Archive for the ‘Writing (General)’ Category.

Why I Have No Idea What You’re Saying

Have you ever chatted with a professional in a different line of work from yours and walked away wishing you’d brought a translator to the table with you? You’re pretty sure it was English — at least, the little words sounded familiar. But 90 percent of it somehow managed to whoosh right over your head. Are you stupid? Do you have a hearing problem? Or have you simply been buzzed by wall-to-wall buzzwords?

We all fall into jargon from time to time. It exists for a reason, and it can be highly useful or even necessary among those in the know. Car buffs debate issues involving torque and fuel ratios, composers pepper their language with Italian musical phrases, electricians casually drop terms such as “resistance” and “capacitor,” and physicists no doubt talk like time-traveling refugees from Star Trek: the Next Generation. It’s only natural for people in the same profession to talk shop. The problem comes when the engineer or the musician or the IT expert suddenly has to speak to a general audience. We’re listening, but we just don’t understand. And after a few minutes of not understanding, we’re no longer listening either.

The problem isn’t limited to industry-specific terminology, either. I’m often asked to rewrite or edit content written by people who work in a more general business field, and I still have to spend half the project time figuring out what the heck these folks are trying to say. A lot of it tends toward the nebulous, stuff about “aligning verticals and utilizing granular compartmentalization to achieve a more impactful synergy,” yadda yadda yadda. Business-speak is a way for people to talk a lot without saying much. But if you’re trying to sell yourself or your product/service to a mainstream audience, don’t be shocked if you’re rewarded by the sound of crickets chirping.

As a first step in clearing up your verbiage, try to avoid jargony words that ordinary language can handle perfectly well, such as “agreeance” (agreement) and “incentivize” (spur, motivate). And watch out for whiz-bang phrases that describe something that isn’t really that amazing, such as “results-oriented.” (You’d never guess how many business professionals think it a huge feather in their caps to describe themselves or their company as “result-oriented.” As opposed to what, “sitting-around-doing-nothing-oriented?”) “Full-service” is another phrase I’ve attacked on this blog before. (Ever hear a company describe itself as “partial service?”) Finally, don’t overuse the relatively simple, easy-to-understand buzzwords just because they aren’t as likely to whoosh us — for instance, not everything has to be a “driver” for something else. (I see that one a lot too.) Get a thesaurus and give another word or two a chance. We’ve got lots of them.

If you’re not sure you can veer away from industry lingo, or you can’t tell how accessible your stuff is to your intended audience, get a professional copywriter or copyeditor to go over it for you. You may get a revised version that makes you exclaim, “Oh, so that’s what I was saying!”

For more about my writing services and current package deals, check out my website at www.reynoldswriting.com.

Blocking Writer’s Block

Oddly enough, millions of words have been written on the subject of writer’s block — it seems that writers never tire of writing about not being able to write. And there are as many different coping strategies as there are writers. Some just stare at a blank page or screen for days, months or even years, waiting for, well, something. Others write down anything and everything that enters their heads in the hopes that two or three consecutive words will actually be worth keeping. Ernest Hemingway used to end each writing day in the middle of a sentence so he’d at least have some direction for starting the next day. Then there are the compulsive rewriters and re-rewriters who must polish a sentence until it gleams before they can gather the courage to try another one.

As as you might image, articles about getting un-blocked, such as this one I found recently on Copyblogger, are popular among professional writers. But of course you don’t have to make your living at the keyboard to struggle with writer’s block, as countless non-writers have discovered for themselves. For what it’s worth, here are a few tips that I’ve found useful for blocking the block:

Call it something else. The very term “writer’s block” can act as a self-fulfilling prophecy. “Gee, the words are coming slowly this morning. Maybe I have WRITER’S BLOCK.” Well, if you didn’t have it before, you probably do now. But isn’t it possible that you’re just tired, unwell, or distracted by some completed unrelated event in your life? If so, maybe you can’t focus on any particular activity just at the moment. You don’t have writer’s block, you have (fill in the blank). Deal with that issue and the writing problem may well resolve itself.

Sneak up on it. “I’ll just jot down a few notes.” I’m always telling myself that. When I’m not sure how to begin a piece of writing, I don’t bother with the beginning at all. I just start writing stuff that may end up going anywhere (or nowhere). If I forced myself to come up with a brilliant beginning before I could move on, I’d never finish. I just write with no preconceived plans or expectations — and before I know it, my “notes” have mushroomed into a full draft.

