Wrangling the Words for the Biggest Impact

There’s a great story about the Irish writer James Joyce and how after a day’s writing his brother Stanislaus found him prostrate on his desk and utterly despondent.

“Brother, you look so unhappy,” Stanislaus asked. “How did the writing go today?”

Wearily lifting his head, James said, “Not good, brother, not good. I wrote six words today.”

Feeling sympathy for his genius older brother, Stanislaus said, “Oh my, I’m sorry, James, so few words after so many hours.”

To this, James is reported to have pounded a fist on his desk and declared, “No, it’s not that. It’s that I don’t know what order they go in!”

Now, while I share in common with James Joyce only a need for spectacles and a taste for Guinness, I do understand his plight. In fact, I’d submit it’s a commonplace dilemma for any self-respecting advertising or marketing writer.

Because the truth is, we aren’t always provided as much information as we’d like and often struggle to determine how best to arrange those few materials into something meaningful. At times, it can feel a bit like being handed a bunch of hand towels with the request to fashion them into a king-size blanket. But that’s the magic we’re hired to perform!

So, like Joyce with his stubborn six words, our challenge is to figure out how to cajole those limited resources into a complete story that solves our client’s business problem—one that is clear, compelling, on message and hopefully unique. And yes, for all that is good and right, what in the hell order do the words go in?

Before you think you’re the only sufferer, survey the painful ends to which others have purportedly gone. Every writer has his or her own tools and tricks for filling that taunting, catch-me-if-you-can page:

  • Ernest Hemingway supposedly ended each day’s writing session by breaking all his pencil tips. Presumably, the sharpening of them the next day sharpened his mind as well.
  • Jack Kerouac wrote “On the Road” on one long teletype roll so he didn’t have to waste time inserting new pages in the typewriter.
  • Vladimir Nabokov found it easier to write on 3×5 cards — in a parked car — than at a typewriter or computer at a desk.
  • When drafting “The Corrections,” Jonathan Franzen brought focus to his efforts by working in a soundproof room wearing earplugs, earmuffs and a blindfold.
  • Essayist Joan Didion, when nearing the end of a book, insists on sleeping in the same room with her manuscript. (She added that a stiff drink helps too.)
  • Idiosyncratic German poet and playwright Friedrich Schiller famously insisted on writing with his feet in cold water and rotting apples in his desk.

The point, I suppose, is that writers are freaks. In the agency world, too, we writers will stop at nothing and entertain just about any craziness if there’s a chance it might help us turn our six words into copy that makes the reader feel something and connect with our clients’ brands.

Now, I can’t cop to blindfolds or rotten apples, but I do care just as deeply about getting it right—for our clients, their customers, and for myself. Here are a few of the strategies I will call on when in need of a bit of help moving the words around:

  1. Change the scenery ― I’ll abandon my desk for some other spot. It could be another part of the office, out on the street for an amble or in a coffee shop. That switch can be enough to realign the puzzle pieces in a way that reveals the path forward.
  2. Hit play ― It doesn’t happen often, but there are those times when adding music to the mix can stir up the sediment just enough to uncover those hidden doubloons you’ve been looking for.
  3. Set it on simmer ― If the schedule permits, I’ll leave the draft for a day or two. Taking a break can work like a black light on pet accidents on the carpet ― the opportunities to clean up can almost glow on the page.
  4. Switch the medium ― Of course most work is done sitting at the keyboard. But there are those situations when the cursor seems bent on mocking you with its infernal blinking. On those occasions, I might revert to ye olde paper and pen to reboot my imagination.

No matter which strategy is used, it eventually comes down to exactly what Jack London said of the process: “Don’t loaf and invite inspiration; light out after it with a club, and if you don’t get it you will nonetheless get something that looks remarkably like it.”

Marketing isn’t inspiration in itself. Creative copywriters need to call upon the muses to find that true connection between people and brands.

Photo by Aaron Burden

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