Good copywriting is important – here’s why.

Today I want to talk about copywriting, which is what I do for a living. It’s a different kind of challenge to writing fiction – I have to bear in mind clients’ requirements, but creatively it can be just as rewarding.

I work with my husband, a graphic designer, and over the years I’ve often noticed how people see the importance of good design, but sometimes text plays second fiddle. People often think that so long as there aren’t any typos, their copy is probably fine as it is.

Tut, tut! To this I say: never underestimate the power of words, in particular the tone of voice they’re written in, and the effect they can have on the reader.

The right words are key. The right amount. The right tone. The right message.

Good design with poor copy is like eating artisan bread with Happy Shopper marge.

So here are a few things I’ve learned about copywriting over the years, some of which can equally be applied to writing fiction.

1 • Don’t say what you think people want to hear.

Businesses want to sound professional, so they strive to use professional language. But language that sounds too professional and businessy, can often sound soulless and dull.

Thanks to this tendency, there are certain words and phrases today that have become a tad vacuous: ‘world-class’, ‘cutting-edge’, ‘highly regarded’ and ‘leaders in our field’ to name but a few.

Would you say to your friend/partner/kids, “Let’s go and visit that world-class museum with the cutting-edge displays that really add value to the unbeatable admission price!”?

Of course not.

Just speak normally. It’s allowed.

2 • Go easy on the war paint.

Vacuous words aside, messages drenched in adjectives don’t sound confident. You just sound like you’re trying to compensate for having a below-average product or service.

For example, ‘So-and-so stars in this side-splitting, laugh-out-loud, smash-hit comedy.’

Is this film going to make us wet ourselves with laughter? Probably not. The copy is trying too hard and we suspect it’s probably a mildly amusing film at best.

You might think your message looks a little bare or weak without a good dressing of adjectives, but don’t be fooled by the fear. Too much make-up never makes anyone look better.

Keep your message simple and honest.

3 • Frankie says relax.

Don’t go spewing all your key selling points into one piece of marketing.

If you’re trying to shoehorn a long list of benefits, accolades, praise and statistics into a paragraph, then take Frankie’s advice and for goodness sake, relax.

Less is more. Hold something back for later. Have a little mystique. Keep ‘em dangling.

After all – those three words ended up going viral for Frankie, decades before ‘viral’ was a thing.

4 • Forget your ‘target audience’.

You may well have worked out exactly who your target audience is, down to the most detailed demographics. But the person you’re really talking to, if the truth be known, is the one who gets it.

The more you try to widen your tone of voice to reach every potential customer, the weaker your message will be.

You’re talking to one person. The person who gets it.

This requires trust.

5 • Be true to yourself.

If you’re true to yourself, you’re much more likely to reach those who’ll get it.

Every time you get lost in a book or film, or laugh at a comedy or advert; every time you’re swallowed whole by a piece of music, or stop to stare at a piece of art – the creator, whoever they might be, was being true to themselves.

They didn’t create it with nothing but sales figures in mind. They wrote it/painted it/produced it for themselves. That’s why it touched you. It was fresh, honest and real – not contrived.

Find your true voice and don’t be afraid to use it.

6 • Show, don’t tell.

If you’ve ever gone to a creative writing class, you’ll no doubt have heard the expression ‘Show, don’t tell’. It’s one of the golden rules of storytelling.

But it’s just as relevant to copywriting as it is to writing fiction. To tell is to state the facts. To show is to paint a picture in the reader’s mind – to help them visualise what it is you’re talking about.

To tell: “That’s a very big shark.”

To show: “We’re gonna need a bigger boat.”

Don’t just state the facts. Paint the picture.

7 • Don’t undervalue the power of humour.

We all notice language that makes us laugh or smile. It brightens our day for a moment.

When companies take themselves a little less seriously, they start to sound less corporate and more human. The more human you sound, the more you’re likely to connect.

Inject some humour into your copy and it will start to sound more friendly and warm. If you think this doesn’t apply to you because you’re a firm of lawyers/accountants/other type of professional service, then I would challenge that perception. Too much serious-toned sales bluster on your About Us page can actually come across as intimidating and, in some cases, gives off a condescending air. Remind people you’re a bunch of humans, too.

ShitcoffeeAmazingcoffee

(I asked a group of friends which sign they preferred. ‘Shit coffee’ won hands down.)

8 • Don’t brag.

Saying you’re the market leader or the best in your field is all very well, but who cares? No one likes a big mouth.

By all means get the message across that you’re number one gun, but do it with some subtlety. It’s less off-putting and more believable. All companies have their flaws and weaknesses, so why claim to be perfect? Everyone knows it’s not the entire truth.