Take frequent short breaks. If you wear yourself out, sooner or later the ideas will dry up and you’ll find yourself stuck. That’s fatigue, not writer’s block. You can prevent it by forcing yourself to stand up and go do something else — anything — for a few minutes. (Don’t stay away too long, though, or you may never come back.) Recharge your brain a little and then get back to work. Do this at regular intervals, whether you feel like stopping or not.

And if all else fails, you can always hire me to do the writing instead.

For more about my writing services and current package deals, check out my website at www.reynoldswriting.com.

Why Human Writers Still Beat Robots

Copywriting mastermind Robert Bly recently discussed an extraordinary new technological advance — writer-less writing. This program, the product of a company called Narrative Science, apparently synthesizes facts and figures to generate news stories and other articles. I was intrigued by this idea and stumbled on a New York Times piece that explores the technology and its applications in more detail.

The software does more than simply throw sports scores or stock prices into a blender and hit the mix button. It can accept and work with colloquial expressions and even choose a specific story angle, such as a come-from-behind win by a sports team. The resulting work is coherent, well organized and professionally presented. The folks at Narrative Science see an increasing role for this kind of computer-generated writing in journalism as the technology continues to advance.

So is it time for us writers to put away our laptops, pens and caffeine habits for good? I don’t believe so.

Take a look at the sample news brief referenced in the Times article. Underneath the smooth grammar and coolly professional tone, you basically get a sequence of events and statistics. Yes, the program communicates the significance of this data, but it can’t speculate on what might happen next or evoke the participants’ feelings on the matter. And it can’t imbue its work with its own feelings either, because it doesn’t have any. That’s okay for an objective report, but what about persuasive writing?

Real writers do much more than just write. When you hire a skilled, experienced freelance copywriter, you gain a creative partner as well as a scribe. I’m constantly asked for editorial guidance, creative brainstorming sessions, and opinions on what that next round of blog posts should explore or what tone a sales letter should employ. And yes, I rely on previous experience, collected facts and basic logic in my work — but I’m not stuck with those options. I can also leap beyond logic by drawing on such uniquely organic resources as intuition, humor, opinion and emotion. I can do more than just extrapolate story points from facts and figures. I can use those facts and figures as a launchpad for sailing into uncharted “What If” territory. Irrationality has its downside, but it also allows us to create, imagine, wonder and dream. That’s the extra edge a flesh-and-blood writer brings to the table.

Now if they ever start making computers as nutsy as humans, then we’re ALL in trouble.

For more about my writing services and current package deals, check out my website at www.reynoldswriting.com.

Writing Tools: Go with What Works

I’m picky about my writing tools. It might be just my nature, though it’s more probably because I spend most of my waking hours banging out a living keystroke by keystroke. I know that various writers throughout history have had their favorite toys. Andy Rooney, for instance, used the same old manual typewriter for most of his career. (His voice haunts me now: “Didja ever wonder why I did that?”) Even back in ancient times, a monk or scribe somewhere was probably insisting on a quill made only from the feathers of that turkey over there.

I didn’t even draft on a computer early in my professional career; I used a pen. A Pilot Precise V5 to be, well, precise. Once I started using the keyboard for all stages of writing, I found myself gravitating toward those laptop-style models with the scissor-switch keys. When one of them died on my recently, I replaced it with the closest match I could find. It just feels right to me.

The other day I decided that I was tired of my creaky old version of Microsoft Word. Instead of shelling out for the current version, however, I stopped and thought: Now might be the time to switch horses. Word’s sheer wealth of capabilities seemed to get in my way at times, offering me so many options that I sometimes found myself thinking about the writing tool instead of the writing. What do I really want in a word processor? I want something that feels invisible and gets out of my way, giving me all the options that I need and none that I don’t.

That’s what businesses seek in selecting their writing tool — a professional copywriter. They want someone who will work quietly and efficiently in the background on their behalf. They want a skilled technician who can hammer their raw ore into a dazzling finished product with a minimum of muss and fuss. They want someone who, as Apple would put it, “just works.”

That’s what I strive to do. I keep my pricing, work processes and communication methods as simple and streamlined as possible. I offer my opinion when clients want it and keep my mouth shut when they don’t. I filter complex, often unfinished ideas into clear, effective messages. And perhaps most important of all, I take the time up front to get to know my clients so I can anticipate their needs before they’ve even expressed them.

