Why the ‘Cult of Creativity’ is a Myth

I am a copywriter. I am not ‘creative.’

Let me explain.

If you were to give me an assortment of craft supplies, and, with no time limit, tell me to “make whatever I want,” I will make nothing. (I might eat the glue.)

But if you were to give me that same assortment of supplies, a 1-hour time limit, and tell me to “cradle an egg from a 1-story drop,” I will have drafted ten ideas, picked five, tested three, and decided on one with five minutes to spare.

Why is that?

Because ‘creativity’ in the so-called ‘traditional’ sense isn’t real.

Why the ‘Cult of Creativity’ is wrong.

Evangelist John C. Maxwell calls creativity “the anticipation that a problem has a solution” — or the energy that empowers a creator to find an answer. For Maxwell, limitless problems contain infinite solutions, and creativity is the expectation of an ultimate solution. In other words, Maxwell believes that the spark generated from finding an idea can power a project from concept to publication.

The problem, though, is finding that spark.

The ‘Cult of Creativity’ is the fanatic misconception that something can come from nothing — an ideology that pedestalizes writer’s block, worships the Muse, and treats inspiration like some arcane, well-guarded secret. It’s the same mentality that insists ‘good work’ only happens in certain locations between specific hours of the day. And it’s utter nonsense.

That said, a startling majority of my former colleagues at university worship the ‘Cult of Creativity.’ Several of them teach ‘freedom’ as the key to good writing; a few of them even encourage their students to pick their own paper topics and grade themselves. Unsurprisingly, the result is confusing, rushed, often incomplete work.

It seems the Muse only ever strikes when the deadline looms three hours away.

If ‘creativity’ doesn’t work, then what does?

The difference between free-thinking and thinking outside the box — is the box.

Take a look at the grid below. Using only three lines, can you connect all four dots? Give it a shot. I’ll wait.

Can you connect these four dots using three lines?

If you try to think within the dots, it’s impossible to connect them; however, if you consider the space beyond the dots, the solution becomes obvious: a triangle (Barry 14, 308).

True creativity — the kind that works — is critical thinking. It’s acknowledging the parameters of a problem and poking its boundaries until you find a solution.

It’s a process.

I particularly like Luke Sullivan’s approach to creativity:

Creativity happens in response to a problem… In my experience, the best strategies and the best work usually come from a place of conflict and tension: strategies built on top of — and powered by — tensions. (Sullivan 145–46)

For Sullivan, creativity isn’t an energy; it’s a methodology — a technique that seeks feasible solutions to real-world problems.

It’s a cycle of tests, failures, and adjustments.

How to think critically about your ad copy.

Most marketing coordinators at work treat ads as a means to an end. They’re billboards that relate landing pages, verbatim. Daily, I read recruiting ads that read as follows:

[Insert number] sign-on bonus! [Insert number] average pay! Apply now!

This text doesn’t solve, or even acknowledge, a problem. Instead, it bypasses the problem and jumps straight to the happy ending: “working for us makes money.”

Yay! But isn’t that the spiel for every job ever?

Benefits aren’t problems. They’re solutions. And solutions are boring. Remember, it’s not about the destination; it’s about the journey, man.

Instead, find a point of tension, and figure out how sign-on bonuses and pay numbers solve those problems. Do some research: are the client’s sign-on bonuses greater than their competitions’? Do they pay more? Or, if the client’s bonuses and pay are average (or below average), take a look at their reviews on Facebook and Glassdoor. Do employees enjoy the atmosphere? Do they like their boss? Is the work stimulating? What separates the client from everybody else?

Try to see the ad through the audience’s eyes. Are sign-on bonuses and wages enough to convince me to click an ad? Probably not. But an ad that asks me whether I can afford Christmas presents for my kids is liable to stop my thumb on the page.

Draw the triangle that connects the dots. Find the problem, then pursue the solution.

This is true creative copy. It is neither arcane nor secret; it’s merely methodical critical thinking.

And I think you can do it, too.


Anywho, that’s me this week. What’s your definition of creativity? What do you think of the ‘Cult of Creativity’?

Let me know in the comments.

Cheers,
Jake

FYI, irrecolletions is now on Twitter. Follow along for insights and daily snippets.

Works cited

Barry, Pete. The Advertising Concept Book. Thames & Hudson Ltd., 2016.

Sullivan, Luke; Boches Edward. Hey, Whipple, Squeeze This. Wiley, 2016.

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4 Things Bodybuilding Teaches Us About Writing

About six months back, I started exercising again. I’d grown tired of looking like Andy Dwyer and decided to become Star-Lord. So I cut out beer (mostly), started running 15 miles per week, and developed a weekly full-body weightlifting regimen. Continue reading 4 Things Bodybuilding Teaches Us About Writing

What The Phantom Menace Teaches Us About Writing Good Ad Copy

Why The Phantom Menace sucks–and why it matters.

