After decades of writing marketing copy and content in every medium in our time-space continuum, I have been asked about my “copywriting process.” For visual learners, I try to capture it in this chart.
Study creative brief.
Ask for clarifications.
Feel sorry for myself and vow to quit copywriting forever.
Sit butt in chair and finally write for 3-4 hours.
Rinse and repeat until the copy is fantastic.
Get genuinely excited about presenting and producing.
Do so, then have knowledge of subject matter leave short-term memory forever.
My point of this almost-funny admission is this: procrastination (and even feeling sorry for yourself) can actually be part of the copywriting process. Because you are working during that time in the “red.” The subconscious is working. Always. So that when you return to the page, you’ve made more progress than you think. This tip can be boiled down to one thing:
Trust your process.
Walt Jaschek promises more process charts soon. Let’s hope his short-term memory holds out.
The original content creation medium (if you don’t count paint on rock,) paper is the must-have form of pulp.
Julia Cameron , author of the creative journaling guide The Artist’s Way says: “When we write by hand, we connect to ourselves. We may get speed and distance when we type, but we get a truer connection–to ourselves and our deepest thoughts– when we actually put pen to page.”
What she’s talking about isntt pulp fiction. But it is pulp. Paper is still the very best place to start ideas for copy and content writing. It’s liberating – even productive – to step away from the screen and “scritch.”
Earthwise is affordable – check current price; – and is 100% recycled. The stock as a good “hand feel,” but not so much it seems precious. I’ve weened myself away from those high-end notebooks. I feel compelled to decorate them with greatness. The pressure!
With a deliberately un-fancy sensibility to your paper, you’ll flow with the go. You’ll feel no hesitation in grabbing a pad from the stack and making your mark(s) on the world.
Call me a Sharpie collector. Or perhaps a Sharpie loser: I tend to lose more than I gain – I think I must leave a Sharpie everywhere I go (you’re welcome) – and thus I replenish my supplies frequently. The black fine-points are my every day, all-day tools: I love the precision of the line, the depth of that black color, and even the sound of the “scritch-scritch” on the paper.
Oh, the sad feeling when I am out of Sharpies and must use a mundane ballpoint to ideate. Somehow, the logo designs, the name ideas, the lists, the character sketches, the flow charts just aren’t as… sharpie.
And then there is the highly saturated color set: so great for accents, adornments, fheading titles, and more robust sketches and doodles. Day or night, home or away, Sharpies are never dull. They are the Walt Now Creative Ideation pens of choice.
Bulletin: your creative content is only as good as your content creation tools. And your brain, but that’s another story. In this post, I highly recommend Apple’s MacBook Air laptop. Five stars for content creation, unless you need battery life, then, for serious, buy something else.Here’s my review, supported by affiliate links.
Apple’s MacBook Air [check current price] is so colossally cool for content creation, I use two at once. Really. I was such a heavy user of my first one, an 11.6-inch model purchased in 2014 and still killing it, the “a” key now looks like a font from an alien dimension. When I was offered a used 13-inch, as an inheritance from an elderly family member, I thought I was walking on MacBook Air.
1. They’re shiny. Like robots in a mirror wearing bling. I just like to look at them.
2. They’re powerful. Mine have mega-memory (newer ones even more) and 1.4 GHz Intel Core i5 processors. Gigantic iMovie files into convert into mp4s in a blink; your YouTube channel need not wait. Every task in Photoshop happens at the speed of thought: yes, you should have a tighter crop on your headshot. De-saturate it while you’re at it.
3. They’re thin. “Have-you-been-working-out?” thin. Look how thin.
4. They’re light. At about 3 pounds each, I can put both into my backpack and zip out the door without straining any upper body muscles.
6. They’re trouble free (but then, trouble is always free.) I’ve had both since 2014, and have had 0 virus or performance incidents. I think the Apple store misses me.
7. They make your fingers feel good. Great keyboard response and large trackpad action to… to… excuse me, I have to kiss my fingers now.
8. Flawless, no-dropout videos conferences while executing all of the above. It’s the laptop for multi-taskers. Or those who aspire to be.
Why do I have two of them?