Be honest about who you are. And again, don’t just state the facts. Paint the picture.

9 • Don’t stack stats.

Never add up lots of statistics to make one big, fat, meaningless statistic, such as: ‘We have over 175 years’ experience between us.’

TV documentaries are particularly guilty of this insult to the nation’s intelligence. Ie: ‘These 40 dieters lost a whopping 150 stone between them.’ So what? It means nothing to anybody. How one dieter lost a few stone is what’s relevant and interesting.

Keep stats to a minimum and put them in context to make them meaningful.

10 • Ignore what everyone else is doing.

Don’t spend too much time looking at other people’s websites/brochures/adverts. You will definitely find someone whose work looks better than yours. And another person is likely to think your work looks better than theirs. And so on and so on…

So don’t waste time drooling over their awards/portfolio/market position.

Avert your eyes and ears from all the noise out there, find your true voice, write yourself a quick, uncensored pep talk and frame it. That voice in the pep talk – that’s the one.

You’re writing for the person who gets you. And as you’re the first person to get you, you’re basically writing for yourself.

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Writing Process Blog Tour

I’ve been invited by This Thirty Something Life author Jon Rance to answer some questions about my writing as part of a writing process blog tour. You can read his answers to the questions below on his blog. Here are my responses:

What are you currently working on?

I’m actually taking a break from writing for a few months. I wrote two books last year – Blown-Away Man, a comedy drama about a successful ad man who returns to his village for a school reunion only to have a bombshell dropped on him, and The Adventures of Fartella Gasratilova, a collection of humorous short stories for children. While I thoroughly enjoyed writing both books, writing two books at the same time left me feeling a bit burnt out afterwards! For the first time in years, I have no idea what I’m going to write next – and I see that as a positive thing. Saying that, inspiration usually strikes whenever I travel, and I’m off to France soon…

How does your work differ from others of its genre?

All my books are comedy dramas – but they’re all different. Package Deal and Hot Property are set on Greek islands and are written from multi-viewpoints, so you get male as well as female perspectives. Hence those books seem to appeal to men as much as they do women. Pearls, however, is definitely more of a women’s read, and has slightly more depth with its underlying theme of self-love. Then, veering off in a completely different direction, Blown-Away Man is set in London and Lincolnshire and is written from a man’s perspective with a much more humorous tone of voice. To be honest, I don’t know if my books differ greatly from others of their genre. I don’t put pressure on myself to be unique. I can only write the stories that are in me.

Why do you write what you do?

Comedy comes naturally to me. I’ve kept a diary since I was 10. When I was 17 I wrote all about my aunt’s wedding in Dorset. My parents had just split up so it was an emotional time, which wasn’t helped by my mum being given a lot of responsibilities at her sister’s wedding. Everything that could go wrong, did go wrong – from traffic jams to forgotten bouquets to arsey friends of the bride. When we finally got back home, the washing machine had flooded the kitchen, creating a sea of soapy water surrounding a sort of St. Michael’s Mount-shaped object – a ‘welcome home’ turd generously left by our senile cat. By this point, my mother was a nervous wreck. After helping her clear up the mess, I scuttled off to my room to write up all the horrors of the weekend in my diary. As I wrote, the funny side emerged, and I wondered if it’d make her feel better to read what I’d written. To my delight and relief, it made her howl with laughter. It was a wonderful reaction and must have had a profound effect on me, because from that moment on I’ve been unable to write anything without injecting some humour into it.

How does your writing process work?

My novels begin life as an embryo, a single scene, for example. I let the embryo germinate in the back of my mind for a few months, visiting it every so often to find that it’s sprouted a few more scenes or characters, or even an ending. When it’s grown to a size that can no longer be ignored, I start to sketch it out very roughly. There are still lots of gaps at this point. You can’t necessarily wait for inspiration to fill all the gaps, so I start actively shaping it, plotting out where it’s going. When I start writing, however, things don’t always go as planned. Sometimes the story guides me, sometimes I guide the story. Ultimately – and I know this sounds wacky – I believe the story wants to come out. It wants to be told.

While I’m writing the first draft, I try not to edit. I make notes of issues that need addressing and then deal with them in the second draft. When I’ve done three or four drafts, I send it to my editor. She then makes a list of suggested changes and I then decide which ones I agree with and which I don’t. Then it’s a few more drafts of editing and polishing before reaching the proofreading stage, which I get someone else to do, as I can’t see the wood for the trees by then. As I self-publish, I have the ultimate say on everything, which is as daunting as it is liberating. I’ve had literary agents in the past so I know the book editing process, and I’m a sub-editor by trade, so I’ve got the necessary skills to edit a book myself. But that said, having an editor and proofreader are essential. A writer can’t produce a professional book on their own without some help from people with the right skills.

