I don’t always practice writing copy. But when I do…

His blood smells like cologne.
He can speak French in Russian.
He’s a lover not a fighter. But he’s also a fighter, so don’t get any ideas.
He is the only man ever known to ace a Rorschach test.

If you were on this account, what kind of lines would you write?

It’s a good exercise. In fact, I keep a document on my desktop where I write my own lines for him. Just for fun.

Am I going to send them to Euro RSCG? Nope. They wouldn’t bother looking at them.

So why do I write them?

Because I’m a writer. And any writing I do makes me better. I don’t have to use what I write for the act of writing to be useful.

So here’s an open challenge: What would be your Most Interesting Man in the World lines?

I Can’t Say Negative Words Aren’t Bad

There are those who believe you shouldn’t use negative words in advertising because it will repel the audience and decrease sales.

This philosophy isn’t concerned with subject matter, but actual words. Words like not, shouldn’t, don’t, and even but. These words, some believe, should be strictly avoided.

This is nonsense. Don’t buy it.

Here is a positive statement: I LOVE to hurt puppies and kittens.
Here is a negative statement: People who hurt puppies and kittens are NOT good people.

Generally, I think sentences are more interesting when you replace the word “but” with “and.” But as the following statements demonstrate, it doesn’t always work.

Here is a positive statement: I lost all of my money, AND I had to declare bankruptcy.
Here is a negative statement: I lost all of my money, BUT I won the lottery the next day.

Since the One Show’s book, Advertising’s Ten Best of the Decade, 1980-1990 is within reach as I write this, let’s go old school for a minute and look at some classic ads that never would have survived the Don’t Use Negative Words philosophy. (Apologies for the Dutch-angle scanning.)

Chances are, had you not been looking for them, you never would have noticed the “negative” words in these ads. You’d merely have seen them as clear and interesting pieces of communication.

Some may say, Fine. But isn’t it better to try and write headlines that don’t use negative words just as a precaution? Maybe. But your job as a writer shouldn’t be to avoid using certain words. It should be to write clear and compelling copy.

Honesty in Radio

You’ve got to be honest with yourself when you write a script.

Take out a stopwatch. Don’t rush your read. Allow for breathing room. Fix what’s not working. (That doesn’t mean read it a little bit faster.)
If you don’t time your script honestly…

  • You will have to ask the talent to read faster than he or she should.
  • You will end up doing multiple takes, hoping by some miracle the read comes in under time.
  • You will get a poorer performance from the talent.
  • You will end up having to scramble to figure out which words and phrases to cut from the script.
  • You will risk having to explain to the client why certain words or phrases had to be cut.
  • You will look unprofessional in front of your creative director, your producer, the engineer, and the talent.

If you do time your script honestly…

  • You will realize what’s not working and have plenty of time to fix it.
  • You will have an easier recording session.
  • You will have a better script.
It’s really hard to kill a line you love to make the script time out right. But it’s better to kill it early and have time to top it or work it in some other way than to have to do it under pressure in the recording studio.

Patton

Here’s a short piece that has great copy and great art direction.
[The link to this video was removed. But you can watch it here.]
Simple message. Simple images. Simple brand positioning. So clear and deliberate, you either hate the guy’s guts, or you sign on as a lifelong follower. No wonder this show won Best Picture.
Caveat: Before you decide to “pay homage” to this by ripping it off, you should know Nike and Dennis Hopper already did.

Emulation

Years ago I read an interview with Dan Wieden. He said for years he’d been trying to write like Whitman (or was it Faulkner?) and hadn’t got it right. Maybe Wieden’s new Levi’s campaign fulfills that desire in some small way.

Today, I came across the I Write Like site which purportedly analyzes writing and compares it to other literary greats. A few paragraphs from one of our AE’s documents came up with Arthur C. Clarke. Repbulicans and Tea Partiers might be thrilled to know Obama’s Inauguration Speech came up as being George Orwellian. Text from a Sarah Palin speech I found online might have been penned by Dan Brown (minus the cliffhangers). Here’s what I received after plugging in a block of text from my journal:

I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!

I’ve never read any of his work. I’ll have to swing by Barnes & Noble tonight. Any recommendations?

My point in bringing this up is that it’s good to emulate. It’s good to have heroes. It’s good to try to write or art direct or crack jokes or present to clients or play bass or start companies in the same way that some other great person is able to. Not forever. Just until you’re able to find your own voice. (And we’ve got plenty of time to practice finding our own voices. I just read this morning that Carl Sandburg didn’t become famous until he published “Chicago” at age 36.)

Who do you write like?

Working vs. Soaking


We all hit walls. We all reach a point where the ideas just aren’t coming. Usually, this is the point where we go for a walk, or pick up a magazine, or spend a half hour on YouTube. And that’s all okay. It’s soaking up the culture, art and life that we’ll probably use somewhere down the road.

But next time you hit a wall, try this instead: Keep working.
I’m not saying a half hour of fresh air or viral videos is bad or ineffective. But I do think more often than not, we’re too quick in succumbing to the wall.
So when you hit it, take out a couple blank pieces of paper and a stopwatch and promise yourself that you’re going to write continuously about whatever assignment you’re going to work on for the next 30 minutes. If you have no ideas, start writing, “What I want to do with this ad is…” or “Dear Mom, I’m writing an ad for [product here], and here’s why I think you would love (or hate) it…”
Don’t just accept that you’ve hit a wall. Give yourself at least 30 minutes to knock a few bricks off it.

