Adventures in Copywriting


On this blog, I often talk about my experiences as a copyeditor. But I rarely discuss my work as a copywriter. I create written content for business Web sites, mostly in the hospitality arena. I also help with the naming of entities such as hotels and restaurants. These projects have taken me to Atlantic City; Manhattan; Miami; Dublin; Washington, DC; La Crosse, Wisconsin; and down the hill from my house in Santa Barbara. Most recently, I traveled to the Central American country of Belize, to be a guest at a client’s two resorts there.

jaguarOn the trip, my husband and I visited several sites of Maya ruins. To traverse one of them, we had to hike through the Guatemalan jungle, where we saw some exotic animals and insects. These included the fearless coatimundi, ratlike gibnut (which supposedly tastes like ham when smoked), and magnificent Morpho butterfly. We didn’t run into any jaguars, although the roads are dotted with signs warning of their crossing. My hubby did encounter a harmless green-headed tree snake at the coast; we don’t speak of it.

chivesThe copy for a hotel or resort Web site has to be factual, providing information about the rooms, amenities, dining venues, spa, event facilities, and neighborhood. In equal measure, it must evoke what it feels like to be there. Sipping a watermelon mojito at the bar, devouring chaya tamales in the restaurant, sleeping in the comfy king-sized bed, ordering room service for breakfast, rinsing off in the outdoor shower, lounging by the pool, touring the on-site organic garden, going on local excursions, taking a Maya cooking class, and enjoying the tiny pastries left during turndown service prepare one to convey the guest experience. (Sometimes, research doesn’t suck.)

But I don’t always have the opportunity to visit a property I am writing about. In such cases, I have to educate myself by doing some or all of the following:

  • Talking to people who have been there
  • Examining photographs of the property
  • Reviewing press releases and marketing materials from the client
  • Reading news and feature articles about the property
  • Studying guest reviews on Yelp, TripAdvisor, Expedia, and similar sites

The final step: using my imagination! Then it’s up to the client to decide whether I have captured the essence of the place.


Confessions of a Ghost Editor

ghost editorFor four weeks, I had to pretend to be someone else. I messed up once, signing my own name to an e-mail. I concocted an excuse for the mistake, and didn’t sign an e-mail after that.

The person who sends me most of my work was out of the country, without her computer. She didn’t want our projects to lag during her absence, so she asked me to deliver work via her account. I didn’t really mind.

I am a ghost editor. I am not anonymous, because I don’t exist—even namelessly. Rather, my work is presented as someone else’s. As I temporarily assumed this person’s identity, I couldn’t help but wonder: How important is it to get credit for what we do?

This question strikes me as one the ego would ask, as well as rush to answer. Naturally, the part of us concerned with accomplishing something demonstrable in the world desires to be openly acknowledged. Or at least not to have its being negated.

It’s not my business why someone would allow a client to think she did work she didn’t. What is my business is why I have remained contentedly in the shadows for so many years, not developing my own reputation—a name for myself, based on merit and achievement.

In Shakespeare’s Othello, Cassio laments the loss of his good name: “Reputation, reputation, reputation! O, I have lost my reputation! I have lost the immortal part of myself, and what remains is bestial.” I think I disagree.

Reputation is the estimation of others. But the “immortal part of us” is beyond estimation. So reputation must be associated with the “bestial” aspect of our nature—our body, acting upon the earth.

The immortal part of me doesn’t care about seeing its name in the acknowledgments.

Not that it has a name.

Um, I Invented Post-Its

romy and micheleLast night, I walked into an introvert’s nightmare: my 30-year high school reunion (class of you-do-the-math). I wasn’t totally unprepared. A selfless friend had taken me shopping for a cute top to wear with the black skinny pants I had ordered online. (I owe her dinner, though she deserves a medal—I’m a petulant shopper.) I exercised faithfully (two dog walks and a half-hour workout) every day for two weeks in order to fit comfortably into the aforementioned trousers.

The day before the reunion, I got a mani-pedi. As the 20-something manicurist performed a ticklish maneuver on my feet, she asked if a special occasion had prompted my visit to the salon. After I answered, she replied, “My mother recently went to her 30-year reunion!” Ouch. It dawned on me that I could easily have an adult child by now. Indeed, I would later find out that many of my former classmates have kids entering, or already attending, college.

At the reunion, I made another discovery: others (and not just the introverts) had also been apprehensive about attending. Why? Were we afraid that seeing our old cohorts might revive teenage insecurities? Did we feel pressure to show how little we had changed—or how much? Would there be a reckoning for issues that had lain unresolved for three decades? I joked with a friend (with whom I have remained in contact since high school) that we should have a signal if the event was not to our liking—exaggerated winking, pointing toward the exit, exclaiming with boredom. As it turned out, we didn’t need one.

I observed (as introverts do) that conversational groups would form and then shift, creating ever-changing combinations of individuals. I personally talked to about a dozen people. The toughest question for me was, “What do you do?” As discussed in a previous post, I don’t really like talking about my “flair.” I forgot my hair stylist’s advice to say I invented Post-Its (a la Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion), but I think I did okay.

