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On Students Subverting Form

Some of my copywriting students were eager for more direction on how to use the forms of communication. Some were eager to go species-by-species and list out the formulas for producing them: How to write a print ad. How to write a direct mail. How to script a broadcast ad. How to write and then say the magic words that get you hired.

I taught that class a few years back. It was all about working through the various forms of corporate communication and learning to write in just that style and toward just that end. I taught it for years until I realized everything inside me was shouting for students to run, to break with the form and find a new way to say what they need to say.RarelyFollowedRules-20160506

For today’s copywriting students I was able to point to my beloved copy of Alastair Crompton’s The Craft of Copywriting (long out of print, I believe). Mr. Crompton offered lots of rules that probably worked well in 1979 and some of which still apply. Various copywriters have offered sets of rules over the years. Some stick. Some don’t. Bernbach, Burnett, Ogilvy and Reeves all visited our classroom from time to time in written and oral form. They each had a golden rule or two. And, of course, James Webb Young’s old Technique for Producing Ideas.

In truth, there are some general notions and guidelines and, well, forms (if you must) that apply. But over the years I’ve thought of those as only the receptacle of the really important thing: the idea. It is the idea I’m fixated on and I tried to communicate that to students. Ideas come from grappling to combine something old and something new, something borrowed (from an audience need or desire) and something that can woo. As far as I can tell, there are no formulas for producing ideas, only the setting up of conditions that may lead to ideas.

But, you know, no guarantees.

As many of my students said, “You can’t manufacture ideas.” To which I would always respond, “Or can you?”

Forms and formulas are there and they can be useful. But forms and formulas don’t carry much life. And mastering the forms and formulas, for a beginning copywriter, seems like a starting point. But is it a good starting point? I don’t think so.

The writer’s task is to breathe life into an old form or subvert it or discard it. The key is always and forevermore to put life on a page.

Forms and formulas will always bow before life on a page.

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Dumb Sketch: Kirk Livingston

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Written by kirkistan

May 6, 2016 at 8:01 am

7 Responses

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  1. Put life on a page. Love it!

    Jodi

    May 6, 2016 at 9:56 am

  2. Love this post… so much truth! I don’t think forms and formulas are the best route ever. Just add life!

    • Thanks, Charlie. That is kind of you to say so. Of course, putting life on paper, that is…tough. But still some do it from time to time. Your own writing exhibits that wonderful flavor!

      kirkistan

      May 6, 2016 at 3:27 pm

  3. Students are taught if they just follow the rules they will be successful. Fill in the correct bubble on the exam and you have it made. I’m glad you are disabusing them of this notion. How to teach flexibility? A dilemma. (K)

    memadtwo

    May 6, 2016 at 4:28 pm

  4. Good article…..

    Mom

    On Fri, May 6, 2016 at 8:02 AM, conversation is an engine wrote:

    > kirkistan posted: “On Students Subverting Form Some of my copywriting > students were eager for more direction on how to use the forms of > communication. Some were eager to go species-by-species and list out the > formulas for producing them: How to write a print ad. How to wri” >

    Phyllis Livingston

    May 6, 2016 at 7:38 pm

  5. Life, speak life! Write life. I’ve enjoyed your cemetery scenes, and this one as well. Thanks Kirk.


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