;) or ;(?

I’m always surprised how many people misuse semicolons. I’ve even worked with talented writers who get them wrong as often as right. But rather than telling everyone to smarten up and learn how to use them properly, I suggest we’d all be better off just forgetting they ever existed.

For one thing, they aren’t very useful.

A common mistake is to assume they’re like sloppy commas or sloppy full stops. Something inbetween-ish and flexible that you can use as you wish, wherever, whenever, however.

But they’re not. That’s a dash – the sloppiest, loveliest, most useful punctuation mark of all. I love dashes. I love dashes so much I have to ration myself. In fact, the first thing I usually do when editing my copy is decide which ones will survive the cull.

Nope, a semicolon is nowhere near as good as a dash. It has pretty prescribed uses, none of them actually that useful. Off the top of my head (and yes, I really should Google this, but where’s the fun in knowing you’re definitely right?) there are just two official uses for the semicolon.

Plus a third, unofficial, one.

The first use is quite simple to grasp, and also quite rare to actually put into practice. It’s the one you were taught and then quickly forgot at school: the ungainly list of long things. Instead of using commas to separate the items in a list, you use semicolons when the list is made up of longer phrases.

The breakfast options are: bacon, egg and toast; bacon, egg, toast and beans; and bacon, tomato, egg, toast and beans.

The point of the semicolon here is simply to separate the items, marking the main breaks between them from all the mini-breaks that might pop up in a really dense, clause-heavy list.

That’s the simple use. Kind of useful, but not earth-shatteringly so. It’s like a slightly less clear bullet point.

The second official use is far subtler. You use a semicolon to counterpoise two related clauses and invite the reader to infer the exact nature of that relationship. If that sounds very niche, it is.

It had been days since I’d eaten anything; the cakes smelt like heaven.

The bank had run out of cash; the chairman announced a new share scheme for employees.

I can’t think of a similarly subtle type of punctuation. Jane Austen used them to devastating effect, I’m sure. But today? If the semicolon didn’t exist, I doubt we’d really need to invent it.

And of course, if some writers don’t know how to use a semicolon, how many readers know how to read one? Very few, I suspect.

So the case is pretty strong for just abandoning the semicolon altogether. But before we do, I have a confession to make. As well as the two official uses, there is the third unofficial use. One that can be very handy in certain circumstances.

Kurt Vonnegut once said: “Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.

I wager most copywriters have been in situations where showing you’ve been to college is very useful indeed. In fact, I suspect most of the semicolons I’ve ever used have appeared in the first paragraph – and most likely the very first sentence. There’s something reassuringly erudite about a semicolon, and I’m certainly not above deploying one in a fix.

But perhaps the final word on the semicolon should go to Irvine Welsh. He may not shed a great deal of light, but he does score top marks for getting so sweary about it all:

I use it. I’ve no feelings about it – it’s just there. People actually get worked up about that kind of shite, do they? I don’t fucking believe it. They should get a fucking life or a proper job. They’ve got too much time on their hands, to think about nonsense.

What do you think? Could he be one of those writers who don’t actually know how to use one? I’m not asking him…

How Reading the Newspaper Made $8.3 Billion

Okay I’ll admit it – that’s a slight exaggeration.

But $8.3bn is the surge in revenue that Nike experienced from 1988 to 1998 – the decade after they launched their ‘Just Do It’ slogan.

Dan Wieden wrote that slogan. Here’s a picture of him looking a little smug…

Dan Wieden of Wieden & Kennedy

Last year Wieden came clean about his inspiration for the slogan.

He was about to present five TV ads to Nike top-brass. It would be Wieden+Kennedy’s first big TV campaign.

But the night before the big meeting, as Writer-K would say, ‘he got the fear.’ It struck him that there wasn’t a common thread in the ads, a unifying idea.

So he reached for pen and paper, and began scribbling some notes. Then he remembered reading newspaper reports about the execution of a murderer named Gary Gilmore ten years earlier. Here’s a picture of him smiling…

gary gilmore

Gilmore had requested a firing squad, which was still an option for Utah death-rowers in the late 70s.

