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

Onomatoe…whah?

Clearly I’m in the mood for poetry, so I’m not going to fight it. I’m just gonna let the sweet sweet meters wash over my hunger for verse. Onomatopoeia is just so much fun. If you’re a writer who loves linguist-nastics like I do, I bet you’ve got a few choice words you’ve mashed up on a napkin and now carry around in your wallet. If this sounds like you – you’re safe here. I give you full permission to own your dorkiness and fist pump, chest bump aight!

Onomatopoeia is a narrative device, whereby the word used also closely resembles/denotes the sound one is trying to describe. The sounds don’t always have to be pleasant to the ear, it can be discomforting as well as natural.

Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland is often cited as a classic example of onomatopoeia, particularly with the dialogue from that stoned ginger cat. His poem Jabberwocky (1871) is also another great example.

I’ve given a sample here from a poem I wrote a few years ago – ahh the memories, boy did I have fun writing this one!

TV Dinners

Squish splat pinch of salt
Celebrity Chef grins at Camera Two
Hot fingers melt butter and malt
Nude egg glistens ready to stew

Meat at room temperature!
An absent audience chastised
Keep the off-cuts for left-over
Serve drizzled with French fries

Floured fingers stamp white smock
Chicken blood drops on sterile tiles
As devotees to the bookstore flock
To own a slice of his culinary files

Celebrity Chef smiles, Producer yells cut!
The stage over stove dimmed lights
Macaroon white hat falls flat, but
Tune in for tomorrow’s lime and fig pies.

Onomatopoeia can not only be applied to singular words, but can also be used in phrasing or whole passages to denote or give greater emphasis to anything – whether it be size, length, force or feeling. It’s all about echoing an impression that you want the reader to feel. It’s a terrific device and you can get carried away by it all… but I guess that’s the whole point.

Till next time,

WordSmith Jo

Irony the Master of all Tropes

Whether we experience irony as suggestive, or blatantly, there is something delicious about observing, or exposing irony. We tend to feel particularly clever when we identify it, or understand it, and of course, if we are fully-functional rational beings, we are generally horrified when irony is used to expose personal hypocrisy.

Irony is a powerful tool in narratives because so much of it can be used implicitly – which is a far more effective way to position an audience without having to tell them what to think explicitly – after all, grown-ups avoid didactic narratives – we don’t like be told what to think directly. Irony, executed well, is really about persuading the audience to believe that they have arrived at a conclusion on their terms.

There are different types of irony, and for the writer, knowing these differences will be a great addition to your story-telling toolbox –

Irony – In the modern sense, it is used to dissemble a position, to expose what is actually, the case. It can be used to achieve rhetorical or narrative effects.

Verbal Irony – The ironic statement is the explicit expression of a position, but it relies upon a shared knowledge of the audience, to understand that the speaker intends a very different, or opposite position to what was stated.

Structural irony – Rather than employing verbal irony, the writer introduces a structural feature, which sustains a duplex meaning throughout the work.

Stable Irony – The writer makes available to the reader an assertion or position, either implied or explicit, as a way to qualify or subvert the surface meaning. Unstable Irony, has no fixed position – think of absurdist narratives such as the Monty Python sketches – which constantly juxtapose and use intertextual references to subvert and or expose ironies – but the narrative has no political or otherwise fixed meaning, rather its absurd for the sake being absurd.

Sarcasm – often described as the poor cousin of irony, its usually restricted to verbal parlance – with the intention to undermine or taunt – here, verbal expression, emphasis on how the words are delivered, is the hallmark of sarcasm.

Socratic irony – a clever tool, most famously used in modern times by the lovable, and ash-ridden detective, Colombo (I miss that guy) whereby the character assumes a position of ignorance, and eagerness to be instructed, seeking opinions and asking many questions to arrive at a truth – or to disprove a position. In cultural criticism its sometimes referred to as imminent critique – exposing a position by exploring inherent contradictions within the statement itself – such ironies, once exposed, tend to weaken the authority of a said position.

Dramatic irony – this is where the writer has shared information with the audience – yet the central character is ignorant of the information. Shakespeare was a master at using this technique.

