Posts tagged “Effective Writing”
Wake up writers, or we’re all through.
Content mills and farms are slave ships … highly profitable slave ships. They profit from the labors of inexperienced or desperate people who would like to think they’re getting paid to write, but are really only providing grist for the mills.
Mills provide their clients what they want or need, at standard prices, while paying writers peanuts – literally. Even though they may sell the articles for 10-20 times what they pay their poor writers.
The content mills typically pay a writer just $10-15 for 1500-2500 words. (1500 words is five to seven pages, depending on fonts and margins, and will take hours to write.)
Mills are bad enough. What’s much, much worse for writers are the “pay by the click” sites, such as examiner.com (… which just happens to be owned by one of the wealthiest, and most conservative people in the U.S. … that slave ship owner mentality at work).
The poor, gullible writers who produce anything for “by the click” sites are lucky to earn $15 per month – again, literally, not figuratively.
So it’s good to see more and more writers posting about their discontent with content mills and farms. It’s about time.
Take a look at “I Am A Fugitive From A Content Mill.” The author acknowledges the one and only benefit (since there is no financial one) was learning how to write much faster and for longer periods of time.
(That article reminded of an artist I knew – he was part of a crew painting the same pictures, over and over again, for about $10-15 per painting. His boss sold each copy as an “original painting.” Now China does it cheaper.)
This is why so much content is so bad.
Content mills and farms are part of the dark underbelly of the Internet. They prey on young, hopeful or naive writers who think they’ve hit the jackpot when they get to “write for pay.” But writing “content” neither really pays, nor does it really make you a writer.
Nearly none of what we see online is edited or curated. It’s simply posted. (Hence, all the grammatical and punctuation errors.)
But a great many poor sods think getting paid to write content actually makes them “professional writers.” Sad to say, content has nothing to do with authorship.
As soon as content writers see how little they’re actually earning, they realize they need to produce posts as quickly as possible. That inevitably means copying someone else’s online material and doing mash-ups. That’s why there’s so much redundancy online.
Worse still, the big mills and farms actually use “content scrapers” which literally suck up content in order to repurpose it.
“Content” has been big business since the early days of the Internet when there was an explosion of sites whose owners were desperate for clicks. However, the global nature of the Internet meant that anyone, anywhere could bid on the writing jobs. Bidders from around the world (most of whom barely have a command of English) became competitors to domestic writers, gladly taking the relative “peanuts” for pay.
The other side of that coin is clients who care more about low cost than quality – they are enablers. They want to fill up their pages for as little as possible. They get what they pay for.
Dummies. Poor pay guarantees poor content.
Content mills and farms (oDesk, Demand Media, guru.com, Elance, etc.) actually stockpile “articles.” When threadbare sites or publications go shopping for content, the mills and farms offer “off-the-rack” content, which allows them to underbid actual writers.
Be afraid. Be very afraid. The mills are treating written work just like stock photography. (And you do know what stock photography did to professional photography, don’t you?)
Prior to content mills and farms, professional writers earned $1-2 per word for magazine articles. (Per word.) A 1,500-word article could mean $3,000 … and an o.k. income if you could sell 10-20 of them per year. (Not so easy to do, then. Impossible today.)
Any writer worth a damn will spend at least four hours on a 1,500-word article. At $10-15 per article, that’s barely $2.50 to $3.75 per hour. And that’s why the quality of much of what we see online is deplorable.
Apart from dumping bad writing online, content mills have also significantly downgraded the relevance and value of the Internet itself.
We, the writers, let that happen by accepting slave wages and turning in work that’s the opposite of “crafted.”
You may have noticed: people are already pretty much fed up with being fed garbage rather than quality writing.
There’s a sucker writing every minute.
So, how can writers survive working for the mills? We can’t. And that’s my point. The mills don’t actually care about writers because quality has nothing to do with what they’re after. They only care about selling content, whatever it is.
All kinds of sites and publications buy that stuff just so that you and I might be attracted to visit … and just possibly click on the ads there …
Where might you have read some of this paltry-paying stuff? Demand Media (one of the giant mills) lists eHow.com, LIVESTRONG.com, Cracked.com, Trails.com, Golflink.com, Answerbag, Mobile, and Impact Stories as some of their content clients.
