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Finding your writing voice and what that means

Finding your writing voice and what that means

A lot of writing advice talks about ‘finding your voice’. But what does that mean?

We all have a unique ‘physical’ voice. The tone, accent and language you use are formed from a unique mixture of your background and education; where you’ve lived and worked; who you’ve associated with, who you admire and whose customs you adopt.

Speaking vs writing

Studies have shown that we start to recognise human voices in the womb. In the early stages of human evolution, being able to distinguish whether someone was friend or foe in the dark, would have been an important survival trait.

In contrast, writing is something we’re taught to do. It’s a skill we have to learn and it doesn’t come as naturally as speaking. So our writing voice is more likely to be influenced by education, and what we’re taught about writing.

And that’s where there’s can be a disconnect between our speaking and writing voices. In being taught to write, we assimilate all these ‘rules’ about grammar, spelling and punctuation. And they can sometimes get in the way, making us fearful of making a mistake when we write.

What happens when we write?

I’ve seen it more times than I care to remember in business communications. When someone picks up a pen or taps their fingers on a keyboard, their ‘voice’ changes. It becomes more formal. It looks for clever sounding phrases. It adopts things it’s seen written elsewhere in a bid to sound professional.

Man in a suit tightening his tieThat’s how you end up with nonsense like “leveraging our partner ecosystem” and “assuring you of our best attention” (an email sign off that I used to see on a daily basis).

Say those phrases out loud. How do they feel?

That’s a tip I use in my business writing workshops.Read what you’ve written out loud. Ask yourself ‘Would I actually say that?

Read what you've written out loud. Ask yourself 'Would I actually say that?' Click To Tweet

If you have to mentally wrinkle up your nose, or adopt an unfamiliar tone to say it, then it’s not natural and authentic. And your audience, your customers will sense that.

Why our spoken and written voices differ

When we speak, our communication is spontaneous. We don’t use complete sentences. We get distracted. We intersperse our words with pauses, umms and errs that give us time to think.

When we speak, our body language, facial expressions and tone give clues to our meaning and intention. We understand if someone is being sarcastic, joking or being serious. Our spoken voice is full of our personality.

When we write, we don’t have these extra clues to illustrate our meaning. The words we use have to do all the work. So it’s important that they are clear.

But your written voice can represent your personality in the same way that your spoken voice does. Use words to paint a picture, tell a story, conjure up ideas in another person’s mind. Drop in a colloquial phrase or a favourite word. It’s all about being authentic.

Use words to paint a picture, tell a story, conjure up ideas in another person's mind. Click To Tweet

Finding a voice for my clients

Cup of coffeeIn writing for clients I have to adopt voices. It’s a bit like being a impressionist. I listen to them talk about their business. I read their written content carefully. I look for words and phrases they use and mimic their rhythm and style.

When I adopt a brand voice for a client, it’s often about dialling up or dialling down certain elements. One client has a lovely chatty tone of voice, so as I write for them, I imagine popping into their kitchen for a cuppa.

Another client is incredibly creative, bursting with ideas and enthusiasm. I throw in words that appeal to the senses and drop in a one-word sentence for impact.

How I help improve your writing voice

Sometimes my job is to give a client’s voice clarity. I edit out words that you don’t need, strip away the fluff and focus on what matters so that you present the best version of your business.

Sometimes my job is to give a client’s voice a confidence boost, so instead of words like ‘maybe, might, a bit’, I use words like ‘can, will and lots’.

singerOften my job is to give your communication clarity. That means structure and punctuation that makes it easy to read. It’s a bit like a singing coach showing you where to breathe when singing a complicated line.

When I correct grammar and spelling, it’s about avoiding distractions, and preventing you from looking stupid. Think of me as the friend who’ll tell you that you have spinach in your teeth, or your dress tucked into your knickers before you head out to impress someone.

Think of me as the friend who'll tell you that you have spinach in your teeth Click To Tweet

As a copy and content writer, I choose my words carefully. The trick is to keep my client’s voice, but give it a tidy up. Just like you might brush your hair more carefully and put on a clean shirt for an important meeting.