Tragic irony – is where the intended assailant, or schemer, is encompassed by the very same ill-fate they had planned for another. Sometimes, this may also be referred to as poetic justice – or in Aussie vernacular, ‘serves yer right’.

Cosmic irony – is a narrative device where the writer engages an omnipotent-type figure, is used to manipulate a character to lead them on with hope, only to mock them and frustrate their cause.

Romantic irony – is where the author creates the illusion of representing reality, only to dismantle that illusion by revealing that the author is the creator or manipulator of the characters. This was achieved brilliantly in the 2014 Lego Movie with Jack Black.

There we go folks, irony in a nutshell. Use it with the gravitas it deserves. It’s powerful stuff.

Till next time,

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

Translating a Speech into a Showstopper Spoken Word Performance

While clever and emotive rhetoric and narrative devices all help to engage and hopefully, persuade your listeners to your proposition or position, sometimes all it takes to blow away your audience is a simple statement delivered with perfect precision – timing, pause, emphasis, poise and projection.

Often times, we may read a speech, and note its punctuation as the ‘dynamics’ of the delivery, but this is really only one tiny aspect of interpreting the written word in order to bring it alive in front of an audience.

The best way to think about delivering a speech is to read the speech thoroughly and slowly first – as a musician whom reads sheet music before an attempt is made to play it. For example:

Projection

For anyone whom plays an instrument, you will know that it’s the dynamics of the music that brings the notes on the page alive e.g Pianissimo (very soft), Mezzo Forte (moderately loud) or Fortississimo (ridiculously blow your eardrums loud) etc… A powerful speech will be littered with softly spoken moments; or a steady rise in crescendo to boom your statement for maximum impact, and then you may fall again and fade out to an ellipsis… to let the audience reflect and take in the sentence.

Timing & Tempo

Comics rarely share their material, but one thing that is universally known, is ‘timing is everything’ – and for a speech, this adage applies.

Whether you’re delivering a funny one-liner or anecdote, or you’re hoping to build suspense, look for moments in the text that will require a faster delivery (vivo!), or you may need to slow right down (adagio) for more deliberate, clipped words to accentuate each word (staccato!) in a sentence.

Never let words run into each other, but take your sweet time in making every word count.

Pause & Emphasis

In both music and the written word, stress and unstressed words or notes are linked together to create a rhythm.

When delivering your speech, highlight words where you can use pause as way to ‘stress’ a word or ‘unstress’ a word to add or reduce emphasis to your point and retain the audience’s attention in your message. As I mentioned earlier, just because the sentence you have written has one comma because it makes sense grammatically (on the page), does not mean that you cannot add four more commas to enhance the delivery of the speech. Never forget that reading and performing are two very different functions, the latter requires physical and verbal expression to engage your audience.

Poise

Everyone gets the jitters before public speaking. The difference is that some have greater control of their person than others.

A really good tip to keep your heart rate steady, and in turn, help prevent your speech from falling into a bumbling monotone monologue, keep your mouth closed and tickle the roof of your mouth with your tongue. This forces the breath to inhale and exhale through your nostrils and will calm you down immediately. You can use this trick between pauses in your speech too. Funnily enough, it is impossible to cry when you do this as well, so if you’re feeling overwhelmed by your own awesomeness and want to sob (appassionato!) halfway through your speech – give yourself a little tickle, and that should buy you enough time to round out your showstopper to a standing ovation.

Till next time, crack a queer whid!

WordSmith Jo

The Novel – a Middle Class Spectacle

When you’re rich, you’re busy living the life people dream about, and when you’re poor, you’re busting your guts to put a meal on the table. It could be argued then, that the success of the novel as one of the most prolific of English literary forms is that it is a site of middle class experiences and sensibilities, aspirations and of course, consumption.

The novel, if nothing else, is a mirror of class consciousness with imagined (and real) narratives that often reflect its audience’ perception of self. And why not – who doesn’t like to read and write stories about themselves to a sympathetic crowd?

While the term bourgeois is pejorative in origin, no one can argue the cultural significance and contribution of the middle classes to what the literati would consider ‘high art’.