Whatever your writing tool of choice — a pen, a keyboard, a word processor or a professional copywriter — go with the one that just feels right. You’ll get a lot more done with a lot less effort.

For more about my writing services and current package deals, check out my website at www.reynoldswriting.com.

Write Less, Write Better

I recall a client who’d requested and received a 300-word article asking me, “On second thought, a 1,000-word article would fit my format better. Can we just pad this piece out to 1,000 words?”

I also recall my response: “Can we? Yes. Should we? Probably not.”

If brevity is indeed the soul of wit, then you want your marketing content to be the life of the party — not the guy reeling off some rambling epic tale with no apparent beginning or ending as he blocks your way to the bathroom. Effective, powerful, entertaining writing makes its point and then gets out of the way instead of monopolizing the reader’s time and patience.

Brevity doesn’t necessarily mean squishing everything you write down into soundbites, though the runaway success of Twitter has proven that 140 characters can go a long way. But it does mean adopting a “less is more” approach and viewing your writing with a surgeon’s eye. Here are some advantages to concise writing:

It’s easier to process. The eye gets fatigued as it pores over massive blocks of text, and the more of it the page contains, the less of it actually seems to matter. Clear, concise writing is easier for the eye and brain to handle, giving you better odds that your reader will actually want to keep reading.

It packs more of a punch. I find that my writing always turns out better when I’ve overwritten and have to reduce the word count. This kind of forced edit requires me to condense and purify my work, cutting out digressions and extra phrases until the writing becomes airtight. What’s left is all muscle — a lean, mean content machine.

It’s more versatile. A relatively short piece of writing will integrate more easily into a variety of situations, formats and templates. A few short paragraphs of website content, for instance, will leave more room for other page elements than an elephantine chunk of text that has to hog center stage.

If your written content feels flabby, fails to engage the imagination or just makes your eyes hurt, take out your red editing pen (or hire mine) and start trimming away the fat. You may love what you find underneath!

For more about my writing services and current package deals, check out my website at www.reynoldswriting.com.

Priming the Pump: Jump-starting Your Creativity

I don’t know whether it’s the unusually early onslaught of triple-digit heat here in Austin, my ongoing experiments in finding the ideal sleep schedule, my sedentary lifestyle or all of the above, but lately I’ve found that my brain needs an extra jump-start or two on most days. Afternoons pose the greatest threat, with my creative juices bearing more of a resemblance to molasses.

I’m forced to create anyway, of course, because I have to pay the rent. Like most other working people on the planet, I have to perform regardless of whether I feel inspired to do so. I usually have to be flat-out sick before I’ll give myself permission to slack off. Those deadlines won’t meet themselves.

Fortunately, I’ve learned a few tricks along the way to unblock the old grey matter and get rolling again. If you find yourself up against a creative deadline without two brain cells to rub together, you might want to try them yourself:

Play the “What If” Game. The original writers of Saturday Night Live used this technique when they felt stumped for ideas. It involves constructing completely surreal premises out of two or more unrelated parts. They phrased these premises in a “What if” format, asking questions out loud such as, “What if Eleanor Roosevelt had magical powers?” or, “What if Spartacus had fought the Romans while flying a Piper Cub airplane?” Some of these bizarre notions actually found their way into SNL sketches — but more importantly, they freed the writers’ imaginations from all constraints so creativity could run wild.

Keep a list. A young Ray Bradbury once decided, almost on a whim, to write down a list of nouns as fast as they would come to him. He ended up a huge stockpile of compelling images (and prospective stories) such as THE LAKE, THE NIGHT, THE CRICKETS, THE RAVINE, THE BABY, THE OLD WOMAN, THE DWARF, THE MIRROR MAZE and so on. He would then return to this treasure trove to get inspiration for future stories.

Get comfortable. Maybe you’re just tired, in a bad mood, eating or sleeping poorly. The brain is a part of the body, after all. You may find that with a little more sleep or some daily exercise your thoughts will start flowing again as if by magic. You may also want to experiment with different writing rituals, as I discussed in a previous post, until you hit on an environment or schedule that unlocks your muse.

And stay out of the heat!

For more about my writing services and current package deals, check out my website at www.reynoldswriting.com.

