The Scribbler

25 September 2015

Reading and eating

Filed under: eating,food,Japan,reading — The Scribbler @ 17:15
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I always delight in a new book. And although I have embraced the electronic version as an excellent way of carrying a library around with me, there’s nothing quite like the feel of book made of paper.

Today’s is a particular delight, being an extravagant hardback. A hefty tome that sits, spine along the palm of my hand as its glossy pages open, peppered with photographs. For, this is not fiction, but a cookery book.

As I glance through its pages at random, I stop at one headed ‘Breakfast in Japan’. Here’s the first paragraph:

“Kyoto wakes late, which at least gives me time to write. A perfect morning. Grey clouds. Mist hangs low over the hills like woodsmoke. Soft raindrops. An old woman rides her bike, wobbling, a transparent umbrella in her right hand. Breakfast is miso soup in a deep, black, lacquer bowl, and grilled silver mackerel. A plate of pickles, vivid purple cabbage, white radishes, shredded daikon is salty, sour and crisp.”

Fresh sushi

Sushi at Tsukiji

Which is why Nigel Slater is my favourite food writer. You will find recipes in his books. Good ones, creative and useful ones. But he’ll also take you through the whole sensual experience of growing, preparing, cooking and sharing a meal.

In a few words he’s taken me to the other side of the world and offered me a rather strange, but enticing breakfast, and I’m hooked to a cookery book. Maybe it’s because I’ve been to Japan and had fish for breakfast – raw fish in fact in the form of sushi and sashimi just outside Tokyo’s famous Tsukiji fishmarket. But good writing can transport you to new places and give you a sense of sights, sounds and cultures you may never actually experience.

So what does it matter that a cookery book is beautifully written? Surely it’s all about the recipes and the method? The proof’s in the pudding, so to speak.

Well I think it does matter. Because it shows me that Nigel Slater really cares about his work and that he wants to share, not just the end result, but the whole experience. By opening up his memories and thoughts he shares something of himself, as he passes on the pleasures of tastes, flavours and ingredients. If he writes so beautifully, you just know that what he cooks will be served up with as much love and care. To me, Nigel Slater is just as much a writer as he is a cook. And probably the person I’d most like to invite me round for dinner.

Dipping into the third volume of his Kitchen Diaries at that particular page has also brought back memories of my own wonderful time in Japan. The blog posts I wrote then are no longer online, but I still have my notebooks, photographs and poems inspired by my trips there. Maybe it’s time to reflect and republish. Would you like to read more about travelling and eating in Tokyo, Kyoto, Nara and Takayama?

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1 June 2015

Brief encounters

The brief. The starting point of the conversation between client, creative and customer.

“I don’t understand it”
“It contradicts itself”
“There’s too much information”
“There’s not enough to work with.”
These are all things I’ve heard, said or thought myself about the briefs I’ve encountered on creative and writing projects.

Hardly the start of a great relationship – one that promises a meeting of minds, sparks imaginations, encourages creativity, and collaboration.

Group of people sitting round a table and writing on flipcharts

Writing the perfect brief.

And it seems I’m not alone. I was in London today for the first in a series of workshops being offered by writer’s organisation 26, under the title 26 Trade Secrets. Today’s session at the Free Word Centre in Farringdon was “Setting up Projects for success.”  A chance to look closely at briefs, learn how to turn bad ones into good ones and what to do with them when you get them.

We started exposing the nightmares. The poor briefs. The confused. The sketchy. The ‘says one thing but really means something completely different.’ Around the room we all had similar stories.

A poor brief can become a source of conflict, a sort of battle map, drawing up the lines between them and us. Hardly the best start for a constructive relationship. And yet no client deliberately sets out to write a poor brief.

I go back to my clients, ask questions, challenge preconceptions. I worry that sometimes, to a client, it must seem like I’m asking so many questions, I don’t actually want the work. But really it’s about finding the truth of what I’m being asked to write about.

As a writer, it’s always good to be able to step into someone else’s shoes. So recently I’ve been trying on the role of client as I work to improve the briefs that we ask them to complete.

And it’s really hard to write a good brief. I used an example for a product campaign I’m very familiar with, and still found it tricky to identify what should go in each section, how much or how little information to include and how best to explain it, without lazily copying and pasting from some commercial document. And that’s my job – to simplify, condense an explain things in simple terms.

As I also learned, those who write the briefs may not always have training or advice on how to complete them. Or the necessary background information to complete them. No wonder it can be a fraught process.

Today, as we broke down and built our perfect brief, there was much discussion about what it should include. But the one thing that stood out for me was clarity. Clear purpose and clear communication.

