Monthly Archives: December 2006

Jab, hook, uppercut: three rules for writing knockout copy

Keep it human:There is a real tendency for novice (or bad) copywriters to go all stiff and starchy and start writing as if they’re either faux academics or appearing before a House of Commons select committee. Copywriters can forget that we’re all human beings together. Reading copy is a personal and, dare I say it about commercial copy, even intimate experience. Most of us behave slightly differently – more openly – when we’re talking to people one-to-one as opposed to within a group. Let your writing reflect that one-to-one relationship. Friendly, accessible copy is as important as knowledgeable, confident copy. It’s the same with copywriting. It’s just you and the reader, so find a nice corner of the pub, take a long draw of a fresh pint of Harvey’s, and start talking.

That’s enough about me; let’s talk about you:Your job as a copywriter is to matchmake between your client and the object of their affection, i.e. their potential customer. So find the common ground. It’s a date, and as their matchmaker it’s no good you rambling on for ages and ages about how great your client is while the date in question prays for it all to be over.

Surprisingly, it can be a very effective tactic to begin by talking about them. They like it when you do that. Ask questions. Be complimentary. Put yourself in their shoes, and take an interest in them. “Smaller businesses (often referred to as SMEs) represent 99% of all enterprises in the EU, provide around 65 million jobs (subtext: you’re significant) and make a huge contribution to entrepreneurship and innovation (subtext: you’re needed). As clients, you’re pretty special to us too, and represent a significant element of our day-to-day business (subtext: we love you). That’s why we’ve put together a special package of services directly aimed at SMEs and their specific needs (subtext: we understand you and we could be good together)… and so on. When you’ve made a connection with the reader, and they’ve uncrossed their arms and begun playing coyly with a lock of their hair, then it’s safe to begin talking about yourself.

Be brief: Copywriters are not solicitors. We don’t get paid by the word. Writing short copy is harder than writing long copy, so never worry about charging for great copy that says it all in 100 words. These days people simply don’t want to read lots and lots of copy, so make sure that what space you do occupy on a website or in a brochure earns its keep. And when you do write short, pay attention to the rhythm of your prose. Rhythm is an essential rudiment of good writing on any length of copy, but it’s particularly important on short pieces. One long para is a difficult read, as are lots of two- or three-word sentences. Mix it up, like a good boxing combo: jab, hook, uppercut. Knockout.

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Happiness Tools (and Misery Mechanisms)

We’re inundated with suggestions for how we might improve our lot in life, and I find most of them to be a complete waste of time and energy. So, without further ado, here is a little gem given to me by my good friend Paul Hutchings from Kindle Research (see blogroll right) who informed me that the list is based on academic research; and he should know – he’s an academic researcher (well, a market researcher, but it’s all jolly academic, I’m sure).

Try these regularly for two months. Happiness guaranteed or your money back:

  1. Take half an hour of exercise three times a week.
  2. Count your blessings. At the end of each day, reflect on at least five things you are grateful for.
  3. Have an hour-long, uninterrupted, conversation with your partner or closest friends each week.
  4. Plant something: even if it’s in a window box or pot. Keep it alive!
  5. Cut your TV viewing by half.
  6. Smile and say hello to a stranger at least once a day.
  7. Make contact with at least one friend or relation you have not been in contact with for a while and arrange to meet.
  8. Have a good laugh at least once a day.
  9. Give yourself a treat every day. Take time to really enjoy this.
  10. Do an extra good turn for someone each day.

What has this got to do with writing? Well, we’re generally a fairly unhappy bunch (no exception here). In fact, I once heard writing referred to as ‘a vocation of unhappiness’. Most days I’m happy to wallow in my own melancholy, but every now and then I could do with a couple of months off.

Failing that, here are my personal top ten tips for staying miserable:

  1. Spend at least an hour a day refusing to talk to anyone.
  2. Smoke.
  3. Refuse at least one profitable, potentially career-expanding job per month because it’s easier to keep doing the stuff you’re used to even though you hate it.
  4. Watch a really good new comedy programme once a week (such as Lead Balloon) and get really depressed about not getting off your arse and writing something yourself.
  5. Set up a meeting with a film producer, who then says he loves your script, and if you get a rewrite done to his notes, he’d love to work with you – and then do nothing.
  6. Scowl and say ‘what are you bleedin’ well looking at?’ to a stranger at least once a day.
  7. Play Sniper Elite on the PS2 until 3 a.m. when you have a full day’s work and a crippling deadline the next day.
  8. Lose at Scrabble during your lunch break to a load of non-writers who then politely say ‘you’d have thought being a writer you’d be good at this’, to which you reply, ‘Scrabble’s not about being imaginative and good with words: it’s a puzzle like a crossword or su-bloody-doku.’
  9. Subscribe to several screenwriting magazines and leave them in prominent places, but never read them.
  10. Have a good cry at least once an hour.

