Friday, June 11, 2010

On the Intersection Between Business Writing...and Poetry

This week I went to a poetry slam competition in New York City…and I won. Not exactly a professional success, but a writing-related one—and a lot of fun. I struck up a conversation with someone in the crowd before the event and told her about the business writing I do as a day job—and she kind of rolled her eyes. As if to say “it can’t possibly be good if it’s commercial.”

I disagree with that. I think commercial writing can be genius. I think there’s a lot of non-commercial writing out there that sucks. And I also think poetry and marketing copy have more in common than you’d realize. Here are a few intersections.

Every punctuation mark counts. I used to get annoyed with teachers who described poetry as an area in writing “where perfect grammar doesn’t matter.” Because it matters even more than usual. Poetry is a concise, meaning-dense form and if you’re going to break grammatical rules, you’d better be a grammar master who understands exactly the effect you’re creating when breaking those rules.

The same is often said of marketing writing. I hear a lot of “Oh, you don’t have to be a great writer. Your grammar doesn’t even have to be good.” I disagree. I think, as with poetry, if you’re going to make mistakes—like a sentence fragment, say—you’d better know exactly what effect that mistake will have on the piece. How it will affect the rhythm. And how it will help or hurt the tone you’re creating.

Every word should pull its weight. In poetry, you don’t have room to throw in words that aren’t weight-bearing. Same with marketing copy. After I write a first draft, I usually go through and eliminate every word that doesn’t add to the meaning. If the sentence still means the same thing without that word, it goes. This isn’t about whether long-form or short-form copy works better—this is about efficiency in all your writing, long and short. People don’t have time to wade through wasted words to get at the meaning.

A successful piece makes you think about things in a new way. A fantastic poem makes me see a subject—love, human kindness, loss, what have you—in a new light. It uses metaphor to create strong imagery that’s both original and resonating. Great marketing copy does the same thing. It makes me see a product or a company differently by using original expression to rephrase and re-present themes that the company’s audience identifies with. That’s the kind of writing that gets people excited about a company.

Poetry and marketing writing is an unlikely pairing. And I’m sure there will be plenty of poets—and maybe a few copywriters—who will disagree. But as a writer in both worlds, I see the similarities—and hopefully can make them work for me.


Kimberly Ben said...

Congrats, Jennifer. I've always loved poetry slams abut never had the guts to participate myself. I like the analogies you point out between breaking grammar rules when writing poetry and marketing material. I agree - with both you have to have a reason and understanding of what you're doing when you break the rule. Breaking grammar rules CAN be an effective strategy if you know what you're doing, but you can't just go trying things like that in a vacuum.

Unknown said...

She mocked because she doesn't understand. Business writing is FUN if you approach it like the creative challenge it is.

LOVE how you compared poetry and business writing. So true. How weird is it that I've been writing poetry lately? I think it's my frustration at having so much going on and no work outlet for it.