And that requires clear thinking. How much time do you allow to create, interrogate and confirm a brief? Is it something delegated to a junior team member, a form to be filled in and passed to the creative team to decipher?

Or is it not so much a battle plan, as a campaign objective? Something you think about, consider and discuss with the people who need to sign it off?

Rather than complaining about bad briefs, I’m going to continue questioning, considering and looking for ways to help my clients to help me by writing better ones in the spirit of producing more effective and clearer communications. I hope to return to this subject in future blogs

What are your tips for writing a great brief?

11 May 2015

Training as a writer

Filed under: copy writing — The Scribbler @ 10:45
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I’m training quite hard at the moment, running, cycling and swimming in preparation for a triathlon in a few weeks’ time. It’s tricky sometimes fitting it all in around my working hours and all the other things I need to do, cooking, cleaning, general chores. But I enjoy it, and so I make time for it.

Cyclist on Newcastle's Quayside

Cycling along Newcastle’s quayside

I’m making more time for my writing too. Time to explore more than just work commitments. Time to try new things and to just enjoy writing for what it is – an important part of me.

I believe writing’s a form of exercise too. You get better as you practice, learn new skills, gain confidence, or just a better understanding of what works and what doesn’t.

Most writers start out mimicking their heroes. I know I did. Somewhere there’s an exercise book filled with adventure stories in the style of C.S Lewis and tales of knights on horseback, battling dragons.

Reading was how I first learnt the elements of stories, about heroes and conflicts, quests and returns. Writing my own taught me about structure – beginnings, middles and endings.

As I got older, I’d learn techniques, hints and tips in my English lessons, such as using all the senses, and the power of metaphor and simile. And more about structure, rhythm and making words dance through poetry.

At University one of my tutors used to set tasks to write essays in the style of the works we were studying – Philip Sidney, John Milton, Alexander Pope… You may think that was a cruel and unusual form of undergraduate torture. But in mimicking the rhetoric, or manipulating my thoughts into rhyming couplets, I became even more conscious of the skill and technique of the writers, and I understood their work at a deeper, more personal level. Of the hundreds of essays I wrote in my University terms, those are the only ones I remember.

As a copywriter, the ability to adopt another’s style is a very useful skill. It helps me sound like the brand or company I’m writing for. But to make it sound authentic, it’s not really enough just to mimic. I believe you have to be able to add something of yourself. And in analysing the work of literary writers, I’ve learned to spot styles and forms that I can adopt and adapt in more commercial and contemporary writing.

Running, cycling and swimming all take some discipline and commitment if you want to improve. The same is true of writing. But just as you don’t know how far or fast you can go until you really try, you’ll never realise your writing potential on a blank page – sometimes you just have to fill it.

4 May 2015

The mind seeks meaning

Filed under: copy writing,writing — The Scribbler @ 10:45
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Meaning. It’s something our minds instinctively reach out for. I was reminded of this whilst listening to some music as I worked on a piece of writing last week. The lyrics of a familiar song took on a new resonance, because of what I was writing about, and I discovered a meaning in them that I hadn’t noticed before.

As human beings we are supremely adept at recognising patterns and seeking out connections. I once took part in a writing exercise that demonstrates this beautifully.

Basho's house, Japan

The home of Japanese haiku writer, Basho

As a group, we were each asked to write a haiku – a Japanese verse form of three lines, made up of five, seven and five syllables. We wrote the last line separately from the first two, then mixed them up and paired them at random to form a new haiku.

You might think the results would be meaningless. But it was amazing how often the last line, although written by someone thinking of an entirely different subject, fitted perfectly and how it drew out new themes from the ones that preceeded it. That was a result of our minds creating connections, seeking out meaning.

Of course, in business writing, you don’t want to make a customer have to work as hard as we did with our haiku to discover the message you’re trying to convey.

Straight, clear, simple and direct is the best way to ensure attention from busy eyes surrounded by thousands of messages every day. Yet there still needs to be space for the reader to get involved and create meaning for themselves.

I use an example in my writing workshops of a message that, in trying to tell you what a complex product does, actually blurs any kind of understanding, because it bombards you with a paragraph of over 40 words. It ends up being empty verbage, and so difficult to read that people get stuck half way through and have to go back to the beginning to try and make any sense of it.

In its over exuberance, trying to tell you everything you ever needed to know in one go, it loses connection with its audience. It’s not helped by the fact that it’s a single sentence full of meaningful sounding, but intangible words like flexibility, stability and strategic.

Connecting with an audience, is often about helping them make the mental leap to think ‘that applies to me’. Using tangible terms really helps. So, for example, showing how something could “help you work just as well in the office as out of it”, rather than using an intangible word like ‘flexibility’, can really help your readers understand what it would be like to use the product or service.

