{copy}writer advertising & marketing

There’s an old computer science acronym—you’ve heard it before: “GIGO.” (Garbage in, garbage out.) In marketing and advertising, the expression is used often by frustrated copywriters and art directors who present the fruits of long hours of labor only to have their baffled clients look at the work, shake their heads, and say “this is not what we’re trying to say at all.” The creative team can blame the account team, the account team can blame the client, but the bottom line is usually this: erroneous or incomplete information was fed into the creative brief. So off-target or misguided messaging is the result. GIGO.

I’m very fortunate these days to be working with sharp, articulate clients who provide precise briefs to get me started on new projects. This morning my client in Denmark provided a comprehensive written input letter and a verbal run-down of goals. But I haven’t always been so lucky. I’ve learned, over the years, that a copywriter must ask very specific questions about the nature of the job before writing the first word of messaging. The formal creative brief, a version of which is included below, is a nearly-foolproof method of collecting the information necessary to write a targeted, effective marketing message. Check it out. If you’re working as a copywriter, a tool like this can be worth its weight in gold.


The Objective

What are we trying to achieve with this project? What is the goal? This may seem obvious, but the answers should be articulated so that all members of the team are on the same page. We want more people to come to the client’s website? We want to sell X number of products? We want the market to know that our client is an active philanthropist? Whatever it is, get the goals out onto the table. You can’t succeed until you know what you’re working toward.

The Position

What is the one thing we want the audience to understand? What is the Unique Selling Proposition (USP)? You can’t be everything. But you can be something. Find the ONE thing that sets your client’s product or service apart from the competition. Is it the cheapest? (Usually it isn’t.) Then why should a consumer choose it? Fill in the blank: our product is the only one that _____. (Has unique packaging/is available in convenient sizes/makes you feel sexy/has top safety ratings/comes in red/…whatever.) Create a brand. Make your client’s product stand alone.

Supporting Facts

What facts clearly support the position statement? Here’s where things get serious. Consumers want proof. You can tell them all day long that your client’s flea preventive is more effective than the competition’s, but until you quote data from scientific studies, consumers are dubious. In advertising, the most effective messages speak the truth and back it up with facts.

Message Tone

How do we want to convey our message? What tone will resonate with this audience? Try to identify adjectives: hip, authoritative, comforting, clean, bold, aggressive, emotional, colorful, cheerful, provocative, elegant, understated, subtle, cutting-edge, youthful, mature, etc. You’d be surprised how this examination of tone will fuel your ideas. What works for an audience of investment bankers will never fly with long-haul truckers. Know the culture and the pulse points of your target market.

Target Audience

  • Primary audience? To whom are we speaking? How can you describe this group? What’s important to them? What do they dislike?
  • Secondary audience? Are there other key opinion leaders who may affect the primary audience’s action? Dealers or distributors, for example? Parents, patients, spouses—any secondary group that may influence the buyer of the product or service.

Desired Action

What do we want the audience to do? Call? Buy? Understand? In the most direct forms of advertising, of course, we want our audience to make a purchase. Now. But sometimes advertising and marketing works on a more emotional level. We try to build awareness of a brand and create positive associations in the consumer’s mind to be filed away for future recall. Nike, for example, famously urged us to “Just do it.” Consumer: “Do what?” Nike: “Do this: associate yourself positively with our product, and see it as an inspirational icon of athletic achievement and motivation. Done? Good, now go buy some sneakers.”

The Big Picture

What else is going on in this market? Is the product or service part of a larger offering? Sometimes you’ll find yourself working to sell a product or service that’s just one facet of a company or organization. This means you may have a larger brand that you could coat-tail on. Or, worst-case scenario, that you need to create distance from.

Competitive Environment

Brainstorm a list of main competitors. This is a must. Get to know the playing field to understand how your client’s product or service can be positioned in the marketplace. You’ll quickly get a sense of industry standards and target market phrasings.

