By Jarlath, author and native of Ireland. His fourth novel is due for publication next year.
At first, it might seem as if copywriting couldn’t be more different than creative writing. Short stories and novels are full of unlikely situations and human drama, very often with the possibilities of language pushed to the limit. On the other hand, copywriting is usually informative, intended to convey a message or sell a product, with the messy business of being human stripped out. However, both copywriting and creative writing are about using words effectively to achieve a specific goal, and there is a lot that copywriting can teach you about finishing that novel you’ve always planned to write.
Before you begin, it’s important to know what you’re setting out to achieve. With a piece of copywriting, it might be three sentences on why the Vax Pax Vacuum Cleaner 3000 is better than the Vax Pax Vacuum Cleaner 101. With creative writing, your goals might at first be more fuzzy. However, it’s important to think about what you want your finished piece to be like. Is it a short story about a mother and daughter at a turning point in their relationship? Or an epic sci-fi trilogy about intergalactic warfare? Instead of diving in head first and hoping for the best, you need to establish your form and genre, and have a rough idea of how long you want the piece to be.
You wouldn’t dream of writing about the advantages of the Vax Pax Vacuum Cleaner 3000 without doing your research first. The same thing goes for creative writing. How much preparation you have to do will depend on your subject matter. For example, if you’re writing a novel set in Mediaeval France, you’ll have to find out some basic facts about the time period, such as how people dressed, ate and spoke. Even for a time and place you know well, you’ll have to prepare a certain amount of background knowledge. Where do your characters live, work, travel? If you don’t understand your characters’ lives, your plot will soon run into trouble. You won’t use everything, but it helps to have it, just in case.
One of the great things that copywriting teaches you is that simply setting aside the time to write can help get the creative juices flowing. Some people, especially those who don’t write for a living, have the romantic idea that creative writing is all about staring out the window drinking endless cups of tea, then jotting down ideas when inspiration hits out of the blue. The reality is that creative writing is work like any other. Take it seriously. Create a routine. Find an environment free from distractions. Try to write at the same time daily or weekly, if you can. If you have a favourite pen, or you need coffee and silence while you write, great. When you establish a routine, the work starts to flow.
One of the most valuable things you pick up when copywriting is the “house style” of the business you’re working for. Sometimes it’s cutting-edge, clinical and no-nonsense. Sometimes it’s friendly, approachable and chatty. Whatever the style, you learn to adapt your language and write accordingly. It’s the same with creative writing. While every writer has their own style to work with – flowery or plain, small-scale or expansive – it’s important to hone that style for the particular genre you’re working in. For example, if you’re writing a romantic comedy, it’s usually important that your style comes across as light, likeable and funny. On the other hand, thrillers thrive on cynicism and dark humour. Adapt your style to your story.
5. Clarity of purpose
With copywriting, it’s essential to know what you’re doing. When you’re writing 3 sentences about the merits of the Vax Pax Vacuum Cleaner 3000, you can’t break into a soliloquy about the beauty of a bunch of daffodils. With creative writing, you have more opportunity for tangents and random observations – in fact, they often help make the work feel more lived in and real. However, no matter how many paths your characters meander down, it’s essential to keep the destination in sight. Your hero might wax lyrical about a bunch of daffodils for half a page – let him – but when that’s done, he still has to meet the heroine at the dance or they’ll never fall in love. Be clear about your characters’ movements, motives and intentions. If they steer off track, gently bring them back. Stay in control of your story.
“My Aunt Delilah was having a terrible time keeping cat fur off the sofa. She was ready to bring Fluffy to the vet for the final time! But then she discovered the Vax Pax Vacuum Cleaner 3000. Now her sofa is fur-free and Fluffy is safe. There really is more than one way to skin a cat.” For all the facts and figures that drives copywriting, good copywriting is often most effective when it incorporates a story. That’s worth remembering when you’re trying to impress editors and publishers with how beautiful your prose is. Even for literary fiction, where sometimes not much happens, a good story is the way to most readers’ hearts. It’s a human need to know what happens next, especially when the stakes are high (“Oh no! Poor Fluffy!”).
One of the key ingredients to effective copywriting is structure. Whether we’re aware of it or not, this is usually in the classic form of a three-act structure: a beginning, a middle, and an end. In its simplest form, we begin by identifying a problem (“cat fur on the sofa”), continue by exploring a dilemma (“do we have to get rid of Fluffy?”), and finish by resolving the problem (“buy the Vax Pax Vacuum Cleaner 3000”). And at heart, most creative writing follows this structure too – it’s simply easier to see it when it’s in the form of an advert or a webpage, rather than an entire novel. Think of your story as a three-act drama. Identify the issue, the dilemma, and the solution. That’s your structure.
As every copywriter knows, you never get it right first time. That’s why copywriting teams are always on hand to check each other’s work, again and again. Now, imagine how much more complicated that is when it comes to creative writing. If you’ve got a body of work and you want to share it, you’re going to have to prepare yourself for some constructive criticism. Whether you join a creative writing group or show your work to a trusted friend, be willing to listen to feedback, even when you don’t like it. With copywriting, there may be a general consensus or a boss that decides on the final copy. With creative writing, you’re the boss – but it’s wise to listen to the general consensus. If everyone is giving you the same feedback, listen. They’re probably right.
Just like every piece of copywriting, every piece of creative writing needs a good edit. Once you’ve got your feedback, it’s time to decide what pieces of advice you wish to accept, and what pieces of advice you’re going to ignore. Remember, the goal of editing is to make your final draft the best it can possibly be. Chances are, if something is nagging you as not quite right, you need to change it. Likewise, if something is “good” but doesn’t help the overall piece of work, you should probably take it out. Be as ruthless editing your own creative writing as you would be with a piece of copywriting for someone else. Keep the best parts. Remove or rewrite the weak parts. Try again until you have a polished final draft. Learn to be your own best, and hardest, editor.
As a copywriter, the most satisfactory part of the job is seeing your finished work onscreen or in print. You did the hard work, collaborated with your colleagues, and it paid off. Keep that in mind when you’re working on your creative writing too. There are lots of literary journals and online communities that want fresh poetry, essays or short stories. Equally, there are lots of publishers and agents looking for novels, screenplays or creative non-fiction. Once you have a good piece of creative writing that you’re proud of and want to be read, seek out a publisher, platform or audience that will appreciate it as much as you do. Remember, most writers get multiple rejections, but results – major or modest – make it all worthwhile. Good luck!