This guy, a fresh graduate from a Nigerian university, wanted a job at the agency. He wanted to be a copywriter.
I said, “I have to give you a test. Take this piece of paper, write an essay for me with the title: MY SELF. You have two hours.”
When he came back with the script, I couldn’t read it. It was horrible. It’s like he didn’t go to secondary school. Because if he ever went to secondary school, he would have written this essay a million times before.
But my problem wasn’t limited to his content and mechanical accuracy. It was also with his laziness. The article was filled with SMS language. Shorthand. ‘D’ for ‘The’, ‘u’ for ‘You’, and so on.
“Are you kidding me!” I said. “Do you really want this job?”
That’s one story.
Here’s another story:
My first boss at The Guardian once said this to me: “Samson, don’t be a typist.” Let me explain.
When I was a year-one reporter at The Guardian, I met a man who ended up shaping my writing style a lot. He was the reason I started reading The Economist and The Guardian of London. He was famously good at writing AND I wanted to be better than him.
This was arrogant of me, I know, because the man was by no means my mate. As I said, I was just starting out but he was already a member of the editorial board.
But that time, thankfully, computers were still scarce and only a few people knew how to use them. We used to write our stories longhand and pass them on to typists to type.
When computers became more accessible— when The Guardian put a Mac on every desk, it still took a while for the older folks to get a hang of the tech. So, in the meantime— which was a very long meantime— some of them asked junior writers like myself to help type their reports and feature stories.
That’s when my boss told me, “Samson, don’t be a typist.”
What he meant was, don’t just type like a zombie. Read what I give you to type. Check for syntax errors or even logic mistakes. If there’s anything you think is off, call my attention to it.
I did. The few times that I missed something, though, he really let me have it. He’d be like, “I told you before. Don’t just type. Read!” Later I would concede that, although it felt like I was doing his dirty laundry at the time, reading his pieces helped me get better, especially because I had an evil plan to be greater than him.
The secret is always in reading. Reading books, reading people, reading the situation, reading yourself.
And speaking of reading, these are some of my favourite books— books that spark my creativity and ignite my passion. Ugh. I know, I know; for a little while there I sounded like a powerpoint template. But here we go:
- Choose Yourself by James Altucher – Because, choose yourself.
- Ignore Everybody by Hugh MacLeod – For the same reason. Also because the guy used to be a copywriter and built a business drawing cartoons on the back of business cards.
- Losing My Virginity by Richard Branson – Rebels started a magazine, then a record company, then an airline, then a space company. You know, all the things you’d like to do before you die.
- Hey Whipple, Squeeze This by Luke Sullivan – The best advertising copywriting book I’ve ever read.
- The One Thing by Gary Keller – How to combat distraction.
- What the Dog Saw by Malcolm Gladwell – Various stories about invention and strangeness. I’m a Gladwell stan.
- I Can’t Make This Up by Kevin Hart – This book is actually funny. It sounds like Kevin Hart talking to you, while taking you through a dogged man’s journey from the ghetto to Hollywood stardom, armed with only two things: his wit and will.
- Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing – The secrets of writing stories that people will actually read. As Ira Glass said, great stories happen to those who can tell them.
- All In Startup by Diana Kander – A weird business book. Also very interesting.
- Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson.
- The Dip by Seth Godin – Know when to pack it all in and go home.
- How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big by Scott Adams, the dude who created the syndicated Dilbert cartoons.
- The Elements of Style by William Strunk & E.B. White
- Hegarty on Creativity
- Purple Cow by Seth Godin – How to be unordinary.
Image credit: ‘Dear White People’ movie (cover); SBR Sport (WTDS).