Key Barriers

What are the challenges we need to overcome? Does the audience perceive this product or service to be expensive? Difficult? Is a competitor launching a new contender? Try to identify the primary obstacles to marketing. Consumers think the product is expensive? Then ignore price talk and instead cultivate a unique and coveted brand experience. (Can anyone say Apple?) Opportunities may present themselves in unexpected places once you truly understand what the barriers are. Think of L’Oréal hair color, which fought against a perception of higher price until launching a brilliant campaign that demolished their key barrier to sales: “L’Oréal. Because you’re worth it.”

Mandatory Items

Logos? Phone numbers? Corporate colors? Legal disclaimers? Maps? Contact information? Find out now if the client needs to include sponsor information or lengthy legal additions to the copy. Any visual or textual addition to the project can have an effect on tone, balance and direction. Also, a missing phone number or logo can sometimes be distracting enough to a client that he or she will fail to focus on the big picture. I’ve seen clients reject a concept for its inaccuracy (“that’s not our shade of blue”) and fail to see the effectiveness of the overall direction. Get all your details in order to avoid extensive revisions.

It’s Here.


copy{writer} fiction & publishing

Last week I received two finished copies of my first novel, HEART OF PALM. It’s hard to describe what it feels like to hold the book in my hands. The first seeds of this story were sown in 2008, and it’s now been five years of writing, revising, learning, pushing, changing, hoping. I could not have asked for a more rewarding experience or a better team with whom to share it. Thank you, Amy Hundley and everyone at Grove/Atlantic. Thank you, Judith Weber and everyone at Sobel Weber.  What an honor it has been to work with you all.

HEART OF PALM hits bookstores on April 2…three weeks!


ABA Winter Institute, Kansas City


copy{writer} fiction & publishing

Just back from snowy Kansas City, where I had a fantastic time at the American Bookseller’s Association Winter Institute. I think I was lucky in getting out of the city yesterday morning; I’m hearing lots of folks had their flights cancelled and are still waiting out the latest snowstorm.

What an awesome event. Fellow Grove author Kent Wascom and I were treated in high style and met with hundreds of booksellers. We signed galleys and had the opportunity to preview dozens of exciting new titles from writers across all genres. Very, very cool. Thank you, Grove!

Here’s a photo of several of us freezing outside the hotel: from left to right–me, Alise Hamilton of Andover Bookstore; the inimitable Sherman Alexie; Grove Publisher Judy Hottensen (eyes closed, sorry Judy); and BLOOD OF HEAVEN author Kent Wascom.

Wi8 Group-Final

Why Use Two Nails When One Would Do?


copy{writer} fiction & publishing

Two years ago, I had the extraordinary good fortune to have Richard Russo read an early manuscript of the book that eventually became Heart of Palm. Though at the time I’d never met him, we share the same agent, and she asked him to look at it.

I was, and remain, astounded at his generosity. He read the entire manuscript and then provided not only words of praise and encouragement that I’ll forever treasure, but also notes on opportunities for improvement. And believe me, when a writer of Mr. Russo’s stature offers advice, I sit up straight and pay close attention.

He said one thing in particular that stayed with me. I think of it every time I sit down to write. He pointed out, through patient line edits, places in the manuscript where I “overwrote.” He explained: “… it’s mostly the same thing over and over, the carpenter using two nails where one, struck sharply, will do.”

He gave me some examples:

  • In the prologue, when Arla is waterskiing, I originally made reference to “the south shore of the lake” when it was already clear the characters were on the lake. Why not take out “of the lake”? Russo asked. (Done.)
  • Later, after I’d already made clear that Dean and Arla had just begun their honeymoon, I wrote: “They stayed inside for two days after the wedding.” Why not cut “after the wedding”? Russo asked. (Done again.)

The lesson here, of course, is that I was using two (or sometimes three or four) nails when one, struck sharply, would do. I realize now the tendency to overwrite was a habit*, and it stemmed from a lack of confidence in my own voice. I tended to surround my characters and their actions in gauzy cushions made up of prepositional phrases, unnecessary adverbs and redundant clauses because I wasn’t confident enough in my writing to speak simply and authoritatively. (*Now right here is a perfect example. On the first draft of this post, up where the asterisk is, I wrote “…a habitual thing that I’d developed.” See how overwritten that is? What else is a habitual thing but a habit? And how else do you come by a habit other than to develop it? I revised that phrase from six words to two, and the sentence has more authority.)

