I worked in advertising for something like fifteen years.

During that time, I got fired a lot.  Generally for insubordination, but sometimes for despair.

Once in a while, however, I’m (reluctantly) forced to acknowledge the debt I owe to all those years selling snake oil.

I learned to think laterally. Not to fall back on the obvious. To cut sentences back to the bone. And create pictures with words.

I learned that not a soul on earth was breathlessly waiting for my deathless prose.

A few months ago I was asked to write a short story to sell in a can at Nick Hornby’s Monster Supply shop in Hoxton, which doubles as a centre for literacy. My can was called ALARM. No one who ever worked in advertising would simply write a story and stick it in a can. The can would have to be part of the story. So I titled my (very short) story The Epping Particle, and used the can, and the sweets contained therein, to create a very scary story indeed.

As my husband said, “No sane child is going to eat those sweets once they’ve read your story.” Which I’m a bit sorry about. (Kids, if you’re reading, the gumdrops will not, in actual fact, result in a slow and painful death.)

The trick with a career in advertising is to learn all you can, and then get out and do something better with all that hard-won wisdom.

Like write a few books.


P.s. You should have a look at the Monster Supplies website where you can buy other canned short stories from people like Andy Stanton, Joe Dunthorne, Charlie Higson, Eoin Colfer and Zadie Smith.


8 thoughts on “One or two things I learned from advertising.

  1. Mike 7 years ago

    Alarm? Tinned fear? I thought the governement had cornered the market on those.

  2. Stroppy Author 7 years ago

    I think a lot of us learned the craft – at least clarity and conciseness – in one of those fields that demands sharp writing but doesn’t give a bean for the identity of the writer.

    Tinned stories fantastic – off to the Monster store to re-acquaint myself with them!

  3. Stroppy Author 7 years ago

    Half my comment disappeared!
    Also said: It’s bad at the time you’re doing it, but excellent training – you’re fine evidence of that.

  4. Nicky Schmidt 7 years ago

    Half a lifetime in marketing, writing copy and working with ad agencies had the same effect. I always wondered, when I finally got out, what I’d do with all that I’d learned – now I’m really grateful for everything I learned in the industry!

  5. Kate 7 years ago

    Yup, I had a great boss in World Service radio who taught me how to write with techniques that have proved very useful. Colloquial, direct, and remember that your audience has to get your point the first time round because they can’t flip back through the pages. Don’t lead them up alleways and confuse them but take them on a straightforward journey. He had an analogy about a bus and some hedges which escapes me now but I still have the sense of it when I write today!

  6. John Were 7 years ago

    “analogy about a bus and some hedges”: could it have been something along the lines of

    ‘good writing is like seating your readers upstairs on the bus. They can see their destination over the hedges?’

    That’s a bit clumsy but it immediately makes me think of my journalism classes.

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