ON WRITING

Honest Abe a tonic for 2016 hangover

As published in the Providence Journal, Sunday, November 20, 2016.

Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is considered by many to be the greatest political speech in American history. It was delivered on November 19, 1863 at the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where four months earlier one of the Civil War’s bloodiest and most pivotal battles had been fought. In a scant 272 words, Lincoln reaffirmed the ideals of liberty and equality set forth in the Declaration of Independence and called for a new birth of freedom in the United States.

Initial reaction to the famous speech, however, was mixed.

While The Chicago Tribune wrote that “the dedicatory remarks of President Lincoln will live among the annals of the war,” The Chicago Times opined that “the cheek of every American must tinge with shame as he reads the silly, flat, and dishwatery utterances of the man who has to be pointed out to intelligent foreigners as the President of the United States.”

But in Massachusetts, the Springfield Republican wrote that Lincoln’s “little speech is a perfect gem; deep in feeling, compact in thought and expression, and tasteful and elegant in every word and comma.”

After studying the Gettysburg Address as a high school junior, I rediscovered it in college – in an English class, to my surprise. The speech was included in my Norton Anthology of American Literature, alongside works by Emerson, Whitman, and Melville. I was happy to now consider Lincoln for his poetics as well as his politics.

His phrasing is memorable: “Four score and seven years ago …” His parallelisms are pleasing to the ear: “… we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground.” His tensions are beautifully balanced: “… we here highly resolve that the dead shall not have died in vain.” With the passage of time, one line has become exquisitely ironic: “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.”

In his book “Lincoln at Gettysburg,” Garry Wills writes, “Hemingway claimed that all modern American novels are the offspring of ‘Huckleberry Finn.’ It is no greater exaggeration to say that all modern political prose descends from the Gettysburg Address.”

Given the rancor of this year’s presidential face-off, Wills’ choice of the word “descends” was prescient. There were low points aplenty, on both sides. It’s no wonder “Saturday Night Live” notched its best ratings in years as we howled at Kate McKinnon’s Hillary Clinton and Alec Baldwin’s Donald Trump.

But the election was no skit. And now, in the midst of our collective campaign hangover, I am looking for a tonic.

If I were in Washington, D.C., I’d take the Metro to Smithsonian Station, ride the escalator up to the National Mall, and head west. Approaching the Washington Monument, I’d see 50 American flags waving in the breeze. Crossing 17th Street, I’d hear fountains splashing at the World War II Memorial. And then I’d follow the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool to the colonnaded temple that honors our 16th president.

Inside, I’d proceed to the south chamber and let my eyes land on the Gettysburg Address inscribed in Indiana limestone: “… government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” In the north chamber, I’d read Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address: “With malice toward none … let us strive on … to bind up the nation’s wounds.”

Leaving the memorial, I’d glance toward the distant Capitol. In 1861, its partially finished dome provided a symbolic backdrop at Lincoln’s first inauguration – the nation itself was a work in progress. “We are not enemies, but friends,” the new president said to the crowd. “We must not be enemies.” He closed with an impassioned appeal to “the better angels of our nature.”

May such angels find us now.

 

Always voyaging, never arriving: How La Salle helped me become a writer

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As published in the La Salle Alumni Magazine, Winter 2015.

Brother Eugene raised his arm like a basketball referee calling a foul. He was clutching a stack of papers – our first book reports in freshman English. And then Eugene let our stapled, loose-leaf musings drop to the floor – SLAP! – and all pre-class chatter ceased.

“Garbage!” he shouted.

It was not an auspicious start for an aspiring writer like me. But it was instructive. Turns out many of us had misspelled “separate” in our analysis of the John Knowles classic, A Separate Peace. From that day forward, I paged through my American Heritage Dictionary more often.

Brother Eugene’s class was just one of many experiences at La Salle that helped set me on the path to becoming a copywriter and Op-Ed columnist. Three months after graduating from college with an English degree, I landed my first ad agency job and have been writing for a living ever since.

