5 POWERFUL WRITING FUNDAMENTALS AND TRAVELLING WITH A TODDLER
The keys to a smooth overseas trip with a toddler are a lot like those for tackling a writing project, according to Kendall Richmond.
As I boarded an international flight with my one-year-old, I knew it would be different from our first overseas trip together. For one thing, my son was no longer an infant who was content to sit and play in my lap. He was now an enthusiastic walker and climber, always in motion. Plus, this time I didn’t have a pair of extra hands.
But I decided to approach the trip as an adventure and a learning opportunity (for both of us). Sure enough, the principles that helped me get through a long-haul flight with a wriggly bubba apply equally well to tackling a writing project.
So, here are five writing lessons I learned while traversing the Pacific with my one-year-old:
- Have a plan – Long before arriving at the airport, I’d set a plan for the ‘day’ on the plane. I packed a few select toys and books, old and new, and plenty of snacks. Likewise, starting a writing assignment requires a plan. Account for researching, drafting, interacting with stakeholders and revising. Always build in some extra time for the unexpected too. (That’s what my new toys were for!)
- Be adaptable – Follow the first guideline, but be flexible. There’s nothing like being in a confined area for hours on end to make even the most consistent kid throw a few curveballs. Similarly, writing assignments are likely to change in terms of scope, goals, direction and creative preferences. Expect to make some adjustments (revising is often the bulk of writing after all).
- Forget about judgment – While flying with my son, I found most people were incredibly kind and super helpful. But there were moments where I’m sure other passengers questioned my sanity. Instead of thinking about what they thought, I stayed focused on my kid. The same goes for writing. Focus on the end goal. If you worry too much about judgment, you’ll never take any chances.
- Accept help – There are inevitable moments of awkwardness flying alone with a kid. You’re often juggling bags, half-eaten snacks and a squirmy little one at the same time. So, accept help when it’s offered – with a smile of-course. As reluctant as I was initially to ask for a hand, I learned to say yes when someone offered to grab my overhead bags or to retrieve a toy that was thrown down the aisle. The same applies to your writing. If there’s an opportunity to team up with someone to get research done or a chance to get some constructive feedback, take it.
- Take it one hour at a time – I resisted looking at the real-time flight tracker on the screen at my seat – even though it was soooo tempting – and approached the flight in small increments instead. By breaking it up into activities for my son (walking the aisles, reading a book, having a snack, changing for bedtime) I found time went more quickly. When it comes to writing, set out stepping stones in the same way. Think of small, achievable milestones. Plan what you want to achieve in an hour or a day of work. Then set the next goal.
Admittedly, I was exhausted when my son and I landed. But I was also amazed at how resilient and adventurous my little guy is – and I was inspired. If he can happily venture across the world at such a young age, surely I can handle any writing task.
And you can too.
If you are a writer and a parent who loves to travel too, check out the site babieswhotravel.com – it’s loaded with tips.
It’s easy to get caught up and forget to guard the time when we actually put words onto the page. So, what have other writers done to tackle this time conundrum? Here are some habits writers have tried and tested throughout the ages… they might just help you, too.
Keep regular hours
Carve out time for writing, and keep that time free as you might do for a hard-to-get specialist appointment. A useful way to help mark the start and end your work hours might be a morning and evening routine. Within that time, don’t forget to make a clear distinction between important work and those administrative tasks that make you feel like you’re filling up your time with work but in fact aren’t taking you substantially closer to your goal. Email, anyone? This is not a new phenomenon. Many writers of the past divided their days into ‘real work’, like writing and admin or ‘busywork’, which ‘back in the day’ meant checking the mail and answering letters.
William Faulkner reportedly detached the doorknob on his study door and brought it into the room with him. Graham Greene rented a secret office – only his wife knew the address or telephone number.
Whether you go that far is up to you. But the need for a block of undisturbed time in which to write, or to do any other kind of concentrated work is real. Think about how easy it already is to distract yourself from the work that really needs to be done. Be ruthless – cut out anything that’s not essential to sitting down and writing.
