Charles Bukowski wasn’t a copywriter, but he was a prolific writer of poetry and short stories. In the first half of his life, he mailed thousands of drafts to potential publishers.
But most of his submissions were rejected. The work was too progressive, said the editors, too crude: Bukowski wrote about sex and love, about loss and failure, hardship. Most everything was autobiographical. Then, when he was 46, Bukowski met John Martin, a publisher compelled by his work.
“The first time I read him I said ‘My God, this is today’s Whitman,’” said Martin. “This is a man of the street, writing for the people of the street.”
And so it began: Bukowski found a platform and an audience found Bukowski. His work connected. In the second half of his life, he sold millions of books.
Charles Bukowski wasn’t a copywriter, but he did write like one, which roused readers and enabled his success. Want to write effective copy? Read Bukowski to internalize the core principles of copywriting, which are:
1) Write with emotion.
Most purchases aren't logical decisions. People buy things based on how they make them feel.
To do that, copywriters dance with the human condition, playing on memories that conjure poignant images that resonate with their audience.
Bukowski was emotional.
His subject matter was personal, yet typical. Bukowski wrote about things most people could understand, if not relate to. Readers sympathized with him.
In Women, Bukowski writes:
I was sentimental about many things: a woman’s shoes under the bed; one hairpin left behind on the dresser; the way they said, “I’m going to pee.” hair ribbons; walking down the boulevard with them at 1:30 in the afternoon, just two people walking together …
Bukowski saw beauty in the mundane, depth and meaning in the prosaic. So he wrote about it, which made readers think, remember and, most importantly, feel.
2) Write with brevity.
People have short attention spans. If we’re not interested, we tune out, sometimes within seconds.
So, your copy should make its point quickly.
Unless an emotional narrative calls for it, copywriters don’t use two or three words when one will do.
Bukowski was brief.
He rarely dragged on without purpose.
In Women, Bukowski writes:
Being alone never felt right. Sometimes it felt good, but it never felt right.
Bukowski respected the reader’s imagination. He didn't color everything in. He let people come to their own conclusions. We enjoy that, after all. We like filling in the gaps for ourselves, using our own images and memories. It's fun.
3) Write with clarity.
Confusion kills engagement. Clear writing keeps people reading. Clarity, like brevity, prolongs attention.
So, your copy should be comprehensible. A focused reader shouldn’t need to reread a sentence.
To ensure this, copywriters:
Use simple words: Write “begin” rather than “commence.” Write “find out” rather than “ascertain.”
Use specific words: Write “FaceTime” rather than “video communication tool.”
Use the active voice: It's easier to read than the passive voice.
Use transitions: These are words or phrases that connect ideas between sentences (e.g., as a result; although; while; because).
Clear writing helps readers visualize your sentences, which keeps them reading.
Bukowski was clear.
One of the most understandable authors of the twentieth century, Bukowski’s clarity was his forte.
In Post Office, Bukowski writes:
In the morning it was morning and I was still alive. Maybe I’ll write a novel, I thought. And then I did.
Honesty helped Avis highlight its strengths. It helped Domino's regain consumer trust. Ultimately, the strategy inspired public sympathy, driving rapid growth for both companies.
Bukowski was honest.
He famously held nothing back. In print, he was fully exposed, sensitive and vulnerable and unsafe. He was naked and people glared.
In Ham on Rye, Bukowski writes:
And my own affairs were as bad, as dismal, as the day I had been born. The only difference was now I could drink now and then, though never often enough … I would certainly never be able to be happy, to get married, I could never have children. Hell, I couldn’t even get a job as a dishwasher.
“Forgive me,” Bukowski once said at a poetry reading. “You have my soul and I have your money.”
5) Write with style.
Though effective copy is driven by substance, it shouldn't sound rigid. It should roll off the tongue.
So, your copy should use literary devices to help it flow.
Copywriters use sound repetition to create sentence fluency:
Alliteration: Repetitive sounds at the beginning of adjacent words (e.g., “Once upon a midnight dreary while I pondered weak and weary.”)
Consonance: Repetitive sounds produced by consonants (e.g., “The fair breeze blew, the white / foam flew / The furrow followed free …”)
Assonance: Repetitive sounds produced by vowels (e.g., “I must confess that in my quest I felt depressed and restless.”)
They use word repetition to create rhythm:
Anaphora: Repetition at the beginning (e.g., “With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right …”)
Epistrophe: Repetition at the end (e.g., “Government of the people, by the people, for the people …”)
Polyptoton: Repetition of the root (e.g., “No end to the withering of withered flowers …”)
He leaned on literary devices, using them to add depth to his writing, to make his work more poignant and moving, more emotional.
In Dinosauria, We, Bukowski writes:
Born like this Into this As the chalk faces smile As Mrs. Death laughs As the elevators break As political landscapes dissolve As the supermarket bag boy holds a college degree As the oily fish spit out their oily prey As the sun is masked We are Born like this Into this …
Bukowski’s style made his message more memorable.
Charles Bukowski wasn’t a copywriter.
But he wrote like the best of them.
Study his work and you will, too.
Originally published Oct 3, 2017 6:00:00 AM, updated July 24 2019