The Art of being a Copywriter

Being a writer is the best job in the world.  It is a craft and a calling. It is sheer frustration pocked with pleasure. We often celebrate our novelists and poets, but few know about the hidden heroes who slave over the difficulty of writing short-form, commercial copy. To all my copywriter chums out there – this one’s for you…

After years of writing copy to sell substations, financial services, bridges, emeralds ‘n opals, wastewater treatment plants, rail, real estate and everything in-between, I’m fairly confident that the following pearls of wisdom will help copywriters know that they’re awesome, and let those who don’t quite understand the value of their copywriters’ contributions know just what a gem they have in their team.

Writing copy is terrifying because to do your job well, you have to always take risks. It’s a role with all heart and it cannot be any other way or you become indistinguishable – we write to be heard. If you want to be heard make sure you have something worthwhile to say, never dumb your shit down.

Despite popular opinion, assume your audience is much smarter than you. Respect your audience, always.

Copy never sits in isolation. A copywriter manages multiple stakeholders’ interests, needs to be  ‘on brand’ but, must reimagine it in a way that is fresh but doesn’t transgress some arbitrary boundary that always shifts (depending on who you’re dealing with from brand or agency).  It’s always a circus, and writers are patient, invisible beasts.

Writers are outsiders and should remain that way – because when you’re not in the fray, you’re observing it (which makes for excellent material to be repurposed for some later project – as we are like thirsty sponges).

Everyday, to do your job well, writers expose themselves to ridicule, judgement and the dreaded red pen. This is why it is so important to fight your jealous nature and support other writers – because only another writer can truly understand what it means to see your work shredded by people who have no idea about what you really do.

Always team up with another writer to edit your work. correct each other privately. Praise each other publicly.

Remember that writing is re-writing. You will never get it right the first time. Those who expect such perfection are wankers.

Great copy can translate human experience into a sentence. Writers understand that everything is a text. A good writer can synthesise a concept into a few words. Know therefore, that few people can do what you do.

The most memorable copy sells ideas not products. If your sales colleagues try to convince you otherwise, remain steadfast. A wonderful Sales Manager once told me – the best sales people don’t need collateral to do their job. Their job is to sell themselves.

An artist has a blank grid. A writer has 26 letters. Remember that short-form copy is a dialogue between the reader and writer. Leave space for the dialogue to carry on after the sentence ends. This is how to achieve dialogue in one sentence.  Study the masters of poetry and practice their techniques. Study Shakespeare’s sonnets – his quatrains, triplets and couplets are an incredible example of how a master unpacks big ideas in a small space.

Lastly, no matter what you write, always write yourself into a corner. Come out punching.

WordSmith Jo

The Leading Hook: Engaging Reader Interest

Most writers will agree that summarising the theme of your story, whether you’re writing a feature article, or an executive summary in a proposal, is central to orientating the reader, and creating great expectations on what’s to follow…

You’ve jotted down your main points. Check.

You’ve ordered your points into a coherent, and logical structure. Check.

You’ve reviewed your main points to see if any are ‘off message’ or irrelevant to your story. Check.

I have always said, that getting the structure of your story in place first, is the most time consuming and often frustrating part. Once this is well-ordered, the writing should flow.

Now, how to get started? Once your structure is in place, it’s always important to introduce your theme to the reader to set the expectation. Most people are time poor, or easily lose interest, so getting the summary right, will determine whether your audience will stay the course.

The easiest way to write a great summary is to write it as you would speak it first. Listen to the words in your head, write it down and then say it out loud, as if you were speaking to your audience.  Writing your summary in a conversational-style will help illustrate your story – which allows the audience to think in pictures.

Prose that sounds human, especially in the English language, gives sentences a natural rhythm. The sense that there is a distinctive human voice behind the words, creates intimacy – which is the key to engaging your reader’s interest. Avoid abstract nouns and passive voice. Always write in an active voice, to keep the story moving past the summary to the juicy bits of your story. A way to do this is to use active verbs with objects.

Once you’ve written your summary, go back over it to check for any words that may jar the reader’s ear. Remove any awkward words. The best way to make your summary sound like honey, is to use narrative devices such as consonance and assonance – subtle rhyming sounds, keep the reader in the dream – which is what the writer wants – particularly if the intention of your story is to persuade your audience.

