Archive | copy writing

Why creativity is important in writing for business

Painting of peacock and peahen by Gail Armstrong

Peacock and peahen by Gail Armstrong

During the creative writing workshop I hosted in June, I set a free-writing exercise using animals as a prompt. Gail, an artist who creates paintings and drawings of people and places around the North East, wrote about a peacock.

The idea took such a hold that she returned to it as part of her own free-writing practice. As an artist, she was able to visualise her words and draw the beautiful picture of the peacock protecting a peahen that I’ve used to illustrate this blog post. You can see more of Gail’s work on her website.

I hadn’t planned to use that particular exercise in that workshop, but conversations around the table in Beth’s cabin sparked the idea and I felt confident enough to go ‘off script’ and try it.

Creativity inspires creativity. Look at the world of professional creative art. You’ll hear music inspired by books and poems; paintings inspired by music; dance inspired by stories; sculpture inspired by movement. Creativity inspires.

Why creativity is important in writing for business

For all that’s so impersonal about the word ‘business’, business is essentially about people interacting with other people.

From the simplest of individual transactions (“I want that. I’ll pay you for it”), to more complex and subtle negotiation (“I want to be part of that. I’ll give some of my personal data in return”), business is about the exchange of goods, services and ideas between people.

Writing is a creative pursuit. In a world of business, it’s easy to lose sight of that in the midst of targets, focus groups, measurements and ROI. But I hope that in writing for business I never have lost the motivation and desire to be creative.

Connect with readers through empathy

tango dancersWhen Robert Frost wrote: “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader,” he was talking about the power of poetry to connect writer and reader through empathy and shared experience.

In business writing I say: “Boredom in the writer, boredom in the reader.” If I don’t find something interesting in what I write, why should you read it?

It’s up to me as a business writer to find something that excites, intrigues, delights or concerns me and to use that as a means of connecting with readers, customers, audiences.

All business thrives on creativity. Audience, targets, focus and goals are all important, but playing, trying new things, looking for inspiration outside the world of business is vital too.

Looking for creative inspiration?

If you’re looking for inspiration and time to write, join me for my next writing workshop in Northumberland. We’ll enjoy an environment that nurtures creativity. I’ll give you some prompts and time to explore your own writing. And you’ll be fuelled with tea, cake and lunch to keep your inspiration flowing.

Find out more and book your place.

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Copying Jane Austen – how other writers help you find your brand voice

Copy of Pride and Prejudice with the opening lines copied into a notebook

Trying to sound like Jane Austen

It is a truth universally acknowledged that, when thinking and writing about novelist Jane Austen, this writer will inevitably adopt aspects of her tone of voice and writing style. What may not be quite so well known is that copying another writer’s words is an excellent way of adopting their tone of voice, that may, in turn, assist you in finding your own voice for your business brand.

In copying those famous opening words from Pride and Prejudice, I was actually demonstrating a top tip that has helped me and other copywriters adopt a new tone of voice for different business clients.

Find a piece of writing that’s a good example of the brand voice you want to adopt.

Copy it out word for word.

It will help you to write in a similar style.

It sounds rather simple doesn’t it? But honestly, it works. And it’s not just me that thinks so. I’ve seen this tip crop up in a number of copywriting resources, most recently in this podcast of 50 copywriting tips from Radix communications.

Why does it work?

I’d love someone to do some proper scientific research on this, but I like to imagine my brain firing off signals as I write. As I  copy a different style, it fires off those neurons in different patterns or intensities and in different directions, helping me to make new connections and discover ‘oh, I do it like this.’

As children we learn to talk through mimicry. Imitating the sounds we hear, we eventually learn to speak. So, it makes sense (to me anyway) that we can and do learn to write in a similar way. We start out copying letters, then words and sentences, and eventually develop the skills to make them say what we want them to.

Copying the words of another writer mimics how we first learned to write and understand language, through imitation. I like to think that it puts my brain into ‘learning’ mode.

