Archive for the ‘Writing (General)’ Category.

Practice Makes Perfect: Developing Your Writing Technique

I just signed up to attend an MSP Training session. MSP, which stands for Member Success Program, is a basic training course in the fine art of networking for BNI (Business Networking International) members. As a seven-year member of the organization, I’ve taken the course twice before, but we’re advised to re-take it every three years to keep our skills sharp. The agenda includes how to give an effective self-introduction, how to listen for possible referral opportunities, the difference between a genuine referral and a lukewarm “lead,” and so on. This sort of training is especially useful for those of us who weren’t born with a natural gift for self-promotion or confident interaction with a roomful of strangers. But I’ve found that the most important thing I can do to become a better networker is to network. A lot.

I guess this is true of just about any activity, particularly the ones that don’t come naturally to us. Sure, you might accidentally pick up a basketball one day and discover that hitting 3-pointers is child’s play for you and dumb luck for all your friends. More likely, though, you’ll have to practice hour after hour, shot after shot, until you get the muscle memory down pat. That’s technique, and anyone can develop some degree of it, no matter how much actual talent they have for the given task. In fact, technique can continue to serve you even when natural ability can’t or won’t. There are countless stories of singers, actors, athletes, musicians, you name it, who perform competently or better in the face of illness, injury or personal stress. They may be so distressed or distracted that afterward they can’t even remember what they did. But’s that okay, because their technique remembered for them.

Writing is another activity that benefits from constant practice and repetition. If you feel the need to communicate your company’s mission or your own expertise through writing, you don’t need a journalism or marketing communications degree — you just need to do the following things:

1) Read a lot
2) Write a lot

If you plan to write your company’s marketing content, then immerse yourself in marketing content from your competitors, from unrelated industries, from your junk mail inbox, from everywhere you happen to find it. Soon you’ll be able to recognize the good stuff from the bad stuff, and eventually you’ll start to recognize the mediocre stuff as well. At the same time, practice whatever form of writing you intend to pursue. It’s perfectly fine to mimic the masters to get a feel for what they’re doing — many great composers got their start by transcribing each other’s work verbatim. After a while you’ll be able to know whether a given word or phrase will work before you ever set it down, with no need to wait for “inspiration.” And that’s the beginning of technique, because once you can do that, you can write whatever you want, whenever you want.

Can you still have a professional copywriter go over your work and edit as needed? Of course! But if you really want to refine your own writing, I recommend that you study the copywriter’s revision of your draft with a surgeon’s eye. What exactly did he change, and what exactly is that change doing to make the content better? It’s like getting a bonus tutoring session for the cost of an editing job, so take advantage of it. And whatever you do — keep practicing!

And now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go work on my handshake.

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

Writing to Order: Imperatives Are Your Friends

Do this, do that. Go here, go there. Act this way, respond that way. Welcome to world of imperative sentences, an important tool in the world of marketing copywriting. Seems strange, doesn’t it? On the surface, it may seem like slamming your target market with imperatives wouldn’t get you very far. After all, nobody likes being pushed around, right?

Actually, you’d be surprised.

Imperative language is simply telling someone to do something. Not recommending or requesting or asking pretty please with sugar on it, but not necessarily barking an order either. It’s a clear prompt, an unequivocal nudge forward. “Give yourself the dream vacation you deserve.” “Take advantage of our free offer.” “Ask not what your country can do for you, but for what you can do for your country.” You get the idea. In the marketing world, we commonly associate imperatives with the call to action in a piece of ad copy. You know and love it as the final kick in the pants to do what the advertiser wants you to do. “Call now! Operators are standing by.” Of course it only makes sense to start making such prompts toward the end, instead of screaming “Call now!” at the top of the ad. Why would I “call now” when I don’t know what I’m calling about or why I should buy the product or service offered? That’s putting the proverbial cart before the horse. But once you’ve stated your case and painted the appropriately rosy picture that gets your target reader excited, the call to action is the perfect spot to start laying in the imperatives.

Does this mean that imperatives are only good for the call to action? Certainly not! Imperatives can help you lead your readers all the way down the path you’ve marked for them. For instance, they’re great at encouraging readers to indulge in various sensory journeys that stir up their emotions: “Imagine having the green, lush, perfect lawn you’ve always dreamed of.” Well, if I lust after just such a lawn, I’ll be more than happy to follow that command. And once you’ve got me all giddy about that ideal lawn and then explain to me how you and only you can provide it, you’ve won. Old movie trailers seemed to revel in this sort of thing. You’d hear the narrator exclaim, “See the jungles of the Amazon close up! Hear the King of Rock and Roll sing his latest smash hit! Relive the battle of Normandy!” Imperatives don’t just order us around — they also grant us permission.

