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.

What’s Marketing Got to Do With It?

I spent two years as a List Management Associate at a direct mail and email advertising/fundraising firm. In my position, I learned a great deal about the trade; I read thousands of pages of copy, went to several trade conferences, hooked up with a knowledgeable mentor, and learned a pocket-sized dictionary’s worth of industry-specific words (“list,” “a-b test,” “response rate,” “open rate,” the list goes on).

Ultimately, the industry was not for me. I had a wild career shift and left direct advertising entirely, taking a position within an office of risk management at a local university. With a change in industry comes a fresh start… which comes with a little bit of baggage, particularly when moving from one career with a dictionary’s worth of industry-specific words to another with one of its own (“COI,” “credentialing verification,” “binder,” “policy,” once again the list goes on).

In my academic work, I spend a lot of time working to combine two things that seem different on the surface, but have enough underlying similarities that joint readings can complement each other and make clear what is often hidden.This tendency is hinted at on my undergraduate degree from the University of Mary Washington, a BS in Economics and English Literature, but can also be seen in much of the coursework and projects I’ve done over the years.

I practiced this in depth during an independent study I created while an undergraduate that looked at how authors enacted various economic theories in speculative science fiction novels—a project I was inspired to undertake after reading a blog from Noahpinion. I was prone to do this for random assigned papers as well… once, for a final paper on a course focusing on Utopian and Dystopian philosophy and literature, I wrote about The Breakfast Club and how it represents a brilliant utopian intentional community in the midst of the dystopia that is American high school. One could say that I’ve now peaked with a recent piece of work I presented at the first Douglas Coupland Conference in which I looked at the advertising strategies that adman-turned-filmmaker-turned-ad-exec Herschell Gordon Lewis discussed in his many books and how they can be used to better understand Coupland’s contemporary work.

I first learned of Herschell Gordon Lewis’s work—his work in film, that is—as an undergraduate student during a course on film and culture. I learned of Herschell Gordon Lewis’s marketing work through my mentor at the direct advertising firm I worked at for a couple of years. I cannot say that I find all of his methods particularly agreeable, there are nuggets of true brilliance that I find are applicable across a myriad of different industries. A particular teaching I’ve always been drawn to is found in his textbook On the Art of Writing Copy, he calls it “The Clarity Commandment,” which states:

When choosing words and phrases, clarity is paramount. Let no other component of the message mix [or] interfere with it.

Herschell Gordon Lewis

One of my many responsibilities as a Risk Analyst involves running the driver authorization program. This is a large program, that includes a variety of diverse departments—Campus Police, Facilities, Student Clubs, University Information Services to name but a few—and well over 1,000 drivers. I quickly learned that there was no single communication strategy that could reach every individual in the program and that each department had highly specific individual needs that had to be met.

Rather than attempting to create a universal communication strategy, I’ve been working to create department-tailored communications in conjunction with various department heads so that our the driver authorization program’s messaging remains clear. Combined with my innate desire to produce accessible messaging—a desire stemming from challenges presented by my hearing loss—my department is working with stakeholders to learn the best way to reach every driver in a manner that they will be receptive to. 

This project has included a revamp of my department’s web page, rudimentary “a-b testing,” the detailed tracking of communication response rates across a multitude of channels (email, phone call, g-chat message), and more. There’s still a lot of work left to do, but what has become increasingly clear is that past work experience I had that seemed totally inapplicable in my new industry has proven to be quite valuable. I’ve learned to discount none of my past and look deep within myself to find new ways to look at complicated contemporary problems.