Every blogger should read novels. Every marketing writer should read novels. If you don’t read, you can’t write. Period. If you can admit, “I don’t remember the last time I read a book for fun,” then your writing abilities can’t be trusted. Too harsh?
Digital collateral has a distinctly ephemeral quality. We can succumb to the illusion that, because it is digital, it is temporary. It’s easy to think that, because digital marketing often requires a lot of content, each piece is less important. It will shortly be replaced by the next piece and that piece will fade from memory.
I get that argument. Some weeks I literally write more than 80,000 words. Here’s the thing: digital marketing is really just marketing with an adjective pinned on the front. Like any kind of marketing, it is a form of communication. Communication is intrinsically human. Humans exist within a limited scope of personhood. Over the decades and centuries, the same basic needs and desires exist. This means, through any iteration of communication, the same basic messages will appeal to these humans.
Humans like you and me. Humans who crave and need and hate and love. If you understand human nature, you can have sound ideas about what kind of marketing will work. This is the end of your journey - a good idea - until you have the ability to write. Once you can write in a way that both understands and addresses human nature, you don’t just see the door of opportunity: you can walk through it. I would argue that the only way to tame the written word well enough is to be a reader.
How to Succeed as a Marketing Writer
Readers are leaders. Children who read score significantly higher on standardized tests. Reading is a foundational skill every person (at least in the U.S.) learns very early in life. You need to read if you want to do basic things in life, like shop and drive. People who read recreationally have more activity in the gray matter of their brain. What’s more, reading - more than anything else you do - gives you access to other ideas, other people and other worlds. Reading enlarges your existence.
Those are all personal benefits. But what of us who write for a living? What about the “hey, I need product descriptions” or “I need a marketing writer for facebook ads” or “I want my eBook ghostwritten”? How does this seemingly pedestrian copy benefit from a visit to Mr. Brownlow on Pentonville or imagining the fumes in Mr. Ove’s garage? Here’s the secret: all writing will be exponentially improved by rich input.
If you consume the same thing everyone else consumes, you’ll never have anything new to say. You’ll only know the same words, same taglines, same euphemisms, same puns, same jokes as everyone else. This essentially makes you useless to clients. The whole point of you being hired is to say something new or say something familiar in a new way. This is the appeal of marketing copy.
Marketing writers rely on basic human emotions and dynamics:
These are the cornerstones of good marketing copy. If you can’t find new ways to strike those emotional chords, you simply have no utility. And, again, if you are only exposed to the same TV shows, same books, same memes, same blogs, same influencers, same channels as everyone else… your utility will diminish. You will simply be restating something someone else has said. Or worse, you will literally reuse something someone else has made and slap your client’s logo on it.
How to Write Good Copy
In an age where we are told by clients, “I’d love to go viral” or “show me your best performing ad” or “give me an example of copy that converted,” it’s easy to succumb to copycatting people who have achieved good results. An element of this is legitimate. Art, institutionally and throughout history, has represented at least a little bit of copycatting. As new leaps were made, either medium or content changed, but any good artist borrows from technique and ideas that their predecessors used. It would be foolish not to. However, true ingenuity is only present when something more than gestalt occurs. When you create something that is significantly more than the sum of its component parts, then you have created something that can endure.
Blogs That Go Viral
Going viral may catapult a business to short-lived success. It can propel them into mainstream consciousness and seriously increase revenue. This effect shouldn’t be trivialized or underestimated. What I think, though, is that if your goal is to be popular you will be a very obnoxious person.
Universal appeal is unattainable. It’s the companies that have optimized their niche to its fullest extent - who have gotten weirder, sillier, sharper and more specific and identifiable than anyone else - who become truly visible. This is where the real profit lies. This is the foundation of real growth. Authentic self-presentation. Offering something genuinely useful or new or intriguing.
How to Improve Your Writing
The offering itself is the company’s problem. For a writer, our problem is to refresh our intellectual and cultural input enough to be useful. This means leveraging different resources. Reading different books. Listening to different podcasts. Going classic or non-traditional or historical. This is our professional development… our continuing education. As writers, you have to learn more.
You will be better if you learn more words, more phrases, more combinations of ideas. In the pinch of a last-minute ad, in the barrage of a week you have to write 50 blogs, you will have a rich repository to draw from. This ensures that your content is unusual and interesting. In a day and age where the sheer volume of content we are called upon to create can completely deplete our intellectual resources, ongoing input is the only way to stock your mind enough to deliver.