Many thanks to Jon Rance. I’m now passing these questions on to Starlings author Erinna Mettler who blogs at http://www.erinnamettler.com/ so look out for her answers soon.

Nudge, nudge, link, link…

I’d like to recommend a few links worth browsing. Firstly, Calling All Dentists author Tara Ford has kindly invited me to feature in her author showcase, alongside lots of other authors of all genres, both independently published and traditionally published. Take a look.

Secondly, you must definitely pay a visit to author Jill Rowan’s blog and check out her books. I’ve read two of Jill’s novels so far – The Legacy and The Dream – both of which I couldn’t put down. I’m also looking forward to reading her latest release, Angelica Died. If you like stories with a time travel or supernatural twist, you won’t be disappointed.

If you’ve got a short story in you, check out this fantastic Brighton-based competition with a cash prize, The Brighton Prize. And be sure to follow @rattletales on Twitter.

And last but not least (and I realise I should’ve posted about this weeks ago, but I’ve fallen a bit behind), something you can bookmark for next year: Hove Book Festival, a 3-day literary festival in Hove (actually), that will appeal to readers and writers alike.

 

 

Publish and be damned (sure you’re done)

Today JK Rowling admitted that, in retrospect, Hermione should’ve ended up with Harry Potter rather than Ron Weasley. Yesterday, author Khaled Hosseini said on Radio 4’s Book Club that he hadn’t re-read The Kite Runner since he wrote it because he’d only chastise himself for all the changes he should have made. Interesting, I thought. Just when is an author satisfied with their work and the decisions they make? And to what extent should authors be trying to please their audience?

I’m at the final stages of completing my novel Blown-Away Man. My editor has undoubtedly helped me shape it into a better novel. But, with a week or so to go before I press the publish button, should I give it to more people to read to offer me their opinion on it? Do I really want to start seasoning it to other people’s tastes at this stage in the process? Does Damien Hirst round up his family and mates and say, “What d’you think of my shark in a tank then? Does it work? Any suggestions for improvement?” (Maybe he does, I have no idea. But I’d be very surprised if he gave a shit what anyone else thought.)

Aside from my editor, my husband has already provided lots of feedback. And, a year ago, a few close friends and family members gave me their thoughts on the first three chapters. Some of their opinions about a few details were similar, but at the same time, everyone had something different to say. For a while my mind felt foggy with other people’s opinions. It actually wasn’t helpful. I started to doubt my protagonist. I started to doubt the whole story. It took me a while to frogmarch all those voices out of my head and get back on track to believing wholeheartedly in my original idea.

Each time I write a book I learn different things from the experience. This time I’ve learned that it’s not always helpful to show your work to lots of other people and ask for their feedback. My husband’s and editor’s thoughts are invaluable – whether I agree with them or not – but beyond that, if I start listening to too many opinions and doubting my original ideas, I might as well let the story be crowdsourced. (Which, who knows, could be a fun exercise.)

Should Hermione have ended up with Harry? Should Amir and Hassan’s story have turned out differently? That’s what book clubs and reviews are for – the joy of airing and debating what you loved or didn’t love about someone else’s book. If it’s your book though, there comes a time when you have to put your ear plugs in, finish the story and turn over a new chapter…

Is Dan Brown-bashing becoming a national pastime?

Over the last few weeks, Dan Brown’s name seemed to keep cropping up again and again – and not in a positive light. I didn’t pay much attention at first, as it wasn’t the first time I’d heard Dan Brown getting slated, but all of a sudden I was hearing sneers every other day. Then I stumbled across a review of Dan Brown’s latest book, Inferno, on the Telegraph website. I hadn’t realised his latest novel was imminent, but at last there was an explanation for the sudden increase in Dan Brown-bashing.

Only a few days before, Dan Brown was mentioned at a talk given by the author Lionel Shriver that I attended. Shriver was making the point that even literary writers should ask themselves the question, ‘Does your book have some commercial appeal?’ For if it doesn’t, it’ll be unlikely to sell many copies and eventually you’ll be out of a publisher – something she herself had learned from past experience.

