Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Writing and “writing”

Working as I do in graphic design, I have to deal with a lot of advertising copy. Since that’s often in flux as much as the design I’m working on, I get a bird’s eye view of the editing process. Sometimes I’m even a part of it.

If you think we novelists sweat over ever word, you should see the copywriter’s lot in life. They sweat every detail down to periods versus exclamation points, underlines versus no underlines and everyone second guesses what they do. Usually, there are multiple people looking over his/her shoulder, making their own judgements and comments. They all think they know what they’re doing, too — and some actually do — but many times I’ve seen promising copy get sideswiped by too much meddling and over-thinking. And it’s very hard to stop this process. Copywriters, like the graphic designers, want to give their client something the client likes and about which they feel confident that the job has been done properly. Sometimes this involves saving the client from themselves. Oftentimes, though, they don’t want to be saved — or so it appears.

About writing, everyone has their own opinion past a certain point. I’m talking about after all the “nuts and bolts” things have been fixed. Does this work? Should that be tried? Why is this even here? Because advertising copy is, by necessity, extremely distilled, the process is intense. So too with poetry, I would imagine (believe me, you don’t want to read any poetry written by moi!).

Given the length of novels, even short ones, this laser beam scrutiny is harder to achieve. From what I’ve seen in the advertising world, the same editing treatment would result in a writer completing a novel around once every decade. But can we not take something away from the advertising world? The most important thing I’ve learned about great advertising copy is not what it says, but what it doesn’t say. The real trick is to get the reader to recognize that the word and punctuation changes are a subtle marker to ideas that are completely sub rosa, but still critically important.

I wish I could show you examples, both good and bad, in packages with which I’ve been involved, but it wouldn’t be fair to my clients. However, next time you read an ad, whether it’s found on a bus, in a magazine or newspaper, a billboard, anywhere, take a look at the construction of the copy and look at the emotions it stirs in you (or not) and whether it makes a connection with you.

Regardless of what you think about the value of ads, that’s the whole purpose of any writing, isn’t it?


Eileen Goudge said...

Good stuff, Rick! Reminds me of the quote by Ken Follett in the New York Times. He compares his own style, honed by his previous career as a journalist, to a pane of glass. The reader should be looking through the pane, not at it. So true. I need to remind myself of that whenever I hesitate to kill the darlings.

Rick Blechta said...

That's exactly the same thing the person who taught me typography kept trying to drum into my head: "Good typography is invisible."

Then he'd always smile and add, "Except to other typographers."

Same thing with writing, music, drama, painting...