What Does a Writing Teacher Know About Copywriting?

He doesn’t know what he doesn’t know about it, and so copywriting may become a rich source of Now I Know mini-essays. I do know a few things about writing, in general. Here are some of the pearls I frequently share with my writing students, in no particular order.

  • Show don’t tell;
  • Be clear and concise;
  • Choose the right word;
  • Write active sentences;
  • Understand parallelism;
  • The most important part of the introduction is the hook;
  • OK, I lied: the hook is the most important part of the introduction that comes before the thesis, which is the most important part of the entire thing;
  • (Still, come up with a good hook, otherwise nobody will read your thesis);
  • Think about your audience, but don’t pander to them;
  • If you imagine that your audience is *this much* dumber than you are, you will write with more clarity and coherence. This is not pandering;
  • Don’t use “you”*;
  • You can begin a sentence with “Because”*, but only when “Because” is used in the sense of “Since”;
  • When in doubt, describe;
  • Revise as many times as time allows;
  • Proofread at least once more than you think you need to.

A copywriter who added some tricks from Classical Rhetoric to that list could do pretty well. But that’s a topic for another day.
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*Here my experience as a writing teacher bumps up against my experience as a demographic target and a copywriter. One would be hard pressed to find ad copy that does not rely heavily on both “you” and “because” (and not in the sense of “since”).

Now I Know: Lightning

Now that I know what causes thunderstorms here in Southern California (monsoon moisture + heat + topography), and despite this weekend’s return of the marine layer and the subsequent end of the thunderstorm cycle, I wondered: what causes lightning?

Updrafts and downdrafts in the thundercloud cause water and ice particles to collide and take on positive or negative electrical charges, much like a balloon will take on a negative electrical charge when rubbed with a woolen sock. For reasons not well understood, lighter, positively charged ice droplets migrate toward the top of the cloud formation and heavier, negatively charged ice droplets and rain settle toward the bottom of the formation. Eventually this separation creates electrical potential between the negatively charged part of the cloud and the positively charged part of the cloud. Lightning occurs when the electrical charge on both sides overcomes the resistance of the air between them. These “intra-cloud” strikes are the most common type of lightning. “Inter-cloud” strikes, or strikes between clouds, have similar causes. Cloud to ground strikes work somewhat differently.

As the negatively charged part of the cloud moves over the earth, the ground below becomes positively charged by induction. You have seen induction if you have played with magnets and noticed how one side of a magnet attracts its opposite and repels its like, or if you have replaced the batteries in your Wii controllers and noticed the “+” and “-” symbols telling you how to arrange everything. Under the storm cloud, positively charged ions in the earth are attracted to the negative ions accumulating above and negatively charged ions in the ground are pushed away. As with intra-cloud strikes, when the charge on either side becomes strong enough, resistance is overcome, electricity flows and shazzam! lighting strikes.

As for thunder, that’s easy. A bolt of lightning is fantastically energetic and it generates terrific heat, singeing the surrounding air to 30,000 to 50,000 degrees Farenheit. The Crack! you hear is the sound of the explosion made as super-heated lightning strike air expands, rapidly, into the cooler air around it.

Now I Know: SoCal Thunderstorms

Southern California’s monsoon and thunderstorm season got underway last Monday, and if you were paying attention, you felt it. At dawn the sky above was dull and gray — the so-called June Gloom — but by 10:00 am the marine layer had been beaten back out to sea. High altitude high pressure air had slipped in from the deserts to the east, sending the cooling gloom away. Temperatures have risen steadily since and everyday thunderstorms form over the mountains that ring the Los Angeles basin (such as seen from the beach, here).

Thunderstorms require three things to form: moisture, air instability, and a lifting force.

Moisture can come from oceans or from remnants of hurricanes or other storms.

Air instability occurs when a cool dry pocket of air rests over a warmer, wetter pocket of air; given a sufficient nudge, the warm, moist air will rise.

