Running with Scissors, which detailed the childhood abuse he experienced when his mentally ill mother sent him off to live with her equally mad psychiatrist. In 2006 the book was made into a film starring Alec Baldwin and Annette Bening. Burroughs has now published a total of three full-length memoirs and three memoir collections as well as a fiction book on home shopping (Sellavision) and, most recently, a self-help book, This is How.
There has been some controversy over the accuracy of Burroughs’s account in Running with Scissors. Perhaps in response to this, he has made himself extremely au fait with the workings of memory as they pertain to writing down one’s recollections of events. This is relevant because what makes Burroughs’s work so riveting is the sharpness of the detail. Each scene is in focus, as if he’s standing behind his earlier self and recording everything. It’s the literary equivalent of hyperrealism.
A successful advertising copywriter for over 17 years, Burroughs was an alcoholic who almost drank himself to death in 1999. He wrote about his alcoholism and treatment in the memoir Dry. I haven’t actually read Running with Scissors. I have copies of both Dry and A Wolf at the Table, and I’d recommend both of them. Burroughs is a master at cadence, the strategic use of short sentences, and the intimate, informal tone that is now the preferred style for web copy. Dry in particular has a constant beat of self-deprecating humour, also a useful tool in some forms of web copy.
As a bonus, Dry is about the advertising world, so you’ll get an insider’s view of an ad agency in the nineties, a cracking memoir and a free writing tutorial all in one! The images are also fresh and engaging, exactly what you want in web copy. Here’s one example of the language:
She impresses me as someone who tosses Caesar salads in a hand-carved teak salad bowl. I bet she reads Joan Didion in hardcover. [Spoken by someone who knows how to picture their target market!]
Be warned that some of the worst extremes of alcoholism are described in this book, but it’s ultimately uplifting. A wild and mostly enjoyable ride.
It would be hard to find someone further away from the advertising world than Helen Garner. She is an institution in Australian literature, less well known overseas. Her central place these days is rather ironic, given she burst onto the scene with Monkey Grip, an autobiographical novel about her addictive relationship with a junkie in the Melbourne counterculture of the seventies. This book set the scene for Garner’s continuing use of real life as inspiration for her fiction, taken as it was from her diaries.
Garner has now written four novels, four non-fiction books and three short story collections; her most recent novel, The Spare Room, was published in 2008. The Australian critic Don Anderson included her 1984 novel The Children's Bach in his list of ‘four perfect short novels in the English language’. Ed Campion wrote in the Bulletin: ‘Helen Garner writes the best sentences in Australia’. She’s received numerous awards, including the Melbourne Prize for Literature in 2006.
Anything of Garner’s is worth reading for its riveting style, but I really want to recommend the feel of steel. This is a collection of non-fiction that combines longer essays with selections from the column Garner wrote for the Age newspaper for a couple of years. She would have been confined to a tight word limit for the columns (exactly what happens in web copy!), and her economy is remarkable.
Garner will often describe a person or situation with broad brushstrokes, but she manages to home in with one or two extraordinary images that bring them to life. Here are a couple of examples from ‘Baby goes to the movies’, in which Garner and her friend babysit Garner’s brand new granddaughter so that the baby’s mother can attend a film festival opening night:
Now there’s nobody out here, on the hectares of hideous carpet, but the sleeping baby and her two daggy bodyguards ...
... out of the lollyshop and the bar pours a line of very young Village workers in name-tags. They head straight for the baby and stand around her in a respectful curve.
Note in the second example how Garner hasn’t described the workers at length. Instead she’s picked out a couple of telling details. But ‘in name tags and very young’ says enough. The image of a line of workers pouring is also very vivid. There are many, many sentences like this in this piece and the rest of the book. Garner is a no-nonsense plain speaker and her style is indissoluble from her personality. One thing that distinguishes that personality is her powers of observation.
How can reading Garner help your copywriting? It’s well worth trying to emulate the vividness of the writing, the accuracy of the images, and the ability to convey so much using so few words. To think very concretely about what you’re trying to convey, and then bring it to life with arresting descriptions of the most important benefits. To include a couple of telling details about your target market and convey them as vividly as possible in a way that ignites the senses.
Above all, copywriting – whether for the web or otherwise – should be compelling. Both these writers fulfil that requirement in spades.