THE WRITING DESK | STACEY CORNELIUS | no-nonsense marketeer

by | The Writing Desk

Great writing is alive. It has a voice.


Thank you so much for agreeing to be a part of The Writing Desk Blog.

Now, imagine I’m about to introduce you to an auditorium, filled with the smiling faces of folks fuelled by caffeine and an eagerness to learn. What would I say?

“Hello everyone, I’d like to introduce…

Stacey Cornelius

I work with small creative and progressive businesses to create marketing strategies that are true to their values and voice. I specialize in web copy, social media, and lead workshops for people who want to take full ownership of their marketing. I’ve also been known to do an occasional WordPress website revamp.

Here’s the part where we’d sit down and try and look comfortable next to the microphones. Are you sitting comfortably? Then let’s begin…

Can you name the business book that’s always on your desk? (I’m talking about the one that’s covered in pencil marks, coffee stains and has turned down corners…)

One of my top picks is This I Know by veteran Canadian ad man Terry O’Reilly. Technically it’s not a “business” book, but the stories of creativity in marketing, taken from his long-running radio show and podcast, are brilliant.

What’s your all-time favourite advertising campaign?

There was a TV campaign in Canada in the mid-1908s for Fiberglas Pink insulation. The actors (who aren’t actually actors) are deadpan and hilarious. 

The president of Fiberglas Pink presented the ad agency with a big challenge: “I sell the most boring product in the world. People buy it once in their lives, stick it between the walls and forget about it. Make me famous.”

The agency had to come up with the product’s big benefit, and they got it. The ads would show what people could do with the money they saved on their heating bills — like filling their tiny lawn with 262 plastic pink flamingos. 

You can find videos on YouTube. The campaign, in my opinion, is as fresh today as it was when it hit the airwaves. 

“Everyone has a book in them…” Or so the saying goes. What do you think/know/believe is the secret to good writing?

Great writing is alive. It has a voice. The spaces between the words are important. The secret is to find the right balance. Ditch the jargon and especially the fluff, but don’t wring it dry by trying for “clarity”. 

Good writing is about being true to your voice (or your client’s voice) and telling a compelling story.

As an aside, when I see something like a blog post written entirely in one-sentence paragraphs, I want to throw my laptop out the window. Kills the cadence.

If you were just starting out, what advice would you give yourself? Which book or books would you read first?

You don’t need a university degree to be a good writer. You need to read. You need to learn how to listen deeply. 

And don’t get caught up in comparisons. 

A couple of books I’d suggest are Woe Is I by Patricia T. O’Conner, which makes grammar almost entertaining, and Made to Stick by Chip Heath and Dan Heath. Made to Stick isn’t a book about writing. It’s about ideas and attention — knowledge every marketing pro needs in their toolkit.

Silence? Radio? Or music while you work?

Sometimes radio, and sometimes I’ll open up to get café sounds. In the Before Times, I’d spend a few hours a week at my local library. A change of scenery can do wonders for the writing brain.  

What are your top three novels of all time – and why?

My all-time favourite novel is Green Grass, Running Water by Thomas King. King’s blending of real-life stories and characters from Indigenous myth and pop culture are at once moving and brilliantly funny. Coyote “helps” with narration, and Lone Ranger, Ishmael, Robinson Crusoe, and Hawkeye make an appearance — but are not who they seem. The novel is a delight.

Next isn’t a novel, but a writer: Miriam Toews. Among her books are A Complicated Kindness, All My Puny Sorrows, and Women Talking. Toews is a descendant of the original Mennonite settlers in Manitoba, Canada. She writes about that culture and its impacts on her contemporary female characters.

I also have a fondness for swords and sorcery. World-building is a remarkable skill. So just about anything by Steven Brust, who created a wisecracking character named Vlad Taltos who’s the protagonist in a series of fast-paced fantasy/caper novels. Brust has another series featuring some of the characters who occupy Vlad’s world in the tone and style of Alexandre Dumas’s The Three Musketeers.

What’s the best thing you’ve ever written? Why did it rock your world?

The thing that comes to mind isn’t a professional project. It was a scathing, cathartic, never-to-be-sent letter of resignation I wrote for a friend. 

The letter was in the voice of Maryann, a character from the 1990s TV sitcom Cybill, that starred Cybill Shepherd. Maryann was Cybill’s best friend, played by the inimitable Christine Baranski. 

My friend was leaving a toxic workplace where I’d also worked. I wrote the letter as a bit of an exorcism. She absolutely loved it, and it was easily my best work in terms of nailing a voice (and taking down a bad boss).

