Friday, April 25, 2014

4 Copywriting Lessons from "Elegy for a Walnut Tree"

W.S. Merwin's lovely, understated poem (read it here) has lessons for everyone, even copywriters.

1. Set up the feeling immediately.

Many great ads, as well as marketing copywriting, rely on emotion. Merwin's poem demonstrates the effect of setting that emotional stage immediately so that the feeling pervades the entire piece. At the end of the first line we're already in it:  sadness and nostalgia and loss. "Now there is no one alive" opens a wasteland of grief.

While grief is probably not our emotion of choice for marketing and advertising, the concept's the same. Proctor & Gamble set up the feeling immediately in their best "Thank You, Mom" commercials, opening on a note of tenderness with the first few images and notes of background music. Both the voice itself and the script set the stage immediately in this surprisingly touching Walmart commercial: "When I was born, the doctors said…" 

Harley Davidson did it differently in this print ad

2. It's all relative.

We don't need to know how old the poem's speaker is to understand how long ago he first saw the tree. "Most of my life ago" is a sweetly clever way to demonstrate the period of time in question without resorting to clichéd phrasing such as "when I was a boy" or an awkward and unfitting numeral. It's also a gorgeous turn of phrase, with a nice rhythm and both alliteration and assonance.

3. Show, don't tell: use evocative words rather than naming that which you're discussing.

The speaker of the poem never says he's sad; the words "death" and "grief" don't appear in the poem. Yet the feeling and the subject matter are tangible. Instead of coming right out and saying it, Merwin instead sprinkles in other words that evoke his meaning. For example:

  • "dry grass" implies "dead grass"
  • "your shade," the double meaning of which conveys "your ghost" as well as "your shadow"
  • "wars"
  • "silence"
  • "parting"
  • "absence"

In addition to clearly conveying a general emotion, these words serve to connect the
reader with his or her own specific memories or feelings.

4. Leave off the last line.

This is a hard lesson to learn, but it can make good writing great. It's hard to learn to trust yourself, and the reader, enough to stop bludgeoning the reader over the head with your point. Let it be divined.

Merwin doesn't say, "and now you're gone and I'll never see anything the same way again."* He doesn't have to. The use of past tense, especially in the last line, drives it home, but we know from the title of the poem that the tree is dead or gone—an elegy is a funeral song or poem written for the dead.

A lot of great ad writers know this trick, like this one from Adobe, but it's equally important whether you're writing the next Clio winner or copy for a grocery mailer. Telling people they should "buy now" is never as effective as making them think it themselves.

* Although, if he had, it would certainly be more poetic than that.

Walnut tree on the green. Colin Grice. Licensed under the Creative Commons license, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Ready to write.

Today I feel like this:

And this makes me think about that iPad ad and how I wanted it to actually be an ad for pencils. (Although, the copy in that ad makes me all squishy inside, it's so good.) 

What will I write today?

Pencil Elves

Last year I took a poetry workshop  in the musty basement of a small-town library. One of the featured poems was "Pencil Elves," a previous merit winner in our local poetry contest.

Among the powdered elderly ladies in their flowered hats and the gangly middle-schooler who'd dragged his dad along, I felt miserably out of place in that workshop. I kept trying to work on my own poetry, or even make a decent analysis of anyone else's poem, but nothing was clicking. Yet "Pencil Elves" stuck with me afterward for days and I couldn't figure out why—until I realized that it was tickling my other writing sense. My copywriting sense.

Pencil Elves
by Kobe Woodruff


are wooden elves

With no arms and only one leg

And very odd hair

They have no face

But they have a black foot

And yellow clothes

If that didn't at least turn up a corner of your mouth, you're too jaded. The poem is fresh, and it takes a new approach to an everyday object, allowing us to see it from an altogether alien perspective. What product marketer doesn't want to be able to do that?

The "Pencil Elves" poet was in the 5th grade when the poem was written, giving him several advantages over agency-weary marketing copywriters that I'd love to have:

No internal critic; no mental carping "that's dumb" or "no one will like that." How I envy that freedom—in both my poetry and my copy—and yet it is possible to turn off that internal voice. Coworkers may find it odd if you sit at your desk muttering "Shut up...shut up!" but there are other, more socially-acceptable ways. Just give yourself permission. Tell yourself no one will ever see what you're working on if you don't want them to. 

No knowledge of what's cliche, what's been done—and no driving need to be original. A child is  at the center of his or her own universe. They think (and, yes, some adults still do, too) that there is nothing more important on this earth than what they are doing, saying, and feeling. Not only does a child not know what's already been done, but she also doesn't care. Similarly, when you're in the early throes of a creative project, and I don't care whether it's a poem or a sculpture or the script for an explainer video, don't let yourself worry about what's been done before. There's beauty in cliche if it comes from an unusual source, so if you come up with something truly great but horribly overdone, try putting it in different context.

No concept of what's silly, or childish, or ridiculous. OK, we all know there are some advertisers who also don't have this concept. But as you're getting the creative juices flowing, don't apply the brakes by censoring yourself. So what if it's silly? That might turn out to be good; or it might lead you somewhere that's not silly at all. 

No notion of what's "obvious." Kids describe what they see; nothing is implied to them. Write or concept from that perspective. Let's say you're trying to sell a cracker. Jot down the most basic qualities of it: it's square, with little pokey serrated-looking edges; the top poofy, golden brown, with baked-looking puffs punctuated by sixteen evenly-spaced holes and scattered with salt crystals. List facts, list descriptors, draw pictures. Look at the product as Kobe Woodruff looked at his pencil: as if you didn't know what it was. A pencil is an elf. A cracker is an air mattress. A Christmas tree is a giant's traffic cone. 

No real, solid understanding of what's impossible. Why couldn't a pencil be an elf? Fat old Santa Claus fits down that chimney, doesn't he? An unseen fairy exchanges spare teeth for money, rules don't matter much when Mom's not paying attention, and "shit" is OK for Dads to say but not kids. Huh? To a child, the whole world is improbabilities and loopholes. Go ahead and make comparisons, even if they're a stretch. You may find something valuable, or even brilliant.

What does all of this tell me? That when I'm stuck, creatively (or even when I'm not), maybe I should take a "Pencil Elves" -type approach to my creative challenge. 

"What is a pencil?"  "It's an elf."

"How do I get people to download this app?"  "42."