How this helps you find a brand voice for a business

If you’re looking to express who you are and what you do in a new and distinctive way, then finding a style of writing that you think sounds right for you and copying it is a good place to start. It could be the style of a publication that you admire, a book, an advert, a letter from another company – but I encourage you to search out things you like to help you get started.

There is a leap from copying and imitating to making a voice your own. It involves more in-depth analysis of what the writing does, how it does it and why. But once you’ve found it, you should be able to work out the rules. If you’ve got the right voice, they’ll feel natural.

It’s also important to test your new style. Do your customers like it? Does it do what it needs to communicate what your business does?  Does it truly reflect your values and ethos? Are you confident you can apply it to all aspects of your verbal brand, from website to tweets, corporate report to customer email?

Why I’m thinking of Jane Austen

Rebecca Vaughan stars as 13 heroines from Jane Austen’s novels.

Rebecca Vaughan stars as 13 heroines from Jane Austen’s novels.

Jane Austen wrote mainly novels and letters, but with her precise turn of phrase, I like to think she’d have been a natural on Twitter.

She’s on my mind at the moment as this month marks 200 years since she died. To have created characters that are so familiar and stories that are still read, enjoyed and endlessly adapted so long after you have gone is a wonderful legacy for a writer.

On Sunday evening, I’m looking forward to seeing some of Jane Austen’s characters brought to life on stage at The Customs House as part of the Write Festival 2017 in South Tyneside.  The critically-acclaimed Austen’s Women sees writer and performer Rebecca Vaughan become Emma Woodhouse, Mrs Norris, Miss Bates and other characters from Austen’s novels.

I shall no doubt smile as I recognise their words, and if, on Monday morning, I’m sounding a bit Lizzie Bennet, I do hope that you’ll forgive me.

For fun, try this quiz:
Which Jane Austen heroine are you?

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Exercise your writing muscle – train to be a better writer

Use your writing muscle - writer wearing a hoodie, holding pen and note-book

Like physical training, your writing can benefit from exercise. Just like challenging your body, heart and lungs to take on new challenges, you can improve your writing by focusing on your writing practice and trying new things. Here’s how I exercise my writing muscle and keep myself in top writing shape.

Make time for writing

I swim, cycle and run so that I can take part in triathlons. I do weight training to keep me strong and in good shape for my sport too. Yes, it is sometimes hard to fit in physical training. But I know that if I don’t put the effort into consistent training, I’m unlikely to reach my potential, and I risk injury. Training challenges me, and I enjoy it. So I make time for it.

I make time for writing too. Not just as part of my daily routine, which involves creating content for my writing clients. I make time to explore writing outside of my work commitments too.

Time to try new writing challenges. Time to write with no expectations or judgement. Time to play around and enjoy it.

Time for writing can be a regular 20 minutes free-writing to warm up my writing muscles for the day. Or, it can be more intense and concentrated, in the form of a workshop or writing retreat with Dark Angels, or a training event from 26 Characters.

Become a better writer by reading

Most writers start out mimicking their heroes. I did. Somewhere in a box in the attic, there’s an exercise book filled with a story about a girl who runs off on horseback in the dead of night, in the style of C.S Lewis. Reading was how I first learnt the elements of stories, about heroes and conflicts, about character, place and action.

It may seem like a long path to go from writing fantasy tales to writing marketing materials for businesses. But business writing has its heroes with their obstacles to overcome too. It’s just a matter of seeking them out. Call that my daily quest.

Writing stories of my own taught me about structure – about the importance of beginnings, middles and endings. These are important elements in business writing too.

You need a strong headline to catch attention. You need to draw people in, take them on a journey. And then at the end, you need to persuade them to take action.

Become a better writer by analysing technique

While studying English Literature and Language at Leeds University, one of my tutors used to set us the task of writing essays in the style of the writers we were studying – Philip Sidney, John Milton, Alexander Pope.

