I first stumbled across the joys of creative writing – in my current guise as a grown-up at least – on a leafy terraced porch in Singapore. A group of nine women sat around a long teak table on a rough and ready collection of benches, deckchairs and Indian threaded throws. We had gathered from the four corners of the world: Sukaina from Pakistan, Lot from the Netherlands, Parvati from New Delhi… All of us united by a desire to learn. And a need to meet new friends outside the confines of the slightly forced smiles of the other expatriated women with whom we spent our days.
Our teacher, Vittoria was half-Italian with a glorious smile and a shiny mass of tangled curls the colour of the sticky bit that everyone fights over on a treacle sponge. She began the first class by handing out a sheet of A4 sized paper and then fanning out a series of photographs and pictures that she’d torn from magazines and asking us to choose one.
On wrinkles, crinkles and sparkles
Each of the images depicted a person. I chose an image of an elderly Indian man, dressed in a saffron yellow robe and driving a flower-strewn rickshaw. I held up the picture to look more closely at his wrinkled face, his front teeth – chipped like twenty-pence pieces – and the sparkle in his eye. “You’ve chosen?” Vittoria asked. We nodded.
“Now, who do you see?” We looked at each other and began to talk amongst ourselves. “Don’t tell each other. We can all see the pictures.” Vittoria pointed to the sheets of A4 paper. “Tell your reader. Show them who you see.”
And so it began. The pinning down on paper of the tiny details that brings any writing to life. The “saffron yellow” of my man’s robe. Because yellow can be any thousand of shades of sunshine, but here it was before me, the colour of that rich and delicate spice. The “flower-strewn rickshaw”, because those flowers told us that this man cared about his work. The front teeth “chipped like twenty-pence pieces” – the relic of a childhood challenge to cycle faster than the other boys in the village with disastrous results perhaps?
What had happened was up to me to decide. And this, I discovered, was the power of the writer. This man’s entire world was in my hands.
Word after word
Back to Vittoria’s leafy terraced porch. Just before our first class finished and the clouds gathered in the sky to warn us that the three o’ clock monsoon rains were set to begin, we were given our assignment – to go shopping.
“You’re going to need a pen. A pen that writes really fast. And a writing pad. Something beautiful. Something that you’re proud to own because it’s going to become one of your most precious possessions… Something small, so you can keep in your back pocket or in your bag. And that you can pull out and write in. At the bus stop, on the train, in the grocery queue. All day.”
And that, dear reader. Was the magic.
Word by word
Anne Lamott, writer and author of the wonderful book Bird by Bird – Some instructions on writing and life, which is possibly the most important book on writing ever written (Stephen King’s “On Writing” comes a nail-biting second in my mind) says of writing and details that it is vital to write down life “as you hear it”.
In her audiobook version of the book, Word by Word (which you can find on iTunes and which will change your life and make you laugh until you cry) she explains why, “Because an hour later, when you get home with your shopping bags, or the phone is ringing you’ll have forgotten the cadence. Or the syntax or the exact word that was used and that word will have swum out of your mind never to return.”
Take heed fellow copywriters. Killer headlines and award-winning slogans have been lost this way.
I sat in a restaurant last night and from the next table heard a child say to her father – who was asking her to stop talking and choose something from the menu – “I don’t like looking. It uses up my eyes.” If I’d waited until I got home I would have forgotten the innate comedy of this tiny little phrase and said something like, “ My eyes get tired” or “I can’t read it properly.” That phrase was scribbled on the back of a receipt because I’m on holiday and I’d stupidly left my notebook at home (note to readers – do not do this).
It’s not the first time. My phone’s Notes application is filled with snippets and half-heard sentences like these:
“Humped and dumped,” overheard on a train carriage in Newcastle.
“It’s so hot. I had to take my beads off.” An elderly lady chatting to her neighbour in Leeds.
“I still dream in brunette.” A Canadian friend who recently dyed her hair blonde.
Failing the time to do even this, I try and take a photograph on my phone. Something that might – if I’m lucky – trigger my memory to capture the moment. This is also why it’s vital to have a notepad by your bed.
“You never have to change anything you got up in the middle of the night to write.” – Saul Bellow
You’ll have seen the television adverts for Haribo sweets? The adults performing voiceovers to a soundtrack recorded by children discussing their favourite sweet? Hilarious for all parties involved. And very effective, simply because the details are real.
“The most powerful element in advertising is the truth.” – William Bernbach
A life lived twice
One of Andy Maslen’s most useful pieces of advice in his brilliant book Write to Sell is to think about how your customer’s life will change when he or she actually gets hold of the product or service you’re selling. What element of their life will improve for them? What ‘pain’ will go away?
And to be able to depict these changes in a way that’s convincing is to get into the nitty gritty depths of detail. To make something you predict will happen come alive and seem tangible, tenable and real means to bring it to life in your readers’ minds. And to do this, you need to raise your awareness of what you see around you. Of the exact colours things are, of the way people sound as they speak, of the words they use, their syntax and their phrasing.
“And as a writer, one of the things that I’ve always been interested in doing is actually invading your comfort space. Because that’s what we’re supposed to do. Get under your skin, and make you react.” – Stephen King
The details you elicit are what can reassure a reader that what you say is true. It means living your life twice. Once as an experience, and once as a vivid recollection so that you can get the bones of it down on paper before they slip through your grasp.
