The Scribbler

16 August 2015

Running and writing

Filed under: run,writing — The Scribbler @ 20:27
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My 2011 trainers

A selection of my running shoes

I was very honoured when my writing mentor John Simmons asked me to guest post on his blog 26 Fruits. I frequently refer to his books on writing, including 26 Ways of looking at a Blackberry in my job as a copywriter, and always look forward to his weekly posts.

So this week, having made a return to writing about running, it feels very appropriate to redirect you to John’s blog, where you’ll find my guest post on the connections between running and writing.

Returning to the Great North Run

Filed under: running — The Scribbler @ 12:38
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Sorry I haven’t bogged much about running and training recently. In fact there are at least two races and one big cycle ride that I never got round to writing about. I’m still very much in training though and enjoying the opportunities that bright summer days give me to get out and run or cycle.

My last triathlon was the QE2 sprint triathlon at Woodhorn Colliery on 17 July. It’s a really good, well organised event. I enjoyed it, even though I knew, coming out of the swim that I wasn’t going to be breaking any records that day. A windy bike course and stopping to pass another girl my spare inner tube slowed me down, but actually helped me get the right mindset, which was about having fun and completing the lovely course.

Collywell Bay

Collywell Bay – half way point on my 10 mile run

Since then I’ve been ramping up my run training as I’m doing the Great North Run, half marathon again this year. I normally give myself about 12 weeks training to pick up from running 10k to running 13.1 miles, but this year, I’ve only allowed myself seven weeks.

So I’ve been running three times a week and doing some strength or body weight training on two days and trying to get a rest day in too. I’m enjoying running early in the mornings again, getting the best of the day as I head out from the coast.

Today I managed 10 miles along the North East coast, with beautiful views over the sea.

I’ve also been fortunate enough to combine my professional and running interests as I’ve been writing lots of content for my company blog, as there’s a large team of us taking part.

My race number arrived this week, so suddenly it all seems very real. But my approach is very much to just get round and enjoy it. It’s not my target race this year and I din’t have a target time. I’d rather not put the pressure on myself and just enjoy the atmosphere of the day.

I hadn’t really intended to run for charity this year, as I feel I’ve been so well supported in previous charity fundraising efforts. But the team is supporting Cancer Research UK and I’ve got got good reasons for supporting their work.

When I was a teenager, my mum’s best friend had cancer. It was very scary at the time to think that someone like my mum could die from the disease and leave a young family behind.

In the past year or so I’ve known three lovely and very active people who have died of cancer. A couple I knew through the online running community Fetch Everyone.

Sue lived in Devon and loved surfing, skiing and ice cream as well as running.

Jane is someone I’ve raced a triathlon with, so I was very sad to hear that her partner Alistair, another triathlete, had cancer.

And then there was Zoe, the wife of Stephen, who I got to know online as we were both fundraising and running for Sands. She was an enthusiastic parkrunner, an Olympic torch bearer and Gamesmaker.

They all leave family and friends who will remember and miss them always.

In the past 40 years, survival rates for cancer have improved enormously, thanks to the work that Cancer Research and other organisations do. But It’s still very hard to accept that it can take such fit, active and outwardly healthy people, so young.

I know that being fit, healthy and active and not smoking is about the best insurance I can give myself against cancer. And really it’s a privilege to be able to run and bike and swim and enjoy spending time outdoors as I do.

So I’m running for Auntie Alison, Sue, Alistair and Zoe and all the others who would have loved to have run just one more race.

If you’d like to support me, you can here: Link (roll over me to see where I go)

6 August 2015

Memories of a visit to Hiroshima

Filed under: words — The Scribbler @ 18:31
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Today marks the 70th anniversary of the first atomic bomb dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima.

Hiroshima. A place name that can stop you dead. As dead as the watch whose hands forever point to 8:15 – the precise moment when the atomic bomb shattered thousands of lives and changed history.

A-bomb dome, Hiroshima

The A-bomb dome, Hiroshima

I first visited Japan in the spring of 2007. On the train to Hiroshima, a young man smiled and approached with his hand held out. Nestled in his palm was an origami crane and over the course of our journey, he showed us how to make one.

Taking a pad of patterned paper from his back pack, he began to fold it into shape, slowly, deliberately, taking great care of the creases. He introduced himself as Tsetsuo and thanked us for allowing him to practice his English.

When we got off the train, he walked us over to a tram stop and made sure we reached our destination.

