One moment, you’re an angry young (wo)man, ready to conquer the world. The next, you’re pushing 40 and watching a bunch of actually young (since born in the 1990s) people storming that same world. Considering advertising people seem to magically disappear in their fifties, I could be well over half of my career. About time to see if there’s anything I learned over the past 15 years. Because I might still feel like a duckling, I’m probably more resembling a mother goose. Let’s go.
1. Simple writing takes ages.
The easier a line looks, the longer it takes to conceive. When you start writing, you’re pleased pretty quickly with your verbal finds. I know I was. Looking back, many of them were awful. I concluded the first thought often was the best one. That’s true. However, you need to make sure it is by examining any other route your mind can find. And then develop that ‘best thought’ to something that’s actually good. I sometimes spend hours picking on a few words, rewriting until something ‘clicks’. No rock & roll metaphors, it’s more like embroidery. Yeah, really cool.
2. If there’s no truth, there’s no story.
The first time you get a crappy brief, you think: I’ll make something out of it. The second time, it’ll go easier and after a while you think it’s normal. But well-polished nonsense is still nonsense. And nonsense doesn’t make for a good story. Cynical people say advertising’s all lies, I say it’s better if it isn’t. Over the years, I learned to use my journalistic skills (basically nagging with a hint of charm) to dig for a truth. It doesn’t always work. But when it does, it’s priceless, as MasterCard would say.
3. Funny happens.
Trying to be funny is like being that uncle at a birthday party cracking crappy jokes, to everyone’s embarrassment. Jokes should come naturally, as part of your story. And if they don’t: that’s fine. Good writing doesn’t need a laugh track.
4. Word-play is no game.
Yes, I have sinned. I abused words to construct half-assed puns, bad headlines and even worse punch lines. I decided it’s better to protect myself (and everyone) and just not to. Because (a) they’re hardly ever funny (really) and (b) they often hide an idea that’s not so good. I see word-play as a sign to look for something better.
5. Leave the adjectives.
They’re always there for you, serviceable and all. However, I found out adjectives can lead to lazy writing. When writing an ad, I try to not use them, only if there really is no other way. Not saying something is tasty/fast/funny/awesome forces you to find more illustrative ways to convince people it is. It’s more fun too.
6. Correct isn’t necessarily good.
Language is a wonderful thing if you don’t play by the rules. Suddenly everything is possible! Can’t find a word that exactly says what you mean? Make hybrids or invent something completely new. Does grammar say your sentence isn’t correct? Screw grammar. All’s fair in love and writing.
7. Every text can at least be half as long.
As a young gun, I got to write my first column for a magazine. I worked hard on a compact, punchy piece of writing. Or so I thought. The editor said it was nice, but she needed half as many words. I thought she was delusional, but deleted, cut crap and still said what I wanted to say, only better. Ever since, I try to halve everything I write. This column started out as a book, you know.
8. Advertising is no literature.
Don’t try to be interesting, over-articulate or Charles Bukowski. Advertising is not your place to shine. It’s the brand’s. That’s something I’ve grown to really like. You’re not a hero, but can try and help to create some.
9. You’re still just beginning.
Half of the time I still have no idea what I’m doing, hoping it’ll all work out. Some days I feel like I’m fooling everyone, other days I think I’m onto something. In the meantime, there’s a little more experience to hold on to every day. I’ll probably really know what I’m doing the day I retire. Or maybe I’ll be a not-so-angry old woman, embroidering the hell out of language. That would be cool.