Switch off the internet… and maybe your phone too
The distraction of technology is so powerful that it deserves its own heading. Jonathan Franzen has commented widely on the need to switch off the internet during writing hours. In his words: “It’s doubtful that anyone with an internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction.”
And that includes your phone. And although she’s not a writer, we’re rather inspired by musician Sonia Rao’s approach. She checks her phone in the morning, responding to anything urgent, then switches it off until evening (she does turn it on when she needs to call someone, but then turns it off again). If you have the possibility of doing this too, do it. If going the whole hog seems a bit much, try disabling cellular data to prevent the temptation to surf, do online errands or check social media.
A daily walk
Many great writers have written about their love of walking – Thoreau, Nabokov, Wordsworth. Dickens famously took three-hour walks every afternoon.
In her book Wanderlust: A History of Walking, Rebecca Solnit observes:
“Walking allows us to be in our bodies and in the world without being made busy by them. It leaves us free to think without being wholly lost in our thoughts.”
Good writing, after all, is really a lot about good thinking. Like all of these habits, giving yourself time to walk is a lot about giving yourself some space to think and some time out from the rush and bluster of being ‘busy’.
Do what works for you
Perhaps you like napping, writing a journal in the morning, taking a break to juggle… a writerly habit is really anything that helps you think and work on your craft better. The most important writerly habit is after all the decision to build habits that work well for you – and to foster them every day.
Donald Trump’s recent ascent to the White House caused shock waves of disbelief around the world. Over in New Zealand, another unlikely aspiring politician also caused a stir — albeit on a much smaller scale – by placing third in the race to replace Len Brown as mayor of Auckland.
The politician in question is Chloe Swarbrick. If the name is unfamiliar, you may be curious about her background. Well, she’s not a seasoned local-body politician, a well-known businesswoman, or a celebrity.
Chloe Swarbrick is, in fact, a precocious 22-year-old who, up until October’s elections, no one had heard of.
Now, to you, third place may not sound all that impressive. However, consider this: Chloe collected around 5,000 more votes than the previous election’s main contender and one-time reality-TV personality John Palino. The two who finished ahead of her were ex-Labour Party leader Phil Goff (he won the mayoralty) and ex-Xero managing director Vic Crone.
She’s got to be rich
Perhaps surprisingly, Chloe didn’t have a bottomless ‘war chest’ to draw from – she had about NZ$9,000. As a result, her face was absent from the thousands of billboards that littered Auckland’s streets – billboards that were much too expensive. And, predictably, mainstream media showed little interest in her.
So, how did she do it?
While everyone else used the dusty old strategy of putting up billboards and posting pamphlets – which most of us never read – Chloe took a 21st century approach.
You see, by day, Chloe is a social media strategist. So, knowing too well that traditional media would gobble up her funds before she had a chance to say ‘down with Len Brown’, Chloe stuck to what she knows.
“Social media lets me, as it does with all candidates, create my own content. What social media and the internet did was democratise information… people can ask questions and get answers in real time,” Chloe told the New Zealand Herald.
Five social media tips
Of course, just being on social media isn’t enough. To be successful, you must:
- Add value – don’t create content for the sake of it. Make sure what you produce is informative and answers your audiences’ questions.
- Be relevant – stay on message. Being an expert baker doesn’t mean that talking about chocolate cakes will help your cause.
- Choose the right medium – what type of content does your audience prefer? Chloe made a lot of videos; however, you could write blogs, create memes or run competitions.
- Be consistent – set a publishing schedule and stick to it. This shows you are active and keeps audiences engaged.
- Be responsive – one wonderful thing about social media is that it enables you to engage with your audience in real time. So, be around for the conversation; when people comment, make sure you respond.
What can we learn from Chloe?
Most of us hold no political ambition. However, if you are reading this post, you probably run a business or a not-for-profit organisation. To achieve your goals, you need to reach out to your target customers or donors.
Before social media, ‘reaching out’ usually meant buying expensive advertising – something that is much easier for big organisations.
