Copywriter Brain: An exposé

Copywriting is a largely internal pursuit. And yes, it’s largely solitary. But there is a certain amount of teamwork that takes place, and just as much “brainstorming,” if not more, than you’d get in any bullpennish office with folks flinging headlines and ideas back and forth at each other, just to test them.

The teamwork takes place between me and my client, me working off of information and feel that I’m getting from them. The bullpenning takes place in my head. It’s loads of fun, honestly.

Most rewarding about the process is the one crystallizing moment, kind of like the ping you get in your ears when a four-part harmony comes together, when you’ve struck the right tone for a line of copy or for a brand whose voice you’re trying to nail down.

If I’m doing my job right, this happens with all my clients.

Sometimes, I get to use the process on myself.

I ran out of business cards recently.

Here’s what they used to look like, and say:


That’s my twitter handle on one side (different colors every few cards) and the copy on the back. (It reads, “Generally sparkling writing; pithy, creative copy, and editing so accurate it’s curmudgeonly.”)

I took a good long while to come up with that tagline for myself a few years ago, and here’s why.

  1. Your business card is often your first point of permanent contact with someone. Handshakes; phone numbers tapped in; even a shared drink or a laugh–all that stuff is ephemera, compared to a piece of collateral that someone will carry around with them and have to reference at least one more time if they want to keep in touch, or file away, or do any kind of followup on their meeting with you.
  2. At the time, over the course of a working day, I was handling everything from copyediting to writing copy to helping individuals to write their own books. So I needed something that reflected that.
  3. Although I take my work quite seriously, I don’t take myself very seriously. I think it’s kind of funny–and a little bit sad–that I get bent out of shape over things like misplaced apostrophes and “lie” vs. “lay.” So I wanted a line that would reflect that part of my personality, and somehow relay the idea that I’m fun to work with.

Aside from the two people I met who didn’t know what “curmudgeonly” meant, my tag line has always made people smile, and (maybe I’m just imagining this) pocket my card with a little bit more care. At the very least, I know it gave me a leg up by helping people to remember me. And no, I don’t really mind being remembered as a curmudgeon.

So. The new tag line felt like it had a lot to live up to. I really mourned losing the curmudgeonly editor act, but someone once told me creatives should be open to re-inventing ourselves once every six or seven years, and I believe that. Finally, I really didn’t want to copy-edit anymore. So I batted around a few iterations of new taglines:

  • pithy, smart copy; generally sparkling prose. –>first part’s just okay; second part is too precious
  • pithy, articulate copy; crackling prose. –>”crackling” too close to “cracklins”; I’m not a pork rind
  • pithy, articulate copy; firecracker prose. –> *shrugs*

I was too close to the whole thing. It’s hard to describe yourself! So I turned to a friend who has a good copy ear. Over a couple of gchats, we quickly nailed down that a few things were off:

1. Three times makes a pattern, so the rhythm of the tagline was off by one item.

2. What was really lovely about the original tagline was the line that *might* be a throw-away line, but that worked really well in making people take a second look and actually revealed something about the card-holder.

So we went to adding a third “thing”.

  • pithy, articulate copy; firecracker content; bright-eyed, bushy-tailed writing. --> ugh.
  • pithy, articulate copy; firecracker prose; shiny-new-thing writing. –>double ugh.
  • pithy, articulate copy; firecracker prose; generally frisky writing. –> somehow stomach-turning.
  • pithy, articulate copy; firecracker content; unicorn-poop writing. –>closer? closer? f***.
  • pithy, articulate copy; firecracker content; generally sparkling writing. –> just okay.

With the need for a third thing apparent, now we were stuck looking for something that was somehow self-deprecating while still revealing something about me as a writer and–okay, as a person, since so much of copywriting is also the personality of the copywriter him- or herself.

I turned next to a friend who works at LinkedIn, and who knows me and my body of work really well. After he mocked me for still having a business card, we worked on the premise that three items was right; that the existing two items said enough about my work. So where did that leave the third item?