I think that popped into my head partly because of the freedom of a no-holds-barred piece of writing. That doesn’t happen in the professional writing world. It was fun. Which is not to say I didn’t work at it. I easily put as much effort into that letter as any paid project. 

But what made it so memorable was how it showed so clearly the power of words to tear someone down, or to build them up. It all depends on how you use them.

Based on that experience, I highly recommend writing an epic piece to work through life’s toughest moments — and then set it on fire afterward. 

What’s the last thing you bought? And yes, that packet of chewing gum counts.

Groceries. But I made sure to include some really good chocolate. Well, as good as you can get at a grocery store.

Who was your teenage crush? 

Oh, good grief, let me think… Luke Skywalker. I switched to Han Solo later on.

Can you describe the best meal you’ve ever eaten?

Avocado sushi and veggie tempura takeout from the restaurant where I once received news that threw my life off a cliff. It took several years before I could even think about eating it again, never mind going near that restaurant. It was a delicious way to reclaim my power.

What’s your favourite tipple? Is it wine, beer – a cask-aged malt?

I don’t really drink, but on those rare occasions, it‘s single malt scotch. I first sampled it when I spent a semester at the Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design in Scotland, working toward my BFA. I took a trip to Inverness to see Loch Ness (as one does). The man who ran the tour discovered I was Canadian and insisted we visit friends of his who’d moved to Scotland from Canada, and who worked at the local distillery. I was an instant convert.

If I were to give you a private jet, David Attenborough as a tour guide and a month off work – all expenses paid – where would you go and what or who would you write about – and why?

I would love to go back to Scotland for a proper tour (and hit the rest of the UK so you and I can meet up for tea).

But I’d also love to go to Patagonia. I spend as much time outdoors as I can, so Patagonia is an easy choice. To visit that spectacular landscape in person would be the thrill of a lifetime. 

I’m not sure I could write there, to be honest. What could I possibly add to such an extraordinary place? I’m not sure. I’d have to be there to know if words would come, or if I’d have to wait until I returned home to process the experience. 

What’s in your pockets?

A grocery list, which is kind of unusual. I usually forget the blasted thing at home. Otherwise, my phone and not much else. Working remotely means my pockets don’t need to carry much.

Pen and ink, pencil and paper or keyboard and screen? What’s your writing style?

Pencil and paper! I love the tactile experience. I get into my head way too easily when I’m at a keyboard (and not answering a set of fun and provocative questions).

Do you read any blogs or magazines about writing? (And I mean read, not just subscribe to and delete/leave on your desk and recycle?)

I tend to skim blogs. There are only so many ways to talk about writing, so really, there’s a lot of repetition, at least in the how-to blogs. I have exactly one paper magazine subscription which is about visual art. 

I do enjoy Harry’s Marketing Examples newsletter and read the whole thing when it hits my inbox. 

Tea – or coffee? What’s your poison?

French roast decaf. I know. It’s not “real” coffee, but still. I love a flavour strong enough to take the wax off your car, but if I get into caffeine, I shake for eight solid hours.

Do you have a favourite cup or mug? Can you describe it?

I have a beautiful hand-painted turquoise and orange mug with a fox on it, made by Nova Scotia artist Debra Kuzyk. It was partial payment for an in-person session I did to help set up an online shop.

What was your most adored children’s book? And character?

Go Dog, Go! I still have it on my bookshelf. I don’t really have a favourite character from that, although I spent many happy hours staring at the party tree.

A very close second is a version of Cinderella created by Alan Suddon. It’s written in English and French and the illustrations are fanciful collages. I still have that one, too.

Your favourite word?

Lunch. Well, that’s more of a concept, isn’t it. 

Music. For the sound of the word and all it evokes.

Your most loathed word? (You know, the one that makes you shudder and say “Ew!”?)

Finger. There’s something about the NG in the middle that just makes me cringe. It’s not like progressive tense and its “ing” ending, or part of a lovely word like sing. I don’t know. It’s… gah.

Where can we find you? – Browsing online or lost in the aisles of a bookstore?

Bookstore, definitely. I love books as objects. (I’ve made my own handbound books as well.) The sensory experience is so much richer than anything on a screen could ever be. The feel, scent, and sound of pages — it’s heavenly. 

I also remember things better when I’m writing in cursive or reading on paper.

Favourite song lyric of all time? And why?

Oh my, there are so many great songs, I don’t have a single favourite. 

Here’s a good one: 

I went back to bed this morning
And as I’m pulling down the blind
Yeah, the sky was dull, and hypothetical
And falling one cloud at a time

It’s from a song by The Tragically Hip called Bobcaygeon (which is a place 90 minutes northeast of Toronto). 

