Category Archives: Copywriting

Ground pepper day

PepperFor those of you who are only satisfied by salacious revelations from my private life, here’s a bombshell. I bought this box of pepper over the weekend.

I was looking for whole peppercorns but I was in a rush so I didn’t read the box properly. I just looked at the picture of whole peppercorns and thought ‘does exactly what it says on the tin.’ Of course it turned out to be ground pepper. Bloody Ronseal.

Which goes to show that readers often pay a lot more attention to the pictures than they do to the words. So make sure your pictures count.

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Being hilarious

We’re re-launching the Carphone help site in a couple of weeks. In preparation for this, I’ve been writing and re-writing reams of copy. And one of the things I’ve been trying to do is make it more amusing. We had a survey of the current site done you see, and a common piece of feedback was that it was dry and lacked personality.

This is a mobile phone retailer’s help and support site remember. Humour isn’t exactly a natural bedfellow. And corporate humour is a very difficult thing to pull off. If you make cheap beer it’s just about possible, but there are thousands of terrible attempts for every half decent ‘Carlsberg don’t do nightclubs’ gag.

A big part of the problem is that anything even remotely risqué is bound to offend someone. And the last thing you can afford to be is offensive. Which traps you in the tricky region between cracker jokes and coming up with something genuinely witty. Regular readers will realise I’ve got no chance of the latter.

The following example illustrates the problem eloquently. I needed to write a strapline for a page explaining what happens if a customer isn’t at home to receive a delivery. I wrote:

What happens if I’m not at home when my delivery comes?

We’ll break a window to get in.

Naturally I was delighted my effort. I strode over to my fellow copywriters to show them my good work and was met with the snotty, short-sighted and probably entirely correct response that I couldn’t write that in a million years. Our target audience is not 20-something drinkers of Danish lager. It’s absolutely anybody, and there’s always a risk that one of these people might get the wrong end of the stick and start taping up their windows using methods unseen since the blitz.

In the end I settled on ‘Don’t worry – we won’t break any windows’, which isn’t nearly as funny (though I’m aware my first idea was hardly something to have Jimmy Carr fretfully turning over to the cold side of the pillow).

Ultimately I hope I can persuade the company that the (slightly) edgier tone is the way to go. I’ve been working a lot on our tone of voice over the last few months, and I think it’s the companies who take the risks that manage to develop a real ‘personality’. There’s a big difference between saying ‘let’s be spiky and out there’ and actually meaning it.

This post doesn’t really have a conclusion. It just goes to show the travails I’m going through to bring you the funniest mobile phone site in the world. Hopefully I’ll be able to bring you a more considered solution in a few weeks’ time.

Once, I too was a blogger…

PenI’ve reached that stage that most bloggers seem to get to. The stage where they realise that writing a new blog every few days is pretty hard work, and give up. 

This lack of self-discipline is pretty disappointing, but I can console myself with the fact that not I’m not the first blogger this has happened to. What I’m planning to do now is to concentrate on quality, not quantity, and write a few decent posts each month, rather than kidding anyone that I’m the kind of blogging king who’s going to be knocking out three posts a day. 

So keep checking back for more thrilling insights into the glamorous world of this hard-living, rule-breaking, self-deluding copywriter. Just don’t check back too often.

I can be your hero baby

herosEveryone needs heroes. Without them there’d be no one to learn from, nothing to strive for, and the Nazis would always end up winning in 1950s war movies. With that in mind, I’ve come up with a list of writers I admire. The list is by no means exhaustive, and it’s heavily influenced by my recent reading. But all of the following are affecting the way I’m thinking at the at the moment.

Gideon Haigh

English born but Australian bred, Haigh’s Ashes blog was one of the best reads of the summer. A wry writer with a great eye for quirks, his blog always provided original insight and stepped off the beaten track – exactly what a good blog should do.

Mike Skinner

The fleeting nature of pop music means lyricists never have time to build a detailed story. All they can do is throw out an image using a few words and hope it captures the scene. Presumably, Ezra Pound would have been a great frontman for a rock band.

Mike Skinner (leader singer of The Streets)  is brilliant at these images – listen to his account of first date awkwardness on Could well be in. I especially like ‘I’m trying to think what else I could say / Peeling the label off, spinning the ashtray.’ For fans, Skinner’s Twitter account is well worth following too.

Sir Winston Churchill

I’ve been gradually working my way through Churchill’s The Second World War since Christmas. That’s not to say it’s not great, but it was a very long war and the book is too heavy to take on the tube.

Churchill has a fittingly majestic style but is always very readable. The part where he goes to Russia to persuade Stalin to change sides is extraordinary. He weaves the domestic details of the trip in amongst an account of a conversation that ultimately decided the fate of the entire world. Very rarely do we get such a personal insight into history.

Seth Godin

I know this is hardly an original choice. And I know there’s already more than enough Godin fawning on the internet, especially as he spends most of his time recycling the same ideas over and over again.

But Godin is massively successful, and I think his great secret is his accessibility. He writes plainly, avoids getting overly technical, and above all he keeps things brief. His 200 word posts are perfect for skim-reading during a working day, and then discussing endlessly around the water cooler or on Twitter. If there ‘s one thing I will do with this blog, it’s to start writing entries of  less than 300 words where at all possible.