After a few beats, Larry sent over this gem of a photo, a movie prop from an adaptation of his favorite book, and one of mine, Lonesome Dove.


It’s the sign at the entrance to Lonesome Dove ranch.

I love this sign for many reasons. One is that the the Latin that’s written at the bottom of the sign is only there because Gus McCrae, who’s  a bit of a self-inflated puffshirt but totally loveable, thinks it sounds educated. He doesn’t actually know what it means.

The second is the line above it: “We don’t rent pigs,” which seems completely unrelated, but that has something to do with the ranch itself, and which tells you something about not only the ranch, but the folks who run it.

I said to Larry, “If I could ‘We don’t rent pigs’ my business card and get away with it, I’d totally do it.”

And that was the kernel that made it apparent: What we were looking for was something totally off-the-cuff that would make people look twice, but that still made them either curious enough to want to learn more, or at least made them remember.

And so, after considering “killer peanut butter sandwiches,” “a mostly positive attitude,” and a few other things, we came up with this:


Combined with MOO’s Printfinity service, which allows us up to 100 different images on the back of each card, this is a tagline that allows me to showcase a modicum of personality and pique some interest. And, of course, it’s all true: I really do have a certificate from the New York Bartending School, although I don’t practice regularly. I just enjoy it. Finally, a bit of mystery and magic is what you’d expect from someone’s who’s trained to take quotidian ingredients like words and make them into something palatable and interesting.

So that’s a bit of what happens when we copywriters work, and when the process works right. Aren’t you glad you know, now?

Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

You are Here

This weekend, on one of my runs, I listened to a RadioLab episode called “Lost & Found.”

It was partly about how our brains piece together where we are. In one segment, a scientist named Lera Boroditsky told us about a tribal language in Australia that is really focused on location: Instead of asking “How are you?” tribe members ask, “Which way are you going?” And the answer can be astonishingly accurate: “North-Northwest, in the middle direction,” say.

Dr. Boroditsky noted that something like one-third of the languages worldwide have this kind of dead-reckoning built into them. We don’t use it as much in English, but I’ve noticed something interesting in my short time here in California: the scale here is so big that I have a hard time thinking in terms of north, south, east, and west.

I was much more prone to using dead-reckoning speak when I was living in cities. I think this has to do with the compactness of places. and the relative ease of finding landmarks: In Paris, the first major city I ever lived in, the Seine split the city neatly; the Luxembourg Gardens were due south by a block; the Marais due north and across the river; school was one arrondisement to the south-east. In New York, “the Bronx is up and the Battery down”; the Empire State Building barely north and east of my first-ever job; the Chrysler Building just across the street from my fourth-ever job;  the PepsiCo bottling plant sign across the river in Queens, my second-ever New York home; the World Trade Center way south; Inwood Park at the northern tip; the Hudson to the west. In Chicago, freaking Lake Michigan got in the way of exploring Michigan itself and prevented you from wandering too far, ever, and if you got to O’Hare you pretty much were about as far west as you wanted to go.

“Well,” you might say, “what’s the problem? In California, the ocean is West.” True. But it’s too far away for me to use it as a marker, really. And I’m hemmed in by three different mountain ranges, one to the south, one to the east, one to the north. In between? Strip malls, modeling schools, Green Burritos mashed up with Carl’s Jrs. You could drive for an hour on the I-10 and only be sure of your location by counting the number of auto malls–car dealerships, they call ‘em everyplace else–you’d passed.

Anyway, the good doctor had this to add: When, after enough time living among the tribe that spoke in dead-reckoning speak, she finally had a brief flash, like a Magic Eye illustration, of a map in her head, of Where She Was, a little red dot on the map, she told someone, and they said, “Well, of course. How else would you do it?” And I kind of realized, running south on Indian Hill to Baseline, where I’d run straight east until I hit home, how much I missed that way of thinking about things. I don’t tell people anymore go to east until you hit so-and-so street. I don’t tell folks that I live to the north of anything.

