Way Off the Mark: When The Copy Fairy Takes A Vacation

by Mark Margulies

It has happened to all of us. It has probably happened to me, oh, about 12,000 times in my career. You sit down, ready for the challenges of another day of writing and producing copy. You take a copy request from your stack and see that it's filled out just right. Everything is there for you to understand. So you slip in front of your word processor and...nothing. Okay, maybe you just need to come back to that one. Maybe there's nothing that really stood out about it. So you move on to the next request in the stack. It's also well written and very clear as to what needs to be done. The focus is simple and spelled out. The copy points are there, so you approach your keyboard again and...nothing. Not a word. Not a thought. Not a prayer. This isn't writer's block. This is Alzheimer's. You can't even think of your own name.

They want you to be funny. You can't think funny. They want serious. You can't think serious. It's happened to anyone who's ever written more than twenty spots in their life. So here are some ideas on how to call an end run around that old demon, Mr. Writer's Block.

Start by checking yourself out thoroughly, and by that I don't mean feel free to grope yourself in public. I mean, have you been existing on little green pills and two hours of sleep a night? Sorry, but I can't help you there. Chemically altering your neuron structure is a no-no, and no matter how many ways you try, what you need to do is get a good night's rest and dry out.

But even if it's fourth quarter and your sleep patterns are as normal as can be expected, if you're healthy and alert (and Lord knows we need as many lerts as we can get), then let's start with rule number one: RELAX. This isn't the Declaration of Independence or the Ten Commandments. Thomas Jefferson was busy giving birth to a nation and an ideal. All you have to worry about is Ken's Auto Salvage or Crissy's Boutique. Being uptight is only going to make you more nervous, which makes you more uptight, which makes you more...you get the picture. So get up and grab some fresh air. Take a walk. Clear your head. Just remember, yes, you have to come back.

Okay, let's start with the first idea. This is more for structural writers, the people who plan their idea out first, as opposed to "stream of consciousness" writers who tend to let their ideas happen as they write the spot. Start by simply creating the most basic structure of the ad, the Tag-Out. You know the routine: client's name repeated, location, maybe reinforce the offer one more time, phone number twice and out with client name again. Usually that gives you about five lines of copy to work with and relieves some of that "I've got nothing on this page!!!" mentality. It sometimes helped to relax me enough where I could complete my thoughts and begin to find the right idea to match to the focus of the ad. If this works for you, fine. If not, time to seek out step number two: the Block Box. I kept mine close by. To describe the Block Box, I need to digress for a moment. As I've said on many occasions, creative ideas are like navels--everybody has one. But as I've stressed, just because you have a great creative idea doesn't mean it's going to be successful at that particular time. The client's focus may make the idea useless. But a good idea should never go to waste, so the idea should get written down and placed somewhere close by, to be used when it's the right time. With that in mind, back to the Block Box. Starting your own Block Box is a good habit and can bail you out when Mr. Writer's Block strangles your synapses. A normal Block Box will contain anywhere from a dozen to two dozen ideas. That means you have an instant source for good creative. So cruise your Block Box and see if you don't find some answers.

On to the next step if you're looking for more alternatives. Here, the recommendation is, go down to your local grocery store, convenience store, or candy store and pick up the World Weekly News and the Globe. In these rags lies the true treasure of untapped creative genius. Some of the finest creative writing minds in America slave away at these yellow sheets. Now, you may never get an out and out idea to just jump off the page and hit you in your frontal lobes, but they can get you started in the right direction. For example, a WWN headline might be "ELVIS AND HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON IN LOVE TRYST IN LINCOLN ROOM OF WHITE HOUSE." In and of itself, maybe not useful. But Elvis might trigger an idea. Or the White House. Or what if the First Lady were caught doing something else (in the bathroom, on the phone, leading Congress, etc.)? This starts you THINKING, which in turn gets the creative juices flowing and can help spur an idea or situation. Notice the Enquirer and the Star did not make my list. They tend to be too tame and mainstream these days. But if all else fails, they might help.

Need another idea? That didn't do it? Okay, try childhood memories. What did you like to do as a kid? Read comic books, play with toys, flip baseball cards, bike, play hopscotch, take a trip in the car with your parents? There again could be the jumping off point for something creative. Super heroes, parents, best friends, silly games, toys that worked or didn't work--all are fodder for developing and following an idea until it matches your client's focus.

Another suggestion is to grab the local alternative paper in town and check the personals--no, not for a date. The personals tend to cover a wide gamut of styles and people. There may be an idea in an ad which fits your focus and intrigues you ("Mustang with 351 engine and V-8 under the hood seeks mechanic with spark plugs..."). Or, you may decide to write a personal ad for the client himself. It's another quality source to explore and, again, may be a good jumping off point in a totally different direction.

Other sources for ideas could be television talk shows, the news (listen to the top of the hour report on your station monitor), the almanac (great statistics and categories), junk mail, comic strips...the list goes on. These are just some that have helped me personally and that I depend on, even to this day. But talk to twenty Production Directors or writers, and you'll get thirty more opinions and a hundred more sources.

Once again, the most important advice I can give in this area is, relax. I can't stress that enough ("stress" to "relax"? Oh well....) Do what it takes to clear your head for a while. It's the most important step to letting clean, new ideas flow in.

It happens to everyone. Writer's Block is something you can't guard against, can't predict, and you never know when it'll appear (kind of like old boyfriends and girlfriends, huh?). But by clearing your mind and using the sources you have available to you, you can make Writer's Block just another minor annoyance in a medium filled with fun and wonder.

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