On the move

This week, I’ve launched my new professional website Word Struck for writing and training services. So, from now on, I’ll post my weekly thoughts on a writing theme on the Word Struck blog.

photo of the Book of BecauseAs many of you know, I’m a writer. I write for business and for pleasure. I’ve been fortunate enough to make my living from writing of one sort or another, first as a journalist and more recently as a copywriter.

This week, I’ve launched my new professional website Word Struck for writing and training services. So, from now on, I’ll post my weekly thoughts on a writing theme on the Word Struck blog.

This week, I offer my answer to the question why be inspired to a greater love of words in business and in life and preview the latest 26 characters publication The Book of Because, which features my work.

I’m not ditching The Scribbler. I’ll keep on posting about running, racing and triathlons here. And from time to time, I may post links here to Word Struck.

Thanks to everyone who has commented, linked, liked or just dropped in to my little corner of the world wide web. It’s been a great place for me to indulge my love of writing, and that will continue in my new place.

If you’d like to follow me, I’d appreciate the company. I’ll put the kettle on…

Wordstock 2015 – a festival of words and creative fun

Wordstock, the annual gathering of members of 26 is a place where words bubble up into a rich and fragrant stew; where the tick of time inspires the tock of activity. Where we celebrate creativity, learn, laugh and fire up new writing projects for the next 12 months.

I arrived a little late at the Free Word Centre in Farringdon, so missed the opening celebrations of projects that 26 writers have taken part in during 2015, including 26 Pairs of Eyes, 26 Under a Northern Sky and 26 Children’s Winters.

Think like a poet
Thinking poetically

But I was there for the launch of the latest, which I’m also involved in. Over the next 26 weeks, 26 postcodes will reveal a sestude inspired by a postcode together with the story behind it. Gillian Colhoun kicked things off by reading her piece, based on the Gaelic football ground where Seamus Heaney played. My own contribution, based on Dove Cottage, the Lake District home of William and Dorothy Wordworth, will appear next year.

The day was split into a series of sessions, with a choice of workshops in the morning and afternoon. I first opted for Rishi Dastidar‘s session. As head of verbal identity at BrandPie and a published poet, he’s a mash up of Don Draper and Byron and showed us four ways to use poetry techniques in copywriting.

A packed session, full of useful content and some speedy writing. And I’ve already used one of the techniques to inspire a new brand name. Who says you can’t measure the value of inspiration?

Next up, more poetry from spoken word artist and Barnes’ answer to Eminem Charlie Du Pre. He serenaded us on ukulele, and left us wondering why we’ve never heard rhymes like:  ‘I engage with lots of faces pretty much on a daily basis’, before. Fast-paced, funny and rapping genius.

I spent the afternoon session with independent copywriter, author and trainer, Roger Horberry who loves alliteration even more than I do. He demonstrated that the forms of rhetoric pack a punch in modern marketing. And, for this writer at least, brought back memories of studying Spenser, Donne and Pope at university.

Images of the number 26
Celebrating the best in writing at 26

Self-styled biblio-fundamentalist Andy Miller was next, sharing his experience of actually reading the books that he always wanted to and some he even pretended he had. He finished by ‘persuading’ a handful of 26ers to commit to reading their own choice of books. For my part, I’ve signed up to read John Buchan’s 39 Steps, spurred on by another conversation I had during the day.

The final session was a fascinating insight into storytelling from John Yorke, former Eastenders script editor and head of drama at BBC and Channel 4. I love a good bit of story-theory and this so much fired up my interest that I’ve been looking for the mid points and reversals of fortune in every TV drama I’ve watched since.

I learned something new too. Did you know that the acts in Shakespeare plays were determined by the length of time it took to burn a candle?

Last time I came to Wordstock, I was introduced to the music of Nick Drake and on the journey home, sparked the idea that became 26 Under A Northern Sky along with co-conspirator Sandy Wilkie. This time we collaborated again and have put forward another idea that we both hope will be adopted as another creative brief.

I really couldn’t have asked more from a packed day of words, writers and mind-blowing creativity. The train journey north wasn’t nearly enough time to process it all. And the pile of books on my reading list has grown by at least 3 volumes. If you can make it next year, I heartily recommend it.