Till next time,

WordSmith Jo

The Corporate Circus: Walking the Tightrope between Private and Public Consequence

Given the recent ethical and moral quagmire the VW Scandal and 7-Eleven companies have been embroiled in, an old colleague wrote an excellent article on encouraging collaborative leadership internally, as well as partnering with external NGO or Public Sector organisations’ dealing with congruent issues – to seek new perspectives on ethically problematic situations.

My colleague’s article reminded me of a situation, a couple of years ago, when I developed and delivered Probity and Ethics training over a few months for a major utility company – as part of good governance for its community relations program. What struck me during this process, was how little – across a very diagonal chain of command – colleagues knew how to methodically work through a process of moral reasoning – to arrive at a morally, and ethically, acceptable outcome both personally, and on an organisational level.

Regardless of who we are, or what our position, everyone, at some point in their career, will be confronted with a Moral Quandary.

In essence, a Moral Quandary is when we are faced with two or more competing right things to choose from.

What arises from a quandary, are Moral Dilemmas.

At this point, it can be very easy to knee-jerk into a foetal position and understandably, react the way most people do – which is to protect and defend oneself, and one’s position – especially when a situation threatens a person’s livelihood or standing – regardless of the public consequence.

Taking time to methodically work through different Moral Dilemmas – as a process of elimination to arrive at a decision to take action or take no action (deciding to do nothing is also an action!) means that when an organisation or an individual is called to account – they should be able to adequately demonstrate, and most importantly, be accountable, for the decision which they arrived at.

Broadly, Moral Dilemmas may include –

  • Truth vs loyalty
  • Individual vs community
  • Short-term vs long-term
  • Justice vs mercy

By considering all the facts at hand, and holding our moral quandary under every potential, competing dilemma, we can work through a dialectic process to arrive at a decision that we can personally live with.  In doing so, we are forced to ask ourselves hard questions such as:

  • Am I compromising too easily or too soon to avoid trouble?
  • Is my integrity threatened? Where do I draw the line?
  • Am I being hypocritical?
  • Have I reached a balance between my personal convictions and the facts at hand?

Unfortunately, most corporates think posting a Code of Conduct on the Noticeboard, and handing it out at inductions should absolve them of future gross misconduct by employees.

The reality however, is that a Code of Conduct is really just a set of agreed rules for a group of individuals to defer to when all else fails. It is a necessarily minimal requirement, which is prescriptive and without compromise. It we are truthful, we must acknowledge that this is not really a true reflection of how we live and interact with the world.

Indeed, in the case of 7-Eleven and VW, their leaders, who are meant to endorse and disseminate their company’s Code of Conduct, miserably failed in its application.

Corporations that genuinely desire innovation and personal accountability must invest in proper ethical training, whereby individuals are encouraged to exercise professional judgement and to never just defer to minimal requirements.  Paradoxically, by taking applied ethics seriously, an organisation is protected from a culture of compliance, whereby colleagues (across all levels) just follow instructions, regardless of common sense or personal discretion – which inevitably always leads to disastrous outcomes, and the VW and 7-Eleven scandals are sober examples of this.

Till next time,

WordSmith Jo

 

 

 

Why Great Editors are your Best Mates

Approaching an unedited manuscript is a bit like looking under the bonnet of a beaut vintage car. We know all the parts needed to keep the car moving, so we pull apart the engine, work out what’s worth keeping, what can be repaired or fine-tuned, and what kind of parts we need to order in to get the motor roaring…

It’s a familiar adage, when a writer gingerly hands a manuscript to an Editor that ‘the baby’ the Writer has lavished so much love and attention to, is invariably returned by the Editor, unrecognisable.  Resist the urge to call the police and insist that you’re a victim of a baby swap.  If you gave your manuscript to a great Editor, chances are, they just souped up your Jalopy into a Jaguar.

If you’re thinking about engaging an Editor to give your proposal to borrow half a billion pesos a professional polish, or you have a manuscript that’s due for a 100,000 word service, here’s a few things to look out for when hiring your new best mate –

Lazy Editors will only edit grammar / punctuation / syntax / spelling and format the document to convention.  Period.