Lifting force usually comes from heat, whether by temperature differential (uneven heating of the ground, which creates thermals) or by boundaries between pockets of air (warmer air will rise over cooler; the heat differential between drier and wetter air will force the wetter air up; and the outflow boundary, on the edge of a thunderstorm, is cooler than the surrounding air, creating more thunderstorms). Lifting force can also come from topography — wind moving up mountain slopes and through canyons will provide the push the moist air needs to get aloft.

Once aloft, the air rises and cools, condensing its moisture into water droplets, which form clouds. More rising air pushes some droplets still higher, where they continue to cool and grow. Some fall as rain. Some freeze and fall and melt back into rain. Some freeze and fall and stay frozen and fall to the ground as hail.

The high pressure that arrived on Monday gave the thunderstorms two of the three necessary ingredients: air instability and lifting force. Without the marine layer to keep us cool, temperatures began to rise (in Downtown LA it was 75 on Monday, 86 on Tuesday, then 94, then 92, and 93 today). While heat differentials promote thundercloud formation, our topography probably plays a larger role. The Los Angeles basin is ringed with mountains — the San Gabriels to the north, the San Bernardinos to the northeast, the Santa Anas to the southeast. Air moving onshore from the ocean rises up the slopes and through the canyons, pushing warmer, moister air up. Upslope thunderstorms are common in the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Nevadas and they occur here, too. We also have several convergence zones — regions where breezes, after having diverged around mountains and through canyons, collide and force air upward. One such convergence zone is near Lake Elsinore (the Lake Elsinore Convergence Zone), on the eastern side of the Santa Ana Mountains, where this supercell thunderstorm and funnel cloud was videotaped.

For the third element — moisture — we return to the opening line of this post and that word “monsoon”, which seems out of place when discussing Southern California. The North American, or Arizona, or Southwest monsoon occurs when high pressure moves over the southwest from the south and intense summertime heating of the desert creates rising air and low pressure. The monsoon takes place between June and mid-September. The result is a change in direction of prevailing, low level air flow that brings moisture up from the Gulf of California and the Western Gulf of Mexico. This moisture is then forced up by heat differentials and upslope winds to form into water droplets and clouds and eventually thunderstorms.

Other than that, all I know about our monsoon and thunderstorms is that mid-September is a long way off.

Now I Know: Bleach

No, not that Bleach. I want to know about the common household bleach one adds to the laundry to whiten whites and bust up stains or sprays on countertops and tub floors to kill germs.

Household bleach is a 3-6% solution of the chemical sodium hypochlorite. The municipal water system chlorinates city water with a 15% solution of sodium hypochlorite and the city parks department chlorinates the public pools with a 30% solution of sodium hypochlorite. The chemical was discovered by a French chemist in 1787. Another French scientist, Louis Pasteur, discovered its disinfectant properties about a hundred years later.

Sodium hypochlorite is an oxidizer, which is a chemical, usually containing oxygen, that readily shares oxygen with another compound. Once on the loose in the wash, sodium hypochlorite attacks the stain in two ways. First, it combines with pieces of the stain and breaks it down into smaller, water soluble bits, much like standard laundry detergents do. But sodium hypochlorite gets its shine as a stain fighter from its second line of attack. Molecules get their color from chromophores — which are arrangements of atoms that absorb most colors of light and reflect back the color we see. Bleach messes with the structure of chromophores and reduces their ability to reflect light. Whatever bits of the stain that remain after the first attack lose their ability to reflect visible light. After a good bleaching a stain is not necessarily gone; it’s invisible.

Unfortunately, sodium hypochlorite does not distinguish between stains and fabric dyes. Colorsafe bleaches, on the other hand, contain much weaker oxidizers (hydrogen peroxide or sodium percarbonate) which, given enough time, are strong enough to tackle common stains but are over matched by durable industrial dyes.