The voice I use in these blog posts is mine. A unique mixture of my background, education, influences and interests. You may not be able to detect my accent, but my writing voice is authentically mine.

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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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The word is on the street – how to find writing inspiration

Words always catch my eye. There are family tales of me reading the sauce bottle at the dinner table, and the cornflake packet at breakfast. Maybe even then I was developing the skills that serve me well as a copywriter.

Having an eye and an ear for words is a good thing for a writer, as it means I’m never short of inspiration. I often find words and phrases in unexpected places when I’m out and about.

Words that make you laugh

Sign saying: sweet dreams are made of cheese

Sign outside my local deli

My local deli is a great place to find tasty local food, try new things and find a friendly welcome. It does have an amazing cheese selection. But how much more did I love it when I saw this on their blackboard? A little humour and an earworm to make me smile for the rest of the day.

Words that make you think

Ordinary people build worlds within worlds, ordinary people make a good life out of living

You can find metal discs engraved with words all along a walkway besides the Manchester ship canal. Some tell the story of the effort, industry and history that formed the industrial and social landscape of the city. Others, like this one, are more reflective and invite you to make your own sense of their meaning.

I love the thought and care that went into creating something that many will simply walk over.

Words that lead you to new experiences


I love this quote, first discovered on a canvas book bag at the Edinburgh Book Festival. It absolutely captures how I feel about a good book and it’s by a brilliant writer Patrick Ness, who I discovered after picking this up.

I’m not great at taking photos. Even with a phone with a pretty decent camera in my pocket, I forget. Even though I know images are great for engaging blog posts and social media, I still fall back on that old familiar technology of seeing, feeling and remembering sights, sounds, experiences.

But I will snap words and phrases that catch my eye. Words that make me laugh. Words that make me think. Words that spark ideas.

Words that inspire your writing

words at the Hartley Pit memorial
Last summer I took part in a creative writing project with a theme of walking in the landscape. The project identified 26 short walks in the UK going from a place name beginning with each letter of the alphabet to a place starting with the next letter in sequence (e.g. Boarhills to Crail) and asked writers to walk the route and write exactly 62 words about their experience.

The route I chose went from North Shields to Old Hartley, and in researching it, I visited nearby New Hartley, where I found these words. They feature in the memorial garden commemorating over 200 men and boys who lost their lives in the 1862 Hester Pit disaster.

Read my piece inspired by local history on the 26 Steps website.

What words will you discover?

What words will you spark your imagination as you’re out and about this summer? Once you get your eye in, you’ll be amazed at what you find.

I’d love to hear your stories of finding words and phrases in usual places. Tweet your photos to @I_am_wordstruck #wordonthestreet and I’ll send a Wordstruck notebook out for my favourite.

Looking for more writing inspiration?

Join me for a day of creative writing at Christmas Farm in Northumberland on Saturday 23 September.

Together we’ll banish the banish the blank page, put pen to paper without everyday distractions and enjoy a delicious home-grown lunch with produce from the farm.

Book your place today.

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Would your customers recognise your business if it called?

Would your customers recognise your business if it called?What you say about your business and how you say it, is an essential part of your brand. Get your tone of voice right and customers easily recognise your business. Get it wrong and your message may never connect.

To show you what I mean, let me take you back in time…

As a child, I didn’t like answering the phone in my parent’s house. People would call and say “It’s me,” and I’d have no idea who they were.

This was back in the days when phones had handsets and dials or buttons, but certainly no screens, and answering machines were something you’d only find in the office. I was embarrassed and a bit nervous when I didn’t recognise who was calling and would ‘forget’ to take a message.

Now, imagine if that was a business call. Okay, these days technology makes it easier to identify who is on the line and most people would introduce themselves. But if you’re unfamiliar with a business, if you don’t recognise their name, or their voice, wouldn’t you be more cautious about dealing with them, until you establish a relationship?

I didn’t recognise the voices of my parents’ friends because I didn’t hear them as often as my parents did. Yet I could identify any DJ who hosted a show on my favourite radio station with only a few words. We become familiar with voices we know well. But new voices take a while to tune into.