Great Editors take the time to understand who you are. They will ask lots of questions about what you want to achieve, what you want your audience to do, or feel, or say or think when they finish reading your masterpiece before they even look at the manuscript. Context is so important to orientate the reader – and this is no different for an Editor. Understanding what the Writer is hoping to achieve will help guide the editing process to ensure the integrity of the writer’s voice, and purpose, is not left on the cutting room floor.

After an Editor has assessed a manuscript, Great Editors will sit down with the Writer, and go through a formal Manuscript Review and Recommendations. This will involve qualifying all recommended changes, inclusions and exclusions.  Keeping the Writer involved in the process, by giving them the courtesy of ‘permitting’ major structural changes first, will help Writers feel more ownership of the editing process, which leads to greater acceptance of change.

Great Editors will also critically engage with your work to ensure continuity, unnecessary repetition, logical sequencing / grouping of content, and will know when content requires further development or substantiation.

Editing is a collaboration, because ultimately, the Writer is usually the subject matter expert.  This means giving the Writer opportunity to review and comment on changes. Great Editors never sit in isolation but work with the Writer to produce the best outcome.

Ultimately, a Great Editor knows that their job is to make the Writer look awesome. Period.

Till next time!
WordSmithJo

Secrets to Writing a High Distinction Essay

For many professionals, grappling with full-time work and post-graduate education is now the norm. Between work and family commitments, it can be fair to assume that when it comes to finding time to write an essay, there is little joy in the process – the reality is that the best thing about writing an essay is finishing it.

For those who are time poor, I have outlined a methodology which I have refined (after years of study) to get your essay finished as soon as possible and, to help promote your essay from a Pass to a High Distinction! No thanks is necessary – just make yo’ momma proud!

Method before you start writing

  1. Before you commit to a thesis/position, do your research first. This will help with new ideas, which in turn, will help you formulate a clearer position/response to the essay question
  2. Make sure your position directly answers the essay question before you start writing
  3. Locate your sources. Only use academic sources (credible sources are considered those that are published by University Press or known academic publishing houses (e.g. Allen & Unwin etc)
  4. Copy all the extracts you want to use to support your thesis onto one document
  5. Arrange/chunk the extracts according to theme
  6. Write a bullet point outline of your essay to help you orientate your thinking and order your argument logically and sequentially. The structure of your essay should start with (a) Your thesis/claim (b) two or three paragraph summary on how you will support your claim (i.e. sources, argument and counter-arguments) (c) logically ordered body of evidence (d) any counter arguments (e) Leave the broader implications/outcomes/unanswered questions your essay evokes to your conclusion – this helps you tie your ending back to your thesis (i.e. thesis + antithesis = synthesis).

You’re now ready to start writing!

Method when writing

  1. To demonstrate a good understanding of your thesis/position and provide substantial evidence to support your position, try to find as many examples through different modes of expression to give further weight to your claim i.e. setting, language, narrative device, imagery, symbolism etc.
  2. Never use general, blanket statements in an essay e.g. “Everyone knows that…” or “It is true that…” or “some people say…”
  3. Never write in absolutes – instead, use transitional or connective words/phrases such as: suggests, argues, posits, claims, presents us with, we may assume, accordingly, consequently, considering, as a result etc…
  4. Always write in the third person, past tense in essays, unless otherwise stated.
  5. For citations, always reference the source according to Harvard convention unless otherwise stated
  6. Always make sure you directly answer the essay question. Do not talk about related ideas or periphery associations – it dilutes your claim and is not the central focus
  7. Use other perspectives to find a ‘counter-argument’ and discuss this to show you have considered the subject matter in-depth.
  8. After you have finished your essay, walk away. Re-read your assignment question and then go through your essay again to make sure you have addressed all of the essay question criteria in your essay.
  9. Always read your essay aloud so you can self-correct any syntax/spelling/punctuation errors. These are ‘easy marks’ so it is a shame to lose points on these grounds!

Till next time, crack a queer whid!

WordSmith Jo

Psst! The essay form has been around since the seventeenth century (e.g. Thomas Browne and Cowley’s essays). However, it wasn’t until Charles Lamb (1775-1834), whom is considered an early master of the genre, that the essay form crystalized as a genre in its own right. His famous ‘Dissertation Upon Roast Pig’ is a fine example for those whom are interested in solid argumentation laced with mock seriousness!