And here’s what Associated Content (now Yahoo! Voices) said about how they pay their contributors: “You earn money for every one thousand page views your content generates (PPM™ rate). The baseline PPM™ rate is currently $1.50 – meaning if you generate 30,000 page views, you’re paid $45.00 in Performance Payments.”
What does that mean? You only get paid if you drive the masses to click on your articles, 30,000 times. So you’re not only paid peanuts for your work, you have to spam us to get paid the peanuts. You have officially become a click-bait author.
Here’s how former Slate technical writer Farhad Manjoo summed his criticism: “Associated Content stands as a cautionary tale for anyone looking to do news by the numbers. It is a wasteland of bad writing, uninformed commentary, and the sort of comically dull recitation of the news you’d get from a second grader.”
Scott Rosenberg (like Jaron Lanier) criticized Associated Content, and similar companies, for publishing content that’s not even aimed at human readers, but rather for influencing search engines (the SEO trap), thus degrading Google search results.
What does this mean for you and me? The quality of online content is rapidly and clearly declining. But, no doubt, you’ve noticed that.
Content mills encourage plagiarism.
Jaron Lanier wrote about this very thing in his book, “You Are Not a Gadget.” He sees similar ills in the rise of aggregation of data with total disregard for the human element. In other words, many of the factors driving the growth of the Internet are not based on what you and I really want. They’re on based click-bait. Period.
If professional writing was like other trades – teachers, police, electricians, carpenters, firefighters and so on – we’d be talking to each other, getting angry and organizing.
But our trade is not like other trades. We work solo, and some of us truly hit the wall looking for work. The writers who have reached that level of desperation are the ones who bow down to the demon and start writing for the mills.
None who do like it. But they think they must.
If you are a client, the problem for you is that you are very likely promoting plagiarism by using the cheapest possible provider. If you’re paying someone who is providing you with plagiarized or mashed-up content, there could be business consequences. At the very least, your content won’t really work, so your site won’t do you much good.
At the worst, your content could be taken down by digital rights organizations.
Could you survive on $2 per hour?
Third-world pay can only produce very poor results on first-world Web sites. The drivel we are subjected to in poor-quality links has been written by poor sods who haven’t yet realized that, shortly, they won’t be able to pay their rent … or buy food.
If you’re one of those who decides to write for the dark side, you’ll soon notice that your competition on those content mill and farm sites are “content & SEO” providers in the far east, middle east and Africa. That’s when the penny drops. No one in any Western economy can survive on $2 per hour.
Sadly, if you’re only being paid $1-2 per hour, it’s far easier (or necessary) to rip off what’s already online rather than do your own research, writing and editing.
Content farms clearly don’t care. (They care more about keeping shareholders and CEOs happy.)
But you should care. Our online existence has become a double-edged sword. We have virtually unlimited access to “information,” but also enormous responsibility to not spread half-truths and full-out lies.
And, by the way, we also have to be even more diligent about grammar, spelling and punctuation, because the mis-use of language is rampant. (Again, thanks to content mills and farms.)
Eventually, when writers realize they’ll make more money working at Walmart than slaving away for content mills and farms, they’ll stop feeding the ogres. But it will be a while before the mills go hungry since they’re now provided fodder from every corner of the world.
Caveat emptor, my friends, caveat emptor.
Branding baby steps.
The idea of “branding” may sound formidable to many companies – a daunting new task for marketing to add to its plate. I can make it simple for you. A company’s brand is ultimately defined by three things:
- Competencies – what you do
- Standards – how you do it
- Style – how you relate to your target audience
These things need to be both defined and agreed upon before any creative work starts.
Once they are agreed upon, they need to be maintained with consistency across every form of communication – from e-mails to business cards, and from one-on-one conversations to a major marketing campaign. Without that consistency, there can be no brand.
To put it into simple steps, you need to determine:
- your message
- your target audience
- how your product or service benefits them
- what the competition is saying
- how you’re better or different.
And that, folks, is what branding is all about.
What we’re talking about when we talk about branding.
Branding has been the marketing buzzword du jour since the 1990s. However, too many people use it without understanding its true meaning … or origins.