Indian summer

I’ve been pondering the Indian summer. What can I say? I’m British. The weather is practically an obsession. But where does the phrase come from? And which Indians does it refer to – Native Americans, or people of the vast land in South Asia?

As ever, that other British institution, the BBC, offers an excellent explanation of its meteorological and social history.

Walking barefoot on the beach
Walking barefoot on the beach

Indian summer refers to a spell of fine autumn weather. It seems to have been commonly used in the USA from the late 1700s, and gained popularity in the UK from the 1950s, presumably as we experienced some spells of warm autumn weather.

For me, it’s a phrase that conjures up memories of forcing my feet into stiff new school shoes after a summer of going barefoot, or wearing sandals and trainers, and never having to bother with insufferable socks. I saw no need to change my clothing while the sun still shone and would stubbornly stick out in short sleeves until I couldn’t escape the goosebumps and the dreaded cardigan any longer.

In searching for the meaning and etymology of Indian summer, I looked for its use in literature. First stop was a poem by William Wilfred Campbell that begins:

Along the line of smoky hills
The crimson forest stands,
And all the day the blue-jay calls
Throughout the autumn lands.

I’m not familiar with Campbell’s poems, but it seems nature, the seasons and landscape are common themes. I imagine Wordworth transplanted from the English Lakes to Canada.

Then, via Wikipedia I find a glimpse of an Indian poet Jayanta Mahapatra writing about an Indian summer:

Over the soughing of the sombre wind
Priests chant louder than ever.
The mouth of India opens:
Crocodiles move into deeper waters.

I’m intruiged, but can find little more than this excerpt and a reference to the poem’s theme of ‘suffering woman’.

Indian summer can also refer to a period of happiness, success and contentment later in life. Maybe that’s what pulls me to the phrase. Dorothy Parker gives this idea her own inimitable twist in her poem ‘Indian Summer’

In youth, it was a way I had
To do my best to please,
And change, with every passing lad,
To suit his theories.

But now I know the things I know,
And do the things I do;
And if you do not like me so,
To hell, my love, with you

Good old Dorothy Parker – always raising an eyebrow and a smile.

For me this year, an Indian summer has offered the simple pleasure of the sun on my face as I walk along the sand, seeking out a spot to sit with my book, or watch the waves. Barefoot, naturally.

Running and writing

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.

A tale of postcodes and poets

My latest writing project finds me paired with a poetic postcode.

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.

How a little support goes a long way in writing and training

How a special writer helped me find my self belief and confidence in my writing.

I had a moment during the race I was competing in this weekend when I thought I couldn’t continue. The wind had whipped up waves in the lake where I was swimming as the first part of a triathlon. Instead of a lungful of air when I turned my head to breathe, I got a face full of water. For a few seconds I thought, “I can’t do this.”

After a pause to give myself a bit of a talking to, I managed to overcome my flight response, drew on my training and race experience and continued to swim, cycle and run my way to the end of the course.

It’s a feeling I’ve had as a writer too. That I can’t do this. That somehow, I’m cheating, just pretending, and one day someone will call me out.

From what I know of other writers, I’m not alone in this. We all have our moments of doubt. As professionals, we question our worth. After all, anyone can call themselves a writer can’t they?

Just as in my athletic pursuits, it’s not just the training and experience that makes me a writer. There’s also a strong element of self belief too. Of believing I can do this. I have the skills, the knowledge and talent. 

I finally started to really believe in myself as a writer after spending some time with John Simmons. 

John was director of verbal identity at Interbrand; has written for companies big and small and is a founder of 26. His books include, We, Me, Them & ItDark AngelsThe Invisible Grail and 26 Ways of Looking at a Blackberry, as  well as Room121: a masterclass in writing and communication in business co-written with Jamie Jauncey. When it comes to copywriting – he literally wrote the books.

So when John Simmons tells you, you are a writer, it’s good sense to believe him. I can think of no greater compliment, or anything else I’ve been prouder to hear. In triathlon terms it’s like finishing first in the World Championships, winning gold at the Olympics and qualifying for Kona all rolled into one.

cover of Leaves by John Simmons
Leaves by John Simmons

Through John, I’ve developed confidence in my skills and voice as a writer. Felt more assured about asserting the creativity that feeds into the commercial work of a copywriter and opened up opportunities that allow me to explore that creativity beyond the office walls.