Hey, why not?
I can have two screens open at once, which reduces the amount of tabs I have open on either one of them. It also suits my creative ADHD: when I look away from one screen to avoid thinking too hard (“brain hurts”,) my eyes and hands fall on the other keyboard, and keep working away on something else.
And, yes, I assign different types of projects to each MacBook Air, by category. The slightly bigger screen 13-inch is better for using InDesign, Photoshop and Comiclife. The slightly smaller 11-inch where I pound out copy in Word: scripts, screenplays, stories, posts and exasperated tweets. Correspondingly, it’s also the one with the most social tabs open.
Is there a “con” to the MacBook Air?
Yes, and it’s a big one:
It’s plain terrible. Awful. Neither of my MacBook Airs can hold a charge.. If I dare try to use without power cord, I’ve got about 15 minutes to live, sometimes less. In my particular creative venues, from home office to library to coffee shop to Whole Foods, I am never far from a wall outlet, so concern over battery life has, like Elvis, left the building. BUT BUT BUT…
If you are, say, a frequent flier, and need a laptop that works reliably on airplanes, forget the MacBook Air. Wipe it from your memory, like Men in Black. In fact, in my experience, battery fans, forget Apple laptops altogether. Go another route. Laptop Mag says the best three laptops for battery life are the Dell Latitude 7400, the HP Spectre x360, and the Dell Latitude 7400. I believe them. On the charged issue of charge, I’m envious.
On the whole, though, if battery life isn’t in your top 5 content creation criteria – as it is not in mine – you will love the Macbook Air. Business Insider agrees: this article is headlined, “After one year with Apple’s latest MacBook Air, I remain convinced it’s worth the high price tag.”
Price tag? Though I’m a freelancer on a budget, and live frugally, I can’t imagine life without these babies. Sometimes day-in, day-out value is worth that first investment.
The stories, also archived here, were a creative stretch for me. Yeah, I’ve written content articles in the past – who can forget my piece on the magic powers of ginseng? But I’m known mostly for funny commercials, the scripts for which can be created on the back of a bar napkin. And often are.
These feature stories are work, dammit, and make me appreciate more the people who craft them all the time.
I’ve made a few unauthorized notes about my recent experiences trying to be competent in this unfamiliar form. If you’re a writer heading into these waters, you might find a tip-bit. (That’s a tidbit that’s also a tip.)
1. Know what to leave out.
Michelangelo is often credited with saying, in response to questions about his sculpting process, “You take a piece of marble and chip away everything that doesn’t look like David.” Oh. Okay. Got it. Well, that’s the article, folks! Thanks for reading.
But seriously, to help know what to leave out:
2. Become one with your transcripts.
“Transcripts” are in the news lately. They’re a thing, all right. The pubs for which I write are quick to provide transcribed text of recorded interviews. One such document recently came back at 16 single-spaced pages of 10-point type: about 12,000 words. The final story was to be 600 words, and of those, just half quotes. This means whittling the text down to 5% of itself. It’s like turning 50 Shades of Grey into one-half shade of grey. But:
3. Hang in there.
Some quotes shine on first scan. Just as often, something at the top of page 3 will connect with something at the bottom of page 15. So you have to decipher every word, no matter how inaccurately transcribed. (“Did he say ‘non-profit or ‘for profit?’ It says here, ‘Jimmy Buffet.’”) It’s a slog, but it’s necessary, so you’ll like it, saying, “Thank you, master, may I have another?”
4. Compress “The Origin Story.”
It’s human nature: everybody wants to tell their launch journey, i.e. “How We Got Here Through the Years.” But it’s good to cut these stories down to a critical mass, and certainly don’t lead with them. Though readers might like a little backstory, they really wanna know, “What’s in it for me now?” It’s like asking a friend if Macy’s still sells carpets, and the person answers by explaining in great detail how it used to be called Famous-Barr.
5. Learn to interrupt.
Seriously. Recently I was the off-camera interviewer in a big video shoot. Seldom have I had conversations with subjects as multiple cameras recorded and onlookers… looked on. In this case, I tossed the subject an opening softball. The person’s breathless answer lasted, according to a producer who timed it, almost 20 minutes. In a post-production meeting, I said, “I need to learn to interrupt.” My collaborators laughed, but it’s true: I need to learn to interrupt.