Most novels in the western canon reflect characters’ struggles in their rise and fall of moral, social and financial status – of which the middle class experience is mostly about. So in this sense, while the middle class is often derided in popular discourse as being a rich wannabe that lacks social grace or compunction, take a minute to consider that entire industries, socio / political economies and indeed our own cultural identities are being supported, informed and shaped not by ephemeral heroes – but by the very real aspirations of people who live in three bedroom houses with a backyard and a gas burner barbie. Awesome!

Till next time, crack a queer whid!

WordSmith Jo

Psst! What we would consider a complex and well-structured novel today, is a result from the combination of Defoe’s sensitive understanding of social and material reality with Samuel Richardson’s (1689-1761) awareness of human complexities in personalities that struggle against private and public social forces. Love your work gentlemen!

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!

Dinglichkeit: The Marvellous Reality of Triviality

Our attention is often captured by stories of extraordinary feat and courage and rightly so. However, it may be argued that our most heart soaring experiences can be reduced to a slight moment; a simple nod of encouragement from a person we hold in esteem, or observing the way light filters through trees in a passing car.

Good writers understand that capturing simple moments in time and representing them well, are what makes a seemingly banal moment, a textually rich and meaningful experience.

A very famous screen example of this is in the film American Beauty by Sam Mendes. The character Ricky, narrates some footage of a plastic bag and dead leaves swirling around in the wind – and invites us to see the beauty in the banal.

Poets in the Victorian Period (1830s to 1900) were masters at capturing and rejoicing in the Dinglichkeit of things. There is something seriously sensational about being able to tread a fine line between expressing an observation that is Romantic in its sense, but delivered with poise and control.

One Victorian Poet who did this well was John Clare (1793-1864). He was deemed mad by his contemporaries and spent the final twenty years of his life in an asylum.   While we can only speculate about Clare’s troubles, we can appreciate his legacy of works, which demonstrate a talent for showing quiet intensity in observation – particularly in rural settings.

Clare’s poem Signs of Winter, is a fantastic example of finding eloquence in the daily routine:

The cat runs races with her tail. The dog
Leaps o’er the orchard hedge and knarls the grass.
The swine run round and grunt and play with straw,
Snatching out hasty mouthfuls from the stack.
Sudden upon the elmtree tops the crow
Unceremonious visit pays and croaks,
Then swoops away. From mossy barn the owl
Bobs hasty out – wheels round and, scared as soon,
As hastily retires. The ducks grow wild
And from the muddy pond fly up and wheel
A circle round the village and soon, tired,
Plunge in the pond again. The maids in haste
Snatch from the orchard hedge the muzzled clothes
And laughing hurry in to keep them dry.

Keep Clare’s spirit in mind next time you’re elbowing for a seat on the train, or about to lose your cool over a parking space. Stop and observe your surroundings for a moment; you may just stumble upon something wonderful, and wholly unexpected…

Till next time, crack a queer whid!

WordSmith Jo

Plug Proper Press Releases to Publishers

Like all genres and styles of writing, each mode has its own convention, or what is generally considered as best practice. Here’s a few winning tips to help your Media Release be picked up for the Afternoon Edition or that trade publication your client has been dying to get free press in…

By submitting a polished, press-quality Media Release (MR), your chances of being picked up greatly increases. This can be boiled down to a few reasons:

Most writers have experienced just how stingy print publishers can be and frankly, it’s not their fault. Print Publishers (unless you’re the Editor of US Vogue) run on a fairly low margin and with the Accountant breathing down their necks, they are always looking for ways to save a dollar. As Publishers will have few paid Journalists and Subeditors on staff, most of what you and I read are submitted by freelance writers. Publishers love to receive press-quality MRs because they don’t have to allocate manpower to tidy up the story.

Secondly, and most importantly for your client, your primary intention should be to submit an MR with very targeted key messages, so if a subbie has to hack through your MR to make it press ready, you run the risk of your client’s key messages not being received as intended.

Also, as Journalists are underpaid and overworked (freebie from companies plugging their goods just doesn’t pay the rent) they embrace press quality MRs because it means they can submit your work, with their byline, without having to do any work – so it’s a win-win deal all round.

