The Quintessential Writer
Picture, for a moment, the quintessential writer. The sort of writer that we all grew up wanting to be; the type of writer that doesn’t answer what he or she does with, “I’m a writer,” but, “I’m that writer.”
Maybe you picture someone specific. William Shakespeare, quill in hand, poised over a play; George Orwell, writing the title of Animal Farm. Perhaps you see Harper Lee, writing the first draft of To Kill a Mockingbird, or JK Rowling, sitting on that crowded train, the plot of Harry Potter developing in her mind. Maybe all you see is a faceless form, head tilted away from the light so it can’t be seen. At some point, however, I think all those images start to take the same path. The writer reaches for a writing tool—a pen, a laptop, a vintage typewriter—and writes.
One thing I don’t think anyone sees the writer doing is pausing. Putting the pen back down. And reaching for a rulebook to check that he’s doing things right.
But by all accounts and purpose, some sort of rulebook seems to exist. Just search Google. There are rules from the masters and the unknown, rules ranging from overall attitude to the nitty-gritty details of how to end your dialogue and which punctuation marks you shouldn’t use.
There are even rules as to who can and can’t call themselves a writer. A college professor once told my class that a writer lives to write. Writing is, to this writer, like breathing; a day without writing is a day unlived. And if you don’t fit that definition, you’re not a writer.
I kinda struggle with this idea. Maybe there are rules for technical writing, but creative writing (in which I include copywriting) is all about (spoiler alert:) creativity. And creativity defies rules. The whole idea of creativity is to make up something new, something that’s never existed before. You can’t do that if you’re told that there are accepted ways and methods to create, and anything else is not worth creating.
There can be advice, sure. It’s definitely advisable to listen to the tips of experienced professionals. It’s kinda like cooking: if you know what you’re doing, you can walk into the kitchen and create a dish no one’s heard of that blows the world away—but sometimes it’s best to just stick to the cookbook.
But if you don’t want to be a carbon copy of someone else, then you have to create something of your own, too.
I like to give an example of tense. I’ve read a lot of stories written in past tense. I’ve read a lot of stories written in present tense. I’ve yet, however, to read a story written in future tense; to the best of my knowledge, one doesn’t exist. That’s because it’d be incredibly difficult to write a story in future tense that wouldn’t be absolutely awful. I definitely can’t imagine doing it. And if anyone were to ever ask me, I’d probably advise against it.
But that doesn’t mean it can’t be done. Writing is creative. Perhaps one day there will be a writer so brilliant, so talented, that he or she will write a story in future tense and it’ll actually be readable.
And that won’t happen if we stifle them with rules.
Which kinda begs the question: why is this blog post about the #1 rule of writing?
The Essence of Writing
The thing is, despite everything I said about creativity not being limited by rules, I do believe that there is one rule that applies to all writing. It’s because, though you may need creativity to write, there is a deeper aspect to writing, something that’s more integral than creativity.
The fact that writing is communication.
We write to lie. We write to create. We write to make money. But no matter what, we write to be heard. To convey a point. And if we don’t convey that point, we’ve failed. It’s probably the only possible way to actually fail—to get that fat, red F—in writing. The Lord of the Rings would have had no impact on society if people couldn’t understand it. Animal Farm would never have had the impact it had if people thought it really was a book about animals in a farm.
There can be no greater failure in writing than to make a point and have no one understand it.
Take these two examples. Both are options I wrote for our company’s newsletters, with the brand and product names redacted for confidentiality (and because it looks cool). Here’s the first option I wrote—one I considered a far superior option.
"You know that saying, photography is pain? Only, that’s not a saying at all, but whoever designed those sharp spring releases on [product name] clearly didn’t get the memo. Since everyone’s getting confused, [Brand Name] decided to clear things up by replacing those springs with finger-friendly locking mechanisms on three of their most popular [product name] ."
And here’s the second.
"It’s no great secret that [product name] aren’t designed for comfort. Case in point: the sharp, thin springs you have to press down on to close them. Ouch. Well, [brand name] had enough. We’ve replaced the locking mechanisms on three of our most popular models with finger-friendly locking mechanisms. Your comfort matters."
I didn’t love this one. It seemed a little tacky to me. But it’s the one I ultimately went with. I showed the first one to a few people, and they all had to read it over a few times before they understood it. And that was unacceptable to me. In a world of diminishing attention span, what guarantee did I have that anyone would be dedicated enough to read it over a few times? It was better to go with an inferior piece of copy, so long as I got my point across.
So that’s the number 1 rule: nothing is more important than clarity.
Don’t assume that the fact that the last few people you asked couldn’t make heads-or-tails of your writing that the next reader will. Don’t assume that your reader will put in the time to unscramble what you’re writing. It has to be clear enough to be understood on the first read, because, all too likely, that will be all you get.
And if it’s not, don’t write it. It’s better to write a bland, to the point, junior-high-level piece of writing that is clear and to the point than to write an emotional, entertaining, piece of art that’s just gibberish. Heck, writing it in Chinese is better. At least that way the reader has a chance with Google Translate.
But there’s no Google Translate for gibberish.
Eli Landes is one of those weird writers who just can't get enough. A marketing writer by day and a fiction writer whenever he can squeeze in the time, he spends his spare time working on his novel, writing short fiction, or daydreaming (I mean, researching). His main genre is Jewish fiction, but he's been known to dabble in the weird, the absurd, and the truly dark.