3 Things the Novelist Can Learn From the Copywriter

By Guest Author

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As a copywriter, I have access to two of the greatest writing improvement tools in existence: practice and feedback. I spend 40 hours a week pumping out words that will be tweaked, replaced, moved, cut, checked, rechecked, and rejected or selected. Every red mark on my ad copy teaches me how to improve my fiction. Here are a few things I’ve learned.

1. Clarity

The number one rule is “Get the Message Across.” Don’t sacrifice clarity for cleverness, or even for grammar. If it doesn’t get your message across, it’s not as clever as you think it is; it’s certainly not correct.

After all, grammar exists to preserve clarity. The second it fails to do so, throw it out the window. For instance, the “don’t end sentences with prepositions” rule often results in a mutilated catastrophe, which Winston Churchill so aptly illustrated when he said, “This is the kind of errant pedantry up with which I shall not put!”

2. Brevity

As a novelist, I never worried about being concise. In fact, I strove to write as long a book as possible, thinking it would never be a real novel unless it was good and thick. I pushed until I crossed 100,000 words.

But as a copywriter, I’m constantly trimming words to fit the 30-second radio spot, the half-page ad, the 25-character Adwords headline. This was a nuisance at first, but then I realized something: shortening my writing made every word count – and thus made every word hit harder.

The best way to learn this rule is to force yourself; take the first chapter of your book and cut 100 words. Or 500. Start by doing a word search for “that” and “very” – you’ll find you can cut most of those. (“Omit unnecessary words” also happens to be Strunk & White’s Rule #17.)

3. Brainstorming

One of the ways I half-jokingly describe my job is “I sit around and think stuff up.” It’s another truth I never fully grasped until I became a copywriter: take time just to think. You can’t always expect great ideas or solutions to come to you out of the blue. You have to sit down at a blank page or Word document and focus; not on writing, but on coming up with ideas. Maybe you’re outlining plot, or naming the book, or developing a character. Whatever it is, a brainstorming session can work wonders.

Write down every idea that you have, even if it sounds dumb. If you have a major problem or plot hole, find someone else to brainstorm with – your critique partner works well for this. As you work together, your creative power will grow exponentially.

About the Author: Stephanie Orges is a writer at the Balcom Agency in Fort Worth, where she drafts radio, print and web copy for a variety of clients including Justin Boots, Southwest Bank and the Neeley School of Business at TCU. On her blog, BeKindRewrite, she offers writing advice and explores the philosophy of writing. She is currently working on her first novel.

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10 Responses to “3 Things the Novelist Can Learn From the Copywriter”

  • masterofboots

    I especially like the tip on brevity. Some seem to think that the longer the phrases are, the cleverer they appear. Arh! Makes me impatient.

  • Scott Heisler

    I have always loved that Churchill quotation on prepositions. Recently I read an old pamphlet called Correct English from April 1947. In it was an article called “Watch your Prepositions” by Frank J Wain, excerpted from Pitman’s Business Education. I enjoyed his take on it: “We must admit that the preposition at the end of a sentence is another mark of the freedom of the language and, as in all cases of freedom, the benefit is effective only so long as it is not abused.”

  • Roberta B.

    Is it time for an article on idioms? I didn’t find a lot in the archives, and #3 has one idiomatic structure that bugs me. A recent article justifies split infinitives. OK, I can go along with that if used sparingly and for effect. However, split idioms in written form still rub me the wrong way. It says: “I sit around and think stuff up.” Wouldn’t it be more correct (as correct as an idiom would be) and easier to understand to say “I sit around and think up stuff.”? “Think up” is the idiom. Or is it not that big of a deal? After all, it’s an idiom based on conventional speech.

  • Rhonda

    Roberta poses the question “Or is it not that big of a deal?” This use of “big of a …” tells me that she’s American. Australians and the English say something’s “not that big a deal”. Does anyone know how this difference arose?

  • Stephanie Orges

    @masterofboots – I can relate. Is it a sign of impatience on my part when I start skimming over long descriptions, or a sign of bad editing on the author’s part?

  • Stephanie Orges

    @Roberta B. – Good question! This is a case of correct grammar vs. accurate dialogue. “Think up stuff” would technically be more correct, but in casual conversation, I want to emphasize the verb, not the noun, so I avoid placing “stuff” at the end of the sentence.
    Also, I stole (and tweaked) this quote from a Bruce Willis line in Armageddon, about the government having a whole team of guys “just thinking s*** up.”

  • Stephanie Orges

    @Rhonda – the copyeditor in me would trim it to “not a big deal.”
    ; )

    Interesting question, though; I’ve heard it said both ways, so I’m not sure where the difference came from.

  • Stephen

    Rhonda: Not all English people use the form “not that big a deal”. It may be more common, but I’ve also heard people use “not that big of a deal”.

  • Michael McGinnis

    I’m a better copywriter because of the poetry I write. It’s not for nothing that writing Google Adwords copy has been compared to writing haiku: three tightly restricted lines that must often communicate indirectly since there isn’t much room to explain directly.

  • Stephanie Orges

    Great insight, Michael;
    I’ll have to remember that
    When I write new ads

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