Category Archives: Writing Skills

As it were, as it were

A friend of mine has, for some time, been peppering his text messages and emails with “as it were”.

The other day, I received a text message that had at least three “as it were”s in it. So many, in fact, that I was compelled to reply: “Thanks, as it were.”

Now, I’m not sure what his own ideas are. I feel as though, by constantly saying “as it were” he’s frightened of owning any of his own expressions in case they seem prosaic to others. If so, poor him. If they’re understood, so much the better.

In any case, ‘as it were’ could just easily be ‘as it might be’, or ‘as it could/should be’, or even ‘as it ought to be’. Let alone ‘as it might not be’.

Either way, I no longer believe anything he has to say.

Say what you mean, and mean what you say. That’s my motto.

It’s a shame other people don’t live by the same code of clarity.

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The chips that flew the Atlantic

We had exchanged emails and knew something about each other, but nothing had prepared me for the welcome I got in Bloomfield, Prince Edward County in September.

Wood turner Paul Ross and his wife, Lynne, are both small people. But their hearts are huge, their smiles wide, her soups delicious and his handshake as firm as the grip you’d expect from a man who spends his days steadying his chisels as they cut into the fast-turning pieces of maple chucked onto his lathe.

Drawn together by 26 Atlantic Crossings, the three of us spent several hours over the weekend of the Prince Edward County Studio Tour, swapping notes on everything from how to learn a craft skill and make a living from it, to the life and wines of this very pretty Ontarian county.

On more than one occasion, our animated conversations were lubricated by some of the product under discussion.

Beauty in wood

The piece Paul had made for what turned out to be our shared Atlantic Crossing was as delightful to see in life as it was unexpectedly beautiful to touch.Star Bound

It had taken days, weeks and even months of drying, hollowing, turning and decorating to create this very special, smooth-as-silk Star Bound urn, which I had been asked to write about.

As I visited other artists taking part in the Tour, I learned of other endeavours that had stimulated creativity and, in some cases, tested patience and challenged confidence.

The astonishing blue bridge-like item, made by Kirei Samuel of Lalaland Glass Studio from fused glass fragments, involved ideas and techniques that, Kirei told me, had no precedent.

“I went out of my mind trying to figure out how to make it”, she said. “And I was well and truly out of my mind by the time I’d finished it.”

I wasn’t out of my mind when I left Prince Edward County, but there’s no doubt that my sensibilities, like Paul’s maple, had been turned.

My few days in Ontario showed me that, with a little endeavour and a lot of skill, anyone can chip away at life’s obstacles and turn their ideas into tangible objects worth crossing the Atlantic to see.

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What’s in a word?

Words are a strange phenomenon.

Tall or wide, they sit there on your screen, or lie there flat on a page in front of you, doing nothing.

Strangely, for all their inherent meaning, they have no third dimension.

Yet, as we know, strong words can leave you feeling admonished; powerful words can be very uplifting.

You’ll hear stern words if you’ve committed a misdemeanour.

A pain might be eased by soothing words.

Or you could be left feeling abraded by harsh words.

Your first words may have been things of joy and wonder for your parents.

Their advice on life might’ve been wise words.

If you’re lucky, you’ll never hear a cross word.

And a few well-chosen words are often more useful than any number of random words.

At times when you’re down you can be lifted by kind words.

And a few loving words will almost certainly make you feel good.

If you’re close to death, someone might record your last words.

And that could be the end of this idea.

 

 

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A transatlantic adventure with a wood turner

As anyone who’s crossed it will tell you, the Atlantic is a very big ocean. I know, because I crossed and re-crossed it as a merchant seaman.

But my most recent transatlantic adventure has been quite different.

Not for me the ocean’s harsh, wet, winter winds and wild waves. Cocooned in the comfort of my own home, I’ve been travelling through time and space, trading ideas and information with a Canadian wood turner whose creative skills make maple sing.

Paul Ross and I were brought together by ’26’, a writers’ collective that numbers me amongst its many more than 26 members.