Star Wars: Episode I, The Phantom Menace is, critically, the worst Star Wars film. It’s certified “rotten” on Rotten Tomatoes with an aggregated score of 55%, and it holds the lowest IMDB score of any film in the franchise (6.5). Though critical reaction was mixed upon release, the film has since fallen into notoriety–so much so, Disney refuses to set any of its new IP in the prequel time period, aside from two limited-run Marvel comics.

It’s also the film that began prioritizing product over story. Though The Phantom Menace sets the stage for every major cinematic achievement in the early 21st century, from The Lord of the Rings to Sin City, the film itself sucks. It’s bloated, boring, tone deaf, and borderline offensive at times; it feels less like a story and more like a corporate Star Wars checklist: there are Jedi, lightsabers, royalty, chases, romances (sort of), Darth Vader (sort of), the Force (sort of), music, droids, spaceships, aliens, good guys, bad guys, comic relief, stars, and wars.

‘Did you read the opening crawl?’ Check.

‘Did you notice the John Williams score?’ Check.

‘Did you catch all the original trilogy references?’ Double check.

There’s so much content, there’s no time to stop and appreciate it. And there’s almost no reason to care about any of it: the stakes aren’t high enough, and the characters aren’t relatable enough.

The Plinkett Test

To illustrate, here’s a clip from Red Letter Media’s review of the film. In it, Mr. Plinkett asks people to describe characters from the prequel trilogy without referencing their appearances, job titles, or costumes. This is their response

To no one’s surprise, prequel characters are hard to describe. Why? Because they have no character. Queen Amidala is her costume; Qui Gon Ginn is his job; Anakin Skywalker is his age. There’s nothing deeper that defines them. Original trilogy characters, by contrast, are much more vibrant. Han Solo is charming, cocky, and roguish. Chewbacca is a big softy; C-3PO is prissy. These characters are memorable because they have personalities. They aren’t merely vessels for the plot.

So what can we learn from The Phantom Menace? And how can those lessons affect the way we approach advertising copy?

Good ad copy tells good stories.

Imagine your favorite ad. It might be Allstate’s “Mayhem” campaign or Volkswagen’s “Lemon” ads. What single element do these ads share?

They tell stories.

Rick Boyko, former creative president of VCU’s Brandcenter, sums up the entire industry in one sentence: “We are storytellers in service of brands.” (Sullivan 143).

On paper, our job is to deliver leads and/or clicks for our clients. In reality, our job is to intrigue, entertain, and compel–to find the middle ground between the client, the audience, and ourselves and to force people pause, reflect, and act. We are music makers, the dreamers of dreams. We are the latest generation in a near-infinite lineage of master storytellers whose ranks include William Shakespeare and Herman Melville. Our work literally changes lives.

Want to go “viral”? Tell human truths.

But don’t just take my word for it. Several industry leaders preach this exact message. Ed Robinson, co-founder of the Viral Factory, insists that ads should use the truth to emotionally stir people. He writes:

“This is the key for us–does the idea hold a human truth which goes beyond us (An advertising agency getting paid to flog some stuff) and the client (who thinks only of their product). If it doesn’t then it has no viral potential” (Iezzi 86).

Simply put, we can’t move audiences with bland words. We can’t go viral without stories that tell hard truths.

Like The Phantom Menace, most ad copy I see at work treats content like a checklist:

What’s the product called? Check.

What is it? How much? Check.

Should I click to learn more? Double check.

Though necessary, these features alone will not sell products long-term. Basic ads present too much information and don’t tell a story. They don’t intrigue our audience, and they don’t compel them to click. (Yes, telling someone to click doesn’t actually work.) There is no “character”; instead, they feel cold, corporate, and calculated.

Got [Blue] Milk?

In the early 90s, milk was on the decline (can you believe it?). For over 100 years, marketing companies sold milk the same way: by listing benefits. “MILK BUILDS STRONG BONES.” While this strategy worked for most of the 20th century, it had soured by the 90s. Enter Jeff Goodby and his “Got Milk?” campaign. Instead of listing benefits, Goodby told a story through deprivation: the speaker doesn’t have milk, and they want it. There’s tension, there’s conflict, and it leaves the resolution hanging to inspire consumer action (Sullivan 145). This is the exact kind of writing we should be doing. ‘Call a recruiter” and “sign on bonus available” will sour eventually. If it can happen to milk, it can happen to trucks.

Still don’t believe me? Let’s look at it a different way.

Using the Plinkett Test On Ad Copy

Here are two competing headlines I saw recently:

  1. Now Hiring Company Drivers
  2. Welcome to the Big Time

How do these headlines make you feel? What’s your gut reaction to them?