Incidentally, during the recent US election, as of late October, Hillary Clinton spent US$141.7 million on advertising; Donald Trump, on the other hand, spent just US$58.8 million.
What Chloe’s campaign demonstrates is that social media evens out the odds – ‘David really can challenge Goliath.’
Know your audience — it’s one of the first rules of copywriting. (Not to be confused with picturing your audience naked. That’s reserved for the public speaking domain…).
Why is it so important? It comes down to making connections with your intended readers. You wouldn’t walk into a university library and start singing at the top of your lungs. (At least we hope not!) And you probably wouldn’t talk to a group of primary schoolkids using a bunch of scientific jargon. You’d find a way to make your topic accessible to them, putting it into words that they’d understand.
That’s the key with good copywriting too. It isn’t about your capabilities or stylistic preferences as a writer; it’s about using language that will connect with the people who you want to read the piece.
Defining your audience
When thinking about your audience, don’t make assumptions. And don’t generalise either.
Knowing your audience means going beyond demographics such as age or gender. Dive deeper and think about values and motivations. What does your audience care about? Why would they take the time to read your copy? What will drive them to take action? What, if any, knowledge do they already have about your topic?
Consider what type of language will be appealing to readers. (This is also a key consideration for organisations when refining their brand tone of voice.) Will pop culture references make people LOL, or go right over their heads? Do people like when you write with familiar, casual terms and slang or do they expect a level of formality?
Think in terms of real people
It also helps to not just think about your audience generally. Think about actual people, individuals who will – hopefully – read and be moved by your copy. Writing an appeal for a non-profit? Think about your Aunt Maggie who’s made monthly donations to a cause she cares about for decades. What kind of language would connect with her? Writing B2B copy for busy marketing professionals? Consider what a full day looks like for someone working in that industry. What content is already landing in their inbox? And what would it take to grab their attention?
Picturing a real person can help you write more naturally (which means more effectively, too).
Ways to get deeper audience insights
Truly understanding your audience is easier said than done, but it pays off to put some time and effort into creating a holistic picture of the people who you want to read your copy.
The above tips can help copywriters get a more comprehensive view of their audience when starting an assignment. From a broader perspective, there are many different ways businesses and organisations can better understand their target market (and then pass those insights on to their freelance writers, of course…). These include:
- Running focus groups to get a variety of perspectives
- Conducting an online survey
- Asking for direct feedback on social media
- Measuring content effectiveness online
- Creating personas for different audience segments.
Want to make sure people read your copy? Whatever the medium – print, web, social – start by thinking about your audience first.
People enjoy humour, it’s part of the human psyche. The desire to laugh and be happy are shown to improve productivity, success and lifespan. Also it is widely agreed that laughing is part of human bonding. With this information in mind wouldn’t it make sense to employ humour in your content to improve it and gain appeal, creating a bond with your audience.
The simplest way to do this is through puns. One of the best wordsmiths in the world so far, William Shakespeare, was incredible at this. Many people are capitalizing on this – I mean we all do don’t we? People consume humorous content all the time – this can be seen through the popularity of Buzzfeed and The Onion.
My personal favourite punny content is a webshow called ‘Whine About It’: a show in which Matt, the host, gets drunk drinking wine at his desk and whines about things. It’s a perfect mix for me – humour and complaining. Upwards and onwards, here are five steps for you to include satire, hilarity and cleverness in your writing to engage your readers and consumers.
Consider your choice of words carefully and think about how they sound and how they play together. For example, at The Copy Collective we are always trying to make our social media more engaging. “A gift from a grateful client, heads up Dominique greatly enjoys grapes of the red variety, Maureen’s muse is more of the Moët kind” was a post we put up recently with an image of wine from a client. Something as simple as alliteration can take an ordinary sentence and make it magical.
When talking about a story or explaining something, compare it to something that’s completely different i.e., an oxymoron. To quote Oscar Wilde, “I can resist everything but temptation” or Andy Warhol, “I am a deeply superficial person”. The simplicity of an oxymoron can really boost any content in both how clever it is and its humour.