Helping a business find its tone of voice

I’m working with a really exciting new client at the moment, helping to develop a tone of voice that will make their business stand out.

It involves a lot of listening. Not only am I getting to know the specifics of their industry and what they do, but I’m also getting to know them as people. What is it about this business that makes it different from others who make or deliver similar products and services?

Tuning into personality and values

I can hear they have bags of enthusiasm and tonnes of knowledge. They really have to be experts in lots of different areas to provide a great service to their customers.

They are incredibly creative and immensely resourceful. They get up early and stay up late, going the extra mile without even thinking about it. They really care about what they do and want to get to know their customers so that they can offer the right advice.

My challenge is to reflect all that. To put all those values and their personality into concise words that will appeal to their customers.

As I do that, I’ll also be thinking about how I do it, and developing guidelines that will help them maintain their brand voice throughout all their communications.

It takes a bit of time to ‘tune in’, to find something that a business is comfortable with and that will work for them. Developing a tone of voice for a business combines a mix of creative and analytical skills and it’s a process that I really enjoy.

Speaking about tone of voice for business

Inspire Network Northumberland meeting 18 July
I’ll be talking more about tone of voice and why it matters in business at The Inspire Network meeting in Bedlington on 18 July. Find out more and sign up to come along.

This is a ladies only networking event, but I offer training, presentations and advice to anyone interested. If you’d like an expert business writer to speak at one of your events or want to discuss  your writing training needs, please get in touch.

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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.

If you’re looking to build your physical muscles, Mass Gain Source offers these essential body building tips for beginners.

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Dove Cottage – creative writing inspired by place and objects

Did you know that writer William Wordsworth born on this day in 1770? It’s a date that’s lodged in my mind as it links to a creative project that I was part of, linked to the poet and his Lake District home of Dove Cottage.

I was one of 26 writers who took part in in a creative writing project inspired by postcodes. The letter and number combinations identified a place that we used as inspiration to write a piece of 62 words exactly – a form known as a sestude.

Dove Cottage, Grasmere

Dove cottage

My postcode was for Dove Cottage in Grasmere – home to the famous poet William Wordsworth and his family from 1799 to 1808.

I immediately felt lucky to have such a place rich in writing history from which to draw inspiration, but also a little daunted. Although I knew of Wordworth’s work, and had studied some of his poetry, he wasn’t one of my favourites. I dismissed him as a bit safe and chocolate boxy.

But I was very wrong, as I learned when I visited the house and the exhibition space that now sits alongside it. Wordsworth was a great walker and adventurer. He visited France during the Revolution and had a relationship and a daughter there. His poetry reflects changing social and political landscapes, and together with his sister Dorothy and his family, they were a real part of the small community they lived in.

Taking inspiration from objects

I visited Dove Cottage on a bright, sunny day, perfect for the tourists that now flock there. In the museum and the house, I was fascinated by the objects that would have been familiar to Wordsworth and his family.

The page of Dorothy’s diary, open at the day they saw the daffodils, that inspired his most often quoted poem, shows how important her records are in shaping Wordsworth’s work.

Pens, a writing desk, a small suitcase – these told the story of a man who once travelled, but came to settle and write in this place.

And, displayed in a glass case, was the rich velvet coat he wore when he was presented to Queen Victoria as poet laureate. In all likelihood, the most expensive piece of clothing he ever wore. I imagined him feeling rather uncomfortable in it, being more at home in the tough boots that carried him miles in walks over the hills.

From scribbled words to published piece

I drank in so much information among the exhibits, and then went and sat, in the garden behind the house and wrote a  few words in my notebook.

Notebook and 26 Postcodes pamphletAfter many further scribblings and through many more pages of words,  I eventually condensed my thoughts down to the 62 that make up my sestude. It was  was published online and in a beautiful little pamplet along with other pieces that reflect places as diverse as Seamus Heaney’s football club to the Heinz factory.

Looking back, I can trace every thought and idea in those 62 words to my time at Dove Cottage.

