When I was seven or eight years old, sometime between reading Little Women and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, I decided I wanted to be a writer. I began writing little books, culminating in the seven-chapter opus Amabel Strikes Back, which received rave reviews from my sixth grade teacher. If you’d asked me then what kind of writer I wanted to be, I may not have been able to articulate it very well, but I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have said a copywriter. I wouldn’t have known what it was.
When I was twenty-one years old, I spent four months travelling the US in an old motorhome. In among the drinking binges and $1 Whoppers I pondered that big and still unanswered question – what did I want to do with the rest of my life? Somewhere between New Mexico and Utah, I remembered that childhood dream. I would be a writer! A writer! I would be a fiction writer: a teller of stories, a conduit for make-believe. What other kind of writer could there be?
When I was thirty-one years old, in possession of a Diploma in Professional Writing and Editing and a finished manuscript for a young adult novel, my dream of being a writer felt tantalisingly close to becoming reality. A short story had recently been published in an anthology. I had been awarded an ASA mentorship and a publisher had agreed to read my novel. While I was waiting to hear back from them, I was offered a job as a Communications Executive with a travel company. It didn’t exactly fit in with how I saw myself – it involved writing but not writing – but it paid more than any of my previous jobs so I said yes.
Not long after I received news that, despite its many strengths, my novel was not yet of a ‘publishable standard’. I was assured that this was a positive result, the Next Best Thing to being published, and they’d be more than happy to read subsequent drafts. The criticisms of my manuscript were both thoughtful and insightful, which only made things worse. No wallowing in the mire of a misunderstood artist for me! My disappointment was overwhelming. Over the next few years I periodically returned to the manuscript in an effort to fix some of the problems. In the end I was forced to admit that I was simply moving words around, making it different, but not better.
In the meantime, my career in marketing and communications, or marcom, as the industry folks call it, began to grow a life of its own. In that first role I mostly wrote copy for travel brochures, but also media releases, advertising, e-newsletters and destination features. My boss was a writer himself and valued narrative. I was given time and space to create. I wrote staff profiles that resembled feature-length interviews, the kind that might appear in Rolling Stone. I drew on my fiction writing skills to inject nuance and specificity – colour, taste, sound – into everything I wrote.
Soon enough, the bubble burst. The written word is rarely so valued in the corporate arena. I’m still struggling to accept this but deep in my heart I know it is true. Writing is too often subsumed by apparently opposing objectives: limited space and time, cost constraints, competing agendas, a lack of understanding of how powerful narrative can be. For every person who appreciates the role of good writing (and editing and proofing) in achieving the primary goal of an organisation – whether it is to sell a product, promote a service, solicit donations, inform stakeholders, or some combination of all these – there is one who just doesn’t get it. In marketing and communications, that person could be the CEO; it could even be your boss. If you’re committed to good writing, accurate editing and most importantly storytelling, like I am, you may find yourself feeling like the little boy in The Emperor’s New Clothes.
Nowadays, I earn the bulk of my income from freelance copywriting – a much better fit. Most of my work is still travel-related, but I also write for and about charities, the arts, and for local government and universities. Unlike generalised marcom roles, in which writing is only one – often frustratingly minor – component, copywriting is all about words. It isn’t just wordplay though. Puns, alliteration, onomatopoeia abound but the best copywriting, like all good prose writing, touches something in its reader: it tells a story. As Don Draper said in Mad Men, when asked by a journalist about the success of a particular advertising campaign,“I wanted it to be indistinguishable from the movies. I wanted people to be watching it and say What’s happening in the story right now?”
I’m no Don Draper, I’m not even Peggy Olsen – and not just because I’m real rather than fictional. I’ve written advertising copy but my personal experience of copywriting is much broader than that, covering the full spectrum of marketing collateral – flyers, brochures, newsletters, posters, information packs, annual reports, websites – the list goes on and on. But like Don Draper, I try, wherever possible, to tell a story. In this regard, my background as a fiction writer comes in handy. I have a finely tuned sense of what information to put in, and what to leave out, and how this affects narrative flow and tension. I get how important it is to evoke a strong sense of place, to create real and believable characters. These skills are no less relevant when writing about garbage services for the local council, or about the latest breakthrough in research for a medical institute, than when writing travel brochures, or real estate blurbs, or labels for bottles of wine. Or a short stories, essays, or a novel.
In some ways writing copy is easier than writing fiction. But it has its own set of challenges. In fiction, there maybe endless ways to describe something, and the more specific and original your similes are the better. In copywriting, there is a balancing act required. Phrases need to be familiar, without being clichéd; original yet not too tricksy. Working within this model, it can be easy to fall into bad habits: Asian markets are always ‘bustling’; cities are ‘vibrant’ and ‘buzzing’. Cobblestone streets start turning up in cities devoid of stone of any kind. The ‘bitumen-paved streets’ just doesn’t have the same ring to it. At a micro level, copywriting sometimes feels like an algorithm – you work with the same, limited number of words, moving them around to create a patterns that are symmetrical, colourful, coherent. And sometimes it’s just like writing fiction: I’ve written countless reviews of hotels and places I’ve never been to, written biographies of people I’ve never met. It’s not making stuff up, exactly, because it’s based on source material. But the quality of that material varies; you need imagination to bring it to life.
Having mourned the loss of my first novel and let it go, I’ve also begun to write again. While juggling competing priorities is an issue for a freelancer, the flexibility it gives you is a gift. Writing on a daily basis – even if it is marketing copy – allows me to exercise the writing muscle. Longer pieces can seem daunting, but once I get going, I discover and revel in the freedom of having more space to move, to stretch my legs. If copywriting has had a negative effect on my creative writing, it’s this: I have a tendency to tighten-up, to polish my sentences as I go, before I’ve got to the essence of what it is I want to say, leading to writing that looks good but perhaps doesn’t have the depth to it that I would like. But I’m aware of it, and have started making a concerted effort to loosen up and let go, to allow myself to write sentences that aren’t grammatically correct, that are unwieldy, have poor syntax and sometimes don’t even make sense. I try not to edit as I go.
Years ago, when my adult self first decided I wanted to be a writer, I turned up my nose at copywriting. I saw it as selling out. Perhaps I’ve changed my tune to serve my purpose, but like a blind pimple that refuses to crown, this process of emerging as a writer can take a bloody long time – and it’s painful. I may not be the kind of writer that my childhood self dreamed I’d be, but I am a writer. I write for work and it gives me time to write for play. I’m happy with that equation.
This piece was first published in The Emerging Writer in 2012.