In most cases, when people use the term branding, they’re really talking about USP – the Unique Selling Proposition. That concept was first presented to the advertising and ad agency client world in the 1940s by Rosser Reeves who worked at Ted Bates & Company, one of the largest ad agencies in the world.
USP changed how ad agencies approached the business of advertising, as well as how ads themselves were created from then on.
The USP (which every agency claimed to have created …) was about finding and focusing on the unique benefit of the product or service that the client and agency were advertising.
Once USP took hold, you could no longer just claim, “XYZ is the better detergent,” you had to say “why XYZ is the better detergent.”
The big bang.
USP changed everything, and even helped ad agencies develop their reason for being. Advertising became a process, with specific, scientific steps.
Clients seldom could come up with a USP on their own. Agencies, through diligence and in-depth research, could. The whole idea was to get to the point of differentiation that could be perceived as a benefit by consumers and customers. If there was more than one, all the better.
(Remember “Wonder Bread builds strong bodies 12 ways?” Or Purdue’s “It takes a tough man to make a tender chicken?”)
The Chivas story.
The introduction of Chivas Regal to the U.S. is a classic example of USP.
Chivas was, when all was said and done, another blended, 12-year-old whiskey from Scotland, like Johnnie Walker Black Label. (Nothing like a single malt.)
The story goes that the agency of record at the time had trouble developing a true USP, so they finally suggested pricing it higher than other blended, 12-year-old whiskeys and using “it costs more but it’s worth it” as the basis of their campaign.
Luxury, indulgence, prestige. Bang. There’s your USP.
That, folks, is how Chivas came to be perceived as “a really fine whiskey” – it was positioning based on a pricing strategy. Remarkably, that top-shelf image still holds today.
The safe car?
Similarly, Volvo became perceived as “the safe car” even though it never was the safest. (That distinction could likely have gone to Saab or Mercedes.)
Volvo’s agency product positioning became a self-fulfilling prophecy through pure luck – or at least nothing the agency could have controlled.
It was hardly a sexy car when it first came to America, so calling it “the safe car” created a distinct niche. (Good USP.)
However, by positioning Volvo as “the safe car,” Scali, McCabe, Sloves unwittingly made it the choice of people who already drove safely. Soon, insurance companies were rating Volvos as “safe cars” because of their low accident records … which was not really about the car, but rather about how its owners drove.
Marketing magic had happened. Before “branding” even existed. (Some years later, the Ford Taurus took that “safe car” position because that’s what older, more cautious drivers were choosing.)
The branding differentiation.
The point? Branding is not something completely new and different, as too many folks believe. It builds on and expands the concept of USP. What branding has added to that proposition is essentially, “consistently say the same thing to all people all the time.”
What does that actually mean? That a company or organization must recognize that they have internal as well as external audiences. Whatever the USP is, it must be stated first to the internal audience (your entire staff) so that everyone is passing on the very same message to the external audience (your target market).
It may not sound like a big deal when you break it down, but it has value. I’ve seen more than one company roll out an advertising campaign or promotion without letting the troops know it was coming. What do you get when that happens? People answering the phones and saying, “huh?” Not good.
The consistency dictum.
Branding also dictates that everything – from business cards, to stationery, to signs, to advertising campaigns – be identical. And that raises the game somewhat that was started with USP. Every message (according to branding gurus) that comes out of an organization, in any way, needs to look the same and sound the same. That, in a nutshell, is branding.
(The really good agencies have always recommended that as well, and even produced style guides for their clients. Branding simply makes it a rule.)
I’ve always thought that “branding” was created by someone who decided they needed a new tool to compete with ad agencies. There are certainly some smart and sensible ideas behind the branding concept, but it’s not enough – on its own – to build the kinds of great campaigns that USP has consistently brought us.
Think Volkswagen, Absolut, Nike, Apple, FedEx, BMW. The marketing for those and many, many more breakthrough brands were all based on the concept of USP.
Bottom line: branding is the cart, not the horse. You have to start with a USP in order to end up with truly effective branding.
Clarity and success.
That quote up there was something taught by Ludwig Wittgenstein (April 26, 1889–April 29, 1951) an Austrian-born philosopher who spent most of his life in England, including teaching at Cambridge.
