Archive | reading

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

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The worlds within books

“A book is a world full of words where you live for a while.” Patrick Ness, More Than This

I was talking to someone recently about my time at university and half-jokingly remarked that during my 3 years studying, I only lived part time in the 20th Century.

Picture of a quote "A book is a world made of words, where you live for a while."I discovered a love of medieval literature and stories even older than that from Beowulf to the Pearl poet. My favourite lectures, tutorials and studies were based on old works – Chaucer, Spenser, Sidney, Milton.

These days I’m more contemporary in my reading but I still love that feeling of walking another landscape, sampling another culture or stepping into another experience that I get through reading both fact and fiction.

Last week’s charity challenge of walking 10,000 steps per day gave me some appreciation of the time and effort it takes women and girls in the developing world to fetch water for their families. But arguably books and stories take me even further.

I’ve been to Botswana with Alexander McCall Smith and Mma Ramotswe; eaten in the best places in San Francisco with Amy Tan and even been into space with Commander Chris Hadfield.

I’ve time travelled to Victorian London with Dickens and to Regency period Bath with Jane Austen. I’ve walked the streets of Ankh Morpork; survived a shipwreck on an alien planet where men can hear each others thoughts, and travelled beyond Wall into Faerie (and made it back again). Books take me places I could never go.

I will never know what it means to be a black woman transplanted from Nigeria to the USA; to have my hair chemically relaxed, or tightly braided in a salon. I’ll never experience racism in all its different shades and colours. But, thanks to the book I’m currently reading, ‘Americanah’ by Chimananda Ngozi Adiche, I know about these experiences. And through reading I’ve seen the world through another person’s eyes.

I am grateful to books for all the worlds they allow me to live in for a while.

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My reads of 2015

I always think I have too little time for reading, but this year I’ve really made an effort to make time for more books as well as blog posts and articles. I’ve fallen back into the good habit of always carrying a book in my bag, whether digital or paper, and enjoy escaping into some good reads. Here’s a small selection of my favourites from 2015.

Selection of books

The Shepherd’s Crown – Terry Pratchett

I’ve enjoyed reading this author’s work since I was 16 years old, so starting this book was a bittersweet experience, knowing there wouldn’t be another. Although widely known for his Discworld novels for grown ups, Pratchett’s work for younger readers is to my mind, some of his very best, so it was fitting that Tiffany Aching, his young witch should be the protagonist of his last book.

The sense of loss, coloured by the events of the first couple of chapters, is both beautiful and sad. I wanted to know what happened and at the same time never wanted the story to end.

I Let You Go – Claire Macintosh

I met Claire by chance at a BBC Women in Radio event before this book was published, and remember being hugely excited by the idea of this former police officer writing a crime thriller. I was delighted when it became a success, and I saw it at bookshops all over the place from railway stations to airports.

I often find thrillers to be formulaic or and dislike the  modern tendency to focus on something deliberately shocking. Claire’s novel draws on her background, so presents itself as very realistic, drawing you in through some well realised characters. There’s a sense of mystery, and something being just out of joint from the first page, and even when it comes, the twist is a clever surprise that makes you challenge what you’ve already read.

A Monster Calls – Patrick Ness

I’ve actually read two Patrick Ness novels this year, this one, and his most recent publication The Rest of Us Just Live Here. Both books proving that Young Adult fiction at its best is just as suitable for us older adults too.

A Monster Calls, is a gut-wrenching story of a boy coming to terms with loss, framed in the fantasy of a night time monster. The twist being that this boy isn’t afraid of the monster who breaks into his room and turns his world upside down. With an opening chapter that defies you not to read on, Patrick Ness is a master storyteller. Having recently seen him at Seven Stories, he’s just as charming, funny and self-deprecating in person.

An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth – Chris Hadfield

The astronaut who brought us “Space Oddity’ from the International Space Station and who has done perhaps more than any other traveller to take us all with us on his amazing journey tells a series of compelling stories in this book. Not content with just relating the incredible hard work and fair portion of good luck that it took to actually become an astronaut, Chris Hadfield offers observations on life from the perspective of a man who has seen earth from space.

Plenty for the space and science experts to enjoy, without getting bogged down in technical detail – that is what Chris Hadfield does so well. A natural communicator and storyteller with an out of this world story to tell.

Here to Listen – Toni Stuart

My final choice isn’t actually a book, but I hope it could be one day. Here to Listen is a collection of poetry being written and published online by Toni Stuart. I heard Toni perform with Jacob Sam-La Rose at the 2014 Wordstock event and follow her on twitter. For Here to Listen, she invites people to share a story or a question, or whatever they choose to, while she listens in silence, and responds once they’ve left with a poem.

