How I Got to Madison Avenue. And beyond.

As with life, this blog is developing and changing. It began with a lot of stories that occurred on my career path from Albany to Madison Avenue and back.

There were some similarities to the AMC series "Mad Men," and then I went even farther back in time with a somewhat fictionalized version of growing up in Troy's Little Italy.

And now, a new development. As my free lance advertising and marketing career winds down, I'm becoming more interested in the theatre arts that my father and his 3 brothers helped instill in me as I grew up.

As a result, I've volunteered to help promote the Theatre Institute at Sage, and now, to continue a long-interrupted desire to be behind the proscenium, I've joined the newly formed Troy Civic Theatre, and was actually fortunate enough to appear in their first production.

So, I hope you'll enjoy the new stories that will develop from this latest turn.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Service With A Simile

See what I did there, in the headline? I took a common, every day phrase, changed one word simply by adding one letter to it, and created a phrase I've never seen before.

Not only that, but the new phrase introduces exactly what I want to talk about here and now: one of the secrets of successful copywriting.

That secret is to smash two seemingly unrelated ideas together to create a new idea. And to do that, you need to be a generalist – someone with an inquisitive mind, who loves learning a jumble of different things and can keep them tumbling around inside, continually combining them until the right combination solves the marketing problem you've been working on, answering the correct strategy.

I tried to make that sound easy, but I couldn't, because it isn't. It takes a lot of training, and a lot of trial and error, until one day, you realize that you can eliminate most of the errors and skip right to the good parts.

I tried to find a simile for this talent. You know, a copywriter is like a.... craftsman? That doesn't quite satisfy me, because a craftsman uses raw materials to create something new. A painter uses oils, watercolors, etc, and combines them to make a picture. A potter uses clay and glazing.

A writer uses words. He doesn't create the words, usually – although great ones like Shakespeare certainly coined some good ones – 62 alone just in Macbeth. Incarnadine as a verb, assassination – the entire list is here.

So is a writer is more like a cobbler who puts existing pieces together to create a shoe? No, the cobbler shapes and cuts the pieces. Maybe we're more like the architect who uses existing materials, not changing their shapes like Frank Gehry, but using them as is in new combinations.

Then there's the aphorism, “A carpenter is only as good as his tools.” Once again, a writer's words are not his tools – they're his material. The implement he uses to assemble them is his knowledge and facility with words.

So, writer, your main implement, of course, is your brain. Train it, stuff it with a wide and wild variety of facts, words, parts of speech and write, write, write. (You don't have to know the names of the parts of speech -- just learn how they work.)

You say you have writer's block? My grandson, the young troubadour Nick Stoddard, once told me he had it. My advice to him was the same as it is to you – write about having writer's block. That'll be the end of it.

One more word of advice – just because a phrase is clever, doesn't mean it's right. You should know the strategy behind what you're writing, and if the phrase you come up with has several meanings, they should all reinforce the strategy. If there's a negative connotation, or if the phrase can lead the reader down the wrong or distracted path, throw it out.

If you're a writer, you're an idea person, and you have to trust that you're going to have lots of ideas, and not to cling to one that isn't good enough.

More about strategy next time.

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