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.


When long copy works

Twitter directed me to a great advert for Dutch railways this week:

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.


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.

Dreaming in the firelight

We get most of our food, meat and vegetables from a small organic farm in Northumberland. Every week, we get a box of goodies delivered to our door in the early hours of the morning. We’ve been doing it for a few years now and it’s completely changed the way we eat. No more processed, packaged ready meals, lots more vegetables and some non-meat meals and learning to love the cheap cuts and leftovers.

This weekend, there was a working party on the farm. A chance for box-scheme customers and friends to come and visit, see what it’s all about, help plant some trees and fix some fencing, with the promise of a tasty meal at the end.

I’d originally planned to do an aquathlon on Sunday. But I wasn’t sure how well my bite wound would heal and whether swimming would be wise. And having taken some time off training anyway, I decided to ditch it and just enjoy my day on the farm instead.

And it was a wonderful day. We got up there early to help clear up and set things up for the visitors, sweeping out the packing shed and setting up trestle tables and hay bales for seats. When the helpers arrived, I joined a crew planting trees, dog rose and blackthorn which will act as a windbreak for the vegetable garden.

Sunset over the fields
Sunset on Bonfire night

The weather was kind. Bright, clear and surprisingly mild, but with just enough coolness to make you glad you were keeping active. We dug, and planted, ferried muck from the heap and settled the trees in. As the afternoon wore on, we began to tire. But tempers never frayed. A bite of an apple and a swig of water and on we worked with the dogs, ducks, geese and chickens inspecting our progress.

As the light began to fade, we stepped back to see the fencing done and over 300 trees in place. A good day’s work.

A quick splash under the standpipe and into the shed for pumpkin soup, topped with stir fried sprouts, chickpea fritters and plenty of proper bread. There were many second helpings. And still room for almond and rhubarb tart for afters.

Stepping out into the pitch dark, looking up at the Big Dipper shining out in the stars; we gathered around the bonfire, watching the flames flicker orange, blue, yellow, purple and green.

My decision to do a little bit less meant I enjoyed what I did do a lot more. Rather than worrying about how I would perform the next day, I was able to enjoy the present. Just relaxing and enjoying being active and outdoors, feeling like I accomplished something. It’s a quieter feeling of satisfaction than a good run, but the wholesome ache of muscles and a hot shower and bed were just as welcome.

Druridge Bay 10k

Am I getting better at relaxing over this racing lark or do some races mean more than others? I was really ambivalent about this one this morning. Not feeling like I didn’t want to do it, but not really revved up for it either.

I was still a bit stiff and achey after a week of training and some changes to my plans. I ran intervals on Tuesday morning and then a 3 miler on Wednesday – neither of which quite hit the pace I was looking for, but still counted as decent training.

My usual Thursday morning PT session got shifted to Friday afternoon as I’d booked a half day off work. I ended up rushing to get there, struggling to get away from work, but I made it. This is always my toughest and most testing session and Ian really put me through a tough whole body workout. By the time he said ‘Right, that’s your warm up’, I was already fighting for breath. But I made it through, with a couple of new exercises thrown in for good measure.

Then off home for a shower and a bit of a relax before a night out at the Stadium of Light for Pet Shop Boys and Take That. It was a fantastic show, but I’m not sure bouncing up and down like a loon for the best part of two hours, followed by standing in a queue for another two before standing on a Metro to get home is the best way to recover from a tough session. My hips were not happy.

Hence, no Saturday parkrun. I had thought of getting up and volunteering, but opted for a restful morning, knowing that I had to give myself a chance to recover before my race today.

I ran this last year. It’s all off road, trail and tarmac, looping round the lake at a country park and out under tree lined paths alongside a beautiful stretch of beach. Not a PB course, but after feeling like I took it relatively easy at the Pier to Pier last weekend, I’d said I wanted to give this one a good blast. When I woke up this morning, still feeling the aches, I wasn’t sure what would be on the cards.

Last year it was damp, grey, windy and dreary, but I loved the race which offered something a little different, but wasn’t too testing underfoot for a road runner like me. Getting  a fly past from a Sea-King helicopter was an unexpected bonus too.

I was a little sad to miss the Nissan Run for Japan 10k and wasn’t expecting to see anyone I knew, so it was great to bump into Tove and Jules from parkrun before the start. And as I lined up and did some stretches, a runner smiled and said hello and then “You must be a proper Fetchie with the shirt and the bandanna.” (I’d wrapped my buff round my wrist). And so it was I met Mick. Nice to meet you!

After some announcements we couldn’t hear due to the wind, and with a quick exchange of good lucks, we were off. I wanted to at least give it a fair shot, so dived off ahead finding my way through the field which thinned out nicely very quickly. Out along the tarmac paths through the park, a bit twisty turny through the trees, but a decent first kilometre to find my rhythm and check the pace at 5:05. Good I haven’t gone haring off too much, but I’m running okay.