At La Salle, I glimpsed the importance of editing from my AP U.S. history teacher, John Carpenter. He dissected my essay on Reconstruction as if it were a frog in biology class. With a red pen as his scalpel, Mr. Carpenter cut my first three paragraphs. “Here’s where you should start,” he said, pointing to the bottom of the page. “Everything above is fluff.”

I tested my hand at journalism through the Maroon & White, our school newspaper. My first assignment? A report on improvements made to the school building over the summer of 1976. I think I wrote about fresh paint, refurbished desks, and fluorescent lighting. I told myself Woodward and Bernstein had similar beginnings.

Classmate and friend Jim Phelan demonstrated the power of message repetition, a technique I have employed for clients many times. A huge fan of the band Black Sabbath, Jim graffitied the school with the lead singer’s name – OZZY in lavatory stalls, OZZY on cafeteria trays, OZZY beneath the bleachers, OZZY inside my locker, somehow. I’m surprised I didn’t find OZZY scrawled on my diploma at graduation.

English teacher A.J. Ramsey was especially supportive, overseeing my independent study in creative writing junior year. Mr. Ramsey introduced me to Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Virginia Woolf. He read my essays, short stories, and poems with patience and gentle criticism. And he revealed to me the fundamental truth about getting good at this craft: write every day.

In May of my senior year, I was among ten or so students who wrote and read speeches to be considered for our class’s valedictory address. Three weeks later, I delivered my speech during our graduation ceremony at Veterans Memorial Auditorium. It was my biggest writing milestone to date.

Earlier that day, I had received a gift from Mr. Ramsey: a leather-bound edition of Mrs. Dalloway. The first page was inscribed:

John: To teach and to have you learn – to share and to have you accept beauty – it has been a pleasure, and a life. We (you, and I, and the rest of us) are the university, once described “like a sailing ship always voyaging, never arriving.” Bon voyage, dear shipmate! – Ramsey

 

My Op-Ed draws Syracuse grad’s wisdom

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After my Op-Ed, “Choosing college more art than science,” appeared in the Providence Journal on April 19, 2015, I received the following email from Bob Benchley, an alumnus of the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University. I’m grateful to Bob for allowing me to share his wisdom with you.

John:

It was nearly 50 years ago that I decided to go to Syracuse. I had grown up in a Boston suburb (Wellesley), was on the school paper, loved writing stories, and I wanted to be a journalist. Kids are so much smarter now about schools than I was back then, and the admissions engines run so much hotter and faster. I just had a guidance counselor, a few catalogs, modest grades and some attitudes that were mostly instilled by others. I flew out to Syracuse for a weekend with an older friend who had gone there after working with me on the high school paper. I stayed in his dorm, drank beer (18 was legal then in New York), went to a concert, had an interview and figured it might be cool to go there.

So Syracuse it was. Newhouse was just one building then, print was everything, and you did your assignments on manual typewriters, on which you also had to pass a speed and accuracy test to graduate. I was a magazine major, and the guy running the department was fairly fresh out of Newsweek. When he talked to us in class, it was always “when” you go to New York, not “if.” And I did, working there 15 years before heading back to Boston for another 10 years, then here to Miami in 2000.

In retrospect, I should have gone someplace farther away and very different from Boston. It would have exposed me to so much that was new culturally, geographically, yet I don’t know what my life would be without Syracuse. It’s sort of like what if you hadn’t had one of your kids, but a different one instead. You can’t imagine the tradeoff.

I wish your daughter well. Tell her that her degree will always stand her in good stead. They say that your college degree gets you your first job, and your first job gets you your second job. That’s true; at some point you’re a professional, not a former student. But if she picks and stays with a career in some form of communications, there will be dozens or hundreds of times that someone also in the biz will ask where you went. When you say “Newhouse,” there will be a quiet little nod of recognition, and you will be elevated a notch in the respect of the person you are speaking with.