If, as a writer, I can make someone think ‘yes, that’s just like me…’  or ‘I’d like that…’, then I’ve caught their attention and they’re more likely to carry on reading to discover more.

20 April 2015

A smile in the mind

Filed under: copy writing,words — The Scribbler @ 10:45
Tags: , , , ,

Celandine. The word pops into my head as I cycle past a clutch of small yellow flowers in the undergrowth beside a familiar track.

A small yellow flower with 9 petals

Lesser celandine

My brain has plucked a rarely used word from the depths of my memory. A word from I know from Flower Fairy books and trips to the park with my Nanna, who seemed to know the name of every plant and tree there was. I roll it round in my mouth and say it out loud. It sounds like springtime.

When I look it up later, I discover that celandines are associated with the return of the swallows and that the lesser version with its heart shaped leaves was much loved by Wordsworth.

It’s an uncommon word. In my business writing I’m on the watch out for these. Usually they are pieces of  jargon or commercial terms that just don’t sound like something our customers would use in their everyday conversation. So I have to find an alternative, a different way of explaining the idea I want to convey using clear and natural terms.

But, as I was reminded recently, clear doesn’t mean the same as mundane. I believe that sometimes, even in business writing, it’s good to have a word that surprises you.

In my writing workshops, I often ask people for their favourite word. Some choose a word like ‘holiday’, which is popular by association; others choose words which sound great or feel nice in your mouth when you say them, like ‘murmur’ or ‘hullaballoo’. One thing they all have in common is that they naturally smile as they say them.

An unexpected word can be a delight. While I think it unlikely I’ll find a place for ‘celandine’ in the next marketing email that I write, I’ll continue to look for opportunities to use words like it that put a smile in your mind.

3 October 2014

Wild foraging in Dumfries and Galloway

A couple of weeks ago, we had a short break in Dumfries and Galloway. The highlight of our trip was a day spent foraging for wild foods around the hedgerows, forest and seashore of Galloway with Mark of Galloway Wild Foods.

Foraged foods from Galloway

Some of the edible items we found on our foraging trip

Mark  was incredibly knowledgable and enthusiastic about all things foraging. The day started with us meeting over tea and cake made from hogweed seeds and tasting something like ginger parkin as Mark asked about how we’d like to plan our day. I think he liked the fact that we were interested in our food too and were keen to learn as much as we could.

We started in the garden, finding sorrel and sea beet, then ventured onto the hedgerows to taste and pick cress with a real mustard bite and discover some of the many uses of common hogweed, as well as spotting sweet cicely and cow parsley. Mark was great at sharing his knowledge and tempting our tastebuds with a range of flavours, all just plucked from the verges. This is a man who will never go hungry!

We took a short drive towards the seashore, donned wellies and ventured out onto the muddy flats where we collected marsh samphire, sea plantain and sea aster, which would fill our seashore sushi later in the day. With Mark’s help, we were soon looking at our surroundings with new eyes.

Down by a rocky foreshore, we found sea radish and three different types of edible seaweed including the incredible pepper dulce, or truffle of the sea. This rather unprepossessing looking brown growth on the side of the rocks has the most amazing truffle-like taste. We only half joked that we’d be licking the rocks back here in the North East. I really hope I find some locally.

Mushrooms in a frying pan

Mark cooked up a feast after our walk in the woods

All through the day, Mark kept bringing out things from his collecting bag for us to try. He’d brought along a selection of syrups, fruit leathers and alcoholic tipples that he’d created from stuff he’d collected, and so we grazed and drank our way through the day.

Our last stop was in a community forest for a mushroom hunt. Obviously something to do with an expert, but actually it’s not so daunting as you think to start identifying some common types. We did find a lot of not very tasty, and ‘really you don’t want to eat that’ specimens, including the fly agaric, which is your classic fairy-tale red and white topped version. But we also found some lovely edible ones, including a couple of chanterelles, the common hedgehog mushroom, and the very pretty tiny purple deceiver mushroom, which Mark cooked up for us at the end of the trip. One of my favourite things was the wood sorrel, which tastes like apple peel and could be found almost everywhere we walked.

It was a brilliant and eye-opening experience. I don’t think I’ll look at a hedgerow in quite the same way again. I’ve been spotting hogweed on my drive into work, and am keen to go exploring on some traffic free areas to see what I can spot. If you’re interested in food for free, or like to mix your own drinks and flavours, then I’d highly recommend it.

4 March 2014

How readable is your writing?