Pasteur figured out how to use sodium hypochlorite as a disinfectant more than hundred years ago, but why it is so effective at germ killing is only now coming to light. Recent research has shown that sodium hypochlorite causes proteins that bacterial cells require for growth to lose their shape and clump into large, insoluble aggregates. The cell cannot make use of the larger, flatter proteins, causing the cell to die. Human immune systems, it turns out, produce hypochlorite when battling bacteria infections. As with shirt stains, hypochlorite attacks healthy cells along with bacterial cells, leading to tissue damage in areas of inflammation. Maybe our immune systems can be encouraged to switch to cell-safe bleach?

Now I Know: Photochromic Lenses

When I updated my eyeglass prescription recently, I decided to outfit my frames with photochromic lenses. What are photochromic lenses? They are lenses that change from transparent to dark as they and their wearer move from indoors to outdoors. We usually call them transitions lenses or just Transitions for the same reason we call synthetic floor coverings Linoleum and soda pop Coke; the people who make them know how to market their product. Unlike Linoleum and Coke, the brand name Transitions tells us something meaningful about the product, too.

But how do they do it?

At first I imagined millions of tiny shutters embedded in the lenses, opening and closing with the light. And, it turns out, that’s not far off. Instead of little Levolors, however, the outer layer of my plastic eyeglass lenses is embedded, to the depth of just 150 microns*, with millions of molecules of a light sensitive organic compound known as an oxazine. Organic compounds are those that include at least one carbon and an oxazine is an organic compound with one oxygen and one nitrogen arranged in a ring. When indoors or otherwise shielded from ultraviolet light, the molecules do not absorb visible light, and the lenses remain transparent. But when exposed to ultraviolet light, such as that from the sun, the molecules change shape, which causes them to absorb visible light, and the lenses gradually darken. The reverse happens when ultraviolet light is removed; the molecules return to their original shape and the lenses gradually become transparent again.

Had my eyeglasses been made of glass instead of plastic, they would have been embedded with the inorganic compound silver chloride, which has the same photochromic properties. Whatever the material, if eyes are windows to the soul, then photochromic lenses are blinds on those windows to the soul.

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*How deep is that? A micron (or micrometre) is one one-millionth of a meter. A human hair is about 100 microns in diameter. So the oxazines in my glasses go down about a hair and a half.

Thinking Outside the Box

Everybody wants creative solutions to problems and when they are looking to hire people to help them find creative solutions, everybody asks for creative problem solvers who can “think outside of the box” or who are “out of the box” thinkers.

Everybody does this. What’s outside the box about that?

What we need is a new term or phrase to describe thinking that’s outside the box. In fact, let’s stop passively describing it and start actively measuring it. Let’s rationalize out of the box thinking. Let’s give it a metric. Creative workers will tally up their Eurekas! and divide them by hours worked. Freelancers can include the figure on their CVs and recruiters can ask about it on their questionnaires.

“How many Eurekas per Hour do you average?” a recruiter might ask.  Once the measurement becomes the established norm, a recruiter might slip into shorthand and ask, “What’s your Eureka Rate?” At which point, we’ll know that we’ve finally slipped free of the box and I’ll need a new way to differentiate myself.

My response will be, “Hard to say what my Eureka Rate is. My box of Eurekas overflows.”

Syndeton, Polysyndeton, Asyndeton.

Syndeton is the coordination of elements in a sentence, generally with a conjunction (although not always, as with the title of this post). For example:

Lars Peterson provides writing and editorial services.

Polysyndeton is the use of conjunctions between all of the elements requiring coordination.

Visitors to lpeds.com will find Lars Peterson’s resume and a portfolio and contact information and a blog about writing.

Asyndeton is the absence of conjunctions between the elements requiring coordination.

At www.lpeds.com, visitors can see Lars Peterson’s resume, his portfolio, his contact information, his blog about writing.

Asyndeton and polysyndeton are not limited to coordinating items in a series. Both can be used with phrases and clauses, too.