It’s a special day for John today, as he launches his first novel, Leaves. A story he began 45 years ago, now published by Urbane. It’s sad, elegiac and so beautifully written, there are sentences in it that I will read again and again.

I heartily wish I was in London tonight to celebrate with him, but distance and demands of my working life mean I can only be there in spirit.

Through spending time with John, discussing writing, meeting fellow writers on Dark Angels writing courses and reading his regular, always thought-provoking blog posts, I feel privileged to call him a friend as well as a mentor.

On today’s blog he offers three pieces of advice, which all strike me as absolutely true. But the one that really resonated was this:

Writers need people to show faith in them, to express confidence in their writing

A shout from a supporter, or a spectator in a race can make me smile, encourage me to keep going, or stop me from giving in. 

It’s the same with writing, although generally a little quieter in tone. A simple thank you, ‘nice work’ or even better, a ‘wow’, can really lift my spirits, and encourage me to give my best every time I put pen to paper.

I’m very grateful to John, for showing faith in me, and for introducing me to a wider network of wonderful writers. I raise a virtual toast to us all. May you look each person in the eye and say with confidence “I am a writer. I write.”

A sense of community

How the different communities I’m part of inspire my writing for business and personal enjoyment.

Writing is often perceived as a solitary occupation, and there are times when all I need is my notebook and a pen. Having worked as a journalist in radio and TV newsrooms, writing copy for the next bulletin against the background of on air broadcasts, telephones ringing and a dozen conversations going on at once, for me, even peace and quiet is optional. Although I do prefer it if I have thinking to do.

But recently I’ve been reflecting on communities and how the different ones I belong to all inspire my writing.

Running

I’m part of the running and triathlon community in the North East of England and beyond. Through doing parkrun, races and by being a member of a very friendly online running site, I can pretty much guarantee that if I turn up at a local race, I’ll see someone I know.

I started to write about local races as a way of recording my own progress, or to remember a particular feature of a race, such as leg-sapping sand or a steep hill, for the next time. So it’s lovely when I get comments from other runners who read my race reports and say they’ve helped them.

Running also brought me back to personal writing after a long break away from it.  I believe my professional writing is richer for it.

Fiona Thompson reading on a train at the luanch of 26 Under A Northern Sky
Fiona Thompson reading on a train at the luanch of 26 Under A Northern Sky

Writing

I’ve felt more part of a writing community since joining 26. The regular newsletters, articles and suggestions for books to read or things to see are a great source of inspiration. As too are the opportunities to get involved in 26 creative writing projects.

I jumped in first as a writer, contributing a piece for 26 Characters as part of a magical exhibition at the Story Museum in Oxford. Then more recently, I co-edited 26 Under A Northern Sky with Sandy Wilkie and got the opportunity to work with other amazing writers to launch a collection of creative writing inspired by a train journey from Newcastle to Glasgow and the music of Nick Drake.

I’m delighted that this project is currently taking on a life of its own, beyond my editorial influence, as writers are recording their pieces and adding them to an online soundscape.

Reading

cover of Leaves by John Simmons
Leaves by John Simmons – my current read

Community is also a theme in John Simmons’ beautiful debut novel, ‘Leaves’ – my current reading material. It’s set on one street in London in the 1970s. The characters observed and imagined by the narrator looking back at events in his life.

I have only just started reading, and admit, I’m trying to ration my time among the pages, as I have a flight and airport time coming up and I know the inhabitants of Ophelia Street will be welcome company.

John has been posting a daily extract from the book on Twitter, which is a delightful tease. Each sentence seems to offer a short story in itself, but has left me wanting to read more. It merits a slow, careful reading to savour every word.

Here’s a taster from the first chapter:

“In January, we used to say, you saw Ophelia Street in its natural colours. Wintergrey hung like a fog; window boxes lay dormant.”

If you want to read on, you can follow John on Twitter @JNSim #Leaves

Living

Finally there’s my real community. The place where I live. Within five minutes walk from my front door, I can be among a range of small businesses, from coffee and gift shops, to restaurants, guest houses, food outlets, and an art gallery.

I enjoy a browse and a chance to talk to the people behind these largely independent and local businesses. They provide great resources, for me, not just in the goods that I buy and the contribution they make to the local economy, but also as inspiration for my business writing.