In short, I miss knowing Where I Am.

I have started rectifying this. I look at maps of Southern California on a regular basis. I am always trying to get people to tell me where they live, not like this:

“I live at the intersection of the 15 and the 10.”

But like this:

“I’m just southeast of you by ten miles.”

Is this unfair? I don’t care. A sense of place is important.

By the by–I think of this pictorial representation as the reason something like storyboards work so well, or, in my case, my index-card grid for my manuscript. Being able to see where you are in the story arc…that’s something real, something you can lean on and hold up for progress’ sake, and in exchange for a small piece of sanity.



Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

Verbagram 2, the Raw Fish edition

Our good friend Tim came to visit. We had a packed weekend that somehow managed to include some downtime on our couch and four episodes of American Horror Story, before it jumped the shark. It was fantastic.

It also gave us an excuse to go visit Cousin Richard at his incredible sushi joint. And that gave me an excuse to think about another food-based Verbagram. Because, you know what? I am sick of people describing sushi-grade fish as “like butter.” People. That’s disgusting. Seriously, would you ever eat a stick of butter? Or a pat, by itself? This description makes no sense to me.


Sometimes, you eat something and it tastes like the place it came from. By this I do not mean that when you eat a piece of steak, it tastes like a barnyard smells. I mean that sometimes you eat something and you get an evocation, an impression. Piece of steak, again: Big, open fields, as far as the eye can see. The occasional tree, and a few lone cows, standing here and there, with a bird of prey streaking across the sky. See? Steak tastes of largesse, of generosity, and even maybe of excess, depending on whether or not you get the crumbled blue cheese on top.

Take sushi: The texture: creamy, practically, even though the fish is arguably solid, sitting there on its rice. It yields to the bite easily; maybe because it’s ribboned with fat, if you’re eating a nice piece of salmon. Or maybe, if it’s yellowtail, just because that’s the way a good fresh fish should be.

You don’t get any flavor at all, really, in that first bite. If anything, the vapors of wasabi and fine rice vinegar are the first to hit your palate; and then, finally, an absurdly clean finish, a little bit like you’ve rinsed with really cold seawater.

Your salmon should evoke the day you spent on the banks of a river in Maine, with the early-summer sunlight dappling the current. And your tuna will take you back to the day you spent on a party boat in Brooklyn. Your uni will remind you, briefly, of the time you got washing-machined by the wave you weren’t expecting, that afternoon in Rhode Island.

For Grier, a photo. Because you requested it.

Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

Watch the Clock!

As a student body, we’ve been thinking a lot about timing.

Why? Because every residency, we have something along the order of five readings. That’s five nights during which students spend another hour or so listening to valued fellow students and guest faculty read from their works. We do this at Whidbey for several reasons:

  1. Reading to a group is a professional skill, one which every student should have well under their belts.
  2. Reading your work out loud is yet another way of getting to know it, inside and out.
  3. Reading your work out loud is a gift to the audience: It’s rare that folks get to hear an author’s words from their own lips. It’s a gift that shouldn’t be taken lightly on either end.
  4. Getting to hear the pros gives us something to aspire to.

The flip, less-sexy-but-equally-important side to each of these reasons is time limits. Each reader is given an allotted amount of time, and each reader should stick to that allotted time, regardless of whether or not the readers feels the need to make a tremendously long explanation to his or her work. Here are the reasons why:

  1. It’s only fair to the other readers, that you each get the same allotment of time.
  2. If  you need to explain your work and the explanation takes up the bulk of your allotted time, then the piece needs more work.
  3. Readings are meant to whet the listener’s appetite for more from the writer, that’s all. Complete stories are nice, but hardly necessary.

At NILA, it’s students who run the readings. We’ve come up with several ideas, some of which were submitted by faculty, to encourage folks to stick to their time limits. They are:

  • Water pistols
  • Burp guns (both ping-pong and marshmallow)
  • Gigantic “Gong Show” type gong

  • Big hook, a la the old vaudeville shows

  • Swelling music that eventually drowns out the speaker, a la award shows

Hm. I like all of these. What’s your choice for encouraging folks to keep to time limits?


Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

A writing prompt, after a fashion

I saw someone very special the other day. It was someone I only see once every six or seven years, apparently. She is lovely and it never seems like any time has gone by when we do see each other, and I think this is part of the reason why:

Well. Not this exactly. But stuff like this.

After an awesome backwards dinner (we had dessert first), we strolled back to my car and spotted this, um, tableau in a shop window. We then proceeded to riff off of it for a good ten, fifteen minutes. It’s nice to find people like that with whom you can do such things.

We came up with a number of possibilities. (If you can’t really see it, the scary-looking devil-child is holding a set of antlers behind his–its?–back.) The horse is actually an old rocking horse, and it has a hole through its neck where, presumably, the reins used to go.

The various scenarios we came up with:

“Hello horsie. Would you like something sweet?”

“Well. I have these fine antlers. But I really would like it better if you were a unicorn, so…here.”

“Ah. I see. The hole in your neck. Here’s something to plug it with.”

“My Frankenhorse is almost complete. I have shed the barnacles of my childhood by making a mere plastic rocking horse into a carousel horse. Now it remains only to unicornize it. Oops. I did not mean to de-antler that buck on the way here.”

Now it’s your turn. What do you think is going on here? My totally subjective choice of winner gets a bag of Swedish fish mailed to them. I’ll try to make it the multi-colored ones, but you’ll get standard red if that’s all I can find.

“Submissions” close December 31.

Special thanks to Shey, my once-every-seven-years friend, for making this happen. Hopefully we’ll see more of each other now!


Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

Fugue State

I took half of Friday to recharge my batteries and see The Met’s annual collaboration with The Costume Institute, called “Impossible Conversations: Schiaparelli and Prada.”

A little background: Elsa Schiaparelli was a designer whose heyday was during the 1930s-60s. She had a playful sensitivity about her that belied fashion’s then-more utilitarian purpose; rather than using fashion as a reflection of the times, she used it to drive aesthetic sensitivity. It all makes sense when you consider that she collaborated multiple times with Salvador Dali, a visual artist who put his views to work for clients as varied as Alfred Hitchcock and Walt Disney.

Elsa Schiaparelli

Here’s Salvador Dali’s “Eye” painting, 1945

And here’s one of Schiaparelli’s hats, called the “Eyelash,” which is meant to evoke the idea of the whole head as an eye.

Miuccia Prada is one of our contemporary designers, of course. You’ve all seen her logo:

photo via

And some of her work:

image via

Here’s where it gets tricky. The exhibit is called “Impossible Conversations” because clearly it’s impossible for the living, breathing Prada to have a conversation with the long-gone Schiaparelli. But it’s also modeled after a Vanity Fair column that used to run in the 1930s called “Impossible Interviews,” which featured caricatures of unlikely conversationalists (John D. Rockfeller and Joseph Stalin, for instance). The caricatures, painted by Miguel Covarrubias, were accompanied by text by Corey Ford, a regular contributor to the magazine. (For more on the “Impossible Interviews” and a snippet of text, go to the Norman Rockwell Center’s great page on it.)

Okay, that was a lot of background.

It’s an interesting premise, even if the title of the thing–and its invited comparison to the Vanity Fair feature–encourages the underlying belief that Schiaparelli and Prada have deeply conflicting ideas on fashion. (They do, but they’re not as wide in scope as, say, communism and capitalism.) Also, the Vanity Fair column seemed to be entirely tongue-in-cheek, and totally absurdist, whereas this exhibit is entirely earnest.

But it was a disappointment. It starts off with a video of Prada and Schiaparelli sitting at a huge Italianate table having drinks. I thought we’d have recordings of Schiaparelli’s voice with maybe some still photographs at her end of the table (why else is that table so damned long?), but no, it’s Australian actress Judy Davis, giving it her all in an updo and a severe black dress.

