Archive | writing

A Writer’s Manifesto

Hawkwood College

Back at the beginning of June, at the start of that glorious golden summer, I took a trip to a magical place called Hawkwood College, near Stroud in the beautiful Cotswold countryside. A magical place not just for the fresh water spring that rises beneath the tree beside the labyrinth in its wild grounds. A magical place not just for the creative courses and wonderful fresh food served there. But forever a magical place because it was where I met a host of Dark Angels and spent time in their company, drinking in words.

Dark Angels is a series of creative writing courses for business writers who seek something deeper and more authentic than corporate ‘how to increase your audience and win sales’ type writing. Writers who want to tap into the power of creative writing to connect.

My first Dark Angels course gave me the confidence to say ‘I am a writer’. Subsequent time in this select company has enriched, encouraged and improved my writing both personally and professionally in more ways than I can measure.

Group of people talkingMy time at Hawkwood was no different. Inspired by exercises set by our tutors, I wrote alone and in collaboration with wonderful poet Susannah Hart.

I read, I listened, I enjoyed long conversations with fellow writers. Some of us took a pilgrimage to Slad, walking in the footsteps and drinking in the pub of writer Laurie Lee.

We were treated to moonlit scenes from a Midsummer Night’s Dream. And we sang together – around the piano in the evening, and on the grass outside the house. A choir of angels summoning sonnets of thanks to our surroundings and what we encountered there.

Each Dark Angels course is different. What each writer takes away is individual and personal. But I’d like to share something I wrote at Hawkwood. Its form comes from a exercise devised by writer Richard Pelletier which resonated strongly with many of the group.

There is much I could say about the writing process. But one thing I have learned from Dark Angels is to make room for the audience. As a reader, what you bring to the experience is just as important as what the writer presents.

Sonnet with sunscreen

  1. I wish to say true things in a voice that is true. 2. Nowhere worth going is easy. The path climbs but falls short of the summit. There are brambles. Scratches leave scars. 3. History is written by the winners. There’s always another side to the story. Ask the monsters. 4. Reading is the closest thing we have to time travel. Step back into another life. Imagine forwards into the future. Read. 5. No one is every truly gone as long as they are remembered with love. 6. Nothing bad can happen while you listen to your favourite music. 7. Music, drama, comedy, dance. See it live. There’s an emotional intensity that you can never really capture. It’s called the audience. 8. I am an introvert. Some of my happiest moments have been in crowds. 9. Be yourself. The people who belong in your life will find you. 10. Restless minds do well to be restful for a while, but not too long. Restless bodies do not. 11. Steal. Steal from everywhere. Books, lyrics, conversations, shopping lists. Forget what you have stolen. 12. There are books you will never read. There are stories that will never be told. 13. Writing is easy. Just crack open your breast bone and reach in for your heart. 14. The way out is the way in.

There are a few more Dark Angels courses coming up this year, in England, Ireland, Scotland, America and Spain. And there will be a book, currently being crowdfunded on Unbound.

If you’re interested in communication that’s creative, engaging and human and want to develop your writing skills in a fun, challenging and supportive environment, I can’t recommend them enough.

100 words for 100 years since WW1

Black and white photograph of five young girls in 1918

This November marks 100 years since the end of the First World War. After four years of unprecedented violence and devastation, Armistice was declared. As part of writers’ group 26 Characters, in partnership with Imperial War Museums I am taking part in a project to mark this centenary through new creative work.

As one of 100 writers I was invited to choose a person alive between 1914 and 1918 and tell their story in poetry or prose in exactly 100 words. The piece should start and finish with the same three words, to create a new form, called a centena.

The first pieces, and the stories behind them have been published online at http://www.1914.org/armistice-100-days. We have heard stories inspired by the Archduke’s chauffeur, Belgian refugees, a Guyanese soldier, a northern suffragette and a conscientious objector. They are thought provoking, imaginative, touching, moving and, like the people who inspire them, unique. I invite you to read them.

A new centena and story will be published every day leading up to the anniversary of the Armistice on November 11. They commemorate the famous and the unfamiliar, those who fought and those who didn’t and reflect different experiences from all over the world.