A unique marriage

Together with 25 other arts, crafts and wordsmith pairings – all given a similar job in various media – Paul and I were tasked with marrying his manipulation of maple with my ability to respond to his work with a literary construct of exactly 62 words: a sestude.

Separated as we are by three-and-a-half thousand miles, it seemed an impossible task.

But hey, we live in a technological world!

Emails flew. Questions were posed. Answers returned. Concepts were revealed and ideas were latched onto. A relationship was established.

As the days passed, Paul’s ‘Star Bound’ became my sestude. The task was completed.

Between us we had united our skills and created something utterly unique: an object made of wood and finished with thread, married to 62 carefully chosen words knitted together in exactly the right order.

A course stayed

Unlike my earlier Atlantic crossings, this has been a different kind of adventure.

At times, I thought I was losing my way. I couldn’t find my compass and – changing course too often – it seemed as if I was headed for oblivion.

But Paul’s ‘Star Bound’ was constant. I had only to return to its substance and explore its mysteries to find a way to my destination.

You can see the results of our journey, and download  a free copy of the resulting book featuring all twenty-six connections, at: www.26.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/26AC-ebook.pdf

Sadly, the delightful video shot at a recent exhibition held in Picton, Ontario, has been taken down by The Wellington Times. Maybe they don’t keep things on their site for long. If so that’s a shame, because I think you would’ve enjoyed it.

I will be in Ontario for the upcoming Studio Tour; a weekend when Prince Edward County’s creative community opens its doors to the public.

It’s bound to be a lot of fun. Much more so than weathering a January force nine in the middle of the Atlantic.

 

 

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Big it up for Elmore

Jackie Collins has two big things: big hair and big sales.

She’s also revealed that she’s a big fan of the late Elmore Leonard, who died on August 20 2013.

Writing in The Guardian she says: “I am for ever a fan”.

That, at least, is something she and I can share.

What I don’t quite agree with is her response to Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing.  Only three of them appeal to her: “Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly”; “Don’t go into great detail describing places and things”; and “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip”.

Perhaps what Collins is missing is that Leonard’s rules were for him and for people who wanted to either write like him or at least write for his chosen genre.

I don’t think he was suggesting they were universal.

Interestingly, Collins makes no mention of Leonard’s earliest work as an advertising writer. Nor does she say anything about how he believed that – as a writer of fiction – he should be invisible in his work.

These two things are related.

Speaking as an advertising writer, I know how important it is to remain anonymous. If anybody’s going to be identified as the author of an ad, it should be either the client or the product, not the copywriter.

My reckoning is that Leonard carried this through his entire career.

It may not be what makes Collins, me and countless others such big fans.

But it points the way.

He was – and always will be – a big influence on anyone who wants to write originally.

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Do we know too much today?

It was Alexander Pope who said “A little learning is a dangerous thing”, which has since been misquoted as “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing”.

While I’m not one to quibble over the exactitude of an 18th century phrase, I do wonder what Pope, pictured below, would have made of today’s information avalanche.

In 1709, in An Essay on Criticism, Pope contended that a small amount of knowledge can lead people into thinking they’re more expert than they really are.Alexander Pope

Back in his day, he believed that knowing just a little about a subject could “intoxicate the brain”, whereas a greater depth of knowledge “largely sobers us again”.

Nowadays, with news, facts and opinion flooding the airwaves and swamping cyberspace, it’s become all too easy for most of us to harvest small amounts of information and fool ourselves into believing we have a vast silo of knowledge that lets us think we know everything we need to know about anything.

Thus, armed with a few small pellets of understanding, we let loose a fusillade of ill-informed verbiage that – more often than not – makes us look like someone drunk, not on knowledge, but on self-regard.

Nowhere is this more self-evident than in the unmediated, cacophonous worlds of Twitter and Facebook, neither of which I patronise but both of which I cannot avoid.

Abe Lincoln Looking Off to the RightClearly, Pope had a good point; one that was echoed, in part, by Abraham Lincoln, left, or – some contend – Mark Twain, one or another of whom said: “It is better to remain silent at the risk of being thought a fool, than to talk and remove all doubt of it.”