This was very different from modern writing, but in mimicking the rhetoric, structure, and language of different writers, I learned to appreciate the craft of their writing even more. That meant I could write about it from a position of understanding.

Using metaphor, drawing on all the senses, writing from another person’s point of view, choosing a potent word – these are all techniques I have learned through studying language and literature. And they serve me well as a writer for business today.

Become a better writer by finding your voice

As a writer, the ability to adapt my writing to different styles is a very useful skill. It helps me sound like the brand or company I’m writing for. And I can still do a decent impression of Jane Austen or Charles Dickens, should you need that kind of thing.

But to be authentic, it’s not enough to mimic someone else’s style.  You have to develop your own.

While a brand and business may borrow and adopt words and language from its own industry and environment, as a tone of voice consultant, I advise them to look for the things that make them different.

Just as in speaking, we all have our own individual, distinct and recognisable voices, it’s important to find your own voice when you write – whether that’s writing for business or writing for yourself. It’s what makes you different, unique and memorable.

To exercise your writing muscle and improve your writing

  1. Make time for writing

  2. Make time for reading

  3. Try on different voices and see what fits

  4. Use what you’ve learned and make it your own

For more tips to help you improve your writing, sign up to my mailing list.

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Why use a copywriter for your business?

Most of us can write. Most of us can explain our business, what we do, what we offer, what’s brilliant about it. So why would you hire a copywriter, like me, to write for your business?

Knowledge and experience

Do you need a business website, an advert, a blog post, a flyer, a report, a bid document, a video, a case-study, a speech, or some social media posts?

microphoneA copywriter knows what style of writing works best for different media.

For example, my first job was working with BBC Radio, so I understand the difference between writing things that will be spoken, and things that will be read.

I  can adapt my writing style for print from a detailed business report to a snappy postcard or flyer. I can write SEO friendly content that helps customers find your website, product or service in the vast world of the internet.

A fresh perspective

You’re the expert in your business. But sometimes it’s possible to get a little too close to be able to see things clearly.

spanner, hammer, nail and screwDo you talk the language of your customers? Are you trying to sell a drop-forged, chrome-coated,open-ended spanner, when your customer is looking for a tool to loosen off a nut?

A copywriter will ask questions, find out about you and your business and get to know your customers too.

As a writer, I can explain things clearly, and write about your business in a way that your customers understand and engage with.

Stand out from the crowd

How many other businesses do something similar to yours? How do you attract attention, and make yours the company that customers choose?

A copywriter can help generate creative ideas, and approaches as well as choosing specific words and phrases that can set you apart from the rest.

Quality focus

glasses and notebookHow often do you find yourself in the middle of something, when your phone rings, or someone asks you a question, or an email pops up to distract you?

If you ask me to write something for you, I promise you my full attention. I’ll be 100% focused on writing quality words for your business, with no spelling or grammar howlers.

I’m used to working to deadlines, and getting to know a subject quickly, so whether you need some attention grabbing words in the next month, week or even day, then there’s a good chance I can help you.

Get it done

Hiring a freelance copywriter means you can have writing when you need it, not just when you can get round to it.

Sometimes you know what you want to say, but scribbling it down or typing it out just isn’t your priority. So that blog post, brochure, or website update never sees the light of day and never drives any customers your way.

A quick conversation with a copywriter will set that right. A professional will be able to write it more quickly than you can.

Lee and Beth at The Christmas Farm are really busy growing organic fruit and vegetables and looking after the animals that provide the meat and produce for their organic box scheme. They love sharing recipes and ideas for eating seasonal and local food with their customers, but don’t always have time. I help them out by writing newsletters and adding blog posts and recipes to their website.

Trust an expert

Working with a copywriter is just like working with any other professional who can help your business. It’s a bit like working with an accountant. While you could do the sums and spreadheets yourself, isn’t it reassuring to know there’s someone who understands all the ins and outs of tax and finances; someone who can save you a lot of hassle and money?

