July 10, 2015
Jabbing at the keyboard like a monkey…
I’ve written three novels, dozens of short stories, probably thousands of ads, as well as maintained this and other blogs, and I composed all of that content with basically one finger: the index on my right hand.
Weird right? Most professional writers know how to type. Well, one finger has been my normal since I started using machines to compose text.
In high school and then college, I wrote on a typewriter given to me by my father. Back then I drank and smoked (what serious writer didn’t?) and I used my left hand for that and my right to work. Needless to say, I did a lot of both. It all became second nature, especially the booze.
As time went by I stopped drinking alcohol and smoking cigarettes but I never learned to properly type. That’s not to say I didn’t evolve; I did. Like every writer, I memorized the keyboard. Subsequently, my finger tapping became faster and faster. I never timed it but when I’m in the zone I can probably hammer out forty or fifty words a minute, maybe more.
I use my cell phone keyboard the same way.
This will never change. I’ve gotten too competent in my dysfunctional approach to bother learning another method.
Oddly, I don’t know a single person who types like I do. All of you seem to engage your keyboards properly. Even you non-professional writers. Am I wrong about this? If so, let me know. I’m curious: Am I the only one-fingered typist who is not a child or a monkey?
Last I checked there were over 800 hundred million billion pieces of written content floating around in cyberspace or near by. The number might actually be higher. I stopped counting to walk my dogs.
The point is that everything has been written. A lot. And over again. Which means there is nothing original left to say.
Therefore, the only vital form of writing left is copywriting. What I mean by vital has nothing to do with good. Just that, whether it is read or not, copy always has to be written. Those web pages won’t just fill themselves. Yet.
Guys and gals like us do it. We get paid, albeit triflingly, to make those paragraphs that live deep beneath the touts on a never-ending plethora of websites, which always needs to be refreshed.
Ah, refreshed! What a glorious word. It means for us steady or at least wobbly employment.
Clients demand content, and that takes the form of sentences. All kinds of sentences. Sentences just like the ones I’ve written here. Except they are ostensibly about something. Like Big Data. Or aftershave. Solutions.
And let us not forget infographics, which the Urban Slang dictionary lovingly calls “web pollution.” Or shiny white papers. Like non-alcoholic beer they are seldom selected by anyone but my lord, those are filled with sentences, too. Great big, slobbery ones! The size of great danes.
And we write them.
Make fun of banners all you like but there they are. To the left. And to the right. Taking over! Some beseech us to visit fake news stories, which we call branded content or native advertising. Hail Hydra! Those are like whole new ways to write sentences.
Yes, when we go home for the Holidays grandma will still ask: did you do that commercial on TV? The one with the cat and the giant toothbrush. If we are smart we lie and say yes and that the cat got paid in freshly caught tiger shark.
But, alas, her days are numbered. Soon we will be showing off responsive web pages on our smart phones and everyone around the dinner table around the world will lose interest because nobody wants to read white papers on an iPhone or anywhere else for that matter. They will shake their heads and say they can’t believe we get paid for writing crap like that.
And we will say, “I know, crazy right?”
August 22, 2014
As a writer (and copywriter especially), I pay closer attention to words than most “regular” people. After years of alliteration, turning phrases and forcing puns I can’t help it. For me certain words are riper with meaning than others. Some words have more than one meaning, which I also find interesting, in particular when the people who use them altered their definitions. Like when real estate marketers use code words to mask unattractive features in their listings, the classic being the word “cozy,” subbing for tiny or worse.
“Cozy” is a very specific example. What about words that have changed in a broader context? For example, the evolution of the word “gay.” In the olden days it simply meant carefree and happy. The subtext of showiness and flamboyance evolved, rightly or wrongly, into the primary descriptor for homosexuals. But the word still wasn’t done changing. It has acquired darker hues. Not long ago “gay” started being used in a derogatory way to suggest something lame, overtly fey or just plain wrong.
Less controversially, the word “random” has evolved. Random once just meant something “out of order or sequence.” Somewhere along the way this largely mathematical term became poetic slang for silly, weird or (like the word gay) just plain wrong. Saying something off topic, seemingly out of the blue, is random. An odd observation or a joke that misfires is random. In the cra-cra life of a teenager just about everything is random. In 2011, Disney even named one of their teen TV sketch comedies, “So Random!”