The piece I’ve written is inspired by a family photograph, showing my grandmother and her sisters, taken in 1918 to commemorate the return of my great grandfather from the war. It will appear on 27 October.

I had hoped to find out more about what he did during the war, but sadly it seems his was among many thousands of service records destroyed in a fire at the records office during the Second World War.

That’s one of the many reasons why this project is so important. Preserving memories, remembering people from the past and giving voice to their experiences.

There will also be a book. It’s being crowdfunded so that we can raise money to print copies, but now that those costs are covered profits will be donated to War Child, a charity that helps children all around the world trying to survive current conflicts. Find out more about the Armistice100Days book. 

Will twitter lose its character over more characters?

Twitter has given us more space. Doubled its character count and given us more words to play with. But is that necessarily a good thing?

BBC Ceefax pageDo you remember Ceefax?

For those who don’t know what I’m talking about – before internet access was commonplace and pre-multi-channel digital TV, Ceefax was a text service for news, sport, weather, and a few games that you could view on your TV set, selecting pages using your remote control.

I wrote local news and sport pages for Ceefax in my time as a BBC journalist. The content of each page was a tightly defined format. A headline and four paragraphs – about 80 words in total. That was all you had to tell a story.

How Ceefax helped me hone my writing skills

To tell a news story that fit onto one screen meant choosing short, simple and effective language. Writing headlines of exactly 33 characters (the space available on the top line), favoured short, powerful words. For example, ‘woe’ when something was wrong, and ‘joy’ when something was right.

It’s a skill I’ve adapted to writing copy for packaging; editing copy for a web page; writing social media posts and even poetry. All important skills for a copywriter.Write a sharp headline. Choose words with impact. How Ceefax helped me hone my writing skills Click To Tweet

Why more words don’t necessarily mean better communication

twitter and other social media iconsTwitter was different. In a proliferation of multimedia, its short and pithy format was easy to consume.

It looked easy. Anyone could write 140 characters. But those who did it well proved masters of it.

The irony is that as twitter expands its character limits, it risks losing some of its distinctive character as a social media platform.

Constraints liberate. Faced with a blank page, the possibilities can seem so endless and overwhelming that we fail to make a mark.

Tell yourself you only have to write four paragraphs, 80 words, and suddenly it seems a lot less daunting. But it forces you to consider every word and choose it carefully.

Being able to say more isn’t always a good thing. Being restrained means you focus on what matters. Clear messages require clear language. And in my book, that means keeping it simple.

As twitter expands its character limits, it risks losing some of its distinctive character. Click To Tweet

For words that can help your business cut through the noise, talk to me.

For more writing hints, tips and details of training and workshops, sign up for my newsletter.

Emergency back-up blog post – do you have a lifeline ready?

Emergency back-up blog post

When I worked as a journalist in a busy BBC newsroom, we used to have something called the emergency tape. It was a programme that we could put on the air in case of an emergency, for example if we needed to evacuate the studios because of a fire alarm, flood etc. It was rarely ever used. But it was a real lifeline if we needed it.

I was talking about the idea of emergency back-up content earlier this week. And wouldn’t you know it, I could have really done with a blog post ready and waiting in reserve.

I always schedule time in my calendar to write, edit and create images for my blog posts. But this week that time was demanded on another project, and then a family emergency meant I really had nowhere else to schedule it.

How back-up content can help you stay on schedule

When I set myself the challenge of writing a blog post every week for a year (on top of my regular writing work) I had a few emergency blog posts banked up in reserve. That meant that if I was travelling, or working away; if I felt sick or an important event clashed with my dedicated blogging time, I had a back up to rely on.

I didn’t use all of those back-up blogs that year, but they haven’t gone to waste, as I used them to create content for my website and inspire content that I now use in my freelance writing, training and brand storytelling business.

Always have ideas in the bank

As a BBC radio and television reporter, I also had a bank of  ‘rainy day/anytime stories’. These were ideas that I could pick up on a slow news day and turn into a radio or television package.