In seeking to de-bunk the jargon of business software, I often think to myself, ‘How would I explain this to the lady that runs the deli?’  Or ‘How would this help in the chocolate shop?’

I may not know the detailed ins and outs of their businesses, but keeping the people of my local business community in mind grounds what I write in reality. And that helps what I write about business sound authentic and human.

Training as a writer

Why writing is like physical exercise and how I’ve trained to be a writer.

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.

Making connections

The story of how the music of Nick Drake’s and a train journey between Newcastle and Glasgow has inspired a new collection of creative writing #26UnderANorthernSky

Connections. That’s what a group of writers were making as we travelled north this weekend.

rail tickets
Tickets for 26 Under A Northern Sky journey

The reason for our journey was to launch the latest 26 project, 26 Under A Northern Sky – a collection of creative writing inspired by the music of Nick Drake and a railway journey between Newcastle upon Tyne and Glasgow.

We were making real connections with trains and timetables, to get where we needed to be at the appointed time and make our way back again. But through the creative writing process and the journey itself, many more connections were revealed.

Each writer was given a brief. Take the name of one of the 26 stations along the line and the title of a Nick Drake track, chosen at random and write something in response. The final constraint was that the piece should be able to be read aloud comfortably in 3 mins 44 seconds or less – the duration of Nick Drake’s Northern Sky, which provides the title for the whole collection.

The resulting pieces were wide ranging in style and tone. We had poems and short stories, a sonnet, folk tales, histories and ghost stories. Each one was read along the journey. And each writer had found a different way to connect to their brief.

Some responded to the place, its location, history or a claim to fame. Others took the songs, their lyrics, form and rhythm as inspiration. And many combined the two, to come up with something that touched on both, but that was made new and different by being reflected through the prism of each writer’s own experience.

It’s the same in business writing. There is a brief from a client, that often comes with rules and constraints. As a writer I have to find a way to connect to that brief and interpret it in a way that will connect with a customer. That may mean digging deeper to discover how a customer thinks and feels and finding the words that make that connection. And the final creative piece is always a collaboration between writer, designer  and client.

Woman reading on a train
Faye Sharpe reading her contribution to 26 Under a Northern Sky

The 26 Under a Northern Sky project similarly came with deadlines and timetables, with writers asked to submit first and then final drafts after feedback from a small team of editors.

As Editor in Chief, I had the privilege of being the first to read the entire collection. And it was a joy.

In this project I acted as both client and creative; contributing my own piece, while making sure the whole collaboration remained on track. It’s taught me a lot about setting a brief and then allowing creative people the freedom to explore it in their own way.

Each piece in 26 Under a Northern Sky is unique, but each writer has found a way to connect to the brief and through that created a piece of work that connects with a wider audience.

I’m very proud to have been part of something very special.

26 Under A Northern Sky will be published on www.26.org.uk later this week. But you can enjoy the beautiful introduction to the collection, written by Anna Jauncey right now.

About 26

26 is a diverse group of people who share a love of words. Many of us work with words for a living, as writers, language specialists, editors, designers or publishers, but anyone who cares about words is welcome to join. Together, we hope to raise the profile and value of words not only in business, but also in everyday life.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to all the writers, editors and readers of 26 Under A Northern Sky:
Anna Jauncey, Sue Evans, Fiona Thompson, June Mong, Sharon Jones, Joan Lennon, Tony Balazs, Laura Waddell, Faye Sharpe, Simon Parsons, John Simmons, Kenneth Stirling, Justina Hart, Stephen Potts, Alastair Creamer, Colette Davis, Jo Matthews, Stuart Delves, Aidan Baker, Irene Lofthouse, Mike Benson, Marianne Powell, Elaine Gibb, Sophie Gordon, Martin Lee, Tom Collins and especially to my co-editor, Sandy Wilkie. Thanks also to Rachel Marshall and Elen Lewis for promoting the project through the 26 website and newsletter.

Special thanks to Michael Burdett of The Strange Face Project for introducing me to the music of Nick Drake and providing the initial spark that lead to this crazy writing project.

A smile in the mind

How an unexpected word can be a delightful surprise and make business writing come alive.

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.