Posts made in February, 2014

Writing for Print Ads – Say Less

Posted by on Feb 24, 2014 in Business Writing | 0 comments

Writing for Print Ads – Say Less

Have you ever heard that phrase “less is more?” I have. That’s why I’m mentioning it. If I hadn’t, I’d probably have started with something completely different. That aside, “less is more,” is a pretty stupid thing to say. Because less is clearly less. I mean, even if you have two poisonous snakebites and your hiking partner has four poisonous snakebites, you’re probably more likely to survive, but you still have fewer snakebites. Less is never more. Otherwise mathematics falls apart and society collapses.

What we’re trying to say here is “less is occasionally better.” This is critical to remember when you’re writing for print advertisements. People read articles for the words. They look at advertisements to see big glossy pictures of good-looking people enjoying a nutritious breakfast in an unsettlingly clean kitchen or a hawk flying over a crystal clear mountain lake. Then for some reason they think…

“Oh wow, that’s a pretty scene, I’d better invest in some new tires!”

Remember that your words are simply a bit of information on the periphery of the real draw – the picture. If your advertisement is too wordy, the reader will probably just see it as an uninteresting article and skip right over it. Truthfully, it’s the biggest mistake that most startup businesses make. A print ad is not the place to tell the entire history of your plucky little company and every one of the nine hundred services you offer. It’s the place to put an engrossing image, a catchy tag line, and only the most crucial information.

When writing for advertising copy it’s easy to panic and think you’re not getting your money’s worth. I mean, you’re paying for a whole page – you have to let the public know about your landscaping services, and your botanical knowledge, and how great you are at building retaining walls, and oh yeah, there was that time we painted a lounge chair, and right, right, once Brad stepped on a really pesky spider and the client was thrilled! What if people DON’T FIND OUT ABOUT IT?

Want proof that you don’t need to do that? I’m going to flip through the last magazine I got and count the words in the first ten advertisements I see. (Ones that actually include text) And no, it’s not a dirty magazine unless you’re some oddball who’s obsessed with illustrations of kettlebell workouts.

*Note, the words I’m counting are simply in the text. I’m not including those odd little disclaimers at the bottom.

Product — Words

1) Truck — 47
2) Protein Supplement — 99
3) Hair Product — 104
4) Garage Door — 58
5) Workout Drink — 17
6) Almonds — 44
7) Luxury Car — 75
8) Vitamins — 95
9) Whey Supplement — 80
10) GPS system — 38

So what’s the average number of words for these ten randomly selected cross-genre advertisements?

Average words — 66

Now obviously that’s a small sample size, and if you’ll look at the supplement companies, they’ll trend more toward wordier advertisements simply because showing a bottle of powder isn’t quite as effective as a picture of a truck towing the moon through downtown Kansas City. In their particular industry, you have to explain that your product has some crazy new molecular breakthrough that will allow you to deadlift two more pounds. Thus, they tend to need more words.

But chances are, you don’t.

So think about it – if you only had sixty-six words to use, what would you do to highlight your business or the business you’ve been hired to write for? Here are some tips.

1) Sum up what the business does in a simple tag line. It doesn’t have to be the catchiest thing in the damn world as long as the reader knows what your business or product is. If you sell dirt and your tag line is “We know dirt,” you’ve done your job. And you’ve only used three words. People will read it and think, “Hey, these guys know their dirt. If I ever need dirt, I know who to call.”

2) Succinctly describe what’s unique about the business or product. If the dirt you’re selling is nitrogen enhanced, mention that. If your dirt is of better quality and yet cheaper than your competitors, mention that. If the best thing about your dirt is that it makes one hell of a pile, well I guess uh… mention that. What you don’t need to do is go on about the nitrogen enhancement process, or that you buy cheap from a wholesaler just outside of Toledo. It’s not a critical piece of information in relation to whether the customer will eventually make a purchase. They don’t care WHY the dirt is uh… dirt cheap, (sorry, I had to) they just care that it is.

