Pursuing writing as a successful means of making ends meet is not an easy task, but it can be among the most rewarding of careers once you have overcome the initial hurdles. The following five tips should help you develop your skills and make you a better writer:
1. Read widely
To become a good writer, you need to become an avid and vociferous reader; if you aren’t already! Seek out and read as wide a range of books and articles as you can. Don’t restrict yourself merely to reading the books that you instinctively like. Expose yourself to as many authors and different writing genres as possible. Some books you will love, others you will hate, but you will learn from all of them – and it will all help you develop your own unique style.
2. Live your life
The most successful writers use their words as a mirror of their experiences in everyday life, and in this sense all writing is autobiographical. Leading a full life gives you inspiration and fires the imagination, as well as giving you first- hand experience of the deep and varied richness of human emotions. Take on a variety of jobs, travel the world, try new activities, have your heart broken – and if possible, keep a journal of your thoughts, ambitions and experiences along the way.
3. Write regularly
It is a cliché that ‘practice makes perfect’, but with writing this is very close to the truth. To develop your skills as writer you need to write regularly. This is an especially important habit to cultivate, because ‘writer’s block’ is a demon that affects even the best writers. Writing regularly – about everything and nothing, even if it is only a few hundred words a day, will train you to hone your style and give you the confidence to plough through the hard times when they arrive.
4. Don’t Pigeonhole yourself
As your style develops you will find a favourite genre in which you excel. This may be through accident or by design. For instance, much of my work is marketing literature, and I have become very good at it through years of practice. However, don’t pigeonhole yourself by being afraid to stray out of your comfort zone. The hallmark of a good wordsmith is their ability to be able to write convincingly on any subject, from romantic fiction to academic reports!
5. Don’t Give Up
There is a lot of competition in the world of writing and success will not necessarily come overnight. Writing is as much a vocation and a way of life as it is a ‘job’ or a ‘career’. Follow your passion, keep believing in yourself; and never, ever give up
For young writers the biggest challenge is often to know where to start; what to write about, where to seek publication, how to stand out from the competition. The answer is to take your writing career one step at a time; to take the long term view and aim for your words to reflect an interesting an enjoyable life. Most importantly, remember that nothing you write is ever a waste of time, and that the process of reaching to your goal is as important – and can be as much fun – as the end result itself!
Direct marketing watchdog Denny Hatch had his knickers in a twist about the online ad shown here. And with good reason. It’s simply a long copy direct mail letter turned into a PowerPoint video and it runs 77 minutes (I am taking that part on faith since I lasted about 4 minutes) with no pause button and no call to action until the very end. The sell is for an investment newsletter which allegedly has 241,700 active subscribers, which I presume are the same as the 241,700 people currently viewing Otisregrets.
Stansberry’s “don’t leave” interrupter screen
Hatch waited all the way to the end; I didn’t and clicked the close button, bringing up the frantic “WAIT!” alert usually reserved for adult content sites. I clicked the “stay on page” button … and was rewarded with the opportunity to read the same copy, but in its original mega-letter format. (And badly reproduced, too. Hope that Stansberry picks up a few subscribers so he can afford a new imaging drum for his scanner.) Even so there is no call to action until the very, very end of the letter where we find a single “subscribe” button.
Of course this is NOT evidence that long copy is a bad idea. Rather, it’s a great way to experience good direct marketing by its absence. When asked how long a man’s legs should be, Lincoln allegedly replied “long enough to reach the ground.” It’s the same with sales letters. They can be one page, or 32 pages (my personal record), or hundreds of pages like the Stansberry effort… just as long as the copy is permeated with calls to action so the reader can stop reading and give you the order as soon as they are convinced.
Hatch’s article had a great quote from old school copywriter Claude Hopkins, which talks about “print” but applies equally well to electronic media:
“People are hurried. The average person worth cultivating has too much to read. They skip three-fourths of the reading matter, which they pay to get. They are not going to read your business talk unless you make it worth their while and let the headline show it.
People will not be bored in print. They may listen politely at a dinner table to boasts and personalities, life history etc. But in print they choose their own companions, their own subjects. They want to be amused or benefited. They want economy, beauty, labor savings, good things to eat and wear.”
Getting back to the format of Stansberry’s online ad, Hatch closes (as will I) with this zinger from “Visual Display of Quantitative Information” author Edward Tufte: “Power corrupts. PowerPoint corrupts absolutely.”
I was back in San Francisco this week and paid a visit to the Musee Mechanique. This is a warehouse full of old arcade games that are restored and maintained by a private owner in return for your plunking in many quarters for a chance to experience a thrill from yesteryear that probably cost a penny back in the day.
