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.
*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”).

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.