Constraints Are a Writer’s Best Friends

December 10, 2013 Richard Pelletier

Midway on my life’s journey as a copywriter, I found myself, in dark woods, the right road lost. And it was there, face down in the mud, that I discovered the beauty, the magic, and the creative power of constraints.

Some days, business writing is pure hell, an inferno on the soul of scribe and merchant both. We‘ve all endured the heat. But there’s purgatory too, where a lot of business writing lives. Life hums along up there, middling and gray, but few read, and fewer still act. It’s purgatory, after all. But rules prevail still—your words must be appropriate in purgatory.

But what about paradise, where the writing is alive? Where the words stir the soul and where language actually means something…

How do you arrive at that place? The road is straight ahead, and it’s paved not with good intentions but with constraints.

Copywriting projects—like all creative endeavors—impose their own limitations, practical and conceptual. “We need a sharp headline in three words.” “We need a two-minute video script for the Sheik of Abu Dhabi by Tuesday.” “Our voice is corporate, no sentence fragments, no beginning sentences with And.” “We have no budget for this.”

Company policies. Grammar police. Deadlines. Money. Life is hell.

Except that it’s not. Life is beautiful. Behold the endless worlds spinning out from the infinite possibilities of just 26 letters. Listen to the compositions of Gershwin, Coltrane and Vivaldi—all that wonderment from only 12 notes.

My own liberation arrived courtesy of copywriter and author John Simmons. (Full disclosure, John is a friend.) In “26 Ways of Looking at a Blackberry,” John shifts perspectives, rewrites copy minus the letter “e,” (borrowed from novelist Georges Perec), pens some verse, writes a sonnet, folds in the seven deadly sins, and hauls up a haiku—26 takes in all, dressed up as business copy. It’s a virtuoso performance, classic Simmons.

I took to the whole idea like a cold ocean swim on a hot summer day. The more I thought about it, the more I loved it. I thought about how the abstract expressionists—with only a flat rectangular surface and their inner life to work with—fantastically remade painting in the language of modernism. I revisited my favorite artist, photographer Robert Frank, who remade photography and captured the soul of America in just 83 photographs in his seminal work, “The Americans.” And to jog back to the written word, look what the late, great Raymond Carver did with only 25 words in his poem, “Late Fragment“:

And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.

Everywhere I looked, I saw that the limitations and the constraints that rue our life and our work can be the very things that tease out the way forward. Constraints liberate.

Twitter is the modern world’s snazziest constraint machine. In Roy Peter Clark’s brand-new book “How to Write Short—Word Craft for Fast Times,” there is the Twitter feed of Toronto Star reporter Joanna Smith, working in Haiti after the devastating earthquake. One tweet among many: “Fugitive from prison caught looting, taken from police, beaten, dragged through street, died slowly and set on fire in pile of garbage.” Sheer, real-time terror in 22 words, 134 characters.

How can you make constraints work for you? Create your own mini-deadlines. Find a clever way to set the word count. Write the corporate bio in the first person. Better yet, write it in verse. Write three-hundred words in 10 minutes. Hunt down different words—new ways of saying the same thing. Move your paragraphs around.

And step back to reflect. Your work as a business writer is the soul of trade and commerce. Could anyone sell anything without the words you write? Copywriting is important work, sacred even. It’s you who make the connections. You’re the one who tells the rest of us about that amazing green energy company in New Jersey or that IT group in San Francisco. So many great stories out there and so many untapped ways to tell them.

At the end of “26 Ways of Looking at a Blackberry,” Simmons offers a few roads for us to travel—vocabulary, structure, viewpoint, surprise, pitch, rhythm, idea. Take a road trip, first, editorially and then literally.

In the Divine Comedy, (from which, my opening sentence) Dante takes an epic, allegorical tour of heaven (paradiso), hell (inferno) and purgatory (purgatorio). There are some constraints for you. If you’re a freelance copywriter, you know that territory well. So, the next time you want to wish good luck to a copywriter friend, just tell her, “Go to hell.”

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