Telling A Story: When Copywriters Become Great Novelists

Copywriting and creative writing: opposing strands of the same discipline, right?

A perceived wisdom fuelled by romantic visions of the booze-soaked novelist, angrily punching a typewriter, late at night in a small dark room; enshrouded in a cloud of tobacco and tormented visions. Or the free-flowing imaginings of magical schools and fantastical beasts, conjured on train rides, brought to life in coffee houses.

Creative free-spirits, as far removed from the corporate sheen of a copywriting team as it’s possible to be, save for shedding all earthly belongings and heading for a monastery in the Andes.

The truth, of course, is that the two forms are a lot more closely linked than you might imagine. In fact, for some of the great names of twentieth-century fiction, it was at the copywriting desk where they honed their craft and sharpened their considerable talents.

If you think about it, it’s not that surprising. The end-product may be different, but the skills and style of writing required are often much the same.


Crafting a story that’s compelling to its readership, through plot, characterisation, or the weaving of words, is at the heart of all great fiction. Stories that draw you in, immerse you in the tale, or, to paraphrase the late, great Raymond Carver, make the ordinary extraordinary.

And, whether it’s the simple genius of Carver’s short prose or the complexity of an epic George RR Martin plot, powerful story-telling is the common link.

Isn’t the same true of great copywriting?

Brand storytelling is a term that’s gained greater prominence in the world of content marketing in recent times – although, as a concept, it’s nothing new. The idea that to get customers engaged with a brand, you deliver a narrative that compels, rather than beating a well-worn drum of self-promotion.

Copywriting that tells a story, draws the audience in, immersing them in what you have to say. Adding a sense of the extraordinary to the brand and the company behind it.


While it’s sometimes nice to marvel at the literary dexterity of the great writers, the hallmark of many a great novel or short story is in the simplicity of its prose. The severity of the editing process, to cut away the fat and remove the superfluous adverbs. From Hemmingway and Woolf to Chekhov or Stephen King – it’s the brevity and simplicity of their writing that stands them out as masters of their craft.

It’s another parallel with those who deliver content in the commercial arena. The need to be disciplined in your writing and strict in the editing. To make every sentence count; driving the narrative forward.

Lessons learned, by more than a few famous novelists while working as copywriters for brands, campaigns, and marketing teams.

Some of the Novelists Who Worked as Copywriters

  • Scott Fitzgerald – One of the great literary names of the past century, the man behind the Great Gatsby earned a crust, and honed his craft by writing slogans for billboards and streetcars.
  • Fay Weldon – The author of the Life and Loves of a She-Devil, along with more than 40 other books, also happened to work as a copywriter for O&M as a younger writer, helping promote the phrase: Go to work on an egg. Advice to which many adhered, back in the day.
  • Salman Rushdie The Booker-Prize-winning author is another esteemed wordsmith who enjoyed a career coining popular phrases as an advertising copywriter and was the man behind the cream cakes slogan: Naughty But Nice, that everyone of a certain age will recall.
  • Don DeLillo – Another literary heavyweight and former Pulitzer Prize short-listed author, DeLillo’s brand of modernist prose was developed in the advertising rooms of Madison Avenue while working as a young copywriter.

Far from being disciplines at odds with the other, copywriting and fiction share more than a few familiar traits. Telling a story through words that pack a punch, engaging your readers with a compelling narrative. Or delivering a clear message, free from clutter and waffle; defining your voice, your message and your brand.

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