The A-Bomb dome, the building that marks the epicentre of the bomb blast remains a ruined shell. Damaged, but still standing. A marker that held its ground as everything else around it was atomised into dust. Its distinctive shape casts a shadow on the skyline.

It stands at the entrance to the Peace Park, gardens, memorial and the Peace Museum. The museum tells the history of the city and its people, describing the worldwide events that lead to the bomb through a series of panels depicting letters, documents and photographs from world leaders at the time.

The initial blast killed 700,000 people, but in the following weeks and years many more would die from the effects of radiation, from being crushed in damaged buildings, trapped by fire, or simply desperately, desperately thirsty, with only black irradiated water to drink.

A model shows the city before and after the blast. Figures show the desperate human suffering. Eyewitness statements speak of a blinding white flash and then searing pain like hot needles as the shock wave ripped through buildings and bodies.

Memorial in the Peace Park, Hiroshima

Memorial in the Peace Park, Hiroshima

There were only five photographs taken in Hiroshima on 6 August 1945. They were taken by newspaper photographer Yoshito Matsushige, who was a couple of miles away from the centre of the blast. He later wrote: “I fought with myself for 30 minutes before I could take the first picture. After taking the first, I grew strangely calm and wanted to get closer. I took about ten steps forwards and tried to snap another, but the scenes I saw were so gruesome, my viewfinder clouded with tears.”

That phrase, “My viewfinder clouded with tears” has stuck with me. More powerful than any photograph.

The final section of the museum displays objects recovered from the debris. Beside them sit museum cards with details of who they belonged to, where they were at the time of the blast and what they were doing on that day.

A twisted metal lunch box, a tattered uniform, a child’s tricycle. I found these objects and their stories almost unbearably moving. They brought the unimaginable destruction of a thriving city back to a human scale.

There’s a special space for the story of Sadako Sasaki, a girl who died from leukaemia, caused by the radiation 10 years after the bomb. She folded thousands of paper cranes in the hope she would get well. The tradition continues with a monument in the park where children hang colourful paper cranes in a message of peace.

It’s not unusual for westerners in Japan to encounter great kindness. I have heard many travellers tell of being given directions, or even taken to where they wanted to go by local people. As a visitor, you are a most honoured guest, in a country which sets great cultural value on respect.

Japanese garden

Japanese garden in Hiroshima

But I think that Tsetsuo, who showed us how to make the paper cranes, was acknowledging more than the usual Japanese hospitality. When we told him we were visiting the Peace Museum, he said his grandfather was one of the many thousands killed in the atom bomb blast.

He knew his city was a hard place to visit. And that was why he took such care to welcome us. To honour our interest in his home town and help us see beyond its sad history.

As we learned in the museum, only a few days after the bomb obliterated the city, the trams began to run again. And despite all the fears that nothing would ever grow again in that irradiated earth, lilies bloomed between the tracks.

Hiroshima now offers a peaceful and friendly face, whilst paying respect to and remembering the past.

3 August 2015

Words are part of the landscape

Filed under: words — The Scribbler @ 11:00
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Walter Scott quote: "Love will subsist on wonderfully little ope, but not altogether without it"

Quotations from Walter Scott greet travellers at Waverley Station

I have travel on my mind at the moment. Unlike many, I’m not planning on jetting off on a summer holiday soon, but I am planning a few day trips, including time in Edinburgh.

In a couple of weeks’ time, I’ll be indulging myself at the Book Festival, and the Fringe. I have tickets for a few events and for the rest, will take the approach of turning up to see what I can get into.

I love spending time in Edinburgh. It’s far enough away to feel like an adventure, but not so far that I’m in danger of jet lag. There always feels like there’s lots to see, do and explore, no matter how many times I’ve visited. I generally walk my feet off getting from place to place.

I really enjoy the way the city wears its literature. It’s inescapable. From the Writer’s Museum to the Storytelling Centre; from the book festival to literary walking tours and pub crawls, you cannot avoid the fact that this is a Unesco City of Literature.

Many locations, street names and areas are familiar to me from reading. From Walter Scott to Alexander McCall Smith, Muriel Spark to JK Rowling, it’s been home and inspiration to many writers.

Decorative window poem in Edinburgh

Poetry brought to life in window art

When I step off the train at Waverley, I half imagine I’ll meet some of their characters as I explore. I swear one day, I’ll see Rebus somewhere about town.

Even if you were unaware of its literary connections, words pour out onto the streets. You’ll find them etched on buildings, woven into window frames and hidden among the street furniture. It’s like a secret code that speaks to readers like me. It makes me smile as I encounter a poem that others pass by and never notice.

