Climbing Down From the Ivory Tower

When you’re a creative type like me, you need solitude in order to produce your masterpieces. A lot of creative, or generally enterprising people, thrive on being alone. It gives them the space to come up with innovative ideas and act on them.

But the downside of that is crushing loneliness. You’re deprived of the easy banter and lively coffee breaks that form a natural part of the office environment. You can also become a little cut off from the latest developments in your profession. For my own part, I know it can be difficult to keep the faith when the only one there to applaud me at the end of the day is me.

When I began freelancing, I found the silence unbearably loud, so I drowned it out with the radio. But it was still difficult to give myself the kickstart I needed. Fortunately over the years, I’ve developed a few tricks to keep the flame of inspiration alive and the loneliness at bay.

I recently heard Newstalk presenter Sean Moncrieff remark in his usual quirky way that he wished he could rewind back to breakfast time, so he could have that first cup of tea. There’s no doubt that caffeine is the freelancer’s best friend and the first cup of tea is by far the sweetest. And then there’s the lure of the two cafes beside me, both serving steaming brews of classic cappuccino.

While I drink my morning cuppa, I make my list. It’s a blueprint for the day, a promise to myself of all the things I want to get done. It’s particularly useful on quiet days when I don’t have specific deadlines. On those days, I spend a little extra time on the list to ensure I stay motivated. When I feel isolation kick in, I just refer to the list and it steers me back on the right path. At the end of the day, I feel a quiet but deep sense of satisfaction that everything is ticked off.

It’s well-known that exercise gives you just the jolt you need to keep going. I can build exercise quite easily into my day, by running up and down the stairs in my apartment building once every hour. It keeps my mind fresh. For a bigger oxygen hit, I head out at lunchtime for a walk and usually manage to get some jobs done on the way.

As an internet junkie, I’ve found social networking to be a powerful weapon in beating isolation – as long as it’s used wisely. It’s reassuring to know that there’s a whole virtual community out there who are only too eager to interact with me. Using sites like Twitter and LinkedIn has enabled me to increase my contacts and stay on top of trends in the media world.

In the evenings, I turn into a social butterfly. Most of my evenings are filled with networking events, meetings of my Toastmasters and drama group and trips to the cinema or restaurants. I work faster and harder knowing that a reward awaits me at the end of the day. If I work well, I feel I’ve deserved it.

All these little incentives have brought great benefits to my work and my life. They have improved the standard of my writing, increased my circle of acquaintances and brought me out into the wider world. It’s easy to sit in splendid isolation, cocooned in your ivory tower, but it’s climbing down from it that really enables us to fulfil our potential.

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We Don’t Need Another Hero

Which headline would catch your eye first.

BLIND MAN REACHES SOUTH POLE

or

BLIND MAN GOES ON HOLIDAYS, HAS LAUGH WITH FRIENDS

Certainly, for the media, the first headline has the bigger draw. In a gloomy climate, they love to gobble up any crumbs of good news that fall their way, so as to induce a feel-good factor in their audience. Now, more than ever, the media is eager to turn the most ordinary of people into heroes. This hero worship has spread beyond celebrity magazines, into broadsheet newspapers and current affairs programmes.

As a visually impaired person, I know I should find the first headline inspiring and there’s no doubt that reaching the South Pole was a great achievement, but having read the man’s profile, I think he’s the sort of achievement-oriented individual who would be doing this kind of thing if he had full sight. Whereas I have friends who are more likely to fit the second description. To me, they are more heroic, because they have a laugh and they get on with life.

But I have to admit that I’ve been able to use the media’s love of creating heroes to my own good. National media outlets have lapped up my tales of derring-do, including an account of a skiing trip I went on. I wore a high-vis vest saying Blind Skiier that was the fashion must-have of the season. I try to write about myself and my friends in a light, humorous way, without exaggerating my condition or experiences. But the temptation is always there to ham it up for the crowd, because that’s what editors want.