Your 20 page document outlining in detail the research, findings and recommendations of your latest project. That’s easy to read, right? I mean you know the subject in detail. You’ve been working on it for months. It’s obvious… isn’t it?

To you, it may be. But what about your audience? Someone who picks it up and reads it for the first time? What does it tell them?

Do they pick it up with a groan, put off by the thought of reading pages and pages of tight-packed text with long sentences and paragraphs that go on, and on and on? Will they be baffled by jargon? Stumped by acronyms? Wonder why on earth this is relevant to them?

Is it well organised, structured in a logical way? Does it have a beginning, middle and end? Do your conclusions actually conclude anything?

These are all questions and problems that came up for discussion on a business writing course recently. And there’s lots you can do to make your documents easy to read, starting with thinking about your audience and writing for them, not yourself.

Here’s one little tip to help you review how easy your writing is to read.

When you spell check and review a Word document, (because you all do a spelling and grammar check before you send it out, right?) did you know you can also see how easy it is to read?

Word can show you readbility statistics. To turn this option on:

  1. Click the File tab, and then click Options.
  2. Click Proofing.
  3. Under When correcting spelling and grammar in Wordmake sure the Check grammar with spelling check box is selected.
  4. Select Show readability statistics.

Next time you’ve finished checking the spelling and grammar of your document you’ll see information about its reading level.

Sadly, just having the statistics may not help you understand whether it’s easy to read or not. So for a quick guide to what the numbers actually mean and an online version of the scorecard, I like this readability checker from The Writer.

23 January 2014

Finding the joy of business writing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

20 October 2013

When long copy works

Filed under: copy writing — The Scribbler @ 14:29
Tags: , , , ,

Twitter directed me to a great advert for Dutch railways this week:
https://twitter.com/Brilliant_Ads/status/390493772356026368/photo/1

It’s a fantastic example of long copy being used effectively.

Often in the world of marketing, we’re told, keep it short, make it simple. And that’s usually excellent advice. But as all good writers know, sometimes you have to break the rules. And that’s what this advert does. But it doesn’t do it to be self consciously shocking, or clever (like companies who try to introduce a made up word). It does it in a sympathetic way, one that makes its audience smile.

The message is basically, saying ‘If you’d taken the train, you wouldn’t be stuck in traffic.’ And I’m sure some organisations would have gone with a message that was a variant on that theme.

But consider the audience for this advert. They are people sitting in their cars, frustrated at being stuck in heavy traffic, most likely trying to get to work, to school, to meetings on time. They are assailed by a mass of messages – stop, go, turn left, don’t speed, traffic lights, road crossings, directions. Do they really need another one barking orders at them? Or making them feel stupid for choosing to take the car?

Road signs and warnings have to be absorbed quickly and easily, so they’re often made up of symbols and short words. In this environment full of instructions and commands, the longer, more literary copy stands out as something different.

It’s dramatic, that’s true. Quickly painting a scene, setting up character and suspense – how did she get there, what happens next…? Everyone loves a story.

And then the pay off, the point of the advert, which is to make you think about how things would be if you were somewhere else. If you were on a train, you might be able to read the whole of the story, or another story, or at least escape the frustrations of being stuck behind a big yellow bus. A built in benefit to encourage you to change your habits.

Very clever, very smart. And all done with the right words in the right place.

 

9 October 2012

An autumnal weekend

lovely weekend, spent largely outdoors, enjoying the autumn sunshine. We went up to Christmas Farm on Saturday for one of the G and S Organics event days.

Lee and Beth had baked and cooked up a feast ready to welcome everyone. We helped prepare, setting out tables and hay bales for seats, finding cutlery, washing cups and glasses and generally getting everything set.

The focus for this event was on game, so there was a dog display with some lovely spaniels demonstrating search and retrieve and a wire haired terrier that showed off his pointing skills.

There was also a chance to do some clay pigeon shooting, which I’d tried for the first time at this event last year and really enjoyed. The instructor was very good, calming, patient and made you feel very safe, despite holding a shotgun. I think the clays were set very easy to give us a good chance, as I hit most of mine. Although I missed the last two when he said I was sure to get them!

We caught up with friends and talked about food, wine and travelling. As the evening drew in, we watched the sunset over the hills and warmed ourselves with baked potatoes cooked in the fire and a fantastic beef stew.

As the stars came out, the talk continued around the fire, until, drenched in woodsmoke, we drove home to a hot bath and comfy bed.

On Sunday, I woke to sunshine, and met my friends Penny and Sue for a nice leisurely bike ride along the Tyne. Fine, flat cycleways, a river sparkling under the blue skies, no pressure for miles and pace, just a social ride with friends who are so easy to get on with.

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