My last visit there introduced me to a beautiful poem, November Night by Scottish writer Norman MacCaig, that I discovered on the side of a planter. In the height of a Scottish summer, it reminded me of the realities of its winter.

Here is the first verse, which I craned my neck to read on the street:

“The night tinkles like ice in glasses.
Leaves are glued to the pavement with frost.
The brown air fumes at the shop windows,
Tries the doors, and sidles past.”

I wish more cities did this kind of thing. Poetry as part of the landscape is far more appealing than when it’s stuffed into study books. It’s unlikely that I’d have found this verse and its companions if I hadn’t chanced upon it. And I feel richer for it.

As I visit again this summer, I’ll be on the look out for more words on the street.

26 July 2015

A tale of postcodes and poets

Filed under: 26,26 postcodes,writing — The Scribbler @ 17:34
Tags: , , , ,

I’ve been writing a lot of articles recently. It’s felt good to return to skills I learned as a journalist – researching, fact finding and checking and then constructing and structuring a story to a set word count and deadline.

It’s great to have the time to go into some depth. Learning by reading, following links from news stories through to deeper, considered and scientific research.

Rural postbox

1st class? Photo by Stu Mayhew (via Flickr)

I enjoy gathering facts and theories, scooping widely at first and then, as my pieces begin to take shape, becoming more discriminating about what to include and what to leave out.

The skills of assimilating, sorting and representing information in an engaging manner are pretty much my stock in trade as a copywriter.

But, just as I like to mix up my reading between fact and fiction, news and fantasy, I also enjoy stretching my skills, by taking on creative projects that encourage me to write in a different way.

My next will see me wrestle my brain from 1,000 word plus researched and referenced articles to a very much shorter form for the latest 26 project.

I’m one of 26 writers who have been paired with a postcode. Our mission is to use the coded shorthand of letters and numbers as inspiration to write a sestude – 62 words exactly.

I didn’t know what postcode I would get. I was sort of hoping for one that related to a made up place (but I don’t think Narnia, Neverland or Hogwarts have one).

But I got a real one – LA22 9SH, Dove Cottage, home of William and Dorothy Wordsworth.

Despite living only an hour or so away from the Lake District until I went to University, I’ve never been. And for an English Literature graduate, I’m sadly under informed about this writer, beyond what’s generally known.

So, today I started my research – dipping into poetry, journals and websites related to the Lakes poet and his sister. It’s proving a rich seam, and I’ve already taken in many times the 62 words that will eventually be published.

Thoughts are starting to spin around themes of nature, place and a community of writers, but I haven’t yet committed to a single word.

Dove Cottage is a little further away these days, but still easily reachable. Deadlines are tight, but I hope I may be able to pay it a visit and find inspiration in its landscape and surroundings, just as Dorothy and William did.

Follow the project as it develops #26postcodes, and I’ll keep you posted.

18 July 2015

Advice on writing from Ernest Hemingway

Filed under: words — The Scribbler @ 12:48

‘My aim is to put down on paper what I see and what I feel in the simplest way’ – Ernest Hemingway

A quote from Ernest Hemingway

A quote from Ernest Hemingway

Well, of course, Ernest. You make it sound so straightforward. But in the real world it so rarely ever is, is it?

As a business writer, first I have to wrestle with the brief, to try and interpret what my customer is looking for and ultimately what the real world customer thinks, feels and wants. It’s rarely expressed in such clear and simple language as this.

Then I have to understand the product or service, gradually condensing down pages of features and benefits into a simple statement that, if I’ve got it right, will answer the question ‘What does this mean for me?’

Mr Hemingway would have made a good 21st century copywriter I think, with his unfussy style. His sharpness, wit and ability to condense things down into a pithy quote would have made him a natural on twitter.

With his journalistic edge for reporting the facts and the details, what would he make of today’s jargon and business speak? How would he have responded to phrases such as  ‘leveraging synergies’ or ‘ monetising cross promotion strategies’.

I like to think he’d be firmly and forcefully opposed. With a loaded gun if necessary.

9 July 2015

Communication challenges

I spent much of the weekend near Ashbourne in the beautiful Peak District this weekend, volunteering as a bike marshal at the Care Construction Challenge.

The event saw more than 50 people assemble as teams and take to Carsington Water in kayaks. Then jumping on mountain bikes for a 21 miles cycle on roads and trails; stopping off for a 5 mile run up and down and up a nettle-filled river path, and tackling mental, physical, memory and teamwork challenges along the way.

