Saturday, November 29, 2014

What all writers should learn from ad writers

I wrote three novels when I was in college. I’m ashamed of every one. They were navel gazing explorations of what? The coming of age of a healthy, wealthy white teenager? Whine me a river. So I shoved them in a drawer and spent the next 18 years in advertising. Then I wrote a new book. And it doesn’t suck. What did I learn?

1. Know the end. When you write an ad, it only ends one way. The reader buys what you’re selling. You work backwards from that point to build gripping copy. This is the opposite of the inverted pyramid technique journalists are trained in. And of the meandering style many novelists employ.

2. Inhabit a voice. Writing is not the linear assembly of grammatically correct and accurately spelled sentences. The best ad writers are method actors, slipping completely inside a brand and effortlessly speaking its language. Porsche and Toyota could hand you the exact same brief, and the ad that’d result would be totally different.

3. Have an idea. The events of your own personal teen romance are profoundly dull to everyone but you. Advertising forces you to be original. (Or if not completely original, at least charmingly unexpected.) And it teaches you to grab attention. Fast.

4. Learn to write dialogue. You want to write how people talk, go bust out a few dozen radio spots. Your ears will guide you. Many novels are positively unreadable because of the unrealistically structured and complete sentences the characters feel free to use.

There’s one other thing I learned over the past two decades, but I didn’t learn it from advertising. There’s a reason why there’s no such thing as a literary prodigy. Writing isn’t like math or music. It requires experience. Writers have to live. To make mistakes. To experience poverty, war and love. And then give themselves over to a story that's not even their own. You want to write well? Partially, you just got to get older.

But mostly, ad writers are absolutely killer with the written word. And there's a good reason why.

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