Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Fay Weldon on copywriting vs. novel writing

A very long time ago I wrote my thesis on copywriters wot go on to write novels and the extent to which the two forms require the same skills.
Unfortunately, this was before computers or electricity were invented and I don’t seem to have a copy of the file anywhere.
I do however still have a letter Fay Weldon wrote to me on the subject. I also spoke to her by telegraphic communication but have no record of that neither. I do remember she was a nice lady and happy to give time to answering banal questions from a moron.
Anyway, here’s what she wrote.
When you write ads you write something short selling a product which appears in print very soon.
When you write fiction you write something long which sells an idea and takes ages to appear. It requires more ingenuity, more patience, and the courage of your own convictions, not someone else’s. Payment is a side issue. (Mind you, I always thought it was amongst the advertisers. They’d always say I only do this for the money, when actually they did it because they loved it.)
I started by writing TV plays. It occurred to me that while a TV commercial was a little story selling a product, a TV drama was a longer story selling an idea, but otherwise the same principles applied. And you wrote the script across the page, not in two columns, cross hatching not separating sound and vision. And they paid you more, you kept the copyright, and got admired not despised.

I like that bit about having the courage of your own convictions. Just the sheer investment of hours for a novel writer, sitting there working your ass off with every chance that what you’re doing will never see the light of day. Writers often give up their day job or reduce their hours and live on cabbage soup and dust, just for the privilege of receiving a zillion rejection letters. Hats off to ‘em.
I think it’s an interesting subject. There’s a fair bit about it on Lolly and Nat’s blog, one of them having actually written an actual book and everything.


  1. I've just posted something relating to this on my blog, Are advertising Creatives Just not Good Enough.
    You might want to read it and pass comment. Be interested in what you have to say, wot with you being all learned on the subject and all.

  2. Really interesting stuff. Worth reading weldon's autobiography 'auto de fay' if you've not already.
    What I always think is weird is the disdain people have for writing copy, as though it's somehow way beneath writing novels... as though there's a hierarchy. I actually enjoy writing ads and books in equal measure... the two complement each other really well (as I've waffled on about in a later post on mine and nat's blog). So are you writing a novel too?

  3. I feel like writing copy shortens your attention span to the point that writing something more then a paragraph, the thought becomes incredibly intimidating. I can't even finish a short story. Though that may just be me.

  4. I always like to quote Blaise Pascal: “I didn't have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.”

    So, actually, it's no surprise that the authors of shorter, more condensed pieces (such as ads) get paid better. They've put more work into it!

    That being said, I think a novel is more than just the expression of an idea. It's not just a plot either. It's a world the reader lives in, and the characters have to be real people.

    You're right, Fay is lovely. She teaches creative writing at Brunel University these days.

  5. I'd say Fay had become a bit cynical about copywriting when she made that comment. If you write copy without the courage of your convictions, it'll be shredded to mincemeat long before the ad appears. (Often times, even if you do...but at least you'll have a chance.) What helps for both ads and novels, though, is to have a concept and characters and tension that forcibly suck the words out of you and onto the you end up editing the flow as opposed to forcing it out.