In my experience some of the best jokes are my worst jokes, although my friends may not agree with this, obviously they’re wrong. Making people groan is just as satisfying as making people giggle. For example, every opportunity I have to say, “Hi hungry, I’m Rachel” I will. It’s just like with media; there’s no such thing as bad press, all press is good. The same goes for puns.
It’s all well and good to throw in an odd joke here and there but you will upset readers when every single thing they read is a joke. They’ll stop taking you seriously and the comedy will lose its value. Be strategic, hit them when they don’t know it’s coming and make it good.
Isn’t that the point of comedy, to have fun, enjoy yourself, and make people laugh? So be funny in your writing, be clever and most of all be creative.
I’ll leave you with this: A person walks into a bookstore, “Where’s the self-help section?” they ask the clerk. The clerk shrugs and replies, “If I tell you, won’t that defeat the purpose?” – Anonymous
“The Great Barrier Reef is in grave danger” – David Attenborough
Larger than the Great Wall of China, and the only living thing on earth visible from space, the Great Barrier Reef almost escapes description. Its scintillating beauty, whether photographed, filmed, or for those lucky enough, glimpsed up-close and underwater, is a testament to the vast diversity of life with which we share our planet.
And now we face a future without it.
It probably won’t be news to you that the Reef’s destiny hangs in the balance. Whether it’s reports of the potential impacts of coal mine developments, 2016’s global coral bleaching event, or UNESCO’s admonishment of Australia’s efforts to protect perhaps our best known World Heritage area, there’s a lot to keep up on.
Here’s a rundown of three key recent developments:
Legal challenge to Adani coal mine relaunched
A well-publicised court case, led by the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF), has sought to challenge a huge coal mining development proposed for Queensland’s Galilee Basin. The basis being that burning coal and climate pollution is inconsistent with international obligations to protect the Reef.
Adani’s Carmichael mine, if built, would be one of the largest coal mines in the world and would release more CO2 emissions annually than Bangladesh with its population of 160 million.
The ACF has argued that then federal environment minister Greg Hunt failed to consider the impact of emissions and climate change on the Reef when making his decision to approve the mine.
Threatened ‘In danger’ listing by UNESCO World Heritage Committee
Coal developments proposed by the Queensland government led to a warning from UNESCO in 2012 that the Reef risked being listed as a World Heritage site ‘in danger’. The UN body urged Australia to reconsider a coal terminal and port developments proposed on the Reef’s doorstep.
UNESCO has been closely monitoring progress since their initial warning, including an official visit to Australia. In 2015, UNESCO decided against listing the Reef, but said it would closely monitor conservation progress over the next four years.
On 26 September, Queensland Deputy Premier Jackie Trad met with UNESCO officials in Paris to discuss how the state government has progressed in protecting the Reef Amendments to tree-clearing laws that failed to pass parliament. The amendments were intended to reduce polluting land and agricultural runoff, one of the major ongoing threats to Reef health. Tree clearing has more than tripled in Queensland in recent years.
UNESCO said the status of this promise to strengthen land-clearing laws would be reflected as “significantly delayed” in future reports on the Reef. The commitment forms part of the Federal and Queensland government’s Reef 2050 plan.
Worst coral bleaching in history
Adding to pressure on the reef from development and pollution, a strong El Niño heralded what is widely regarded as the worst global bleaching event ever recorded in 2016. Ninety-three per cent of the Reef has been affected, with almost a quarter of its coral killed this year alone.
Some scientists believe it may now be too late for the Reef.
Others hold onto hope, but with the cool pragmatism of those who comprehend the scale of the task ahead. As Attenborough has said, “the resilience of the natural world gives you great hope really. Give nature half a chance and it really takes it and works with it. But we are throwing huge problems at it.”
Attenborough has seen first-hand the impact of these problems. The Reef he first visited 60 years ago was a very different place to today, having lost around 50 per cent of its coral cover in the 27 years between 1985 and 2012 alone.