This is why every marketing writer should read novels.
If content is only ever written to make money, you lose the humanity. If you only ever see words as utilitarian, a means to an end, you’ll end up with simplistic, patronizing, bland copy. You need to unveil the mysteries of the written and spoken word as its depicted in novels. You need to hear things said different ways by different authors. You need to gaze with delight at something that comes trippingly or is agonizingly long-winded and decide why you feel that way about it. You need to read historical novels, new novels, novels from the 70s. Novels written in different styles. Good novels and bad novels.
Storytelling is a very de rigueur. Some marketers think, “oh, that’s easy, I tell stories all of the time.” I would contend that storytelling should actually be far more difficult than straight-up sales writing. Stories are intricate. Stories require characters and narrative and arcs. You need rises and falls, villains and heroes. Good storytelling - even in short, marketing copy - requires significant planning and careful thought.
To tell a story coherently and in an entertaining way is a highly skilled exercise. And, back to my point, you can’t tell a story if you don’t know stories. Through constant exposure to good stories - novels and other forms of fiction - you can imprint an understanding of narrative on your brain. Only by doing this, by becoming intimately, gut-level familiar with how stories work, can you reproduce something even remotely interesting.
Through repeated, disciplined exposure to good stories, you can tune your ear to hear the scale… to understand the rise that rings in your soul and the release that brings tears to your eyes. The determinedly human, whimsical, farcical and irreverent depictions of reality found in good novels are the only secure foundation for good storytelling practices.
Novels Every Writer Should Read
There is nothing authoritative about this bit. But, as someone who has consumed thousands of books in my life, my subjective opinions are at least studied. I have lived a life immersed in literature. I have felt the ceiling drip after being scrubbed by Martin, I have whiffed the stale donut-breath of Ignatius, I have emerged from the bath and looked into the mirror with Zooey. I read Tolstoy in middle school and The Iliad in high school and devour books on the weekends. I’m no expert. But, if you want to start reading novels, here is a list of the modern novels that I think every writer should read:
Note: I didn’t include historical novels because you should already know that you can’t really function as a writer without having read Dickens, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, etc. Second, I’m not an Amazon affiliate or anything, so I have no skin in the game for linking this list. In fact, it is my opinion that you should order these from your local library instead of buying them. Also, it would be absurd of me to say this list is enough. There are thousands more. Be intimidated. And start somewhere.
Quotes From the Novels You Should Read
This one a Pulitzer Prize and only has four stars on Amazon, which tells you pretty much everything you need to know about the state of humanity. He also wrote The Neon Bible at age 16. He killed himself with an exhaust pipe/hose situation in a car, which ended his run of unbelievably insightful literature all too early.
“My mother is currently associating with some undesirables who are attempting to transform her into an athlete of sorts, deprave specimens of mankind who regularly bowl their way to oblivion.”
A Man Called Ove by Frederick Backman
I think this was one book I picked up at random one day on the “new” shelf at the library. The man facing backward in a hat. It alarmed me and upset me and understood me and comforted me. It will you, too.
“Ove had never been asked how he lived before he met her. But if anyone had asked him, he would have answered that he didn’t.”
I like to think that I liked Salinger before he was trendy. Now, I fear, he is some kind of millennial icon. But he’s still worth reading.
“I’m just sick of ego, ego, ego. My own and everybody else’s. I’m sick of everybody that wants to get somewhere, do something distinguished and all, be somebody interesting. It’s disgusting.”
This book gives me flashbacks. Disturbing ones, mostly. But it unwraps childhood and you’re left with a handful of melting chocolate that feels important and transient and needed. It’s worth the jolts in the night. I mean, definitely read Divine Secrets, too. But I liked this one better.
“You cannot escape from life. Life is not a book. You can't just set it down on the coffee table and walk away from it when it gets boring or you get tired.”
You have to swim in these books, then drown in them, then come back to life and peek back in. They are very visceral. I emerge with a nose full of red clay, fingernails full of dirt and an aftertaste of rotten canned food. I recognize that sounds unpleasant but her ability to make you feel something is unbelievable. I guess they made this into a movie but I didn’t see it because I didn’t want to die again.