Freelance/Freestyle

Anyone who writes regularly for paying clients will know that there are many restrictions on how you write and what you say. You’re writing to a brief and trying to achieve a few simple end goals – to sell a product or service, or to get potential customers to emotionally buy in to a particular company. In the case of speeches, you’re making sure that the speaker resonates with the audience, keeps them interested, informed and entertained, and that they go away with some memorable ‘images’ and a greater understanding of why they’ve been sitting there for the past 45 minutes or so.

None of this has anything to do with the writer’s own voice coming through. You are an invisible force; the more you can sound less like you and more like your client, the better. So, that’s the mortgage paid then, but how do you stay fresh, particularly as your personal vocab becomes increasingly occupied by the business jargon you have to use and the lack of personal interest in the subjects you cover?

The answer is you spend as much time as you can on your ‘freestyle’ writing: personal pieces that you create that have no such boundaries and allow you to roam freely through your imagination.

When I have a heavy commercial schedule underway, I am all too aware of how little attention I pay to spending time simply experimenting with writing copy where nobody but me decides on subject, style, length, tone, rhythm and all of the other things that keep a writer in tune with their craft and creativity. That’s what this blog is about. It’s a little bit of ‘me’ time.

Freestyle writing maintains my enthusiasm for arranging words into something original and meaningful. I enjoy being a commercial writer, but one can’t help but get a little cynical about the business of writing for business – especially when I don’t have the luxury of only working for clients in whose products and services I totally believe (prostitution is not the oldest profession in the world; it’s copywriting, but the two share so many similarities that they’re virtually interchangeable). To save myself from going to hackdom in a handcart, I make sure I spend time freestyling as well as freelancing. It’s good for me, but it’s good for my client too.


Toys for middle-class children

The main problem with the middle classes is that they’re bored. That’s why they are able to spend so much time fretting about whether they’re getting it as right as the magazines tell them they should be, and their children are hothoused little battery babies whose lives they fill with ambitious activity and on whom they dote suffocatingly, transferring their neuroses. It goes without saying then that their children are bored too. By the time Christmas rolls around, the ever so self-centred little darlings have already managed to amass all of the pointless techno-tat and heavily branded nonsense they need, so what do we give them to stop them turning to expensive drugs? Here are some suggestions:

  • My Little Mascarpone. The absolute ‘must-have, hold your breath until you go blue, you’d better get me one or I’ll smash my pink iPod’ cookery book for the kept-woman in training. Forget learning the rudiments of cooking by making gingerbread men and jelly boats, this little gem will help girls between the ages of 6 and 10 select the best ingredients, prepare and cook them, and plan ‘my first dinner party’ for up to ten equally precocious little friends (non-alcholic cocktails at 7pm, four-wheel-drives at 9.30pm). 10% off for girls called India or Saffron.
  • Tarzan still on the vine. Here’s an action doll with a difference. A 12-inch fully poseable Tarzan figure, but still attached to a vine which has continued to nourish his King of the Jungle figure while being transported all the way from Malaysia. Each doll is therefore completely unique with its own naturally-defined muscle tone and body shape. Vine can be removed to complete the process. Designer dolls are the thing of the future and a good way to get your children thinking about what kind of designer baby they would like when genetic manipulation gets the full green light at about the time Jocasta will herself be thinking about bearing fruit. 10% off for boys called Charles or Harry.
  • Privatised train set. Like a normal train set, except you get extra points for building layouts that fulfil the needs of your imaginary shareholders instead of the travelling public. Includes disused, overgrown rural train stations, shorter carriages crammed with irritable commuters and an entire section of track that has a maintenance crew working on it permanently because of years of underinvestment while the company raised its share value by showing huge profits.
  • Subbuteo Corporate Edition. Never mind what goes on on the pitch, this version of the classic boys’ game focuses squarely on taking sport away from the masses and making it the sport of captains of industry. Build your own corporate entertainment suites and then fill them with lots of guffawing businessmen who number among the few people who could actually afford a premier league season ticket and yet ironically don’t have to pay a penny. Design your own team’s strip by adding your dad’s own company logo and then recoup all of your investment by charging your friends a small fortune for this week’s official kit.