It’s Time Again for ‘Meet a Pen’

Rob Sneddon“Don’t dialogue with someone you can talk to.”

Rob Sneddon, the latest writer to join our team, didn’t say this, but the fact that he can quote William Zinsser just makes us love him even more.

Read on to learn Rob’s no-fail trick for combating writer’s block, the one book that can improve everyone’s writing and why we need a new word for “Luddite.” He even takes a stab at predicting the future.

What did you want to be when you grew up?

I wanted to not grow up. Adulthood looked like a pretty dreary business when I was a kid.

How did you get into copywriting?

Through an unlocked gate.

What’s your favorite type of writing project?

I like variety and a change of pace. But if I was restricted to one kind of writing for the rest of my life, I’d pick song lyrics. I can’t sing or play an instrument, so songwriting is by definition a collaborative process for me, which makes it less solitary than most types of writing. Also, how the words sound is as important as what they mean, if not more so. And it doesn’t matter how clever a line is — if it doesn’t fit the melody, you have to change it. I like the discipline that enforces. You can’t cheat by abbreviating everything like people do when texting and tweeting.

What do you wish clients knew about working with writers?

The best writer in the world can’t salvage a bad idea.

Why do you think most business writing is just so bad?

It’s highly contagious. An aspiring business writer reads copy larded with buzzwords and trendspeak and mimics the approach. I like William Zinsser’s advice in On Writing Well: “Beware of all the slippery new fad words: paradigm and parameter, prioritize and potentialize. They are all weeds that will smother what you write. Don’t dialogue with someone you can talk to. Don’t interface with anybody.”

What’s your best advice for writing great copy? 

That Zinsser book I just mentioned? That’s a good place to start. No matter what kind of writing you want to do, you need to learn the basics first. And with its emphasis on writing clear, simple sentences, that book provides a great foundation for any beginning writer.

Does being a copywriter make you a sellout, or is that just what penniless poets say out of jealousy?

The supposed wall between art and commerce collapsed ages ago, if it ever existed in the first place. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote ad copy (“We keep you clean in Muscatine”). Kurt Vonnegut worked for GE’s PR department. Bob Dylan shills for Cadillac and IBM.

What is the hardest part of writing? 

Staying with it. Distractions abound.

Any advice for writer’s block?

I take a bike ride. Usually by the time I get back, I’ve sorted through my jumble of thoughts and come up with at least one solid sentence. Sometimes that’s all I need to get started.

Do you think it’s totally unfair that copywriters don’t get to sign their names?

Not at all. I once wrote a magazine article that made some people mad, for reasons that seemed irrational to me. One guy even threatened to punch me. That made me realize that bylines are overrated. It’s not that I’m unwilling to stand behind what I write. (I loathe anonymous Internet trolls.) It’s that what you do and who you are, are two different things. But when it comes to the arts, people have trouble making the distinction.

What’s on your desk? 

All work and no play.

What do you wish there was a word for?

Luddite. I realize that Luddite is already a word, but I’d like to replace it as a synonym for technophobe because it has become such a cliché. Technophobe is inadequate, too. Take someone like me. I’m not averse to new technology — I just don’t indiscriminately embrace every new app that comes along. And I’d like the freedom to do that without being labeled a Luddite. (See what I mean?)

What advice would you give someone who wanted to become a copywriter?

Just do it.

What are you good at besides writing?


What would surprise someone to learn about you?

I once flew around the world on the Concorde. Aside from being a cool thing to be able to say I did, the trip, as I wrote in a resulting article, “had all the glamour of a bus ride to St. Louis.”

What are you reading now?

Mayflower, by Nathaniel Philbrick.

Predict the future.

Artificial intelligence will replace many more jobs than people realize. Not just service workers, but also professionals like doctors, bankers — and writers. Not that all writers will vanish, but many people who now pay writers for their services will look at the copy they get from an AI application and think, “Close enough.”

Is it wrong to sell store-bought pastries at a bake sale?

Not if you fess up to it. “Just like grandma used to buy!”

Is there a favorite English teacher lurking in your past? 

Hello Mr. Chambers, wherever you are.


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