“To introduce Wordsworth into one’s library is like letting a bear into a tulip garden,” said Thomas de Quincey. The quote illustrated on one of the displays made me smile, and painted a picture of a robust, and vigorous man, with a passion for books. It also gave me that key word ‘library’ – a good one to use in relation to a writer.

The coat appears, as does Dorothy’s diary, and the garden path that I took at the back of the house. And seeing the house in its context, I wanted to reflect a sense of the landscape that inspired the writer and me, with its distinctive fells and lakes. That gave me a structure for my poem.

I still have the notebook. The first words I wrote were: hill, lake, hearth, home. They remain in my finished sestude, as a tribute to the power of place to inspire. Here it is:

Your library, these rising hills

Your reflections, these sun-dappled lakes

Your muse, these dancing golden flowers

Your wistful words, whispers of valley voices

Your fine court coat, the mossy earth

Your eyes and ears, a sister’s diary

Your heart, the swaying sycamore green

Your wanderings stilled by slate paths

Your poetry etched by nature.

 

Hill, lake, earth, stone

Pen, ink, hearth, home.

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Networking as an introvert

As part of developing my writing and training business with Wordstruck, I’ve been networking. But here’s the thing. I’m an introvert. I’ve done umpteen of those personality tests during my time working in corporate environments, and I’m always firmly in the introvert camp. And networking doesn’t come easy to an introvert.

It sometimes surprises people that I’m an introvert. As a journalist, I presented news stories live on radio and television. I’ve fronted pitches for creative campaigns. And, as my friends know, I’m not averse to a bit of showing off.

picture of a crowd at a gigBut being an introvert doesn’t mean disliking people and wanting to retreat from the world completely. It just means that situations like crowds, with lots of people, noise and other distractions really drain my energy.

Basically, I love a great gig, but going onto the after show party might be a step too far. I’d rather find a quiet corner to write down how amazing it was, or tell you all about it one to one.

Networking can be a scary prospect for introverts. The thought of a room full of extroverts who are loud, full of energy and sell, sell, sell. Why would you want to be part of that?

But this blog post by Denise of Digital Life Unlimited is a useful reminder of why it’s important to get out there and network person to person face to face. So, I thought I’d share how I’ve approached networking as an introvert.

Pick your event

I’ve been to two network breakfasts run by the Mussel Club at Motel One in Newcastle. These are great events for me, because they’re early (when I’m feeling my sharpest) and they’re specifically designed for businesses who want to network.

I was a bit daunted by going along to my first one, but I zipped up my courage, broke out my best smile on and trotted off with a pile of business cards.

Get there early

I hate being late for things anyway. But being early is a good tactic for introverts because it means the networking event isn’t noisy and crowded from the start. If the thought of ploughing into a room full of people all engaged in a conversation gives you the heebie-jeebies, plan to arrive a few minutes early.

I was greeted by Matthew from the Mussel Club, who immediately put me at ease, showing me where I could leave my coat and get a drink and a pastry at the bar. He also started to ask questions, ‘What brought me there?’ ‘Had I been to one of these events before’. And before I knew it, I was networking.

Questions to ask

Networking events are designed for networking. It’s okay to go over to a stranger and say hello and ask what they do, or why they’re there. Everyone is there for the same purpose.

I quickly learned a few easy questions that I could use to open up a conversation with someone new:

  • “What do you do?” (Pretend you’re a member of the Royal family)
  • “Have you been to one of these things before?” (Hello, I’m new, be nice to me)
  • “What brought you along today?” (I’m here for the same thing  – coffee and croissants are always a bonus)

What to say about your business

Wordstruck business cardsWhen someone approaches you and asks one of those questions, it’s an invitation to say something about your business . If you’re particularly nervous about doing this, then have something in mind and practise it a few times. I’d just written my website, so was fairly confident about being able to talk about my writing and training services.

One thing I did was to introduce myself as a writer, or to say something like: “When a business needs a website, or a brochure, or a blog post, or anything that tells their customers about what they do, I write the words for it.” Although my official job title used to be copywriter, it’s not a term that everyone recognises outside the world of marketing, so saying what I actually do is more helpful.

