Scrivener tip: Lickety-Split

To quickly split the screen without leaving the keyboard simply hit:

SHIFT+CMD+”

This makes it particularly easy to compare two Binder documents, or refer to one pane – say something you have in your Research folder – while writing in another. When working with text documents the zoom can be set independently in each.

For my other Scrivener tips, click here.
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Scissors & Glue – top tips for writers

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Over the years I’ve been given some great advice on writing by people I’ve met, and I thought I’d share a few examples in case they might help you along the way too.

1: Easing off
received from David Garnett, writer and editor

I met Dave at the first SF convention I attended in 1997. We chatted, got on well, and he introduced me to a lot of people. It was a great weekend. He was at that time editing the New Worlds anthology, and invited me to send him something to consider. When the story came back a few months later it was one of those enthusiastic rejections which, while issuing a no thank you, encouraged me to keep at it. His feedback included the following piece of advice:

“Don’t try to cram in so much.”

I thought about the story and wondered where I’d crammed. By how much. And how not to. What to leave out of any creative endeavour – writing, music, choreography – to avoid “over-egging the pudding”, to quote one of my former editors, can be difficult to judge. I think I worked out what Dave meant eventually, but it’s a process unique to every piece of work, every paragraph, every sentence. I’ve still got that letter. It’s in a folder full of others just like it.

2: How they did it in the olden days
received from Christopher Priest, author

I’ve always written to people whose work I’ve admired and asked politely whether they might have any advice. These included Priest, after I’d read his novel The Prestige back in the mid-90s. Our correspondence developed, and he told me he did have some advice, but that I wouldn’t like it:

“Print it, delete the electronic file,
then re-key the whole thing.”

When people wrote longhand or with a typewriter, multiple copies could be created using carbon paper. Cutting and pasting was just that, using scissors and glue – a process that still has its place in creative writing today. And a re-draft was exactly that: type the whole thing out again, dude. But by the time this tip came my way we were firmly in the age of the word processor. Surely such antiquated techniques were redundant, weren’t they?

He was right: I didn’t like it. But when I gave the re-key a chance its benefits were immediately apparent. Bored typing a certain section or paragraph all over again? Then your reader will probably get bored too. And without doubt the weaknesses in any text are somehow more evident on the printed page than on screen, so re-keying from hard copy has benefits there. Whether you actually delete the electronic file is a matter of choice (I could never bring myself to go quite that far), but without doubt, taking the time to perform a real deal, old-school re-draft pays huge dividends.

And while you’re performing your satisfying re-key, implementing my final tip will make a world of difference.

3: You move your lips when you’re reading
received from unknown

I honestly can’t remember who gave me this nugget. It might have been John Meaney. Or I might have read it somewhere. But the most important thing is that I came across it somehow, because this one makes a huge difference:

“Read your text aloud.”

You may raise your eyebrows, but during speech the tongue will stumble over words that seem to work just fine when reading them silently in your head. Rhythm – or more to the point a lack thereof – makes itself known. Problematic syntax or repetition emerge from their hiding places between the words. Sentences that fall short. Or those that run too long and leave you feeling a little out of breath as you try to keep up with either the message or the mechanics of the content or sometimes both.

You’re sceptical right? Right. But give this one a go and I’m willing to bet a whole pound that the changes you make to address the problems that become apparent will make your text more readable.

So there you are. Three gems that just might help improve your writing in some way. Feel free to share any tips of your own.

Addendum – 9 July 2017
Come to think of it, here’s a tip of my own, gleaned through years of attending conventions and the like…

“Got a light, mate?”

Smoking is increasingly unpopular and unfashionable. I’ve never smoked, but lots of people do. With the ban on smoking indoors, smokers now huddle in groups outside hotels, pubs and restaurants, taking a moment. There’s camaraderie, formality is dropped, a joke and a lighter shared. But if you don’t smoke – what then?

Go anyway.

Maybe one of those smokers is an editor or agent you’d like to work with, or a writer you’ve read and admired. Away from the formality and panels, new-build relationships can be cemented beside that smouldering metal bin.

There’s one golden rule, though: no shop talk. None. Don’t mention that book or script, or that really brilliant idea for a TV show you’ve had. Certainly don’t offer a card. To take a leaf from William Gallagher, this isn’t networking – it’s notworking. For the smokers those fags are an escape from the hubbub and the pitching and the sell of whatever event you happen to be attending. Just join them to get some air, engage in some chat and get to know people a bit more. Don’t be a stalker – if you’ve been bending their ear all evening then be aware it might be you they’re trying to take a break from. But otherwise, next time you meet or email they might just put a face to the name, and five years down the line…? Well there’s no guarantee they’ll be interested in anything you’ve written, but you might have made a friend.