As we turned towards the lake and a little more uphill, I could feel the effort pulling on my abs. Each footstep was like a mini crunch on muscles that reminded me of Friday’s hanging knee lifts and weren’t amused. I had my usual silly ‘This is too hard, why don’t you slow it down, walk and settle’ conversation somewhere between 1 and 2k. It is totally daft, it doesn’t last long and thank goodness I’ve learned to ignore it.

Just after the lake, Glenn, a guy who used to work with my husband, came past me and I said hello. We chatted for a few strides before he overtook me and he told me this year the route was different and we wouldn’t be running along the beach. I was a bit disappointed as that was one of the highlights last year (and I’d taped up my toe hole in preparation to avoid picking up too much sand). But it spurred me on, knowing that I wouldn’t have that slog up from the beach to sap my legs.

I don’t know if it’s just something I’ve got in my head, but I seem to end up running a lot of races on my own. Never part of a pack or a group, not sticking with any runner for long. Those in front a little too far to catch in a matter of minutes and those behind not breathing down my neck. It was the same on this run. And I tried to get myself in the same mental mindset as I had at the Clive Cookson 10k, just running my own race, pushing on over the gravelly trails.

At around 5k I think Mick came past me with a friendly greeting and I tried to keep with him for a while, but my pace had dropped a little. Up ahead I could see the bobbing white cap and blonde pony tail of Tove from parkrun, tantalisingly catchable if I just kept pushing.

I remembered the second part of this route as tough, with a couple of inclines, and so it proved. The first one I tried to power up into the wind. I overtook a guy in a green top as I put in a spurt of effort, but I couldn’t sustain it all the way, and he overtook me again, asking “How you doing?” as he passed and I was barely able to gasp out “OK”.

I don’t run a lot of hilly routes. I’m not afraid of them and in races I can often power up and pass people. But these slow, gentle inclines sapped my legs and I eased back. By 6k I was feeling better, smoother, stretching out the legs, even knowing there was a bit more up to come. The paths here were more tarmac than trail and I tried to use my road legs to push on, telling myself not to leave it all to the last kilometre.

Between 7 and 8k, we’d just come up another incline and I saw a young lad walking with his head down. I didn’t have the breath to offer him a word of encouragement. But a guy behind me did. With just a few gentle words like “Keep it going…take it easy…breathe out…short breaths in, long breaths out,”

I could sense them forming a small pack behind me. And I listened to the guy coaching the young lad and started doing what he said, breathing easy, taking small steps up the last incline. All stuff I know and coach myself to do in my head, but it really helped me and I tackled the last up a lot more consistently than the first one.

As the pack went past, I told the guy I appreciated the coaching and he replied “Just trying to keep myself going,”. I’d resolved to try and hold onto them to pull me round a bit faster for the last mile or so. But they pulled ahead and the lad fell back. He was running step in step with me, so I took over and tried to keep him going. Saying nothing very different to what the other guy had done, just listening to his breathing and encouraging him to take it in when I could hear that tension and tightness. Then telling him to stretch his legs out at we came to the flatter bits.

At moments I out of the corner of my eye I saw him reach for his side, probably feeling a stitch and I encouraged him to breath. I felt like I was breathing easy myself, keeping enough to be able to offer a word or two here or there. And I didn’t want to leave him.

The wind picked up into our face and he dropped behind a bit, but there was a smattering of supporters who shouted “Go on lad! Go on young ‘un!”.  And bless him, he fought back and caught me up.

At the 9k point I said “Just five more minutes,” and pushed on a little harder. And he stuck with me, through the trees, over the trails, round the last corner. As the orange netting marking the finishing line approached, I shouted “Sprint!” and put the hammer down. And he went with me. And kept going.  And beat me fair and square.

My time as I crossed the line was 52:44. I had to check later, but it’s a course PB and I was mightily pleased with that. Tove remained ahead in those last few kilometres, but running with the young lad had taken my mind off catching anyone else. I felt like I maybe could have pushed a little harder towards the end, but today I took pride in wearing my Fetch top and being a Fetchie, encouraging someone on to run a cracking time. And you could argue that actually, I was more relaxed and ran faster anyway. The finish certainly didn’t hurt as much as my last 10k finish.

It was a lovely race. I enjoyed it, and ran well despite my aches and pains. I still get those negative moments, but they don’t last and afterwards I barely remember them. And I always get through them. And I never stop.