Actress Judy Davis (photo via

Prada, for her part, is just Prada. And it was interesting to hear her talk about what it was like to labeled “minimalist,” and how, as a child, she hid behind things and eventually used fashion as a way to “out” herself. (She doesn’t mean outing as from the closet; she means she found a way to express herself.)

But here’s the thing: it IS possible for even a fine art exhibit to think too much of itself, and I think that’s what happened here. The whole thing is way too meta: Here’s an art exhibit riffing off a magazine column that riffed off of real life. And  snippets of the film play all the way through the exhibit, creating a fugue-like atmosphere that distracted entirely from the beauty of the work. All I could hear was Davis’ Italian-ate accent grinding its way through my brain.

So there you are, trying to see why it is these two designers have been paired together, but the clips play throughout, making it really hard to concentrate on some of the statements that Schiaparelli actually made about her work, which are printed at the foot of some of the items. (The script of the film varies just slightly from the actual text of Schiaparelli’s own commentary, whereas Prada’s commentary seems to be taken verbatim from the script, or vice-versa. The whole thing is just too much.)

So what was missing for me? Schiaparelli did some amazing work. She has her relatively tame lobster dress, which was a gorgeous piece of white organza that had a huge lobster printed on it; and her work was incredibly playful–check out these acrobat buttons:

But the exhibit didn’t have what I think is one of her most interesting works, the skeleton dress:

Skeleton Dress image via

And I’m pretty sure it didn’t even include the lobster dress, but instead included an image of it.

I think the most glaring omission of the exhibit was the express exclusion of any mention of the gorgeous masks, all created in the spirit of surrealism by British hairstylist Guido Palau. Here are a few snaps from

I would have loved to have seen an artist’s statement from Palau, at least, on these masks. (I think it’s a testimony to their awesomeness that, by the time I got to the Met mini-shop at the end of the exhibit, they’d sold out of the postcards that featured the masks. And it’s worth mentioning, too, that Palau did the masks for the Met’s exhibit on Alexander McQueen last year.)

In the end, I’m glad I went. But I was left with the impression that, rather than wanting to highlight the importance of these two designers to fashion, The Met went the route of highlighting its own importance to the world of fashion exhibits.

The whole exhibit ends with a snippet of film in which Schiaparelli/Davis questions whether she and Prada would have been friends or foes if they had lived during the same era. Prada laughs and says, “No, Schiap, no!”

In the end, I think it’s perhaps this false familiarity, the use of the diminutive where permission to use it most certainly hasn’t been granted,  that signifies everything that grates about this exhibit. Schiaparelli’s work perhaps deserves an exhibit of its own. She doesn’t need a backdrop for us to appreciate her designs and artistry. She certainly doesn’t need Baz Luhrman (I KNOW!!), Judy Davis, scriptwriters, and trick photos* to enthrall us.

It’s questionable that she even needs Miuccia Prada.

*If you go, take a close look at the black-and-white photos of Schiaparelli’s work. Just stand there awhile. Trust me.

Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

April is the month of Nostalgia

We were watching Objectified the other night. It’s a documentary about the everyday things we use in life, and the future of design. I really enjoyed it, in part for its focus on quotidian items and the thought that goes into them. It made me think of all the things that have gone obsolete recently that I truly miss. Here’s a curated listing:

Ma Bell phones


I so love these big clunkers. I love the heft of them, the way the base stayed put no matter how far you stretched the cord. I love the effort you had to put into dialing–really, really mean it–and the way you could dab the little twin buttons on the cradle to hang up. (Incidentally, this reminds me of one of my favorite writers, Lee Child, and the way he describes certain actions: car tires “patter” when they’re crossing train tracks; his hero “butts” papers into a neat stack; he “dabs” at the cradle to dial again. Verb choices. Critical.)

