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Content Strategy | Writing | Editing

From axolotls to ad copy: how structure serves creativity

Jeffrey Williams

Here's how I wrote a book of kids poetry about the weirdest animals in the world -- one for every letter of the alphabet, from axolotl to zyzzyva -- and how the process was basically the same you'd use to write ad copy and why as a creative person I love structure.  

The task I set myself was to write a rhyme about an animal -- one poem for each letter of the alphabet. That’s it. Some of the rhymes wrote themselves. In fact, I wrote a third of them in one night. The rest, frankly, were a grind. Sometimes I’d flail around for days. Sometimes an idea would hit me as I fell asleep (always good to keep a notebook handy). Sometimes I’d get an idea when I was out on a long bike ride and hope I didn’t forget it. 

Structure helped. Here was mine: 

  1. Read about the animal, noting habits and traits.
  2. Muck around with some words. Write about what life would be like from that animal's perspective. Look for puns. Go through one-word rhymes. Go through multisyllable rhymes and rhymes I made up. Play Wordball (a free-association word game). Write a draft or two.
  3. Go for a bike ride or a run or a walk.
  4. Let the idea in.
  5. Polish.

Here’s one result of the process:

Axolotl

She's kinda finny, like a fish,
but also salamandarish.

She's also also like an eel
(that is, if eels could walk or kneel).

The axolotl's only wish
is to be loved for who she ish.

While nature doesn't mind surprise,
humans like to categorize.

But seek her, friends, and you shall find
a beauty in the undefined.

What I'd stumbled on was basically the process the great copywriter James Webb Young details in his thin little book, "A Technique for Producing Ideas." (See the great write-up on Brain Pickings.)

  1. Gather raw material. "That, I'm sure, will strike you as a simple and obvious truth. Yet it is really amazing to what degree this step is ignored in practice."
  2. Hold it up for inspection. "What you do it take the different bits of material which you have gathered and feel them all over, as it were, with the tentacles of the mind."
  3. Do nothing. "In this third stage you make absolutely no effort of a direct nature. You drop the whole subject, and put the problem out of your mind as completely as you can."
  4. Aha! "Out of nowhere the Idea will appear."
  5. Shape the idea to practicality. "It requires a deal of patient working over to make most ideas fit the exact conditions, or the practical exigencies, under which they must work."

 Gather, inspect, wait, receive, shape. 

The process works for client marcomm content as well as it works for kids books as well as it works for anything.

Einstein called it intuition.