The Most Important Writing Lesson I Ever Learned

My first real job was in advertising. I worked as a copywriter for an agency called Benton & Bowles in New York City. An artist or entrepreneur’s first job inevitably bends the twig. It shapes who you’ll become. If your freshman outing is in journalism, your brain gets tattooed (in a good way) with who-what-where-when-why, fact-check-everything, never-bury-the-lead. If you start out as a photographer’s assistant, you learn other stuff. If you plunge into business on your own, the education is about self-discipline, self-motivation, self-validation.

Advertising teaches its own lessons. For starters, everyone hates advertising. Advertising lies. Advertising misleads. It’s evil, phony, it’s trying to sell us crap we don’t need. I can’t argue with any of that, except to observe that for a rookie wordsmith, such obstacles can be a supreme positive. Why? Because you have to sweat blood to overcome them–and in that grueling process, you learn your craft.

Here it is. Here’s the #1 lesson you learn working in advertising (and this has stuck with me, to my advantage, my whole working life):

Nobody wants to read your shit.

Let me repeat that. Nobody–not even your dog or your mother–has the slightest interest in your commercial for Rice Krispies or Delco batteries or Preparation H. Nor does anybody care about your one-act play, your Facebook page or your new sesame chicken joint at Canal and Tchopotoulis.

It isn’t that people are mean or cruel. They’re just busy.

Nobody wants to read your shit.

There’s a phenomenon in advertising called Client’s Disease. Every client is in love with his own product. The mistake he makes is believing that, because he loves it, everyone else will too.

They won’t. The market doesn’t know what you’re selling and doesn’t care. Your potential customers are so busy dealing with the rest of their lives, they haven’t got a spare second to give to your product/work of art/business, no matter how worthy or how much you love it.

What’s your answer to that?

1) Reduce your message to its simplest, clearest, easiest-to-understand form.

2) Make it fun. Or sexy or interesting or informative.

3) Apply that to all forms of writing or art or commerce.

When you understand that nobody wants to read your shit, your mind becomes powerfully concentrated. You begin to understand that writing/reading is, above all, a transaction. The reader donates his time and attention, which are supremely valuable commodities. In return, you the writer, must give him something worthy of his gift to you.

When you, the student writer, understand that nobody wants to read your shit, you develop empathy. You acquire that skill which is indispensable to all artists and entrepreneurs: the ability to switch back and forth in your imagination from your own point of view as writer/painter/seller to the point of view of your imagined reader/gallery-goer/customer. You learn to ask yourself with every sentence and every phrase: Is this interesting? Is this fun or challenging or inventive? Am I giving the reader enough? Is she bored? Is she following where I want to lead her?

When I began to write novels, this mindset proved indispensable. It steered me away from Client’s Disease. It warned me not to fall in love with my own shit just because it was my own shit. Don’t be lazy, Steve. Don’t assume. Look at every word through the eye of the busy, impatient, skeptical (but also generous and curious) reader. Give him something worthy of the time and attention he’s giving you.

The awareness that nobody wants to read/hear/see/buy what we’re writing/singing/filming/selling is the Plymouth Rock upon which all successful artists and entrepreneurs base their public communications. They know that, before all else, they must overcome this natural resistance in their audience. They must find a way to cut through the clutter. As a fledgling cub at B&B, I remember days, weeks, months when our various creative teams did nothing but beat our brains out trying to find some way to make the dull exciting and the unlovely beautiful–and to make the beautiful-but-overlooked gorgeous too.

How, you ask? You’ll know you’re on the right track when beads of blood begin to pop out on your forehead.

Future “Writing Wednesdays” articles will be inspired by quotes from The War of Art.

Please post your favorite quotes in the comment section following this post, DM them to my Twitter account (@spressfield) or post them to the Wall of my “Writer” Facebook page.

I will pick one or two quotes the Thursday BEFORE the next “Writing Wednesdays” post. The person whose quote I use in my Wednesday, August 5, post will receive a signed copy of The War of Art.

Reminder: Submit your quotes by midnight tomorrow, Thursday, July 30.

Please limit the quotes you submit to one quote per week.