6. Have a back-up audio source.
Wonky but important tech tip: when you don’t have A/V support, you are your own production company. So have at least two devices on which to record. Before my most recent interview, I scored the Olympus VN-541PC Digital Voice Recorder. (Recommended.) Glad I did, because, as usual, the Voice Memos app on iPhone stopped recording mid-interview due to incoming calls. You’d think I’d go to Settings and fix this. Not sure I know how. Hence: two sources. Heck, make it three.
7. Check your politics at the door.
Hard but necessary, not just for interviews, but any kind of business interaction, as I’m sure all can relate. (How any person who works in a real office handles this these days is beyond me.) I bite my tongue continually, because I know no minds will be changed, or even budged, in casual conversation. But it creeps in. When a subject for a story missed his interview appointment, his assistant scrambled to contact him. “Not an emergency,” I said. “It’s not like this’ll be in tomorrow’s New York Times.”
“Good,” the assistant said with a wry smile. “Because then we couldn’t talk to you.”
It was a joke. I think. I smiled back. But I also think, “You want exposure for your endeavor, but wouldn’t talk to the freakin’ New York Times?“
We live in amazing times.
8. Choose your assignments wisely.
Easier said than done: you gotta make a living. For decades, in gratitude for opportunities, I clung to the axiom, “There are no boring subjects, only boring writers.” I’ve reconsidered. There are boring subjects. For example: I recently scrolled past a post linking to a published article, and for a half-second, thought, “I’d never read that.” Then I realized I wrote it.
I vow to be more careful, and to admit to editors, “I’m not right for this topic; it holds no interest for me.” I think they would appreciate that. Editors can’t read minds. They want a good fit. It’s another way you can:
9. Love your editors.
Bless them for their behind-the-scenes, often uncredited prep and leadership. I obey direction and appreciate sharp edits; the stories are always better for it. (This article could have used one!) But I also believe you should:
10. Love your readers.
So much of what I’m trying to do is simply keeping eyes moving down the page. Sometimes in my work I’m accused of being “funny” or “jokey” (or – ugh – “cute”,) but honest to God, I’m just trying to be interesting. That’s it. Interesting is the bar, and it will continue to be my mantra plodding forward. And in that regard:
If I got your eyes down this far down the page, I’m grateful.
Walt Jaschek and wife Randy at the launch of the #STLMade Movement and the website TheSTL.com, at Venture Cafe in St. Louis, March 14, 2019.
I’m Walt Jaschek, and I’m #STLMade: born and raised in St. Louis. I’ve built a blessed life here, and have enjoyed a decades-long writing career here. I crafted work of which I’m proud, and which gained some attention from peers and associates; in 2018, I was inducted into the St. Louis Media Hall of Fame. Needless to say, I dig this city like rock ‘n’ roll.
That’s why I was delighted to be invited to contribute articles to the new website TheSTL.com, part of the new #STLMade movement, which intends to “shine light on St. Louis thinkers, doers and makers.” A noble cause. I’m for it.
The site is now alive and my first article is published in it. Headlined Niche of Time, it spotlights a cool company in St. Charles, Masterclock, whose high-tech timepieces are sold globally. The firm is run by a dynamic CEO, John Clark, who is also, you will see, a one-man quote machine! Read the article.
Stay tuned for more articles as assignments arrive, and see what it means to be truly #STLMade. Like me. Meanwhile: Cheers!
Get ready for hot, sexy comic strip action: 1976-style!
Just kidding. What you’re about to see is, by today’s standards, quite tame.
But in November, 1976, The St. Louis Post-Dispatch (and about 20 other newspapers around the country) made an editorial decision to withhold publication of a 5-day run of the Doonesbury™ comic strip, and replace it with reruns.
At the time, I was a 21-year-old feature columnist for The Current, the student-run newspaper at the University of Missouri – St. Louis. I was also a crazed comics fan. Realizing I could fill a column, provide a “public service,” and see the blacked-out strips myself (not easy, pre-internet), I pitched then-editor Tom Wolf: “Let me ask Universal Press Syndicate if they’ll let us run ’em. For free.”
