The Monday Morning Memo: Style Tips for Ad Writers

Monday-Morning-Memo-Logo1By Roy H. Williams

Your unconscious writing style is how you write when you’re simply being yourself. You also have a formal style and you might even have a whimsical style. But three styles is usually as good as it gets.

Language, however, is extraordinarily plastic. You can make it do anything you want. With a little conscious effort, you can speak and write in a thousand voices. The possibilities are intoxicating.

I’m going to give you 10 ways to expand your literary voice. But please, I’m begging you, don’t get legalistic or analytical with this stuff. Style is like a frog; you can dissect the thing, but it dies in the process.

Let’s begin with a sentence in ordinary language: “The optional ingredients available for your omelet are mushrooms, tomatoes, onions, broccoli, jalapenos and cheese.”

1. Add. Now let’s add the word “and” between each of the ingredients. Notice how the list gains rhythm and length: “The optional ingredients available for your omelet are mushrooms and tomatoes and onions and broccoli and jalapenos and cheese.”

Adding conjunctions slows a list down. And depending on how the list is intoned, adding conjunctions can (1.) give it greater dignity or (2.) convey the author’s own impatience by signaling that he, too, thinks the list is long.

2. Subtract. Next we’ll subtract words from the original sentence, including the standard “and” that usually appears between the next-to-last and last items in a list: “Optional ingredients: mushrooms, tomatoes, onions, broccoli, jalapenos, cheese.”

Subtraction adds authority, accelerates the pace, says more in fewer words.

3. Substitute. Engage the imagination by substituting an unexpected adjective or verb for the one you would normally write: “Personalize your omelet with Splash! into the bubbling butter: mushrooms or tomatoes, onions or broccoli, jalapenos or cheese or all-of-them all at once.”

Okay, I confess, I not only substituted jazzy verbs for boring ones, I repeated “or” four times and “all” twice. On purpose. For Style.

4. Rearrange. I might have said, “I purposefully repeated ‘or’ and ‘all’ for the sake of style.” Instead, I rearranged the sentence to create multiple false endings like the multiple punch lines at the end of a Steven Wright joke.

You can also rearrange chronology: “We will buy, and rush into the mall.”

5. Disconnected Lists. Combine wildly disconnected things in a list, then connect them together in the closing fragment of the sentence.

“A cathedral, a wave of a storm, a dancer’s leap, never turn out to be as high as we had hoped.” – Marcel Proust

“Sparkling eyes, laughter, sunshine and speed come with every Nissan 370Z Convertible.”

6. Personification. Give human attributes to inanimate objects.

The shattered water made a misty din. Great waves looked over others coming in, and thought of doing something to the shore, that water never did to land before…  – Robert Frost, Once By the Pacific

“The gas pedal of this car throbs with hot impatience.”

7. Break the rules of logic. Tease the imagination by stating things that don’t make immediate sense.

“In two words, impossible.”

“But I can’t be out of money, I still have checks!”

8. Break the rules of grammar. Slip the handcuffs, seize attention. When Winston Churchill was reprimanded for ending a sentence in a preposition, he apologized, then added, “This is the sort of English up with which I will not put.” No one remembers the rest of the conversation.

Gertrude Stein is remembered for saying, late in life, “There ain’t any answer. There ain’t going to be any answer. There never has been an answer.”  Were she to have said, “Life doesn’t make any sense,” would her thoughts today be quoted? (That was another little trick of rearrangement. Common language would be, “would her thoughts be quoted today?”)

9. Use Calculated Repetition. Arthur Quinn cheerfully points out, “Scarcely a guidebook on writing does not contain an admonition such as the following: ‘Be brief. Do not repeat yourself. Say what you have to say in as few words as possible. To belabor your point is to risk boring your reader – even insulting his intelligence.’”

Quinn then wryly says, “We could easily point out that the author of this advice thought it so important that he was not brief, did repeat himself, used as many words as he dared, and insulted our intelligence by contradicting his own advice in the process of giving it.”

There is a time for repetition. Amplification is a worthy goal: “A child of our grandmother Eve, a female; or, for thy more sweet understanding, a woman.” – Shakespeare, Love’s Labors Lost, 1.1.263

“At her feet he bowed, he fell, he lay down: at her feet he bowed, he fell: where he bowed, there he fell down dead.”  – King James Bible, Judges 5:27

There is no correct or incorrect style. “Purely subjective, it is.” (That’s a little rearrangement trick Chris Maddock calls Yoda-Speak.)

10. Expand Your Reading. The easiest way to augment your style is to fill your ear with sentences strange. Reach for the author unread. Jack Kerouac. Tom Robbins. Robert Frost. Hemingway. Steinbeck. You can even find magic in Shakespeare and the King James Bible. Or you can remain in the small pen of your choosing and compare yourself to littler men. Come. The giants await.

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