Chances are you didn’t become a Writer (capital W!!) to spend your days sweating over the least icky way to explain a dermatologist’s mole-removal services, but that dermatologist, or that air conditioner repairman, or that mall Santa puts a lot of their life into their trade. So here’s how to do your best for them and hey, maybe make the world a better place?
-Appearance is everything. Is it for print? Make it look good. Don’t make the graphic designer fit the word ‘disambiguation’ into a 3-inch magazine ad because the message will be lost. Think visually. I once worked with a winery owner who chose the name ‘Majorette’ for one of his labels partly because the word itself is nice to look at. If you can’t decide between a few words, write them out on paper (you remember what paper is, don’t you?) and see what jumps and what clunks.
-Be a team player. Is it for radio? Don’t make the voice talent hate you. I recently wrote the tagline ‘Get together, gift together’ for a mall’s holiday campaign. Go ahead- say ‘gift together’ out loud. It looked really good on paper: creative, social (per the client’s request) calling to the shopping season without devolving into cheesy ‘giving’ language. But it couldn’t be said clearly… and I learned that the hard way when I was hired to do the voice over. All your cleverness is wasted if the public hears something different altogether.
-Embrace your inner Hemingway. Avoid complicated sentence structure requiring non-basic punctuation; people don’t know how to read it in print, and a VO actor will just take it apart and read it as separate sentences anyway.
-Timing is everything. If the client asked for a 30 second tv or radio ad, give them 28 seconds worth of copy. Read it out loud to yourself in your best tv/radio voice. Muttering your own work happens at a totally different pace that a pro VO will read a stranger’s paragraph.
-Brain, meet Ear. Read it out loud, even if it’s for print. New Directions, anyone?
-It’s not about you. I did a lot of work for an Indian Casino in the middle of nowhere on the interstate. Not really my scene, y’know? So I had to walk a mile in the shoes of the long-haul trucker, the weary traveller, the Keno-fanatic, and feign excitement over things I usually avoid. You’re an anonymous ad writer- no one is going to think you really love X or Y, and the people in the industry will see you have a broad range.
-It’s not about you: the sequel. Sometimes the client’s concept is, well, not your favorite. Deal with it. Sometimes you’ll get paid to craft the concept, sometimes you’re just a word-machine. Rise above it, do the best you can, and tap the wonders of the language for all they’re worth to overcome the world’s most cheesy/offensive/non-sensical/misdirected concept.
-Own it. You’re the guru of words and how they communicate, so gently and professionally let your Botox-providing client know why they should never use the term ‘squirters’. (Ever.) Depending on your relationship with the client, you may be able to shape the concept by explaining the nuances and connotations of a word or phrase. Don’t discount cultural or generational differences, either- share your insight (as it pertains to the writing) and you may engender more loyalty from your client.
-Turn, turn, turn. If you can turn a phrase like the best warbling cowpoke, you should. Country music songwriters are some of the best at this….and I don’t even like country music. A well-turned phrase is catchy and memorable and writerly, and you need to be all those things. Your client is paying you for your skills, use them, but know when you’re rising to the challenge and when you’re just navel gazing at your own cleverness.
-Be an original classic. Don’t sacrifice the message for creativity, and don’t let yourself off the hook. We writers….we love words like kids love Play-Doh. Know when to dial it back and find a way to be clear while still being creative. Conversely, don’t let the task of fitting 3 minutes’ worth of info into a 30 second ad make you give up on your craft. You can find a way to do it well, even if it isn’t ee-cummings-creative.
-One hand tied behind your back. Blindfolded. Remember that what comes easily and obviously to you is exactly what makes you the writer and not the client. Don’t overthink it when you need to get really basic. I wrote some copy for a skin care line- instructions on how to use the products- and the client wanted to add the pump dispenser in. But how?!? After clarifying w/the client, I tacked “Using the pump dispenser,” to the front of the instructional copy. “Brilliant!” cried the client. Sure. If you say so.