Tom and the syndicate said, “Do it.” We printed the strips with my article, which you can read below.
Most St. Louisans will never know how good Joanie Caucus is at breakfast.
There were were, Tuesday, Nov. 11, breathlessly watching as Joanie makes her final moves on Rick Redfern. Eating dinner in his apartment, Rick compliments Joanie on the meal she had made. “Thank you, Rick,” she says. “I’m pretty good at breakfast, too.” Rick’s face contorts. Joanie thinks to herself: “As the kid goes for broke.”
The next day, we were intrigued further, as Virginia Slade — having just withdrawn from the Senate race — dials Joanie’s apartment in the morning… and gets no answer!
The day after that, we were suddenly and mysteriously back on the familiar football field with Captain B.D., no mention made of Joanie’s romantic adventure.
It was enough to drive Doonesbury fans zonkers, so to speak. Local fans of the terse, explosive, provocative comic strip realized The St. Louis Post Dispatch had substituted alternate episodes rather than finishing the Joanie and Rick sequence.
We called Joan Dames, features editor at the Post, and she was quick to clarify this comic strip tease, AKA the Doonesbury dilemma.
“The editorial board of the Post decided to take out the sequence that showed Joanie Caucus and Rick Redfern in bed,” said Dames. “We thought it inappropriate for a family page.”
But the Post wasn’t alone in blacking out the strip.
Lee Salem, a representative of Universal Press Syndicate (which distributes Doonesbury to 450 newspapers) said about 20 papers dropped the sequence. But those papers, including the New York Daily News, make up a large chunk of circulation. Most of them just dropped the Nov. 13 strip.
Riding out this controversy, as he’s done before more than once, is Doonesbury creator Garry Trudeau, the most electrifying force on the contemporary comic art scene.
As an undergraduate in 1968, Trudeau started drawing a strip for the Yale Daily News called “Bull Tales.” It introduced a cast of rich, mimetic characters like Mark Slackmeyer, Zonker Harris and Mike Doonesbury. When Universal Press offered to syndicate the strip nationally, it was dubbed after the persona presumably closest to that of Trudeau.
In its short history, the strip’s virtual world has developed and diversified, the characters shuffling, the concepts sharpening. Trudeau’s insights, pacing and crisp characterizations have enthralled legions of readers, while giving them some of the gutsiest comic strip humor since Walt Kelly’s Pogo.
The Joanie and Rick affair is just the latest of Doonesbury’s envelope-pushing concepts. While their sex life may be casual, the establishment of it — and the reaction to it — wasn’t.
“We only got about 20 letters and about as many calls, but some are very angry,” said Post features editor Dames.
“Most kids don’t read Doonesbury. But parents do get upset when this type of material appears on the comics page. We thought it wasn’t appropriate,” she said.
With a smile in her voice, Dames added: “Listen, we live in Sex City, U.S.A. We’ve got Masters and Johnson here, and even they say that sex without commitment isn’t that exciting.”
“Trudeau said that he did this because he wanted everyone to take a stand on pre-marital sex,” said Dames. “So I guess the Post took a stand. But we’re really not bluenose about this. Just today (Nov. 18, 1976), we ran a story contraceptives. Take a look at it.”
At Universal Press, Lee Salem emphasized that his syndicate carefully reviewed the strips.
“With Garry, as well as with all the creative people we do business with, the material is gone over carefully,” he said. “With this particular piece, we had a long session over the phone with Garry, and we thought, considering Joanie’s character and that of Rick Redfern, the sequence is justified.”
The sequence was certainly justified to those readers who have shared Joanie Caucus’ long and winding road to happiness.
Joanie worked hard in Slade’s campaign, but times turned bleak when Virginia decided to throw in the towel so that a third candidate could successfully beat the incumbent. The only light in the darkness for Joanie — who only weeks before had been hurt by a guy who was gay — was political reporter Rick Redfern.
That’s where we came in, remember?
