You can totally ignore these—but please, for the rest of us, don’t

Coming up with amazing, award-winning conceptual ideas is super easy. 

Wait. Easy isn’t the right word. I meant goddamned near impossible. That’s why we have teams in advertising. Someone starts with a smart thought, and you hot potato it back and forth until it’s brilliant enough for 37 people to add their names to the credits. 

But craft is a much more solitary and isolating experience. And few things can feel more torturous to a writer than the cursor winking at them like an impatient perv (with the exception of writing by committee, the fingernail pliers of advertising). 

So, it’s understandable that many writers want to rush it or half-ass it or fix it later. But lots of people are going to read that piece of writing before it gets fixed (if you’re lucky). So here are a few thoughts on the topic, written on trains and toilets and in meetings I should’ve been paying closer attention to. 

1. Be more specific

This is the big one. Who you are as a writer is 100% determined by the details you choose to put on the page. Think of them as an instructional guide for how you want something to look. It’s not an apartment, it’s a $2,600/month Bushwick studio. It’s not a car, it’s a sensible hatchback with missing plates. You get it. 

2. Stick the landing

Every funny line or joke should end with the funniest word in the sentence. But also—end any piece of writing with the word or thought you want the reader/viewer/listener to remember.

3. Don’t write what you can’t shoot

You can’t point a camera at: a soldier contemplates the horrors of war. But you can point a camera at: eyes brimming with tears, a soldier drops his weapon, slides off his helmet and sits down in the muck. Pick the action and write that.

4. Don’t rely on improv actors to fix the jokes in a script

Sometimes you get comedy gold from improv. Most of the time you get vaguely sexual, unusable jokes that are 12 seconds too long. Show up to set with at least one thing (and several backups) that you know will work. Then try to beat them. 

5. Learn to write to a budget

Shoots are already very expensive. Things that make them way more expensive: celebrities, lots of actors, lots of locations, rigging a car with cameras, stunt work, real animals, any recognizable brand or person, licensing music, anything computer generated. Things that make shoots way less expensive: great writing in one location. 

6. You have time for one thing to happen in 15 seconds. No more. 

Google Little Caesar’s “Breaking the Cast” commercial. It’s the best example I can think of for this.

7. Read your stuff out loud

Some things that look good on the page are clumsy or too long or unfunny when you say them out loud. You’ll hear it as soon as you say it. 

8. Set up expectations. Then bash them against the rocks. 

When it comes to any form of creative writing, everyone wants to be wrong about the ending. Find a way to somehow obscure what’s coming, so the reader/viewer/listener has a sense of discovery when they get there. 

9. Write manifestos like you’re talking to one person

Write like you’re talking to someone you know, with lots of colorful details (see tip No. 1). A few short paragraphs, a few sentences each, and a wrap-up that makes a turn to the line or brand. 

10. Write clean scripts

The best writers in advertising have a 60/40 blank page-to-words ratio in their scripts (it might even be 70/30). Write action, not description. Sharpen verb choices. Hack away at unnecessary words and syllables. Same with dialogue. People speak in sentence fragments. Keep things simple, sharp and clean on the page. 

11. Good (dumb) names sell work

Sticky names make your projects fun to say and easy to remember around the halls of your client’s office. And nobody likes puns, alliteration and wordplay more than the media you’re hoping will cover your idea for free. 

12. Don’t sling filmmaking jargon in scripts

Our job is to create a colorful mental image, not direct it on the page. Also—if your client doesn’t know what whip pan or B-roll or crash zoom mean, they’ll be confused. And if they’re confused, they’ve stopped listening. 

13. Write out your montages/vignettes

In commercials, every second must be accounted for. Write out the action so we know specifically who, what and where things will happen, even if it changes later (it will).

14. Push past the familiar (aka how to avoid being outwritten by a chatbot)

If you’ve read it, don’t write it. This is tough to pull off, but worth striving for. If the thing you’re writing feels familiar, find a way to add something (anything) unexpected to make it feel fresh.

15. Sometimes a good headline can be the whole idea

The best headlines are a concise expression of an insight. So are the best ideas. You’re Not You When You’re Hungry could’ve easily been a print headline. Instead, it became one of the most successful global campaigns of the last two decades. 

16. Write things that aren’t advertising

Write stuff all the time. It can be anything: scripts, prose, blog posts, children’s stories, tweets, scenes, random dialogue, things you find dumb and funny walking down the street. It will make you better at your job, I promise.

17. Read more

Don’t punch me. Hate reading books? Read song lyrics. The good ones are amazing examples of word economy and visual writing.

18. What’s the point?

At Mischief we have a two-step creative process. 1. What are we trying to say? 2. What’s the most interesting way to say it? You can’t move on to 2 until you’ve figured out 1.

19. Learn to present your work 

Read things out loud all the time. Slow down. Don’t robotically read the words on the page. Play with inflection to give the words personality and timing. And pause before the payoff or tagline to give it weight. 

20. Dumb setup, straight delivery

Unless you’re ’90s Jim Carrey, comedy works best when you set up an absurd situation and have the characters play it straight. It heightens the absurdity of the situation, and it’s that contrast that makes it funnier. Don’t believe me? Google the words Skittles Pinata commercial, in that order.

This article first appeared in

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