Great copy doesn’t have to be fancy. Any copywriter will tell you that. You’ll be sternly warned off from trying to impress with self-indulgent wordplay and linguistic pyrotechnics.
This is good advice, if you like getting paid. No-one ever bought dog biscuits or life insurance from James Joyce.
That doesn’t mean that good writing is automatically your enemy. The art of persuasion has been elevated, time and again, by truly creative people wielding words with breathtaking economy and precision. Their simple, resonant messages often live on in the minds of an audience, long after the company that inspired them has shut their doors (ask any Brit born between 1976 and 1982 if they like a lot of chocolate on their biscuit, and you’ll witness a Pavlovian demonstration of what I’m talking about).
When it comes to questions of style, I like to keep this useful maxim in mind;
“A gentleman is someone who can play the banjo, but doesn’t.”
Substitute ‘copywriter’ for ‘gentleman’, and ‘write prose’ for ‘play the banjo’, and this apocryphal Mark Twain quote serves as a useful definition of how a good copywriter should consider his writing skills.
All the same, life’s too short for boring writing. So with the warnings of a thousand Ogilvies ringing in my ears, I’ve selected three non-fiction writers from whom we can learn a wealth of perspectives and techniques to charm, inform and persuade any audience.
- Clive James.
- Maria Popova
- David Foster Wallace
Clive James (1939-2019) was best known for hosting a TV show, poking fun at bizarre advertising and television clips from around the world. What many people didn’t realise was that Clive James was also a literary critic, journalist and poet. On the page, his laconic humour underpinned a keen intelligence, and an encyclopaedic cultural understanding (though his views on climate change left an unfortunate footnote in his legacy).
Great for copywriters because – Clive James was a proponent of the ‘You Rule’. Working across a variety of media, James was savvy enough to understand that directly addressing his audience was one of the most effective communication tools at his disposal, whether his subject was ‘Takeshi’s Castle’ or Phillip Larkin.
Clive James also showed a great awareness and appreciation for the technique of other writers, and would often dig deep into the technical skills (or lack of) when reviewing their work. Here’s a typical example of James analysing technique, whilst also maintaining the reader’s interest with the ‘You Rule’.
“Who wrote this? ‘Political language – and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists – is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.’
But you guessed straight away: George Orwell. The subject stated up front, the sudden acceleration from the scope widening parenthesis into the piercing argument that follows, the way the obvious opposition between ‘lies’ and ‘truthful’ leads into the shockingly abrupt coupling of ‘murder’ and ‘respectable’, the elegant, reverse-written coda clinched with a dirt-common epithet, the whole easy-seeming poise and compact drive of it, a world view compressed to the size of a motto from a fortune cookie, demanding to be read out and sayable in a single breath – it’s the Orwell style.”
It’s worth noting that the ‘elegant, reverse-written coda’ is also a fine example of how to use the passive voice creatively, despite the multitude of online gurus who maintain that passive voice is the work of the devil.
Maria Popova was born in Bulgaria in 1984. She is best known for her blog, The Marginalian (formerly known as Brain Pickings), which has over a million subscribers, and receives around seven million visits a week. Popova moved to America to study communications, and worked in advertising to pay for tuition. She noticed the way that advertisers would share inspirational materials amongst themselves via email, and began to join in with her colleagues. Rather than sharing advertising materials, however, she shared information of cultural and spiritual value with her workmates, speaking directly to what she identified as an ‘intellectual hunger’. She went back to college, studied web design, and in 2006 she launched The Marginalian.
In The Marginalian (and also her longer published work, Figurings), Popova draws on a dizzying array of sources to sculpt loose thematic narratives that hop back and forth through time and space, drawing on threads from many different cultures to address deeper questions and concepts of humanity.
Great for copywriters because – she’s a research nut. Popova’s work is guided by a concept she terms ‘combinatorial creativity’. So much great art is created by juxtaposing two seemingly unrelated ideas, and Popova’s art is the combination of a wild and surprising variety of stories and information. In common with Clive James, she takes inspiration from the achievements of others, and her wide-eyed wonder at the feats of our species (and others) is delivered with a humility that belies her precision and craft as a writer.
