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The Sixth Sense of a Copywriter

Truman Capote quote with scissors graphic

With Halloween coming up, I’m going to reveal something spooky.

I hear dead people.

Well, to be exact, I hear dead person. It only happens when I’m writing. Or rewriting. Or re-rewriting. (What can I say? It’s a process.) Whose voice do I hear, reaching out from beyond the grave?

Dr. Erwin Steinberg.

Oooo. The very name sends chills down my copywriter spine.

Before his passing in 2012, Dr. Steinberg was a distinguished professor of English and rhetoric at Carnegie Mellon University – my alma mater – for 60 years. Yes, you read that correctly. Six, zero. Longer than any middle-aged writers like me have walked this earth.

I took Dr. Steinberg’s graduate-level class in style (writing, not fashion) when I was enrolled in the professional writing program. Twice a week, I’d join a dozen other anxious souls to endure the dismembering of our latest writing assignment.

It was a red-penned bloodbath.

Those memories still haunt me, more than 20 years later.

Nearly every day, I hear the voice of Dr. Steinberg, admonishing me to be clearer. More precise and succinct. To choose language that’s plain and straightforward over clever and intellectually impressive. Whenever I encounter the worst style offenders – passive voice, noun strings, and (gasp) nominalizations – I’m right back in class, listening to Dr. Steinberg’s meticulous correction.

It’s scary how much he’s shaped my writing career.

And I’d thank him for it, if only he could hear me too.



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