Why Great Copywriters Make Great Novelists
By Lisa Friedman

Who used to be a copywriter?

It’s a regular roll call of the literarily famous: Fay Weldon and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Dorothy Sayers and Salman Rushdie. Don DeLillo and Joseph Heller. Amy Tan, William Gaddis, Elliott Holt—the list goes on. So, what did they learn in Adland that propelled them into the book world?

1. Great Copywriters Know Their Audience

Legendary American ad writer Tom McElligott once said, “I’d much rather overestimate the intelligence of the consumer than underestimate it.” Substitute “the reader” for “the consumer” and you’ve got the rule of thumb for literary writing. Knowing their readers are sophisticated and subtle, copywriters can innovative, knowing the audience will “get it” when they do.

2. Great Copywriters Create Great Characters

Adland is populated by great characters, from Mr. Clean (Monsieur Propre, in France), to the M&M guys, to the late great Charlie the Tuna. The fiction universe is also bristling with memorable characters: Think: Fitzgerald’s Gatsby and Sayers’s Lord Peter Wimsey.

3. Great Copywriters Have a Killer Work Ethic

Experienced creatives know how labor-intensive the work really is. And they know how to pace themselves, instead of procrastinating and then pulling a string of all-nighters. Professionals work like hell and meet deadlines.

4. Great Copywriters Can Turn a Phrase

Consider one of the most revered taglines in the history of advertising: Volkswagen’s “Think small.” It sums up the Volkswagen Beatle buyer’s mentality in two adorable words. The talent for turning a phrase—for saying something jaw-droppingly powerful in a single line—is the stock in trade of the copywriter and the novelist. While in Adland, Fay Weldon gave us the strapline “go to work on an egg.” As a novelist, she has given us 34 works of fiction, from “The Life and Loves of a She Devil” to, more recently, “The Ted Dreams.”

5. Great Copywriters Can Tell a Story

World-class ad copywriters tell stories that change minds and move markets. Whether the message is “Drink Milk” or “Vote Labour,” copywriters know how to motivate. And novelists? The ones who get you to laugh, cry, question, cheer, jeer, and start a book club just to talk about the book—those are the ones we want to read.

6. Great Copywriters Know Status-quo Copy from Great Writing

It may be the biggest reason they’re so hard on themselves—great copywriters can tell the difference between copy that’s just passable or hackneyed—and authentic writing that truly moves audiences.

7. Great Copywriters Use Language Economically

It’s called economy of language, and it’s about using only the necessary number of words to tell the story. Great novelists like Hemingway do it, and great copywriters do too. For both, word counts are a measure of talent.

8. Great Copywriters Turn Nothing into Something

Creatives and novelists start each day with the same thing: a blank page or screen. It’s about making the invisible visible—over and over and over again.

9. Great Copywriters Find Original Concepts

In business it’s called breakthrough advertising; in literary circles it’s called the breakthrough novel. In any case it’s the thought that counts—the originality of the concept.

10. Great Copywriters Can Sell Their Work

Used to the grind of selling products, services, and ideas, copywriters know how to sell their work—not a small thing when it comes to finding an agent and publishing a novel.