You have “adv” in your email address, so I suppose the apple didn’t fall far from the tree. This stranger from far away sends best wishes to both of you. It is a joy to be able to turn information and ideas into consumable visual imagery (that doesn’t sound very sexy, but you know what I mean); to spend a life being paid for it is even better.

Bob Benchley

Why you should check spell check

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Do you check spell check, your computer’s application for flagging words in your documents that may be spelled incorrectly? I do. While spell check is an effective way to give your writing a first scrub, it will never replace proofreading. That’s because there are mistakes spell check will never catch. Often, they involve homophones – words that have the same pronunciation but different meanings. (Homophone derives from the Greek homos “same” + phone “sound.”) The word sounds right and is spelled right; it’s simply not the correct word.

Here are several homophones that lead to common spell check-proof mistakes:

Affect and effect. As verbs, these words have distinct meanings: affect means to influence (The weather affected the outcome of the game) or to feign (He affected an air of confidence despite the fact that the ripcord wasn’t working), while effect means to bring about (The politicians promised to effect change). Effect is more common as a noun, where it means an outward sign or result (The politicians’ promises had little effect on their constituents).

Complement and compliment. As a copywriter, I use the word complement often, as in The new entrees complement our existing menu. Here, complement means to complete or make perfect. It is distinct from compliment, which refers to the expression of admiration or praise, i.e., Customers complimented us on our new entrees.

It’s and its. One is a contraction (It’s raining) and one is a possessive (The band saved its biggest hit for the encore). Here’s an easy way to avoid confusing the two: read the sentence using it is instead of either it’s or its and you’ll know immediately if your usage is correct, e.g., The band saved it is biggest hit– oops!

Lose and loose. I see writers everywhere using loose when they mean lose – and the words aren’t even true homophones! Lose the extra “o”.

Premier and premiere. Premier is another common word in a copywriter’s arsenal, since we are always looking for ways to say a product or service is the best in its category. But that has nothing to do with a premiere, which is the first performance of a play or musical, or the first showing of a movie.

Principal and principle. The former is a person, the latter a fundamental truth or belief. In an earlier blog post, I shared a simple trick that my fourth grade teacher, Miss McAndrew, taught our class for remembering the difference between the two.

Who’s and whose. Who’s is a contraction of who is, as in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Whose indicates possession, as in Virginia Woolf is a novelist whose books are read in college literature classes. To avoid confusion, use the same trick suggested above for it’s and its: read the sentence using who is for either who’s or whose and any mistake will jump out at you.

Your and you’re. Your is a possessive pronoun – your blog, your writing – while you’re is a contraction of you and are: I’m happy you’re coming to the game with us. Again, to avoid mistakes, read the sentence with the contraction spelled out (“I’m happy you are coming to the game…). If it sounds right, you’re right.

OK, time to spell check this post – and then proofread.

How one word can ruin your radio spot

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A radio spot running in the Greater Providence market broke through to my consciousness, but for the wrong reason. At the close of the spot, when the voice talent stated the advertiser’s Route 2 address, he said “rout”, as if Kentucky had just played Brown in college hoops. Now here in Rhode Island, we have our share of pronunciation peculiarities (grist for another post or five), but our treatment of “route” is not among them. We say “root”, as in “I root for the Patriots.” Calling Route 2 “Rout” 2 catches our ear. It says the person speaking isn’t from here.

The country is filled with dialects, of course, a source of linguistic richness and endless entertainment. Neither “root” nor “rout” is right or wrong; each just reflects a regional pronunciation. But in a radio spot for the Providence market, “rout” instantly distracts the listener from the message and short-circuits the connection that the advertiser is trying to make with prospective customers. I once produced a local radio spot on home improvement loans with a voice talent from Buffalo who pronounced “roof” as if she were imitating her dog: “ruff”. Take two!

Lesson to radio advertisers: get to the recording session and make sure the voice talent delivers every word in the vernacular of your listeners – especially if you want them to become customers.

