What Modern Copywriters can Learn from the Romantics

Photo by Syd Wachs on Unsplash

Ah, 1847, the year that Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell were born, Frederick Douglass published the first Abolitionist Paper, and the Mexican-American War was taking its last few breaths. What a busy year indeed!

And still 1847 is special to me for a different reason; it was the year that Emily Bronte published Wuthering Heights and Charlotte Bronte published Jane Eyre.

The mid-19th century marked the transition from the romantic period of art and literature to the age of realism. Romantic literature depicts an idealized view of the world; the language is vague and florid, the characters are extreme, there’s a fixation on beauty, and there’s always a happy ending. Realism, on the other hand, is all about depicting life exactly how it is, good or bad. There are no flowery metaphors or valiant acts of heroism in realist literature. The world is as it is, for better or worse.

Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights are true works of romantic gothic fiction. They were some of the last works published in this literary period before realism and modernism took reign, and the great American novel came around to set the standard for contemporary authorship.

But I think there’s a lot modern copywriters can take from the Romantics; namely, how to leave a lasting impression on an audience with just a few sentences.

Writers and artists in 1847 used storytelling to capture moments in full-effect and then some. Today, content creators are all about the “ephemeral” —depicting real life in short-form, for a short-term effect (here’s my piece on microcontent). It’s in our snaps, our tweets, our Insta-stories, and our Facebook Lives. And then in seconds, that snap is gone, the tweet is old news, the Insta Story is expired, and the live stream is dead. Whatever emotional effect that snackable content may have engendered is gone the second you hit refresh.

What if we could press pause? What if we would milk those emotions, good or bad, for everything they’re worth?

We can’t on Snapchat. But we can in writing.

Here’s one of my favorite lines from Wuthering Heights, an appeal by Catherine Earnshaw to her housekeeper to help her convince the young Isabella Linton that she should not fall for the brooding Heathcliff:

Tell her what Heathcliff is: an unreclaimed creature, without refinement, without cultivation; an arid wilderness of furze and whinstone. I’d as soon put that little canary into the park on a winter’s day, as recommend you to bestow your heart on him! It is deplorable ignorance of his character, child, and nothing else, which makes that dream enter your head. Pray, don’t imagine that he conceals depths of benevolence and affection beneath a stern exterior! He’s not a rough diamond — a pearl-containing oyster of a rustic: he’s a fierce, pitiless, wolfish man. (Wuthering Heights, Chapter 10)

Now that’s a description. How many images popped in your head as you read that? Could you feel Catherine’s emotion? Did you not only understand Heathcliff’s character but get a glimpse into Catherine’s and Isabella’s at the same time? I’ll bet that you’ll recall this passage tomorrow — but you won’t remember the very dry article on investment banking that you read while scrolling through your LinkedIn timeline this morning.

Romantic literature is criticized for being dramatic, but there is power in its drama. If modern copywriters can match this level lyricism in their storytelling, making readers stop in their tracks and reread the line for its sheer beauty and emotional impact, then those ads will probably get more clicks, and those ebooks more downloads.

With the right language, you can do it all in that same 10-second window you’re already preparing content for. Because it’s not just about having your content heard, it’s about making it sing.