I also love the lack of caller ID, and here’s why. Every time the phone rang, you never knew who was calling. Picking up the phone was like opening a present, only you couldn’t even shake the box first to find out what might be in it. And so, the greeting: “Hello?” Tentatively, curiously: “Hellooo?” Or even better: “Hello!” “HI!” “HELLO!” I don’t know who you are yet, but “HELLO!!! HOW NICE TO HEAR FROM YOU!” No, it doesn’t matter who you are.

A close second for the reason I miss this phone: The angry hang up. Slam! Bang! Down goes the receiver, with an authoritative crash. You can’t do that anymore, with the cordless phones. You can push the END button, that angry little red crossed-out phone icon, as hard as you want to, jab at it, press it until your nailbed goes white…but no one will know you’re angry, and, worse, you won’t get the satisfaction of letting the other person know just how angry you were when you hocked that receiver into the cradle.

Train Boards

from @Triborough's Flickr Stream

When I first moved to New York in 1996, Grand Central still had its ticker board up. As the trains left the station, the numbers and letters on the board would turn: ticketyticketyticketyticketyflip! and then all would be quiet for a few minutes.

The tickers were mesmerizing. They were like magic. I never understood how they worked. I still don’t, and I don’t really want to know. They were part of the background noise that makes up a train station for me. Without them (Grand Central Terminal moved to digital ticker boards in ’98, I think), the station seems eerily quiet to me, somehow too efficient.

Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station still has a proper ticker board. Some European airports have them, too. I miss them like crazy, and when I pull into Philly I always take a minute to stare at them and wait for a train to pull in, if I have time, so I can watch the board move.

The board is linear, but those moving numbers and letters–they turn something hard-edged and linear into something fluid, sinuous. Gorgeous.

Answering Machines

This is very like the last answering machine I ever owned. I kept it through my move into  Manhattan, and I can’t actually remember if Jim and I had one in Croton Falls, but I pine for it every time I look at my sleek cordless handset.

Why? Because I love coming home and seeing the blinking red light. Someone’s left a message for you! Not only are you home–home!–but you have something extra! Quick, put down the groceries, press the big blue button, find out who it was!

Now it’s like, oh, hunh! Looks like I missed a call. Gotta dial into voicemail. Gotta listen to that annoying digital lady tell me how many messages I have. Gotta press three to delete–that person called my mobile line right after she tried my landline.

What a hassle. Voicemail. I hate it.

Road maps

Maps tell me everything has gone right. Maps tell me that some things are as they should be. Maps are backstops and works of human diligence and art. And orienteering, a sport that uses map-and-compass skills, is one of the reasons I trust myself as much as I do today. If you can read a map, you’re never really lost. And you have constant reminders that you are on the right track. And you have backstops: “If you cross this river, you’ve gone too far.”

I wish more people understood how great maps are.

Analog Clocks

When I was growing up I had one of these. I think my parents have it now. More important, it is still wearing the little orange cap my dad made for it that said something like:

“Good morning Yi Shun! I am your clock. Please do not forget to wind me up every night before you go to bed.”

Big Ben, Baby Ben. I can’t remember what model it was. I do remember the ringing it made. I do remember the ticking. And I remember my dad’s handwriting. I wish I had that clock now, only Mr. Gooddirt hates ticking clocks. Oh well.


This is my agenda from the year 2000. I wrote everything down in this book. Even today it’s fun to look back over it and see who was in my life back then. As you can see, I not only wrote down what I had to do, but reference notes and telephone numbers. Elsewhere in the book, I’ve clipped membership cards, notes on the backs of business cards, things like that. What a trip.

I still keep an agenda of sorts. But it’s only if I don’t want to screw up the nice lighting in a bar with my mobile phone while I plug in an appointment, or if I can’t be arsed to do so.

I’d much rather write things down, anyway. Now I carry a blank notebook and my mobile phone. And sometimes a third notebook that is specifically pertinent to whatever meeting I’m going to. Obviously, I’ve become far less efficient that I used to be. Might be time to regress.

On another note, Christ, I looked like I was busy back then, didn’t I?

What are some favorite “obsolete” items of yours?


Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.