Like you, I’m always trying to find a place in this world where the few things I’ve been fortunate enough to learn and do well will benefit the largest number of people. Like you, I know this is a work in progress.
I’m a one-person operation and always have been. Because it’s important to many of the people I work with, I like to stress that I’m an American-born resident of the USA and have never lived anywhere else. Currently I live in Oceanside, Calif. I speak and write only one language: English. Having grown up and lived about 60 percent of my life in Southern California, I have a vague grasp of Spanish. Key word “vague.”
In elementary school, I was obsessed with writing skits and short stories. My mother encouraged it. She also was a writer. My dad didn’t encourage it. He thought I needed to learn something useful, like welding.
In high school, I fell in with the wrong/right crowd and immediately got into the Ramones, Led Zeppelin, AC/DC and all the usuals. I started playing guitar and writing songs, both of which I still do. I also began writing more elaborate skits (“plays,” you could call them) and parodies of anything I could find humor in, which was most things. I got on a poetry jag a few years after that but got out of it after I realized A. there’s no money in poetry, and B. poetry is hard unless you’re Bob Dylan or from England!
I’ve always been interested in the ways businesses communicate with their markets; even as a child, TV commercials and magazine ads fascinated me as much as the programs and articles they were sponsoring. I thought it would be great to create those marketing pieces, to write living words that influence people and drive commerce. I thought this would be an easy practice – but then I thought a lot of things back then.
I did some time in junior college and so-called “writing classes.” Books on grammar and style and a lot of writing helped me more than the formal stuff. And reading. Writers learn to read like writers, not like readers. When you read like a reader, you just sit back and enjoy the story. When you read like a writer, you pay attention to how the story was constructed and try to figure out what, exactly, the writer was thinking.
Where copywriting as a freelancer is concerned, I think the most important attitude a writer should have is that of responsibility. In most cases, I’m the final set of eyes to review the work and determine that it says the right thing and makes the right point. It’s my responsibility, not the client’s. This adds pressure to the process, which is neither a good thing nor a bad thing. It’s just the way it is.
The pressure of writing was described well by Ernest Hemingway, who wrote 47 endings to his novel A Farewell to Arms before he felt the manuscript was good enough to turn in to his publisher. Asked some years later by Paris Review what took him so long, he said, “Getting the words right.”
(Hemingway shot himself eventually, but nobody knows if this was because of the pressurized, responsible life of a writer, or because he had driven his life into such an unrecognizable and unsustainable place, death seemed like the only logical answer.)
This is getting long, so here’s the quick version of how I got to where I am now: in the mid-nineties I started writing resumes (for money), which led to business people hiring me to write marketing copy, which lead to four years as a stringer for a large daily newspaper, which led to significant improvement in my writing ability, which led to starting Doug Thomas Communications. That was a good chunk of my life ago, and I’ve yet to come close to picking up a shotgun – or writing a novel as good as any that Hemingway wrote.