Copywriting and Creativity 2

By: Linda Pollitt

As we saw in Article 1, creative techniques can enhance the quality of our copy without compromising factual accuracy. In this article we are going to explore the idea of sensory authenticity, as well as other creative techniques, in more depth.
Thorough research can often make up for a lack of personal knowledge. You do not need to have given birth to a baby to have a pretty good idea of what it is like to do so - especially if you have read a number of personal accounts and seen mothers giving birth in films or television programmes. Similarly, you do not need to have lived in a location to write about it in an article. Remember that the lives and locations you write about in your articles do not need to be wildly exotic. Often, it is the familiar and everyday that most engages the audience, because they can identify with it on a deep level. Some authors prefer to write about exceptional experiences and exotic locations where they can, because the places and experiences they know well seem pedestrian and uninspiring. One writer remarked "I cannot imagine anyone wanting to read about my home town - it's a boring place with no charm and lots of litter."
It is interesting to note, however, that the idea of an 'exotic location' is very personal. Elizabeth George, who lives in Huntington Beach, California, sets her mystery stories in England. She fell in love with the country when she spent the summer in London in 1966. "It was really swinging London. I can remember walking down Carnaby Street and thinking it was amazing." George does her research. She visits England three times a year, and before she begins a new story she visits the relevant locations, taking photographs and carrying a tape recorder to record impressions.
George is not trying simply to record factual details - she could do most of that using a map and a guidebook - she is also trying to capture the essence of a location: how does it 'feel'? Recreating the true 'feeling' of a location, event or experience is vital to the authenticity of an article or report. Authors sometimes refer to this as sensory authenticity.
In truth, the challenge for a copywriter is often to generate enthusiasm for a fairly mundane product or service - not only in themselves but in their audience. This means being able to tap into their creative, imaginative side, to bring an original perspective to the subject. The current UK television commercials for Marks and Spencers' food range achieve this very well - 'This isn't just white wine, it is a ....' These commercials are successful because they promise the viewer an 'eating experience' and highlight the special nature of M&S food.
Bringing Sensory Authenticity into Your Work
When Ian Duncan Smith submitted his first novel, Ithaca, Gillion Aitken wrote back criticising the American setting. She noted "even the most experienced novelists find it extremely difficult, indeed risky, convincingly to replicate America (sic) dialogue, etc - and I fear, in your case, that cliche all too often raises its ugly head." Duncan Smith may have got all his factual details correct, but he had not managed to capture a true sense of the American locations and people.
Similarly, I can read a cookbook to find out how a certain dish is made, and look at a photograph of it so that I know what it looks like, but if I have not tasted it I can never truly say what it is like to eat that particular dish.

Nigella Lawson succeeded as a food writer not because she is that much better at reporting factual details than other food writers, but because she has a tremendous enthusiasm and feeling for her subject that transmits itself to the audience and lifts the food right off the page.
When Paul Watkins was writing The Forger, about an American artist who finds himself trapped in Paris at the beginning of the Second World War, he recognised the importance of sensory authenticity:
"I ... had to do a lot of research trying to get a sense of what Paris was like during the occupation. Most of the detail work came from old photographs and out-of-print books I picked up at the Parisian market of Clingancourt or the bouquinistes along the Seine. I spent days at Clingancourt, sifting through the rubble of that era, and I became very fond of the jumbled little shops and labyrinthine walkways. I also talked to people who had been there are at the time, both French and German."
(From an interview with Dan Coxon for Books, Etc.)
Watkins already knew a great deal about this historical period, and the idea for the novel came from a true story, but he recognised that he needed more if he was to give his book real sensory authenticity. The same is true for copywriters - if they are to grip their audience they need to offer far more than a simple factual account. This means that at some level they need to engage with their material emotionally.
There is a difficult balance to be drawn here, because, of course, while copywriters do need to capture the emotional content of their subject, at the same time they need to maintain an objective distance - only by doing so can they hope to report accurately on their subject. It is useful to remember that this does not mean being so objective and distant from the subject that your writing is flat and dead.
To 'capture the sense' of a place, event or experience, writers may use a variety of photographs, notes and sensory aide-memoires. Marina Warner recalls that when writing her Booker short-listed novel The Lost Father she kept a variety of objects around her:
1 bottle of bay rum
2 oyster shells
a photograph of Thomas Warner's tomb in the churchyard of Old Road, St Kitts, West Indies
a postcard of a Dutch painting of a young Indian mother and her child in Surinam, 641
a Greek vase showing Circe mixing something in a bowl for Odysseus
dried Sorrel vine and flakes of crystals from the bed of a sulphur spring.
These items helped Warner to find the right mood before she began writing. She explained that just a whiff of the rum summoned memories of her father for her, while the painting helped her to imagine the early life of St Kitts islanders, and the sorrel vine and crystals were items used by one of the characters in the art of healing. Other authors have found that a certain type of music or food helps them to recapture the mood they are looking for. Copywriters can find these same techniques very useful too.
TRY THIS: Select two of the following events from your own experience. What music, books, photographs or items could you use to bring the event back to memory - remember it is not just about recalling factual details, but also about recapturing the atmosphere, mood and emotion of the event:
the day you left school
your favourite holiday
your twenty-first birthday
a bout of serious illness
You can also use the same technique with people and locations.
Sally Beaumont recalls:
"Some years ago I completed a series of articles for our company newsletter. They focused on the human cost of the Somali conflict. I was only able to visit the country for a couple of days, so notes, photographs and other mementoes were essential once I came home. I had a photograph of a Somali woman with her three children, who I had met in the ruins of a village. Looking at it immediately transported me back to my time there. I placed it prominently on my desk, along with several other photographs and items that captured my time in Somalia: including a small cloth doll that I had found amongst the ruins.
These were essential when it came time to capture the atmosphere of Somalia and get it down on paper - just as essential as the factual research notes I had made."


Showing not Telling
One way of bringing extra life and vigour to your writing is to use the fiction writing technique of 'showing' a story unfold, rather than 'telling' it. For example, rather than simply 'telling' a reader what people look like, or what they are doing, try to 'show' them. 'Showing' a story unfold draws readers right into the action and allows them to feel directly involved in events. It is thus much more engaging and compelling. You will not be able to avoid 'telling' totally but do think carefully about the most effective way of relating background information and creating a sense of atmosphere.
Tom was very tall is telling.
Tom had to duck his head as he came into the room is showing.
Similarly -
Clare was shy is telling.
Clare never spoke, and her eyes seldom left the floor is showing.
Consider the following examples from fiction - note how the authors reveal a great deal about the characters and their situation without ever saying it directly. They achieve this by showing the action unfold. They reveal small snippets of background within the natural flow of the action. The result is an engaging narrative with a good balance between dialogue and straight text. The focus of both these scenes is on the viewpoint of just one character, so we appear to be seeing the action through their eyes even though the authors have both used the third person. The second example is intense and quite introverted, to an extent that is rare for a third person narrative, and it might begin to seem oppressive to the reader if used for very long but it is a useful illustration of the point.

Advice from the Business Team at Learning Curve.

Copywriting
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