Phrases and Polysyndeton:

A successful freelance project requires understanding client goals and developing familiarity with the material and transforming both into a compelling read.

…and Asyndeton:

A successful freelance project requires an understanding of client goals, familiarity with the material, solid language skills.

Clauses:

Polysyndeton:

The freelance writer, who has worked in publishing and who has worked in education and who has worked in fishing and who has worked in shipbuilding, brings lessons learned from all of his experiences to each of his projects.

Asyndeton:

The freelance writer has worked in publishing, he has worked in education, he has worked in fishing, he has worked in shipbuilding, and he brings lessons learned from all of his experiences to each of his projects.

When clauses are linked using polysyndeton, they can take on a sort of Biblical tone, which may or may not be appropriate to the material. Ernest Hemingway often connected clauses this way, particularly long strings of simple sentences. Polysyndeton can also make the copy sound laborious and tedious, which can be useful if the copy is describing something laborious and tedious:

The indexer read the page and looked for indexable words and finding one, noted it on an index card and began to look for another word for the index and finding one, noted it on the card below the previous candidate and turned to the next page and put the index card on the stack with all the other “used” index cards and drew another fresh index card from the deck and began to read the new page and looked for indexable words and not finding any continued to the next page and so on until all the pages in the manuscript had been pored over. Then the indexer collated the index cards and moved them to the new stack and began again at page one to double check his work.

Or, polysyndeton can give a list of items a sense of endlessness — and thoroughness.

Today the freelancer has to exercise and buy office supplies and do some marketing and fix the fountain in the front yard and teach in the afternoon and work on one of his spec projects.

Asyndeton can give coordinated elements a sense of hurried incompleteness — as if more of the same exists beyond the edge of the sentence or page.

The freelancer searches for new clients among online job-boards, among his friends and colleagues, among his neighbors, among his current clients’ contacts.

Parallelism

Parallel writing features repeating patterns that add rhythm, balance, and flow to sentences, paragraphs, and essays. Because of its effect on clarity and coherence, parallelism might be the most important skill a writer — of any stripe — can master. A good understanding of parallelism can help improve grammar, too.

Parallel patterns help writers group ideas with equal importance, and they help readers see connections between those ideas. The simplest patterns are made of words, such as items in a series or consistent use of similar adjectives and adverbs. Phrases, clauses, and even whole sentences can be arranged in repeating, parallel patterns.

Any part of a sentence can be repeated, or paralleled, any number of times. A little parallelism goes a long way. Try not to overdo it!

Continue reading “Parallelism”

Mystery Object

In my writing workshops (which is where I am a couple afternoons a week), we play a game called “Mystery Object.” I ask my students to describe a real world object — preferably something in the world around them — without naming it in their descriptions. Then, at the beginning of each workshop, the students take turns reading their Mystery Objects out loud while the rest of us try to guess what they are. There are a few rules: MO’s must be at least six sentences long; they cannot include the word “you;” each must contain one simile and one metaphor. Occasionally I add other rules: every word in the description (except for prepositions and articles and conjunctions) must begin with the letter ‘L’ (or some other letter); MO’s can only describe the effects of the object, and not its physical features; every sentence must contain a simile; and so on.

Recently a couple of students noticed that I wasn’t participating.

We refer to this object as a pair, even though it’s really just one thing, just as we do with a pair of pants. They are as familiar to their wearers as the ends of their noses, which is helpful because that’s where they often are. They are made of glass (and sometimes plastic), carefully ground to bend light in a special way, astronomical lenses for the common man. Cleverly designed frames hold the glass in place, and small arms reach back to hook behind the ears and anchor the device in place. Frames and lenses come in many shapes and sizes, but this particular pair features slender wire frames and clear plastic bridge-pads and shaped pieces of ground glass that offer rectangular windows on their wearer’s windows to the soul. People have used these to correct flaws in their eyesight for centuries. I have used mine for only a couple of years.

Eyeglasses.