See What Happens:
with Arlon Staggs
Knowledgeable in the sphere of writing, marketing, teaching, and law, Arlon Staggs knows his stuff. Before we hear from him as one of SDWI’s instructors later this fall, enjoy this interview! Here Arlon talks about his varying writing advice, experience within the world of copywriting, and prefaces some context and information concerning his two upcoming classes.
Meghan Coley: Given your extensive experience and career in copywriting at a number of different organizations, what are some key pieces of advice you’d give to aspiring copywriters?
Arlon Staggs: Advertising and marketing has changed significantly over the last two decades, especially for copywriters, mostly because no one really reads anymore. (Or at least no one reads advertising.) I see so many ad agencies and creative teams trying to get away without writers and relying solely on graphic designers to create campaigns, whereas twenty years ago, the copywriters really drove the process from start to finish. Now, we live in such a visual world where images and videos, instead of words, are used to convey brand promises and benefits. So I’d say the wise copywriter will learn to be a storyteller as opposed to a writer in the traditional sense. (This isn’t necessarily new. Successful copywriters were mostly storytellers in the “old world” too, it’s just that no one else thought of them that way.) More than ever, maintaining relevance as a copywriter today requires two things: one, that you can “write” the marketing messages that don’t include words (meaning you work with designers to ensure the ad is telling a story even without text), and two, that when you do get the privilege to actually write, you must learn how to pack the biggest punch possible with the fewest words. The days of paragraphs in magazine print ads are simply over, as much as people, like me, miss them. I’d also say that smart writers will get interested in video scripts and how to write them. About 80% of the copywriting I have done over the last 10 years has been scripts for videos.
MC: How has your degree from Mississippi College School of Law affected and aided your writing career?
AS: Law school, and working as an apprentice attorney is actually where I discovered my love for writing; that’s pretty much the only thing you do in law school: write. There’s something about being able to see the world through the lens of arguments and rhetorical structure that I believe gives me a unique perspective. Even though I write fiction, I’m always looking at what point is being made, what view of life is being advocated for through my characters.
MC: In terms of marketing and managing creative projects, what is your go-to process to ensure success?
AS: Interestingly, the most important aspects of my creative process aren’t the actual creative work, they are the “bookends” that surround my creative work. If I don’t eat right, get enough sleep, go to the gym, and honor my faith practices, I simply can’t be creative. So my day begins with coffee (duh!), prayer, scripture reading, gratitude journaling, working out, and reading something.
MC: You’re teaching two upcoming classes at SDWI! How did you become interested in the subject of using sports as a device in writing fiction?
AS: I come from a sports family, my father was a high school football coach in our small Alabama town, so I can’t help but relate to the world through the seasons of sports. I’m also drawn to stories about heroic athletes because all of my heroes (including my dad) growing up were athletes. In early 2020, I attended the Key West Literary Seminar and the theme was something about sports and literature. This initially sparked my curiosity, then when I was getting my MFA, I started to notice a general lack of fiction authors using sports in their work, despite there being plenty of nonfiction stories about sports and athletes that make their way into the literary canon, stories like Barbarian Days and On Boxing and Friday Night Lights. I decided to do my paper and my lecture on it, but what I found is that while there aren’t a ton of novels “about” sports, there are actually several of authors (Kevin Wilson, Colson Whitehead, Lionel Shriver, Megan Abbott, to name a few) who very successfully use sporting events or athlete characters as devices to strengthen their stories or move their plots along. This made such strategic sense to me because sports offer so much tension and conflict and I fell in love with this idea that an athlete character can, in a single moment, either make thousands of people happy or devastate them. There’s just so much there when you start looking, and I could geek out on this topic for hours, but suffice to say that a smart fiction writer will consider leveraging this aspect of our culture where you can infuse passion and conflict and so many emotions quite efficiently.
MC: What is one aspect of dialogue that you’ll cover in your “Let’s Talk About Dialogue” course?
AS: I think the biggest takeaway for people will be that dialogue should always include conflict and tension. One of the biggest temptations (at least for me) as a writer is to try to move the plot through the spoken words of the character, and in my experience, it almost never works. And if you’re like me, the characters end up sounding like weirdos and become unrelatable. But whip-smart dialogue can make a good story great.
MC: What is some advice you’d like to give to writers?
AS: I honestly feel like I should receive advice more than give it, but I’ll give it a shot. I think one thing I am currently learning about myself is that my unique perspective matters to other people much more than it matters to me. I have often discounted my life experiences because frankly, I feel like I have lived a normal, boring life. But lately, whenever I have written about something that is simply “the typical way that it all went down” to me, readers are fascinated by it. If you’re like me, you go through life not realizing how many interesting things are happening to you; perhaps we sort of numb ourselves to our own experience just to deal effectively with what’s in front of us. So maybe the advice is, instead of trying to come up with something unique or interesting to write about, maybe try using that part of you that just seems normal and average and tell that story as truthfully as possible, recounting all five senses from the moment. See what happens.
Arlon Jay Staggs worked for two decades as an award-winning advertising copywriter across several industries including for three Fortune 500 companies. You can read more about him here.