Dear Copywriters: Read More Fiction

7 min read

Copywriters should read fiction. I’ve always believed this, and the longer I work as a copywriter and the more I read, the more it makes sense to me.

I was reminded of this when I reading Proust yesterday morning. (Don’t judge me. I’ve come to that point in my life at which there’s no putting it off any longer.) It’s not always easy to follow the twisty sentences, but the payoff is usually great. For example, I laughed when I came across this passage:

…the whole room had the appearance of one of those model bedrooms which are to be seen in exhibitions of modern housing, decorated with works of art calculated by their designer to gladden the eyes of whoever may ultimately sleep therein, the subjects being in keeping with the locality and surroundings of the houses for which the rooms are planned.

In other words, it looked like a decorated model home in a new subdivision. I spent years writing about those model homes. It was nice to see that some concepts hadn’t changed much since 1913.

Advertising is not art.

Proust got me thinking about how often I remind creative people that what we do is not art. In one way or another, it’s commerce; we’re creating not art for art’s sake, or even for our sake. We’re creating for our clients: to introduce an idea, change a mind, prompt some sort of action. Creating commercials—including websites and blog posts and speeches for nonprofit galas—is a profession that requires dedication and practice. To mistake advertising for art is to hold too low an opinion of both.

But that doesn’t mean there’s not a lot of artistry in advertising, or that we have nothing to learn from great artists. Quite the contrary: Pay even passing attention to commercial design and art direction and illustration, video and animation and motion graphics, and it’s easy to see how they’ve been informed and influenced by the works of great painters and directors and multimedia artists.

So why not copywriting? Shouldn’t copywriters read the great writers?

Of course they should. There’s inspiration and instruction and even camaraderie to be gained by reading literary fiction. So as not to belabor the point, let’s look at one example of each.

Reading for inspiration.

Most writers have favorite authors. I love Fitzgerald and Edith Wharton. Among contemporary writers, I adore Kate Atkinson and Anne Tyler and Margaret Atwood.

But in college, I fell hard for John Cheever. Part of it was Cheever’s milieu; my parents were hardly the privileged, hard-drinking, philandering characters who populate so many of his stories, but those commuter trains and suburban homes resonated deeply with a kid who grew up a couple of blocks from the Penn Central station in Metuchen, New Jersey.

The bigger part, though, was (and is) the beauty of Cheever’s language. Here’s the famous last paragraph of “Goodbye, My Brother,” which appeared first in The New Yorker in 1951:

Oh, what can you do with a man like that? What can you do? How can you dissuade his eye in a crowd from seeking out the cheek with acne, the infirm hand; how can you teach him to respond to the inestimable greatness of the race, the harsh surface beauty of life; how can you put his finger for him on the obdurate truths before which fear and horror are powerless? The sea that morning was iridescent and dark. My wife and my sister were swimming–Diana and Helen–and I saw their covered heads, black and gold in the dark water. I saw them come out and I saw that they were naked, unshy, beautiful, and full of grace, and I watched them walk out of the sea.

That passage is an inspiration to me. That’s writing to envy, and once you get past your despair that you will probably never write anything that’s at once so dreamlike and lucid, which also happens to be a perfect ending for the story you’ve just read, it’s motivating. The plot of “Goodbye, My Brother” isn’t special. The language is. To me, it’s perfect.

And that’s the lesson. No matter what you’re writing, you can strive to make the language perfect. You’ll certainly have to compromise—again, advertising isn’t art—but if you strive for greatness, you’ll be surprised how often your own copywriting can move you.

Reading for instruction

Here are some sobering numbers: Within the past year, it’s been reported that roughly six in ten people don’t read news stories past the headlines. Six in ten people forward social media posts without reading them. Fifty-five percent of people will spend 15 seconds or fewer on your blog post.

On the other hand, here’s a first sentence that made me read the whole book without stopping:

The boys, as they talked to the girls from Marcia Blaine School, stood on the far side of their bicycles holding the handlebars, which established a protective fence of bicycle between the sexes, and the impression that at any moment the boys were likely to be away.

That’s the opening paragraph of Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, from 1961. I think it’s a stunner: amazingly visual and provocative and clever. That “protective fence of bicycle” makes me want to read everything Muriel Spark ever wrote. There’s such tension in that sentence, such a sense of looming conflict—precisely what a good ad, like any good story, needs.

Your mileage may vary, of course. But that’s not really the point. The point is, I wanted more, and a copywriter who can make the reader want more is a writer I want working for my clients. Suggestion: Find a writer you can’t stop reading and figure out how he or she hooks you. Identify the conflict. Consider the words, the cadence, the way the sentences and paragraphs work. Great fiction can be propulsive.

Reading for camaraderie

Once when I was in high school, I wrote a poem around a phrase I thought was super-profound. About a year later, Neil Young used that same phrase in a song. I was, like, “Whoa.” (See if you can figure out what it was.)

It’s not all genius, you know. Sometimes, it’s just sorta clever and pretty good. But it’s always comforting to know that other writers whose work you respect might express themselves using the same words you do—or, even if the expression is more beautiful than you can ever imagine writing yourself, that some amazing writer shares your feelings.

If you work at an ad agency, I would especially recommend Joshua Ferris‘s Then We Came to the Enda workplace novel that’s funny and surprising and heartbreaking and true. It’s written from an unusual first-person plural point of view (the narrator is “we”). Tell me, Copywriter, how many times you’ve felt like this:

Using a wide variety of media, we could demonstrate for our fellow Americans their anxieties, desires, insufficiencies, and frustrations–and how to assuage them all. We informed you in six seconds that you needed something you didn’t know you lacked. We made you want anything that anyone willing to pay us wanted you to want. We were hired guns of the human soul. We pulled the strings on the people across the land and by god they got to their feet and they danced for us.

Or this:

We thanked each other. It was customary after every exchange. Our thanks were never disingenuous or ironic. We said thanks for getting this done so quickly, thanks for putting in so much effort. We had a meeting and when a meeting was over, we said thank you to the meeting makers for having made the meeting. Very rarely did we say anything negative or derogatory about meetings. We all knew there was a good deal of pointlessness to nearly all the meetings and in fact one meeting out of every three or four was nearly perfectly without gain or purpose but many meetings revealed the one thing that was necessary and so we attended them and afterward we thanked each other.

And—okay. I said I’d stop at three and went to four. I am clearly an unreliable narrator. I’m just saying, copywriters are writers, and writing can be lonely, and sometimes it’s good to know you’re not alone. It’s heartening to wind to the end of one of those Proustian sentences and find yourself thinking, “Yes—that’s exactly how it feels.”