So, onwards and upwards. A tough week, with plenty of running lined up. And then a race I love and seem to run well in the week after. Am I ready for Blaydon? You know what? I think I will be…

Stats and stuff:

10k 52:44

1) 5:06 (8:12/m) – 62cal
2) 5:13 (8:23/m) – 65cal
3) 5:09 (8:17/m) – 66cal
4) 5:24 (8:41/m) – 64cal
5) 5:26 (8:44/m) – 65cal
6) 5:42 (9:10/m) – 65cal
7) 5:31 (8:53/m) – 64cal
8 ) 5:17 (8:30/m) – 65cal
9) 5:22 (8:38/m) – 65cal
10) 4:36 (8:28/m) – 55cal

After a race like that, what could be better than brunch at my favourite coffee shop in Longframlington? Beth (@OrganicBeth) made perfect scrambled eggs on toast and I tucked in at the same time as enjoying lots of foodie conversations with a couple of new friends I’ve made on Twitter – Maunika (@cookinacurry) and Sarah (@tentspitch). Despite being stuffed with great breakfasts, we still found room to salivate talking of Indian spices, parathas, dhosas and doughnuts.

Write, better, not more and think about your audience

I thought you might enjoy this blog post from a fellow copywriter, Tom Albrighton. He strikes a case for pushing words to their limits. Condensing ideas and thoughts down into a memorable or striking phrase.

That very much resonates with my own thinking, that often short and simple is better. Because it’s easy to take in. Easy to understand. Memorable.

And that often invoves using the language of poetry. Poetry is about the economy of language. The right word in the right place. A word or two that perfectly capture a moment or sensation. It’s powerful stuff.

And it’s hard to do. When I run writing workshops in the company I work for, I often hear people say “But our products are really complicated, it’s hard to make them sound simple and fully explain what they do.”

And yet, over the last few weeks, on television screens across the country, thousands of us have tuned in to hear Professor Brian Cox explain the infinite complexities and mysteries of the universe.

He talks about things we cannot see. Describes things so big we cannot measure them and talks about events that will not happen in our lifetime or a million lifetimes. And there’s nothing overly complicated about the language he uses. The programme lasts an hour, but it’s not a lecture that bombards us with information, statistics and mathematical proof points.

So how does he do it? Explain something as complex and marvellous as the universe?

Quite simply by framing it in terms that we can understand. By bringing it back to tangible objects that we can hold, touch or imagine. In one programme, he explained the second law of thermodynamics and ultimately why time only goes forward, using a sandcastle in a desert. Turning something abstract, into something real.

So if Brian Cox can explain entropy in simple language, I’m quite sure businesses can explain their products using it too.

That’s where real world metaphors, like Brian’s sandcastle can help. To give you an example, I was recently trying to get my head around a feature in one of our software products, desperately trying to figure out why it’s useful for a customer.

It’s about data (something intangible). To help me understand it, the product manager used the metaphor of a car. We build the basis of a car, but then our customers can choose the options they want – for example a bigger engine, different wheels, leather seats etc.

It’s basically about shaping data into something that makes sense for our customers, for example, a list of their 20 most profitable products. It means they can adapt the data to suit them, but we’ve given them a head start by providing the basis (the chassis if you like).

I did smile at the fact that Tom’s blog post about writing better, not writing more is in itself over 1,000 words long – something he acknowledges. And now I’ve added my own sum of words to that.

Could I have worked harder to condense it down into  a pithy quote? Arguably. But I’m still stewing the ideas in my own version of brain soup.

Tom’s thoughts have also been challenged by another copywriter, Ben Locker, who argues the case for the audience saying it’s just as important to know who you’re writing for, what they want and how it’s being delivered.

I believe that too. And it’s certainly given me plenty to think about for my next writing assignment.

One day like this

Scott's Monument, Edinburgh
Scott's Monument, Edinburgh

The sun shines and our eyes turn upwards, a spring in our step and a lightness of heart.

Settling into my seat on the train instead of my office chair and watching the beautiful Northumberland coast tumble past my window. Green and gold with the volume turned up to 11. Then a splash of deepest blue.

Arriving in one of my favourite cities, navigating the scaffolding in the station, to emerge blinking into the sunlight to the sound of the pipes on Princes street and Scott’s monument. You Scottish people know how to honour a writer!

Navigating the busy streets up to the Royal Mile, peering in the brightly painted shop windows, but hurrying on to make a meeting. Passing a Rankin landmark and thinking of Rebus. Spotting the close and venturing into a cool cobbled courtyard, immediately a million miles from the hustle and bustle.

Then up, up, up into the attic space and exposed beams of a writer’s garret. A bolt hole in the city. And hours pass quickly, talking about words and movies and books with someone who gets it. And who will make me work even harder at finding the right ones. Someone to challenge the easy flabbiness and lazy acceptance. Someone who wants to make me write better.

All done and released back into the sunshine to venture back into the crowds and practically sprint the length of Princes Street to greet a vision in pink. Lesley is waiting for me outside the National Gallery and I get a full on hug, almost getting swept up into a hen party in the process. Well they were wearing pink cowboy hats!

Off to a nearby coffee shop for sandwiches and lots of chat about swimming, running, races run and races planned. And before we knew it, Alastair arrived, ready for more coffee, cake and chat.

I have so many great days to look forward to. My first triathlon, new events and old races in wonderful countryside. It’s always good to catch up with good friends and this was a chance to enjoy some time with two of the very best.