I keep calling myself a copywriter, noting my past writing assignments from Web site designers, corporations, ad agencies, and universities -- but occasionally, when passing a mirror, I squint at my reflection and wonder: how could anyone with a serious lacking like mine ever make it as a successful copywriter? We need to return to the rambunctious days of high school, where the first sign of my haunting began.
Her name was Mrs. Mayer, and she taught English composition. Her favorite comment to me was, “Get out!” You see, I was ejected from her class – many times – for excessive belching and giggling. Somehow, I just couldn’t sit mute while she rambled on about what I considered to be the ghostly world of grammar – including that frightening exercise, sentence diagramming.
Classroom Deja Vu
Eventually I graduated, and joined the Navy. While watching the waves go by, I discovered a way to make some extra cash. I found that I could help shipmates write the Dear John letters they were getting from (former) girlfriends back home. I charged $5 a letter, and suddenly I was a professional writer. Still, there was that haunting, that mystifying world of grammar. Surely, I reasoned, after writing letters with tender openings like, “Dearest Donna, you can go to hell,” I was sure to make into the ranks of successful copywriters.
After the Navy, I enrolled at the University of Miami, not because I had an enviable GPA, but because I was exceptionally tall and could shoot a basketball. My high school grades were, in fact, so bad I had to enter the university on probation. I felt better as time went by, though, because I got past the probation while some of my teammates goofed off so often they didn’t graduate. Proud of myself, I thought for sure there would be no more Mrs. Maher – and certainly no belching at the college level.
Then, one day, in yet another English composition class, my professor threw an eraser at me. It went like this: the professor stood at the backboard and wrote: “Chesterfield tastes good like a cigarette should.” He then turned and asked, “What’s wrong with that sentence?” I piped up from the back row:
“It should be Winston tastes good like a cigarette should.”
That’s when the eraser came flying across the room – along with the professor’s cry, “You idiot!” – and bopped me right between the eyes. Nice control. He should have tried out with the Yankees. Well, it should have been Winston, right? Little did I know back then the subtle difference between “like” and “as.”
Don’t Go West Young Man
So, the question remains. With such a forgettable beginning, how did I end up a copywriter, especially now that I am ready to confess that I could not pass a high school grammar test. You start talking about participles and appositives and I am totally lost. My mind slams its door and refuses to cooperate. I wish I could pass that test; in fact, I wish I were a grammar expert. Without the boundaries imposed by grammar, our written language would be unintelligible, a mess. Even with a certain F in grammar, I kept going. And I remember why. My uncle.
He owned two newspapers in Newburg, Oregon, and I thought that if I majored in journalism he would give me a job. My thinking was sound, if not my timing. By the time I graduated, he had sold both newspapers, retired, and moved to Ft. Lauderdale. So much for my planning skills.
So there I was…a degree in journalism and no job. But all was not lost. I recalled one of my professors telling me that my studies in journalism would also prepare me to be a copywriter. They had coaxed me away from the lofty world of literature (Shakespeare, Mark Twain, Homer, etc.), and toward the discipline of writing functional sentences, the kind that would help me get by in the world of business and other such serious matters.
Again and again, the professors kept declaring: “Think about what you’re saying!” and “Write to your reader!” and those now-famous words of Yale professor William Strunk and author E.B. White: ”Be clear” and “Omit needless words.” It was a good beginning; the goblin was beginning to fade in the rearview mirror.
With no offers from Wall Street or the Yankees, I pondered my professional fate. Was the role of reporter for me? On my first assignment for a weekly newspaper, I knocked on a door in search of a story about somebody’s domestic violence. Well, the scowling somebody before me slammed the door in my face. Maybe someday I might learn to write, but I doubted that I would ever learn to report. Instead, I would be a copywriter, a writer of corporate propaganda.
As I pursued the goal, I still found myself confronted by the same annoying specter…grammar. I just didn’t understand it. Today, if you want to send me into total catatonic shock, just look me in the eye and whisper: “Let’s diagram your sentences…Let’s diagram your sentences.”
Then one day I discovered a book, The Art of Styling Sentences, and it gave me new hope. The authors, English professors at the University of Texas, were telling me I could construct sentences by imitating established sentence patterns. Their book contained 20 sentence patterns – with little or no mention of diagramming or the dictates of Mrs. Mayer. As a child I had learned to speak the language by imitating what I heard. Now, why couldn't I shoo the goblin by imitating these patterns and maybe learn to write respectible sentences without know how to diagram them?
It made sense, and I decided to give it a try. The authors gave me another hint, one echoed by E.B. White. They said, “Listen to the language and develop your own voice ,” and he said, “Cock your ear.” With sentence patterns in hand, and my ear cocked, I could see the goblin fading rapidly.
The patterns turned out to be my solution, my amulet. And, surprise of all surprises, the authors managed to slip a few elementary rules of grammar past me without my knowing – not enough to pass that high school test, mind you, but enough to help me write sentences that weren’t totally unintelligible.
Finally, I think my uncle did me a favor. Had he stayed in Oregon, had he given me a job, I would not have become a copywriter. That’s what I am today, and if possible I would venture back in time, drop in on Mrs. Mayer’s class and belch one more time. And if were still thinking payback, I would head south to my alma mater and hide in the bushes outside my composition professor's class, eraser in hand.
A University of Miami journalism graduate, Lee Woods has been a reporter in Europe, a senior corporate staff writer, a marketing communications manager, an in-house advertising manager, a proposal writer/editor, a workshop leader, and a freelance copywriter for 25 years. Under contract to a variety of public and private organizations, corporations, local government agencies, advertising agencies and university training centers, he has planned, created, written and produced the gamut of both internal and external communications, including Web site content, magazine articles, newsletters, print ads, brochures, trade show presentations and display copy, product bulletins, slogans, news releases, proposals, and executive summaries for both domestic and international readers.
His 24 articles and essays have appeared in SAIL magazine, Caribbean Travel and Life, Defense and Foreign Affairs, Cruising World, Caribbean Sports & Travel, Military Technology, Vertiflite, Brevard Business News, Signal Magazine, the Miami Herald, Journal of the Society for Technical Communication, and the Journal of the American Sailing Association. He has also written three business communications guidelines: Writing Skill is a Business Skill; The 8-Hour Executive Summary (a workshop text), and a proposal development guide for the Raytheon Company.
He has created and conducted a variety of business writing workshops for the Raytheon Company, Harris Corporation, Brevard Community College, the University of Central Florida Career Development Center, and the Small Business Administration. His business writing workshop at the Harris Corporation lasted for ten years.