Friday, March 23, 2007

A copywriter's nightmare...when to cut copy and when to keep it

I want to give all credit for this story to Barry Bostian of Orlando, FL. Barry was the mentor of our marketing division at Harcourt in Orlando and is a huge mind. Going into his office to ask a quick question usually got me a 30 min anecdote, but it also gained me some wisdom. He's a great man, insightful as hell, and a mind for copy like Ernest Hemingway. He knows how to say something right without the crap. Marketing done with captial R Realism.

I love Hem BTW. My hero. And so is Barry. Great man. The type of guy who deserves a comfy, deep leather chair in a nice corner office. He knows what he is talking about, and listens when he doesn't. And he shared this story:

Initial Draft ©2003, Barry M. Bostian

FRESH FISH: A Writer’s Nightmare

An aging fisherman in a picturesque New England village had grown too old to cope for the demands of life at sea. So, to supplement his meager savings, he started his own little business selling fish from a wooden booth on the wharf where his fellow fishermen tied up their boats.

The booth had a pass-through counter for conducting business and a large wooden shutter that folded straight back so that the underside became a sign. On his first day of business, the old man’s hand-painted sign, red letters on a whitewashed background, read “Fresh Fish Sold Here.”

That evening, another fishermen returning from the sea stopped by the shack and told the old man that he could attract far more customers if the words on his sign were larger and could read them from farther away. He suggested that it was obvious that the old man sold fish here and not somewhere else. So, the word “Here,” he said, could easily go, allowing the other words to be larger. So, that night, the old man whitewashed his sign and repainted the red letters to read “Fresh Fish Sold.”

Next evening, another fisherman stopped by and said even larger words would be legible from even further away and would attract still more customers. He said it was plain as day, even to a darn fool, that the old man sold, rather than gave away, fish. So, he said the word “Sold” wasn’t needed and could be removed to enlarge the other words. So, that night, the old man again whitewashed the sign again and repainted the red letters to read “Fresh Fish.”

The following day, a third fisherman advised the old man that it was plain as day to anybody that fish sold right there on the wharf would be just-off-the-boat fresh. And, by eliminating the word “Fresh,” he said, the old man could make the word “Fish“ big enough to attract even more customers from even further away. So, that night, the old man again repainted his sign to read “Fish.”

On the fourth day, a female passerby looked up at the old man’s sign and said, “You know, a baby with a head cold can smell fish from this wharf from miles away. So you really don’t need a sign saying “Fish.” So, the next morning, the old man’s sign was a plain whitewashed shutter.

This salty yarn is, of course, inane. But, in a memorable way, it makes a valid point. While verbosity is indeed undesirable, it is possible to overly condense one’s writing, robbing it of all life – leaving it plan white – and greatly complicating reader comprehension.

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