Archive | writing

My top ten tips for business writing

As a copywriter, I write for many different businesses. Here are my top ten tips for improving your writing, whether you’re communicating for business or writing for pleasure.

1. Begin with one grain of sand

In other words, you have to start somewhere. So state your purpose and outline what you’re trying to do. I often find it helps to start with a statement of what I’m trying to do: e.g ‘Write an email to let customers know about this week’s special offers’. Or to start by finishing a sentence e.g. ‘My customers would like to…’

You may not use these words in your finished communication, but they can help you to get over the fear of the blank page.

2. Be a reporter

Ask the questions who, what, where, when, how and why? And answer them. These are the questions that have served me well through my years working at the BBC and then as a copywriter for big business. They will help you get the facts and structure your story.

photographerWhen it comes to writing clear communications, imagine you’re writing for a quality newspaper or news website.

Don’t pack everything into the first sentence. Start with the most important piece of information, then add to it. Try to stick to one idea per sentence or paragraph.

3. Just do it (no critics allowed)

The best way to write something is just to write it. Banish your inner critic.

No one gets to read your first draft anyway. No one cares if it’s spelt wrong or you missed an apostrophe at this stage. Just get on and do it. You can go back and refine things later.

4. Be active

Choose the active, rather than the passive voice eg. ‘I am doing this’, rather than ‘this is being done’.

It makes you sound more involved, interested and less shifty.

5. Sell the sizzle

Every time we write in business we’re trying to get a response. It’s not just about increasing our sales (though that’s a distinct advantage), but also about how people feel about doing business with us. So we have to write persuasively and that means talking about benefits not features. Answer the question ‘What can it do for me?’

Think about perfumes – their feature is they make you smell nice, but they’re sold on the benefit that smelling nice will encourage the object of your admiration to fall at your feet. Answer the question ‘What can it do for me?’

6. Leave it

autumn leavesIt’s easy, particularly when you know your subject really well to get wrapped up in what you’ve written, to lose perspective. Take some time to away from it and come back with new eyes.

It can be as little as a few minutes while you make a phone call, grab a coffee, whatever – but try to read it as though you’ve never seen it before.

I’ve found it really helps to read things backwards, starting at the end and working back to the beginning. You may realise there’s a better place to start.

7. Prune it

Read through what you’ve written and look for places where you may have repeated yourself.

Look for the businesses and doublespeak; the handy jargon and short cuts we might use everyday but that make little sense outside our own circle. Cut big, then cut small.

Pruning also means you have to let some areas grow. Sometimes it might be better to take a couple of sentences to describe what something does instead of referring to what it’s called.

So rather than telling me it’s a personal GPS system, you might want to describe it as a gadget that helps you pinpoint exactly where you are.

8. Map it

Help your reader out by signalling where you’re going.

  • New paragraphs help single out thoughts.
  • Bullets and lists are great for drawing attention to things – and they’re easy to read.
  • Subheadings help the reader to skim through to key points of interest, or to pick up reading from where they left off

9. Check it

Ideally you shouldn’t proofread your own copy, but in reality most of us have to. Use your spell check if it’s an electronic document (make sure you’ve chosen English dictionary), but remember it’s not infallible. Take the time to read it through again.

Read it aloud. Start from the end. Turn the paper upside down. Read every word one by one. If you spot a mistake, look for the one next to it.

10. Test it

Does your piece of writing do what you set out to do? Get a second opinion. Does your tester understand it? Did they encounter any mental speed bumps? Bits where they had to go back and read it again? Did they spot any errors?

There are lots of tools that help you track digital communications these days, so you can see how well your email, website, or even social media is engaging with your customers. Is there a keyword or phrase that works well for you. what time of day are your customers most responsive. Take note of your analytics and look at areas where you could improve in future.

A copywriter’s top spelling and grammar tips

I really enjoy my job as a creative copywriter. I spend most of my days reading and writing things. Sometimes I’m coming up with new ideas, other times I’m just helping other people get their message across. It also means I get to see a lot of things that often confuse us when we’re writing (even me). So here’s my quick guide to some of the things I see every day that cause the most head scratching:

The apostrophe
The apostrophe ’ often seems to cause confusion. It appears where it’s not needed and goes AWOL when it is.

The apostrophe has two main uses:
1) To show something belongs to someone or something.
2) To show there’s a letter or letters missing from a word.

1) Using the apostrophe to show ownership or belonging

The client’s software (one client)
Doris’ business (in this example Doris’s is also correct, but we prefer the less cluttered punctuation)
The children’s father
My clients’ business
(more than one client)

But AVOID the green grocer’s apostrophe e.g.
The apple’s, the cauliflower’s, the carrot’s

When I see examples like this I always want to ask, ‘The apple’s, cauliflower’s, carrot’s, what?’