While this lyric looks like a love song, Bobcaygeon is about racism.

The core of the story is referenced in lyrics I haven’t quoted here. In 1933, a Swastika appeared at a baseball game in Toronto where a largely Jewish team was playing. A riot ensued, which lasted for hours. 

There’s heartache in the song as well as the melody, which I find hauntingly beautiful.

The Hip was a huge rock band in Canada in their heyday. They did a final tour in 2016 after their lead singer, Gord Downey, was diagnosed with brain cancer. Their last date was in Kingston, Ontario, where they got their start, and broadcast on CBC television nationwide. Bobcaygeon is a huge fan favourite.

Name the artist who is guaranteed to get you up on the dance floor.

Earth, Wind & Fire! “Shining Star”, “September”, “Sing A Song”. Just try to sit still, I double-dog dare you.

Do you have any strange writing rituals you’d like to share with us?

The closest thing I have to a strange ritual is the ability to write in places other than my desk, especially places where one would think it would be difficult to concentrate on writing.

(I once wrote a sex scene for a fiction work-in-progress while on a very small plane flying from Corner Brook to St. John’s, Newfoundland. That was a bit strange. I hadn’t intended to write that particular scene, and I have no earthly idea where it came from. I was there to teach marketing workshops for the provincial Craft Council. You did say “strange”.) 

What are you working on today? What’s in the pipeline?

Today, in addition to some social content for a client, I’m working on my website, which has been sadly neglected due to the ongoing demands of paid work. Re-working blog posts, refining my services, and putting a social promo calendar in place for myself for a change. 

Can you describe the last photograph you took?

That would be my hastily-tidied desk. Which you can see somewhere on this page.

What piece of advice really changed you as a writer?

It wasn’t exactly advice, but it was pivotal. My ninth-grade English teacher was checking an in-class assignment and she said, in a somewhat disapproving tone, “Brief, but to the point.”

I didn’t know what copywriting was at that age, but I knew I was onto something. And to this day wordy, bureaucratic communications nearly makes me break out in hives.

What was the last thing you wrote that had nothing to do with your job?

I answered a few questions via email for the Executive Director of a children’s choice book award about an upcoming festival of reading. I was in that role for a couple of years. When I left for other work late last year, they asked me to join the board. 

What’s your favourite quote about the process of writing?

It’s a quote by Kurt Vonnegut. “When I used to teach creative writing, I would tell the students to make their characters want something right away—even if it’s only a glass of water.”

It doesn’t just apply to fiction, of course. Copywriters need to understand the wants — which are more compelling than needs — of their audience.

Needs don’t necessarily get people to take action. Wants are something else entirely.

Who is your favourite Mad Man – or Woman?

Confession: I didn’t watch Mad Men. I have a funny habit of not watching things that are wildly popular, Ted Lasso being a notable exception. While most people were watching Mad Men, I was watching Community. There was some brilliant writing on that underappreciated show.

Can you name your favourite film – and tell us why you love it?

I have a hard time picking favourites, but one near the top of the list is Hot Fuzz. It’s completely absurd — a great way to decompress or just have a good laugh. 

The way Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg bring the gags full circle is brilliant. Writing comedy is not an easy task. I appreciate anyone who can do it well.

Which book or books is/are by your bed today?

The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel Van Der Kolk

The Way of Integrity by Martha Beck

The Coaching Habit by Michael Bungay Stanier

The Inner Sky by Steven Forrest.

Who was or is your greatest teacher?

My fifth grade teacher, Jean Davies. She saw something in me, which was an entirely new experience in my young life, and encouraged me to be the best I could be. 

Who is your favorite artist?

Swiss artist Paul Klee, who taught at the Bauhaus.

Klee’s musicality spoke to me as soon as I discovered his work. I learned later he was a musician as well as a visual artist. There’s a textile-ish quality about his style which resonated as well (my BFA is in Textiles, with a minor in Art History). 

Where do you like to work best – is it at a desk, in an office or in a coffee shop? And would you send us a picture of where the magic happens?

It varies, depending on the task. And sometimes it’s more of a when than where. Sometimes I need to work late in the evening, when it feels like the rest of the world is asleep. 

As for where, I created a desk from my former craft show booth (I designed and made jewellery for several years), where I can sit on a bar-height chair or stand up to work. 

And finally, where can this caffeine-fuelled audience find you?

The best places to find me are here: 

Twitter: @staceycornelius

Written By Katherine

Katherine Wildman is a copywriter for creative agencies and multinational brands – and the Creative Director of Haydn Grey.

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