But “random” isn’t just for young people. I like using it as well. For me it’s a way to make fun of something without being (totally) offensive. Yes, random can be the runt of the litter. But it can also mean something unexpected or quirky. Usually, it’s all of the above.
On a base level the slang meaning of “gay” and “random” cross paths. (Those shoes are so random. Those shoes are so gay.) Obviously, the former is a lot less mean spirited than the latter. One is offensive to more than just shoes.
Reexamining this essay I can’t remember why I began writing it in the first place. Did I have a larger point to make? As is it just seems so… random.
August 7, 2014
I’m not sure what spurred the memory but the other night I got to thinking about a sophomore debating class I took at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Perhaps it was the latest flare up in the un-ending battle between Israel and some faction of the Arab world –this time Hamas. After all, here are two “sides” that have been warring (and subsequently debated on) for decades (seems a lot longer, doesn’t it?), with no apparent victor. Like “gun control” and “abortion” the “Middle East” is one of those debating class teeter-totters.
As I reflected on this class, it dawned on me how important it was in shaping my development as an advertising copywriter. The ability to create a compelling and fresh argument from tired tropes is paramount to good copywriting. For most clients, the benefits and solutions within their respective categories are extremely similar, if not identical. Therefore, practicing our skills on classic debating topics is very worthwhile. (By the way, most of this very paragraph has been constructed in the form of a syllogism (if/ then/ therefore), a term and concept I learned in debating class!)
I recall one assignment in particular, because it forced all of us out of our comfort zones: We had to compose an argument for the opposite side of an issue we believed in. So, for example, if you were Pro-Choice you had to write an argument for the “Right to Life.”
It was an infuriating exercise, inflaming our young passions in all the wrong ways. Which is also why it was such a valuable lesson. Forcing me to argue on behalf of something I was ignorant of or ardently opposed to was great preparation for a career in Adland!
After all, in my career I’ve had to write persuasively about countless products I know nothing about and will never use –everything from enterprise software to feminine protection. At Leo Burnett, I had to create numerous campaigns selling cigarettes, in my case Benson & Hedges. At another agency I worked on a pitch for an online gambling entity. I don’t drink alcohol because it nearly killed me but I’ve written national campaigns for Johnnie Walker and Anheuser Busch.
Scenarios like these are not uncommon. For many of us they represent just another tricky day in Adland. Putting aside one’s moral compass may be harder for some than others but either way the value of classic debating skills is obvious.
For the past few days, even longer, I have been working on a manifesto for one of our (hopefully) new clients. Actually, I’ve been working on two. Even more actually, I’ve been working on manifestos for 25 years, since becoming a copywriter.
Nothing suits me more. For like many a creative soul, I am by nature a show off. And this is the way I can do it. I know I am not alone. Most copywriters get off on writing manifestos. At least they’d better. Writing such documents is at the heart of what we do, and can do, for our clients.
Most of you know what I’m talking about. For those unawares, a manifesto or mantra or anthem is the bringing to life in words the highest and most noble aspirations of its subject matter, aka the brand.
Yes, it is advertising copy but in the best sense of the word. Think Apple’s great script to the modern world: Think Different. Consider the lines that first and forever defined Nike to a generation: Just Do It. We know these iconic tags because we fell in love with the manifestos. Frankly, neither line would have lasted this long, or even gotten out the door, if not for their beloved manifestos.
The power and glory of a brilliant manifesto cannot be overstated. They raise the hairs on the back of your neck. They make CMO’s smile. They win pitches. Most of all they change things: attitudes, behaviors, even lives.
At least the good ones do.
Alas, we’ve all heard or, God forbid, written our share of shitty ones. They can be purple or redundant or both. They get long pretty damn fast. They turn into cheesy rip-o-matics. Yet, in a weird way, even the bad ones sound pretty good. They are like pizza that way.
Because we slave over them. Into these haloed paragraphs we put everything we know or think we know about writing, about persuading, about life. Here you won’t find speeds and feeds, racks and stacks or friends and family call free! None of that. For these are the best neighborhoods in Adland. No thugs allowed.