10 Other Ways to Become a Better Creative


During my brief stint as a mechanical engineering student in college, I had a professor tell me that I should avoid being a monkey wrench. “A monkey wrench is an okay solution to lots of things. You want to be a 3/8″ socket wrench. Be the best at one thing.” In other words, specialize.

Advertising is different. One of the things I love about being an advertising creative is that it involves many different aspects of art, business and human interaction. To be great, you’ll have to use every part of your brain. We talk a lot about how to be better at advertising, but here are some ideas about how to be better at other things, which will then make you better at advertising:

1) Get into music. Whether you take up an instrument or just listen to music, it can be a powerful tool in producing work. It works a different part of your brain and falls at the nexus of math, art and groove. At some point, you’ll probably have to work with a composer, and it helps to be able to speak the language (at least a little). FURTHER THOUGHTS ON MUSIC

2. Take a fiction-writing class. Story story story. You probably won’t write many short stories in your career, but the ability to construct a story, to use vivid and concrete language, to set up and resolve a conflict, to build a character–these skills are invaluable. And if you can earn yourself a reputation as a great writer, not just of ads, but of anything that needs writing, you can become invaluable to an agency.

3. Take a film class. Probably even more than music, film is a common language in advertising. You will talk to a director at some point, and although you may not need to analyze the opening scene of Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou, it’s helpful to know the difference between a tracking shot and a pan.

4. Take an acting class. The only thing I could think of that’s more frightening is to take a singing class (okay, maybe a dance class too). But you will write scripts, and you will have to bring them to life. I know a writer who can take any material and write a funny script to it, then have a room in tears laughing because he’s such a funny actor. It’s a good skill to have. Not only that, but you’ll be able to articulate what you’re thinking to a director on set.

5. Improv class. If you haven’t realized it yet, the rules of concepting and the rules of improv are the same. I say something, then you say “Yes, and…” And we build. There’s performance in improv, sure, but the ability to take an idea that someone throws your way, spin it and keep it up in the air, that’s the important part of improv.

6. Learn how to tell jokes. Not too long ago, I was at a planning convention and I went to a workshop on joke writing. It could have been a workshop on how to write a headline. And for all the classes I’ve taken and taught on writing headlines, this was the best breakdown of why a good headline works. Plus, the best jokes are stories (see #2).

7. Go to a presentation seminar. This should be self-evident, but it’s like running wind sprints. You’re probably only going to do it if someone makes you. At the very least, read a book on presenting. As nice as it would be, ideas don’t sell themselves.

8. Read everything you can get your hands on. Whether you’re reading fiction and absorbing the style and voice or reading non-fiction and picking up little bits of trivia that may come in handy some day, whether you’re into books or blogs, be a sponge. I once read The Vagina Monologues while working on a Tampax assignment. It made me think differently about…well, about vaginas for one thing.

9. Read books on business. Or blogs on business. Advertising is full of art and craft and everything else we like to focus on, but every piece of advertising in the end is a business solution. We often think of business as the boring-as-hell SWAT analyses we did in college, but real business is full of creativity. And a broad understanding of how brands operate on the other side of the fence can make you seem like an engaged, astute, and rare creative.

10. Take an art class. Art directors have presumably done this at some point. Writers should too. Not just to understand some of the basics of design, but being able to draw out ideas is an important communication skill. And thinking with doodles, again, engages a different part of your brain.

There’s ten. I’m sure there are plenty more. Please, suggest some others.

Poetry

Copywriters should read poetry. Frequently.

Unlike most prose, poetry is less about telling a story and more about using language in unexpected and creative ways. Poetry avoids cliches. It evokes images. It leads you down a path you hadn’t planned on traveling.

And isn’t that exactly what you want to be doing as a copywriter?

I love Sandburg and Rilke and Basho. Shakespeare’s a given. Two of my contemporary favorites are Robert Hass and Billy Collins. Go read a collection. It will make your pen fantifluous.

Fawlty Reasoning

Recently I was watching an interview with Monty Python’s John Cleese, and he was talking about the success of Fawlty Towers. (If you’re not familiar with the show, you’re missing out.) Even though there were only 12 episodes, Cleese claims that Fawlty Towers has actually become more popular than Monty Python everywhere but the US where It mostly runs on PBS.

He says the one of the reasons Fawlty Towers was so successful was “because we worked so hard on it.”He and his co-writer/then wife, Connie Booth were writing scripts that were 135 pages long. When their producer told them the average 30-minute script was only 60 pages, they continued to write more than double the amount.

If anything needed to be cut, they could leave the best bits in. But it turned out they crammed in everything, giving the show a faster pace, which hadn’t really been seen on BBC comedies before.

Cleese says he and Booth would spend about six weeks on each script. The first three weeks were in developing the plot, and the last three on the dialogue. According to Cleese, writers today spend an average of 10 days on script, and sometimes as little as four, “which is why most of them aren’t very good.”

Cleese wasn’t pulling late nighters to look good, or because he thought his producers expected it. He’d already made a name for himself with Monty Python and could have easily coasted on that. But he was genuinely enjoying what he was doing. The result was not just good work, but fantastic work.

You may not have six weeks to work out a script, come up with an idea or develop a campaign. But you can get passionate about your work. And suddenly, it won’t seem like work any more. When that happens, my guess is you’ll be having a lot more fun, and winning a lot more awards.