Whoever said what, all three men held fast to a shared idea: that knowledge is a precious commodity, and that it ill behoves us to treat it lightly.

Babbling like Bedlam

I’ve been drawn to this line of thinking by the sheer volume of nonsense I read in the press and see on my screen.

As a keen cyclist and ardent follower of the world’s road racing news, I was astonished by some of the bigoted, prejudiced – even hate-filled – opinion voiced in the weeks and months following Lance Armstrong’s appearance on the Oprah Winfrey show.

True, I added my own tuppence worth.

But I like to think that – just as I did when I sounded off following Lady Thatcher’s death – I did so after some consideration of what I know, and some thought on how best to present my points of view.

Again, as a supporter of Chelsea Football Club, I follow their progress via the press and the web and – once more – I’m sometimes aghast at what I read.

Jealousy, derision and fatuous empty-headedness once again hold sway.'Scene in Bedlam', 1735

The pictures painted in these and so many other cases are of a world that resembles Bedlam; a place teeming with desperate souls all vying to be heard; crazed people who – because they are making so much noise – will never get the eye of those whose attention they seek or the ear of others they’re trying to impress.

Knowledge is power

I’m tempted to say, at this juncture: “Can’t we all shut up?” But that would be fruitless.

The fact is, we all need knowledge to both sustain and enrich our lives. We need it to communicate with others. And, most importantly, we need it to underpin the veracity of what we say.

When we speak from a position of little knowledge we are, indeed, the empty vessels that make most noise.

When we – as we like to say – “know what we’re talking about”, we’re more likely to be believed.

As it is, living as we are through snow storms of whirling facts and howling opinion, and mind-numbing blizzards of information, we too often like to think we know what we’re talking about when, in truth, we only know as much of anything that has managed to stick to our memory banks. And that’s frequently precious little.

Clearly, the answer to my original question – “Do we know too much today?” – is both “yes” and “no”.

Yes, we know – or think we know – who should play for our national soccer team. Yes, we know the colour of Gwyneth Paltrow’s most recent party frock, the length of Kim Kardashian’s hair and who her siblings are dating this week. And yes, we’re led to believe we know what Justin Bieber was up to last night. We also know gazillions of other trivial facts and titbits of information relating to people whose lives never really touch on our own.

But we don’t know enough about the things that really matter.

We don’t, for example, know who’s really in charge of the country – of any country, come to that – who truly controls the world’s security systems, or who’s behind the forces that constantly try to disrupt the even tenor of the world as we know it, or would like it to be known.

Let’s think on’t

Perhaps the real answer to the question is: “Not enough about the right things.”

And – recognising that – perhaps we ought to think more carefully before taking to our keyboards or tablets with the aim of adding yet more to the ceaseless clamour that currently risks deafening itself, and – as a result – causes us to turn a deaf ear and a blind eye to most of it.

Let us all think more carefully before opening our minds to the scrutiny of others. Let us try to avoid looking foolish.

That way, we may all get to know a little more that’s truly valuable.

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What keeps the spin doctors spinning?

Watching the final episodes of series two of Borgen, the Danish political drama that’s been a hit for BBC4, it occurred to me to wonder why so many fictional spin doctors are – in some way or another – crippled.

The idea wasn’t prompted by Kaspar Juul’s appearance on crutches due to damaged tendons.

True, his arrival was part of a beautifully played scene that showed us just enough of Prime Minister Birgitte Nyborg’s character to set us up for what followed: her struggle to reconcile her public ambition with her family’s very private needs.

What struck me was the way in which – like Madmen’s Don Draper – Kasper Juul is not just physically injured, but emotionally flawed. Even quite horribly damaged.

Don’s false premise

Don Draper – as Madmen fans will know – assumed another man’s identity and, using his own charm and persuasive guile, managed to get a job as an advertising copywriter.

Since then, as the creator of numerous imaginative ad campaigns, he has – in the spirit of the conventional times his life is set in – been the inventive perpetrator of artful expressions of the contented consumerist life.

