A Piece of Pop Fiction: 3 Ideas Copywriters Can Take from Novelists
To many aspiring writers, copywriting seems largely unappealing. The mere prospect of using your talent for some high-flying business conglomerate, downgrading your beautiful art into forced staccato slogans, and becoming a ghost writer behind flashy products doesn’t exactly spell out your dream job.
As a writer myself, I know all too well the fear of losing your talent behind mediocre copy. My attempts at copywriting have forced me to slave away for days, struggle with blank pages, and stress out over meagre sentences.
I know what it’s like to feel fruity and want to adopt 12 cats.
I know that it’s like getting a huge blow to the gut after the mildest and kindest criticisms. I know all about panting after deadlines, clamouring for ideas buried deep in your amigdala, and chasing after words that don’t seem to make sense after 6 cups of coffee.
I once sneered at the prospect of copywriting, to be honest. But now I have a healthy appreciation for it and the people who struggle to perfect it.
In fact, over the past few weeks, I’ve become obsessed with copywriting and its entailing concepts.
I’m trying to cram as much info as I can about it, and in my attempt, I’ve stumbled across what we now know as paperback novels. I’m not referring to those often-scorned icky romances with fancy raunchy covers that Tolkien would laugh about in his eternal sleep. I’ve tried to stay away from that section in bookstores. Instead, I headed straight for the Ludlums, Coelhos, Martins, Browns, holed myself up for hours under the warm glow of my study lamp, and absorbed the subdued crimes, the fierce underbelly of injustice, and the grim dungeons of fantasy worlds that these authors conjured.
I used to sneer at pop literature before, but now I’m a convert. As a fan of Shakespeare, Alighieri, and Hemingway, pop lit did not disappoint.
A Fondness for Economy
Copywriting is a marriage between creativity and economy; that which the writer hath brought together, let no man or beast tear asunder.
You may think that novelists have free reign on word count. That they can punch keyboard keys for days on end and their publisher will still welcome their manuscript with open arms. That they can push through with stories that have lost track of time, meaning, or coherence.
Novelists, out in the real world, are pressured with word count and page count too, similar to underpaid third-world ghost writers. Despite being immersed in a fantastical world of their own creation, authors do hold back from saying everything and getting carried away.
No page exists unless it serves a purpose; a contribution to the story, a drive to push the plot and characters forward. Elegant language and story-telling aside, writers make use of economy.
Brief slogans and ideas are infinitely better than detailed run-on sentences. Copywriting is about packing as much creativity, thought, and persuasion in 4-second phrases ? phrases that require a little less than 4 seconds to read.
Copy, just like a novel, cannot go long for the sake of going long. Otherwise, it’ll just be….. zzzzzz.
A Wonderful Dose of Melodrama
Secretly, we’re sometimes too melodramatic about our own frustrations. We’ve been heartbroken, miserable, broke, desperate, and lonely. We’ve all gone through pains and problems so we know that reading about emotion, misery, and human trauma gains our empathy as readers.
A little emotion in your copy can’t hurt.
Start with catchy emotional headlines then spiral to strong language that arouses senses. If you must, whip out your Laura Kinsale pocketbook to know how “emotion” reads like. Admittedly, I haven’t done this because I still refuse to surrender to icky romance paperbacks. But, if you can stomach the Daily Mail or Cosmopolitan, there’s no reason you can’t swallow pop fiction drama.
A Quick Burst of Ungrammaticality
My English professor will not approve of this. For most of our teenage life, we’re repeatedly taught the difference between dependent and independent clauses, fragments and sentences, phrases and whole ideas. We recited nouns and proper nouns in our sleep, master subject-verb agreements, and memorise dummy-do rules.
Sales copy, just like novel writing, is a different sphere from grammar.
Authors are exempted from grammatical rules. Although they do try to stick to basic sentence construction for readability’s sake, some of their stylistic choices sacrifice one or two grammar basics.
For example, fragments.
“IT was a brain. A disembodied brain. An oversized brain, just enough larger than normal to be completely revolting and terrifying. A living brain. A brain that pulsed and quivered, that seized and commanded. No wonder the brain was called IT.” -A Wrinkle in Time, Madeline L’Engle
Sentence fragments are powerful literary tools. It helps increase the impact of an emotion, an image, or a context. But then again, it’s not something you’d like to read for pages on end. It’s a tool that should be used judiciously or sparingly in your copy.
Here’s how Apple conquers sentence fragments:
It doesn’t seem possible. But it is.
It’s out thinnest display ever. And it’s the first of its kind.
And that’s just for starters.
Another example of a rule often bended, beginning a sentence with conjunctions.
A long time ago, somebody decided that we shouldn’t begin our sentences with “but” and “and”. Maybe an irate mother who’s tired of hearing, “But moooooom!”. But it’s perfectly okay to make sales copies that start with “and” and “but”. It’s easier to emphasise a point. And it reads better.
Last example, separating infinitive phrases.
Our English classes would insist that “to+verb” is the only acceptable grammatical formula. But then, it’s not such a big deal, is it? “To boldly go where no man has gone before” just doesn’t have the same ring as “to go boldly”. A mere switch in word arrangement and you can turn something from sentence to poetry.
Copywriting, like any form of writing, is an art.
Copywriters are not born, but made.
You don’t come out a newborn wailing sales slogans and bearing the marks of pen-stained wrists. It is an art you learn from experience, from good mentors, from random epiphanies at the subway, from imaginary conversations with your more-intelligent self, from doodles on napkins at fast food booths.
Copywriting is a job and a talent, one that most of us are even lucky to explore.
And if we’re not to judge copywriting, so too should our treatment of pop fiction. But I realised that behind the gloss-embossed lettering of pop literature novels, there’s a sense of art and structure. There’s meaning and there’s purpose. The words and stories of under-valued Harlequin writers and well-critiqued contemporary novelists have presented might just be our ticket to copy that leaps off the page.
So what’s your story?