It’s also a sure fire way to get rid of business jargon and tired clichés. If you’re working hard to capture real details, you are never going to write about “exciting solutions” or “blue-sky thinking” – are you? But you are going to be using the earthy language that’s familiar to your customers. And because it’s familiar, they will understand it to be true.
“Our business is infested with idiots who try to impress by using pretentious jargon.” – David Ogilvy
The devil is in the detail
It was Stephen King who said, “If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time or the tools to write. Simple as that.” So at this point I think we can allow ourselves a little browse along the shelves of our favourite bookshop. In a recent lecture on creative writing and trend prediction, I asked a room full of 60 students aged 19 and 20 to tell me what their favourite book was and to tell me why. Of 60 students, around a third of them cited one of Roald Dahl’s classics. Why?
“Because I wanted to be Charlie.” “Because Augustus made me laugh. Especially when he fell in the river.” “Because Fantastic Mr Fox outwitted Boggis and Bunce and Bean. And I hated it when they shot off his tail and Mrs Fox had to lick it clean.”
Because Dahl was a master of detail who knew how to engage his readers’ imaginations and pull them, skipping and smiling, into the worlds he created. Think about the scene in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory where we meet Charlie’s parents and his grandparents in their beds. Where we read about his father’s job, screwing the tops on tubes of toothpaste in a factory. Where we can almost smell the cabbage soup that the family eats every day – and the pathetic detail that they can each have seconds on Sundays.
Then think about the triumph, the delight and the relief when he finds his golden ticket. His chance at life and at stepping up and out from grinding poverty, even if just for a little while. All from a corner of a paper label, torn back to reveal a glint of gold. How would it feel if you could paint that vivid a picture of potential for change for your next customers?
“You must make the product interesting, not just make the ad different. And that’s what too many of the copywriters in the U.S. today don’t yet understand.” – Rosser Reeves
Tell the truth
Dave Trott spoke at the PCN Conference two years ago and made a brilliant point about the trend for esoteric advertising that seems to have been developed with the sole aim of ‘going viral’ online. His very sensible and real criticism was that creativity is fine and dandy if it sells. But if your prospect can only remember the ad (I think it was the year of the dancing Jersey cows) and not the product, you’ve only entertained your audience and not fulfilled your role as a copywriter (the cows were promoting a mobile phone company. And no, I can’t think which one).
“When I write an advertisement, I don’t want you to tell me that you find it ‘creative.’ I want you to find it so interesting that you buy the product.” – David Ogilvy
Back to the bookshelf
Think about your favourite novels. In fact, go and pull one down from the shelves and open it up at a random page. Think about what those few hundred words on the page evoke in your mind. Where does it take you? Who are you meeting? How has the author managed to achieve a whole new world that conjours up a torrent of emotions and feelings in your mind. And can you take some of that power with you and bring it to your next piece of work?
I keep a copy of The Shipping News by E. Annie Proulx on my desk for those times when I’m getting too verbose and the Flesch-Kincaid scores on my readability testing aren’t what I what them to be. Proulx uses such short sentences it’s like she’s whispering minute secrets in my ear and she brings me back to a more succinct version of myself.
Boiling the ocean
I once worked with a client in the US who questioned the amount of research needed for the project we were working on. In his words there was no need “to boil the ocean.” And I loved him for that – because I disagreed with him so strongly.
In his mind the facts he had in his head were enough. In my mind, I didn’t yet know whom I was writing about – or for whom – and so I needed to spread my net extraordinarily wide to start to see who the key players were and why the audience should care about them and get excited about what they were offering.
“Never ‘create’ – know the product to the core and combine the details in new ways.” – Eugene Schwartz
The more precise details and vivid images you have in your head and the greater your feel for who you are writing to, the faster the right words will flow out from your overflowing brain and onto the page. In my mind, if you’re struggling to find the right words, you haven’t done enough research – and you need to source a few more thousand gallons of ocean to boil.
How far can you see?
The research stage of any copywriting project overflows with words. Page after page of them. Some of those words may align to form the most incredible headline. Some of those words may be contained within the creases of a crumpled sheet of A4 paper and be thrown away, never to be thought of again.
So how can we pull all of these words, these details that we’re worked so hard to pin down, into something not only legible but persuasive too? Well, we combine the words of E.L. Doctorow, ‘Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way’ with William Bernbach’s words, “Let us prove to the world that good taste, good art, and good writing can be good selling.” And then we add a dash of Robert Collier, “Decide the effect you want to produce in your reader.”
So that when we sit down to write our next landing page, our next sales letter or even our next blog post, we’ve got a head full of convincing and real details that are so attuned to real life that our readers know we’re telling the truth and don’t just read but feel what we’re saying. We write beautifully so that our craft is seamless – and we tell them what we want them to do.
Overwhelmed? Don’t be. I’ll leave you with Anne Lamott.
“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft. I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it.”
What do I want you to do?
I want you to go and choose your first notepad.
And remember, it needs to be “Something beautiful. Something that you’re proud to own because it’s going to become one of your most precious possessions… Something small, so you can keep in your back pocket or in your bag. And that you can pull out and write in. At the bus stop, on the train, in the grocery queue. All day.” (Thank you Vittoria.)
Katherine Wildman is a copywriter and photographer and curates The Writing Desk blog over at www.haydngrey.co.uk where she’s always looking for writers to contribute the secrets of their top dancefloor hit (so far there’s a lot of James Brown), the contents of their pockets – and their secrets for success. To get involved please get in touch on firstname.lastname@example.org
Images © Katherine Wildman