It’s not about an elevator pitch or selling anything. It’s just telling people what you do. Don’t forget to ask them what they do too. You might find something in common.

Listen

Introverts are generally good at listening. Unless we go into panic mode and blurt out our entire life history. At a networking event, you don’t have to be the one doing the talking. Smile, listen and chip in with a question or response.

Does the person you’re talking to have something in common with someone else you’ve spoken to? Can you make an introduction, or ask them to introduce you to someone else? This can be as simple as asking ‘Do you know anyone else here today?’

Give yourself some time

Meeting lots of new people can be a bit overwhelming for introverts, so take your time, and step back from conversations as they move on. You don’t want to be the wallflower, standing on the edges, not engaging with anyone; but finding an opportunity to have a drink, use the facilities or just take a breath or two can give you the confidence to keep on networking.

Also watch out for anyone else who may be looking a little lost or unsure. Say hello and ask one of your conversation opening questions. Chances are, you’ll have found a fellow introvert and they’ll appreciate the gesture.

Take some business cards

It’s not a great idea to thrust a card in everyone’s hand and head for the door. Networking is about having conversations.

At The Mussel Club events I’ve been to, I didn’t swap business cards with everyone I met, but if I felt we’d had a useful conversation, and if they offered theirs, I always asked and offered my details.

Follow up

The events I’ve been to combined well-seasoned networkers as well as newbies like me. As soon as I got home, I started to get emails and connections to my social media profiles from some of the people I’d talked to.

It’s a good idea to follow up after a networking event, even if it’s just to say ‘nice to meet you’. It helps remind people who you are and where you’ve met, potentially keeping you front of mind for recommendations or opportunities.

Give it a try

It only takes one connection to put you on track for a new customer or future client. And even if the networking event doesn’t immediately bring in business, it can be a good way of building confidence. I’ve found it good practice to talk about my business to lots of other business people.

I’ve met some friendly and professional business people at networking events, including the very lovely Clare of Talbot Jones Risk Solutions. Clare does a great job of writing content for their website, and articles for relevant publications, so they have no need of my writing skills. But we found something in common in our interest in charities and I’m benefitting from their advice on protecting my own business interests.

If you’re going to a networking event in the North East, let me know in the comments. If I can, I’ll do my best to say hello.

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The beauty of calligraphy

Calligraphy in a wedding guest book from creative-calligraphy.com
Words are all around us. You and I see thousands of them everyday – on the products we use; in shops, on transport, on street signs, posters, and on the screens we increasingly carry around in our pockets and bags.

How much attention do you pay to them? Do they fade into the mass of background chatter? What does it take for a word, or phrase to stop and make you take notice?

The art of calligraphy

I have a natural affinity with people who share a love for and an appreciation of words, so it was delightful to get to know Angela Reed of Creative Calligraphy when we caught up over a coffee and a chat last week. We had a lot in common, so it was a long chat.

Examples of calligraphy from creative-calligraphy.comAngela makes words look beautiful, by writing them in elegant, sweeping calligraphy. She often works on commissions for weddings or special events, times when words take on special significance.

On her website, Angela tells us that Calligraphy comes from the Greek kallos (beauty) and graphe (writing) and has been used through the ages to herald and record important events.

Weddings, birthdays, celebrations of achievement – these are all times when we are likely to pay more attention to words.

Whether it’s choosing a poem or a reading for a service, or expressing our feelings in a card, there’s a heightened sense of the significance of the words we share. So these occasions offer a perfect setting for Angela’s beautiful writing craft.

Words that make you stop and stare

As a writer, words are my tools, so I do my best to use them with care and consideration. But how many of us go through life consciously thinking about the words we use and hear every day?

Calligraphy nibs and holders from creative-calligraphy.comI increasingly type on a screen or touch a keyboard, but my preference for writing is always to start with a notebook and pen, or pencil.

There’s something about making physical marks on a page that seems to connect with my brain and my heart far more deeply than tapping keys with my finger tips.