Martin
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Mailshot Munch

I received a mailshot from Volvo, presumably a throwback to a time when we were looking at cars. When I unsubscribed I saw the following message:

I don’t want to receive any email communication from Volvo anymore

This is so poor. Use of “don’t” feels inappropriate, the sentence is clunky, and the two entries of “any” really grate.

Far better would be the succinct and punchy:

I no longer wish to receive email communication from Volvo.

Then in the main body of the mail:

After travelling the world for 12 years, Cologne-born entrepreneur Gundula Cöllen returned to Germany to reconnect with her homeland. We met her to find out how the intuitive features of the XC90 help her make the most of everyday.

The first sentence is fine, the second is awful, clumsy, and use of “everyday” is incorrect (everyday low prices, low prices every day – see?). This paragraph would read much better as:

After travelling the world for 12 years, Cologne-born entrepreneur Gundula Cöllen returned to Germany to reconnect with her homeland. We met Gundula to discover how the XC90’s intuitive features help her make the most of every day.

And further down:

Want to add something extra to your car’s appearance? That’s where exterior styling comes into play. Our designers have reflected the elegant design language of the Volvo S90 and V90 to truly bring out the cars’ unique characteristics.

Again, the first sentence is fine, the second is at best nonsense. Our designers have reflected the elegant design language… Have they? Reflected in what? Where? Furthermore, look up the definition of “language” and appreciate why “design language” is a ridiculous phrase. Unless you’re actually discussing design terminology. Which isn’t the case here.

I could go on, but I’m sure you’ve got the point. Dear Volvo (or anyone else for that matter) consider employing a professional writer to produce this sort of thing. It’s important. You dig?

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Note: this article was originally called Mailshot Massacre, but has been changed due to recent events in London.

Digital Content Strategies – Empathy and Storytelling

This is a follow-up to my previous post regarding the importance of quality, and that SEO is not necessarily the sole contributor to attracting visitors to your site, and particularly retaining them. A key strategy is to stimulate a positive reaction through entertaining, engaging front-end material which encourages custom, revisits and personal recommendations.

Informing, entertaining and converting potential customers in a commercial context is a big ask. And with a deluge of alternative content and FacebookWhatsAppTwitter noise, engaging your readers quickly is challenging.

Hooks. Empathy. Storytelling. These are the tools you’ll need.

While there are well-documented guidelines regarding SEO, the implementation of which can be something of a mechanical process, what represents entertainment is subjective. Material that floats one person’s boat could sink another. Professionals in the entertainment industry command high salaries because after a hard day at the office a box set binge or video game are just rewards for the graft and stress of the workplace. They are also increasingly important given the growth of “cocooning”: with difficult economic conditions, high levels of terrorist threat and so much good TV, why not just stay in, snuggle and munch?

There’s also a lot of force language use in marketing: it’s a push, there’s a target, persuasion and coercion. A gentler approach may well prove more effective given potential customers’ increasingly tech-savvy and marketing-aware nature. This is not limited to younger demographics: older people represent a growing and increasingly important segment given the ageing populations in evidence throughout the world.

To reach visitors at an emotional level a storytelling element in your front-end content is essential. This doesn’t mean you’ll open with once upon a time – the key is to demonstrate empathy with potential customers’ lifestyles and requirements. You can offer solutions because you understand their needs, conveying your marketing message between the lines – the greatest challenge for any writer. The most important attributes required to produce such content are consideration, time and thought – elements so many marketers are unable to utilise, instead adopting a high-pace scattergun approach,  because if you throw enough mud some of it will stick, right? Well, maybe. If you’re lucky. And if mud’s your thing.


For consultancy on digital content strategy, writing or editing, please get in touch, or you can tweet me to say hi.

See below for the decisions used in the writing of the above article.
Read the previous article here: Digital Content strategies: the importance of quality.

