Find the Statue in the Stone

by Pete Loscocco on 3 April 2017

The sculptor Michelangelo, when asked how he was able to create his masterpiece “David” from a block of marble rejected twice by other sculptors, reportedly replied:

“It was easy. All I had to do was chip away the stone that didn’t look like David.”

We all should be Michelangelos when we edit our writing. Great copy is rarely finished in one draft. The painstaking process of honing main messages, sharpening clarity and cutting away excess words is critical to good copywriting. The final product rarely mirrors the first draft.

Every once in a while I reread “The Elements of Style” by Strunk & White. This book remains an important tool for writers almost 100 years after it was first published. It reminds me of some simple rules of copywriting, and more importantly, editing. One excerpt:

“Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that he make every word tell.”

Making every word tell means rewriting. It requires reordering thoughts, cleaning up grammar and trimming fat. It means putting your work aside, then returning to it with a fresh and critical eye, like the sculptor to the block, to chip away and make it better.

Note: the good copywriter occasionally will break a “rule” of writing because it improves the flow, highlights the point, or just feels right. It’s OK to split an infinitive when the construction works, or to add that adverb when it strengthens meaning. But it is important to know you are doing it.

I write average copy, usually edit it into good copy, and can sometimes re-edit it into great copy. Editing is hard work, but when my copy sings, I know that my time was well spent. Because great writing, like great sculpture, can be a work of art.