I’m glad I went. Two hours before I actually left, I started trying to leave, in anticipation of an hour-long drive home. But I kept getting absorbed in pleasant conversations with my erstwhile acquaintances. By the age of you-do-the-math, your high school days are a distant memory. Perhaps reuniting with the ones who were there confirms those times weren’t mythical—even brings you back to them.

They’re a fun place to visit.

Nerd Alert!


Last weekend, I “attended” a writing conference. I put “attended” in quotation marks because the event took place online, so there was nowhere literally to be present. I enjoyed this setup because I got to sit in my kitchen, near the snacks. And I didn’t have to be out among people, a bonus for an introvert.

Put on by Writer’s Digest University, the conference focused on science fiction and fantasy. Unless the sitcom The Big Bang Theory isn’t true to life, fans of these genres have the reputation of being, well, nerdy. So imagine how nerdy the writers must be! Delightfully so. Seven accomplished, award-winning authors presented webinars on various topics, such as worldbuilding, creating suspense, and crafting three-dimensional female characters. Let me tell you, these folks were legit. They didn’t just phone it in (unless the microphone on their computer wasn’t working).

Here are some tidbits, one from each session, that I found interesting, helpful, amusing, or surprising:

  1. Foreign language. Science fiction and fantasy do very well overseas, especially in Germany. Other big markets are France and Russia. In fact, the bulk of income from such works may come from outside the United States. (Michael J. Sullivan)
  2. Fictional universe. Worldbuilding in science fiction and fantasy takes place at both the macro and micro levels. Macro relates to the external factors that affect societies and individuals; micro refers to the internal factors that make characters seem believable. On the micro level, one of the most important factors is power, which is the ability to affect or control others. (N. K. Jemisin)
  3. Structure. A mistake to avoid when writing a science fiction or fantasy novel is failing to hit the three major plot points hard enough, causing the story to drag. The first of these revelations (the “tent poles” of your story) occurs 25 percent of the way in, the second at 50 percent (the “midpoint”), and the third at 75 percent. (K.M. Weiland)
  4. Raising the stakes. One way to add suspense to science fiction or fantasy is through the villain. It is more effective for a villain to pose the threat of menace than to be omnipotent. Avoid the “evil overlord syndrome,” opting instead for “less is more”: let the reader wonder what the relentless villain is capable of doing. (Jeff Wheeler)
  5. hatThe past that never was. Steampunk, a subgenre of science fiction, reimagines modern technology as powered by steam, set against a 19th-century backdrop (such as Victorian England). The colorful essentials of steampunk include airships and steam locomotives, “brass works” (such as weapons and armor), goggles, corsets and waistcoats, and bowlers and pith helmets. (Tee Morris)
  6. Human women. In science fiction and fantasy, avoid female characters who are purely objects, exerting no influence in moving the story forward. Other things to avoid: having just one female character in your cast, and making your female characters suffer in order to motivate the males. (Pip Ballantine)
  7. Grabbing and holding. The opening scene of a science fiction or fantasy book should follow the “punch, push, explain” format: punch your reader in the face (first sentence), push him to the floor (first paragraph), and then explain why you did it (next few pages). (Philip Athans)

As for my own nerdiness, I believe that was confirmed when I spent the first weekend of summer indoors, learning about writing.


Proofing Your Own Writing

dental careAs a copyeditor, I receive manuscripts in various conditions. On occasion, I can tell that an author has gone back and read what he or she wrote, making some refinements. Such authors are like diligent dental patients, brushing and flossing before reclining in the hygienist’s chair—where torturous tools will be used to get those whites pearly. (I’m the ruthless dental hygienist in this scenario.) More often, I know I am in possession of a true first draft: the author has keyed the content and never looked at it again, perhaps assuming that a professional would follow behind, making the words shine. Such authors have done the equivalent of downing a bag of Cheetos in the dentist’s waiting room. But at least they’re in the right place to get the help they need.

Think of all the writing you do that isn’t reviewed by an editor—e-mails, letters, agendas, reports, blog posts, social media posts, etc. These communications reflect on you, and possibly your company, yet how carefully do you check them? Admittedly, seeing mistakes in your own writing can be difficult—and, while spell-check is a handy tool, it misses things. Comparing your compositions against this brief checklist can save you from a good number of linguistic missteps:

