Confessions of a Career Marketing Writer and a Hobby Screenwriter
Last weekend I attended the 20th Annual Austin Film Festival (AFF), known in the film community as the “writers’ festival” due to its celebration of screenplay and teleplay scribes. My husband and I, both marketing professionals by day, have spent many nights and weekends over the last year squirreled away in our living room, working on a feature-length screenplay, which had the honor of being a finalist in the AFF screenplay competition. (It was one of the top seven dramas out of 3000+ entries in that genre. I’ll say it–go us!).
While we were there, we met a large number of aspiring screenwriters who, like us, work in marketing, but an even larger number who hold down unrelated jobs, such as waiting tables and managing offices. It got me thinking about how lucky I am to be immersed in two different types of writing and how many of the lessons I’ve learned on one side of the fence have sharpened my skills on the other.
What Screenwriting Has Taught Me about Marketing Writing
1. Your first instinct should not be trusted.
In the go-go-go world of marketing writing, it’s often tempting to let your first idea win. This applies as strongly to determining the opening paragraph of a newsletter article as it does to creating a branding campaign. Writing for film has driven home a point that most marketing writers also learn along the way—your first idea is rarely the best one. Write it down, get it out into the universe, and then think of a different way to begin the scene (or webpage, or CEO letter).
New writers in both marketing and screenwriting yearn to let their imaginations run free, to create a new “thing” entirely, free of the bounds of previous work and existing thought.
Structure matters. Creativity matters. The marriage of the two is what makes your writing sing.
Writing a screenplay has beat me over the head with the understanding that this is a valid way to approach a brainstorming session or a first draft, but true creativity comes from distilling ideas down to their purest form, without losing the excitement of the initial thought. If it sounds nearly impossible, that’s because it is. Structure matters. Creativity matters. The marriage of the two is what makes your writing sing.
3. Writing requires an infinite reserve of patience.
I thought I had learned this as a marketing writer, revising draft after draft of ad or case study copy. However, you learn what true patience is when you find yourself going back to the drawing board on a 110-page story you’ve already revised three times, because readers are still finding certain story elements “unclear.” It hurts. It hurts so much. But it’s worth it, because in the end, what’s the point of telling a story if you’re not communicating effectively?
What Marketing Writing Has Taught Me about Screenwriting
1. You can’t wait for inspiration, you have to invoke it.
You’d be surprised how many people call themselves writers without actually writing. Ideas abound, but it’s extremely rare to find people with the “butt in seat” discipline to sit down and actually write, whether they feel like it or not. This is one area where my career as a marketing writer provides a double edge: my writing muscles are toned, and I’m used to having to sitting down to work whether I want to or not (otherwise I don’t get paid). Plus, I have years of experience to prove that inspiration comes more easily when I’m already in front of a computer.
On the other hand, after a long day of writing for work, I have to dig pretty deep to find the creative energy to continue sitting and writing in the evening. It’s not easy, but as Lawrence Kasdan said, “Being a writer is like having homework every night for the rest of your life.” On a related note, if you know any good ophthalmologists, I’ll probably need one at some point.
2. There’s no room for ego, unless you’re a masochist.
When I was a brand new marketing writer, I learned pretty quickly that no matter how brilliant I thought my latest copy was, it was going to get changed, sometimes dramatically. This meant I would be on an emotional roller coaster every day for the rest of my life, unless I somehow removed the emotion from the situation. So I made the choice to stop seeing the work as a reflection of my innermost being (oy vey) and start seeing it for what it was—a means to a business end. When it was good from the get-go, I was pleased I’d contributed to the team so efficiently. When it was ripped apart, I took it as a learning experience. The point was that things always ended up ok, the world kept turning, and I kept getting better in the meantime. I’m now working to apply this distanced, reasonable perspective to my screenwriting, because I know it saved me from a lifetime of career angst.
Writing usually starts out fun when you’re brainstorming, then it gets hard when you’re trying to fit the creative and structural elements together, then it gets fun again when you’ve cracked the code. I’ve seen this pattern play out almost every day for the past 10 years. The distinction I’ve noticed as I’ve worked on this screenplay is that the cycle takes a
Writing usually starts out fun when you’re brainstorming, then it gets hard when you’re trying to fit the creative and structural elements together, then it gets fun again when you’ve cracked the code.
little bit longer and has stronger extremes—the fun times are really fun, and the tough times are really tough, and sometimes you start the whole cycle over again unexpectedly. But the bottom line is: Who wants to spend their life being miserable all the time? If the writing isn’t at least a little bit fun for you at least some of the time, it’s probably not fun for the people reading it, either. Marketing and entertainment are both about connecting with real people. It’s hard to do that if you’re becoming a shell of one in the process.