My top tips for writing a winning MR:

  1. Ask yourself – who is my audience? Make sure your writing style reflects the style of publication
  2. Ask yourself – what is the purpose of this MR? What do you want the audience to do or think after they have read your MR? In other words, how do you want to ‘position’ the reader? By asking yourself these questions, it will help you filter out any content that is not on message.
  3. Headings should never be more than six words. Use narrative devices such as alliteration, consonance and assonance to help your MR stand out.
  4. Slugs will sell your article. You have one or two sentences to hook your audience in – and to encapsulate what your story is about.
  5. Do not ask a rhetorical question in the Heading or Slug
  6. Do not start with a quote in the Heading or Slug
  7. Do not start with numbers or dates in the Heading or Slug
  8. The body of your MR should be in order of priority of information. Think of a reverse pyramid and write the most important information in the first three paragraphs. This is because the subbie may need to cut out words to make space on a page layout, and they will cut your MR from the bottom up.
  9. The first paragraph needs to include details on who, what, where, how, when and why.
  10. Use present tense instead of past tense. This helps your Media Release to feel relevant and gives it a sense of immediacy – which is what you want in a news story.
  11. Introduce subjects as Position Title / Name first and any subsequent mentions with last name only.
  12. Use short paragraphs and simple sentences.
  13. Highlight what you think is the best grab in the article and italicize/bold it. This is a subtle way to suggest to the publisher what should be a pullout grab, without telling them how to suck eggs.
  14. Most importantly, always submit two high resolution images with your MR and a photo caption.
  15. At the end of your MR, make sure the publisher has your details to contact for further information if they want to flesh out your MR into an extended feature article.

Lastly, when you submit your MR, don’t just email it and hope for the best. Follow up with a phone call to the features editor and introduce yourself and let them know what you’re sending through for their consideration.

Till next time, crack a queer whid!

Wordsmith Jo

Falling for a Red Herring

A ‘red herring’ is an idiom, and a plot device that acts as a plausible, yet diversionary tactic (e.g. false clues to lead to false conclusion) and is often featured in crime and suspense genres, as well as the occasional excuse for why you haven’t met that deadline at work.

Politicians often rely on red herrings too as part of a rhetorical stratagem; generally during interviews where they are forced to defend weak policy or to explain misappropriation of public funding.

One of the best literary uses of the red herring is Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose where he cleverly leads the reader down a warren of false starts and dead ends.

No one quite knows the etymology of ‘red herring’ however, there are some clues which may or may not lead us to the correct conclusion.

Some argue that kippers (a pungent fish that turns red when salted and smoked) was used to train hounds to follow a scent or to divert them off trail.

Recent linguistic research suggests that the term may have been invented in 1807 by English journalist William Cobbett, referring to one occasion, while hunting with Samuel Stokes, on which he had supposedly used a kipper to divert hounds from chasing a rabbit.

Here is where the plot thickens. According to etymologist Michael Quinion, the idiom originated from an article published in 1807 by Cobbett in his polemical Political Register. In a critique of the English press, which had mistakenly reported Napoleon’s defeat, Quinion argues that Cobbett’s use of a red herring ‘to deflect hounds in pursuit of a hare’ was merely figurative – not actual. According to Quinion, Cobbett’s extended repetition of the idiom up to 1833, was enough to get the figurative sense of red herring into the minds of his readers, along with the false idea that it came from actual hunting practice.

It seems the origin of red herring is just as intriguing as its purpose as a plot device. A red herring in the literary sense may also be the only time readers thoroughly enjoy being lead up the garden path to a brick wall.

Till next time, crack some queer whids!

Wordsmith Jo

Romancing the Text: Musings on Restraint & Anticipation

If I am unfortunate enough to walk by a venue playing rap/house music, I often buy an ice-cream to congratulate myself on getting through the two minute ordeal. Now, there’s no arguing the appeal of a good tune, and frankly, I am the first to admit, when my teen ears heard Technotronic’s ‘Pump up the Jam’ I was amazed by the beats bouncing out of that boombox.

