Unflinching Stories: A Copywriter’s Account of Turning Her Life Into Clickbait

Do you keep a journal? If so, you probably find it both easy and rewarding—even occasionally cathartic.

Now imagine taking your daily, off-the-cuff disclosures, and making them intriguing and relatable to 70 million monthly visitors. That’s the skill of a 21st century personal essayist. And MarketSmiths has several in our midst. Today, we put the spotlight on one we’re especially proud of.

Elizabeth Laura Nelson, a copywriter in her fourth year with MarketSmiths, is the newest columnist at SheSaid. A single mom riding a glorious roller coaster of a life, she also writes for xoJane, YourTango, and Elite Daily. Elizabeth’s topics are personal, jagged, and unflinching, and include first-person accounts of rape, domestic abuse, and even homelessness. I interviewed her over Memorial Day weekend.

Relationships, Motherhood, and Being Pretty 

Jean Tang: I’m awed by the vulnerability of your pieces. You take a copy assignment from us and blow it out of the water. Then, you go somewhere else, put on your Batsuit, and write about being raped, getting out of a toxic relationship, and becoming homeless (twice). What does it feel like to create these?

Elizabeth Nelson: Draining! The writing process transports me straight back to the situation, and it’s often an unhappy place. Sometimes I wonder why I do it to myself! But then I think how it helps other people feel less alone.

They say you should write from your scars, not your wounds, and I don’t always abide by that. Sometimes I’m still processing it, making sense of what happened.

JT: I can tell. When I read one of your pieces, I can often still feel tension, as if it lacks resolution–just a bit.

EN: It’s a business: trading words for money (as you know all too well!). When it’s a personal essay, rather than a copywriting assignment, the lines get fuzzy. But when you’re asked to pitch six ideas a week and turn them around quickly, you don’t have a lot of time to think about whether you should or shouldn’t.

Sometimes I pitch an idea, then think, ‘Oh shit, why did I pitch this? This is terrible! I don’t want to write this at all!’ The piece I wrote recently, about being pretty, was like that. It put me in a funk for days. But then it turned out to really hit a nerve with readers. People said I was brave to write it. I thought I was just stating the obvious. I didn’t realize how vulnerable I’d feel once it was up.

JT: You’ve made your personal story arc incredibly public. Tell me about your writing arc. What have you learned—and how are your first pieces different from your most recent?

EN: I really labored over my first few published essays. Take this one, in xoJane, about my dad. I stayed up all night working on it and the next day, came down with the worst cold. I couldn’t shake it; I was sick for a month. It’s still one of my favorite pieces, but I’ve since stopped pulling all nighters to write.

I’m a little more businesslike these days, too. I make sure the fee and my effort are proportionate, and stay mindful that I’m building a persona and shaping a career. Also, I know that ‘done’ is better than ‘perfect.’ Reminding myself of that actually compels me to put pen to paper vs. being stuck with paralysis. As a result, my writing is better. In order to do any work at all, you just have to dive in.

JT: There are so many writers—copywriters included—that will nod their heads about what you just said. But what about voice? Do you have to consciously transition into writing copy, or vice versa?

EN: I’m a big extrovert, so just sitting still to focus on any piece can be challenging. After a few hours, I get lonely and cranky.

My acting background helps me get into character. Sometimes, I’m writing as myself; other times, I’m writing in the voice of a copy client. It keeps things interesting.

JT: How do you turn a title into clickbait?

EN: That’s a favorite topic, for sure. I’ve found it helps to set aside the actual writing and make the title into a game. You think, what would make me want to follow that link? And you look at the site’s readership, SEO, etc.

This has resulted in headlines like: It Happened To Me: I Let My Rapist Come Back the Next Day and 5 Reasons Being a Single Mom is WAY Better Than Being a Married Mom. Do I really think it’s better to be a single mom than a married mom? Of course not. That headline doesn’t encompass the entirety of my human experience. But who says it has to? Ultimately, it’s about getting people to read your work.

JT: What have been some highlights of being a memoirist?

It’s hard to beat the first time I got published. I didn’t expect to hear back, and then my piece got accepted (to the late, great Hip Mama ). I jumped for joy for five whole minutes.

Another big moment was meeting Jane Pratt at an xoJane staff meeting. I devoured Sassy as a teenager and just idolized her. Still do.

Beyond that, I get to work with a wonderful editorial team at SheSaid, where I feel unusually nurtured and appreciated. I love my editor at Elite Daily. She came over from xoJane, and is the first person who ever published me online.

JT: Do your girls read your pieces? If so, do you worry about how your personal struggles might impact them?

EN: My 10-year-old isn’t interested, but my 14-year-old sometimes is. She has a good barometer for what she wants to read or skip.

I even run things by her before I write, like the story about being a single mom. A lot of times, I ask her to proof my work, even my copywriting. She’s a gifted writer with a sharp eye.

I put a lot of very personal stuff out there, so I do worry about the effect that will have on people close to me, especially my kids. I’ve had a few sticks and stones thrown by commentators and cyber bullies. I always remind myself that I’m not saying anything weird. We’re all human. Everyone struggles with relationships, family dynamics, and self-image. I’m not ashamed of anything I’ve written about, and I will keep doing this until the day I can’t write anymore. If spilling my guts on the internet helps someone feel less alone, it’s worth it.

A champion of high-end content, Jean is a living tribute to copywriting for humans. In 2012, at a TEDx talk, she declared her now widely viewed “War Against Bland.” The visionary founder of MarketSmiths, Jean leads her growing team to captivate, inspire, and motivate readers. She has helped thousands of global clients generate revenue from words (up to 12,000% ROI), and transformed the writing of hundreds of seminar attendees at the SXSW Interactive Festival (2014 and 2015), SXSW V2V (2014), the Small Business Summit (2014, NYC), and other venues.

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