The techniques in the text

  1. I had trouble with the first paragraph as there was a lot of information to convey, I needed to mention the previous post, to summarise that post in a formal tone, and wanted a reference to SEO. I opted for “attracting” visitors rather than the more immediately obvious “securing” or “acquiring”, as these two words imply ownership, imprisonment and possession, whereas “attracting” indicates a pleasurable experience and positive choice.
  2. I wasn’t happy with the weight of the first paragraph and the length of the sentences, even though the text did work. I therefore opted to split the first paragraph into two: the message was the same but the feel was lighter. The second paragraph highlights problems and indicates solutions to follow. I later split the final sentence of the second paragraph for emphasis, and merged the following two paragraphs because they flow naturally, and the greater weight builds strength. I’m not keen on the phrase “big ask” – it’s right up there with “my bad” – but it works in this context and conveys the thought in a concise and familiar way.
  3. The three single-word sentences are used to emphasise their importance and to isolate these concepts. The word “storytelling” is italicised to convey three things: a gentle suggestion that storytelling may not be something you’ve considered as relevant to content marketing; the word’s importance; my enthusiasm for it. I might not choose to open with “hooks”, which has quite aggressive connotations, but these words flow well in this order, and boost the importance of “storytelling”.
  4. In the fifth paragraph I chose “influenced” over the more immediately obvious “dictated”, due to the negative connotations of the latter. You probably don’t want to think of Hitler, for example. Similarly, I opted for “the people you’re trying to reach” over a more standard alternative such as “your target market”: again, the latter is perfectly acceptable marketing language, but reaching out is a softer, friendlier concept that implies a helping hand rather than the aiming of a weapon. You’re not intending to shoot your customers, right? Right. I’d also actively avoid “acceptable marketing language” as much as possible – it’s acceptable because it’s used everywhere, by everyone: blah de blah de blah, read it before, same old same old. You want to stand out? Be different.
  5. I like “stay in, snuggle and munch” a lot. It conveys the essence of a justifiably self-indulgent evening under a blanket with someone you love in a few simple words. Dopamine, anyone? “Stay in, snuggle and snack” would give a triple ’s’ sound, but snack just doesn’t come across as cosily as munch, which implies sharing, crumbs and crisps.
  6. When using “box set binge” I was tempted to mention Netflix – “a Netflix box set binge” has a pleasant flow and there’s a double ‘x’, but the simpler “box set binge” packs more punch; indeed, the double ’s’ sound merges “box set” into what is effectively a single word, thereby making the double ‘b’ more effective.

You get the picture.
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Digital Content Strategies – the importance of quality

Search engine optimisation of your content is the answer to everything. If you can nail the SEO you’ll be at the top of the rankings and success will follow.

Well, kinda. Effective SEO is only half the story.

The real key to success is customer retention. To achieve this articles need to engage readers emotionally. With increasingly busy lifestyles people are no longer prepared to spend time reading material that does not entertain on some level, or which fails to convey a positive message.

Whatever text you produce, you’re always writing about people. Efforts to sell your products or services will always be more successful if visitors to your website sense attachment. Copy with entertainment value will trigger the release of dopamine, generating a pleasurable response and thus increasing the likelihood of buying, returning, and perhaps most importantly of all – sharing: whatever marketing and promotional strategies you employ, word-of-mouth recommendations between friends will always be a fundamental generator of new business.

New business and customer retention. Is there anything more important?

There are clear added value benefits in commissioning quality material for your website, thoughtfully produced by someone with experience and skill. Still not sure you need a specialist? For insight into the decisions and techniques utilised to write this post, read on, MacDuff!

The techniques in the text

  1. The first paragraph mentions “SEO” and “content” – these two words are probably why you’re here, and you agree with the statements made. I’m speaking your language. These are also two fairly pacy, jaunty sentences. I deliberately wrote “search engine optimisation” in full for this very reason. The word “nail” was chosen for its punch – when reading this you’ll probably visualise a nail, the strength and purpose of which underlines the importance of this paragraph.
  2. The second, very short paragraph doesn’t disagree with the one preceding it, and also tells you you’re correct – a positive assertion that strokes your ego slightly, releasing dopamine, and gains your trust. The second sentence primes you for the fact that, well, you’re not entirely correct. The informal tone is also a contrast to that of the first paragraph, holding your attention.
  3. Also in the second paragraph the word “story” is a deliberate choice. The natural (obvious) phrase here would be “half the battle”, but “battle” has immediate negative connotations which would establish a barrier. “Story”, by contrast, indicates a pleasurable experience to follow – entertainment, anyone?
  4. Similarly, at the end of the third paragraph I chose “fails to convey a positive message” over “conveys a negative message”, even though the latter is slightly more concise. This was in order to end on an upwards mood. Note the increase in pace here, too. Earlier in the paragraph I could also have chosen “waste time”, but opted for the more positive “spend time”.
  5. The appearance of the piece is balanced, making the text visually appealing. The shorter paragraphs indicate that it is easy to read and digest, while the heavier blocks communicate and support particularly important points. Finally, the post ends on a lighter note, and encourages you to read further (still here?). It culminates with the paraphrase of a Shakespearean misquote. This will engender a positive response from anyone familiar with MacBeth, and the use of an exclamation mark is in any case uplifting. Win-win! Entertainment, anyone?

Similar decisions were made in the writing of these notes. For example, the subheading The techniques in the text was chose for its flow, and the double teck sound. The first draft was produced longhand.


For consultancy on digital content strategy, writing or editing, please get in touch, or you can tweet me to say hi.

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