Today’s Ditty however, is not a critique on the sound of rap, nor a challenge to apologists to expound on the cultural significance of rap – but rather, it’s a general lamentation on the lack of lyricism in popular music text.

Firstly, let’s discuss ‘tough guy lyrics’ which consists of continual repetition of violent threats i.e. how they’re going to lay into someone, carve them up, pull a trigger, break a finger, sit on a head…It just loses its punch and becomes innocuous when threats are sung plenty times over.

My advice to budding Tupacs is to think about how you can creatively allude to the threat of violence without being explicit. By demonstrating creative restraint, you can go a long way to build more dramatic tension in your lyrics.

To help work on creative restraint, here’s a little writing exercise tough guys can pop in their holster for later. Try to write a rap song without the following words: gun, blood, pigs, hammer, slammer, cops, knife, cut, trigger, pistol, dope, gold, slap, stitch, bitch, punch.

Secondly, let’s discuss ‘bedroom talk’ in lyrics. When the song has its pants around its ankles by the third crotchet, the show is over.

The defence of lyricism in music as an artform is valid if the intention is to raise the heart-rate by elevating the senses.  If the intention is purely to titillate our basest instincts, then I would argue that ‘art’ is absent.

When writers or lyricists leave no space for its audience to creatively imagine or negotiate with a phrase on its own terms, it shows a lack of respect for the audience. Great writers give the audience time to read or listen or watch texts not to be real – but to allow the texts to be revealed within the self.

I shall leave you alone to reflect on a good example of restraint and anticipation – whereby the audience is invited to exist in a space of tension, imagination and romantic possibilities – a line from Jeff Buckley’s lyrics ‘So Real’ –

‘Girl, let me sleep tonight on your couch / And remember the smell of the fabric / Of your simple city dress…’

Till next time, crack a whid!

WordSmithJo

The Turgid and The Turbid

Sharp writing is the aim and achievement of all good writers. Experts often cite Mark Twain’s famous quote, ‘I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one’ to punctuate the importance of brevity. However, we are often not told how to write sharply because writers aren’t partial to sharing lollies. Well folks, today it is lollipops all round as I share a few secrets of the trade…

When I was in my early twenties, I sat down with the Director of a Wiggles Movie, whom was kind enough to read a feature film script I wrote. His feedback was, “This is a steaming turd”.

Now, he could have just said, ‘turd’ but he went one step further – clearly the adverb was necessary to convey just how much my work stank.

After crying my guts out for three weeks, I resolved to refine my craft.

If you’re keen on honing your skills as a writer, here’s a few exercises that I found really helpful:

Reformulate

Choose a short essay or a newspaper article about 800 – 1500 words.

Read the story first.

Pick up a highlighter and go back over the story and highlight the most important information i.e. what is critical to understanding the crux of the story.

Try to reformulate the essence of the article, without losing crucial information, in 200 words.

Another reformulation exercise is to reduce a long paragraph to one sentence. Just to be an ironic smarty pants, I have cited Mark Twain as an example:

“To get the right word in the right place is a rare achievement. To condense the diffused light of a page of thought into the luminous flash of a single sentence, is worthy to rank as a prize composition just by itself…Anybody can have ideas–the difficulty is to express them without squandering a quire of paper on an idea that ought to be reduced to one glittering paragraph,” Mark Twain.

This quote can be reformulated without losing the sense and meaning of the quote –

“Anybody can have ideas, the difficulty is to reduce it to one glittering paragraph,” WordSmith Jo.

Say it aloud

When you have finished a sentence, read it out loud. A great sentence has a natural rhythm (meter) and should flow smoothly. Anything that jars the reader indicates a word or syntax of the sentence is not working.

Try to write first as you speak, and then go back and refine it. This helps to keep your tone natural, and it will help you to find your ‘voice’ as a writer.

Be Brutal

My old English Professor once told me that writing is re-writing. Don’t get too attached to your copy. By all means, write it, admire it, and then walk away from it for a day. When you come back to your copy, you’ll start to see the flaws. Wield your red pen like a bloody axe and chop long complex sentences into more simple, shorter sentences.