Since Wittgenstein‘s original statement was in German (“Die Grenzen meiner Sprache bedeuten die Grenzen meiner Welt”) there are variations based on how it’s translated. For example, it could also be written as “The limits of my language stand for the limits of my world.”
Because the definition of bedeuten is “to mean” or “to signify,” I might have been less literal. Using Wittgenstein’s own ideas, I’d translate his statement using an English word that has more impact for English speakers: “The limits of my language define the limits of my world.”
It may seem like splitting very fine, blond hairs, but Wittgenstein dedicated his life to clarity and precision of language. (And translation requires bringing both the meaning and the intent into another language, so it’s seldom accomplished with literal translations.)
Wittgenstein also expressed the same idea from a slightly different angle, “The limits of my language are the limits of my mind. All I know is what I have words for.”
He talked about language and understanding as being inseparable, and that the language we use determines whether or not we are clearly understood. Of course, he also said the extent to which we can be understood will be limited if our audience lacks the language to follow what we say.
The ability to name things, and understand each other when doing so, is one of the key things that sets us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom.
Parenthood and responsibility.
While Wittgenstein – considered one of the greatest philosophers of the 20th century – was describing the limits of one’s world as an adult being determined by the depth and quality of one’s language, a recent New York Times article describes a study that shows that the very same is true for very young children: their futures can be determined by the quality of the language they’re taught.
There is nothing simpler or quicker than creating a child. Nature designed it that way. (It takes more time to make breakfast.) Conversely, few things are more difficult than raising a child properly and ensuring some amount of independence and success.
More than ever, language is at the core of that success.
Wittgenstein also said, prophetically, “The difficulty in philosophy is to say no more than we know.” That certainly isn’t a statement I’d limit to philosophy.
People who say far more than they know is a symptom of our age. Language, sadly, is seldom used for clarity today. Lawyers, politicians … and even TV news anchor persons make a practice of using as many words as possible in an effort to make certain that all meaning is lost.
As communicators, clarity of communication is what we’re about. Obfuscation is what “they” are about.
It goes double for marketing.
Early in my career, I was interviewing for a position at an ad agency and the creative director wasn’t just looking at my samples, he was reading every line of copy. I felt slightly embarrassed because I had a lot of samples. So, to be polite, I said something like, “I didn’t expect you to read all the copy.”
His reply was illuminating. “I always read the copy because lots of people can be involved in headlines. It’s usually just the copywriter who writes the copy.”
Writing ad copy is a remarkable education. It’s unlike any other kind of writing. Even when the copy is short, it has to have a beginning, a middle and an end. It has to be like a very short story that educates readers while exposing them to something new.
The copy has to pay off the headline – which has to be good enough to get people to read the copy – and it has to close in a satisfying way, if possible with humor.
The copy also has to tie in to the tag line, which is often something inherited and which every writer on an account has to work with because tag lines go on far longer than any other element of a campaign.
Copywriters are taught that what we write has to be able to stand on its own. Meaning, if you have to be there to explain it to the reader or viewer, it doesn’t work. (Don’t you wish movie-makers followed the same rule?)
Copywriting is a craft unlike any other, and its demands teach one a great deal about writing.
Most of all, it shows that we have to know how to use language better than “the average person.”
I know full well that Wittgenstein might not be amused to see his ideas being applied to something as prosaic as marketing and advertising. But what he taught applies to our discipline as much as any other, if not much more.
Our job is to touch people where they live – to reach their emotions. In order to touch people’s emotions – because that’s what good copy does – we have to know a great deal about language in order to be able to use the precise language that will get us there.
That headline thought, up there, is available as a T-shirt, a mug and lots of other stuff. It’s not just a T-shirt, though. It’s a sign. It means that those who know the difference are fed up. Because of how often e-mails, texts, online postings, movies and TV demonstrate grammatical atrocities.
While some of us fret about the declining state of the language, there are others who (incredibly) argue that grammar is not dying, merely changing, as it always has. (Yes, the original Beowulf epic was written in Old English …)
While that may be true, it doesn’t help at all when one wonders “why did we bother to learn correct spelling and the rules of grammar?” And why should we go along with usage that irks, irritates and insults us. (That was alliteration, by the way.)
We cringe when we see “my friend’s advise …”
We involuntarily shout “there are!” every time some character in a movie, on TV, or (dread …) “news” program says “there’s” for a plural subject.
