What’s Literature Got to Do With It?

I graduated from the University of Mary Washington with a double major in English literature and economics. My thought process was basically this: I liked reading and writing, but I wanted to develop some practical skills that would carry me into the post-graduation workforce. While I was an undergraduate, I believed my studies in literature to essentially be something like a “hobby,” at most, something that I could creatively use to highlight more “professional” disciplines. I was lucky enough to create an independent study in which I did just that, and used science fiction literature to discuss some of the economic theories I had learned over my three years of study. I didn’t consider that the work that I did in literature classes would ever really be applicable to a job that I might have… as I’ve grown older and spent several years in the workforce, I’ve come to find that that work wasn’t just applicable: it was essential.

When I was first hired at a direct marketing firm, I was instructed to read a lot of copy so that I could get a sense of the craft and learn how copywriters constructed their pitches, made psychologically persuasive arguments, and wrote to inspire empathy. I quickly realized that many of these letters followed common tropes and developed near-identical narratives over the course of making their appeals. A mentor at the firm recommended that I read Herschell Gordon Lewis’s books for further research; I learned that many of these narratives were tried and true techniques developed over the course of years of practice.

I find it interesting that before he decided to go into advertising (and later film… and then back to advertising) Herschell Gordon Lewis began his professional career teaching English Literature at Mississippi State University. I think his background in literature is a key to understanding at least some of his professional success as a copywriter. As a writer and student of writing, Lewis was governed by two primary rules:

  • Word selection is key
  • Always show, never tell

According to these rules, the narrative, the story the copywriter weaves to demonstrate one’s need for the product is where the power of the ad lies. He summed up both rules in his book, Direct Mail Copy that Sells!:

Drama in writing is implicit or it doesn’t exist at all. Labelling isn’t parallel to colorful writing. Claiming “drama” or “excitement” is an uninspired and punchless substitute for using words to prove the claim.

Herschell Gordon Lewis

My study in literature I think gave me an advantage in detecting good copy or what good copy might look like. In addition to learning how to write, I learned how to recognize a good story and understand how the narrative and word choices used by the author created emotional connections to between the reader and a work. For a piece of copy to resonate, it must also create that emotional connection.

While I was working at the direct marketing firm, I decided to continue my studies in literature and enrolled in a MA program at George Mason University. While circumstances prevented me from completing that program, I took several courses and developed my writing a bit with lessons learned from copywriters in mind. My perspective on what an academic paper could be drastically changed, and I noticed going back and reading some of my old papers that my language was “punchier,” my goal was less to tell the reader what I knew and more to show the reader what I knew. Upon completing a class on the contemporary short story, the professor said I had some writing chops and recommended that I look into transferring into a creative writing program… I took that to be a high compliment.

I don’t think that professor would have recommended looking into creative writing had I not tried to merge what I learned from direct marketing with what I was learning in graduate level English courses. While I was unable to complete that MA program, I learned many valuable lessons during my enrollment, and that professor who recommended I try out creative writing ended up writing me a recommendation for Georgetown University’s Communication, Culture, and Technology program… I’ll be graduating (yes, really) this time next year.

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