There’s a fine line between creative and commercial writing, and I find myself trying to walk it every day. I work on fiction at least four days a week, and I write non-fiction every day. My goal for each polished piece is to write the best prose I can with the information, knowledge, and resources I have at that moment. Even when I do so, I’m aware that when I look back at any piece from a few month’s distance, I’ll see things I could have done differently. It’s all in the growth of a writer. Blog posts are ephemeral thought collectors that don’t receive the same attention as polished pieces, but they too remind me to be aware of words and how they’re used.
I recently spoke with a budding author who was lamenting the need to find a job, though her novel wasn’t quite finished. Because I know she writes well, I suggested that instead of getting a job, she earn could earn what she needed through copywriting. I wasn’t surprised when she demurred, commenting that she didn’t want to ruin her writing voice.
It’s a fear I’ve encountered many times, but I believe it’s a bogey without much substance. There are creative elements in almost any writing, including all types of commercial writing. Budding ad writers everywhere are probably still advised to be creative and “sell the sizzle, not the steak” (that onomatopoeia is a bit of poetry in itself). Compelling prose is an art form, no matter where it’s found.
If you focus on each assignment, whether commercial or literary, as an opportunity to sharpen word choice, increase sentence fluency, and generally improve your craft, I believe your writing voice will be strengthened by the additional practice. And quite frankly, I feel wickedly gleeful at the thought of being paid to practice an art I love. Yet why not? Master craftsman often serve paid apprenticeships while learning their craft, and it’s a time-tested training method.
As I go back and forth between projects, I’ve found that the greatest challenge is to retain a touch of freshness in everything. Whether I’m reading a how-to or a whodunit, I want to be captivated a deft turn of phrase and charmed or chilled by a precise word choice. That’s an experience I’d like my readers to enjoy as well. Dull prose with a written-by-committee flavor is a good cure for insomnia, or for puppy training, but not for much else.
It may take a moment’s extra thought to choose a vivid word or bypass a worn-out cliche in favor of an unexpected zing, but it’s a moment well spent. I’m not always successful at meeting the freshness challenge (those pesky deadlines and the occasional bouts of verbal laziness catch up with me sometimes), but it’s something I strive for, no matter which side of the proverbial line I’m writing on.
I’m reading Robert Hartwell Fiske’s little gem, Silence, Language, and Society: A guide to style and meaning, grace and compassion. It’s a vividly personal compendium of brief observations, prescriptions, and imprecations, all related to the art of words. So far, the overall theme of the book might be summed up in a single phrase: “You are what you say.” I like that thought, as it acknowledges the power of words to shape reality.
Fiske is the editor and publisher of the wonderful Vocabula Review. If you have a subscription, don’t miss Richard Lederer’s wonderful article on “The Word Magic of Lewis Carroll” in the current issue. (One of NAIWE‘s benefits is that members may subscribe free, and it’s one benefit that I’m thoroughly enjoying!)
I’m inspired to write better by reading great writing and reading about the art of words. What inspires you?