Why you need a style guide

It may sound like a detail, but agreeing on a style guide for your project – or your whole company – will save countless arguments.

Usually, no one can agree on exactly how particular things should be written. Does this word have a capital letter? Do you need to spell out abbreviations? And don’t get me started on Oxford commas.

The style guide acts as a referee to make those decisions for you, and to ensure all your written materials follow best practice – as well as making sure you avoid glaring, amateurish mistakes.

Two UK-based ones that I recommend are The Economist and The Guardian – both are free and easy to use online.

You may well want to customise one of these by adding your own jargon or personal preferences – but if you just stick to the standard version, you’ll be fine.

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Explaining Nobel Prize winners

It’s that time of year, when we get to hear some proper scientists on BBC Radio 4 explaining what they do. And newspapers grapple with how to explain topography and exotic matter to their readers.

Yes, the Nobel Prizes were awarded this week.

There was some great writing to explain it all, such as this punchy piece in ExtremeTech – bonus point for getting ‘flatland’ in the headline.

But did Wired really have to be so defeatist in its headline: Nobel Prize in Physics Goes to Another Weird Thing Nobody Understands?

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Can you tell the age of a writer?

Recently, I was asked (perfectly reasonably) by a client to do some edits an article I’d ghost-written. One of the main changes needed was to go for a younger tone of voice – which got me thinking, what does that actually mean?

There was no suggestion we should use teenage text-speak, but it was a challenge none the less. I’m typically used to focussing primarily on the reader, and picking the right tone of voice for them, so it was interesting to think more about the writer’s persona. In fact, the only times I tend to have to think mainly about the ‘writer’ for whom I’m ghost-writing is when I’m putting together a speech.

I think the end result hit the mark, partly due to just loosening up the language and dialling back on the formality. And it was good to be reminded that copywriters shouldn’t only think about the reader – remember the writer as well.

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On procrastination

I admit it, I’m writing this blog post to get out of doing real work. I’ve got a press release and two articles on my to do list, and I’m putting off getting started.

Partly I’m just easing myself into the day. But I’ve run out of useful things I can convince myself really need doing first, and there’s no avoiding the empty page that needs filling.

As part of my procrastinating, I read through a few blogs by copywriters and marketers that I follow. This post by Steve Slaunwhite rang true for me: if you’re struggling to write, Steve recommends three key steps: visualise your reader, decide what you need to say, then ‘have a conversation’. In my English version of this process, I always try and think ‘how would I explain this to someone in the pub’ – then I write it down in basically the same words.

So, wish me luck, and let’s see how the writing day pans out. Unless I really, really need to organise my folders and do another backup before starting work, of course.

By the way, Steve’s guide on how to ‘Start and run a copywriting business’ was my go-to source of guidance when I first went freelance. His books are well worth checking out.

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Why are there no copywriters in the movies?

When I was thinking about what to write about next for this blog, I idly considered writing about portrayals of PR people in films. But a quick Google showed me that topic’s already been done to death.

So I thought I’d write about how copywriters are portrayed in the movies. And you know what? I couldn’t think of a single example. A fairly thorough (well, fairly quick) Google search turned up Melancholia, which I’ve not seen, but it doesn’t really seem to be about writing, as such.

Of course, I’m not counting Mad Men, which you should watch if you’ve got any interest at all in copywriting (and advertising generally). It brilliantly captures many of the stresses and issues of writing for hire.

So, why so few copywriters in films? Mad Men shows just how dynamic and dramatic the role can be. And I would have thought that quite a few writers had progressed on to movie writing from roles in ad agencies – or maybe not?

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Distributor Arrow buys EE Times, EDN and other UBM brands

Last week, distributor Arrow Electronics announced it has bought the electronics and tech portfolio of publisher UBM, including heavyweight global brands such as EE Times, EDN and TechOnline (and hat tip to Publitek, who I think broke the news first).

This is part of a trend in the electronics industry, and isn’t Arrow’s first purchase. But what does it mean for the sector, and for PRs operating in this area?

Looking through Arrow’s press release, I’m struck by phrases such as ‘trusted advisor’, and ‘making technical decision making easier’. On the other hand, the press release makes sure it gets the word ‘unbiased’ in, and I think it’s only fair we give Arrow the benefit of the doubt.