Words of Thanksgiving from Lincoln

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On October 3, 1863, Abraham Lincoln invited his fellow citizens to celebrate “a day of Thanksgiving” the following month. Here are excerpts from his proclamation:

“The year that is drawing towards its close has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies … It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently, and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American people … I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving …”

A piece of Lincoln’s phrasing in the proclamation — “fit and proper” — foreshadowed words he would speak at Gettysburg 47 days later:

“Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.”

Historian Shelby Foote said “you can’t understand the United States unless you understand the Civil War.” That goes for Thanksgiving, too, as Lincoln urged citizens “in every part” of our country to come together. His proclamation echoed the appeal to the South that he made in his first inaugural address:

“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection.”

I love Lincoln the writer as much as Lincoln the president. Probably more.

This Thanksgiving, and every day, may our hearts be touched by, in Lincoln’s words, “the better angels of our nature.”

The oversized, wonderful life of my petite Auntie Marie

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As published in the Providence Journal on November 16, 2014.

The email from my cousin brought news I didn’t want. My aunt, Marie Paulson, had unplugged her oxygen and crawled into bed, declaring that, after nine years of ovarian cancer, she had had enough.

Petite and cheerful, with an easy smile and deep reservoirs of empathy, my aunt had forged a special bond with me. When the astrology craze hit in the late 1960s, she was quick to point out that, with our February birthdays, we were fellow Aquarians. “We’re beautiful people,” she told me, with certainty. “We understand each other.”

Before I was old enough for school, my aunt had brought me to her kindergarten class for a day. I recall that her students kept hugging her. She was a five-foot superhero — part teacher, part mom, part nurse, part friend, and all love.

But now her light, at least the physical part, was dimming.

My cousin eventually persuaded my aunt to reattach her oxygen. When her son-in-law and nephew visited, she perked up. By the afternoon, she was drinking wine and watching Wimbledon. Later, it was Jimmy Fallon.

But somewhere between tennis and “The Tonight Show,” my aunt wrote down her “wishes” — one of which was that I write her obituary. She said I would “do her justice.”

I am a copywriter. For more than 30 years, I have been slinging words for all kinds of clients — in annual reports, websites, radio spots, print ads, email blasts, you name it. I tell people I can write anything.

But this was different. I was flattered that my aunt thought I could do her justice with the obituary. But can any death notice do that?

I knew the pitfalls from experience. After my father’s sudden death 21 years ago, I wrote his obituary in haste at the kitchen table before leaving for the funeral home to make arrangements. How could I have forgotten his master’s degree in English from Penn? Why did I use the slangy “frosh” instead of the more correct “freshmen” in referencing the state-champion basketball team he had coached?

Oversights and errors weren’t the only things I was wary of. Obituaries have a just-the-facts curtness about them, which I welcomed — purple prose valedictions only deepen the sadness for me. Still, in summarizing my aunt’s life in nine column inches, I knew a lot would have to be left out.

I noted her academic accomplishments, but not the exhilaration and trepidation she must have felt leaving her immigrant parents’ home to attend the University of Rhode Island in 1946.

I referenced her 49-year marriage to my uncle, but not the detail about them going to Moonstone — the nude beach — when they were dating in college. (“We had so much fun,” she had told me, with a you-don’t-even-know look.)

I cited her 23 years as a teacher in Providence, but not that she taught in tough schools during turbulent times and that, in the midst of integration, her love was a godsend to the 5- and 6-year-olds in her class.

I listed by name her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, as well as her three sisters, all gone now, but included nothing about the laughter and music that once filled her beach house during big family parties.

My aunt reviewed my draft and said it was “to the point.” I’m sure she meant it as a compliment. It was also an accurate criticism.

News of her death came at dawn on a Tuesday. I went downstairs, made coffee, and paced around the kitchen. The obituary, especially what it didn’t say, nagged at me.

I knew what I had to do.

Four days later, as sunlight streamed into St. Pius Church at my aunt’s funeral Mass, I stepped into the pulpit: “Good morning. Marie was ‘Auntie Marie’ to me, and I’ll always be grateful for that …”

And then came the words that were missing from my aunt’s obituary — less to the point and more to the person.