Trudeau has said it is the challenge of the cartoonist to, among other things, “invite the reader to involve himself in a new reality set up as a sustained metaphor for his own; to let the small meanness and foolishness of life face each other in distortion … and to seek out the vignette that speaks to the lives of many.”
Joanie got to make her “good breakfast.” That is her small pleasure.
We got permission to print the blacked-out strips.
That is ours.
Walt Jaschek hopes you have enjoyed this frisky flashback to the sexy 70s.
Ah, numbered lists! As content, they’re proven link-bait; they’re merciful on readers’ eyes; and they’re an easy, go-to structure – maybe a little too “go-to” – for me and my fellow content writers. Here are 11 signs we might be addicted to writing list posts.
1. We keep a list of list posts we intend to write.
2. We tell our spouses or partners, “Here are six things you can do to turn me on tonight – and one you’ll have to figure out yourself.”
This story about the many benefits of the man-root called ginseng was one of a series of articles on modern breakthroughs in science I wrote for a Sigma-Aldrich ezine reaching clients in scientific research. I came away with a real appreciation for ginseng. True fact: I take it every day myself now.
It has no lighted parking, no drive-through pharmacy and no giant displays of shampoo, but make no mistake: ginseng is a drugstore.
“A virtual drugstore,” clarifies Laura Murphy, PhD, Associate Professor of Physiology at Southern Illinois University Carbondale School of Medicine. Dr. Murphy’s research lab has released a series of groundbreaking findings relating ginseng to the slower growth of cancer cells.
“Ginseng has 30 different ginsenocides, supponent glycosides, polysaccharides, plus fiber and protein,” says Dr. Murphy. “There are 50 different compounds that affect the body, all through unique mechanisms. Working with ginseng is complex and challenging.”
Tan and gnarled, ginseng root has a forked shape, resembling human legs – hence its original Chinese name renshen, or “man root.” Central to Eastern medicine for 4,000 years for its many alleged healing properties, the chemically rich Panex quinquefolius is now under the microscope in labs throughout the world – notably in Dr. Murphy’s own.
But her recent news-making headlines about ginseng started years ago with another herb altogether. “In the 90s, we started doing research on the neuroendocrine effects of cannabinoids,” says Dr. Murphy, editor of a book on the subject. “We were treating animals with marijuana and looking at effects on male copulatory behavior.” (Side note: They have an inhibitory effect.)
“In putting together that cannabinoids paper, we saw that ginseng was anecdotally reported to stimulate libido. We extended the project to include it and I couldn’t believe the results. We did it two more times, same results.”
Newly intrigued by ginseng, Dr. Murphy tightened her focus on the science of the storied root. She learned Asian researchers were doing most of the recent clinical work, and most of that was about ginseng’s effectiveness in treating cancer cells. “It made me wonder if the discussed cancer-affecting qualities could be confirmed in the research lab.”
An endocrinologist, Dr. Murphy began her lab’s project with a supply of human breast cancer cells grown for researchers. When she and her students treated some of these cells with an American ginseng extract, they found this: the higher the doses, the slower the cancer cells grew. With a high enough dose, they could actually stop the cells from growing.
“It was consistent and repetitive,” says Dr. Murphy. “A very clean result.”
With similar findings came increased funding: from the university, the Department of Defense, the National Cancer Institute, the Penny Severns Fund, and the National Center for Complementary Alternative Medicine. The work expanded quickly.
“We wanted to see if we could get the same results in an animal as we got in a Petri dish, and we did. It was the first time an effect in animals has been document,” Dr. Murphy says.
Next up for her lab: studies on the relationship between ginseng and chemotherapy. “We submitted a grant proposal to the NCI that would involve us looking at ginseng’s chemo-preventive effects. Can ginsengs be used concurrent with chemotherapy drugs?”
In all her with with ginseng and cancer, Dr. Murphy cites a challenge within a challenge: molecular pathway management. “As the ginsenocides and polysaccharides act on the cancer cell, a lot of pathways are affected. We use Panorama arrays from Sigma-Aldrich. It provides a system which deals with signal transduction pathways, cell signaling and apotois. The Panorama arrays are quite specific to the pathways we’re looking for.”