There are early video games, tests of strength, and machines that tell your fortune along with your weight. But the really charming exhibits are boxed dioramas which come to life to show a man trying to calm a crying baby (whose jaw is repaired with what looks like silly putty), the horrors of an opium den, or the flatulence that results from eating too many beans on the prairie in the example below.
O for the good old days, in which consumers could be amused by simple thrills like this and marketers could get them to read long copy ads like John Caples’ “They laughed when I sat down to play the piano” or the Charles Atlas ads. Today they demand amped-up computer graphics, and they wouldn’t have the patience to watch to watch the full two minutes of “The Inquest”, a large exhibit in which buffalo shuffle their heads while investigating the body of an Indian warrior who has frozen to death in the snow. Today’s consumers also lack the generous acceptance of our wiles that made advertising a welcome, entertaining part of daily life.
Our job is a lot harder, which makes it more interesting I guess. Happy Labor Day.
An article in yesterday’s San Francisco Chronicle offered textbook examples of what to do, and NOT to do, if your company gets involved in damage control. I’ve never seen a contrast so clear-cut.
Here’s the backstory: an animal welfare group named Compassion over Killing shot a video of cattle allegedly being brutally mistreated at Central Valley Meat, a slaughterhouse in California. The video was turned over the USDA who immediately sent inspectors out. Finding conditions just as bad as depicted on the video, they shut the operation down.
In-N-Out Burgers was, it turns out, a customer of Central Valley Meat, and quickly severed the relationship. Quoting from the article: “Mark Taylor, chief operating officer, said Tuesday the company acted immediately upon becoming aware of it. ‘In-N-Out Burger would never condone the inhumane treatment of animals and all of our suppliers must agree to abide by our strict standards for the humane treatment of cattle,’ Taylor said to The Associated Press in a written statement.”
Reaction was instant and decisive… absolutely no question as to where In-N-Out stands on this. They defused a nasty situation as soon as they were associated with it. That’s the good example of damage control.
But here’s the bad: instead of making themselves available to the press, the owners of the plant (who are identified by name in the article) declined to comment, explaining they had not seen the video. They then hired a PR firm, which issued the following statement: “Central Valley Meat takes these issues very seriously and is now developing a plan of action to present to (the Food Safety Inspection Service) to remedy any potential violations of USDA guidelines,” the statement said. “Based on our own investigation and 30 years of producing safe, high-quality US beef, we are confident these concerns pose no food safety issues.”
Maybe that’s true, but it’s hard to believe in the context of the USDA’s shutting them down. They first ran from the issue, then stuck their heads in the sand. And shame on the unnamed PR agency, which was apparently hired in the middle of a crisis and responded by issuing a hard-to-believe press release. You couldn’t find a worse example of crisis management.
Have you seen this? According to a media commentator, Applebee’s has a new campaign in which they are urging hipsters to dine at their restaurants “ironically” which makes sense since they are never going to get them there through conventional advertising. Take a look:
Funny thing is, Applebee’s actually is running a social media campaign that is far more bizarre as this, called “Girls’ Night Out. Life is better shared.” A Betty White character harangues ladies for spending too much time online, then tells them the solution is to get down to Applebee’s for some facetime. Take a look:
There’s also a tumblr page that anchors the campaign and has links to Pinterest and Twitter pages (no Facebook, maybe because it’s a regional campaign). All the elements of a well thought out and expensive social media campaign.
Speaking of social media, Applebee’s is also marketing this thing: which is a life size inflatable dummy you can leave at your desk while you sneak out for lunch. This one is on Facebook, where you can take the Desk Lunch Diagnosis Quiz (I am the “Break Room Hero… people are tired of cleaning up the microwave after you”).
Does this stuff work? The “goddess” video above has over 50,000 hits but how many of those are potential customers? There are only 400 plus followers on the Twitter page and the selection of inflatable dolls on Amazon was originally 7 but is now down to just 2. The bottom line is that Applebee’s is still Applebee’s (check the hashtag #applebee and you’ll get a far more realistic snapshot of Middle America’s view of the chain) and there’s only so much you can do to get hipsters to change their behavior… unless they do it ironically, perhaps.
Pompous, stilted and jargon-esque prose may be popular in corporate marcom departments and annual reports, but it turns readers off and causes copywriters to lose their jobs because we’re putting people to sleep. That’s why we need to stay ever-vigilant against that dark inner voice that keeps whispering, if we aren’t saying anything or don’t know what we are talking about, we better sound smart.
Along with the beloved we-we calculator that tells us if our copy is too me-centric, we have a useful new tool in the Writer’s Diet from Kiwi pedagogist Helen Sword. Cut-and-paste an entry from 100 to 1000 words and her program will score you from “Fit and Trim” to “Heart Attack Waiting to Happen” for readability based on your choice of various parts of speech.
