JF (not JJF, my brother) is writing a sort of ETR for copywriters. JF is an experienced, very successful copywriter who has also won prizes for poems, stories, etc. He’s even contributed to a rendition of “Sympathy for the Devil” about yours truly.
Here’s what he said recently about “overwriting” — one of the most common problems with writers who love writing …
THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING LIKE ERNEST
My name is John, and I’m a word-a-holic.
There, I’ve said it.
Yes, that’s right. I overwrite.
I can’t help myself. I love words. I love ideas. I love the way each leads into another like a jazz improvisation. I’m addicted to irony. Doped up on metaphors. Drunk on detail.
Where some use language like stepping stones in a river, I prefer to plunge in and get soaked.
Where some use analogies like nails to hang a tapestry, I take the tapestry itself apart and count the threads.
Where some dig into a story like a Californian picking sprouts from a salad, I dive in like a fat man locked up all night in a doughnut shop.
Sigh. See what I mean?
Don’t get me wrong. So far, I’ve been pretty happy as an overwriter. When I’m at my keyboard, the time flies by as if it were nothing.
More than once, I’ve written straight through the night. Through the incessant chirping of birds at dawn. Through the buzz of the alarm clock. Even through pot after pot of burned coffee.
I’ve cranked out 25 pages in half as many hours. I’ve written e-mails big enough to shut down computers at the Pentagon, short stories longer than most novels, and direct-mail packages as thick as a phone book.
Every year, I am personally petitioned by Tree Huggers of America to please, Please, PLEASE… just stop!
What’s more, my overwriting has - despite all predictions to the contrary - had some payoff. I’ve won a couple of small writing awards. I’ve made a pretty nice living. I’ve sold several millions of dollars worth of products for my employer. And, friend, you can’t imagine what it’s done for my typing skills.
But at what cost? It’s hard to say.
With direct mail, I’ve seen more than one of my overwritten packages do well. Despite predictions to the contrary. It’s hard to argue with success. But it’s also too easy to defend it. So I’ll resist the temptation and instead ask the question that must be asked: How much better would those packages have done with tighter copy?
My guess is, a lot better. But enough about me. How about you?
Have you ever found yourself and your ideas swerving across the page like a car without brakes? Like a bus driver who’s had too much cough syrup? Like a groom at a wedding who’s forgotten to put on his pants?
Few people overwrite as much as I do. But if you suspect that maybe — just maybe — you too might get sentimental over words and ideas that are better left behind, I invite you to join me in an ongoing campaign of self-improvement. A 12-step program for overwriters everywhere.
Underwriters, don’t despair. The challenge presented by a blank page is the same as that found in an overwritten one: Eliminate the ideas that don’t sell. Find the one that does. Focus on supporting it.
Late, great copywriter David Ogilvy put it this way: “It’s useless to be a creative original thinker unless you can also sell what you create.”
Even more on point was recent advice from my friend and other mentor MMF:
“In copywriting, less is more. One good idea persuasively articulated will do much more work than 10 ideas cobbled together.
“Forget about all the nuances, the exceptions, the ironies, and the parallels. Identify the idea that people will get excited by. State it strongly, simply, and immediately. Then prove it 16 ways till sundown.
“After you’ve finished, put the manuscript down and let it rest. Then go back at it and cut out everything that doesn’t sell that one idea. Be ruthless. The result will be much stronger, much faster, much more readable copy.”
Exactly. Let’s consider that our locker-room speech.
Given the message, I should stop here.
But I happened to come across a copy of “Hemingway on Writing” yesterday. Hemingway - though never a copywriter - had a style concise writers everywhere admire. Here’s what Hem had to say:
In a letter to editor Maxwell Perkins (who made Hem’s career, by the way): “Eschew the monumental. Shun the epic. All the guys who can paint great big pictures can paint great small ones.”
In another letter to Max: “My temptation is always to write too much — [but] guys who think they are geniuses because they’ve never learned to say ‘no’ to a typewriter are a common phenomenon.”
To George Plimpton during a Paris Review interview: “The knowledge I leave out of a story is like the underwater part of an iceberg.”
And last, again to Max: “Writing is a hard business, Max. But nothing makes you feel better.”
One last word from the coach: Overwriting can happen because you are not sure what to say — or what of what you are saying is the strongest — or it can come from not wanting to delete stuff you wrote because YOU like it or because you worked so damn hard to get it down.
In any case, the solution is the same: Get rid of yourself from your writing. Focus on the content, the ideas you are expressing. Recognize that your job is to persuade the reader to perform a specific function — to purchase something, to contribute to a cause, to accept a challenge, etc. To achieve that purpose, you must clear the mental decks of everything but what will help get the work done. And usually that includes you!
If your writing ends up to be a crowded room full of odd ideas, interesting anecdotes, and quirky comments, have the courage to recognize that most of its inhabitants are there for your amusement, not the reader’s. Sit in his seat and sense, from his perspective, which of your paragraphs and sentences are strong and which are weak, what is necessary and what is superfluous, what is interesting (to him) and what is interesting (to the guy who wrote it).
You don’t have to lose your pride to write well. Hemingway was as proud as a fat peacock. Neither do you need to lose your arrogance. Hemingway was famous for his. Most assuredly, it is not necessary to become selfless to write well. Old Hem spent his entire life trying to please himself and was miserable most of the time because of it.
What he did do, however, was cut himself out of his stories. I think he realized that if the story was strong, it could stand on its own. It didn’t need his own towering personality to boost it.