Writing by numbers

numbersJane Penson has written an interesting blog about the Flesch reading ease index. So interesting in fact, that I’ve spent a large part of my lunch hour working out how ‘readable’ my own writing is.

The Flesch index is a formula that decides how easy it is to read your work. The formula is based on the length of your sentences and the number of syllables in each word – fewer words and fewer syllables equals easier reading. If you’re interested, there’s lots more info about how it works here.

The formula produces a score out of 100, with a score of more than 40 being reasonably clear. Maths enthusiasts may enjoy working out the score for themselves, but Microsoft Word will do it for you. Just select Tools > Options > Spelling and Grammar and tick the Show readability stats box. Your Flesch score will then appear after you’ve run a spelling and grammar check.

The good news for me was that a couple of pieces chosen randomly from the Carphone help section did well. This page explaining how broadband works scored 71.4, while this one about online billing got 73.1. According to Jane’s blog, a typical article from The Sun scored 62. As we’re using simpler language than Chelsea, 22 from Essex, it’s safe to assume we’re not baffling anyone with our verbosity.

The obvious question to ask is: ‘is the Flesch index useful?” Like all formulas, it only measures success according to a few select criteria, and with something as abstract and flexible as writing that doesn’t seem a good idea. The other problem with using Flesch is that you’re likely to end up manipulating your copy purely to get a better score, which isn’t necessarily conducive to the initial aim of making your writing clearer.

That said, I’m sure I’ll obsessively check my work from now on to see just how ‘readable’ I can become. There’s nothing like the introduction of a scorecard to get the competitive juices flowing. And in the interests of research, I did get a Flesch score for Sonnet 18 by Shakespeare. I was sure that nothing so old could fare well according to a ‘readability’ formula. It got 81.9.

Which goes to show that beauty definitely is simplicity. And that Flesch maybe has a point.

Sonnet 18

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?

Thou art more lovely and more temperate.

Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,

And summer’s lease hath all too short a date.

Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,

And often is his gold complexion dimmed;

And every fair from fair sometime declines,

By chance, or nature’s changing course untrimmed.

But thy eternal summer shall not fade

Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st;

Nor shall death brag thou wand’rest in his shade,

When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st,

So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,

So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

Reach for the stars

Stars

I’ve just added a ratings option to my blog so you can tell me how great I am with one click. I would have done it sooner, but I’ve only just worked out how to turn on. All you need to do is click on the comments section of a post and mark it out of five stars.

Having done this, I thought it would be a good idea to go through what I’ve blogged so far and grade each post myself. Re-reading yourself tends to be pretty sobering, as the gulf between your rose-tinted recollection of your writing and its actual quality usually becomes apparent quite swiftly. Luckily, my own opinion of myself  is so high that there’s a fair bit of leeway.

What it did make me realise is that when it comes to blogging, shorter is almost always better. Nobody wants to read more than sixty seconds of anyone elses witterings. So I’ll stop.

Niche phrases the key to keywords

Key

Regular readers may recall that a couple of months ago I was experimenting with techniques to improve my blog’s position in Google search results. It’s a process called search engine optimisation, for those of you who aren’t one of the internet’s 4.5 billion SEO ‘experts’.

To recap, my efforts amounted to:

  • Posting articles with links to my blog on affiliate sites like ezinearticles.com.
  • Getting my site indexed so Google knew I existed.
  • Stuffing articles full of ‘search keywords’ that I’d arbitrarily selected during 30-second fits of whimsy.

Early results weren’t promising. In fact I’d say my first month’s work was about as futile as the time I was told the way to any girl’s heart was the chat up line: ‘What’s your middle name? Mine’s Wesley, it can’t be any worse than that.’

Eventually the internet’s version of the desperate minger threw me a bone, as I rather over-excitedly revealed in this post. My blog about playing football at school had caught the attention of the search engines, and the search term ‘what are the rules of middle school football’ brought me a visitor.

At the time I attributed the success to finally getting my site indexed by Google, and results since then seem to back this up. Since this formative victory, traffic from search engines has gradually increased, to the point where I now get about a dozen visitors a day from Google and its less celebrated colleagues.

What is interesting is the type of searches that are bringing me visitors. As a copywriter, I had tried putting lots of copywriting ‘keywords’ into some posts – words people would type when looking for this website like ‘copywriter,’ ‘writer,’ ‘words’ etc.

But these had absolutely no effect – they’re already taken by bigger and more established websites. As an experiment I tagged the post below this one with Michael Jackson, to see if his posthumous popularity would bring me any readers. It didn’t – though people are searching for MJ, they’re being sent to far more popular sites than this one.

What has been successful is the unusual phrases I’d unwittingly included in my blogs. Here’s just a few of the subjects Google considers me an expert in:

  • ‘Libertie, egalitie, fraternity’ – included here
  • ‘Most boring tweets’ – included here
  • ‘Cockney baiting’ – included here
  • ‘Internet paedophiles’ – this was a worry. But the phrase is in this post about the worst date ever

So what have I learnt? I guess the main thing is that if you’re looking to increase traffic to a site, you need to find yourself a niche you can make your own. I’ve also learnt that the niche you end up getting is often not the one you thought you would. Finally, I’ve learnt that SEO is a strange mistress, and that if you are looking for a mistress, you’re probably better off sticking to the ladies. Just don’t tell them your middle name is Wesley.