“No one expected you to amount to much," she told me. "Lori was the smart one, Maureen the pretty one, and Brian the brave one. You never had much going for you except that you always worked hard.”
From The Glass Castle
“People are like animals. Some are happiest penned in, some need to roam free. You got to recognize what's in her nature and accept it.”
From Half Broke Horses
I could recite her last name like a chant. She’s quite haunting, it would appear, and has written some very ghostly things. This one is charming and haunting and weird and good.
“Even her name seemed empty, as though it had detached itself from her and was floating untethered in his mind. How am I supposed to live without you? It was not a matter of the body; his body would carry on as usual. The problem was located in the word how: he would live, but without Elspeth the flavour, the manner, the method of living were lost to him. He would have to relearn solitude.”
If you know what/who this is, you probably laughed when you saw it. But, I love him. I can’t help it. Plus, he thought of robotics with some accuracy before anyone else considered it a possibility. Bad movies aside, moderately unpolished writing aside, he wrote good stories.
“Baley’s lips twitched. He had guessed that in some ways robotic logic must fall short and he was convinced of it now. As the roboticist had said: Logical but not reasonable.”
I read this yesterday. It’s so good! Full of fun, juicy words you may never use but can tuck away and pull out to play with at your leisure.
“Copyediting is helping the words survive the misconceptions of their authors.”
This book makes you want to hide away and learn physics. I also physically feel like I get the hiccups every time Renee eats the sushi.
“When tea becomes ritual, it takes its place at the heart of our ability to see greatness in small things. Where is beauty to be found? In great things that, like everything else, are doomed to die, or in small things that aspire to nothing, yet know how to set a jewel of infinity in a single moment?”
Again, made into a movie I didn’t see so I can’t speak to that. She does get a lot about the sun right and has some great descriptions. Also, this book should come with a warning that you will immediately feel snobby about grocery store tomatoes and begin an ill-advised adventure in growing herbs.
“Where you are is who you are. The further inside you the place moves, the more your identity is intertwined with it. Never casual, the choice of place is the choice of something you crave.”
Again with the movie thing - didn’t see it don’t know how that was. This is a misty, wild, palpable read that will transport you.
“The absolute simplicity. That's what I love. When you're climbing your mind is clear and free from all confusions. You have focus. And suddenly the light becomes sharper, the sounds are richer and you're filled with the deep, powerful presence of life. I've only felt that one other time.”
This is light and silly and kind of sad and a bit sentimental and enjoyable. No bite.
“Books are more than doctors, of course. Some novels are loving, lifelong companions; some give you a clip around the ear; others are friends who wrap you in warm towels when you've got those autumn blues. And some...well, some are pink candy floss that tingles in your brain for three seconds and leaves a blissful voice. Like a short, torrid love affair.”
I actually killed a roach with an old copy of this the other day. It has better uses. Like its intended. Oh, and it won a Pulitzer. Now I feel a bit sacreligious. Try again: this book will make you feel like your toes are anchored on a dirt floor, in the best way.
“Wang Lung sat smoking, thinking of the silver as it had lain upon the table. It had come out of the earth, this silver, out of the earth that he ploughed and turned and spent himself upon. He took his life from the earth; drop by drop by his sweat he wrung food from it and from the food, silver. Each time before this that he had taken the silver out to give to anyone, it had been like taking a piece of his life and giving it to someone carelessly. But not for the first time, such giving was not pain. He saw, not the silver in the alien hand of a merchant in the town; he saw the silver transmuted into something worth even more than life itself - clothes upon the body of his son.”
This is a good book to illustrate a life experience completely unrelatable to me. Voices, annoyances, habits, traditions, totally didn’t relate. That’s a good thing.
“A girl is like a young tree, she said. You must stand tall and listen to your mother standing next to you. That is the only way to grow strong and straight. But if you bend to listen to other people, you will grow crooked and weak. You will fall to the ground with the first strong wind. And then you will be like a weed, growing wild in any direction, running along the ground until someone pulls you out and throws you away. ”
Another good read to peek into something totally unrelatable and unfamiliar. Outstanding and a classic. Worth reading again and again.
“I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don't notice it. People think pleasing God is all God cares about. But any fool living in the world can see it always trying to please us back.”
This work is disturbing in every possible way. I will never read it again. You should read it. No quote.
Take a few weeks and read those. Hit me up for more. ;)