It isn’t just the visually impaired who are given the hero treatment. Anyone who’s even slightly famous is described as flawlessly gifted. People who have serious or long-term illnesses are always brave and uncomplaining. I think this is damaging in two ways. Firstly, it can be demoralising. There’s a sense that if you’re not coping absolutely perfectly with what life throws at you, there must be something wrong with you. Secondly, the edia is not showing people what life is really like when circumstances are difficult. And surely, it’s the job of the media to uncover the truth.

It may seem less newsworthy to simply describe people getting on with it, but to my mind, it makes a more compelling story. Who doesn’t feel a secret thrill at reading that their favourite celebrity eats beans out of a tin that are one day past their sell-by date? A story about a woman with cancer who stares at her bald head in the mirror and asks, ‘When will I be me again?’ is far more likely to strike a chord than a story about a woman who remains relentlessly cheerful in the face of impending baldness. People love to get a glimpse into the real lives of others, hence the popularity of phone-in radio shows like Liveline.

The media has a responsibility to describe people in a way that truly reflects the reality of their lives, rather than presenting an ideal which is impossible either for the audience or the subject of their reports to live up to. Writing about people in a realistic way will increase the audience’s empathy. Ironically will create heroes of a more ordinary kind, with a heroism we can aspire to, because these people are just like us.

Trimming Your Copy Down to Size

You’ve been asked to cut down your press release so it can fit into a newspaper, or to trim the content of your brochure or website to match your designer’s specifications. You are sure that absolutely every word you’ve written is essential or illuminating and you can’t bear to get rid of a single woHow will your customers know what you’re offering them if half the content you’ve slaved to create is missing?

As a journalist accustomed to sticking to the stringent word-counts imposed by editors, there is always a way to say what you want with fewer words. The process of editing is a little like losing weight; the first few words fall off easily. In an earlier blog entry, I spoke about the importance of identifying an angle. This is the easiest way to reduce the weight of your words. Everything that does not fit with that angle can be removed.You probably secretly know the parts which are less relevant anyway.

The next step to take is to trim the sentences themselves. If you’ve included a quote in your press release, or testimonials on your website, they can usually be trimmed down. If you’ve got a long, rambling sentence, they can usually be chopped in half. If you read through the document, you will probably find that you have repeated yourself several times in an effort to make yourself understood. Get rid of the repetitions and keep the sentence that expresses your point with the fewest words. Another way to shorten a sentence is to get rid of the passive voice. The passive voice does not identify the person who does the action, so it can lead to ambiguous and awkward sentences. It’s best to use an active voice, identifying yourself and your company as the entity delivering the action. This automatically shortens your sentence.

For example:

The range of home-based services offered is extensive and of very high quality.

can become

We offer an extensive range of high-quality home-based services.

This may appear to be only a slight shortening, but every little helps. Shorter sentences will lead to a more streamlined article.

Another way to reduce bulk is to get rid of adjectives. Adjectives appear to be a writer’s best friends and it’s easy to luxuriate in the colourful, vibrant images they can create. But one well chosen adjective is far more descriptive.

Our chocolates will give you a delicious, sensuous and enriching eating experience.

can be trimmed down to.

Our chocolates will give you a sensuous experience.

Choose the adjectives which most accurately reflects the benefits your products and service bring. In this case, chocolates work on the senses, so sensuous is the best one to choose.

Finally, avoid overused words. This is a great way of removing those last few stubborn words that refuse to shift. ‘Would’ and ‘and.’ are words that work well in spoken communication, but add unnecessary weight to sentences when written down. ‘And’ can easily be replaced by a comma.

Reliability and consistency and thoroughness are the watchwords of our business

can be replaced by:

Reliability, consistency and thoroughness are the watchwords of our business.

Meanwhile, instead of writing, ‘I would have to say that our products offer real value for money,’ why not simply say.  ‘Our products offer real value for money.” It effectively halves the length of your sentence.

Above all, be ruthless. There is always a shorter route to getting your message across. The greatest ideas in history have been expressed in one line or less, ‘I think, therefore I am, E=MC2, D’oh! So take a scalpel to your documents. You have a great message to get across.  Good editing will remove all ambiguity and allow your message to shine.

