Salman Rushdie was in my city recently, touring to promote his latest book (“Joseph Anton”), and I attended his lecture. He enthralled the audience with fabulous stories. He mentioned working as an advertising copywriter early in his career, and a few days after his talk I started connecting the dots.
For all you marketeers who write copy of any sort (and that’s most of us, yes?), here are my three favorite points that author Joe Bunting made regarding the connections between copywriting and literature:
1. Spend an inordinate amount of time on titles and headlines
Joe writes that while finishing “Midnight’s Children”, Rushdie reportedly spent several hours at the office trying to choose the novel’s title, even resorting to typing his two finalists “Children of Midnight” and “Midnight’s Children” over and over.
At the lecture I attended, Rushdie reminisced about a title game he and Christopher Hitchens used to play – Titles That Don’t Quite Make It – and named off examples: “A Farewell to Weapons,” “For Whom the Bell Rings,” “To Kill a Hummingbird,” “The Catcher in the Wheat,” “Mr. Zhivago,” “Toby-Dick,” and “Hitch-22.”
2. Panic your way to success
Joe wrote: “Imagine it’s your job to convey the taste of a chocolate bar in just one word. This was the situation Rushdie was in when a panicking co-worker asked him to brainstorm a new slogan for Aero, a British candy bar filled with air bubbles. This particular co-worker, according to Rushdie, had a tendency to stammer when panicked. When the client asked him to do something, he said, ‘It’s impossib-ib-ib-ible.’ Rushdie says the light went on: ‘I wrote down every word I could think of that ended with ‘able’ or ‘ible’ and turned it into ‘bubble’.’ Rushdie ended up with ‘Irresistibubble,’ which is still Aero’s slogan, over 30 years later…Panic can be an excellent tool for creativity.”
If you’re like a lot of writers I know (copywriters and reporters both), the shadow of that impending deadline is a mighty spur for productivity. Stay away from leaving an assignment open-ended if you can; make sure all your projects have (realistic) deadlines.
3. Make a big statement with few words
At the 2008 IAPI Advertising Effectiveness Award ceremony, Rushdie said: “One of the great things about advertising is you have to say a lot in very little. You have to try to make a very big statement in very few words or very few images and you haven’t much time.”
If you’ve read Rushdie, you may be wondering about that observation; he’s not known for pithy sentences. But in literature, those looong sentences serve him very well. When copywriting he wrote for the need and the audience, and his point is spot on: You do not have much time to get a reader’s attention. Ad copy (and marketing copy as well) needs to be distilled to a compelling minimum.
And then there’s George Orwell:
As long as we’re invoking brilliant novelists and what their thoughts on writing might mean to a copywriter or content creator, here’s an indulgence. In the brilliant, scathing 1946 essay, “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell set out six simple rules for writing:
1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
Orwell said that political prose was formed “to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”
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