care about selling content, whatever it is. The business of the mills is to stockpile random content to sell to sites that need “stuff” on their pages. All kinds of sites and publications buy that stuff just so that you and I might be attracted to visit … and just possibly click on the ads there.
Where might you read some of this paltry-paying stuff? Demand Media lists eHow.com, LIVESTRONG.com, Cracked.com, Trails.com, Golflink.com, Answerbag, Mobile, and Impact Stories as some of their content. And here’s what Associated Content says about how they pay their “contributors:” “You earn money for every one thousand page views your content generates (PPM™ rate). The baseline PPM™ rate is currently $1.50 – meaning if you generate 30,000 page views, you’re paid $45.00 in Performance Payments.” That means that you only get paid if you drive the masses to click on your articles. So you’re not only paid peanuts for your work, you have to work pretty darn hard to get paid the peanuts.
What does this mean for you and me? The quality of online content is rapidly and clearly declining. But you may have noticed that.
The valuation of content over quality.
This really is a David and Goliath scenario. The mills are extremely well-funded and some of them are owned by some of the wealthiest people in the country. So even though the Web has brought a great many boons, if you’re a writer, globalization and content mills have become your foes. There is likely no stopping them. But a growing demand for quality may set them straight.
Jaron Lanier wrote about this very thing in his book, “You Are Not a Gadget.” He sees similar ills in the rise of aggregation of data with total disregard for the human element. In other words, many of the factors driving the growth of the internet are not based on what you and I really want. It’s based on getting those ads clicked. Period.
If writers were like other trades – teachers, police, electricians, carpenters, firefighters and so on – we’d be talking to each other, getting angry and starting to organize. But we’re not like other trades. We’re largely solo enterprises, and some of us truly hit the wall looking for work. Those of us who have reached that level of desperation actually bow down to the demon and start writing for the mills. None who do like it. But they think they must.
A similar phenomenon occurred around 30 years ago when stock photography came into being. It pretty much killed professional photography. Ad agencies and magazines that used to pay thousands of dollars for photo shoots began paying $1-200 for stock shots instead. As the stock houses grew in number and strength, photographers bowed to them and turned over their images. That only helped drive the nails into their coffins.
“An artist is someone who can hold two opposing viewpoints and still remain fully functional.” — F. Scott Fitzgerald
Box? What box?
Everyone in marketing communications earns their bread by being “creative.” We are measured by the level of “creativity” that we bring to the table. It’s a constant challenge. But one develops a habit of not being linear; of “thinking outside the box.”
And yet it’s enormously challenging to explain to non-marketing people exactly what we do and how we do it. There’s a story that keeps circulating among us on Web boards about a writer who was hired to do an ad. He did it; he brought it to the client along with a bill, and the client said, “That’s not very long, is it? How long did it take you to write it?” The writer responded, “About 25 years.”
We develop our craft over time.
I can write far more quickly today than when I first began. A lot of that is the result of an evolving ability to make better and better judgement calls – we learn to more quickly recognize what works and what doesn’t the more we practice our craft. We also know how to jump-start our thinking to put things in motion.
Many people think that “creativity” is some kind of voo-doo. That we’re selling snake oil. Alas, there are far more who misunderstand us than those who recognize and appreciate what a good copywriter can do.
“Writing is an occupation in which you have to keep proving your talent to people who have none.” – Jules Renard
Sometimes creativity is genius.
J. S. Bach wrote The Brandenburg Concertos as a kind of job application – a job he never got, and the concertos remained in some drawer for a couple of hundred years before anyone even played them. To me, he’s still the pinnacle of human creativity, and yet I can’t help thinking that in his own mind he always saw himself as a church organist (orgelmeister) who had to write a new cantata every week to support himself and his very large family.
And wasn’t Einstein exceptionally creative? The mere ability to think of light bending in space means that one’s mind is not bound by existing knowledge – one “creates” new ideas as one comes to a kind of enlightenment.
Then there’s creativity that borders on magic in all the technology we see coming into being on a daily basis, such as more and more functional flat-screen applications.
I will leave you with two quotes on this subject:
“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” – Arthur C. Clarke
“The real technology – behind all our other technologies – is language. It actually creates the world our consciousness lives in.” – Andrei Codrescu
There are no copywriting courses.
