Being a writer can be more than just a fun pastime or a way to get good grades in school. It can actually be a skill that turns into a lifelong profession. While writing a best-selling book is a lofty goal, there are other jobs that allow those with a passion for words to earn a living and pursue their enthusiasm for expression. But don’t just Take My Word For It!

This week contributor Joe O'Neill writes about being an advertising copy writer.

Think of me as a beacon of hope for anyone who thinks he or she would like to be an advertising writer. I say that because very few people seemed more ill-prepared for the job than I was when I entered the business.

My first job was as a designer for a packaging company. In almost all respects it was a low-pressure situation. Nevertheless, within a few months I found myself so overwhelmed that one day I went out to lunch and never returned.

My second job was as the Promotion Manager for the Paterson Evening News. Ironically my main responsibility was to talk to graduating high school classes about careers in the newspaper industry. The kid who was too shy to get up in front of a class was now expected to give speeches to auditoriums of students. I performed so poorly that within less than a year, my position was eliminated and I was offered a job delivering newspapers.

Eventually, I went to work for a local landscaper by day and started creating a portfolio of speculative ads at night. On my last week of unemployment, I was offered a job at an agency called Leber Katz Partners in New York for $5,250 a year. On my first night on the job, as I was looking out my office window on the 42nd floor of the General Motors Building in Manhattan, I was both ecstatic and nervous, the latter being because I have never written a real ad in my life.

But here’s the plot twist. Though I didn’t know it at the time, I was an advertising expert. And, surprise of surprises, so are you.

 Read on.

A few years ago, I gave a talk to a room full of young advertising people at an agency I worked for. They had just started in the business. The subject was: How to become an advertising expert. I opened my talk by asking for a show of hands. “How many people here have seen a Broadway show recently?” A lot of hands went up.

“Great. How many shows have you seen in all?”

 “Twenty-five or so” one person said. “Thirty or forty” said another. “About fifty.” And so it went.

 “That’s a lot of shows,” I said. “So tell me, how many of you consider yourself to be an expert on Broadway shows?”

 No hands went up.

“No one? … OK, then let me ask you this. What would it take? … How many shows would you have to see before you really felt like you knew what you were talking about?”

Different answers came in ranging from 75 to 150.

“So for the sake of conversation…” I said, “… let’s agree that once you see about 150 Broadway shows, you can then consider yourself to be somewhat of an expert. OK?”             

Heads nod.

“Good, next question: How many of you have seen a television commercial or a print ad or heard a radio commercial lately?”

 Again, all hands go up.

 I asked one girl in the audience how many she’d seen and got a bewildered look.

 “Uh … well … thousands” she finally answered.

 “Actually, you’ve probably seen a lot more than that”, I tell her. In fact, according to the latest research, the average person sees somewhere between 600 and 3,000 ads, commercials, billboards, pop-ups and banners … every single day.

 There were a lot of surprised faces.

 I continued. “So … let’s think about this … if seeing a 150 shows will make you a Broadway expert, what will seeing 3,000 ads a day for 365 days every year make you?”



OK, OK … so it’s not as easy as that. Just because you’ve seen a slew of commercials doesn’t necessarily mean that you can sit down and write a good one the first time out. But it certainly does indicate that you won’t be operating in an alien world.

 Stephen King, the writer of all those scary books, says if you want to be a writer of anything, there are two things you have to do: Read and write.

 Devour as many books, short stories, and quality magazine and newspaper articles as you can. And write! Write something, anything – short stories, poems, whatever - as often as you can.

 And if you want to be an ad writer, start paying closer attention to all of those words and images flashing by you every single day. Evaluate them. Form opinions about them. What’s good, what’s bad, and think about what you might do differently.


Advertising writing is a very entertaining, if pressure-packed, way to make a living – for the following reasons:

  • You get to work as a team with an art director – so it’s not a lonely pursuit. Generally you come up with the words, the art director come up with the images but very often you overlap.
  • You get to create something out of nothing – a print ad that you wind up seeing in a newspaper or magazine – an ad that pops up on someone’s computer screen - a radio commercial that just may make someone smile on their way to work – a television commercial that will pop up on your television screen when you least expect it.
  • And after you dream up those radio and television commercials, you actually get to go out and produce them. You bring on producers, directors, actors, music houses and editors. You go to film studios, recording studios, out on location to shoot television spots – sometimes to far away places. None of that sucks.


Certainly, it’s not a hayride. There are deadlines to meet. There are people – bosses and clients alike - who will not like your first idea and send you back to the drawing board. There are times when you will surrender your nights, your weekends, and your plans with your friends and family because someone says, “We need it tomorrow.”

 I have met advertising writers from all sorts of backgrounds. People, who, like me, studied one thing in school and wound up doing another. People who failed miserably at one or more jobs and then found a home in advertising. And people like one of my daughters, who took a more direct route, decided early on they wanted to be in the business, studied communications/advertising in college, and got a job immediately after graduating.

And that’s another thing I like about the business: it takes all kinds.