I hope my eulogy did her justice.

 

Why Punctuation Matters

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By East Greenwich Cove, a missing apostrophe turns a well-known idiom into a declarative sentence – not the quahaugger’s intent, most likely.

Seuss to Joyce: A Bloomsday Journey

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As published in the Providence Journal on June 16, 2014.

Today is Bloomsday, as the world celebrates all things James Joyce. Bloomsday gets its name from the protagonist of the Irish author’s modernist masterpiece “Ulysses,” which takes place on June 16, 1904. From Dublin to Philadelphia to Sydney and beyond, there will be readings and re-enactments and more than a few pints raised.

Some consider “Ulysses” to be the finest English-language work in the 20th century. Others find it unreadable. I think it is both — 783 pages (1990 Vintage edition) of linguistic virtuosity, stream-of-consciousness insight, impenetrable allusions, and sheer comedic joy.

As a junior in college in 1980, I attended school in Dublin and took a class on “Ulysses.” I recall purchasing the book. It was about the size of a cobblestone, with nearly the heft. I would have used it as a doorstop had I not taken the class. To pass, I had to read Joyce’s tome closely. I am still reaping the rewards today.

“Ulysses” charts the meanderings of Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus in the Dublin of 110 years ago. By paralleling the events of the novel with those of Homer’s Odyssey (Ulysses is Latin for Odysseus), Joyce presents the everyday man — Bloom and Stephen, you and me — as modern heroes (or, some would say, antiheroes). The fact that Bloom works in the advertising profession, as I do, has, with time, made him even more endearing to me.

Studying literature in Ireland deepened a love of words that was born in me as a young boy. Long before Swift and Yeats and Joyce, there were Dr. Seuss and P.D. Eastman. Books like “One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish” and “Go Dog, Go!” taught me how to read; they also showed me how much fun words could be. Like playing catch in the backyard, throwing words around was exhilarating and engaging.

As a 5-year-old, I didn’t know that the baby bird in Eastman’s “Are You My Mother?” was being onomatopoetic when he called the earthmover a “Snort!” I just knew it made sense to me. (Years later, I would discover that English teems with words whose sound suggests their meaning. Ducks quack. Teeth chatter. People hiccup. Fires crackle.)

As a 5-year-old, I didn’t know Dr. Seuss’s narrative in “Green Eggs and Ham” was an exercise in parallelism: “I do not like them in a house. I do not like them with a mouse. I do not like them here or there. I do not like them anywhere.” I just enjoyed the repetition — I kept reading, with growing interest and expectation.

(Years later, my study of “The Gettysburg Address” confirmed what I had sensed intuitively reading Dr. Seuss as a boy: parallelism provides balance and rhythm and eloquence. “We can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground”; “The world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here”; “Government by the people, of the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.” The effective use of parallelism is one reason Lincoln’s words are long remembered.)

Saturday morning cartoons were playgrounds for words, too. When Bugs Bunny mispronounced “moron” in his dismissal of Elmer Fudd — “What a maroon!” — my brothers and I didn’t call it a malapropism; we just laughed. I felt a kinship with Bugs. For months, I thought my big brother played flamingo guitar. Then I saw the cover of his lesson book: flamenco.

(Years later, malapropisms were among the many rewards of having children of my own. In our family, we call Ruby Tuesday restaurants Rubby Tuesday in honor of one son’s original pronunciation of the name. And then there was the 3-year-old who had the misfortune of getting a rash on his private parts. He knew we had used an ointment to soothe his woes, but confused Vaseline with another word: “Hey, Dad, should we put more gasoline on it?” We still get mileage out of that one.)

The journey from Dr. Seuss to James Joyce is not as unlikely as it may seem. In fact, “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man,” which preceded “Ulysses,” begins with the language of a classic children’s story: “Once upon a time and a very good time it was . . .”

