The Real World of Writing


“Why do we have to learn this?”  What teacher hasn’t heard that dreaded question wailed at top volume by a bored student?  While you have to admire their effort to find real-world applications of classroom instruction, it’s not always easy to answer.

 

I was lucky.  When the question was posed during writing instruction, I had a ready answer that always took my 5th and 6th graders by surprise.  Imagine this:

Nick:  Why do we have to learn this?

 

Me:  Because you might find out that you really enjoy it and that you’re good at it.  And that could lead to a career as an advertising copywriter, which will get you not only a paycheck, but many opportunities to travel and hear the words you’ve written emanating from the television.

 

Nick:  What?

 

As an advertising copywriter turned teacher, I always enjoyed bringing my real-world writing experience to the classroom. Writing effective ad copy, I’d explain, requires that we write descriptively, persuasively and succinctly – and all three writing skills are introduced in school with exercises in descriptive writing, summarizing and persuasive writing.

 

Here’s a fun classroom activity that’ll help your kids hone all three writing skills:  Create a Catalog Page.

Start by gathering a collection of print catalogs and the web addresses of well-written online catalogs.  I recommend  L.L. Bean, The Vermont Country Store, The Sharper Image and, of course, the one-of-a-kind J. Peterman catalog (available online at www.jpeterman.com where you can also sign up to have the catalog mailed to you – do so, it’s a great read).  Read and discuss the catalog copy with your class, noting examples of persuasive writing and descriptive phrases.

 

Then have your students compose a paragraph’s worth of catalog copy for the product of their choice or even of their invention.  (My favorite “invented” product:  a miniaturized, domesticated bighorn sheep that my student sold brilliantly as “the best pet ever!”)  Hold them to a specific word count (no more than 150) and give them these basic rules of advertising copywriting:

 

  1.  Emphasize the benefits of your product.  How will owning the product improve the buyer’s life?  Will it help them look better, make them more popular or improve their health?  Who might admire the buyer for owning this product?  Where would the buyer use this product?

 

  1.  Speak directly to the reader.  Use of the word “you” or “your” improves the response to an ad immeasurably.  The only more powerful word in advertising is “free.”

 

  1. Pay close attention to sentence variety.  Effective advertising copy uses long sentences, short sentences and sentence fragments as well as questions and exclamations.

Have your students illustrate their paragraphs with their own drawings or photographs downloaded from the internet and read aloud to the class.  Be sure to point out all examples of persuasive, descriptive and succinct writing!

 

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