3) Casually mention the great things the reader COULD do with the product. “Imagine a summer salad of organic vegetables grown entirely in your own backyard. With Mudd Brothers Dirt, you don’t have to imagine anymore.” It’s the same thing with any business. Get people thinking about the amazing future that awaits if that future includes your product. But don’t go overboard. Don’t start talking about the ripped abs, modeling contract, and extravagant yachts they can expect from eating vegetables grown in Mudd Brothers Dirt. Unless that’s your whole strategy. “It all started with Mudd Brothers Dirt!” (Why do I have the sinking feeling I just came up with a marketing campaign I’ll see during the next Super Bowl, sigh, and tell no one in particular, “That was my idea.” Then someone will snicker and I’ll yell “What? You don’t believe me? Check my blog last February, jagoff! That’s it, let’s fight. C’mon. C’mon. Let’s go Snickerin’ Sam!”)
*Sorry, I was a little drunk in those parentheses.

4) Give ‘em the website. That’s the place to mention the nitrogen infusion process and give a shout out to Stacey in Toledo. The key is to get them intrigued enough by your advertisement to voluntarily go get the rest of the information on their own.

And the great thing – it’s not as hard as you’d think to do those four things in sixty-six words. It’s all about choosing the right words and the correct message.

In other words, “less is occasionally better.”

You hearing me there hair product?

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A Philosophical Question I Swear I’ll Find a Way to Relate to Writing

Posted by on Feb 11, 2014 in Creative Writing | 0 comments

A Philosophical Question I Swear I’ll Find a Way to Relate to Writing

A thought surfaced in my brain today. It hit me somewhere in the mile between my house and the gym as I slowly shuffled down the frozen, ice-caked sidewalks of Pittsburgh. It was one of those semi-life altering mind quakes that make you lose all sense of the reality around you – one of those questions that you know you don’t have the answer to but knew that if you did, it would have world-shaking implications. You’re also vaguely aware that you’re probably not the first person it’s ever occurred to but it doesn’t matter because it’s new to you.

What if the concepts of “beginning” and “end” don’t actually exist in the universe outside of the human perception of reality? What if they have no meaning anywhere else? And what then?

It hit me because of a discussion I’d been having with my cousin about religion. (And I won’t go into my thoughts on this subject because they’re off topic and don’t matter here.) But what hit me is the realization that most major religions seem to have originated to resolve two fundamental questions.

“How did we get here?”
“What happens after we die?”

Think about it. Even the flat out dumbest person you know comes equipped with a unique awareness of their own mortality. And that person, as dumb as they may be, has probably also spent a moment or two wondering what “began” everything. We ask these questions all the time. From religion to self-help books to extreme sports, most of our society is built around these great unknowns. “Live life to the fullest because you’re only here for a little while!” But what if the concepts themselves were totally irrelevant? What if in the context of how the universe actually operates, those questions don’t actually make any sense? What if it’s like asking how much happiness weighs or what color the wind is?

I mean, take the last idea you had, whether it’s something life changing or simply, “Ooh, I should really go get some Pringles.” Where does the idea begin? Where does it end? Is there a set time for said idea? Is it even possible to pinpoint when that idea started and stopped? And I’m not talking about the neuron action going on that’s (probably) producing it. I’m talking about the idea itself. Does it have a set point when it came into and went out of existence? Or does it just sort of exist in a perpetual state of always?

I mean even birth is interesting because it’s supposed to mark the beginning point of life. But if you’re reading this, you were technically around back in 1914 and 1814, and 1714 and so on. You just happened to exist here in 2014 and none of those people alive at the time knew about you yet. All the actions that those previous people took that subsequently led to your birth were part of your existence, it all just happened before you were consciously aware of it. And there are people in 2114 that will be dramatically affected by the choices you made today and the choices you’ll make tomorrow. They’re out there somewhere in the future and barring a major, world altering catastrophe that wipes out humanity as a whole, they will exist at some point. So where are they now?

What if there’s absolutely no NEED to ask where we came from and where we’re going? What if things don’t actually start or finish?

Is that scary? Freeing? I’m not sure. And I’m not claiming to have any sort of answer.

What if we somehow found out that we just ARE and that we don’t really even have words or concepts yet for how things really work?

Anyway, that’s been my day so far.

Is this thought actually as brilliant as I think it is? Probably not. I’ve learned that a majority of the “groundbreaking” philosophical thoughts I have were first published in some journal in Austria in 1922. But in the end it doesn’t matter because it’s new and exciting to me even if it isn’t to everyone else.