And we rejoice that even “Weird Al” Yankovic has declared “enough:” Word Crimes
How we were taught.
Not that long ago, we were all taught that words like “bussing” worked because of the double consonants. However, via means that I’m unable to explain, some double s-consonants were made singular so that “bussing” and “bussed” are now spelled “busing” and “bused.”
Can anyone explain why we don’t pronounce “bused” like “fused?” (And that’s “fused” as in two objects joined together as one, not fussed.)
Same with “focussed,” which is now spelled “focused,” and which now looks to me as if it should be pronounced “folk-used.”
This is the case for a number of words whose spelling has changed … of which we are constantly reminded by spell checkers everywhere.
Take a word like “taken.” We were taught to pronounce the “a” in the “long” form because it’s only separated by one consonant from the vowel “e.” Weren’t you taught the same thing? So why doesn’t “bused” rhyme with “abused.”
But that only covers the “evolution” of spelling. Grammatical atrocities are an entirely different offense.
You are not alone.
Finally there’s outrage. Finally a great deal is being made of the mis-use of some of the most common words in English. Such as “great,” “awesome,” “ironic,” “travesty,” “enormity,” “literally” and “terrific.” Those incredibly common words are increasingly misunderstood and mis-used by people who think they mean something completely different than how they’re defined.
And then there’s Tourette’s punctuation … Do we really want “The best pizza’s anywhere?” Or “Pasta’s & Pizza’s?” Or “Greek Gyro’s?” Eeesh. Doesn’t it make you wonder if places like this are a few beers short of a six-pack? (How can we trust your cooking if we can’t trust your grammar?)
There’s also the constant mis-use of “lead ” when the only possible word for the past tense of “lead” could be “led.” (“Lead” is appearing with growing frequency. As if “lazy” and “stupid” are highly contagious diseases.)
My guess is that this typo, as with so many others, has a lot to do with the Internet. We’ve come to expect to see errors standing out in red when we type online. The problem, of course, is that “lead” (as with so many other grammatical atrocities) is an actual word – in fact, it’s two actual words, with two distinct meanings and pronunciations. So no red. No warnings. Just laziness.
The lesson here is that expecting spell-check to save your ass will leave you assless.
It seems the problem (for the … umm … uninitiated) is that “lead” (the metal) and “led” (the past tense of “lead”) are homophones – words that sound alike but are spelled differently and mean entirely different things. You could say that this all-too-common error could be the result of the confusion caused by the identical pronunciation of these discrete words. I wouldn’t say that. To me it’s unforgivable laziness. (Or, dare I say, creeping stupidity?)
However, one of the more interesting and hopeful aspects of mass online participation is the possibility of an invigorated, reawakened vigilance about grammar, spelling and punctuation. As more and more people place their unedited thoughts and opinions online, mistakes are multitudinous.
Those of us who notice (and we are many) are silently correcting your grammar.
The first thing to look for in a ghostwriter.
Naturally, anyone who needs a ghostwriter wants to make certain they’re getting a qualified writer – an experienced, accomplished writer. But it’s even more important to work with a writer who can convey your specific tone and style … or create the correct one.
Every writer has “a voice.” The trick for ghostwriters is to find or create the voice of the “author” for whom they’re working. Equally, the trick for anyone who needs to choose a ghostwriter is teaming up with one who will convey the tone and style that suits you best.
So you need to look for a writer capable of writing in very different styles.
Who needs a ghostwriter?
Typically, there are two categories of people who need the services of a ghostwriter.
The first is people who are successful – in business, politics, entertainment and so on. When those people – who are seldom professional writers – want to write a book, they depend on the services of professional writers.
The second category is made up of people who have had fascinating lives and wish to write about their lives. They also depend on the services of professional writers since that’s not what they do for a living.
Why are writers willing to be ghostwriters? Because true writers love to write and also to be paid for their writing. However, in order to be a successful ghostwriter, the writer must also be someone who either has very little ego or who can easily set aside their “style” to accomplish the goals of the client.
What kind of writer will you need?
Even non-professional writers can often write a readable essay – say, one to two pages long. However, the experience will educate them about how the real work in writing is in the editing.