Heavens to Betsy, as one of his contemporaries might’ve said, he even married a model and thus completed his own (now fractured) version of the perfect story!

Eventually, as his fictional career progressed and he became Creative Director of, and Partner in, his own advertising agency, Draper came so close to resembling the man he’d contrived to be that he found it hard to answer questions about who he really was.

For me, he began to look like a man whose easy ability to dream up artificial constructs of daily life was born of the artificiality of his own life.

Indeed, just as an Englishman speaks English with ease from birth, Draper can – almost as easily – think up deceptions as soon as he starts work.

Kasper’s chaos

Kasper Juul, Nyborg’s terrifying spin doctor, has a different back-story to deal with.

As the victim of child abuse – and carrying the memory of that and his savage attempt to end it by trying kill his own father – it seems as if he’s constantly trying to impose his own draconian sense of order on the chaotic political world he works in.

He’s also trying to do the same thing in his private life.

It’s as if, by controlling everything and everyone around him, he can convince himself that he’s been in charge of his life since birth.

Of course, he’ll never achieve that.

Like Draper’s seductive illusions, Juul’s angry self-loathing is a powerful engine that not only drives him but also gives him the desire to turn almost everything into something it isn’t.

To – quite literally – spin his world on its head.

It seems to me that both these fictional characters are aiming for the same thing: a world that exists in their imagination that can’t be replicated in life.

The dramatic ideal

Perhaps it’s this tension that makes both Borgen’s Juul and Madmen’s Draper so compelling as characters.

We want them both to achieve the happiness they seek, but we know that neither of them are capable of reaching that ideal.

They’re both too flawed to do that, yet we will them on, knowing they’re doomed to failure.

What’s fascinating about all this is the way in which the writers of both series have spun both spin doctors’ stories, giving them both troubled backgrounds that they’re trying to overcome.

The origins of insight

What’s even more intriguing is to speculate on where the writers found their inspiration.

Do they believe that all spin doctors – men like Kasper Juul and Don Draper – are essentially flawed and that their fictitious characters are simply reflections of real life?

Or is it the case that, in order to see the light inside life’s darkest situations, all of us have to experience life’s bleak and evil side beforehand?

Truly, as you can see, it’s set my head spinning.

Which is, after all, the mark of either a good drama or a talented (spin) doctor!

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How do you write to show you can write?

For people in my line of business, this can be a problem.

In an age when anybody who tweets probably believes they can write, and everybody with a keyboard thinks they’re an author, it’s sometimes very hard to know how to show people you have a skill that can seem like a gift but, more often than not, requires hard graft.

It seems especially hard when you’re trying to convince them that your skills can help them communicate better.

In my case I could, for example, talk about the amount of time I spend researching a new subject so that I can write about it with some authority. And I can hope that, by expressing this simple thought and its related benefits in a clear and engaging way, I can persuade someone to commission me.

On the other hand, I could point them in the direction of pieces I’ve recently written, or work I completed years ago. That might prove I can do it.

I could even brag about the awards I’ve won. But the trouble with that is, it’s so long ago it’s hard to remember who presented them, when and what for. And would anyone think they’re still relevant?

I could, of course, simply write something for someone – anyone – to read. But the question is what?

Suitable subject

Some months ago, when my Creative Ampersand colleagues and I were casting around for a suitable subject that might showcase our skills as writers and designers, Hester lit on the idea that all the world’s typefaces must have stories to tell, if only they could be liberated from telling other people’s tales.

As she said, they are the pack-horses of the written word, constantly conveying ideas and information from one mind to another – or even many others – so they must have something to say.

We both thought this was rather a good idea.

Between us, we drew up a random selection of twenty-six typefaces – one for each letter of the alphabet – and set about unearthing their origins and the ways in which each one has been used, before writing up what’s become our Tales of a Type.

We then asked our designer colleague, Robert Barkshire, to come up with an interesting way of displaying the individual stories.

The result – which you can see at & PROJECTS on our website at www.creativeampersand.co.uk – not only shows that we can write, but also that we can do so in what we hope is an engaging, entertaining and informative way.

