Frank Conroy: He directed the Iowa Writers’ Workshop for 18 years. He once scolded a student for using irrelevant details in her short story.
He said: “The author makes a tacit deal with the reader. You hand them a backpack. You ask them to place certain things in it — to remember, to keep in mind — as they make their way up the hill. If you hand them a yellow Volkswagen and they have to haul this to the top of the mountain — to the end of the story — and they find that this Volkswagen has nothing whatsoever to do with your story, you’re going to have a very irritated reader on your hands.”
This article is from Visual Thesaurus, one of my favorite websites, (although to get the full impact, it’s not free, which is a bummer).
Shakespeare’s Five Best Copywriting TipsAugust 15, 2007
Almost 400 years after the death of William Shakespeare, theaters still regularly perform his plays, children study his work in school and we are still moved by the complexity of his stories and the beauty of his language. But what’s less well known is that Shakespeare also provided superb advice for copywriters and corporate communicators. Here are five of his best tips:
1. On brevity
“Since brevity is the soul of wit and tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes, I will be brief.”
“You cram these words into mine ears against the stomach of my sense.”
As a poet, Will understood the value of being succinct. And if this quality was important in 1595, just imagine how crucial it is today. Elizabethans didn’t have to deal with the telephone, television or the Internet. Servants did the cooking and household maintenance and there were no traffic jams when you commuted by horseback. In 2007, however, our society produces hundreds of thousands of words every day and yet we have less time to read than ever before. Will had to face the Plague, but we have to deal with the Blackberry. Take pity on your readers. Be brief.
2. On how difficult it is to find just the right word or phrase
“They have been at a great feast of languages, and stolen the scraps.”
In corporate- and copy-writing, it’s all too easy to slip into cliches and jargon. When everyone around you says things like “walk the talk” and uses words such as “right-sizing” you’ll start writing like that too. Fact is, we swim in a cesspool of boring, unimaginative language. It takes work — and commitment — to find the best words and turns of phrase. (Note: the best words are often the shortest, most concrete ones.)
3. On the importance of reading
“My library was dukedom large enough.”
Like all great scribes, Will understood that to write well, you have to read well. This means reading more than your professional journal and daily newspaper. Read fiction; it will inspire you. Read outside your field of employment to gain breadth. Read essays and other forms of persuasive writing. While Will kept up with Christopher Marlowe, you may prefer Christopher Buckley. But read. It is a lifelong apprenticeship in the craft of writing.
4. On interviewing clients or co-workers for brochures or employee publications
“Have more than thou showest; speak less than thou knowest.” “Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice.”
Much writing depends on interviewing. Through interviews you collect the stories, anecdotes and metaphors that help your writing come to life. But too often writers try to put words in their subject’s mouths. They go into the interview with preconceived notions and ask boring, ho-hum questions. Savvy writers, on the other hand, ask pithy questions — designed to extract anecdotes and feelings from their subjects — and then keep quiet. As a student of human nature, Will knew what our mothers are always telling us: We have two ears and one mouth to remind us that we should listen twice as much as we talk.
5. On writing about what matters
“Words, words, mere words, no matter from the heart.”
No effective communications plan in the history of humankind ever hinged on finding “just the right phrase.” True, a good plan or product may be helped by good words. Maybe even helped a lot. But words alone will not save a bad one. If you’re trying to communicate a company’s belief in safety, for example, exhorting employees to act safely is not enough. Instead, you need policies and procedures in place that constantly demonstrate the company’s commitment. Without this, you have what we today call a “disconnect.” But I think Will said it better: “I did never know so full a voice issue from so empty a heart: but the saying is true ‘The empty vessel makes the greatest sound.'”
I really like #5 – write about what matters to you. No matter what cold prompt you’re served, make it your own, and you will find success in your writing. And remember, your writing is your voice.
You know me. I like to be creative. Think. Make art. Write. Read. I really appreciate what Keri Smith put together in her book about exploration.
For example, on page 144-145, she writes:
Thought Experiments: Einstein used “thought experiments” (questions that can only be solved using imagination), on a regular basis. He actually formulated the special theory of relativity by asking the question, ‘what would it be like to travel on a beam of light?’ It is interesting to conduct these thought experiments in the midst of everyday life.
Some thought experiment starters:
- what if all my neighbors had secret lives?
- what if the newspaper held all the secrets of the universe in some kind of code?
- what if all leaves had secret messages embedded on them?
- what if little elves lived on the roof and only came out at night?
- what if my house were a playgroun? a blank canvas? had secret powers?
When I was growing up, news reporting wasn’t like it is today. When I was really young, in elementary school, the Vietnam war was raging, the Civil Rights movement was in full swing, there were many protests, and a lot of violence on television. The news stations would even air footage of dying and wounded soldiers, and I remembered feeling very afraid. After I grew up, I felt that news changed, and not for the better. The news doesn’t show what it’s really like for soldiers fighting, the news often uses the “news anchors” to stir up fear and mistrust, and they are not telling the news in a straight-forward, no-nonsense way, or a trustworthy way. One of the most popular newsmen of his day was Walter Cronkite. He was calm, trustworthy, and reflected the awe and wonder of what it meant to live as an American. He was honest when he told the American public he didn’t believe in the war, and gave thoughtful reasons why, not reasons full of fear-mongering. When we landed on the moon in 1969, he reflected the nation’s sense of deep admiration and wonderment of the astronauts, and American genuis. His passing saddens me, not because he didn’t have a life well lived, but because many Americans don’t realize that the news can be something more than defensive, mud-slinging, name-calling hate games. Listen and look at the news of our world with critical eyes and ears, and don’t ever, ever, let down your guard when it comes to free speech. It is our ability, our right, to speak up over what needs to be changed that can create a world that sends people to the moon, stops wars, and creates a better world for all.
Check out these links for more information:
Don’t overburden yourself with too many writing prompts–just think of them as mental cattle prods to get your brain moving…