A copywriter, like me, can do that. I understand the rules and tricks of writing. I can advise you on the best approach. And I can write for your business, leaving you to focus on the nuts and bolts, or hammers and spanners.

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Setting goals

I believe you can set goals at any time. It doesn’t have to be a significant day or moment to start to change things or to resolve to do something differently from how you’ve done it before. And yet, traditionally this is a time of year when we set ourselves resolutions, goals and aims.

Photo of the start of a triathlon

Like many, I’ll be making an effort to be more active after the festive break and a bit more mindful of what I eat. But really my focus in 2016 is more about using my creative and writing skills to help businesses enjoy a more successful future.

That means spreading the word about Word Struck and the services I offer. I’m here to help you express what it is that makes your business special, and to help you tell customers about your products and services. I’ll be reaching out and connecting to as many people as I can to find out how I can help you.

I’m already very thankful to businesses like Swallow Barn Weddings at Masson Farm and The Christmas Farm who have trusted me to write content for their websites. And I’m really excited to connect with new businesses and find out what your goals and aims are for the coming year and beyond.

When I set myself a goal to get fitter and healthier in 2008, I don’t remember the specific day of the week that I started, but I do know that since then I’ve done things I never thought possible – like running a half marathon, or completing several triathlons.

The beginning of a year, a month or a week feels like a good time to start things, but that doesn’t mean you can’t do something special for your business on a random Tuesday, Thursday or any other day.

So, if you’re looking for help to talk about your business and want someone to write emails, newsletters, blog posts, social media updates or something else, then please get in touch.

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Brief encounters

The brief. The starting point of the conversation between client, creative and customer.

“I don’t understand it”
“It contradicts itself”
“There’s too much information”
“There’s not enough to work with.”
These are all things I’ve heard, said or thought myself about the briefs I’ve encountered on creative and writing projects.

Hardly the start of a great relationship – one that promises a meeting of minds, sparks imaginations, encourages creativity, and collaboration.

Group of people sitting round a table and writing on flipcharts

Writing the perfect brief.

And it seems I’m not alone. I was in London today for the first in a series of workshops being offered by writer’s organisation 26, under the title 26 Trade Secrets. Today’s session at the Free Word Centre in Farringdon was “Setting up Projects for success.”  A chance to look closely at briefs, learn how to turn bad ones into good ones and what to do with them when you get them.

We started exposing the nightmares. The poor briefs. The confused. The sketchy. The ‘says one thing but really means something completely different.’ Around the room we all had similar stories.

A poor brief can become a source of conflict, a sort of battle map, drawing up the lines between them and us. Hardly the best start for a constructive relationship. And yet no client deliberately sets out to write a poor brief.

I go back to my clients, ask questions, challenge preconceptions. I worry that sometimes, to a client, it must seem like I’m asking so many questions, I don’t actually want the work. But really it’s about finding the truth of what I’m being asked to write about.

As a writer, it’s always good to be able to step into someone else’s shoes. So recently I’ve been trying on the role of client as I work to improve the briefs that we ask them to complete.

And it’s really hard to write a good brief. I used an example for a product campaign I’m very familiar with, and still found it tricky to identify what should go in each section, how much or how little information to include and how best to explain it, without lazily copying and pasting from some commercial document. And that’s my job – to simplify, condense an explain things in simple terms.

As I also learned, those who write the briefs may not always have training or advice on how to complete them. Or the necessary background information to complete them. No wonder it can be a fraught process.

Today, as we broke down and built our perfect brief, there was much discussion about what it should include. But the one thing that stood out for me was clarity. Clear purpose and clear communication.

And that requires clear thinking. How much time do you allow to create, interrogate and confirm a brief? Is it something delegated to a junior team member, a form to be filled in and passed to the creative team to decipher?

Or is it not so much a battle plan, as a campaign objective? Something you think about, consider and discuss with the people who need to sign it off?

Rather than complaining about bad briefs, I’m going to continue questioning, considering and looking for ways to help my clients to help me by writing better ones in the spirit of producing more effective and clearer communications. I hope to return to this subject in future blogs

What are your tips for writing a great brief?

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Exercising the writing muscles – how I train as a writer

I’ve been doing a lot of physical activity recently, running, cycling and swimming in preparation for a triathlon in a few weeks’ time. It’s tricky sometimes fitting it all in around my working hours. But I enjoy it, and so I make time for it.

Making time to write

Cyclist on Newcastle's Quayside

Cycling along Newcastle’s quayside

I believe writing’s a form of exercise too. You get better as you practice, learn new skills, gain confidence, or just a better understanding of what works and what doesn’t.

So I make time for writing too. Time to explore writing outside of work commitments. Time to try new things and to just enjoy writing for what it is – an important part of being me.

Learning by imitating

Most writers start out mimicking their heroes. I know I did. Somewhere in a box in the attic, there’s an exercise book filled with adventure stories in the style of C.S Lewis and tales of knights on horseback, battling dragons.

Reading was how I first learnt the elements of stories, about heroes and conflicts, quests and returns. Writing my own taught me about structure – beginnings, middles and endings.

Gathering skills

I learned techniques, hints and tips to bring my writing to life in English lessons. Using all the senses, and the power of metaphor and simile, and more about structure, rhythm and making words dance through poetry. They are techniques that serve me well as a business writer and copywriter.

At University one of my tutors used to set tasks to write essays in the style of the works we were studying – Philip Sidney, John Milton, Alexander Pope. That may sound like a cruel and unusual form of undergraduate torture. But in mimicking the rhetoric, or manipulating my thoughts into rhyming couplets, I became even more conscious of the skill and technique of the writers, and I understood their work at a deeper, more personal level. Of the hundreds of essays I wrote in my University terms, those are the only ones I remember.

Adopting voices

As a copywriter, the ability to adapt my writing to different styles is a very useful skill. It helps me sound like the brand or company I’m writing for.

But to make it sound authentic, it’s not really enough just to mimic. I believe you have to be able to add something of yourself. And in analysing the work of literary writers, I’ve learned to spot styles and forms that I can adopt and adapt in more commercial and contemporary writing.

How writing is like exercise

Running, cycling and swimming all take discipline and commitment if you want to improve. The same is true of writing.

Just as you don’t know how far or fast you can go until you really try, you’ll never realise your writing potential on a blank page – sometimes you just have to fill it.

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The mind seeks meaning

Meaning. It’s something our minds instinctively reach out for. I was reminded of this whilst listening to some music as I worked on a piece of writing last week. The lyrics of a familiar song took on a new resonance, because of what I was writing about, and I discovered a meaning in them that I hadn’t noticed before.

As human beings we are supremely adept at recognising patterns and seeking out connections. I once took part in a writing exercise that demonstrates this beautifully.

Basho's house, Japan

The home of Japanese haiku writer, Basho

As a group, we were each asked to write a haiku – a Japanese verse form of three lines, made up of five, seven and five syllables. We wrote the last line separately from the first two, then mixed them up and paired them at random to form a new haiku.

You might think the results would be meaningless. But it was amazing how often the last line, although written by someone thinking of an entirely different subject, fitted perfectly and how it drew out new themes from the ones that preceeded it. That was a result of our minds creating connections, seeking out meaning.

Of course, in business writing, you don’t want to make a customer have to work as hard as we did with our haiku to discover the message you’re trying to convey.

Straight, clear, simple and direct is the best way to ensure attention from busy eyes surrounded by thousands of messages every day. Yet there still needs to be space for the reader to get involved and create meaning for themselves.

I use an example in my writing workshops of a message that, in trying to tell you what a complex product does, actually blurs any kind of understanding, because it bombards you with a paragraph of over 40 words. It ends up being empty verbage, and so difficult to read that people get stuck half way through and have to go back to the beginning to try and make any sense of it.