Note Possessive pronouns like yours, his, hers, ours, its and theirs are not followed by the apostrophe.

2) Using the apostrophe to show there’s something missing

There are lots of examples of this. Some we use everyday without really thinking about them:

I’m; you’re; we’re – I am; you are; we are
Don’t, won’t, haven’t, isn’t – do not; will not, have not, is not

Others sometimes seem to cause confusion:
Let’s for let us

Common mistakes
There are four common cases where it is easy to get confused.

It’s has an apostrophe when it means it is. When you want to show possession, the correct form is its.
It’s a long way to Tipperary.
Every business has its challenges.

Who’s stands for who is or who has. When you want to show possession, the correct form is whose.
Who’s running the company?
The manager, whose business was doing well, booked a well-deserved holiday.

If you can replace the word with “you are”, then the word you’re looking for is you’re. If you want to indicate that something belongs to someone, you need your.

You’re going to have a busy month.
Is this your tax return?

They’re stands for they are. The possessive is their.

They’re the people who bought our business.
It’s their business now.

If you want to show where something is, the correct form is there.

The business is over there.

Still confused? Check out this humorous, comic style guide to how to use an apostrophe.

Words that sound similar but are spelt differently

license (v) / licence (n)

practise (v) / practice (n)

advise (v) / advice (n)

To get these right, you basically have to know your nouns from your verbs. Remember from your English lessons, a noun refers to a thing and a verb is a ‘doing word’. Then use this sentence to help you choose the right spelling:

Stop the crocodile.

Any time you want the verb, use ‘s’ – like you do when you say ‘stop’. If you want the noun, it’s a ‘c’, as in crocodile.

license and licence:

He may be licensed to kill, but James Bond was still booked for driving without his driving licence.

practise and practice:

Mr Jones likes to practise his juggling at his accountant’s practice.

advise and advice:

You can advise people as much as you like but you can’t get them to listen to your advice.

Words that sound similar but mean different things

compliment / complement

A compliment is a nice thing said about someone. So if you say, “I like your new dress”, you’re paying someone a compliment. Something that’s given away free is also complimentary.

Complimentary drinks with every meal.

Complement has a number of meanings associated with matching or completing.

If you’re ordering business cards, why not choose some complementary letterheads?

stationery / stationary

It’s easy to remember the difference between these two. Just remember ‘e’ is for envelope and ‘a’ is for ‘at a standstill’.

affect / effect

To affect something is to change or influence it.

The computer failure affected her business.

Effect has a lot of subtle meanings as a noun, but it mostly refers to something that’s happens as a result of something else.

The new layout had a positive effect on the magazine’s circulation.

Effect is also a rather formal way of saying to make it happen.

The Government has effected a change in policy.

Most of the time affect is a verb and effect is a noun.

Some other places to go to if you get stuck
Online dictionaries
www.askoxford.com/?view=uk
(check out their better writing section too)
http://dictionary.cambridge.org/

Online thesaurus (for when you’re short of an alternative word)
http://thesaurus.reference.com/
(watch out for US spellings though)

More grammar resources and style guides:
Daily Writing Tips
Economist styleguide
Guardian styleguide

Is imitation really the sincerest form of flattery?

I caught the new Ford TV advert this week.

Not a bad idea I thought, but not as good as the Sound of Honda.

Honda has created some very clever, eye-catching television adverts over recent years. So when I start to watch an advert that’s a bit quirky, I instinctively start to think of Honda. That’s a really powerful bit of brand association. (But I still drive a Mini!)

Familiarity can be a good thing for a brand, but what happens when you start to see the same thing everywhere?

Innocent is a brand that’s really established a strong identity through its tone of voice (which I have to admit I love). But now it has its imitators. Barclays seems to be trying to adopt a more ‘innocent style’ and fellow smoothie makers PJ’s are desperately trying to catch their cheeky, fun, irreverent tone (but not quite getting it IMHO).

So what happens to the Innocent brand if one element of its uniqueness, is no longer so unique? Will their smoothies be diluted by these pale imitations? Or are the other brands just savvy by trying to sparkle in their reflections?<

Edinburgh

Glistening dark pavements
Send street lights scattering after a rain shower.
Hot chocolate snaps the sharp cold of February,
Smoothed by the soft burr of locals.
Grey stone exteriors with an exuberant heart
Kick back, let loose, shock, outrage and rebel
In a brief carnival of colour.
The festival as Mardi Gras
Antidote to granite skies.