Let’s run them through the Plinkett test. Describe the “speaker” in these headlines without describing what they look like, what they might be wearing, or what profession they might have.

Chances are, you can’t describe the “character” in the first ad–not without describing their clothing or job title.

The second “character” is much clearer. He’s a straight shooter, the kind of guy who speaks from his chest and walks with a swagger. Even when he’s not the boss, he commands your respect. He’s someone you can trust when the going gets tough: he won’t sugar coat bad news, and he won’t skimp out on congratulations. He’s a good guy.

Further, I ran both of these through Coschedule’s headline analyzer, which grades headlines on usage, frequency, and relevance. Here’s a link to their analyzer, if you’re interested.

The first scored a 30, and the second scored a 79. Whoa.

Simply stating the obvious doesn’t compel anyone to act. However–strong, emotional language, matched with a call to action (i.e. a story) both builds a relationship with the audience and compels them to click.

For fun, I also ran the phrase “The Phantom Menace” through the headline analyzer. It scored a 41. There are no emotional triggers, no action words, and no uncommon language. “The” takes up way too much real estate and leaves “Menace” to carry the brunt of the headline. It shows a strong negative sentiment and it contains too few words and characters. In short, The Phantom Menace is not only a bland movie, it’s a bland headline, too.

Tl;dr: Don’t be like Star Wars. Tell a simple, coherent, interesting story.


Anywho, that’s me this week. How do you use story in your ad copy?

Let me know in the comments.

Cheers,
Jake

FYI, irrecolletions is now on Twitter. Follow along for insights and daily snippets.


Works Cited

Iezzi, Teressa. The Idea Writers: Copywriting in a New Media and Marketing Era. Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.

Sullivan, Luke. Hey, Whipple, Squeeze This: The Classic Guide to Creating Great Ads, 4th Ed. John Wiley & Sons, 2012.

“Star Wars: The Phantom Menace Review.” Star Wars: The Phantom Menace Review, YouTube, 9 Apr. 2012, youtu.be/FxKtZmQgxrI.

 

6 Ways Kanbans Help You Get Stuff Done

Blogging is a part-time job. Literally.

Between brainstorming, researching, writing, editing, and posting, I spend about twenty hours per week creating content. For me, writing is that thing I do when I have nothing else to do. It’s my Netflix, my video games; it’s the glue that fills the cracks in my already packed life. I write in coffee shops, in waiting rooms, in transit–I started this post while eating a banana on my lunch break.  But sometimes my schedule makes it hard to keep posts and deadlines straight. Enter kanban: a simple production flowchart that keeps work organized. It helps me stay afloat, and I think it can help you, too.

What is a Kanban?

A kanban is “a scheduling system for lean manufacturing and just-in-time manufacturing” (Wikipedia). Simply put, it’s a chart that visualizes, schedules, and track projects. I use mine to keep organized, assure quality, and set soft and hard deadlines for myself. It’s the only way I manage two blog posts per week, and it’s the most effective way to keep my fiction from stumbling over itself.

There’s a lot of kanban software out there. This is my Trello.

Note that ‘kanban’ isn’t a software; rather, it’s a word for a kind of software. I use Trello for my blog and Jira for work, but those aren’t the only programs out there. Kanban Tool, for example, has a clean, simple interface; Leankit is a little more intensive. My advice: play around and find the one that meets your needs.

Remember, it only works if you stick with it.

1. Manage your ideas.

Kanbans are great for dumping ideas.

As I’ve noted elsewhere, my production cycle starts on Saturday. I wake up, crack open a notebook, and jot down ten to fifteen post ideas. I rarely spend more than fifteen minutes brainstorming, and I almost always fill two 2×3 notebook pages. Some of those ideas are great; some are horrid. All end up in my Trello backlog. Whenever my fifteen minutes are up, I type them into my kanban. Then I tag them by type (green for evergreen; brown for “Morning Coffee“; red for my upcoming series) and sort them from “most excited to write” to “scraping the bottom of the idea barrel.”

2. Stay organized.

Remember that old Lisa Frank trapper keeper you wore out in middle school? Kanbans are like that, but without ripped holes and crumpled paper.

I split my Trello into six categories: backlog, researching, writing, editing, making graphics, and published. Each post lives somewhere on the board. That way, I always know what I’m writing, when it’s due, and how close it is to “done.” If I’m looking for blog ideas, I pull from the backlog. If I’m researching, I drop my findings into the “researching” category. So on; so forth. Rinse; repeat.

On average, I typically work on three posts at once: one short fiction post, one long fiction post, and one evergreen post. Without a dedicated flowchart, I’d have to rely completely on my memory and notes–and I have the brain of a goldfish and the handwriting of a med student. No bueno.