In its over exuberance, trying to tell you everything you ever needed to know in one go, it loses connection with its audience. It’s not helped by the fact that it’s a single sentence full of meaningful sounding, but intangible words like flexibility, stability and strategic.

Connecting with an audience, is often about helping them make the mental leap to think ‘that applies to me’. Using tangible terms really helps. So, for example, showing how something could “help you work just as well in the office as out of it”, rather than using an intangible word like ‘flexibility’, can really help your readers understand what it would be like to use the product or service.

If, as a writer, I can make someone think ‘yes, that’s just like me…’  or ‘I’d like that…’, then I’ve caught their attention and they’re more likely to carry on reading to discover more.

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A smile in the mind

Celandine. The word pops into my head as I cycle past a clutch of small yellow flowers in the undergrowth beside a familiar track.

A small yellow flower with 9 petals

Lesser celandine

My brain has plucked a rarely used word from the depths of my memory. A word from I know from Flower Fairy books and trips to the park with my Nanna, who seemed to know the name of every plant and tree there was. I roll it round in my mouth and say it out loud. It sounds like springtime.

When I look it up later, I discover that celandines are associated with the return of the swallows and that the lesser version with its heart shaped leaves was much loved by Wordsworth.

It’s an uncommon word. In my business writing I’m on the watch out for these. Usually they are pieces of  jargon or commercial terms that just don’t sound like something our customers would use in their everyday conversation. So I have to find an alternative, a different way of explaining the idea I want to convey using clear and natural terms.

But, as I was reminded recently, clear doesn’t mean the same as mundane. I believe that sometimes, even in business writing, it’s good to have a word that surprises you.

In my writing workshops, I often ask people for their favourite word. Some choose a word like ‘holiday’, which is popular by association; others choose words which sound great or feel nice in your mouth when you say them, like ‘murmur’ or ‘hullaballoo’. One thing they all have in common is that they naturally smile as they say them.

An unexpected word can be a delight. While I think it unlikely I’ll find a place for ‘celandine’ in the next marketing email that I write, I’ll continue to look for opportunities to use words like it that put a smile in your mind.

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Finding the joy of business writing

I gave blood yesterday. There’s sometimes a bit of a wait, so I grabbed a book to pass the time. Having finished my most recent fictional treat, I picked one off my desk – Room 121 by John Simmons and Jamie Jauncey.

The front cover proclaims it “a masterclass in writing and communication in business”. I say it’s a really good read.

It takes the form of a dialogue, a conversation between the two writers, sharing their thoughts, wisdom and experience of writing for many different kinds of business. And having spent many wonderful hours in their company on a couple of Dark Angels writing courses, I can hear John and Jamie’s voices in my head as I read it.

I opened it at random to find John speaking to Jamie about the joy of writing (page 119 if you’re interested). As a copywriter for a large company, it’s sometimes something hard for me to find. It’s a challenge to keep things fresh when you’re covering the same subjects or writing about the same products over a sustained period of time.

But I find ways. Sometimes I take a sideways approach, starting a draft in a deliberately different style, or with a word chosen at random from a nearby book. Or I begin the assault on the blank page by free writing, just spending 15 minutes or so taking my pen for a walk, writing non stop, banishing the inner editor and seeing where it takes me. There’s usually a phrase or combination of words, a nugget that gives me a way in to the next, more focused draft.

Yesterday’s moment of joy came from using the word ‘palaver’ in a piece I was writing. Palaver – what a wonderful playful word. Doesn’t it just make you smile? Don’t you want to say it? To feel it tumble around your mouth?

It’s not a word you might expect to see in a piece of business writing. But it was a direct quote from a customer, a fish and chip shop owner describing the experience of using his software saying: “There’s no faff. There’s no palaver.” Perfect. Real words. Authentic, natural and robust language. They gave me a small moment of joy. I reckon we need more of that in business writing.

Read more from John Simmons and Jamie Jauncey on their blogs.

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