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.
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!”
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.)
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.