As they placed him in front of the five riflemen he was asked if he had any last words. Gilmore shook his head, surveyed the room and said; ‘Let’s do it.’

Those words catapulted to the front of Wieden’s mind, so he scribbled them down, considered for a short time, then crossed out ‘Let’s’ and wrote ‘Just’.

Apparently the whole process took only a few minutes.

Campaign recently described the slogan as “arguably the best tagline of the 20th century…it cut across age and class barriers, linked Nike with success – and made consumers believe they could be successful too, just by wearing Nike products.”

I love this story – it’s the perfect illustration of why the creative person has a license to be interested in everything.

In most lines of work, reading anything other than the FT or a trade magazine is leisure time, a distraction.

For most people, a trip to the museum, the cinema or even an afternoon on the sofa with Heat Magazine is extra-curricular.

For the creative person though, all knowledge is good knowledge, because it’s all potentially useful.

James Webb Young makes the same point in ‘A Technique For Producing Ideas’. Here’s a picture of him looking pensive…


[Incidentally, I couldn’t find my copy of ‘A Technique For Producing Ideas’ this morning, so if anyone in the agency has it, I’d like it back please]

Anyway, this is what JWY wrote about the creative mindset, way back in 1940:

“Every really good creative person in advertising whom I have ever known has always had two noticeable characteristics. First, there was no subject under the sun in which he could not easily get interested-from, say, Egyptian burial customs to Modern Art. Every facet of life had fascination for him. Second, he was an extensive browser in all sorts of fields of information. For it is with the advertising man as with the cow: no browsing, no milk.”

Perhaps Dan Wieden should’ve been doing some work on January 18, 1977.

Perhaps he should’ve been reading Marketing Week, just to keep abreast of industry news.

But he wasn’t, instead he was reading newspaper accounts of an execution in Utah the day before – for no important reason other than he found them interesting.

And ten years later, the time he’d spent unexpectedly repaid him; transforming his personal fortunes, his agency’s and his client’s, whose global revenue rocketed from $877 million to $9.2 billion.

So I suppose the lesson is, when you’re unsure if learning about something will be useful…


The Greatest.

Muhammad Ali was as fast and powerful with his words as he was with his fists. So it seems fitting to pay tribute to the Louisville Lip by picking out some of his best quotes.

Photograph: John Rooney/Associated Press

Photograph: John Rooney/Associated Press

Whether it was bigging himself up and trash-talking opponents to generate publicity or standing up for what he believed in, he used words and wit in a way any copywriter would be proud of.

So next time someone asks you for a punchy headline, ask yourself “what would Ali have said?”

His effortless braggadocio:
“If you even dream of beating me, you better wake up and apologise.”

“I’m so fast that last night I turned off the light switch in my hotel room and was in bed before the room was dark.”

Fighting talk:
“Sonny Liston is nothing. The man can’t talk. The man can’t fight. The man needs talking lessons. The man needs boxing lessons. And since he’s gonna fight me, he needs falling lessons.”

“I’ll hit Liston with so many punches from so many angles he’ll think he’s surrounded.”

“I’ll beat him so bad, he’ll need a shoehorn to put his hat on.”
(Before beating Floyd Patterson in 1965)

 ”I’m going to do to Buster what the Indians did to Custer.”
(Before beating Buster Mathis in November 1971)

Before knocking out Foreman in their famed ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ clash in 1974:
“I’ve seen George Foreman shadow boxing and the shadow won.”

 ”I done wrestled with an alligator, I done tussled with a whale; handcuffed lightning, thrown thunder in jail; only last week, I murdered a rock, injured a stone, hospitalised a brick; I’m so mean I make medicine sick.”

“Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee, his hands can’t hit what his eyes can’t see.”

On the reality of boxing:
“Boxing is a lot of white men watching two black men beat each other up.”

“The fight is won or lost far away from witnesses – behind the lines, in the gym, and out there on the road, long before I dance under those lights.”

On refusing to serve in Vietnam:
“Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?”

“Man, I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong. No Viet Cong ever called me nigger.”

After being convicted for draft-dodging:
“I am America. I am the part you won’t recognise, but get used to me. Black, confident, cocky. My name, not yours. My religion, not yours. My goals, my own. Get used to me.”

