After 20 years as an English professor, I left the classroom to begin my new role as lead writer here at Rare Bird. It only took three days for a coworker to say aloud what a few others must have been thinking: An English professor working here? That’s my worst nightmare.
Another colleague, after hearing me and Jim talk for a few minutes about the essential and undeniable value of the Oxford comma, said she would never send either of us another email. We also agreed that “all right” is always two words.
Some people get nervous around writers, editors, and English professors, as if we’ll smack someone’s knuckles with a ruler at the slightest linguistic or grammatical misstep. I’ll have to watch my grammar, they’ll often say to me, a person who has spent his entire adulthood writing, editing, and teaching. But I no longer correct such errors in conversation. As I have aged, I’ve developed a clear preference: I would rather be kind than right. With writing, however, matters of correctness can be a kindness to both writer and reader.
My coworker didn’t ask why a professor would leave teaching to work for a company like Rare Bird. Professor was never my go-to identity. Writer? Yes. Editor? Sure. Professor never even made it into my Twitter bio. I’m a writer. Surely my new coworker—okay, okay, it was Tom—wouldn’t object to Rare Bird bringing a writer aboard to fill the lead writer role?
Fiction writers have a long and (ahem) storied history in the world of copywriting. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Joseph Heller, and Aldous Huxley all wrote copy, at least for a while. Salman Rushdie and Don DeLillo worked for Ogilvy & Mather, though their stints never overlapped. Joseph Sugarman says in The AdWeek Copywriting Handbook that “print advertising is nothing more than ‘literary persuasion,’” so maybe I should have recognized sooner that such a move would likely appear in my future.
Copywriting is writing. And writing—communicating an idea to a specific audience for a clear reason while engaging the puzzle-work of sentence-making—is what I do best. It’s all I’ve ever wanted to do. You might say my teaching career was just a lengthy interruption for me, like a dam built to alter a river’s natural course. My new role at Rare Bird is a chance to make some things right for myself while helping the rest of the Flock and our many incredible clients to take flight.
I taught more students in 20 years than most English professors ever have the chance to teach, even in careers lasting twice as long. The writing I did produce—a book of short stories, some comics, a screenplay, the starts of several novel manuscripts—happened in spite of my teaching career. A lot of the other writing I’ve done along the way—radio and podcast scripts, 12,000-word marketing reports, articles about Star Wars, and everything else written in the pursuit of freelance opportunities—did happen because of my teaching position. But not in a good way.
Enough of that.
Marketing is storytelling, and companies need people who can write well and connect with audiences. The importance of empathy in all of this finally became clear to me during a research trip I embarked on as a freelancer for another firm’s university client, when everyone kept emphasizing that my classroom experience should allow me to better empathize with the students’—or customers’—journeys to and through the university. After conversations with a friend who’s been writing copy for more than a decade, I came to agree that empathy in the service of storytelling is not the sole dominion of the fiction writer.
When Jim reached out to speak with me about this position—the listing I replied to called for a “Creative Writer”—I had already read most of the Rare Bird website. I knew Jim could write, and that he valued and recognized good writing. He perfectly conveyed the feelings induced by COVID-related isolation in what, to date, remains this blog’s most-viewed post. He and I were then able to speak, writer to writer, in a way that is sometimes difficult when a firm’s guiding force doesn’t regularly wrestle with words.
The tone of our talk emerged from mutual respect and echoed (at least a little) aspects of this exchange from The Princess Bride:
Inigo Montoya: You are wonderful.
Man in Black: Thank you. I’ve worked hard to become so.
Inigo Montoya: I admit it, you are better than I am.
Man in Black: Then why are you smiling?
Inigo Montoya: Because I know something you don’t know.
Man in Black: And what is that?
Inigo Montoya: I…am not left-handed.
Man in Black: You are amazing.
Inigo Montoya: I ought to be, after 20 years.
Man in Black: Oh, there’s something I ought to tell you.
Inigo Montoya: Tell me.
Man in Black: I’m not left-handed either.
So why Rare Bird? It’s pretty simple, really. I wanted the chance to write for a living. In all of my pursuits, from creating comics to the many books by other authors I’ve edited and helped shepherd into the world, my goal has been to surround myself with people who are at least as talented as I am, if not more talented. It’s an unsurprisingly effective equation for collaborative success. As you’ll see in future posts highlighting more of what we do here at Rare Bird, our office is packed with talented designers, developers, and strategists.
In my second week on the job—just two days after a copywriter, Shehan Karunatilaka, won the Booker Prize, one of the world’s most prestigious literary awards—I was summoned into Jim’s office for a brief conversation about the em-dash. We consulted his copy of The Elements of Style and an instructor’s edition of a reference handbook I’ve carried around for years. We both knew the answer, but we wanted to be sure.
We wanted to get it right.