Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird

Read whatever you can get your hands on. It’ll make you a better creative, whether you’re a writer, art director, designer, UX guru, creative technologist, whatever. But don’t limit yourself to “ad books.” Learn to communicate in ways that aren’t covered in the Advertising sub-shelves of the Business section at Barnes & Noble.

Pick up a copy of Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. A beautiful and inspiring piece. I don’t want to call it a how-to. But it will help you how-to: communicate, question, wonder, ponder, reconsider, and get to work.

 

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How to Write for Television (When You Have Never Written for Television)

If you want to concept TV commercials, you’ve got to start with premises. Do not write scripts. Let me explain…

Forever ago, I did a summer internship at GSD&M in Austin, Texas. I was in between semesters at the VCU Adcenter (before it was the Brandcenter), and I was excited not only to be at an agency that had been all over the award annuals, but to be partnered with a classmate of mine who was a fantastic art director. It was going to be a very good summer.

That first week, we were given a chance to write TV commercials for Chili’s. Yes, the Chili’s of Baby Back Rib fame. Our first year in school, we had worked on lots of print campaigns, but had never worked on TV. (This is before digital was even a thing. Web banners weren’t even a thing. Like I said, this was forever ago.)

So we sat down and spent days concepting. We came up with a story about an Amish boy. We had another one about a kung fu master and his disciples. We had one shot from the point of view of a bird. And we crafted each script in detail. We argued over dialogue for hours. I thought the Amish boy should say, “Yea, verily,” because it sounded funny and biblical. My art director thought he should say, “Even so, mother,” because it made more sense. This went on for days.

Finally, we brought five or six scripts in to our creative director. Who killed them all. Welcome to advertising.

So we came up with five or six more scripts. And we agonized over dialogue and descriptions. Again, we showed them to our creative director. Nothing.

We were feeling disappointed and a little bit of pressure because we knew that the interns VCU sent to this agency the year before had actually produced a commercial for Pennzoil. That’s insane. Summer interns producing a TV commercial? But it happened. And we wanted it to happen for us, too.

But it never did. We had a fun summer. But we produced nothing. (To be fair, the idea that interns would produce anything other than spec work is a little unrealistic. But we didn’t know that.)

On the last day of our internship, our creative director gave us an evaluation. And we were shocked to hear that it wasn’t so hot. He said we came in with five or six scripts a week. According to him, the team that had produced the Pennzoil spot last year came in with 100 ideas the day after they were briefed. Maybe 100 was an exaggeration. But it was certainly more than five.

It took me the better part of my career to learn that there is a difference between writing premises and writing scripts.

A premise is a short two to three sentence blurb about what the spot’s about.

A script is a crafted document that tells you exactly what happens in the commercial.

A premise is loose.

A script is tight.

You can write 100 premises in a day.

It might take you an entire afternoon to write a decent script.

A premise is something you jot down as a potential idea.

A script is an idea you begin to craft.

So if you have the chance to write TV scripts. Don’t just start writing TV scripts. That’s like crafting the body copy for a marker comp. Start with a premise. And then come up with another. And another. And another.

Barbara Tuchman’s Craft

Barbara Tuchman is not a copywriter. She is a writer of history. This is the opening paragraph of her famous book on World War I, The Guns of August:

So gorgeous was the spectacle on the May morning of 1910 when nine kings rode in the funeral of Edward VII of England that the crowd, waiting in hushed and black-clad awe, could not keep back gasps of admiration. In scarlet and green and blue and purple, three by three the sovereigns rode through the palace gates, with plumed helmets, gold braid, crimson sashes, and jeweled orders flashing in the sun. After them came five heirs apparent, forty more imperial or royal highnesses, seven queens – four dowager and three regnant – and a scattering of special ambassadors from uncrowned countries. Together they represented seventy nations in the greatest assemblage of royalty and rank ever gathered in one place and, of its kind, the last. The muffled tongue of Big Ben tolled nine by the clock as the cortege left the palace, but on history’s clock it was sunset, and the sun of the old world was setting in a dying blaze of splendor never to be seen again.

This paragraph is her most famous. It took her eight hours to write. How much time do you spend crafting your writing?

Writers, Be a Word Nerd

My mother corrects my grammar. Still. If I send an email and incorrectly use I as an object, she will let me know (I did the other day, and she let me know about it).

Odds are, you don’t have my mother. But hopefully you have someone who has instilled in you the importance of understanding how to write well. (I’m speaking primarily to writers here, but art directors who can write are awesome.)

Great art directors know their craft inside and out. They get off on serifs and kerning and leading, and it irritates them if you use the words “font” and “typeface” interchangeably. But for some reason, a lot of writers place less importance on their wordsmithing. “I suck at drawing” is a terrible reason to become a copywriter.

You have to love words.

You should get all giddy when you hear a great line of dialogue.

You should actually enjoy reading books like the one above and not feel like it’s torture.

If you see a word that you don’t know, you should look it up.

You should write. A lot.

You should have favorite authors, favorite books, favorite sentences.

When you read and you come across a great sentence, you should stop and consider what makes it a great sentence. How is it constructed? What is the author doing? What choices did he/she make in writing the sentence that way?

I’m not saying you have to be able to diagram a sentence (though it can’t hurt). And I’m not saying that everything you write needs to be grammatically correct. But like design, there are mechanics to writing. There are reasons a sentence is strong–conscious decisions that are made in its construction. If you want to be a decent writer, you need to have, at the very least, a working knowledge of these things. Ideally, you obsess over them.

Be a word nerd. We like nerds.

Radio Inspiration from Oink Ink

I still love to write radio. I know that seems like an incredibly old school medium. But I love writing it. And I love hearing my spots on air (or Pandora or Spotify or wherever).

When you write a TV spot, you end up hiring a director and a production company and soon about 150 are working on an idea you came up with. And that’s a cool feeling.

With digital projects, the process is less elaborate. But you still have programers and designers and UX experts who come together to bring your idea to life.

But with radio, it’s most likely just you, a few actors, and your sound engineer. If it misses the mark, it’s all on you. If it’s great, same thing. I love the pressure. I love the collaboration. I love that you’re more of a SWAT team than an army.

Here’s a little inspiration for you radio writers: the radio reel for Oink Ink. They’re a great shop I got to work with a while back. If you ever get to work with them or even enter their Dead Radio Contest, you’ll have a good time, too. Enjoy.