A new favourite author

Something great happened this weekend. I read a wonderful book. It’s called Stardust and was written by Neil Gaiman.

It’s a fairy tale for grown ups. Think about that for a second. Think about the effect that fairy tales had on you as a child. They opened up new and magical worlds in your imagination. Filled them with wonderful, weird, brave, loyal, scary or cunning characters. Fairy tales took you on a journey. They left you scared and anxious in the deep dark woods. They made you smile and feel smart if you worked out the riddles. They transported you out of reality for a while and lingered like the memory of a warm summer day when you eventually had to return to real life.

That’s a pretty rare and special experience for a grown up. So thank you Mr Gaiman. And I’m sorry I didn’t get round to reading your work sooner.

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Aristotle the blogger

In one of those curious and convoluted connections that I love so much in the world of the web, I’ve seen two references to Ancient Greek wisdom this week.

Copyblogger.com (one of my regular feeds) presents Aristotle’s Top 3 Tips for Effective Blogging. Tips which work for all types of writing.

And then, in an article about the importance of the ending to the overall experience of a movie, there’s a quote from screenwriter Jan Sardi, who says, “It’s a principle that comes from Aristotle’s Poetics: that the challenge for any screenwriter or dramatist is to surprise the audience with the inevitability of everything that happens. There should be only one way a story can end. The ending is written in the beginning.” [Thanks to Kathy Sierra of Creating Passionate Users who provided the original link.]

I’m going to try and apply some of Aristotle’s common sense advice to my next marketing job. But these connections also reminded me of learning Latin at school and encountering the beautiful poetry of Homer’s Iliad for the first time. I think it’s time for a re-read. For someone who loves the music of language, my poetry intake is pretty much confined to clever lyrics.

In the meantime, is it just coincidence when diverse sources use the same references at similar times? Or are they just smart people?

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Editing a long sentence to make it easier to understand

In my job as a copywriter, I often encounter very long and unwieldy sentences, particularly when my clients are trying to cram as many product features into as small a space as possible. It’s my job to unpick the seams of these sentences and suggest alternatives which are easier to understand and which you can actually read out loud without the need for oxygen!

These lengthy statements often fall into a pattern which I’ve called “Venn diagram style”. If a product or service does all these things AND all these other things, clients often place the product in the middle of the copy.

So for example, I might be presented with the following sentence:

“Designed to help you communicate with your customers, reach new audiences and sell your services more efficiently, Product X can open up new markets, boost your sales and retain customer loyalty to your business.” [NB This is a made-up example].

Fair enough, it’s not impossible to wade through and understand the message, but it does look a bit unwieldy and I’m all for simplicity when it comes to copy.

A simple way to unpack the Venn diagram style is to separate the ideas into two or more sentences.

For example:
“Product X is designed to help you communicate with your customers, reach new audiences and sell your services more efficiently. Product X can open up new markets, boost your sales and retain customer loyalty to your business. ”

Or the slightly more elegant:
“Product X is designed to help you communicate with your customers, reach new audiences and sell your services more efficiently. As well as helping you to open up new markets, Product X can boost your sales and retain customer loyalty to your business.”

Of course, I often have to persuade my clients that packing all their super-duper features into one sentence is not necessarily the best way to get the message across. Sometimes less is more. More effective. More eyecatching. It has more impact.

But when the clients absolutely insist that everything’s got to be in there somewhere, unpacking the Venn diagram is a useful tool.

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New compound words

This week I was asked to look over some copy that included the word ‘webinar’ and it almost caused a physical twitch. I’m guessing the writer used it as a shorter way of saying web-based seminar.

But it started me thinking about my attitude to compound words in general. You see I didn’t like ‘blog’ or ‘podcast’ the first time I heard them either.

‘Blog’ sounds like what it is – a made up word, a contraction of web log and it just felt clumsy in my mouth. I objected to podcast initially because I felt it was inaccurate. You didn’t have to own an iPod to listen to one.

Needless to say I’ve overcome my first reactions and have adopted and use both terms. But it’s going to take some serious persuasion to get me to use ‘webinar’.

Nancy Friedman picks a word of the week on her Away with words blog. Last week it was upycling which I like and this week it's crowdsourcing – which I'm a bit undecided about. As a matter of personal preference, I recognise it's a purely subjective judgement. They're fun to collect though!

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