Copywriting Curiosities
  The writing tips your English teacher forgot to give you... April 2004  

For the Bookshelf

Recommendations from E.T. Robbins



"Word Menu" by Stephen Glazier is my go-to book for everything I write. Really. As its subtitle aptly states it's an all-in-one dictionary, thesaurus, and almanac. You can buy "Word Menu" computer software as well, but I enjoy the 767-page tome.

"Facts in a Flash" by Ellen Metter -- the subtitle says, "Time-saving short cuts to find the information you need." From government research to statistical data to conducting searches on the web, this book is a valuable resource for students as well as reporters.

"On Writing" by Stephen King. Even if you despise his work, I suspect you'll enjoy his memoir on writing (hey, he hasn't sold millions of books for nothing). It's a quick read with solid advice on writing and rewriting (not to mention his incredible account of his near-fatal accident a few years ago).

"The Elements of Style" by William Strunk Jr. & E.B. White (yeah, the guy who wrote "Charlotte's Web"). This oldie-but-goodie is relevant today because the tenets of good writing never become outdated. Read it in an hour, refer to it for life.

Shameless Plug Alert: Check out my article on landscape design in the Home & Garden supplement in the regional sections of "The Boston Globe" on April 25th. Or click here for more articles on my website.

   Dear Reader,

Do you fall in love with the words you put down on paper and can't stand to hit "cut" or "delete" when you should? You're not alone. But that doesn't make it okay. Stepping back and looking at your writing in an objective manner (otherwise known as self-editing) is one of the most important things you can learn as a writer. Here are five ways to keep your Narcissus in check.

  • #1 Create the "Perfect Prose" Tickler Folder
  •    Did you coin a new term, write a witty phrase, or eloquently state how to spread cow manure in a garden (even though your article is about taking care of houseplants)? Can't stand the thought of cutting this Pulitzer-prize-worthy-prose (even though it's unnecessary to the work)? Copy your "perfect" prose to a new page. Save this file in a tickler folder in "My Documents." Then go back and DELETE this passage from your piece. Remember, the only person who knows what was "lost" is you -- your readers have no idea, so they can't miss it. Make sure you give the file a name that makes sense to your memory. That'll help the next time you're doing a piece on a particular subject. You can poke through your folder for the right words.

  • #2 Surround Yourself with 2-3 Good "Editors"
  •    Preferably not your mother, spouse, or best friend. They love you too much to be impartial, right? If you're doing business writing, find a colleague you can trust. If you're in a management position, consider using one of your employees (this will help empower the person while making her a better writer). You don't need to follow all the advice, but if the "editors" are in agreement, you should listen to them and consider "letting go."

    If you're writing fiction, poetry, or creative nonfiction, join a good writer's group (check your local bookstore, library, or go online). If you're writing ad copy, get to know other copywriters and graphic designers (designers often have a good ear and eye for copy -- even if they can't write it, they understand the conventions). If you're writing feature articles, check in with your editor on a regular basis (maybe every quarter) and go over ways to improve your work. It's a humbling experience, but we narcissists need humbling.

  • #3 Walk Away for 24 Hours (or more)
  •    The best way to put a little distance between you and your writing is by, well, putting a little distance between you and your writing. A fresh eye brings a fresh perspective. You'll notice that the perfect graph doesn't seem so perfect in the morning.

  • #4 Post It
  •    If you really want a humbling experience (or you have a question that you need answered at, say, three o'clock in the morning), consider posting your work (or the part in question) in a writer's forum such as Craig's List (www.craigslist.org). Anonymity allows for brutal honesty (sometimes too brutal, so make sure your skin is thick enough to handle lashings).

  • #5 Get Over It
  •    Purists may want to flog me, but it is just writing. Yes, it's (often) art. But an artistic license doesn't give you the right to lose all objectivity. Showing restraint is the true sign of a mature, gifted writer (in this writer's mind anyway). 'Nuff said.


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