Obviously, when dealing with the sheer volume of information that Popova needs to process to create her blog, editorial decision-making skills are key – her blogs use only what they need to make their point stronger, and the discipline of her craft is the key to its success. Here’s an extract from her book, ‘Figurings’ –
“Against the deepening cobalt of the sky, the Moon glides before the sun and carves a slowly slimming crescent. When it settles for a moment into a glowing ring, Maria counts 117 seconds and feels like she is peering down the gun barrel of time, gold-rimmed and eerie.
She is twelve. She is besotted with the splendour of the cosmos and the sturdy certitude of mathematics – a coruscating intellect undimmed by the limitations of her time and place. No woman can vote. No woman can receive a formal education in higher mathematics or astronomy anywhere in the world. No woman has yet been hired by the United States government for any technical job. Maria Mitchell wouldn’t live to reap the vote, but she would become many firsts: America’s first professional woman astronomer, the first woman admitted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the first woman employed by the government for a “specialised non-domestic skill” as a “computer of Venus” – a one-person GPS performing complex celestial calculations to help sailors navigate the globe.”
David Foster Wallace (1962-2008) was a blackly comic writer of novels and essays. His novel, ‘Infinite Jest’, is considered a masterpiece of modern literature.
Great for copywriters because – well, there’s a few reasons. A genuinely original thinker with a unique perspective on many facets of modern life, human communication and the mass media (but not the internet – DFW had little time for the toys of the digital age, tentatively exploring the topic only once, in an unfinished short story that was discovered after his tragic suicide). His illuminating insights into the nature of mass communication are enough to make you wish we hadn’t started the internet without him.
Like Popova, DFW also displayed a genius for research. His application was very different, though. Where Popova connects disparate threads, Wallace picks a spot and digs, far deeper than is customary outside of technical or academic writing. He frequently strikes gold, surprising and rewarding the patient reader who’s just learned way more about tennis/pornography/tax returns than they ever wished to know. Whilst this might seem counter-intuitive to the idea of copywriting – a discipline founded on simplifying the complex – DFW shows us how to structure and deliver complicated information, with thoughtful and supportive use of context.
He also shines when writing about writing, too. His essay, ‘Authority and American Usage’, is the most thrilling dictionary review ever written. Yes, you read that right. What begins as an examination of the latest release from the Oxford University Press, Bryan Garner’s ‘A Dictionary of Modern American Usage’, rapidly expands into an involved exploration of ‘the Language Wars’ – America’s ongoing national battle to communicate without seeming like a fool, a yokel, or a toff. Anyone who’s ever been disparaged as a ‘grammar Nazi’ will find plenty to think about in these pages (not least the wildly infuriating opening, where Wallace buries the reader in a stream of ‘bad writing’ examples, from adverts, presidential speeches and academic texts, amongst other sources).
Here’s an extract from ‘E Unibus Pluram’, where DFW explores the evolution of the relationship between fiction writing and TV.
“…. stuff like ‘action,’ with shoot-outs and car wrecks, or the rapid-fire ‘collage’ of prime-time soap and sitcom with broad gestures, high voices, too much laughter – are unsubtle in their whispers that, somewhere, life is quicker, denser, more interesting, more….well, lively than contemporary life as Joe Briefcase knows it. This might seem benign until we consider that what good old average Joe Briefcase does more than almost anything else in contemporary life is watch television, an activity which anyone with an average brain can see does not make for a very dense and lively life. Since television must seek to attract viewers by offering a dreamy promise of escape from daily life, and since stats confirm that so grossly much of ordinary U.S. life is watching TV, TV’s whispered promises must somehow undercut television-watching in theory (“Joe, Joe, there’s a world where life is lively, where nobody spends six hours a day unwinding before a piece of furniture”) while reinforcing television watching in practice (“Joe, Joe, your best and only access to this world is TV”).
Any thoughts on these writers? Any other non-fiction masters who could make this list? Drop a comment and let me know.