A snippet of my direct marketing copy was labeled “fit and trim” with a recommendation to tone up some abstract nouns. (I was writing about an abstract concept.) My intro to a fiction piece was labeled “needs toning” based on a “flabby” score for my verbs in which a passive observer is commenting on what he sees around him. Busted. This sucker seems to work pretty well.
I had originally encountered Dr. Sword through her article “Zombie Nouns” in the opinion pages of the New York Times. These are “nominated” words in which a verb or adverb is transformed into a noun: participation, perception, observation, nominalization. A few of these are fine, but when they are overused they suck the life out of the text as in this example from a social sciences book:
The partial participation of newcomers is by no means “disconnected” from the practice of interest. Furthermore, it is also a dynamic concept. In this sense, peripherality, when it is enabled, suggests an opening, a way of gaining access to sources for understanding through growing involvement. The ambiguity inherent in peripheral participation must then be connected to issues of legitimacy, of the social organization of and control over resources, if it is to gain its full analytical potential.
For those of us who work with technology companies, this is new yet oddly familiar—companies in this space (another word to hate BTW) tend to turn verbs into nouns (verbalization?) that have the ring of authenticity without really meaning anything; cf. “impact” (how will this initiative impact our bottom line?).
In both cases, the construction of active, well-structured sentences using simple yet evocative words will awaken our readers and, hopefully, keep the zombies at bay.
When I started freelancing, a couple decades ago, a wise old art director counseled me: never turn down work. Even if you’re super busy, stay up all night to get it done or offload it to a fellow creative and hopefully mark up their work. After all, you never know which new client might become your bread and butter or, conversely, if your current bread-and-butter client might go belly up tomorrow.
And I do try to stay hungry. But recently I’ve been turning down a bit of work. Part of this is a hunch we are headed for good times. Freelance creative are the canaries in the coal mine, first to get laid off in a recession but also first to know when companies think they better get cracking to stay competitive. And that’s what seems to be happening right now. Buy U.S. equities, dear reader. Buy Facebook like I did last week. (Though not at the IPO price obviously.)
And, another part of my reasoning is quality of life. I’m trying to get some traction on a fiction project, which uses the same brain cells as my copywriting. At the end of the day, when I’m trying to get the attention of David Ogilvy at that great water cooler in the sky, do I want to admit I didn’t get my novel finished because I decided to take on yet another few hundred $$ project? Not to mention my kid’s in the Little League playoffs and we are looking pretty good over here.
Both my turn down projects this week had to do with budget contractions. When times are good, prices start rising all over the place (the $3.47 deck pieces I wanted at Home Depot rose to $5.94 in the space of a month, for example), and it’s natural to get aggressively defensive.
One client wanted to redefine a project to pay less for work we’ve already agreed to. There’s a line item for A, and a line item for B, but the assumption is you’ll get both and I do research and prep with that in mind before I ever type a word. Now this client wants to only pay for the “A” portion which makes it a loser for me since the prep work is the same, so I’m outta here. Have to finish current projects but asking to be excused from future ones.
The second contested budget was much, much larger… an entire website. This is always a leap of faith because you don’t know how the pages will shake out when you estimate and hopefully pick a per-page number that averages out (same with catalogs by the way). With a new client, you also don’t know how finicky they will be and how complex the revisions. So I added something I thought was pretty generous, which was an offer to write 10 pages of the client’s choice at the per-page rate, charge nothing for my startup research time, then after that we could decide if it make sense for both of us.
Client instead wants a deal of some kind, which I can’t offer because my deal was my deal. This could have occupied me late into the night for much of the summer. Instead I’ll be baking baguettes, following the capers of my protagonist (a 19th century Quaker with a terrible problem) and maybe watching Logistics One finally get the best of Staffing in the Saratoga American Little League. Maybe I’m crazy, but maybe not.
My colleague Russell Kern sent back some copy with the request that it be made more “Buckeye”. Which, on investigation, means more plain spoken, middle American… you know, Buckeye. As in Ohio State Buckeyes. And he flattered me by saying that “of course Otis is a Buckeye copywriter.”
Well, guess I wasn’t, at least in this instance, but I try to be. It is rarely a good idea to use anything but plain language in your copywriting. Remember that anything that trips the reader up is likely to send them toward the delete button or recycling bin, not the reference desk. Don’t use words a sixth grader wouldn’t understand. And don’t use complex sentences and grammatical constructions and expect the reader to parse them for you, because they won’t. They’re too busy getting past your unwanted promotional message to the next thing in their lives.
The late John Caples used to keep a Sears or Montgomery Ward catalog on his desk, just in case he ran across a product that was unfamiliar to him. Those catalog copywriters were Buckeyes for sure. They were selling to Midwestern (often immigrant) readers ordering items sight unseen, and their clear descriptions were what built these companies.