It solved a problem for us, in that it allowed us to demonstrate our skills, and it was a lot of fun to do.

Whether or not playing a game like ours will help you figure out how to write about how you write is, of course, another matter.

All I can say is: “I hope you have fun.”

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Has research killed romance?

I could be wrong, but I’m beginning to think that research is killing the romance in advertising.

It dates me to say this but, when I was starting out in the business, imaginative invention and clear communication were supposed to go hand-in-hand.

The arts of engaging story-telling and persuasive argument were the tools I was expected to use to write the kind of copy that would change minds and shift goods and services.

Above all, asking the audience to aspire to a finer life or to fall in love with the unattainable – the very essence of romance – was almost a given.

The heart of the matter

It’s now almost 20 years since British Design & Art Direction published The Copy Book, a fascinating study of how copywriters worked in the 1990s.

For the 32 top writers featured, the important thing that many of them brought to their work was heart.

As David Abbott, a much-respected writer of the day, said: “Put yourself into your work. Use your life to animate your copy.”

Abbot was the author of a Chivas Regal ad – published to coincide with Father’s Day – which was, in effect, a paean to his own father. An act of love, if ever there was one.

Other writers, who produced brilliant ads for clients as varied as the British Army, Albany Life, Sony, BMW and Vespa, had similar advice.

Think about your audience, put something of yourself into your ads, write with passion and conviction and your work will connect with others who think and feel as you do.

Austerity’s victim?

Today, it seems, such persuasive, even personal work has all but disappeared.

Which is why I ask: is romance dead? And, if so, why?

Has passion become the victim of austerity?

Have we lost the generosity of spirit that allowed people to write and publish ads with heart and soul?

Is everything just about money and results?

Or have researchers and focus groups conspired to eradicate all feeling from today’s ads?

Maybe the computer’s to blame, with its mechanisation of communication. Or social networking, with its engineering of human connections.

Perhaps it’s the fault of globalisation, which seems to have turned so much of today’s advertising into bland messages designed to be understood by everyone everywhere.

Whatever it is, it’s a shame.

I’d love to read an ad that moved me – and moved me to buy whatever’s on offer.

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Greetings!

Hello and welcome!

This is my very first post on this blog, which is pretty exciting for me, if not for you.

It’s headed ‘Greetings!’, but I wonder if it should really say ‘Salutations!’, because that’s what’s on my mind.

A few weeks ago, I got into a discussion with my business partners about how we should address a bundle of letters – most of which were going to be sent to men.

I wanted to use the suffix ‘Esq’. Someone else wanted to use ‘Mr’ and the other person didn’t seem to mind.

All she could tell us was that the last time she saw ‘Esquire’ in common use was in the 1990s, when her father – who held a number of posts in the local community – used to receive business letters with the suffix ‘Esq’ in the address.

Apparently, this was a source of pride to his daughter, who used to boast about his status to her school friends. “My father’s an esquire. What’s yours?”. As you may guess, this made her feel special when he wasn’t bested.

Me, I have no history with ‘Esq’. I just like it.

I know it’s old-fashioned and, perhaps, a bit stuffy.

But, as you can tell from my partner’s story, it does have a bit of style about it. And it can give a man status.

Perhaps that’s not so surprising, when you learn that the term has its origins in the middle ages, when knights were addressed as ‘squire’ and ‘maidens’ swooned at the very sight of a lance.

And there was a time when people who owned property were accorded the title ‘Esquire’.

All in all, a title to be envied.

Nowadays, I gather, the style is either to dismiss suffixes altogether or address men as plain ‘Mr’, which seems unlikely to have quite the same Camelotian effect on today’s modern ‘Ms’, who sees herself as equal to any man in the joust of daily life.

As I say, I like ‘Esq’.

I will probably go on using it in much the same way as I would a silk top hat, which – assuming I were wearing one at the time – I would doff whenever I met a fellow gentleman in the street, whether he be a knight or a property owner.

To me, it’s all a matter of respect.

And I respectfully crave your indulgence – sir, squire, madam or ms – for this blog post; the first of what I hope will be many.

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