To illustrate her point she added (words to the following effect): ‘By that, I don’t mean you should try to be commercial. Dan Brown doesn’t try to be commercial. Dan Brown’s soul is commercial.’ Everyone laughed – not that Shriver’s intention was to put Dan Brown down, it wasn’t. Her point was a valid one, in that you should be true to yourself when writing, but don’t underestimate the importance of commercial appeal. However, I couldn’t help feeling slightly unsettled by the chorus of laughter in the packed-out Brighton Dome. Was I the only person in there who had enjoyed The Da Vinci Code? It’s a while since I read it, but I can’t remember his prose being worthy of quite so much negative criticism from across the media and Twittersphere. All I remember is that the plot swept me along and I found the historical theories fascinating. Sometimes I wonder: do critics jump on certain bandwagons because they don’t want to risk their reputation by admitting they liked something mainstream and popular?

I know there are people who only read literary novels, those who only read mass-market novels, and those who only read non-fiction. There are also those who rarely read anything outside their genre of choice, be it crime, chick lit, sci-fi or whatever’s being promoted on the 3-for-2 tables in Waterstone’s. But can I just put a shout-out for those of us who love a literary novel as much as an airport novel, or crime as much as comedy? I’ll read anything from a ghost story to a lesbian love story to a travel memoir, provided that by chapter 3, it’s got my attention by the short and curlies. I’m generally not biased.

After I left university, having spent four years wading through a reading list that made me want to hurl books out the window – Baudelaire, Sartre, Proust (I studied French) – the first book I bought to celebrate after graduating was Jilly Cooper’s Rivals. It was a long while before I felt ready to move on to anything even remotely more taxing. Perhaps I was too young to appreciate those revered French authors back then, although I’m in no great hurry to give them another try just yet. (Apart from Emile Zola, whose Germinal was the only book in those four years that I couldn’t put down.)

I’m about to start reading my third Lionel Shriver novel, the newly released Big Brother. I love Shriver’s writing. I find her to be sharp, unashamedly honest and I sense that we share the same thoughts and values about much of what goes on on our crazy planet. However, I don’t want to read literary novels back to back. Sometimes I just want pure escapism, a well-told story. I couldn’t give a toss if – like has been said of Dan Brown – the author writes in “blunt, mechanical sentences” and “the protagonist is as vanilla as they come”, provided that there’s a gripping plot laden with suspense. I think Dan Brown ticks the gripping plot box, and personally I think he’s got a gift.

I will end by saying this to all the Dan Brown-bashers out there: The Da Vinci Code has outsold every other novel in the world. I’d like to see you try.

Blow Your Own Trumpet Week? Yes please!

Earlier this week the BBC reported on a girls’ school in London that had introduced two novel ideas. Failure Week (discussing how to cope with setbacks) and Blow Your Own Trumpet Week (discussing experiences of success and failure), were introduced by the headmistress to help the pupils learn that A) they can’t be successful at everything, and B) to recognise when they have been successful at something and feel good about it.

The article caught my attention because of the words ‘blow your own trumpet’. I’d been discussing this very matter with someone a few days previously – namely how uncomfortable it feels for writers to blow their own trumpets – especially for self-published authors who have to market their own books. There’s been much talk among the online writing community about how much self-promotion is too much, but if we don’t shout out about our successes now and again (such as mentioning glowing reviews from readers etc) then who will?

In an ideal world, we’d all have agents and publishers with shed-loads of cash who’d be blowing our trumpets for us while we get on with our job: writing. But times have changed, marketing budgets have shrunk, and social media is how writers try to attract readers to their books.

Do I love reading a positive review from a reader? Of course! Do I like pasting the link into a tweet and broadcasting on Twitter that someone liked my book? GOD NO! It makes me cringe to my core. It goes against everything I’ve ever been taught. In a word, to someone of a self-deprecating nature like myself, it feels like bragging. And who likes a braggart?

I feel so much more comfortable humorously putting myself down, probably because if I take the piss out of myself, it means I’ve beaten you to it, thereby stealing your thunder and your potential ability to hurt my feelings. An odd psychology maybe, but I’d imagine that’s how many people operate. The only time I ever brag with unabashed enjoyment is to wind up my husband, eg: “I’m gonna thrash you at table tennis, loser! Fifty quid says I beat you 10-nil.” That feels comfortable, but only because my husband knows I’m joking. (Although he also knows I speak the truth – I’m the undisputed table tennis champ of our household, let there be no doubt about that.)

But anyway, I’m digressing. I think Blow Your Own Trumpet Week is a great idea to help people recognise their successes. Sometimes all I can see is the mammoth journey ahead of me – the things I haven’t yet achieved but desperately want to. I rarely look back at what I actually have achieved and take a moment to feel good about it. So today, in honour of my achievements, humble though they may be when compared with JK Rowling, I shall blow my trumpet. Or maybe I’ll just ding a triangle. With extra gusto, of course.