There are exceptions, as always. Selling luxury goods, which people want but don’t need, seems to benefit from a few unctuous words they can roll around to make themselves feel special. Health advice can be bolstered by a bit of sternness and a professorial tone. And financial writing often requires an extra level of formality. But even in these instances, it’s never a bad idea to be plain spoken in your core message.
If you’re a copywriter reading this, you almost certainly came from some other discipline like a study of English literature. You’re probably a very good writer and would love to sell a story to the New Yorker or get your screenplay produced. But your reader doesn’t give a crap about any of that or about you in general. They just want to buy products and services that will make them feel better or make their life easier, and your job is to describe those benefits without letting your college degree get in the way.
Recently the Wall Street Journal ran a Saturday essay on selling to the new Chinese consumer. It’s adapted from What Chinese Want: Culture, Communism and China’s Modern Consumer by Tom Doctoroff, a book available on amazon.com. What I found interesting was that the three rules cited by Doctoroff could be applied to Americans as well. They don’t necessarily describe our main motivations, but I don’t think it would hurt if your marketing included the same assumptions.
Rule #1 is that a product that is consumed in public commands a premium over one used in private. Example: Chinese will pay a premium for international mobile phones, but prefer cheap domestic brands for their household appliances. Starbucks and Pizza Hut, among others, have well positioned themselves as brands consumed in a highly visible setting.
Rule #2 is that benefits should be external, not internal. To quote the author, “spas and resorts do better when they promise not only relaxation but also recharged batteries. Infant formulas must promote intelligence, not happiness. Kids aren’t taken to Pizza Hut so that they can enjoy pizza; they are rewarded with academic “triumph feasts.” Beauty products must help a woman “move forward.” Even beer must do something. In Western countries, letting the good times roll is enough; in China, pilsner must bring people together, reinforce trust and promote mutual financial gain.”
I love this one and think it should be added to any checklist of product benefits. It’s fine if the product makes you feel good, but doesn’t that make you look better too? If that electronic measuring device helps you do the job faster, doesn’t that make you appear more competent, confident and promotable to your boss? Let’s find ways to add external benefits whenever possible to our selling copy.
Rule #3 is that a product must help the user stand out while supporting their desire to fit in. This is why BMWs and Audis are preferred over Maseratis by those with the means to buy a luxury car. Obviously, Americans have fewer problems with flashy consumerism. And yet. According to Doctoroff, “the American dream—wealth that culminates in freedom—is intoxicating for the Chinese. But whereas Americans dream of “independence,” Chinese crave “control” of their own destiny and command over the vagaries of daily life.”
Doesn’t that sound familiar and appealing? Don’t we as copywriters, in addition to positives, make sure that our copy will include that absolute absence of negatives? Don’t we point out that you’ll be admired for your talent or good taste thanks to our product, and as a result other people will want to be like you? That’s quite different from being a lone wolf who insists on being one of a kind.
Think about selling to the Chinese, and you might find ways to sell more effectively to Americans as well.
AT&T is pretty happy with its 2 million adoring fans...
The Wall Street Journal article on GM pulling its Facebook advertising mentioned that General Motors is third in U.S. advertising spending, behind P&G and AT&T. This prompted me to go take a look at what the other two companies are doing with their Facebook presence.
P&G does not appear to have a corporate Facebook page. That is, if you search “P&G” or “PG” or “Proctor & Gamble” you’ll come up empty except for some odd special-purpose pages. Makes sense because P&G does not generally market itself as a brand but rather as a family of brands, each of which has its own brand manager. And indeed a random search turned up pages for Charmin which offers “SitOrSquat”, an app for finding clean public restrooms, and “Charmin Fan Perks” which are cents-off coupons available in limited quantities at preannounced times (generated repeated visits to the site).
There’s no brand page for Prilosec, another random choice, but there’s one for Pringles. Here you can find the “Tournament of Flavors”, a collection of fan-submitted videos, and “Make Us Laugh”, a joke contest which seems to be in Arabic. In short, P&G’s brand managers seem to have figured out how to use Facebook in a way that is appropriate to the medium and encourages user involvement.
...but the feeling is not entirely mutual.
ATT, on the other hand, makes GM look like a social media maven. Their page is all over the fact they’ve gotten two million “likes” (Pringles has 19 million) with a big “two million thank yous” graphic at the top and a “two million thanks” link just below this. (The link actually leads to something interesting: on May 22 the ATT “house band” is going to start pumping out “thank you” songs written for people who sign up and submit personal information to be used in writing the lyrics. Sort of like the Old Spice Man.) Yet the rest of the page is full of gripes from customers about AT&T. They should do something to moderate these, or at least respond to them.
The moral of this story? With three so different approaches to Facebook, by America’s three top advertisers, this is still a very young medium. Or as Clint Eastwood might put it, we’re still waiting for the ball to come down after the opening kickoff.