While it’s possible to be trained as an art director or designer, it’s not really possible to be trained as a copywriter. The aesthetics of good design can easily be taught in theoretical courses, but copywriting is a craft, like cabinet-making. You can be shown examples of good copywriting, the tools you might use, but to learn how to produce your own copywriting you have to work at it and learn the craft through experience. And, like cabinet-making, the more you practice, the more you learn how to do it better and better.
I’ve been writing since I was about 12, and my first professional writing career was in public relations. After three years of that (in the music business in Hollywood), I knew I couldn’t keep doing it – it seemed incredibly dishonest to me since one had to continually say “I think this is the greatest (artist) (performer) (band) since the invention of sliced bread.”
Someone said, “why not try advertising?”
Someone I knew was a copywriter and suggested trying it. I found out fairly quickly that I’d need a portfolio, which I didn’t have. So I proceeded to work on building one – fictional ads for real products and companies. The more I interviewed for jobs, the more feedback I got (and requested).
Finally, someone said, “Your stuff is really good, but L.A. is kind of small (late 70s) so you should go to New York.” Eventually I made the move, got some interviews and was told, “Your stuff may be good enough for L.A., but it’s not quite good enough for New York…”
Back to work on the portfolio, begging for interviews for feedback, and a few months later I got my first job. The more I did it, the more I learned. But what struck me the most was that copywriting is a craft unlike any other. It’s the most powerful self-editing method I’ve ever encountered.
It makes capitalism work.
I initially recoiled at the thought of writing ads … after all, we all hate them, right? But I came to realize something: advertising is an essential element in our economic system. The American economy was built on competition. It’s pretty hard to compete if you haven’t got any awareness for your product or service. That’s where we come in.
Advertising is also far more honest than P.R. or “promotional” marketing. You aren’t telling anyone you personally love something. You’re creating a stand-alone message that says, “this is an ad for something; you know it’s an ad; we just want to introduce you to this (product) (service) and let you decide.”
The rest is up to the product or service. We don’t actually sell anyone anything. We simply create awareness of and interest in the products or services of our clients.
Writing for the Web is a lot like writing billboards.
Think about it: when you’re driving at highway speeds and you see billboards, you can actually only read the ones that are short and sweet.
There’s a reason: the rule of thumb for successful billboard headlines is about five words. Five, max. And the rule for clutter is none. You’ll know it immediately when there’s a billboard created by people who didn’t know the rules. You’ll catch some piece of it, but never all of it, and you’ll already be half a mile down the road when you decide to give up.
Billboards like that are a complete waste of money since no one can read an entire paragraph – let alone a sentence – going at 65 miles per hour.
Guess what – the Web is exactly the same. We’re all learning to click through Web sites faster and faster. The briefer the message, the more likely we are to get it. The best Google ads are the shortest. The best Web sites are the easiest to read.
The rules of the road.
This online world is whole new way to communicate. Interestingly, the rules of the road apply more than any others. People are speeding by to get where they want to go. They don’t want to be distracted. And they especially don’t want to be confused. If your Web site slows them down, your visitors will be gone in the click of a mouse.
Here’s the key: focus on the essential message you’re trying to communicate – the core message – then say it in as few words as possible. Play with the order of the words – you’ll be amazed at the possibilities re-ordering a sentence will open up. The great concepts didn’t just happen. The key thoughts were edited, honed and crafted until the fewest words possible said it all. Then compelling ways were created to deliver those words.
Look where you want to go.
All new motorcycle riders are taught: ”look where you want to go.” That may sound absurdly obvious, but it’s a matter of life of death on a two-wheeled transport. If you’re riding around a curve and you become fixated by oncoming traffic instead of looking at the spot ahead where you want to get to, you’ll involuntarily start heading toward that traffic. It’s quite simple, and quite dangerous: our focus affects our steering on a motorcycle. Look at what you want to avoid instead of where you want to go and you’ll be heading for disaster in no time.
It’s the very same when we’re surfing the Web. The way to keep visitors on course and on your site is by providing relevant, meaningful content that’s easy to read and understand. Don’t distract them with eye-candy or pointless side-trips. If you know where you want your visitors to end up, put them on that road and keep them on that road.