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

For the Bookshelf

Recommendations from E.T. Robbins

The lazy hazy days of summer are here and so is the need for good beach reading. Here are three of my faves -- two have to do with writing and the other is just fabulous fiction.

"Bird By Bird" by Anne Lamott. This is my favorite book on writing by one of my favorite authors. Lamott is THE MASTER of conversational style. I've read the book dozens of times, and I feel as if I know her. She talks about the importance of writing "shitty first drafts," radio station "KFKD," and jealousy (something all of us suffer from). She's honest, so if you don't like blue language, avoid this book. But if you do like her style, I recommend "Operating Instructions" and "Traveling Mercies" as well.

"The Forest For The Trees" by Betsy Lerner. This former editor doles out lots of good advice. It's geared more toward authors, but freelance writers can pick up some good tips as well (and her descriptions of writer- types are incredibly insightful and uncannily accurate). I quote this book in my writing class at Mass School of Law...there's a wonderful anecdote about how Max Perkins, a famous editor, asked an unknown writer named F. Scott Fitzgerald to rewrite his novel from a different POV. Well, you can imagine how it turned out. A good follow-up is Lerner's "memoir" called "Food and Loathing," which has to do with her own struggles with writing, food, and depression.

"Girl With A Pearl Earring" by Tracy Chevalier. Fluid prose, wonderful story, and a guarantee you'll never look at this painting in the same way again.

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   Dear Reader,

One of the great things about writing is that you never know when inspiration will strike or where you'll get an idea. Of course, this also means that a writer is always "working." But I must admit that it's the absolute best work on the planet. If you have to be doing something all the time, writing is a perfect choice. Here are five of my favorite ways of coming up with ideas for headlines, body copy, and articles. There's really no mystery, and you'll probably laugh at some of my suggestions, but they work for me.

  • #1 Collect "Junk Mail"
  •    Yes, it sounds weird, but direct mailers are wonderful little gems. Save the postcards pitching cell phones, fitness centers, magazine subscriptions -- you name it. Not only will you get ideas for headlines and body copy, but also ideas to pitch to newspapers and magazines. When Curves first opened near my home, I received a mailer about this new fitness center for women. I pitched an article to the local paper and got the assignment. Recently, I started doing advertising copy for a local college. All the direct mail pieces from other colleges and universities that I had been saving came in handy when I was assessing the "competition."

  • #2 Read LOCAL Newspapers & "Recap" Magazines
  •    I'm amazed at the number of people who dismiss their local papers because they don't carry the circulation weight of The Boston Globe or New York Times and are therefore "unworthy" of being read. Your local papers are often filled with interesting stories -- the slice-of- life vignettes that national magazines (especially women's magazines) hunger for.

    Can't afford a subscription? Head to the library. Many papers allow you to read the current day's stories free on their websites. Of course, you still need to read the "bigger" papers. And it's a good idea to subscribe to what I call a weekly "recap" magazine. My favorite is a fairly new glossy called "The Week" ( I read it from cover to cover the moment it arrives in my mailbox.

  • #3 Conduct "Field Studies"
  •    Have you been asked to write an article about wedding dresses, but you've never been a bride? Are you writing ad copy for an acupuncturist but have no clue what they do or how they do it? That's the beauty of writing. You learn about so many different things. And while it's possible to do much (even all) your research and writing in your office, it's still a good idea to occasionally "get out" and see who or what you're writing about.

    Visit a wedding dress shop. Have the acupuncturist insert some needles in your arm. Sit and watch the people who enter the doctor's office, restaurant, hair salon, or whatever business you're covering for an assignment. You might see a common trend, or something about your experience may help you come up with the perfect headline.

  • #4 Spend An Afternoon In The Library Or Bookstore
  •    You've heard the expression, "there's nothing new under the sun," right? Well, the same is true with headlines, body copy, and articles. Don't reinvent the wheel. Go with what works, but put your own "spin" on it. By reading through magazines in the library and bookstore, you'll start developing your own article ideas or your own concepts for advertising copy.

  • #5 Check Out Movies, Theater, Radio, and Television
  •    In past newsletters, I've stressed the importance of developing a conversational tone. In other words, write the way people talk. What better way to "study" and hone your skills than by listening to real, live dialogue? Not to mention the ideas you'll get. I heard a radio spot the other day about a pet cemetery. I wrote down the website (yep, they have one), and now I'm coming up with several article pitches with different slants.

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