So do yourself a favor: kick Ms. Frank to the curb and get organized like a grown-up. You’ll thank yourself later.

3. Treat writing like car assembly.

Kanbans were invented by a Toyota employee, so it makes sense that they’re basically intellectual assembly lines. As a project progresses, its card moves along the kanban. When the card arrives in a category, it cannot (read: should not) move again until its respective parts have been assembled. For example, when I research, I attach my notes and references to the card. The card cannot move to “writing” without those attachments. That way, if I need to pull a quote or write a bibliography (or, for fiction, look up characters, items, events, or settings), I have everything on-hand. No need to scrounge around looking for it. It’s there, ready, whenever I need it.

4. Keep your writing and editing separate.

When I used to teach freshman composition, the biggest complaint I heard from students was this:

“Writing is so hard because every time I write something, it sounds stupid. So I end up erasing it, starting over, and erasing that, too. Gah!”

Have you ever had a similar experience? I know I have. Loads of times. Gah.

I’m not a great writer. I hardly call myself a good writer; all of my rough drafts read like they were written in crayon. But a good fifteen minutes with a red pen can clean up awkward phrases, tie up tangents, fix passive language, and change oddball verbiage.

But remember, you can’t fix anything until you’ve written it.

Having separate kanban categories for writing and editing helps me get more done by forcing me to focus on each separately. As soon as I’m done researching, I move the card into “writing,” and I vomit all of my thoughts onto the page. When I’m done, I transcribe the draft into WordPress, move the card into the “editing” category, and begin scanning for content errors. I refuse to edit while the post sits in “writing,” and I refuse to write new material while it sits in “editing.”

The “editing” phase is also where I format for SEO. It’s nearly impossible to draft with search engines in mind, so I don’t bother. I write first, edit second, and optimize third, and my title is almost always the last thing I write. That way, it aligns with my focus keyword, sub-headings, and editorial tone.

5. Regiment your time for tedious work.

Let’s face it: your post will never feel done. And the more you tinker with it, the less done it will feel.

It’s time to set soft deadlines for yourself. If you’re shooting for a 500-word post, regiment yourself about three hours to research, write, and edit, and set a due date that reflects your workload. With my work schedule, three hours of work takes about three days. If I brainstorm on Saturday, I typically set a soft post deadline for Wednesday morning, around 8 AM.

I like scheduling in my kanban because it allows me to not only set post due dates; it also allows me to set category due dates. Smaller deadlines allow me time to research, write, and edit well before my post deadline.

Remember, 1,500 words is daunting, but five sets of 300 words are do-able.

6. Catalog your victories.

Blogging is a lonely hobby. It’s long hours in front of a notebook, followed by long hours in front of a computer. It’s easy to get discouraged. That’s why I archive all my work on my Trello. Whenever I’m feeling blue, I like to gander at my completed tasks. That’s typically enough to spur me onward.

It’s also nice being able to recycle my notes. Finishing a post doesn’t suddenly make the work invalid. If you’ve done the legwork, then you should continue to use it. Whenever I find myself in a pinch, I finger through my archive and see if there’s anything useful I can dig back up. More often than not, there is.


Anywho, that’s me this week. What do you use to keep yourself organized? What does your post schedule look like? What kinds of software do you use to stay afloat?

Let me know in the comments.

Cheers,

Jake

FYI, irrecolletions is now on Twitter. Follow along for insights, daily snippets, and refills of Morning Coffee.

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Update: Let’s Collaborate!

Blogging is about community. It’s about making real connections with others through comments, shared posts, feedback, and team-ups. It’s about working together to create something new and special. And if it weren’t for people like you, I still wouldn’t know the first thing about proper SEO, crossposting, graphic design, or scheduling. But here I am, five months in with about 100 subscribers and a growing, steady readership. But we aren’t done just yet. Let’s grow that community. Let’s collaborate by writing together and featuring each other.

So, writers, artists, designers–email me, and let’s ring in the new year by making something cool together.

Stay weird,

Jake

morning coffee: Drink. (Don’t Drink.)

There’s something in the water. And everybody’s drinking it.

Continue reading morning coffee: Drink. (Don’t Drink.)

Update: We’re Moving! (Sort of.)

Irrecollections has (and always will be) a haven for fresh-squeezed content, both fiction and nonfiction.

To better meet your needs, we’re undergoing some renovations. Major renovations. And we’re pretty damn pumped about it. The metadata’s all packed, old articles have been trashed, and all-new content’s primed and waiting to post. All that remains is a flip of the switch.

And the best part–you don’t have to go anywhere. Same address, new house.

Thanks for all of your support. Thanks for all the comments and emails; thanks for the notes and encouragement. You’re the best.