What does it have to do with writing? Maybe nothing. Maybe everything. I only brought it up because it also occurred to me that it’s necessary to explore these ideas when you have them. And not a half-assed cursory glance either. When you have an idea you find intriguing, explore it as far as you can. Take it and run with it. Examine the implications. Let it burrow and twist in as many directions as you can stand. The great thing is that even if nothing ever comes of it professionally, you might just make it to the gym before you realize that your ribs have frozen together.

Often times these ideas won’t lead anywhere. I mean, currently, I have zero idea what the hell to do with the abovementioned concept. But at least now it’s in there. It’s in there in all of its different forms. I’m not going to force a novel or a script out of it right now because it’s not fully cultivated. Perhaps some day that idea will enhance a plot I haven’t thought of yet or be central to a character I haven’t yet created. Then again maybe it won’t. But a possibility is there that wasn’t this morning.

I guess what I’m trying to say is I’ve heard many writers tell me about a great idea only to follow it up with, “Yeah, but it’s super weird, totally not commercial, and going to be real a pain in the ass to explain. I love the concept but I don’t know… it doesn’t seem worth it.” They’ll immediately discount an idea they were excited about simply because they weren’t quite sure what to do with it right out of the gate. So into the scrapheap it goes.

In the end, I guess the message is – don’t do that. And that’s how my oddball philosophical musings actually relate to writing.

Anyway, just something to think about. For some reason I was in the mood to take this entry in a slightly different direction. And if you were looking for the normal wackiness instead, here’s a link to the single funniest clip in internet history.

Where’d that monkey go after he fell?

It doesn’t matter.

Or does it?

Fine, a source told me he landed in a fortuitously placed garbage truck that just happened to be driving by at the time. Don’t worry, he’s totally fine.

Or is he?

Does it even matter?

Ok, knock it off. Seriously. Knock it off.

photo credit: Kalexanderson via photopin cc

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Grandpa Hank’s Writer Interview – Ron Walters (Part II)

Posted by on Feb 3, 2014 in Writer Interviews | 1 comment

Grandpa Hank’s Writer Interview – Ron Walters (Part II)

When last we left Ron, he was making metaphors about poop. What can he possibly do for an encore?

GRANDPA HANK: Tell us a little about your favorite project.

RON WALTERS: My favorite project changes depending on what I get around to starting and actually finishing. I’ll always love my first book, even though it’s been indefinitely tucked away. I think the idea is great—dude’s girlfriend tries to sacrifice him to a demon, she botches the summoning ceremony, he gets stuck with the demon—but it needs a fairly extensive structural overhaul.

So, at the moment, my favorite project is the young adult novel I just finished writing. It’s called The Watchmaker. I’m getting it ready to enter into the Amazon Breakthrough Novelist Contest. The first paragraph of my pitch-in-progress currently reads:

“Pocket watches aren’t supposed to electrocute you. They aren’t supposed to dump someone else’s war-torn memories into your brain, either. Unfortunately for 17-year-old Aaron Taylor, he’s got his hands on the one watch that does both.”

It’s set in Prague, and is full of spies, crazy scientists, a bit of teen angst, and loads of other awesome stuff including chase scenes and massive explosions. I think people will love it. That said, it was a giant pain in the ass to write. I started it last spring, gave up over the summer, then picked it back up because of writer’s guilt (which is far, far worse than Catholic guilt ever was) and actually finished it. This is another hard rule to follow, especially for novice writers such as myself: Finish what you start.

GH: What is your definition of success as a writer? Have you achieved it? And if you haven’t, how will you know when you do?

In a nutshell: I want to be able to walk into a bookstore and see a book I wrote sitting on one of the shelves.

For the time being, finally getting a short story published has been pretty awesome. It’s called “Glitch,” and is up at Devilfish Review. (It’s also getting reprinted at Hogglepot in February.)

Editor’s note: If you didn’t get a chance to read it in the previous blog, check out “Glitch” here.

I will say that, with everything I write, I see my skills as a writer growing. I personally think I’m good enough now to be a safe bet for any publisher, but even if I’d happen to land a book deal, it doesn’t mean I’d stop evolving and bettering myself as a writer.

GH: How did you feel when you found out that your story was going to be published at Devilfish? What were your immediate thoughts?
 
