What I Learned From Writing Ads for Frozen Peas
…and what I needed to forget about what I learned from writing ads for frozen peas
When I was 16 and in high school, I heard an ad on our local radio station. They were running a writing contest, which caught my attention. Entrants had to write and submit a sample ad for the local drugstore. I happened to work as a clerk at the local drugstore and loved to write, so the contest had my name all over it.
The prize was being hired as an assistant copywriter. I was in.
I wrote two ads — one was pretty straightforward, modeled on what I had heard on the station, but for my second entry, I took a chance and wrote a dialogue between Sherlock Holmes and Watson. Watson had heard that the drugstore was the best in town, or some such, and Holmes was on the hunt for clues to determine whether or not this was so. The banter between the two characters was playful and fun to write.
It wasn’t exactly brilliant stuff but, apparently, good enough that I won the contest. The station manager and senior copywriter were a tad surprised to see a kid walk in to see where her new desk was going to be, but after they got over the shock, they put me to work.
I had that job for a couple of years and loved going in and writing ads each week. What I hadn’t realized was that a lot of the ads had no room whatsoever for creativity. When you need to fit in the weekly specials from each of Safeway’s main departments in a 15-second spot, there isn’t a whole lot of room for flexibility.
I learned to write fast, to a very tight word count (a 30-second spot needs to be readable in 30 seconds, not 39 seconds and not 22 seconds — but 30 seconds — exactly). Being that concise, precise, and willing to cut or add words as dictated by the constraints of the ad format was terrific training.
There was no room to be precious about my words. Even had I written the most brilliant ode to frozen peas, it would never have run because it would have left no room for dairy, fresh strawberries and the fish special as well as the standard intro and outro.
In a Radio Station, There’s No Time to Wait for Inspiration
There was also no chance to sit around, musing and waiting for inspiration to strike. The clients had paid for the ads and I was paid to produce copy — on time. Week after week. No excuses. No exceptions.
I arrived after school on my designated days, sat down at my little desk in the corner, and churned out ads for local car dealers, special events, the hairdresser, and, yes, frozen peas. It seems to me frozen peas were always on sale — though the brands would switch from week to week.
Many times since, I’ve thanked my lucky stars for that introduction to the world of writing for money. When I landed my first magazine article (word count 350 words) I delivered an article of 350 words. On time. Without a whole lot of fuss and bother.
Later, when my projects stretched into book-length manuscripts, I applied that same mindset (sit down, keep writing until you’ve hit your word count — I don’t care if you have a headache or want to go on a walk with the dog) to the project. The pragmatic and disciplined approach to writing has served me very well.
What Had to Change
When I started writing a lot of fiction, I soon realized that I needed to change my approach and reintroduce some of the free-flowing, creative energy that had inspired that original Holmes and Watson contest entry.
When I worked at the radio station, there were a few clients that welcomed a more playful approach to their ads, but most just wanted the facts delivered in a tried and true format.
Novels don’t work that way.
Compared to a 30-second radio spot, even a short novel is a massive canvas with all kinds of delectable moving parts with which one can play. Characters don’t have to be quick sketches and they shouldn’t be flat or predictable. The setting is 3-dimensional, there are plots, sub-plots and sub-sub-plots.
If, as I quite like to do, one enjoys writing a series of books, the potential scope is even grander. In projects that stretch over multiple volumes, there are references to events in earlier novels, to characters who die or move away and foreshadowing that hints at events that happen in a completely different book.
Making the move from short-short, to short, to looooong pieces meant I needed to forget a lot of what I learned about being lean and mean with my words (to the point of being stingy) and loosen up. A lot.
Being able to write something that was book-length was liberating, as you might imagine. But I never forgot that early training.
These days my word count might be in the tens of thousands, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a limit. Generally, there is a target and when I set out to work on a project I keep that in mind from the start.
I know that I may need to slash and burn whole sections of text in order to meet the requirements of a particular series or a publisher’s needs and preferences. Do I get all bent out of shape? Almost never (I’m human. I have my moments). Most of the time, I just shrug and get on with the job, making adjustments and finding ways to tell the story in the best way possible within the amount of space I have available.
In the same way those frozen peas showed up week after week, forty-plus years later, the ideas just keep coming. In fact, I have a longer list of ideas waiting for my attention than ever before. If something doesn’t quite fit in the current work in progress, I stick the idea in a file and use it somewhere else.
I guess the most important lesson I learned way back then is to find a way to tell my story using precisely the number of words I need to use — no more, and no less.
What about you? Do you begin a project with a word count in mind? Do you set a daily target for the number of words you’re going to write? Do you tend to write long (and cut later) or short and flesh things out in subsequent drafts? I’m always curious about how other writers work, so leave a quick note in the comments and let me know.
Nikki Tate is an author, workshop leader, writing coach, actress, storyteller, and creativity catalyst. In one way or another, she’s either telling stories or helping others tell their stories. Interested in staying in touch? Leave your email address below.