It’s a simple and stunning idea. The poems break through the clutter of instant communication, forcing a stop to the dash of the everyday through a glimpse into another life. As someone coming to appreciate the value of listening and really being listened to, I love this collection of work and hope it finds a wider audience.

I’ve read a more electronic books than physical paper ones this year. The convenience of being able to dip into a story when I have a few minutes spare and the instant availability of something new to read, make it easy. In all I reckon I’ve read 51 books this year, some have been re-reads of old favourites, but most have been new to me and I reckon I can make at least 52 or one a week before the end of the year.

I’m still reading wildly and have a small pile of suggested titles to work through, but I welcome your suggestions for things I should read in 2016.

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Reading wildly

One of the sessions I attended at Wordstock last week was to hear Andy Miller speak about his year of reading dangerously. Picking up and actually finishing books he’d once claimed to read but hadn’t. Books that people consider difficult to read. Books like Moby Dick and Anna Karenina.

There was lots that struck me in his empassioned presentation, but one that chimed true is what he said about the books we have read recently. How they are limited, and for a large part, chosen for us.

Bookshelf full of classics

If you still have a bookshop, the fiction section is largely dominated by the top ten hardback or paperback titles, pushed forward by the major publishing companies. Unless it’s a very large, independent or particularly quirky place, there’s little space for anything outside the popular in all genres and the well known classics. And so, those of us who read, get a narrowing choice of the new, and we all pick up “We need to talk about Kevin” or “Wolf Hall’.

Ah, and there’s the other thing that Andy spoke about. If you start a book, you should finish it. And I haven’t finished Wolf Hall. It isn’t very often that I fail to finish a book, but Wolf Hall I put aside after giving it a really good try, with that standard excuse of “Life’s too short to read something I’m not enjoying.”

And yet where would I be if I hadn’t persisted with difficult books? As a student, I toughed it out through the Faerie Queene, various medieval texts and far more impenetrable stuff. I stuck with Dickens Our Mutual Friend, which, quite frankly, really takes some time to get going, but does pay off.

The Japanese have a word for a pile of books waiting to be read – it’s Tsundoku.  I’ve managed to keep mine manageable this year, by virtue of not acquiring new books, until I’ve read the ones I already have. I currently have four in waiting, including two non-fiction titles, but I’m prepared to put them to one side a little longer to take up a challenge to read outside my usual range. To finish books I’ve started, to read some older stuff I may have missed.

I am starting with John Buchan’s 39 Steps, which I don’t expect to be a difficult read, but I prepared to be challenged. This is a rich time for my reading list, with a birthday and Christmas approaching. So I’m asking you to recommend some titles and until the end of January, I’ll read a little more dangerously.

 

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A sense of community

Writing is often perceived as a solitary occupation, and there are times when all I need is my notebook and a pen. Having worked as a journalist in radio and TV newsrooms, writing copy for the next bulletin against the background of on air broadcasts, telephones ringing and a dozen conversations going on at once, for me, even peace and quiet is optional. Although I do prefer it if I have thinking to do.

But recently I’ve been reflecting on communities and how the different ones I belong to all inspire my writing.

Running

I’m part of the running and triathlon community in the North East of England and beyond. Through doing parkrun, races and by being a member of a very friendly online running site, I can pretty much guarantee that if I turn up at a local race, I’ll see someone I know.

I started to write about local races as a way of recording my own progress, or to remember a particular feature of a race, such as leg-sapping sand or a steep hill, for the next time. So it’s lovely when I get comments from other runners who read my race reports and say they’ve helped them.

Running also brought me back to personal writing after a long break away from it.  I believe my professional writing is richer for it.

Fiona Thompson reading on a train at the luanch of 26 Under A Northern Sky

Fiona Thompson reading on a train at the luanch of 26 Under A Northern Sky

Writing

I’ve felt more part of a writing community since joining 26. The regular newsletters, articles and suggestions for books to read or things to see are a great source of inspiration. As too are the opportunities to get involved in 26 creative writing projects.

I jumped in first as a writer, contributing a piece for 26 Characters as part of a magical exhibition at the Story Museum in Oxford. Then more recently, I co-edited 26 Under A Northern Sky with Sandy Wilkie and got the opportunity to work with other amazing writers to launch a collection of creative writing inspired by a train journey from Newcastle to Glasgow and the music of Nick Drake.

I’m delighted that this project is currently taking on a life of its own, beyond my editorial influence, as writers are recording their pieces and adding them to an online soundscape.

Reading

cover of Leaves by John Simmons

Leaves by John Simmons – my current read

Community is also a theme in John Simmons’ beautiful debut novel, ‘Leaves’ – my current reading material. It’s set on one street in London in the 1970s. The characters observed and imagined by the narrator looking back at events in his life.