Bicyle propped against a stone wall

One of the views along High Peak trail

Everyone was there to support the work of Care International, a charity that currently works in 74 countries helping people find their way out of poverty. They provide immediate life-saving assistance and are often the first on the ground after natural disasters like the earthquake in Nepal and help people rebuild their lives afterwards.

I got my marshal briefing notes via email before I arrived. It was a comprehensive document detailing roles, responsibilities, tasks and timings. With a large team of volunteers and a lot of ground to cover, many of us were taking on different roles in various locations throughout the day. On reading the notes, I remarked that everything had been planned like a military operation. I later learned the writer was a former Marine.

These communications were ideal for me. As a great reader and traditional verbal learner, I was able to retain and repeat the information, even down to the important detail that packed lunches would be available on the day.

The teams took part in a number of communication challenges throughout the day, including one where a team member had to instruct their team on how to construct a model house out of straws and tinfoil without talking to them.

But the biggest communication challenge was provided by our environment. Despite being well equipped with radios, spare batteries and multiple mobile phones, getting messages between the various marshal points was very patchy due to the undulating hills and dales.

I arrived at my first marshal point to find that no one could hear to respond to my radio call, and that with only  minimal signal on my mobile phone, I could only send text messages, and they arrived hours after being sent.

High Peak Trail, Derbyshire

One of the flatter parts of the cycle route

We’d marked out the cycle route the previous day using orange arrows – no text or words needed. These were visible in the misty morning and (mostly) sent competitors in the right direction.

Standing at the road crossing, ready to count all the riders through and direct them onto the next part of the trail, I was able to hear them approaching long before I could see them as they toiled up a series of climbs, encouraging each other and issuing huge sighs of relief when the ground finally levelled out.

The team who turned up wearing dresses over their cycle gear were communicating that they were out for a good time and had a joke and smile at every check point. Those kitted out in team hoodies were well organised and supportive, sticking together, helping each other on the tough climbs and generally being all round good sports. They deservedly took home the trophy for best fundraisers.

Even when no one was speaking, there was communication through touch and body language – a pat on the back after a tough section, a hand up out of the ravine, or a wry roll of the eyes at yet another hilly section.

These very human, simple, one-to-one communications were ultimately the most successful. They were slower paced than modern technology usually allows, but no less effective for it. Messages were relayed along the route, radio to radio, or person to person via bike and car, keeping the communications moving along the line.

After testing endurance, memory, communication and teamwork, everyone made it to the finish, and all had a story to tell.

Watch a video of the Care Construction Challenge 2015

29 June 2015

Five handy business writing tips

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

Five things to keep at your fingertips when writing for business

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.  

3. 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?

22 June 2015

Sharing tables

Filed under: words — The Scribbler @ 11:00
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Commensality. It’s a word I discovered on Jamie Jauncey’s blog this week. It means sharing a table. Most often in the sense of sharing a meal, which is, as Jamie says, one of the simplest but most profound acts of hospitality.

That word triggered off a flurry of associations in my mind, of happy memories of sharing tables. It took me back to Aracena, to sunshine and sunsets where I shared tables with a group of writers to write and eat and uncover things about ourselves.

Cake and flowers on a table

A welcoming table where you’ll always find cake and a hopeful labrador

It conjured up an image of a place in the Scottish Borders, my favourite place to swim and cycle with my triathlon buddy. Where, after an active day, you’re sure to be welcomed back to a hearty feast. And where a soppy labrador will put his head on your knee, and give you the eyes in the hope that you’ll one day give in and slip him a slice of cake.

It spun into older memories of traditional Sunday lunch at my Nana’s at a wooden table that could be extended to feed hundreds. Roast dinner with all the trimmings, steamed syrup pudding and custard, or apple pie and ice cream. There was always plenty to go round.

And then, as it was Father’s Day this weekend, I settled on a memory of another table. Growing up, my family’s dining table was oval and made from smoked glass. We sat around it on white plastic chairs. It was probably the height of chic in the 70s. How on earth it didn’t get broken with three kids running around it, I’ll never know.

But it was a good, big space, in a quiet, well-lit room, and so, when the desk in my room felt cramped, or when I deigned to give my sister, who shared it with me, a bit of space, I’d use the glass table for studying. It had plenty of room for my papers, books and folders, and I wouldn’t be disturbed until tea time.

When I was studying for my A levels, I remember sharing it with my Dad who, having left school with barely any qualifications, was studying for his Private Pilot’s License.

