AD NAUSEAM: a copywriter's life

Cutting remarks

Posted in Uncategorized by CopyBlogger on the March 22nd, 2013

I EDIT MY COPY TOO MUCH. There, I’ve said it. It isn’t fashionable for a copywriter to admit, but I must unburden myself at long last.

Let others sweat the big stuff, feverishly seeking bolder and ballsier concepts as they pace around war rooms with a similarly engorged creative partner. Me, I agonize over widows and orphans and line breaks. I sneak my submitted copy off the traffic manager’s desk for another look. After a quarter-century I still try to find short sharp words that can evict longer, more passive ones.

Yet I am still amazed by how much fat can linger in a piece of obsessively edited text.

The other day I saw this echoed by Calvin Trillin, as he blogged about the challenges of working at Time Magazine:

It was largely because of the constant pressure to compress that Time prose struck me as more difficult to write than to parody …. At the end of the week (or “at week’s end,” as we would have put it, in order to save three words), the makeup people would invariably inform us that the story had to be shortened to fit into the section. Since words or passages cut for space were marked with a green pencil—changes that had to be made because of something like factual error were in red—the process was called greening. The instructions were expressed as how many lines had to be greened—“Green seven” or “Green twelve.” I loved greening. I don’t have any interest in word games—I don’t think I’ve ever done a crossword or played Scrabble—but I found greening a thoroughly enjoyable puzzle. I was surprised that what I had thought of as a tightly constructed seventy-line story—a story so tightly constructed that it had resisted the inclusion of that maddening leftover fact—was unharmed, or even improved, by greening ten per cent of it. The greening I did in Time Edit convinced me that just about any piece I write could be improved if, when it was supposedly ready to hand in, I looked in the mirror and said sternly to myself “Green fourteen” or “Green eight.” And one of these days I’m going to begin doing that.

Preach on, brother. It just never seems to be enough.

Over the years I have tried to fight my windbag tendencies with a personal “25 percent rule.” It always seems like I write four sentences or four bullets, when experience and the great speeches of history show that three is a far better number. Hell, three is magic. In rhetoric, it’s called a tricolon. You know — of the people, by the people, for the people. So I often run a quick check of my copy for that fourth thing, sprouting up like crabgrass, then prune it away with a certain reluctance.

Sometimes the victory is pyrrhic. I look at the copy and lament the loss of flow, of spontaneity, of the sloppy creative abandon that is endearing in a lot of work these days. But there are always trade-offs … and they are unrelenting. Writing is like that.

Small wonder that Hemingway once took a long look at a blank page and gave it a warrior’s tribute. He called it The White Bull — paper that has no words on it. As for paper with too many words? I guess I’d call it The Black Hydra. You can never cut ‘em away very easily.

Leave a Reply