Tag Archives | writing tips

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.

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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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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… 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

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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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Free writing – how to start writing anything

Just write.

It’s one piece of advice I always offer about writing of any kind. If the blank page fills you with fear, find a way to defeat it.

Free writing

person writing with a pen in a notebookJust write. Take your pen or pencil and move it on the paper. Write as quickly as you can, without thinking too much about what you want to write.

Don’t worry if it’s a scribbly mess. Pay no attention to grammar or spelling or any of the usual things that demand your attention when writing. Just take your mind for a walk and let the words follow as you write.

This is free writing and it’s a great technique to help you get over the hurdle of starting to write anything.

Writing as part of a creative routine

For creative writers, it’s a technique popularised by Julia Cameron in her book The Artists’ Way. She calls this practice ‘Morning Pages’ and encourages writers to start each day with 3 sides of long hand writing.

Much of what you write may be nonsense, or fairly dull practical stuff about what you need to do that day, but given time and focus, other elements start to appear if you can just let go and write.

I don’t stick strictly to the ‘Morning Pages’ routine, but do use variations of free writing in my own writing practice, whether I’m writing for business or just for my own amusement. I always start with something handwritten as I find thoughts flow more readily from brain to pen than they do from brain to keyboard.

Finding creative gifts

Use free writing to spark creative ideasFree writing is useful for any kind of writing, not just for self discovery. It gets you started and gives a structure.

I recommend setting a timer and writing for between 10 to 20 minutes. And importantly, doing nothing else in the meantime. Just focusing on writing, but trying not to think too much about what you’re writing.

Writing in this way allows you to tap into your subconscious, which is a great source of creative ideas. Once you get your conscious mind out of the way, you may find that your subconscious throws in something completely unexpected. That’s an absolute gift for generating original and creative ideas.

I remember using free writing to start a piece of fantasy writing about a monster. After a while, letting my thoughts flow, out of nowhere came an image of a reality TV show contestant singing into a microphone. The clash of the two images gave my creative piece an unexpected twist and the final story was shortlisted for a writing award.

Free writing for business

Girl breathing Free writing also helps me reflect. I turn off the screen, eliminate any distractions and just spend time with my pen and notebook. My handwriting becomes very untidy and often I don’t write in full sentences. But as I do it, I can feel a sense of calm, like I’m taking deeper breaths, or spending some time meditating.

For business focused writing I adapt the exercise by giving myself a starting point or a topic at the top of the page. For example, this blog post began as a free writing exercise around the theme of writing workshops.

Discover your writing inspiration

I’m putting together materials and exercises for a creative writing workshop next month and free writing is very likely to be one of the exercises I will use. I may start people off with a sentence or a phrase that they continue such as: “I’d write more if…”

If you’re interested in starting to write and developing your writing creatively for business, blogging or just for your own enjoyment, check out details of my Get Writing, Keep Writing workshop.

For more business writing tips, sign up to my mailing list.

Five handy business writing tips

Want to improve your business communications, but don’t know where to begin? With 10 years of experience of writing for business, I’ve learned a few things along the way. So here are my top five tips for improving your business writing.

1. Get started

Research, ask questions, talk to customers, fill your brain with facts, figures and knowledge, but there comes a time when you just have to knuckle down and get writing.

The first thing you write is unlikely to be anything like the finished piece. But if you don’t start, you can’t finish.

I will often start at the top of the page with a factual statement of my purpose in writing. For example: Write 100 words on the history of the company for an audience of people who are just starting out in business.

Hand with fingers numbered 1-5

2. Be a reporter

As a journalist, I was used to asking the key questions who, what, where, when, how and why? As a copywriter, I still ask them every day.

Most important of all is ‘why?’. Why does a customer want or need this? What difference will it make to them? Answering that question really takes me to the heart of a sales communication.

3: Structure it

Start with the most important piece of information, then add to it. Try to stick to one idea per sentence or paragraph.

  • Give your audience signposts and make sure the text is easy to read.
  • Bullet points and lists are great for drawing attention to key points. 
  • Subheadings help readers skim to the part that’s most interesting to them, or to pick up reading if they’re distracted part way through.

4.  Edit it

It’s not unusual for me to spend longer editing and rewriting than I do writing.

In business communications, I’m always on the watch for jargon and cliches. The handy short cuts that may be familiar language in a specific business can be alien or meaningless to people outside of it. So they need to go.

Cut big, then cut small. I consider the piece as a whole, then paragraph by paragraph, sentence by sentence before looking at it word by word.

I’ll look for repetition, for unnecessary themes or complex phrases and either eliminate or find a better way to say them.  

Editing tip – leave it

It’s easy to get so wrapped up in something you’ve written, that you lose perspective. No matter how tight the deadline, I like to step away from a piece of business writing – make a phone call, get a drink of water and then try to come back to it with new eyes.

Not only can this be a good way of spotting errors, but it also encourages me to be critical of my own work.

In an ideal world, I shouldn’t have to proof-read my own copy, but in reality, I have to. I use a number of tricks to con my brain into thinking it’s seeing something for the first time.

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

5. Test it

Does your writing do what you set out to do? Check it against your brief or statement of purpose.

Get a second opinion before you publish. Do they 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?

Once it’s out there in the big wide world, what can you learn from your customers’ reactions to it? Are there metrics you can measure in terms of responses, awareness and sales? What can you learn for your next successful communication?

What are your top tips for successful business writing?

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Finding the joy of business writing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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