by John Pellegrini
Perhaps the most important and most ignored part of writing of any kind, but especially ad copy writing, is EDITING. Too often, commercials, scripts, articles, even movies suffer due to lack of judicious editing by either the writer or someone else within the creative chain. For example, the headline to this article if being used in the context of a response to a question could be edited down to simply one word: "Maybe."
Yet, many times as writers, we feel our creative process must be worth more than to allow our ideas to be described by simple one or two word sentences. What we have to realize is that is not creative thinking, that is ego thinking. Radio listeners especially do not have the time or the interest to reflect upon a skillfully crafted piece of prose. They want the facts fast and maybe a laugh to go with it. Our job is not to impress the listener with our tremendous knowledge of vocabulary and literary genius. Our job is to hustle and peddle our client's crap as efficiently and memorably as possible. I did say memorably, which is where the creativity comes in, but at all times keep the creativity at a level that our highly distracted audience can relate to and remember.
This is where good editing comes into play. Will a laundry list of sale items make you remember that there is a sale at Generic's Department Store? Does "Savings of seventy percent" give you any idea of how much money is involved? Think about what the message is; bring it down to the bare minimum fact. Generic's Department Store has marked everything in the store seventy percent off. From that you can write a much more effective script:
He: Hey, I just heard Generic's Department Store has everything on sale at seventy percent off!
She: But Generic's is huge! Are you sure everything is on sale?
He: That's what the signs say outside the store, seventy percent off!
She: Let's see, seventy percent off means that if something is marked at a dollar retail...
He: Then we pay thirty cents.
She: And if something's priced at ten dollars...
He: We pay three dollars.
She: (More excited) And if something's priced at one hundred dollars...
He: We pay thirty dollars!
She: That's Unbelievable! Let's get over there!
Notice that I don't mention one single brand name or item. People who are concerned about what brand names a store sells already know what's in stock, especially if the store is an old established retail location. Instead, I installed a reason to get excited about the sale and what kind of monetary savings there are. That's editing to your core message and expanding upon it as time requires. Too often I hear spots that completely ignore what the client is trying to sell in favor of demonstrating the creative ability of the agency or the radio station. No wonder so many business owners claim radio advertising doesn't work.
When I was studying improvisation at Second City, we were always told to bring everything down to the essential joke. One particular sketch that we had worked out in our student show had a running time of about ten minutes to perform. Our instructor thought it to be far too long. He was at that time appearing in the main stage show. They took our idea, which took ten minutes for us to perform, and turned it into a thirty second blackout sketch. A blackout sketch, for those of you not in improv, is a short piece, usually about thirty seconds to sixty seconds long which consists of a quick establishment of a scene, the actors say perhaps two or three set up lines, then the punch line and the lights go out. Hence, a blackout. That's it. Funny bit over. Now on to the next scene. And that is what they did with our ten minute sketch. Ten minutes of dialogue and scene, edited down to thirty seconds. Was it missed by the audience? Hardly. In fact, their thirty second bit was a lot funnier than our ten minute piece. Some of the group got angry. I was impressed because they had found the essence, the single joke of our piece, and got the biggest payoff, the biggest laugh of the show with it. What is more important, satisfying my creative and acting ego, or satisfying the paying audience? Which one will lead to job security?
The rule in comedy is: the shorter, the better. Don't drag something out just because you think it's interesting. We as copywriters more than any other form of writing must trim everything down to the essential message. Also, and I cannot emphasize this enough, keep everything relevant to the message. That's a bit difficult in comedy, but just remember that if your premise for the joke you plan to use in the spot has nothing to do with either the client, the product or the sale point, then it's going to take longer to explain what the tie-in is, which gives you less time to deal with the client and the purpose of the spot. I speak from hard-learned experience. Remember, your creativity is to enhance the client's message, not your stardom. After all, the client is paying for the advertising time, not you.
Editing is crucial. When done correctly, the script flows like perfection. When done poorly, it leaves everyone bored, dissatisfied, and probably very adverse to the ideas presented. No one likes to feel his or her time is being wasted. How many times have you come out of a movie theater thinking to yourself you just wasted two or three hours? How often have you seen a movie where you suspected that the studio could have removed an entire hour from the middle of the picture and it wouldn't have affected the plot one bit? Think of your production that way, and remember that when you're listening to the radio in your car, a poorly edited sixty second spot can seem to take an hour. Most listeners won't give you the full sixty seconds before they tune to another station.
Most ad executives would cringe at this, but let's face it, advertising is snake oil sales. We are the carpetbaggers, the medicine shows, the pitchmen of the business industry. By getting off the high horse of ego and claiming that we have a scientific thesis of advertising and all that crap, and instead admit that we create bulls#$@ for a living, we'll be able to write more effective campaigns simply by eliminating the pompous idea of rewriting the bible or Shakespeare every time we type. Call it what it is.