I was listening to a podcast about the copywriter Julian Koenig earlier this week. At one
point, Koenig’s son recalled a piece of advice his father had given to him:
“if you don’t find something you want to do and really work at it, you are going to end
up like me – a writer of short sentences.”
It’s a shame that he wasn’t particularly proud of his achievements, but it’s funny that
even when he was trying to trivialise his career he came up with a pretty good line.
I’ve chosen to become an art director, but I still love copywriting and I’m trying to
practice the skill of writing ‘short sentences.’ I’m beginning to learn that it’s not so
much about the writing itself as it is about the thought behind it. The best straplines are
not necessarily elaborate, they simply say one true thing well. But condensing hours of
thought and research into one clear insight and then conveying it in just a few words is
no easy task.
We’ve heard in many master classes that less is more. Once (if) the elusive moment of
inspiration strikes you have to nurture the idea, removing layers from it until it sits
there in it’s purist form. Marc recently said that at this stage, we should aim to be
writing at least 300 lines before we even consider choosing one for an ad.
I suppose I’ve sort of become fascinated with the idea of saying so much with so little.
Everyone knows a picture speaks a thousand words. Maybe in a way, a clever strapline
Julian Koenig may have been dismissive of his skill, but interestingly Ernest Hemingway
thought there was real value in the ability to write powerful short sentences. He had a
theory that, like the tip of an iceberg poking above the sea as a marker of the vast mass
beneath, the most successful way of communicating the deepest human emotion is
through minimal and unelaborate language. The less you give a reader, the more they
are required to use their imagination. What happens in people’s heads is often far more
potent than anything you could give them on the page.
I remembered hearing a story that Hemingway had made a bet with a number of writers
around a dinner table. I don’t know if it’s true, but he supposedly bet them $10 that he
could write a six-word short story that would emotionally move them.
He scribbled his six words on a napkin, and won the bet. Funnily enough, the story was
written in the form of an advert:
“FOR SALE: BABY SHOES, NEVER WORN.”