Writing Rituals

So you’ve decided to take on the burden of writing your own marketing content. It might not be so bad — if you enjoy writing, marketing and communicating, you may even be looking forward to it. So why do you feel so uncomfortable when you actually sit down to do it, and what can you do to make it easier?

I’ve been at it for 14 years now, and even at this stage of my career some days are easier than others. What’s more, about half the time I have no clue as to why a given workday felt better or worse than usual. We all have our ups and downs, of course — health, stress, distractions, depressing weather and whatnot can all have an impact on our productivity from day to day. But there’s something special, or notorious, about writing. Nobody ever talks about “accountant’s block” or “construction worker’s block,” but the term “writer’s block” has entered the general vocabulary as a dreaded occupational hazard. Writing can be a lot of fun, or it can feel intensely uncomfortable.

How do you get back into your comfort zone? That’s up to you. Writers throughout history have found their own preferred methods of relaxing into the writing groove, which may explain the high rate of alcoholism among literary giants. But for many writers, getting “ready to write” may include such simple little details as wearing the right clothes or keeping a clean office. Some only feel relaxed writing in their PJs, while other insist on dressing up in business clothes so they can feel like professionals. Friedrich Schiller kept rotten apples in his office to spur him on (some of us suffer for our art). Legend has it that Ernest Hemingway used to sharpen every pencil in the house before settling down to write. Whatever works.

I suggest you experiment with the surroundings and practices that work best for you, then make a conscious effort to incorporate them into your daily routine. What sounds, sights, smells, or activities keep your inner editor quiet without distracting the parts of your brain needed for that first draft? What time of day offers the fewest interruptions or coincides with your peak productivity?

Once you find that comfortable “writer’s place” — within and without — you’ll boost your chances of producing good work without stressing over every word. Bad days can still happen, of course, but you’ll have more control over whether they lead to bad writing.

Or you can just stop stressing completely and hire a copywriter. Let me just get some pencils ready.

For more about my writing services and current package deals, check out my website at www.reynoldswriting.com.

The Confidence to Write

Peter Bowerman is one of the most visible and successful copywriters in the U.S., perhaps best known in the mainstream as the author of the Well-Fed Writer books on how to build a freelance copywriting career. One of his recent blog posts addresses a concern that all writers…I mean, all creative artists…I mean, all human beings have to face. And that’s a lack of confidence.

Bowerman notes that no how-to copywriting book can truly prepare a fledgling freelance copywriter for taking the big leap and and really doing it for a living. It’s like standing at the base of Mount Everest, climbing gear in hand, and looking up at the cloud-covered peak as a ticker-tape of uncomfortable questions runs through your mind. Can I do this? What if I take the wrong step? What if the wind picks up? What if I get stuck at the halfway point?

Heck, I still have the occasional Everest Day myself, even after 14 years in the business. You never grow fully immune to them. But you do learn to trust your skills and instincts — and that’s enough to keep your feet moving up that mountain slope.

If we learn by doing, then we learn confidence by doing many times. For instance, what’s the most common fear out there? It’s public speaking. (Or maybe it’s death; I get those two confused a lot.) Most people dread public speaking, and some have an absolute terror of facing an audience.

What do these people do cure their phobia? They face audiences, and they talk. Groups like Toastmasters provide a safe, supportive environment for people to practice their public speaking skills, giving speech after speech until they know they’ve got what it takes. They may never love it — but they know they can do it.

Writing is like that. When we start out, we’re terrified of the blank page because it offers no safety net, no guidelines. What if we write badly? What if we write nothing? What if we miss the deadline? What if what if what if?

Ray Bradbury suggested that writers start their careers by churning out thousands of words a day, just to shake out the bugs of inexperience as mercifully quickly as possible. In his Zen in the Art of Writing he says: “There is no failure unless one stops. Not to work is to cease, tighten up, become nervous, and therefore destructive of the creative process.”

So there’s only one way to gain confidence as a writer. Write. A lot. Write until it becomes second nature. Most importantly, finish what you start. Complete enough writing jobs and over time those nagging doubts will lose some of their power over you. You’ve done it before. You’ll do it this time.

Hey, it’s just a big hill with snow on it, right?


For more about me, my writing services and current package deals, check out my website at www.reynoldswriting.com.

Writing Is Habit Forming

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again — hiring a professional writer can save businesses a lot of valuable time and effort. Not only can overworked business owners or marketers devote themselves to more profitable pursuits, but they’ll also get polished, effective copy in a fraction of the time they would spend doing it themselves.