Kevin Morris at EE Journal takes a fairly negative view of the news, and says ‘engineers are savvy enough not to trust one of their distributors to be an unbiased source of information’. His take on the news is deeply respectful, yet pessimistic about EE Times’ lack of a future as a quality trade publication – and I’m afraid I think I agree with him.

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Portmanteau words: bodacious or bogus?

Today I learned a new term – portmanteau words, formed by combining two existing words and their meanings. Apparently this term was first coined by Lewis Carroll to explain the words ‘slithy’ and ‘mimsy’ in the Jabberwocky.

The general consensus seems to be that they are the devil’s work, at least in English, and have brought us ugly usages such as ‘chillax’, ‘affluenza’, ‘edutainment’ and ’infomercial’. Not to mention names such as ‘Brangelina’ and ‘Bennifer’.

But that got me thinking: which portmanteau words are actually useful? Could we cope without being able to say ‘smog’, ‘biopic’ ‘sitcom’ or ‘motel’? These all seem useful and valid additions to the richness of English.

And some are surprisingly old, such as ‘brunch’ which was coined in 1896, or ‘chortle’ which dates from 1872 (that’s Mr Carroll’s doing, again). The OED goes all the way back to ‘flush’ from 1548.

On balance, they’re still a thing to be avoided, I’d say. Language is living and changing, but that has limits. You might disagree, but I’ll just refudiate that.

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Why ‘passionate’ isn’t just a marketing buzzword

If you’re like me, you’re likely to be highly attuned to meaningless buzzwords in written English, and to run a mile from text that has like, literally millions of exaggerations.

One of the worst offenders is the word ‘passionate’. Is anyone really passionate about better database management, or office efficiency?

I went to an event recently that showed me that ‘passionate’ need not be just hyperbole. It was the launch of Nottingham Pint of Science, the local branch of a festival that brings scientists to pubs (not such an unusual occurrence) then gets them to give talks about their research (OK, less common).

At the launch, four young academics talked about subjects as diverse as flying spiders, bones and parasites. The common factor was that they all were genuinely enthusiastic and clearly interested in their chosen topics, and able to convey that enthusiasm in clear, direct language. Each speaker was, well, ‘passionate’ – and it paid off in their ability to keep the audience engaged and interested.

Having worked, myself, in sectors as superficially dull as electrical fuses and traffic lights, I can vouch for the difficult in engaging with the reader. But where there is truly something worthwhile to say, it’s no bad thing to let your excitement in your topic shine through in your speaking and writing. Your audience will appreciate it.

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Let the writer do their job

As a copywriter, I’m used to my writing going through many rounds of edits, and having substantial changes imposed by clients. That’s fine – that’s what I’m here for – and I don’t mind at all, even if I don’t necessarily agree with all the edits.

But I would say to clients working with copywriters: keep the writer involved. You’ve decided to pay for a professional, so allow them to at least comment on the final draft that your CEO has scrawled all over.

In fact, your copywriter will almost certainly spot something in this ‘final’ version that needs changing – if not an actual error, there will inevitably be some new text that doesn’t align with your corporate style.

Let the copywriter do their job, and the end result will be better writing.

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Writing without distraction

As a copywriter, it’s sometimes essential to focus, and to cut off all the distractions that feed procrastination. In particular, the internet can be a major time-stealer – I’ll just check Facebook, Twitter or the latest news… I must just read one more page of background information… how do other people approach this problem?

For those times, I tend to just try and concentrate as best I can, without using any particular tactics. But there’s a new word processor devices, the Freewrite (formerly the Hemingwrite) that’s aiming to help – it’s a portable keyboard with a small e-ink display, that lets you just type without distraction.

It sounds like a great idea, but then when you look at the small print, it costs $449 and weighs more than my laptop. And the promised ‘4 weeks battery life’ turns out to be based on 30 minutes per day usage – so, that’s ‘up to 14 hours’ then, which doesn’t sound quite so good.

I love the concept, but it’s too expensive for me. If someone can do this for $250, I’m in. Or perhaps this should be a challenge for my Raspberry Pi skills – a keyboard, case, screen and Pi would surely do the job nicely?

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