Good Copy, Bad Copy

Advertising copy is a growing presence in the editorial pages of the print media and it offers people a great opportunity to communicate effectively with potential customers. It is subtly different from traditional articles in that its main purpose is to promote, rather than inform. Most people can put pen to paper and describe their business. Unfortunately, there are a number of copywriting crimes that people commit, which prevent people from communicating effectively. Taken to the extreme, they can actually cause your potential customers to viciously turn the page in disgust.

First, there is the copy that tries that little bit too hard to sparkle. Words spew onto the page, describing how wonderful the products or services are, but contain little real information to hold onto. It’s the sort of copy that uses 10 sentences where one sentence will do.

Then there is the copy that reads like microwaved food. It was probably once a press release and hasn’t been properly converted into an article. As a result, it is full of sentences that trail off into nowhere, or that stretch on into infinity. There is plenty of information, but it’s not presented in a way that makes it inviting to read.

Then there is the copy that is factually correct, with perfectly constructed sentences, but it just lacks that extra sparkle. This is usually because the language is formal and the content is fact-heavy. It can be easy to fall into that trap if you’re offering a service that’s quite complicated.

So what makes good copy.

  • It invites readers in. It will have an introductory paragraph that speaks directly to customers, asking them questions, or creating a vivid picture in their minds.
  • It addresses customers directly. It shows an understanding of concerns customers may have and what they need and demonstrates how your business can meet that need.
  • It reads like a standard editorial article. People should be informed and entertained by it and not realise they’re reading advertising copy until they see your ad cunningly placed beside it.
  • It gets to the point. Good copy lays out points in an attractive format, with short simple sentences which make it easy to read.

And finally, good copy sparkles. If you’ve got a unique product, or a product which you passionately believe will improve people’s lives, that enthusiasm will flow into your copy. If your copy is interesting enough, people will read on.

The Rogue Apostrophe

I pass by a new restaurant. Its newly-painted walls gleam in the sunshine. Vases of flowers on the windowsill beckon me inwards. The staff are friendly and promise a menu filled with culinary delights. And the heading on the daily specials reads: Panini’s. Panini’s what, I think? Their colour? Their texture?

We’ve all seen signs like these, passed them by without noticing the glaring error embedded in it, the rogue apostrophe. If you did notice, maybe you shrugged it off, or if you’re a word purist, maybe you winced. Who could imagine that such a tiny punctuation mark could cause such division, or be so prone to misuse?

A lot of confusion has arisen over how to use it. Societies have sprung up, calling for it to be abolished. Yet it actually has only two uses.

  • to show that something belongs to someone

This could be an object (John’s pen), or something more intangible (Anne’s happiness).

  • to indicate that letters are missing.

The apostrophe replaces the missing letter in common contractions such as let’s for let us. They even appear in song titles such as Summer of ’69 (shortening of 1969).

People using the apostrophe run into three main problems.

  • Its versus it’s.

Its is used to show that something belongs to an object or an animal, for example, a bowl belonging to a dog could be referred to as its bowl. It’s is a contraction. It is a lovely day becomes It’s a lovely day.

  • Apostrophes with s.

If a word already ends in s, such as dress, add an s after the apostrophe, for example, the dress’s colour.

  • Possession vs Plural

Apostrophes are never used in plural forms of words, unless you want to show that something belongs to more than one person. In the case of the panini’s sign, you are simply indicating that you are selling more than one panini, so you write paninis. But if you want to indicate that a book belongs to a few boys, you add an apostrophe after the s, the boys’ book.

You may ask why any of this matters. After all, you know what the restaurant means when it refers to panini’s. But in business, you want to make the right impression. You dress carefully to meet clients; you give them shiny PowerPoint presentations, you ensure that your business premises are clean and well-laid out.

It’s the same with words. Paying the same attention to detail in your language as you do in the rest of your business will make your message clearer to customers. Your words will match the image you’ve created for your business.

To test your apostrophe knowledge and find out more about how it works, visit http://www.bbc.co.uk/skillwise/words