Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Two things I learned about copywriting from historians.

As my few and apparently indiscriminate readers know, I am a great reader of history and have something like a teen-fascination with a couple of historians in particular.

One is America's greatest historian, Robert Caro. Caro's won more awards than you can shake a thesaurus at, including a couple Pulitzers and a couple of National Book Awards. His "The Power Broker," written in 1974 is the definitive book on the building of New York, and his four volumes (and soon to be five) on Lyndon Johnson are Shakespearean in their study of the effects of power on a man, on people and on a nation.

From Caro I learned this simple adage: Time equals truth.

That is just about any good writing takes time. It takes time to get to the heart of the matter--to figure out the inputs and the outgoes. And to find a melody and a euphony in the language itself.

If you aren't up to reading Caro's thousand-page tomes, for $1.99 on Amazon, you can download a 48-page section that describes the Kennedy assassination and LBJ's responses to it--and all the interstitial battles that ensued. Download it here.  

A second historian I respect is Ron Chernow--the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the biography on which the hit musical "Hamilton" was based and the author of "Titan" on John D. Rockefeller, and various other histories.

Chernow now is in the midst of promoting his new book on Ulysseus Grant. Recently I read this about Chernow's process and, if you will, approach.

"His immaculate study displays the thousands of 4-by-6-inch index cards, amounting to 22 boxes, that he compiled in researching Grant. The task did not daunt him."
There are hundreds of books on Grant, including his autobiography considered the best ever written by a President (he co-wrote it with Mark Twain.) So why write another?

Chernow's answer is simple:
"Never underestimate the laziness of your predecessors.”

The lassitude of others has been my stock-in-trade as America’s oldest working copywriter. I try to find things and write things and learn more and go deeper than anyone else.

I try to cultivate a certain melody of language but my real strengths, and the secret behind my survival in this young-person's game can be gleaned from the two bold-faced sentences above. Or the two below.

I dig in. And I work.

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