And finally:
“Live every day like it’s your last, because someday you’re going to be right.”


Birth of The Simpsons

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Matt Groening is the guy who created the iconic and legendary animated sitcom, The Simpsons. One of the most successful animated sitcom creators of all time, today he has 12 Emmy Awards under his belt and a net worth estimated at $500 million. Currently airing its 27th season, The Simpsons is the longest-running American sitcom, the longest-running American animated program, and in 2009 it surpassed Gunsmoke as the longest-running American scripted primetime television series. Ever.

The Simpsons is an absolute tour de force of quick-witted comedy. All the more impressive is that the show’s earlier seasons still hold up today, a remarkable feat which speaks to the sheer level of talent involved in putting those first few brilliant seasons together. But how long does it take to come up with the concept and framework of such a show? A year? Maybe two? J.K. Rowling came up with the idea for Harry Potter while delayed on a train travelling from Manchester to London King’s Cross. But she spent the next five years creating the Harry Potter universe and developing the characters.

Groening was a faster worker. He came up with his crowning achievement while waiting in the reception area of a TV production company. In fact, he created the outline for The Simpsons, sketched out the characters, pitched the idea and sold it – all in the same hour.

Here’s how it happened: The year is 1985 and TV producer James L. Brooks is producing a new TV show for comic Tracy Ullman. There’ s a small part for an animated short and Groening has been invited along to talk about his alternative rabbit cartoon Life In Hell and how he might translate it for the small screen.

This is Matt Groening’s big break. Life In Hell had launched his career as a cartoonist. It had carried him through some tough years. Now the time had come to reap the benefits and merchandise the hell out of it.

Yet the cartoonist is not excited about the opportunity. He’s concerned that TV exposure will look like he’s ‘sold out’ his popular strip about rabbits. His gut instinct is telling him to decline the offer. “I had this good gig going with my weekly comic strip, and I was actually afraid that if the animated cartoon didn’t work out, there would be a taint on my weekly comic-strip job. So I created The Simpsons on the spot, thinking that if it did fail, I could just go back and draw rabbits, and no one would be the wiser.” 

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Groening realised that the only way to resolve the dilemma would be to create something to offer in place of the rabbits. “While I was waiting—I believe they kept me waiting for quite some time—I very quickly drew the Simpsons family. I basically drew my own family. My father’s name is Homer. My mother’s name is Margaret. I have a sister Lisa and another sister Maggie, so I drew all of them. I was going to name the main character Matt, but I didn’t think it would go over well in a pitch meeting, so I changed the name to Bart.”

As the minutes pass, Groening comes up with a storyline that revolves around a modern dysfunctional family – something that will touch a nerve with everyone. He set’s the story in a fictional American town in an unknown and impossible-to-determine US state. He decides that every episode will revolve around this typical American town and it will act as a complete universe in which characters can explore the issues faced by modern society.

And although the family is dysfunctional, the stories will examine their relationships and bonds and see how much they care for one another. The father is a safety inspector at the local Nuclear Power Plant. He is married to a stereotypical American housewife and mother. They have three children: a ten-year-old troublemaker; a precocious eight-year-old activist; and a baby who rarely speaks, but communicates by sucking on a pacifier.

In reception, Groening quickly puts pen to paper. He sketches out the characters and colours them in yellow. He places the sheets under his arm and enters the office of James L. Brooks to pitch the idea.

Years later, Groening would say of that meeting, “Looking back, I think I had completely unjustified self-confidence. It might not have worked out, of course. And I didn’t necessarily think it would. I certainly didn’t think it would be my ticket to stardom, or anything like that. But I did feel this is what I have to do. I may not make any money at it, in fact, I very likely won’t. I just had this conviction that I had to carry on doing it and see what happened.”

It’s a remarkable story. But the point of bringing it to your attention today is not because of Groening’s speed of delivery, or the balls required to pull it all together a few feet from his clients’ office.

This is a tale about trusting in your gut instincts. Believing in your talent. And knowing that, unlikely as it may seem, a better idea is waiting to happen.