  1. Read what you have written. Make sure you have conveyed your points clearly and succinctly.
  2. Eliminate erroneous capitalization. Generally speaking, capitals are used for the first word after a period and for proper nouns. If you aren’t sure whether a word is a proper noun, consult Merriam-Webster. Here’s a cheat sheet of items that should be lowercase, unless they contain a proper noun: animals, foods, medical conditions, seasons, compass points, and general academic subjects. Capital letters are not used for emphasis. See my earlier post for additional capitalization errors.
  3. Ensure the proper use of tricky homophones. Homophones are words that sound the same but have different meanings. You know the ones I mean: your and you’re; their, there, and they’re; to, too, and two. I think it’s easy for your fingers, poised on the keyboard, to “hear” the wrong word as they take dictation from your brain. Here are some additional examples to watch out for: cite, sight, and site; for, fore, and four; rain, reign, and rein; palate, palette, and pallet; peak, peek, and pique; and right, rite, wright, and write.
  4. Delete apostrophes in plurals. Most nouns form their plural by adding or—if they end in chjsshx, or z—by adding es. I know of only one case in which the plural of a noun is formed by adding an apostrophe before the s: for single lowercase letters. For example: “There are two c’s in cupcake.” See my earlier post for more on the subject.
  5. Change two spaces between sentences to a single space. Double-spacing between sentences suggests that you came of age in the era of the manual typewriter. Breaking this lifelong habit can be hard, especially as the life has been so long.

There’s one more thing, and I would consider it a personal favor: in your e-mails, after “Hi,” always use a comma to set off the recipient’s name (for example, “Hi, Thomas.”).

The use of commas to set off nouns of direct address is a sign of a truly refined character.

Out of Humor

486 - cartoon

My caption: “Is it take your dog to war day?” (Contest #486, August 24, 2015)

478 - cartoon

My caption: “The forecast said localized showers.” (Contest #478, June 8, 2015)

In March of last year, I wrote about my discovery of—and instant obsession with—the New Yorker’s weekly cartoon caption contest. I have an update: I still haven’t won. Or been a finalist. After entering 58 consecutive times. (Film critic Roger Ebert, prior to his victory, made 107 attempts; that number seemed really big 13 months ago.) A few of my efforts appear throughout this post; the winning entries have invariably been smarter and funnier than mine.

For a particular week’s contest, if your caption is among the three on which the public will vote, you are notified by e-mail—or so I’ve heard. So I was more than a little excited to receive a message from the magazine’s cartoon editor, Bob Mankoff, last Wednesday. But instead of congratulating me on my top-three submission, he was inviting all entrants to use a new ranking tool to help choose the finalists from among the 5,000 entries. Give it a try! It can be addicting—especially if you’re waiting for your own caption to come up, so you can “honestly” assess whether it’s “unfunny,” “somewhat funny,” or “funny.”

480 - cartoon

My caption: “He’s a notorious gagster.” (Contest #480, June 29, 2015)

Since I started entering, I don’t feel any closer to cracking the nut that is the New Yorker Cartoon Caption Contest. In fact, based on my failure up to this point, I feel distinctly qualified to offer advice on what not to do:

  1. Don’t submit your entry early in the week, late in the week, or in the middle of the week.
  2. Don’t go with your first instinct or ponder the cartoon at length.
  3. Don’t embrace clever wordplay or avoid it.
  4. Don’t go for the obvious or the obscure.
  5. Don’t seek out the opinions of others or work in isolation.

In other words, I’ve tried everything. Of course, the best way not to win is not to enter. I won’t not be entering anytime soon.

On Purpose


My writing talisman

At least one subscriber to this blog has noticed that my posts are always published at the same time: Close to the end of the month. Very close to the end of the month. The last day. Sometimes a few minutes before midnight. Many months, I doubt I will be able to fulfill my self-assignment. Doing so requires that I place as much importance on what I wish to accomplish as on what others expect or need of me. In other words, I have to be as responsible to myself as I am to others.

menuDue to various commitments, it would be a relief to take this month’s post off my plate. Yet if I don’t cobble something together, here’s what will happen: At some point, I will search my blog’s archives, and there will be no entry for March 2016. I won’t get a failing grade, Earth won’t be sucked into a black hole, but I will know I didn’t meet my own minimum writing requirement. (Ironically, I have now completed the second paragraph of a post I didn’t have time to write. Similarly, in junior high, I wrote a poem called “If I Could Write a Poem.”)

Over the last six months, I have completed the first drafts of 2.5 short stories. (One needs an ending, and another needs a new ending—hence, the decimal number.) Next, I would like to take a novel-writing class. But my work projects are too demanding right now. I feel frustrated that I am devoting so much time and energy to activities that have nothing to do with what I perceive as my purpose in life—to share my ideas through writing.

I don’t know how many people ponder their purpose and whether or not they are living according to it. In New Age circles, this inquiry is hugely popular. Two individuals whom I respect recommended the same book to me on the subject, about creating the “great work of your life.” According to Kindle, I made it through 14 percent of it. Ultimately, I don’t believe my purpose is related to what I accomplish in the world—even if that is sharing my ideas through writing.

miami vice

“Miami Vice”: half pina colada, half strawberry daiquiri

In other words, I can still fulfill my purpose if I never publish a book or write one or even edit one. I can fulfill my purpose at the grocery store, on an airplane, or walking my dogs. I do it by being an example of love. Only love is real. To become aware of love’s presence, and to let it shine out through me, I need to let go of my grievances, which attack love. No matter what I seem to be doing—or seem too busy to be doing—I can always practice my real purpose.

Of course, I have found it is easiest not to hold grievances while vacationing in a tropical paradise . . .