There’s an old story about two guys in New York City trying to get a light of their cigarettes. The first guy tries to stop passers-by on the street, and he says to each person, “Excuse me, if you would not mind, I was wondering if I could ask you to light my cigarette?” He says this over and over, but all the pedestrians keep moving and won’t stop to engage with him.

The second guy walks up to the first pedestrian he sees and says, “Got a light?” He gets his cigarette lit on the first try and walks away satisfied.

In real life, nobody has time for redundancy. Nobody has time for padded phrasings or over-involved language, and this is true for fiction, as well. Readers want information. We want to know what the character will do or say next, and we want to know how his or her story will help us understand our own lives. This is not to say there is no place for artistry of language, of course. The pleasure of wordplay is one of the reasons we turn to books in the first place. But artistry does not require complexity or impenetrability. It’s easy to be hard. It’s much harder to be easy.

Thank you, Mr. Russo. You pointed out a habit I continue to fight against, but at least now I know it’s there, and why. Here’s my takeaway: Speak clearly. Speak simply. But say something worth hearing.

New Blog Focus

I wear two writerly hats: one as a novelist/short fiction writer and one as a copywriter. So I’ve decided to focus my blog on tips and observances from both publishing and marketing. Watch for new updates, and I’ll identify the angle of each post with these handy graphics:

PenandInk copy{writer} fiction & publishing

Target {copy}writer advertising & marketing

So, off we go!




New client meeting this morning—meaning I closed my novel manuscript and picked up my iPhone. I’m sitting in a Brooklyn apartment, where I’m cat-sitting, working and trying to get a new novel off the ground. They’re forecasting snow this evening, and it feels a bit freakish to have left sunny St. Augustine for these northern temps, but the change is good for me.

I’ve been a freelance marketing copywriter for almost twenty years now, helping to sell everything from pianos and pavers to burgers and bar-b-q. From heartworm meds to hot sauce. From loans to logistics. You get the idea. It’s a funny job. I learn things—all kinds of crazy details that sometimes even make their way into my fiction writing. In Heart of Palm, for example, Dean is a boiler tech in a paper plant. He descends on pulleys into a hot, thirty-foot boiler for hours at a time to spray sealants on the interior. It’s a hellish job. How do I know? Because I once wrote copy for a client who manufactured those sealants, and I once donned steel-toed boots and a hardhat to tour the paper plant, peer into the boilers, see for myself. So yeah—I learn things.

One of things I love most about freelance copywriting is the flexibility it affords in both place and scheduling. I can write copy from pretty much anywhere: from my home office, mostly, but also from libraries, airports, coffee shops, bookstores, even parking lots, should the need arise (and it has). I write copy at all hours, depending on deadlines, workloads, other commitments. But I’m always able to direct the order and the focus of my days. It’s a great gift, one I’m very fortunate to have been able to develop.

Of course, it’s well-documented that fiction-writing is not a craft from which you can expect to earn a living wage. Even a novel sale—a good one—can’t float the boat forever. Many authors I know are creative writing professors, a vocation which offers the benefits of constant exposure to the craft and an opportunity to learn about your own work through discussing the work of others. But I lack the MFA required for a full-time teaching position. Plus, I’ve found that teaching can be emotionally demanding and, as part-time work goes, pretty low in the ROI department. Freelance copywriting works well for me; it keeps me grounded in a business-oriented “real world” requiring sharp thinking, competitive focus and a measured temperment that allows me to save the emotional summits for my fictional characters, which is where I want them.

So check it out: if you’re smart, deadline-oriented, self-directed and just a tiny bit bold, you, too, can be a freelance advertising copywriter. Here’s the best book I’ve ever read on the craft. The basics are spot-on and the attitude is priceless. If nothing else, you’ll get a good laugh (buy from an independent bookseller!):LukeSullivan

Advertising is just plain fun. I love it. Watch this trailer, then watch this film, OK? You’ll see.

First Reviews


“Independence Day is a turning point for the Bravo family of small-town Utina on Florida’s Intracoastal Waterway. . . . The Bravos, once notorious Utina badasses, find their adult ties of guilt and regret beginning to frazzle as long-dormant resentments emerge. Smith’s debut novel exudes authenticity. . . . She turns a phrase with wit. . . . Writ[ten] with agility and empathy.”—Publishers Weekly.