Current efforts are not enough to save the Reef. More needs to be done, and quickly. Climate change is happening faster than predicted, and other human threats to the Reef like pollution and development continue to grow.
For freelance copywriters, versatility is crucial. Like many freelancers, I’m often switching gears. On any given day, I may be writing pithy B2C web copy in the morning before drafting a long-form industry white paper or annual report in the afternoon.
Adaptability is essential in terms of writing for different formats and channels.
It’s also essential in terms of whom you write for.
Being versatile allows you to round out your freelance writing portfolio (and your job options). But if you’ve been working in the corporate or commercial space, how do you transition to writing for non-profit organisations? And vice versa?
You can write for both if you think about what corporate/commercial and non-profit communications have in common: It’s all about them (the target audience), not you (the organisation).
Focus on the benefit and impact, no matter who you’re writing for
We’ve all had a chat with that person — you know, the one who rambles entirely about themselves and never asks any questions. That self-centred focus is just as off-putting in communications as it is at a cocktail party.
Compelling writing for any client — corporate, consumer-facing, non-profit or otherwise — is audience focused.
For corporate and commercial writing, that means communicating the benefit. Instead of talking entirely about a new product or service offering, write about how it can help. What business problems will it help users solve? Or how will it make consumers’ lives easier?
Likewise, when writing for non-profit clients, emphasise the impact that your target audience can make (or already has). What fundamental issues does your target audience care about, and how can they make a difference? Go beyond talking about who the organisation is; focus on the outcomes and benefits through compelling storytelling.
Understand your target audience
Effective copywriting for any client reflects a deep understanding of the target audience (more on that to come in a later post).
If you’re looking to diversify your work as a freelance copywriter, realise that your experience in one sector can help you write for another. If you keep your audience in mind (and avoid that cocktail party sin of only talking about yourself), you can write anything.
A brand is more than a logo and signature style for communications. It’s also what people think about your organisation. In this way, a brand is alive. It’s constantly being recreated in real-time based on people’s perceptions.
For your organisation to succeed, you want to ensure that those perceptions align with your own beliefs about who you are and what you stand for.
Your brand voice plays a key role in achieving this. But how do you finesse your brand voice? And what is brand voice anyway?
Identifying your brand’s personality
Your tone of voice helps your brand become memorable, meaning that how you say something is just as important as what you say — and sometimes even more so.
But how do you make sure you’re consistently using an authentic and effective tone of voice?
Start by thinking about your brand voice as an extension of your organisation’s personality. If your brand were a person, how would you describe them? Humble and wise? Cheeky? Direct? Friendly and approachable? Compassionate?
Establishing personality traits helps you set parameters. If confidence is one of your company’s main traits, then your tone of voice may be bold, assertive and direct. If you consider your organisation to be visionary, then your tone may be uplifting and aspirational. A bit lofty even.
Guiding questions for refining your brand voice
Clearly personality and tone go hand in hand. But there are other factors to consider as well.
As you continue to refine your brand voice, here are some guiding questions to consider:
- What type of language will resonate with your key audiences? Casual language, including slang? Or more formal language?
- How do personality and tone impact the cadence of your written communications? Are sentence fragments ok to use? Or are you more academic?
- Are you conversational in your content, using ‘we’, ‘our’ and ‘you’, for example? Or do you strictly write about your organisation in the third person?
- Do you use contractions in written communications? (This links back to your target audience as well as the level of formality you’re aiming for.)
- How do you/your employees naturally speak about your organisation? How can this organic approach be captured in your written communications?
Making your organisation distinct through your unique brand voice
Finessing your brand voice means delving deeper than questions of style, such as punctuation preferences. It’s about communicating in a way that helps you effectively connect with your target audience and stand out from the crowd at the same time.
The (infamous) 8.55am cattle bell rung in the final day of the annual F&P conference. Here are just a few of the day’s highlights.