I’ve applied the same strategy to regular writing tasks in my time. When one idea has lead to another, or when I’ve got more research and information than fits the word count for that task, I’ve filed it away to come back to when I needed it.

Do you have back-up content ready to go?

This has become my emergency blog post. Hastily pulled together when I’ve had ten minutes or so while travelling.

What I’ve learned this week is to make full use of that valuable newsroom training.  To go back to the discipline of making sure that I do have content ready to publish quickly if I need to.

Is that  a strategy you could use in your business too? What do you do when you’re short of time? Out of contact? Or if you just need some business content in a hurry.

As they say in broadcasting, normal service will resume as soon as possible.

How Strictly Come Dancing can make your writing sparkle

How Strictly Come Dancing can make your writing sparkle

Photo by Martin Barák on Unsplash

In a flourish of glitter and sequins, it’s back on our screens, whirling through Saturday night TV from Autumn until Christmas. In case you’ve had your head in a bucket, I’m talking about Strictly Come Dancing of course.

I make no secret of the fact that I’m a big fan of this annual extravaganza of celebs learning to perform the foxtrot, samba and cha-cha in pursuit of the glitterball trophy. Whilst I love watching the dancing, I’m reminded how it can be a wonderful form of expression – just like writing.

Here’s what Strictly can teach you about writing that sparkles:

Gotta have rhythm

The Strictly dancers, both professionals and celebrities, have to feel the beat of the music to move in time.

Writing has its own rhythms. Does yours plod along like a beginner stomping through a Paso Doble? Or does it zing and click like a high-energy Jive?

A good writer knows that using too many sentences of the same length, one after the other, becomes as dull and flat-footed as the contestant who gets ditched in week one.

Switch it up with a change of pace. Razzle dazzle ’em. Throw in an unexpected word. It’s the equivalent of a cheeky wink at the judges.

How Strictly Come Dancing can make your writing sparkle Click To Tweet

Style matters

tango dancersEvery dance has a different style –  from the romantic flowing movements of the waltz, to the hip action of the samba.

The same goes for writing. A good copywriter can switch between the smooth flow of a lengthy article that seeks to draw you in, and punchy eye-catching words that grab your attention instantly.

The professional dancers know that you have to start every dance by capturing the attention of the audience and finish with a flourish that will have them on their feet.

To write well you need to apply the same principle. Hook your readers with an engaging headline and leave them with a compelling call to action.

Hook your readers with an engaging headline and leave them with a compelling call to action. Click To Tweet

Master the technique

I’m no expert in dancing, but the Strictly judges will point out what they’re looking for from different dance styles. Woe betide you if you put an audience- pleasing lift into the routine when it isn’t strictly allowed.

In writing, that’s like understanding the conventions of grammar and spelling and knowing when to flout them.

Or knowing that changing verbs from the passive to the active will make your writing more direct and engaging – like facing down your partner in a Tango.

Practice, practice, practice

dancing coupleThe professional dancers on Strictly  make it look effortless, but it takes years of training and effort to do what they do.

Writing may not be quite as tricky as mastering the quickstep, but the more you practise, the better and more confident you become.

As a writer, I know that my first drafts are never going to be as clear, precise and powerful as the finished article.

It takes time to write, edit, review and rewrite. I’m always looking for improvements I can make to produce a polished performance for the final show.

Get the audience on your side

It’s not always the ‘best’ dancers who win through to the next round of Strictly Come Dancing. The watching audience votes for their favourites – the ones who have entertained them, made them laugh.

Thinking about your audience is essential for a copywriter. If you can appeal to their emotions, surprise, delight and thrill them in the same way that the couples do on the dance floor, you’ll be onto a winner.

Put your feet up and enjoy the show

I’m unashamedly a fan of Strictly Come Dancing. Just like music, dancing connects with me at a purely emotional level, that I don’t even pretend to understand.

As a writer, I’m like a dancer in the way I feel the rhythm of words, delight in a neat turn of phrase and express meaning through my creative craft.

Sometimes I stumble, sometimes I soar.  I always dream of sweeping you off your feet with some wonderful words.