Read the Classics

Read as many books from the Western Canon as you can. Just as a painter studies under a master, so too does an aspiring writer study the greats. Never be too proud to learn from someone else better than you.

Till next time, crack a whid!

WordSmith Jo

The Power of Nostalgia in Advertising Copy

Real Estate Agent’s usage of the idiom ‘old world charm’ isn’t just floral white-wash for ‘termite addled house with fifty-year old carpet’. It is a narrative device that plays on buyers’ emotions by evoking connotations of antiquity (e.g. quaint, wholesomeness, traditional values, romance, nostalgia etc).

In real estate copy, the word ‘house’ is rarely used because its denotation is merely functional (e.g. shelter). By using the word ‘home’ it dennotes a place where one lives too, but its connotations – sanctuary, coziness, comfort – invites the buyer to imagine themselves in their ‘new home’.

Copywriters value nostalgia because it at once makes a product familar to the buyer (here, meet your old friend!) and familiarity engenders trust. Secondly, feeling nostalgia in the present, elicits a feeling of longing for a happy memory to be suspended in time (buy this product and you will always live your happiest moments).

Advertising constantly references the past in written and visual texts because there is a perception that the past adds legitimacy to the present (old things are expensive, old people are wise).

Perception is always reality in the land of Advertising, and, for the promise of a happy moment, the copywriter only needs to suspend your belief just long enough for you to open your wallet.

Till next time, crack some queer whids!

WordSmith Jo

Be a Writer not a Fighter

It seems to me, that lately, whenever I read the newspaper, it feels like I’m staring at roadkill baked by ignominy and hot tar for a month. Wouldn’t it be sweet if every once in a while, an angry fellow dropped his Glock and pulled up his socks to grapple with words rather than blokes?

The happiest kind of struggle is trying to find the word that expresses your intention to its fullest! Coleridge once said, that good prose is words in their best order and poetry is the best words in the best order.

Now, unless you’re prepping for a Spelling Bee Contest, remember that words can never be treated in isolation. When writing, try not to see the single word, but rather, the sense of the words working together to form meaning or function.

Words are never static. Meaning, intention, even the spelling of a word may change according to the social conventions in each time. Words go in and out of fashion. Words are beautiful living things that can either take on a good relationship with another word, or have an awkward uncomfortable coupling with another.

Whatever words you mash together, make every word count.

Till next time, crack a whid!

WordSmith Jo

Pleasures and Pangs of Pathetic Fallacy

A Pathetic Fallacy is not some lame excuse to hide some shady activity you may have been up to recently, but rather, it is a bit like a jealous cousin of the narrative device Personification.

Personification is a figurative device in which human traits (i.e. emotions, characters, sensations) are given to inanimate natural objects – e.g. ‘the banana looked tired, and bored by my company’.

Anyway, along comes John Ruskin in 1856, whom invented the phrase Pathetic Fallacy, as a derogatory term – or a speaking back – against the use of any personification in ‘high art’. Ruskin argued that only truth “should be the criterion of art” no matter how damn good or evocate the poet’s use of personification may have been.

Well, my speaking back to Ruskin (as he is not here to defend himself) is that he must have been a rather rigid, angry fellow to be so distaining about what is essentially a very endearing, human tendency – to see oneself in the beauty, and horror, of all of creation.

Till next time, crack some queer whids!

WordSmith Jo

To Hyphen or not to Hyphen?

According to Harts Rules, the Hyphen is used in compounds used attributively, to clarify the unification of the sense, (Oxford University Press).

Put simply, what my good mate Harts is trying to say, is that when an adverb is used to qualify an adjective and the meaning or sense of the compound is obvious, it is not necessary to hyphen e.g. ‘a beautifully furnished house’.

However, where the sense of the adverb may not immediately be understood, and, it forms a single concept with the adjective, a hyphen should be used e.g. ‘She is a well-known clown’ or ‘It’s a new-found mole’.

Where a noun and an adjective or vice versa are used attributively in combination, the hyphen should also be used e.g. ‘come meet my poverty-stricken family’. Hmm, he sounds like a catch ladies!

Till next time, crack a whid!

WordSmith Jo