copywriting

Copy Critique: How to Tell a Complex Story In Just a Few Words

More from the exhibit on WWII propaganda currently up at the FDR Presidential Library.

Apart from the gorgeous imagery here, this is an incredible example of economy and power in storytelling. The narrative told is a complicated one: Don’t talk about what you’re working on for the war effort, because spies are listening, and if they learn about shipping or attacks in advance, they might relay those orders to Berlin, who would then attack, costing lives or resources. And don’t buy into the idea that just one person mentioning something isn’t important. What one person says or doesn’t say can cost or save lives.

Got all that?

Well, you could get the same from two words of headline copy plus nine words of optional copy and an image composed of two well-balanced elements.

Everything on this poster is doing work: the size of the hand, the movement from left to right, the use of color, the choice of civilian clothes for the figure, and the transformation of the newspaper into an accusatory pointing finger.

As a copywriter, I’m normally annoyed when clients or designers ask me to use fewer words. “But the words are doing all the *work*” I often think. The images are just there to grab people’s attention to get them to think.

With this little masterpiece from the golden age of print advertising, I’m inspired to think otherwise.

On Writing: Do More Hours Equal Better Writing?

BartlebyThe Economist’s new column about the workplace, had this to say about the way we equate success and long working hours:

If long hours were the key to success, after all, people who hold down two jobs, or nurses on the night shift in emergency rooms, would be rolling in wealth. Ronald Reagan became president despite quipping that “I’ve heard that hard work never killed anyone, but I say why take the chance?”

As with so many things, there’s a double standard about behavior and class. Work 90 hours a week as a maid? How sad. Work the same hours as a C.E.O.? How badass.

But what about creatives? I work in the advertising-public relations-marketing-industrial-complex, where the hours tend to be, shall we say, long. There’s a kind of status or protection that comes from being the most overworked and therefore the most miserable out of any group of people. Sometimes I’ve been that person. Sometimes I’ve given props to that person. And sometimes I’ve pitied that person and been glad it wasn’t me.

Whenever I’m at the office at some unholy hour, I can assure you it’s never by choice. Sometimes the hours are long because that’s just what it takes to get the job done. I’m not complaining about that. Walk through the door of an ad agency and that’s what you are signing up for. Plus, being forced to push yourself beyond what you think your limits are can be invigorating.

Up to a point.

But when does the work start to suffer? Writing and coming up with ideas is like dancing. You can only do it for so long before it starts to get clumsy and unattractive.

There are writers who say they need a certain amount of time to get into an enchanted space, where they are capable of imagining things more vividly. I don’t doubt this. And it’s true, the longer I am allowed to be in a state of flow, the more the ideas and words flow.

Up to a point.

If I were to spend 90 hours a week typing, I’d go crazy and my clients would fire me, because the words would be gibberish. There’s a point at which sheer volume of output has to be balanced against their quality, not to mention quality of life for the worker. This is where the American way of work, which assumes that sheer effort is both virtuous and the way out of every problem, collides with the reality of skilled labor. The challenge, I suppose, is knowing where to draw the line, in itself a kind of intuitive dance.

How do you strike that balance? Intuition? An app on your phone? A spouse or friend who keeps you balanced?

Misusing “around” is making us sound dishonest

Here’s an imprecision in the language that I’d like to call out for deletion: using “around” when we really mean “about,” “in support of,” “relating to,” or any other more forceful preposition.

Around is precise when it is used to describe a physical location. “Let’s all gather around the campfire” invites us to position ourselves on all sides of it. “She was hanging around the neighborhood” means she was both anywhere and nowhere in particular, but somewhere close by.

“Let’s make sure the discussion is around the topic of leadership,” however, means nothing.

That sentence could invite us to revile leadership or praise it. Using “around” to describe notions rather than places is vague in a way that is only useful to propagandists, whose job is often not to say anything substantive, but to say something merely because something has to be said. Propagandists really do speak “around” issues, the same way that soldiers patrol a neighborhood or thieves case a joint. We’re there for strategic reasons. We hang around an issue, both anywhere and nowhere in particular, but somewhere close by.

When I spotted “around” used in The New York Times by a journalist in a piece that purported to clarify the public conversation I was dismayed. Newspapers and magazines should never speak “around” anything. They speak candidly about certain issues to certain audiences with moral authority. The phrase is “speaking truth to power,” not “speaking truth around power.”

We have enough circumlocution (literally “speaking around”) of the truth these days. Let’s expunge it from the only sources of truth we have left, i.e. newspapers and magazines. If we only have enough courage or clarity to speak around something, maybe its better to stay quest until we have the force of mind to speak about it.