Ever wonder why that is?

Sure, it’s easy to make vague references to practice making perfect and the development of one’s writing “chops,” but what are we really talking about here? What is it about writing every day that makes the words come faster and better? What really happens between the ears of an experienced writer that makes the fingers fly?

I stumbled across a fascinating article by CUNY Writing Fellow Carlos Penaloza that offers some possible answers. Penaloza refers to several scholarly studies indicating that habitual activities actually rewire the brain, creating new biochemical pathways that make the activity progressively easier with repetition. The brain literally remodels itself based on what we do and how often we do it.

Why can that pole vaulter sail over the bar every time? Well, because he’s talented. But aside from that, he’s done it a zillion times more than you or I have. He’s trained his brain to issue the precise instructions his body needs to perform the vault at top efficiency. So it goes with writing — or any other occupation.

What’s more, it seems that habitual everyday writing makes it easier for us to finish a writing project once we start. I’ve rescued countless clients who set out to write their own marketing copy, only to get hopelessly stuck at some point in the proceedings. They knew what they meant to say, they certainly had the intelligence and eloquence to say it well, but they hadn’t sailed through choppy writing waters often enough to do much more than lash themselves to the mast and hope things work themselves out — a good way to end up in the middle of nowhere.

So when you hire a professional writer who bangs the keys every day, you’re employing the most efficient possible solution to your writing needs. A couple hours of a professional’s time will yield better results and cost you less than losing ten or twenty hours of expensive downtime to rusty writing neurons. The practiced writer’s brain is a high-speed writing machine that delivers quality work on a deadline. And best of all, it’s available for rental.

You can get inside this writer’s head by visiting www.reynoldswriting.com.

Red Flags for Writers

If you’re a freelance writer, you probably have some war wounds. If you’ve been in the business as long as I have, you probably qualify for disability. At this point the non-writer replies, “Wait a minute. It’s writing, not coal mining. You sit in a chair and phrase things for a living. How get you possibly get hurt doing that?”

Well, putting aside mundane physical issues such as carpal tunnel syndrome or eyestrain for the moment, the average freelancer faces all kinds of emotional and financial bumps and bruises in the call of duty. Freelancers who focus on pitching stories or submitting fiction manuscripts have built up many layers of calluses from rejection after rejection — it’s part of the job description, regardless of writing quality. In the marketing world, copywriters seeking new clients may find themselves negotiating hidden booby-traps. Over the years I’ve gotten to the point where I can see some of these potential dangers lurking on the horizon from pretty far away, though once in a while I still get tripped up.

Anyway, here are a few red flags I’ve learned to identify. Hopefully they will help writers steer clear of bad situations while also helping well-intentioned business owners avoid throwing up one of these flags inadvertently.

“We just thought we’d pick your brain on the subject.” This usually means you’re being asked to contribute your expertise for free. You’ll have to decide, on a case-by-case basis, how much information you’re comfortable offering up on a writing project without the meter running. True, the client or prospect can’t use that information as well as a professional writer could, so if they’re smart they’ll hire you to do the actual heavy lifting anyway. But look out for the client who throws out this comment and then hangs on your every word, notepad in hand, and pumps you for an increasing level of detail about exactly what you would do — or you may not end up doing it.

“If this works out for everybody, we have tons of future work for you.” Expect a request for a severely discounted rate or perhaps even a deferred payment, with the “tons of future work” hanging in the air like some great mythical creature that’s certain to appear if you just make the proper sacrifice to it — that sacrifice being an acceptable pay rate. Stick to your guns. If the client truly does have a serious need for your future services, he will understand their value and pay accordingly.

“Write this sample story to show us how you’d write the assignments we’d be sending you.”
While some of these requests are no doubt legit, it would be easy for a fly-by-night company to suck in a bunch of free “samples” like a literary Hoover — without actually hiring any of the submitting writers or paying for the articles. Your best bet is with the company that asks for a couple hundred words about your family dog, favorite tree, or some other topic that obviously doesn’t benefit them except as a sample of your style.

Don’t get me wrong, the outstanding majority of my writing experiences have been good ones. But recognizing a few of those red flags when they do pop up sure helps. You don’t have to be paranoid — just keep your eyes open.

Visit my website at www.reynoldswriting.com.