Look It Up

Long long ago, I was preparing for my English Master’s exams. I was to be tested on every major era of English/American literature (Renaissance, Romantics and so on). I had a problem: I had never studied the Victorians (and one of the major texts for the essays was by Matthew Arnold). I knew they were out there. But I knew zilch about them. I was in a quandary.

What did I do?

I was a Teaching Assistant: a sort of/kind of/junior member of the Faculty. So I went to see Bob Chianese, who taught Victorian Studies (and whose classes, therefore, I had never taken). I sat in his office and explained my plight, and asked if we could discuss the Victorians for an hour or so.

He listened. And then he said:

“So. You want me to tell you during my office hour everything I’ve learned in 20 years of studying Victorian literature?”

I left his office chastised, chastened and just as clueless as when I entered.

But he made sense didn’t he? After all, all I really had to do was read some Victorian writers and a little bit of background.

That mixture of outrage and bemusement is what a copywriter’s clients feel when they’re asked to tell the writer everything he needs to know in order to write something compelling and convincing and powerful and so on. When the writer sits in front of them with eager eyes and a blank piece of paper, waiting to learn who, what, where, when, why, how, in what order, in what color, to solve what problem. And so on.

Some copywriters even ask their clients to fill out questionnaires—I should have tried that with Dr. Chianese:

Bob, I’ve got a date, but if you’d just fill out this form I titled “everything Mike needs to know about the Victorians to get his Masters,” I’ll do a great job.

Our job as professional copywriters is to relieve the client from the burden of teaching us. Part of our job is to learn on our own what we need to know: not to come to the client asking for a free ride to knowledge. It’s to study, to research, to do the hard work of figuring out something that’s sometimes completely new to us. When you encounter a term, an acronym, a concept that you don’t understand, don’t make a note to ask the client. Look it up. And when you don’t understand something about what you find when you do look it up, look that up too.

That’s one of the things that separate Wordsmiths from Professional Writers.


3 thoughts on “Look It Up

  1. Mike…thanks for the invite to check out your blog. I definitely like what I’ve read so far, including your choice of topics. With regard to your blog post titled, “Look It Up,” I agree with all you’ve written about the writer doing his/her homework and not expecting to be spoon fed all the information needed to fulfill the writing assignment. The thing I didn’t agree with is the direct comparison between you going to the professor for help passing your exam vs. you going to your client to collect information to complete an assigned writing project. In my opinion, the difference is, in the second case, you and your client should be working together to successfully communicate with the client’s audience. You wrote, “Our job as professional copywriters is to relieve the client from the burden of teaching us.” But I do think it’s part of the client’s responsibility to share information and perspective. I’m not talking about the kind of information that I, as a writer, can dig up on my own. I’m talking about the client providing internal background docs and perspective that I’m not privy to through Google, etc. Unlike the situation of you passing your master’s exam, a client should feel a vested interest in helping the copywriter succeed.

  2. Mike:

    Yes, I was sorta short with you, but I may have reflected that the Victorians are never short in anything they do–or say. Lengthy writing was a virtue then, and no interruptions from media stuff would distract them from a long deep read. That’s what we are giving up and with it a way of thinking and reflecting that shape both consciousness and culture. That really is a key Victorian topic–how culture and awareness go hand in hand, and it’s not something to pick up in an office visit. I’m a columnist now for American Scientist magazine and you may want to check out my recent essay–shorter than any Victorian would write, but perhaps read by a few post-moderns: http://www.americanscientist.org.

    Keep up the blogging.

    Bob Chianese

  3. “So. You want me to tell you during my office hour everything I’ve learned in 20 years of studying Victorian literature?”

    Reminds me of Woody Allen’s summary of War and Peace: “It’s about Russia.”

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