Ten tips from top authors on how to write (with a copywriter’s ad-related elaborations).

3 minutes to read

As an insecure writer racing against Lycra-tight deadlines, I’m forever seeking reassurance that I’m working as efficiently as possible. From Brain Pickings to Buzzfeed, the internet is overloaded with ‘Top tips on how to become a successful [insert anything here]’. I’ve scrolled through an afternoon’s worth of wisdom to give you the writing tips I find most useful, elaborating along the way (in green) so they relate to the day job – writing adverts. Whether spending an afternoon searching for ways to be more efficient is actually efficient is up for debate. Comments are welcome.

1 – ‘Write.’ Neil Gaiman
Pretty obvious. But if you’ve absorbed all the product information you can and still find yourself staring at a blank page, just write. It doesn’t matter how childish or basic it sounds, just start. The good stuff will soon follow.

2 – ‘Never use jargon words like reconceptualize, demassification, attitudinally, judgmentally. They are all hallmarks of a pretentious ass.’ David Ogilvy
…a pretentious ass who doesn’t understand what he or she is talking about. Short words. Short sentences. Long-lasting impact. 

3 – ‘If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time – or the tools – to write. Simple as that.’ Stephen King
Read as much as you can. It doesn’t ALWAYS have to relate to work, but you should be aware of what’s going down in the industry. Read science fiction, children’s books, the news, obituaries, greetings cards, football programmes, old postcards. Everything. You never know, that toilet graff
iti you stared at for five minutes in a Meat Mission toilet may one day ignite an idea.

4 – ‘Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.’ Neil Gaiman
It hurts when your senior or creative director says the strapline your genius subconscious weeded out at three in the morning doesn’t work. More often than not, they’re right. Get over it and figure out how you’re going to fix it. 

5 – ‘Have the courage to write badly.’ Joshua Wolf Shenk
This may be easier for novelists because they’re not working to a deadline tighter than Victoria Beckham’s jeans on Jonny Vegas’s legs. However, you have to start somewhere and the quicker you build up the courage to get the bad stuff down, the better your final product will be.

6 – ‘Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.’ Kurt Vonnegut
Kurt had it easy, people choose to read novels. We’re in the business of interrupting their favourite TV shows and cramming brand stories down their throats. So make sure your advert is entertaining, funny or thoughtful enough to stop them from throwing their remote at the screen. 

7 – ‘Never stop writing because you have run out of ideas.’ Walter Benjamin
Another painful one, but if you’ve presented 100 yellow-pencil-worthy ideas and still haven’t answered the brief, keep going. It’s there somewhere. Probably hiding behind the brain matter polluted by Buzzfeed.

8 – ‘If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.’ Elmore Leonard
Write how you speak. Write how the costumer speaks. Don’t write like a 40-year-old marketing director who has a London School of Economics textbook and a Will Self novel open on their desk. It is axiomatic your antediluvian, perplexing parlance will go [head explodes].

9 – ‘Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.’ George Orwell
Avoid clichés like the plague [LoL]. They make your ads the same as every other boring ad. Overused figures of speech switch the reader to autopilot with a course set to Zombie Town. Think of your own metaphors, similes and wordplay. It’s fun. It will make your writing stand out.   

10 – ‘Read your work out loud. Only then will the tripwires in syntax show themselves.’ Everyone
Everyone says this. You may sound like a tit, but it’s worth it. Read aloud. Read it proud. Then hold down delete for a very long time and start again.   

Bonus tip – Always poof reed you’re righting.

Daniel Simpson

Great work comes from not being at work

The other day Andy, our creative director, said something that had been festering in my gut for a while. Something that turns me into an anxious, fidgety wreck every time I receive a new brief. Something that makes me want to smash my MacBook with my iPhone.

His words were:

“We’re not going to do our best work by looking at our computers all day”.

In an industry where tight budgets and even tighter deadlines demand the right answers yesterday, the easy thing to do is to get in the comfortable, familiar posture of mouse in one hand and detox smoothie in the other (new year, new meh) and scroll through the internet. Because the internet has all the answers. Good old internet.

What the internet is good for is finding information. Today we have more of the universe at our fingertips than ever – clever sparks that ignite our brains into action are only a click away. But I fear what we’re gaining in online mental ignition, we’re losing in real life experience. And real life experience is what reveals the hidden truths that turn these sparks of cleverness into great ideas. The fresh ideas that resonate with real people in the real world.

What we can learn from David Simon.

David Simon is the genius behind the hugely respected US TV series The Wire. In 1988, David took a year out from being a crime journalist at the Baltimore Sun to write the factual book Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets. This book was followed by two more books and a TV miniseries, The Corner. Then came The Wire in 2002. Regularly cited as the greatest TV drama ever made, The Wire was most notable for its gritty realism and shockingly truthful depiction of urban life both sides of the law. Like all good writers, David spent years studying his subject. But it wasn’t time spent reading about what was happening on the streets that gave him his spark, it was the year he spent shadowing the Baltimore Police Department. A year strapped into a bulletproof vest attending the aftermaths of murders, robberies and drug overdoses – he even assisted in an arrest when one of the cops he was riding with got trapped by a faulty seat belt. David learnt the lexicon of the corner kids first hand. He went on boozy benders with the cops who’d accepted him as one of their own. He discovered with his own eyeballs the hidden truths of life as a cop, a drug dealer and a junkie, all of which gave The Wire’s storylines unrivalled plausibility. The result was not just the realest depiction of ‘cops and robbers’ ever made, but the most complete analysis of inner city life ever seen in popular culture.

Now, I’m not comparing the writing of a seminal piece of TV literature with the selling of soap through tweets. What I am doing, in addition to revealing my unhealthy obsession with The Wire, is showing that all the reading, watching, interviewing and internetting in the world cannot replicate personal experience. Have you used the product you’ve been briefed to sell? If you’re asked to advertise the benefits of swimming, then go for a swim and see how it makes you feel. These personal experiences are the truths that make our work real and effective.

On the other side of the same hand, our experiences don’t necessarily have to be directly linked to the brief. Go to an exhibition or museum, listen to what people are talking about on the bus. Just get out into the real world and experience the good and the bad for yourself. If anything, the distraction of doing stuff other than work will let the clever internet sparks fester in your subconscious until something you see, touch, feel or hear sets off a ‘eureka’ moment – where you discover an unexpected connection between what you’re selling and something interesting, funny or emotional that people can relate to.

In my opinion, getting out of the office is the difference between creating good work and influencing people with great work made of intricate, everyday truths. It’s why I’m now about to ask if I can have the afternoon off to go paintballing. Wish me luck.

Daniel Simpson