My handwriting is often fast and functional, desperately trying to keep up with my brain. But sometimes it’s nice to slow it down and linger over a word or a phrase. To enjoy the movement of ink on paper, trying to capture something as fleeting and ephemeral as a thought.

Angela gave me a lovely gift of some antique nibs and holders. I’m itching to try them out. I’ve signed up to one of her workshops, to learn how to write words that look as stunning as they sound.

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Why we need spaces like The Word

Interior of The Word

At times it feels like all we ever hear about are cuts. Cuts to council budgets, cuts to healthcare spending, jobs cuts, arts cuts… So spending millions on a new library, arts and cultural space in South Shields not the richest or most affluent of places in the UK, feels like a bold move. Bold and optimistic, The Word, the National Centre for the written word takes its place in the landscape beside the mouth of the River Tyne, which has seen the changing tides of history from riches to poverty and back again, more times than anyone can count.

Library room with computers

At its heart is a library. But it’s so much more than that. It’s a space where old and new sit side by side; where you’ll find books and computers and table-sized interactive screens, large enough for a feast of information. Around the massive central spiral staircase, a light and airy space opens out, leading onto rooms for art, for design, for making things, for meetings, workshops, and of course, for reading.

The vision

At its opening, the council leader Iain Malcolm spoke with pride about a vision for a place where young people could keep pace with technological change, while appreciating the rich cultural history of South Tyneside. And the Chief Executive of The Arts Council England, Darren Henley spoke of creativity’s need for spaces for ideas, thought and debate.

That’s the justification for spending the money, I thought. Not that, as a writer, I need any convincing of the value of places like this. I feel it in a way that resonates more than the counting out of pounds and pence.

But should we have needed any proof of the possibilities, then local author Ann Cleves spoke personally about the importance of libraries in keeping her books being published, when she was a struggling writer. Now, the author of the Vera Stanhope and Shetland Island novels is at least partly responsible for a boost to the UK tourist industry as visitors come from China and the USA to see the locations where the popular television series, based on her books have been filmed.

Writer, Ann Cleves, speaking at the opening of The Word

Writer, Ann Cleves, speaking at the opening of The Word

The writer’s view

She told me: “It’s my ideal of a library. For years and years, I’ve been banging on about how libraries should be cultural spaces, in places where people don’t have access to the arts. Why not have a choir in a library? Why not have magnificent paintings and writer’s workshops? And in this place you have all that, besides the books as well.”

In stepping into The Word, on its official opening day, full of excited local schoolchildren chattering among the books, and being greeted by characters from Harry Potter, I was reminded of a story of aspiration told by a head teacher in a very different environment.

Life without aspirations

I was working as a journalist for BBC Radio Newcastle and had gone to a school in Benwell, a deprived area of Newcastle upon Tyne. Surrounded by an estate of brick and concrete, and flaked by tall spiked tailings, it was a bright spot of warmth and colour in an unexpected setting.

Pencil drawings of miners on easels

The head teacher spoke of the children there with great affection; about how a big part of the job of the school was to give them hopes and dreams and aspirations.

When you come from a family where no one works; when you live on a street where none of your neighbours work; where you don’t know anyone with a job, then coming to school and getting an education can seem a bit of a pointless task, she explained. Poverty, isn’t just about money, it’s about expectations, she said and described children arriving in the reception class, not knowing how to hold a book or turn the pages from right to left, because they’d never encountered one.

Like that school, The Word offers a vision of another future, one in which people can read, play, make things, and explore learning and creativity in many different forms. And yet, at the same time, this new space is firmly rooted in its past, in its history.