As our interview was concluding, we just had to know: does Dr. Murphy herself take ginseng?
“Yes. I make a tea from the raw root,” she says, laughing. “I like the taste of it and believe in its restorative properties. I believe if you’re a healthy person, it’s good for you, and if you’re unhealthy, it will make you better.”
This 2011 article — an attempt to make dry but important DNA research accessible and even info-taining — was the first in a series of “content marketing” articles I wrote for a Sigma-Aldrich eZine targeting clients into scientific research. These took a sleeves-rolled-up “lean in” attitude about untangling the complex science here: I thought the results were successful.
“Would you people pleeeeeeeease quit talking about work?”
You can almost hear teenage Emily Nicolet of Davis, California, beseeching her parents across the dinner table.
Her mother, Peggy Farnham, PhD, Associate Director of Genomics at the University of California-Davis, says it’s not an uncommon plea. Dr. Farnham and her husband, Charles M. Nicolet, PhD, are also colleagues: Dr. Nicolet is Manger of the DNA Technologies and Gene Expression Core Facilities at UC-D, and both of Emily’s parents are distinguished for their groundbreaking work at the institution’s Genome Center. Conversations between them can quickly turn molecular.
At one such dinner in 2006, Dr. Farnham was the one complaining. She remembers criticizing the quality of data her lab was getting from the then-existing techniques of amplifying DNA from chromatin immunoprecipitation (ChIP) samples for hybridization to a genomic tiling array (ChIP-chip assays.) One technique – linker-mediated PCR (LMPCR) – was providing too great a signal-to-noise ratio. Another, pooling 50 replicated ChIP samples, was not feasible for multiple genome-wide analyses.
Between bites, her husband offered a suggestion. “Have you considered trying one of the WGA amplification methods they’re using in the lab performing Comparative Genomic Hybridizations? Somebody over there just gave me a pamphlet.” Dr. Nicolet handed it over.
Dr. Farnham saw the potential immediately. “Nobody’s tried this on ChIP-chip assays,” she recalls saying. “Let’s do it!”
It was probably about that time daughter Emily lobbed her mid-meal protest.
But the dinner dialogue proved an important catalyst.
Today the Farnham Laboratory at UC-D, a leader in genome-wide characterization of transcription factor binding sites and chromatin modifications, has abandoned the LMPCR and pooling methods and has completely switched over to the WGA technique for its research, getting what Dr. Farnham calls “really quite amazing” data from increasingly smaller cell samples.
“This level of amplification is critical to having enough material to put on the arrays,” Dr. Farnham says. “Using WGA, we just did a whole genome tiling of 38 arrays, going through every base in the genome, looking for a particular factor, and the data is really beautiful. We’ve done 200 arrays in the last six months and it works just as well for any of the factors we’ve tried.”
Miniaturization – getting more from less – is the trajectory of DNA research, Dr. Farnham says. The possible applications are many, but are particularly relevant to the future of medical science, where the ability to extract more sophisticated information on defects and disease from even the smallest biopsy could lead to more evolved diagnosis and cures.
It was in 2004 that Drs. Farnham and Nicolet and their daughter Emily moved to Davis from Madison, Wisconsin, where Dr. Farnham was professor of oncology at the University of Wisconsin. “We all had great friends and colleagues there, but this was a chance to do something new and different at the Genome Center. It’s exciting to be part of a group thinking on this scale. Everybody has these great, genome-wide assays to talk about. The energy is high and the opportunity for collaborations is fantastic.”
In fact, Dr. Farnham’s most recent scientific paper, the latest of many published findings released this year by the Farnham Laboratory, has a collaborative twist. One of the co-authors of Comparison of Sample Preparation Methods for ChIP-chip Assays is also her frequent dinner companion and husband, Dr. Nicolet. “This is our first paper together,” Dr. Farnham says of the work, which compares three ChIP sample preparation methods differing in background noise and reproducibility of binding site identification.
And to think: this influential Farnham/Nicolet collaboration crystallized with that seemingly innocuous “Have-you-considered?” conversation in their dining room months prior. The incident supports this simple, three-part conclusion: