Writing is hard. You wouldn’t be reading this if you didn’t, in some way, agree. Regardless of the language you’re writing in, there are millions of words and endless possible combinations in which to order them to create each sentence, each paragraph, each blog post or essay or novel.
Now, writing short — that’s really hard. Concise, effective, informative copy is a challenge even for experienced veterans of the word-slinging craft. Add evoking an emotion from a reader in a measly few handfuls of words to the task and it may seem damn near impossible. In “On Writing,” Stephen King’s excellent memoir on his career and his craft, the prolific novelist spends 26 pages likening writing skills to utensils that fill the toolbox, each tip and trick a tool placed into a drawer within a writer’s mind to be used when the time comes. But rarely, as copywriters, do we have time to indulge in 26 pages of extended metaphor about summer days spent repairing screen doors with a beloved uncle. King is a novelist. He may be succinct for a guy writing 600-page books without any flowery verbiage, but his format is a lengthy one and so his writing is long. As copywriters, we must excel in brevity. We must wield words just as deftly as any novelist or storyteller, but we must touch readers in a fraction of the time.
To that end, here are three types of resources that you, the seeking-to-improve copywriter can turn to in times of need.
Before we get fancy, the basic resources are an essential starting place. The sacred text of the laconic writer is one that should be familiar to nearly anyone who’s ever taken a writing course, from creative writing to journalism: William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White’s “The Elements of Style.” It’s 81 straightforward pages of writing tips and reminders that every writer will benefit from reading again and again, but is especially beneficial for copywriters with brevity-based advice like “omit needless words,” “do not overwrite,” “avoid fancy words,” and “be clear.”
Speaking of style, it’s crucial to keep your employer’s style guide of choice close at hand. Here at Bonfire, we use the AP Style Guide which provides tips, style quizzes, and more. Like a rulebook, the better you understand the game, the better you play it. When it comes to style, understanding trends and the history behind them can give you a next-level understanding of language. Grammarly’s blog is an amazing way to keep up on writing and editing tips, explanations of slang, and other dissections of language that will help you shorten your copy. The companion app, which functions as a spellcheck-on-steroids addition to browsers, is handy for catching errors as you write.
If you’re really struggling with shaving down your text, the Hemingway App is your new best friend. Plug in your text and see how one of the masters would have written your lengthy diatribe better and in a mere fraction of the words.
There’s a ton of great reads for the technical writing aficionado and you could do worse than having June Casagrande’s “It was the Best of Sentences, It was the Worst of Sentences” and Lynne Truss’s “Eats, Shoots & Leaves” on your writing desk. But whether you go old school with a physical copy or use one on your computer, a thesaurus is vital. Need a new word for “essential”? Have you typed out “indispensible” one too many times? The thesaurus is the key resource built for giving you the perfect word to replace a lengthy phrase — paramount to any copywriter’s success.
Copywriting may be a day job form of writing, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be inspired or that you can’t improve as a copywriter with a creative catalyst. Stealing another bit of advice from Stephen King, reading is one of the best resources for any writer in any field. By delving into writing from disparate wordsmiths across genres, you’ll take in flowery poetry, info-heavy non-fiction, choppy prose, and more, learning from the pros and cons of it all. Make your free time a fun study of your passion — and get better at your job while you’re at it.
How can you best make this study? Here’s my suggestion: Choose a versatile writer and study his or her work. Maybe you’ll choose a journalist who writes novels or a children’s book author who pens op-eds for the “New York Times.” I’ve found George Saunders to be an excellent and inspiring choice. Celebrated for his poignant, sarcastic, hilarious, truthful short fiction, he’s written a children’s book, published a book of essays, and you can even read a graduation speech he gave at Syracuse University. Seeing a single writer work in so many forms allows you to not only track his evolution and style, but also showcases that good writers can work in many mediums — a good reminder as most copywriters double as poets, playwrights, or screenwriters. Saunders, in recently promoting his first novel, examined writers in an enlightening piece called “What Writers Really Do When They Write,” which I highly recommend.
Learning about writing from writers is always a great source of motivational guidance. Brain Pickings has compiled rules, advice, and counsel from modern masters and legendary writers alike from Kurt Vonnegut to Jennifer Egan. For the copywriter, I especially recommend Elmore Leonard’s famously direct short list of tips. Though it’s written as advice on fictional prose, gems like “avoid detailed descriptions of characters” and “don’t go into great detail describing places and things” are great reminders that you don’t need to overdo it. Less is more. If you’re still feeling the urge for more writing process and inspirational reading — and you’re looking for lengthier reads — check out Annie Dillard’s “The Writing Life” and Anne Lamott’s “Bird by Bird.”
When books, tips, tricks, and your usual go-to fixes fail you, what’s next? The inside of a writer’s mind is a scary place. Sometimes you need to get out of it. Talk a walk, read a book, see a movie, go grab lunch — if time allows, life can be incredibly helpful when it comes to shaking loose some good writing from your stubborn brain. Another #protip: coffee. To quote cartoonist Flash Rosenberg: “I believe humans get a lot done, not because we’re smart, but because we have thumbs so we can make coffee.” Athletes that use steroids to improve performance are frowned upon, but writers that use coffee? That’s just smart.
If these methods fail and the words still aren’t flowing, give yourself a challenge. Try and write without a particular crutch (no adverbs, no adjectives), give yourself a theme (work a Sidney Poitier movie title into each paragraph), find a way to quote song lyrics or reference a TV show, or try and write in a different voice to change up your style completely (“How would these tweets sound if they were written by John Steinbeck?”). You write because you love it and you’re good at it, but sometimes you need to infuse that relationship with a new spark. A little roleplay doesn’t hurt!
Finally, strip it all away and the greatest asset we copywriters have is a simple one: community. Though, in our own minds, we’re all tortured artistic souls forced into the lonely pursuit of churning out thousand-page magnum opera about Cajun detectives, as copywriters we’re rarely working in isolation. Take advantage of that! Your comrades-in-arms at the desk next to you or a text message away can be living proof that two heads are better than one (or, bare minimum, that misery loves company). If you’re gonna be tortured by trimming gorgeous descriptors from your copy to hit a word count, well … you shouldn’t have to do it alone.
To twist King’s toolbox metaphor, if writing is your passion and your career, it’s an adventure you’ll be on for many years. Outfit yourself for that adventure. As certain writers flourish at a desk where others need to take a pad and pen to a park bench, so must you decide what equipment you must pack for your journey. This list is a guideline, a series of suggestions for you to pick and choose from. Try out these methods, see what works, rinse, and repeat. It’s not about the destination; it’s about the journey. These resources I’ve suggested to help you learn along the way should make sure your journey as a writer is an enriching and, hopefully, less difficult road. And never forget, “omit needless words” and “do not overwrite.”
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