5 creative writing prompts to spark fresh ideas for your business marketing

5 creative writing prompts to spark fresh ideas for your business marketingDo you ever think I don’t know what to write? I’ve said all that already? There’s nothing new to add?

I hear that a lot from businesses I work with. Most of the time you’re thinking about what you’re doing, your customers, your products, making sales and generally getting on with business. Thinking about how you write or talk about what you do to market your business doesn’t cross your mind until you find yourself stuck for inspiration.

If you’re looking for something to say in a blog post, facebook update, newsletter, instagram post or any other place you market your business, try one of these creative prompts to get you started.

Ever think I don't know what to write? Try one of these creative prompts Click To Tweet

1. Write in the style of… a detective novel, a fairy tale, a science fiction adventure…

How would you sell your products and services on a space ship? What would happen if the local outlaw came into your store?

If you feel like you’re always saying the same thing the same way, deliberately adopting a new and alternative style can shake up your thinking and give you some new ideas.

Open book2. Pick a sentence at random

This works well with a fiction book, but a newspaper, magazine or other printed item can work too. Choose a sentence at random, write it down and continue on from there.

An alternative starting point can give your writing a whole new direction.

3. Choose an object and tell its story

Select an item on your table, in your pocket, or just something you can see. Now write about life from its point of view. How did it get there? What’s its purpose? What are its goals and dreams?

This is a great creative prompt if you’re looking to freshen up the way you talk about products or services that you sell.

A great creative prompt if you're looking to freshen up the way you talk about products or services that you sell. Click To Tweet

4. Write ten sentences

Write ten things about your day. They can be simple and mundane, or detailed and elaborate. They don’t have to link up or follow on from each other, so you can write something about having breakfast and then something a customer said to you. The only rule is to write complete sentences.

If the thought of writing anything feels daunting, this is a great way to grasp the confidence to do it. It’s just ten sentences after all.

Direction sign post

5. Write about a journey

It could be something as simple as a walk to the bus stop, or a trip into town. It doesn’t have to be that tale of the time you walked the Macchu Picchu trail.

Think about a journey and how you would tell the story of that journey to someone else.

This is a great way to get you thinking about structure and order as you write, because all journeys have a beginning, middle and end.

Think about a journey and how you would tell the story of that journey to someone else. Click To Tweet

How will any of this help me write about my business?

Writing creatively is about having fun, loosening up and forgetting about what you think you can or should be writing.

These creative prompts won’t necessarily give you something to use in your business straight away, but they will shake up your thinking and give you a fresh new place to start.

Look for the unexpected words and phrases that come from writing with a different set of expectations. Are there any that you can use?

As a copywriter, I often have to write about stuff that can seem pretty boring at first glance. I have used all of these tips and more to help me come up with fresh ideas and new perspectives.

Creative prompts will shake up your thinking and give you a fresh place to start. Click To Tweet

Want support and encouragement to write more creatively?

Try out some of these creative writing tips for yourself and join me for a day’s creative writing retreat at Christmas Farm in Northumberland on Saturday 23 September.

Fuel your creative inspiration with lunch fresh from the farm garden, plus plenty of tea, coffee and cake.

Book your spot at the writing table today 

For more hints and tips on great writing for your business, sign up to my mailing list

Top 5 Days Out in the North East

I’m really looking forward to having some friends come to visit this weekend. I love sharing all the amazing scenery, culture and activities that the North East has to offer.

When North East Family Fun – A UK Family Travel & Lifestyle Blog asked me to pick my  Top 5 Days Out, in the North East it was hard to choose just five, but I did my best.

Coastal and wildlife adventures

Kayaks on Cullercoats Bay

Kayak tour from Cullercoats Bay

Puffins on the Farne Islands

Watching the puffins on the Farne Islands

Seals off the Farne Islands

Seal spotting on a boat trip to the Farne Islands

Wild outdoor activities

Wild swimming at Linhope Spout

There’s also a place full of local history and scandal. And top city cultural spots that offer a window on the world.

Discover more about my favourite days out on North East Family Fun

All of these places and experiences have provided rich inspiration for my writing as well as a welcome break from my writing desk.

Whatever you’re up to, have a great weekend!

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.

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.

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.