- Only 1 in 9 bequestors will actually tell you they’re leaving a gift in their Will to your charity. (Leah Eustace)
- The single most important indicator that someone will leave a gift in their Will? Childlessness. (Leah Eustace)
- Include a tick box for bequests on appeal donation forms – for Guide Dogs SA/NT it generates about 100 bequest leads per year, about half that of a supporter survey. (Andrew Sabatino)
- Australian charities aren’t investing enough in bequests – for every $1 spent, $15 is generated. (Martin Paul)
- Recruit a digital fundraiser to your team, one who can develop and design.
- Test rigorously and continuously (for digital fundraising). Médecins Sans Frontières has done this and discovered that:
- Tuesday is a much better day to email than Thursday.
- One word subject lines get much better open rates and response rates than two or more words.
- Direct mail tactics do translate to digital. For example, a ‘hard ask’ will generate a lot more income than a ‘soft ask’.
- Using a green ‘donate’ button generated significantly more income than a red donate button.
- Video (especially a good video) will get more hits, and more engagement
- Quiz in email generated much higher revenue than an email without the quiz, particularly among less engaged supporters.
- Display ad tests generated almost 4 x as much income (over $400K) using website retargeting than prospecting in a 50/50 split test.
- Pop-up web ads increase income, especially when you have a tangible deadline e.g. tax.
Bonus: Charities aren’t ‘not for profits’. They’re ‘profit for purpose’ – Martin Paul.
Although spring has just arrived here in Australia, winter is coming for our friends in the northern hemisphere.
“I’d never get anything done if I worked from home”.
People say that to me a lot. And to be honest, it’s how I feel all too often. There are sooooo many other things I could be doing around here, instead of hitting my desk and tapping out a thousand words on the inner workings of superannuation.
And it’s never harder than in winter.
It’s comfy, warm and cosy in bed. It’s so chilly out there that I don’t want to move. Seriously, where’s the incentive to get up and write? Especially when I could get away with leaving the work for another day.
But as any freelancer knows, drag your heels today and suddenly you don’t have time for the lucrative, urgent job that comes in tomorrow…
So here (from one reformed procrastinator to another) are five pro tips for freelancers on winter productivity.
Work to your own rhythm
Possibly the best thing about freelancing is that it doesn’t matter when you do the work, as long as you get it done. Instead of forcing yourself to keep conventional hours, you’ll be most effective if you tap into your body’s tempo and work when you’re most alert – whenever that is.
So if you’re not a morning person – or you’re only a warm weather morning person – go ahead and have that lie-in. Work from midday until 8 pm. Work late into the night, when all your nine-to-five friends are tucked up in bed. Working with The Copy Collective lets you do whatever suits you best – but do make sure you’re getting enough sleep.
Do something first to get you going
The chillier it is, the longer it seems to take to get the brain firing. Some winter mornings, it can feel like you just don’t have a coherent word in you.
Doing something else vaguely productive (like house chores, paying bills or hacking at something in the garden) can help wake you up and give your brain – and your confidence – a boost before you sit down to work.
I’m very sorry, but I’m going to use the ‘e’ word. Every motivational post you ever read will tell you how much ‘exercise’ helps with body and brain function ‘blah blah blah’ – and that it’s especially important in winter (when you’re more inclined to hibernate).
But wake-up exercise doesn’t have to mean sweating. Getting outside for a half hour walk (even if you’re bundled under numerous layers of wool and a waterproof sheet) really can help to clear out the cobwebs. Honest.
Make yourself comfortable
Fact: cold fingers don’t type well. And it’s pretty hard to focus on work, when you are shivering. So before you start work each day, put the heater on, dig out the old-lady lap rug and make sure your office is a comfortable place to work.
Oh, and don’t forget to compensate for the shorter, grey days with some extra lighting so you don’t feel like you’re working in a cave.
If you’re really struggling with motivation, there are some great apps out there to help you form better habits and stick to them (I love Habit List for iOS).
Obviously an app can’t generate willpower out of thin air. However a good tool can help you track how you’re doing, build a more productive lifestyle and keep the inspiration flowing on those chilly, darker winter days when your bed looks so very inviting.