RW: I honestly wasn’t expecting to see “We love your story and want to publish it.” I’d already run up several rejections, and was expecting the usual “Thanks for submitting your story, but sadly, we’re going to have to pass.” Occasionally an editor would add something like, “We think you’re a great writer, and your story is interesting, but it just didn’t fit our thematic needs.” You know, the writing equivalent of, “It’s not you, it’s me.”
 
The thing is, I knew it was a good story. I know that sounds cocky, but any writer worth their salt knows whether what they’re working on is good or bad. Yes, there’s a certain amount of arrogance involved—I for one believe I’m a better writer than loads of published authors—but that’s mostly just a way of combating the doubt. Because for as much arrogance as writers possess, I’m almost positive we require a nearly equal amount of self-doubt. I swear that most writers are moderately bipolar. One minute you’ll be like, “This is the most amazing thing every put to paper,” and the next you’ll be all, “Oh my god, this is so bad it’s going to make people burn all their books and never want to read anything ever again.” But the more you write, the more you learn to recognize what’s working and what isn’t. And I knew that “Glitch” worked. I just needed to find an editor who agreed with me.
 
Once I got over the initial shock, I couldn’t stop grinning. I reread the email from Devilfish probably twenty times that morning. I signed the contract, and then I got to do something I’d never done before – send out withdrawal notices to the other journals where I’d already submitted the story.
 
The extra awesome thing (and I swear that I’ll stop babbling, but come on—FIRST PUBLISHED SHORT STORY!) is that one of the journals from which I’d withdrawn my story wrote me back to ask if they could reprint it. Seeing that email was nearly as great a feeling as when I saw the email from Devilfish accepting my story the first time.
 
Okay, I’m done. Next question.
 
GH: Has living outside the United States for so long influenced your writing?

RW: I’ve lived in Germany for eleven years now. I’ve definitely picked up a more worldly perspective since moving here, but I am still very much an American writer. I’d say that moving overseas has influenced my writing to the extent that I’ve met people from other countries and been places I might never have visited, all of which gets stored somewhere in my brain. For example, The Watchmaker is set in Prague. I never would have even attempted to pull off the setting or historical connections if I hadn’t been there several times.

GH: Mini-story time. Finish this sentence and add on however you feel. “How did all this blood end up in the…..”

RW: “How did all this blood end up in the shampoo bottle?”

“Oh, that’s where I put it. Sorry, it’s been a really long day. Here, let me have it.”

I held onto the oversized bottle. “You didn’t answer my question.”

“Don’t be ridiculous, Leonard. Hand it over.”

“Right, because my question is totally off base.”

Sarah sighed. “What else was I supposed to do with it?”

“Oh, I don’t know. The fridge comes to mind. Blood isn’t exactly shelf-stable.”

Sarah shook her head. “Don’t be such a worrywart. It’s only a few hours old. And besides, it’s not like you’re drinking it or anything.”

I turned the bottle upside down and watched the blood ooze along the inside. “It looks different than last time. Where’d you get it anyway?”

“Sea turtle.”

“What? Jesus, Sarah, those things are endangered! Are you trying to get us arre—”

“Fuckin’ a. Calm down, Leonard. I didn’t drain a sea turtle.”

“Thank god.” I narrowed my eyes. “So where did you get it?”

She nodded toward the moonlit backyard. “You know that pelican that’s always hanging out on the dock?”

My eyes widened as I stared into the darkness. “You killed Mr. Humperdink?”

“He had it coming.”

“Poor guy.” I hefted the bottle. “Pelicans have this much blood in them?”

“Apparently so.” She flapped her hand. “Gimme.”

“Can’t I do it this time?” I said, passing the bottle to her.

“You know Edgar doesn’t like it when someone else draws the sigils.”

“Fine.”

“You ready?”

I nodded, taking a deep breath as I tried to center myself. The conversion was much less painful when I wasn’t anxious.

“Alright,” Sarah said, squirting a splodge of blood into the palm of her hand. “Now take off your clothes.”

END OF INTERVIEW

Thanks to Ron for his time and for proving that you can indeed give detailed, thoughtful answers in the space your kids leave you between tantrums.

photo credit: szeke via photopin cc

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