When I first mentioned this interview series—talking to professional writers about their editing processes—many I spoke with immediately jumped to “authorship” in terms of books. But you know what’s awesome about creatives? There are a lot of us, and we’re just about everywhere. We’re hunched over our laptops in coffee shops; we’re staring out windows at the falling rain; and we’re even in offices with conference rooms and break rooms and, if we’re lucky, ping pong tables. (Yes, ping pong tables.)
Some writers, in fact, don’t have to quit their day jobs to unleash their creativity, because writing is their day job. One such talented wordsmith was recently kind enough to let me pepper her with questions about editing and grammar.
Sara Grunden Kuhs is a senior copywriter at The Martin Agency in Richmond, Virginia where she’s worked with many national brands over the last 12 years. She got her masters from VCU Adcenter (now Brandcenter) and did her undergrad at DePauw University in Indiana, majoring in writing and minoring in philosophy and psychology. In her spare time, she and her husband like to bowl, cook, wear hats, and entertain their two German Shorthaired Pointers.
Q & A with Copywriter Sara Grunden Kuhs
Sara: I should say before I answer these questions that we have an amazing team of copy editors at The Martin Agency who look over every single piece of writing and make sure that it’s grammatically correct, so that’s not something I usually have to do on my own. Now, I do like for my stuff to be as correct as possible when it goes to them. But I don’t have to worry if it’s not. Hmm, maybe I need to get them to read over my answers …
Kris: No pressure at all. I’ll start out with an easy one. Do you have any word choice pet peeves that make you shudder just a little bit every time you hear them said?
Sara: In my personal life, “less” vs. “fewer” is something that just grates on my ears when I hear it used wrong (which my husband does all the time, on purpose.) But at work, we tend to worry more about how something comes across—is it catchy, memorable, witty?—versus whether or not it is technically correct. We will definitely break grammar rules when it feels necessary. Especially since we usually need things to be conversational, and at times, perfect grammar can seem a bit stodgy. A great example is the classic Apple tagline: “Think different.” It just wouldn’t have had the same edge if it was “Think differently.”
Kris: When you’re writing commercials, you clearly have a very limited word count that you’re working with. Do you have any advice for tightening writing down to its core while still containing the full message you’d like to convey?
Sara: This is something I struggle with as I tend to be very wordy (you’re probably going to have to edit my answers for this blog!) Here are three pieces of advice. First, try to be concise from the get-go. It’s so much harder to see a finished piece of writing and then have to cut 25% of it out. Second, don’t just think about cutting words—you can only cut so many. Instead, try to rephrase the whole idea and shorten it that way. And finally, we have a saying in advertising: sometimes you have to “kill your darlings.” Sometimes you fall so in love with a line that you just don’t want to cut it. But if it’s not adding to the idea, it has to go!
Kris: The poor darlings. And speaking of darlings, I’ve always thought that writing in the voice of a brand is a lot like writing in the voice of a character when one writes fiction. How do you edit yourself to make sure you’re being true to that voice through everything you produce (e.g., social media posts, tv commercials, radio spots, etc.)?
Sara: There are a lot of people that look at my work and evaluate whether or not it feels like it’s in the brand voice, and believe me, they aren’t shy about letting me know if it isn’t. But even when I write for all these different clients, I honestly still feel like it’s my voice at the core. I just dial certain aspects up or down to fit what they are looking for. Do they want attitude? Sweetness? Wit? Just turn those dials up. I can make it more conversational and casual, or more formal. I just did a radio spot in the voice of a Spanish conquistador, and so I layered on some effusiveness and language choices that I thought he would make—but it’s still my voice underneath all of that.
Kris: There’s a fine line between being explicit in your writing (i.e., the Spanish conquistador says, “buy this product”) versus being implicit in your writing (i.e., creating an ad with the conquistador that makes someone want to buy/act now). Do you ever have to edit yourself on this note?
Sara: That fine line is a place where we are constantly working with our clients, trying to push our work more towards the implicit, while clients tend to want work that is very explicit. But it does change depending on the medium. For TV and radio, you have time to set a scene and get an idea across, so you can afford to be more of a storyteller, but in an online banner, for example, usually you need to get straight to the point. Then in social, it’s usually more about trying to get a person to interact with and like your brand, versus trying to sell a product. So it varies quite a bit.
Kris: When you’re working with a client, what is the hardest part of revising your work to meet both your standards and theirs?
Sara: The hardest part is that in the end you have to remember that the work is not yours. Yes, you are the one doing it, putting in the time, the effort. You give up nights and weekends. You conceive it and shape it. But when you get to the end of it all—it’s not yours. It’s sort of like going through an entire pregnancy and birth (I imagine) and then cleaning off the baby and handing it off to someone else. I think that’s a huge difference between advertising writers and what I would call “real writers” like you. In the end you own all of your work. We don’t.
Kris: I’m fascinated by this imagined construct of the “real writer.” I think she’s drinking wine and smoking cigars in a French café decades ago. Some argue that writing “literature” is what makes a writer, while others say it’s a matter of a paycheck, or a publishing deal, or having hands dirty with ink (or pained by carpel tunnel syndrome). If we are putting our ideas out there, spending those nights and weekends, as you said, I claim we’re all real writers, aren’t we? Actually, don’t answer that. Let me get back to the important issues here. What are your thoughts on the Oxford comma versus the serial comma?
Sara: Is it terrible that I have no idea what they are? It’s just not the sort of thing that we ever have to worry about in advertising. I don’t know MLA standards either.
Sara: This one isn’t tricky for me, but my work partner probably asks me once a week if “lose” is spelled with one O or two. I tried telling her that for “lose” you lose an O. But it must not be a great trick, because she still asks me all the time. Art directors can’t spell.
Kris: Some people geek out about the revising and proofing process, making sure everything is exactly how it should be. Are you that person, or if not, what’s your favorite part of the creative process?
Sara: My favorite part of the process is production—I think most advertising creatives feel the same. You’ve gotten everything approved and (mostly) solidified, and you get to go make it. It’s definitely still stressful, but also truly amazing when you think about it. You start with just two people in a room thinking about an idea, and in the end you have hundreds of people working to make it come to life. Sometimes when I’m on set looking around at all the people, it’s a little overwhelming. Of course, none of those people care one bit that you wrote the commercial, so that helps bring you back to earth!
It all starts with someone sitting in a room thinking about an idea. No matter what it is that you write or why you write, this image sounds familiar, doesn’t it? We may not all have our creative ideas wrap up with a production team, but the good projects find their way of coming to life if we make the time.
And seriously, there’s a ping pong table in Sara’s office. How’s that for a brainstorming device? Side-note: never challenge Sara Grunden Kuhs to a game of ping pong. She will win.
Thanks so much for your time, Sara, and happy writing everyone!
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