Take a look at your own marketing copy. See whether you’re using imperatives in a way that will work on your audience. Think about ways you can persuade and command without seeming pushy. Then watch as your revamped ads and web pages get results! (And if you see what I just did there — give yourself a cookie.)

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

Where the Ideas Are: Finding Inspiration for Articles

At some point in his career, author Harlan Ellison got sick of answering the age-old question, “Where do you get your ideas?” So he developed a stock answer: “There’s a swell idea service in Schenectady, and every week I send ‘em twenty-five bucks. And every week they send me a fresh six-pack of ideas.” Other writers sneer that ideas are a dime a dozen; it’s the implementation of those ideas that counts. Snark aside, though, we’ve all had times when the well seems to have run completely dry. At those moments, who wouldn’t send a few bucks to a post office box in Schenectady to get out of a creative hole?

While a professional copywriter can certainly help you brainstorm your way out of a slump (and even do the actual writing for you, if you’d rather find other uses for your time), you can often do it yourself if you just know where to turn for inspiration. Here are a few suggestions for replenishing the idea well:

Check the news. Has some breaking event occurred that affects your industry or your target audience? Some fields of endeavor lend themselves to current event coverage better than others. If you sell real estate or insurance, prepare taxes or practice law, for instance, your industry may be subject to a stream of constant changes large and small — all of them critical to your clients’ lives. Explaining these changes to your readers can help establish you as a trusted expert on the subject.

Consult the calendar. Is this National Widget Month? Was the widget invented on this very day in 1642? Are we approaching the hot time of the year for widget purchases? If so, and you happen to sell widgets for a living, you’ve got something to talk about. In my case, well, I’m a writer — and a quick glance at History.com tells me that on the day I’m posting this (June 11th) the novelist William Styron was born. You get the idea.

Look at your FAQ page. There’s a reason your website’s Frequently Asked Questions are frequently asked. These are the common issues and concerns your customers almost always have when trying to select a product or service — or a provider of same. Sometimes these basic questions deserve more in-depth answers than a few lines on your FAQ page can provide. These topics make perfect fodder for “anchor posts,” those critical articles that make up the backbone of an effective blog.

Go out of the box. Teach your mind’s eye to use its peripheral vision. Don’t be afraid to make odd connections between seemingly unrelated items. I have no specific advice here because honestly, anything goes. A word game, a song title, a visit to a museum — if it supplies you with an article topic, that’s all that matters.

Give these options a try and see what happens. If all else fails, hire a writer to bounce ideas off of. Who knows — he might just have a connection in Schenectady.

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

Revitalizing Your Blog

The ProBlogger website recently posted a fascinating article by guest blogger Ryan Barton entitled 9 Steps to Take When You Loathe Your Own Blog. While I have to admit that I’m not at the loathing stage yet, I still found the information highly illuminating. Barton discusses issues that plague all bloggers from time — a sense of stagnation, a lack of fresh content or new ideas, that nagging feel of obligation as opposed to inspiration. It’s all too easy to start viewing a regular blog as a chore instead of an opportunity. I’ve had my moments where the thought suddenly hit me: “Oh crap, it’s already time to blog again?” And I do this stuff for a living, so I can only imagine how intimidating that thought must be to a non-writer or occasional writer.

One theme Barton emphasizes in his post is the need to change things up, from trying a new writing venue or posting schedule to varying your blog-reading habits to get a fresh perspective on things. In my (biased) opinion, this in one of the biggest advantages of hiring a ghost-blogger. Adding that extra brain to the think tank automatically helps generate new, unusual, mold-breaking ideas and topics. Hiring a generalist instead of a specialist in your industry is even better, because you’re getting the outsider’s point of view.

Another suggestion of Bryan’s is to re-focus on your target audience. If you’re trying to reach everybody, your blog can get watered down to the point that it no longer reaches anybody. Who is your ideal reader, and how specifically can you envision that person in your mind? We marketing folks use terms such as “target market” or “demographic,” but target markets and demographics don’t read articles — people do. Not groups of people clustered around a monitor, either, but individuals. The more clearly you can aim your writing at a specific person, the easier it is to ask yourself, “What kind of article would really benefit John Doe right about now?” Talking to an individual is always easier than figuring out what kind of speech to give to a crowd, so put the image of a specific reader in your mind and see if this approach greases the wheels on your personal blogging engine — or on any other writing project, for that matter.

Hey, you know what? I enjoyed writing this article. I bet Barton enjoyed writing his, too. Now go enjoy writing yours!

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

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.