Today, in celebration of Bloomsday, I will open “Ulysses” once more and lose myself in Joyce’s Dublin. When Molly Bloom rails at her husband’s constant use (and misuse) of obscure scientific terms — “O, rocks! Tell us in plain words” — I can sense Joyce smiling. He loved to poke fun — even at himself.

Happy Bloomsday!

 

Why I’m Mad About ‘Mad Men’

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As published in the Providence Journal, April 20, 2014.

Mad Men is back for its seventh season, and I’m thrilled. I love the show’s braided story lines and stylized sets and just about everything Roger Sterling says.

Confession: I also love Mad Men because the show’s protagonist, Don Draper, shares my profession: he is a copywriter.

Like many English majors in college, I had dreams of becoming a writer of fiction or poetry. When I took a copywriting position at an ad agency after graduation, a fellow would-be poet accused me of selling out. But the job was a godsend. It made me write every day. And I loved the challenge of channeling creativity to connect with people through a form they were predisposed to ignore, if not hate.

I tell clients that people say they hate advertising until they see an ad they love – one that makes them laugh or solves a problem they have or connects them to a cause. Really, it’s the idea of advertising that irks people. They hate being targeted for a sell job, especially when it’s intrusive – the pop-up ad that obscures the article they want to read; the inane radio spot jingle that they can’t get out of their head; the e-mail solicitations that cram their inbox.

And yet, when someone loves an ad and it appears on TV, they will stop a conversation to ask a friend, “Have you seen this?”

Advertise derives from the Latin ad- “toward,” + vertere “to turn.” Ads turn our attention to products and services that someone wants us to buy. We love ads that do their work with wit, style, and simplicity. But when ads barge in on our lives with carnival-barker shouts and pedestrian design, we reach for the remote, or swipe the page.

For, as everyone quickly learns in the business, advertising can turn an individual toward, or away, from a product.

In his great book, On Writing Well, William Zinsser points out that “writing is a craft, not an art. Very few sentences come out right the first time, or even the third time.” He could have been talking about advertising, where hundreds of refinements stand between the flash of an idea and an ad that connects with people. Pencils have erasers; keyboards have delete keys; and good copywriters make heavy use of both – just like their colleagues in the “pure” creative arts.

In a Consumer Resistance Study conducted by Yankelovich years ago, nearly 70% of consumers said they were “interested in products and services that would help them skip or block marketing.” Yet 55% also offered that they enjoy advertising.

Most people’s relationship with advertising is paradoxical. We resist with our heads but succumb with our hearts.

In an early episode of Mad Men, novice copywriter Peggy Olson tells Don Draper that “sex sells.” He corrects her. “You feeling something – that’s what sells.” It’s true of communications at every level. Whether it’s a film or a poem or a song or, yes, an ad, people buy into an emotion honestly felt and artfully conveyed.

If you were an aspiring copywriter or art director during the Mad Men era, you pored over Doyle Dane Bernbach’s work for Volkswagen and Avis and Alka-Seltzer, which broke new ground for creativity and intelligence. The agency’s visionary was Bill Bernbach, who said, “let us prove to the world that good taste, good art, and good writing can be good selling.”

When someone says they hate advertising, I’ll suggest that they hate bad advertising – just as they hate bad movies, bad music, and bad advice.

And, hey, who doesn’t?

But among the reasons for Mad Men’spopularity is its keen portrayal of the alchemy that good advertising achieves. At the close of the first season, we see Don Draper transform left-brain strategy into right-brain creative gold. As a Kodak slide projector clicks through old photos of his family, in happier days, he tells us it’s a “time machine.” He names the projector the Carousel because “it lets us travel the way a child travels, around and around and back home again.” Now, that’s good selling.

To paraphrase Edison, advertising is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. I spend 99% of my time writing and re-writing declarative sentences; learning about energy management and hip replacement surgery and commercial lending and other things that my clients do; checking facts and verb agreements; preparing strategy briefs and presentations. It’s good work and I am grateful to make my living this way.

Especially when a 1% moment shines through.

 

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