Wednesday, September 13, 2006

That's Not Writing. That's an Ad.

I am a writer. I spend my day in front of a computer writing brochures, websites, advertisements, direct mail and the like. So, technically, I am a copywriter. But, in the more general sense, I am a writer.

Being a writer is not like being a physician or a lawyer or even a teacher or a mechanic. Almost all other professions require some sort of specialized training—many even come with their own certificates. But us writers don’t possess any special skill set. We are no more literate than any other educated professional. In fact, it’s not that we can WRITE (everyone can write), it’s that we can write better.

Why can we write better? Because all good writers have an artistic leaning—a control over language that elevates the form. Unfortunately, this artistic aspect is not readily acknowledged. In many ways, writing is still at the cultural stage that visual art was at a hundred years ago—if it’s not a traditional sculpture or paint on canvas (if it’s not a dense novel or short story) then it can’t be art.

I know, from experience, that being a copywriter is the ass-end of the writing scale. At parties, if I say I’m a writer, people will get excited and ask me what I’ve written. When I explain my job, they look like I’ve spilled my drink on their shoes.

Why is copywriting held in less regard? Usually, in America, those who make more money get more respect. And copywriters are just about the best-paid writers outside of celebrity columnists and bestsellers. My theory is that most people still see a divide between commerce and art. If writing is art, then copywriters are not real writers because all they do is feed the engines of commerce.

But such views on art and writing do not end there. It is a long, sliding scale with commercial fiction like that written by Dan Brown or John Grisham being just a notch above us copywriters and the most inaccessible novels being at the top—and there are a lot of levels in between. Writers tend to get pigeonholed on this scale and declared “good” or “not so good” based as much on the commerciality of their work as on the quality of their words.

This is nonsense. Some of the most brilliant writing I’ve ever seen has been on advertisements. While some of the worst has been in so-called “important” novels. “Good writing” is not a clearly definable achievement—but neither is it constrained to a few genres or forms.

I’m not looking for any more respect for copywriters (really, most of what we do is crap). But I would love it if we could foster a greater understanding of what makes good writing good. If we could open our minds to the idea that, like the visual arts, form does not make the artist, then I think more writers would have an opportunity to make a mark.


Blogger Dyre42 said...

I've always been of the opinion that if what a person writes either a: move you b: embed itself in positively into your memory or c: transport you from the real world into the world being written about
then its good writing.

But then again I'm also of the frame of mind that art is the process of creation and the tanglible result is just a product of that. However I do believe that the measure of a great artist is their ability to embed their
art into their product.

9:57 PM  
Anonymous rachelrachel said...

I think you mean John Grisham.

Maybe you're conflating him with astronaut Gus Grissom, who died in a tragic accident in 1967.

3:57 PM  
Blogger Alan Stewart Carl said...


Thanks for pointing that out. Must've been thinking of ole Gus. The man could really spin a yarn in his day.

4:30 PM  
Anonymous Bonnie said...

It certainly takes a lot of creative energy to write something new or clever or original that can be clearly understood by the majority of readers. Skills can be developed, but the creative part has to be nurtured. Thanks for sharing some of your creativity in this blog.

8:56 PM  
Blogger reader_iam said...

I read a friend's copy--and then bought my own of "Ogilvy on Advertising" in its first hardback edition back in 1983

From then on, I was "sold" on the fact that copywriting, the excellent kind, involves a brilliance of its own. It is certainly "real" writing, and just as certainly creative.

12:21 PM  
Blogger reader_iam said...

Hmm. The timestamp here is interesting.

Anyway, Alan, your post inspired me to trot upstairs to my office/library and see if I could put my hands on that book, which I haven't paged through in many years. There it was, dusty, watermarked and coffee-stained, stuck on a shelf in one of the book-shelving units I've reserved for writing/editing-reference books of various types.

I'm having fun leafing through it right now. Thanks for reminding me.

12:27 PM  
Blogger Alan Stewart Carl said...

Glad I could remind you!

And glad you are one who has a broader view of what writing is and can be. But, given your own deft writing skills, that shouldn't surprise me.

12:35 PM  
Blogger reader_iam said...

Well, thank you. But you certainly couldn't tell from the typos in my first comment here (where DID that close "--" and that final period GO, the same place as sockmates and tweezers, or what?).


12:44 PM  

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