“In a slowly, gently unfolding comedy of manners, Smith skillfully sets multiple stories in motion, most, it seems, designed to showcase the vanity of human wishes. Smith is a kind and understanding creator, and even the most venal of her characters, we see, is just trying to get by—and usually not succeeding. In the end, Smith overlaps territory John Sayles explored in Sunshine State, but with a more generous sense of our foibles. It’s a promising start—and a lot of fun.” —Kirkus Reviews.

On Rejection


The photograph above is of my rejection file. I’ve kept every rejection slip I’ve ever received, for every piece of writing I’ve ever sent out into the world in search of publication. When I glanced at the file this morning it reminded me of an essay I wrote a while back for Bridle Path Press called “On Rejection,” which I’ve reprinted below for anyone who has ever felt like a rejected writer (and who has not?).


On Rejection

I use a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet to track rejections I’ve received from editors to whom I’ve sent short stories. Since 2004, when I started using this system, I have received 181 rejection letters. (There were many more, before I started this meticulous tracking.) My rough math tells me that I’ve earned approximately 23 rejections per year for the past eight years, or about two per month. So every two weeks, basically, an editor has turned down my work.


But really. I’m pretty proud of my Excel file, the little cells lining up like soldiers on a march. I fill in the “response” column with either a red “R” for “rejected” or a fat green “A” for “accepted.” The R’s outnumber the A’s in a landslide. A tsunami. To review one eighteen-month stretch I have to scroll my mouse wheel until my finger hurts, searching for a lonely A.

The first one came from the late Jeanne Leiby, a beautiful woman who edited UCF’s The Florida Review before moving to Louisiana to take on the editorship of the venerable Southern Review. She called from Orlando to tell me she liked my story and wanted to publish it, but that she thought the title was a little lame. Would I consider changing it? Yes, I would. I hung up the phone, hyperventilated a bit, poured a drink and opened my Excel file to record my first “A”. And then I wrote more stories, spent a ton of money on postage, rewrote everything, bought more stamps, revised again, and waited fifteen months for another acceptance.

The point here, of course, is one every published writer makes—persistence pays. But the persistence must apply not just to the act of submitting stories, but also to the act of persistently making your writing better. Bullish resubmission of the same flawed story to editor after editor is not persistence—it’s arrogance. Better is the persistent willingness to open the rejected story up, look at it with a new perspective and consider ways to improve it. Rejection is a gift—it provides an opportunity to make your writing better and an emotional challenge to prove your mettle. It is a good story, you tell yourself. But maybe it needs to be a bit better. So you sit down. And you make it better.

Each publication credit is hard won but each comes with reach and power you may underestimate. Nearly a year after a story of mine appeared in a small literary magazine, an agent wrote to tell me he’d read the story, liked it, and was putting out feelers for a novel. It was the beginning, as Bogie would have said, of a beautiful friendship. My first novel will be published sometime in the next year.

Meanwhile, more writing, more revising, more money on stamps. Email submissions and rejections are more common now, of course, but I still make a habit of sending out snail mail submissions whenever I can. Here’s why: I live in a small town and our neighborhood is the type of old city-ish place where mailboxes are affixed to the houses next to their front doors. When I round the corner of my street and approach my house from two blocks away, I can see my mailbox—a solid black rectangle against the faded green of my home. Most days I see protruding from the box only the long white envelopes of bills or the ruffled cheap newsprint of advertising circulars. But some days I see—from two hundred yards away—the bright brown of a 9 x 12 envelope, and I know it’s a manuscript I submitted some months before, coming back to me now with a small slip of a rejection tucked inside. And I smile. Because seeing the rejection in my mailbox reminds me of something that’s become very important to me over the years. I’m in the game. I’m playing the odds. Sometimes, I win.

There’s an old runner’s adage I think of almost daily: “no matter how slow you’re going, you’re still lapping everyone on the couch.” 181 rejections. By the time you read this, that number will surely have increased. And that’s a good thing.