I have only just started reading, and admit, I’m trying to ration my time among the pages, as I have a flight and airport time coming up and I know the inhabitants of Ophelia Street will be welcome company.

John has been posting a daily extract from the book on Twitter, which is a delightful tease. Each sentence seems to offer a short story in itself, but has left me wanting to read more. It merits a slow, careful reading to savour every word.

Here’s a taster from the first chapter:

“In January, we used to say, you saw Ophelia Street in its natural colours. Wintergrey hung like a fog; window boxes lay dormant.”

If you want to read on, you can follow John on Twitter @JNSim #Leaves

Living

Finally there’s my real community. The place where I live. Within five minutes walk from my front door, I can be among a range of small businesses, from coffee and gift shops, to restaurants, guest houses, food outlets, and an art gallery.

I enjoy a browse and a chance to talk to the people behind these largely independent and local businesses. They provide great resources, for me, not just in the goods that I buy and the contribution they make to the local economy, but also as inspiration for my business writing.

In seeking to de-bunk the jargon of business software, I often think to myself, ‘How would I explain this to the lady that runs the deli?’  Or ‘How would this help in the chocolate shop?’

I may not know the detailed ins and outs of their businesses, but keeping the people of my local business community in mind grounds what I write in reality. And that helps what I write about business sound authentic and human.

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A trip to the Edinburgh festival 2012

Living statues at Edinburgh Festival

Performers taking a break from the festival

Another weekend filled with sights, sounds and sensations. Pipes and fiddles, clogs and choirs, Edwardian style magicians with mutton chops to outdo Bradley Wiggins, a flutter of silk kimono and fans, a madame de pompadour living statue taking a break and enjoying a glass of wine with a man with a seagull on his head. Only at the Edinburgh Festival.

I took the early train north, settled in to enjoy my book and the scenery and arrived in plenty of time for a fast and friendly parkrun. It was a glorious morning on the prom, bright, sunny and barely a breath of wind.  I set off with a couple of running pals but soon dropped back to a more measured pace.

When we turned, the bright morning sun hit my face and the heat rose, turning the air hot and dry and set me longing for the shade of the trees at the end of the run. Still I pushed on and reeled in as best I could and when I could finally see the finish line I put the hammer down and sprinted for it. Bright red and breathless, my exertions got me noticed.

After coffee and scones at the nearby cafe, I walked into the main part of the city to drink in the madness that is the festival.

The Royal Mile was a mad, glorious confusion of noise and bustle, singing, dancing, music and acrobatics as performers gave tasters of their shows and passed on flyers in a bid to attract the public. I spent a good hour people and performer watching, just soaking up the sunshine, smiling and enjoying the entertainment.

The fresh-faced students seemed so bold, so confident, so full of life. There was a group from Redditch in the Midlands dressed in the kind of clothes I associate with the cotton mills of Lancashire. Their boisterous singing and enthusiasm as an ensemble on stage caught my ears and I stayed to see their show taster which was about the needle-making industry.

Young boys playing cello and fiddles on the street

Boy band – Edinburgh festival style

They sang like they meant every word, stamped their feet and drew in the crowds, then stepped off the stage and challenged us face to face and just inches away to listen to their tale of hard work, long hours and short life expectancy.

Too much to see and wish to do and not enough time to fit it all in. But I tasted a little of everything and enjoyed wandering without plan and picking up bits and pieces of performances as I wandered by until hunger drove me in search of lunch and a well-earned sit down.

One day, I would love to spend a week at the festival, enjoying a great mix of comedy, theatre and music and more.

The only event I did have tickets for was a talk by Simon Callow about his book on Dickens and the theatre as part of the Book Festival. By the time I got to Charlotte Square, I was glad to escape some of the hustle and bustle and to slow down the pace among the reading crowds, browse the bookshop and fall into conversation with another lady waiting to see the same show.

Callow is a huge Dickens fan and so passionate, knowledgeable and enthusiastic about his subject that I think the interviewer only had to ask him one question and he talked for 15 minutes. I learned a lot about this writer that I didn’t know, particularly about his love for the theatre, his career as an actor/director and bad playwright. He had a wonderful way of referring to himself as ‘the bottled lightning’.

Olympic rings on the Mound in Edinburgh

Olympic celebrations in Edinburgh

And then it was time to go. To saunter back through the city, soaking up the last snatches of festival fun. As the train passed through the outskirts of my home town,  I managed to get a mobile signal and watch as Mo Farah brought home his second gold medal.

I’d forgotten to take my headphones, so had the volume turned right down, but around me in the train carriage, people sensed I was watching something special and by the end, three of us were crowded round the little screen with me yelling ‘Go on Mo!’ and punching the air as he crossed the line.

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