My First Full-Time Copywriting Job

“The world isn't interested in the storms you encountered, but whether or not you brought in the ship.” ~ Raul Armesto 

The quote above was printed on a piece of 8 1/2 x 11 paper that was taped to the side of a tall filing cabinet. Everyday, I would sit at a little, vintage typing desk that looked like this, and that quote would stare at me.

I encountered a lot of "storms" during this time. It was mid the 1980's, and my boss was a go-getter who was a freelance creative director/copywriter working from home. He had big plans, and I was his first hire. Well, actually, his wife worked for him - she was his accountant. I was their first "copy" department hire, coming on as a "Copy Cub." Since his wife's name was Cindy, he said he'd call me "Cynthia" - a name which, until then, only college professors had called me. Everyone else just called me Cindy. It took a while to get used to being called by my full first name; it sounded so long and drawn out. And it didn't help that my last name had three syllables too. Nothing like having a three-syllable first name and a three-syllable last name. To this day, all of my professional contacts call me "Cynthia."

But back to the quote.

I had no real idea of what it meant. It seemed to suggest that any challenges I might meet up with at this new job were not to be spoken of, to anyone. No one would be interested. I just had to bring in "the ship" - the ship being, I supposed, "great copy." Not bringing in the ship meant not delivering great copy. That's all that mattered - great copy and whether or not I could deliver it.

Trouble was, I was fresh out of graduate school, with a Master's Degree in English Literature, and I had no idea what was great copy. My dad was a "Commercial Artist" - his specialty was the air brush. All I knew about advertising I learned from my dad - and it was mostly of a graphic arts nature. My dad was a terrible speller. The rest of my knowledge base in regard to great copy was gleaned from many years of reading fashion magazines, namely Seventeen magazine in my early teenage years and later on Glamor, Vogue, Harper's Bazaar, and my dad's Esquire magazine. My ship? It was the one that sailed around Moby Dick or carried a crew of Greek soldiers in an epic novel.

My first copywriting assignment for my new boss was to write a series of form letters to policyholders of a third-party insurance plan, to alert them of several different types of situations affecting their policy and/or coverage. It was not glamorous. It was not even fun. I had no idea what I was doing. Truth be told, I only took this job because a guy I was dating seriously at the time worked nearby, and I thought he and I could meet for lunch if I worked in the vicinity. I had an interview with a book publishing company at the same time I got the call to come in for this copywriting job, and I cancelled it, thinking I'd save myself a long commute from Pennsylvania to New York City. Little did I know I'd wind up making a 70-mile round trip commute every weekday for the next twelve years. And the kind of advertising writing I'd be doing? It was called "Direct Response," namely "Direct Mail."

I read through sample after sample of direct mail packages, long envelopes stuffed with letters and brochures and things called "buckslips" that my boss collected in large boxes that had to be filed by the type of product being sold, and all I could think of is, "This reminds me of the way Evangelistic preachers speak." The letters in these direct mail packages, which I later learned people were calling "junk mail," sounded like the writer was talking directly to me, with heavy use of the word "you" and seemingly personal interjections like "Quite frankly, I can't imagine why you would not act now for this generous offer."

My one saving grace in all of this was I was a prolific letter writer, having spent an entire adolescence corresponding with pen-pals all over the world - from Finland to Hong Kong, England and Italy, Peru and Venezuela - as well as cousins and friends from my old neighborhood after we moved to another state, thus avoiding the high cost of long-distance phone calls and freaking out my dad.

Still, writing letters about insurance for my new boss was a far cry from writing to my friends about what I was doing over summer vacation or my thoughts on the latest Bruce Springsteen album. Even weirder was assuming the voice of a male Vice President of an insurance company.

My boss and I went through countless rounds of revisions. In the end, I think he indirectly wrote just about every line. We certainly wasted a lot of paper. It was excruciatingly painful.

But the world's not interested in the storms, right? 

That was many years ago, and I've since concluded that the quote about the world not being interested in the storms isn't entirely gospel.

The world IS interested in the storms you encounter. 

The world WANTS TO KNOW how you handled turbulence ... how you set your sail in a new direction ... and what you did to avert disaster, find success or merely just get back to smooth sailing.

So face the storms.

Then tell the world.

That's the stuff great lessons are made of - great novels, movies, documentaries, TV and reality shows, too.

No comments:

Thanks for stopping by