After four novels, two children’s picture books, a play and a growing collection of short stories I have begun a parallel career in copywriting. Everything in publishing takes a long time, from waiting for a response to submissions to receiving royalty checks. Copywriting seems like a sensible choice for writers with bills to pay.
How do I make this jump, though, without betraying the craft of fiction writing that I have studied, practiced and revered? Do I forsake the showing rather than telling? Do I not climb the ladder of abstraction from the bottom, where its feet rest in the specifics of damp, granular earth, to the top, where it emerges in swirling clouds of lofty themes—never for a minute pausing at the bureaucratic, woolly speech of the middle? Do I leave behind the building of characters through muscled details—the steel tipped boots, the shaved head, the tattoo of a pair of dice—never using flabby words such as tough, mean and intimidating? Do I forget I ever learned to make things represent other things? Will that circling peregrine falcon that stands in for the character’s fear of death forever be left floating on thermal currents?
As it turns out, there are similarities between fiction and copywriting. Important ones. For ad copy, nothing sells like a good story with an emotional hook. The mother with a terrible cold who takes NyQuil so that she can drag herself out of bed to attend her daughter’s dance recital. The father who gets behind the wheel of his all-wheel-drive station wagon in a blizzard to drive his wife to the maternity ward on time. Make people feel the message and they are more likely to buy the product. Make readers feel what your characters are experiencing and they are more likely to read to the end and buy your second book.
The most effective copywriting uses a conversational tone—as if the reader is a friend sitting across the table from us in a coffee shop. It sounds like chatting but without superfluous words. It sounds like…dialogue. Perhaps copywriting will help me write snappier dialogue in my short stories.
I have discovered that the ladder of abstraction is just as relevant in copywriting. People want to experience the grit—the boys playing soccer in the dirt next to an informal settlement in Africa—just as much as they want to connect with the overarching theme of global oneness. Nobody wants to hear the pedagogic speak of the middle of the ladder, unless it’s to convey instructions in an infomercial. Themes have to reveal themselves in far less time than they do in fiction, which could help me to coral the elements of my short stories under their themes right from the first page. With diligence there might be less revision in my future.
It seems that I should have to betray my craft to write copy. After all, I am selling something. But like it or not, when we write fiction we are selling. We have to make our readers believe that we have transported them to the Caribbean coast of Colombia in the late nineteenth century or to small rural towns in Ontario, Canada, in the 1950’s. That is selling. We have to sell our characters as strong women or victims—or a little of both. Perhaps this will be a two-way street; copywriting will help me create more vivid characters in my fiction, ones whom readers will buy into with less persuasion.
It’s a jump from writing fiction to writing copy, but their skill sets are complementary and, with any luck, might just be enhanced by each other.