Old habits in a new world: a meditation on copywriting and blogging.

October 28, 2011

One develops habits as a copywriter. For instance, I need to see what words look like in a layout to truly assess them properly. The art directors were right: a block of copy is a visual. It needs to look right. Losing a word or two in order to accommodate the visual is not compromise; it’s part of creating good copy. Seeing your words in a layout provides concrete proof that what you’ve written is right. The perfect paragraph on Word is almost never correct in situation.

This habit did not change when technology did. If anything it became more pronounced. Now I could see finished looking ads but for the grace of the advertising gods: produced! Ancient history, I know. It’s been years since anyone relied on marker comps to sell an ad. We all want to see the baby before its born.

Where it gets interesting for me is in other forms of writing, like this blog. While I write these words in Word, and edit the hell out of them in Word, I’ve really only created a first draft. The true test comes when I create a “new post.” Then I see the paragraphs as you would see them. Suddenly their flaws become manifest, almost like an allergic reaction. Lose this sentence. Change that word. Move the photograph down a peg. Why these things were never apparent on a white screen is a mystery to me.

Perhaps it is also a curse. Many bloggers crank out content because new content is the key to new readers. Like in a MASH unit, they sow up stories and send them to the front. The sentences bleed adverbs and are pockmarked with dot-dot-dots, suggesting the writer had no time to tie up the paragraph or suture a proper segue.

I can’t work that way. Whether it reflects in my writing or not (and it may very well not), I treat each story as if it were (or is it was?) being graded. It’s a habit I got into a long time ago.


2 Responses to “Old habits in a new world: a meditation on copywriting and blogging.”

  1. Hey Steffan – Nice post. The first part, especially, was pretty much my life last week. I was working with a client who has an in-house ‘designer’ (yes, single air quotes there…) and they came up with an mockup shell for an ad they wanted to run. They asked that I ‘just send them the copy’ to go with it. I asked them to send me a blank of the piece so I could get going on it. They responded with a “we like the design, just send over the words” sort of thing. I tried to explain that an ad is sort of like making soup (I think that was the analogy – some kind of cooking thing to be sure – maybe I was hungry), and that the ingredients (pieces – like copy, design etc.) don’t work separately, but instead need to combine and contrast and otherwise work with one another in order for the ad to be effective and have impact – that’s when you have a good soup instead of a bucket of ingredients.

    That, of course, fell of deaf ears.

    So I took their pdf, dropped it in illustrator and made my own damn blank so I could work it out on the page, just as you mention. Changed the fonts, because they chose a sans serif face that conveyed the wrong internal ‘voice’ for the reader, added some sub-heads, positioned things to pull the reader in a’la Sugarman’s slippery slope – yada yada. The upshot? created a 5-ad mini-campaign, laid ’em all out and sent them over. Along with some art-direction-101 explanatory support.

    They were ecstatic. I was paid handsomely. Yippee.

    Either way, what you say is very true. But then again, only creatives in our industry see it that way. We are professionals – there’s a reason why we do things, especially when it comes to copy. Our clients understand only as the work appears to them as consumers, really. Their Reaction to it. That’s their yardstick, because they are professionals in their own profession, not ours. And that’s ok, though on occasion I still get new client whose secretary “was an English major…”. Aaargh. Yeah, me too.

    Also, as a writer, you’re not alone in applying OCD-level micro-editing even the smallest, seemingly incidental things – like blog posts. (Hell, I’ve got a half-dozen right now that are 98% done…) I’m the same way, and will wager that all good writers are. We are not content machines. We understand the heft and value of words. We get that they’re like chemical elements that react with one another to create meaning – they don’t just describe, or sit dead on the page as a mere link in the chain of a sentence. They’re vibrant and alive – that’s why it takes so damn long to finish even the smallest things, because we’re trying to get them to convey intangibles – tough stuff. Probably why it took me years to be satisfied with a manuscript I just finished edits on last week – but that’s what we are, and what we do. We’re writers. Cherish it – even if it brings frustration, because we both know how rich that feeling of getting it right is.


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