Stories are everywhere

As well as housing the impressive local history archives, around the walls of The Word you’ll find wooden story panels. Local writer, Michael Chaplin, well known for his television and theatre work, including Monarch of the Glen and several Live Theatre productions, has collected 20 true stories about epic voyages that begin or end in South Tyneside. The tales span 2,000 years, fro the Romans to the present day and touch on every continent on the globe. The idea is that you stumble upon them as they catch your eye, like pieces of flotsam and jetsam, washed up by the tide.

wooden letters Speaking to me about The Word taking its place alongside the river, he said: “It’s an expression of hope for the future. It’s an absolutely lovely building to be in and therefore it makes it the greater pleasure to come here and become acquainted with stories of all kinds and to broaden people’s experiences and to inspire them to write stories of their own. Hopefully some for publication, but I think it’s a great benefit just being an ‘ordinary citizen’ and creating stories of your own.”

We are all creatures of our environment, and I’m lucky enough that mine was full of libraries and creative spaces, trips to art galleries, museums and theatres. Today there is a new world of opportunities. The old industries of shipbuilding and coal mining have left the North East of England, but there are new jobs in a digital world, in the arts and creative industries, it just takes a bit of encouragement to see them as possibilities. The Word is a space that provides that encouragement.

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A gift behind door number six

As I mentioned last week, I’m very proud to have a piece of my creative writing featured as part of the 26 Children’s Winters exhibition at Edinburgh’s Museum of Childhood. Today’s the day it appears in the online advent calendar.

Picture of a nativity scene and poem at the 26 Children's Winters exhibition

Open up door number 6 and you can read my sestude inspired by a nativity scene. A sestude is simply a piece of writing, poetry or prose that’s 62 words exactly. It’s a condensed form, but I really enjoy the challenge of putting thoughts and themes into such a short piece. Making every word count makes each one the richer.

I was also asked to write the story behind the piece, how I was inspired by the object and what directions my thoughts took as I was writing. Even here I was restricted to just 100 words.

But constraints offer a freedom. Often with writing, the possibilities can become overwhelming. Prose or poem? Reality or fantasy? Voiced by a character or first person? Historical or contemporary? What kind of genre? Science fiction, murder mystery, fairy tale, gothic horror… The choices are endless, and that in itself can become a barrier to writing anything at all.

So constraints become a way in, offering a framework to start the writing process. The constraint may be to write about an object, as I did in my winter sestude, or to adopt a point of view. A constraint can be a word count, or a format, or starting with a specific letter of the alphabet. The key is to give the writer a starting point.

In my professional life, the constraints are to write for a specific audience, usually with a clear brief to share information or encourage them to consider a particular product or service. But even there I’ll have fun, trying out different forms of language.

If I’m looking for a headline I might try a heap of alliteration, putting word after word that starts with same letter together to find a pleasing combination.

Or if I think something is dull and cliched, something I’ve heard before, I might try writing it in the form of a poem, or a haiku.

The daft and demented drafts and the potty, pretentious poems will rarely bear any resemblance to the final polished piece, but they will contribute a thought, a phrase, a connection that leads me there.

My 26 Winters piece began when I overheard part of a conversation when I was visiting the exhibition. That put the thought in my head that it should be a dialogue. A real challenge for me, as it’s something I don’t write very often. But the constraint of 62 words gave me the confidence to try it.

The dialogue form gave me characters – who was talking and what is their relationship? What are they doing here, looking at a nativity scene? Suddenly there’s a whole back story and just 62 words to give a sense of it.

My piece changed as I was writing. The characters began as a mother and unspecified child. But as I settled on a title, and thoughts of special occasions and limited time, they became a father and son. A couple of nudges and suggestions from my editor, Neil Baker, helped make this clearer.

I loved having an editor on this project. It’s a privilege to have constructive feedback from someone I trust and admire.

I don’t want to explain exactly what I was thinking when I wrote, or what it means to me. A published piece of writing always has an audience, and I believe you, the unseen readers, contribute just as much to the creative process as the writer.

You bring your thoughts, experiences, memories and imaginations to the words I chose, and you may read them very differently. But I hope you will read them and consider them my small Christmas gift to you.

The 26 Children’s Winters calendar will display a new object and sestude every day until 26 December (that’s at least one day more than you get from your typical advent calendar. With the exhibition and online calendar, all 26 writers and the museum are helping to support It’s Good 2 Give, a charity  that supports young people and their families affected by cancer.

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