As I wrote reams of notes on Shakespeare, Chaucer, Keats and Wilfred Owen, or puzzled over chemical reactions and equations, he sat opposite with a pile of books, calculations and a slide rule figuring out wind speeds or learning about instrumentation.

I’d never though of Dad as the academic type. He was a hard worker, sure, but I don’t think I’d ever seen him pick up a book or read anything other than transport magazines. But he was determined, and more than anything, he wanted to fly. And he did. He’s still flying as often as he can today.

Dad’s studies paid off for me too, as in my General Studies A Level exam paper, there was a question all about flying light aircraft. It explained how to move the plane using rudder, flaps and ailerons, and things like pitch and yaw. From the information provided you then had to use a logical process to work out a series of multiple choice questions about manoeuvres in the air. I got an A in that paper.

In thinking about tables, I also remembered something I learned when I was in Oxford earlier this year. The word for bank, comes from Italian, banca – a table or bench originally used for changing money. We may think of the world of business and commerce as cold and impersonal, but at its roots, it shares language with the sociable act of sharing a table.

A table is a simple, humble object. Its practicality as a place to sit and eat, or write is elevated to a deeper purpose. In sharing food and ideas around it, we share something of our common human experience, and even more of ourselves.

15 June 2015

Life as a trainer

Filed under: training,writing — The Scribbler @ 11:00
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Most often when I write about training, it’s in the context of physical training for the sports that I do, but today I’m thinking about the other training that I do in business writing.

I run writing and tone of voice workshops, to help people connect with their customers with communications that sound like they come from human beings rather than nameless, faceless organisations.

As many of the people who attend are in customer support roles, these sessions are always about how we speak as well as how we write. And increasingly I’m being asked to offer advice on things like webcasts and social media platforms as the range of ways of communicating expands.

Coloured post it notes laid out  on a piece of paper

My low tech approach to workshop planning helps me structure and balance the session

I’ve had the benefit of some really excellent training throughout my working life. At the BBC it was often technical and skills based as I learned how to edit, first on tape and then digitally; how to ‘drive’ a studio desk; how to interview and construct radio packages quickly. Later I would learn digital skills, working on websites, using basic HTML, photo manipulation, and content management skills.

It was at the BBC that I started training other people. At first, it was just about passing on what I’d learned, helping someone put together a radio report, as someone had once helped me. But again, someone showed faith in me, and actually took the trouble to say “You’re good at training.”

I realised that I really enjoyed it too. I was there long enough to see people I’d trained passing on what they’d learned to others. I get a real kick out of that.

I have a little training mantra: “See one, do one, teach one.” I probably stole it from a medical drama, most likely ER. But I’ve found it really works, as you really know and have confidence that you know how to do something when you  can teach someone else.

In my last blog post, I talked about having doubts and insecurities as a writer. When I’m doing a training session or workshop, if I have any, I can’t let them show. I have to have confidence in my knowledge and ability to deliver the materials and to make them interesting.

Not every workshop is perfect. Some are better than others. But the participants will never know if I rushed through an exercise because we were short of time, or handled a question differently the next time I was asked it.

Sessions can be tricky when I’m expecting a room full and only a handful turn up. I have to mentally rejig how I’ll manage small group discussions as they take their seats and adapt as I go.

Or  when I get the sense that people have been told to come to a workshop, but don’t know why. Sometimes I feel like a stand-up comedian in front of a tough crowd. I just have to believe in my material and keep going, while trying to find the level of the room.

The best sessions are when people are really engaged and ask questions or challenge points I make. When they ask ‘Why?’ or say “But we have to do it like this…” I know they are taking an interest and I have a great opportunity to make that session really relevant.

Most writers are magpies. We steal inspiration, words, phrases and ideas from anywhere and everywhere, then make them our own.

I do the same with training courses. And once again, I’ve had the benefit of some excellent ones, from Dark Angels, 26, The Writer and Scarlett Abbott, to name just a few.

From classroom based to online learning – as well doing my own learning, I take notes and reflect on the content later. Was there a good ice-breaker? How was the session structured? How was the information presented? And when I can, I’ll pick the brains of other people who do training sessions. They are always very generous.

I’ve got some sessions with finance teams coming up. So right now, I’m gathering materials, thinking about aims and objectives for the sessions and looking forward to putting them together.

No one taught me how to be a trainer, or how to put together a workshop. I’ve learned by watching, listening, thinking and doing; through experience and analysis. I’m always looking for things that I can learn from, so I can improve my skills as a trainer.

What are your top tips for training?

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