But when you’re talking about a book … that takes a set of very specific skills and abilities. It’s a long-term writing and editing project, and the longer it goes the more work there is to maintain tone and style. And that’s the only way to keep readers interested throughout several hundred pages.
You can begin to narrow down “what kind of writer” you’ll need with some specific questions: Will your book require a lot of research? (Some writers are better at that than others.) Will your book require humor? (Some writers are much better at that than others.) Will your book require exceptional storytelling? (Some writers are better at that skill than others.)
Finding the writer you need.
Publishers and literary agents usually have ghostwriters that they know and recommend. That’s one way to find a decent ghostwriter.
The Internet is another way. It has made it both much easier and much more difficult to find resources. It’s easier because one can search at will, and fairly quickly, rather than depending only on personal recommendations, as in pre-Internet days. But it’s also much more difficult because the Internet is so crowded with so many illegitimate claimants. The way to deal with that is to ask for samples and recommendations.
(It’s not at all difficult to beat one’s own drum. It’s much harder to have happy clients who will readily recommend a writer.)
You can also make it easier to find and select the best writer for your project by being fairly clear in advance about what kind of book, or written materials, you’ll want. Knowing that will make it easier to know which writers might be best suited for you and your project.
If what you need is relatively simple, such as ghostwritten blog articles, then you’ll have an easier time, because articles are far easier to write than an entire book.
How to avoid surprises.
As in any business transaction, it’s important to establish (and agree to) clear and realistic deadlines, expectations and payment schedules. And that means doing so in writing, with both parties signing the agreements.
A typical agreement covers a detailed description of the project. That will include project outlines and deadlines, what and when the writer will be paid, whether or not the writer will get credit, and who will own the copyright to the book, which is typically the client. The only way to avoid unpleasant surprises is to agree to everything in advance and put it all in writing.
An idea, by the way, does not a book make. If you have a draft, or a decent amount of research and background materials, it will go a long way to making the project successful. A full book project typically takes at least three to six months, but can easily take longer, especially if multiple interviews are required.
It’s also important to remember that a ghostwriter is not a literary agent. So whether or not your book is picked up by publishers depends on other people, not the writer.
What to expect as the client.
Ghostwriters are available for everything from CEO speeches to blogs, from annual reports to books. Apart from knowing how to write, successful ghostwriting takes knowing how to interview … and how to deliver what clients actually want.
The main challenge for ghostwriters is that we are dependent on the client to deliver source material. So, when we negotiate a contract, we tie our deadlines to delivery deadlines of material by “you, the author.” That will also mean having a clause for re-negotiating deadlines when the client doesn’t deliver on time.
When the material isn’t delivered on time, we can no longer be expected to meet an original deadline. Plus, we may have other projects waiting for us. So you’re likely to see a clause in a contract providing for compensation even when an “author” does not deliver the material. (You’ve cost us time, and that’s what we charge for, just like attorneys.)
If a client fails to deliver on time, they can expect to be charged a late fee, at the least. That will be covered in a proper contract because too many people have little understanding of how their delays can affect delivery dates.
What will it cost?
Don’t be surprised if you’re looking at a $20-30,000 (U.S.) investment for an entire book. The typical range is anywhere from $10,000 to $50,000.
You are, after all, talking about someone writing 50,000, 70,000 or even 100,000 words for you, and spending months, or more, working on your project. Yes, you can find people online who will ask far less. But … you will always get exactly what you paid for.
Choose the right writer and you’ll likely be extremely pleased with the outcome, and you’ll also likely find that the end product fully exceeds expectations.
The hardest part of writing is knowing where to start.
Can anyone write? Probably. Can anyone write well? Clearly not.
Everyone’s writing these days – e-mails, online posts … even reviews, lord help us. So it seems that more and more often people who need marketing think, “hey, I can do this myself.”
That’s usually when those people come face-to-face with two, daunting challenges: organizing their thoughts … and getting started.
Then, when urgent need or looming deadlines tip the scales toward “it’s time to hire a professional,” it can be challenging to figure out who that might be. One approach is to ask who wrote something you admire. If you don’t know the people who produced the marketing piece you admire, you can contact the design firm or online pub that produced the piece.
As clients begin working with accomplished, successful writers, it can seem as if those writers work magic. The magic comes down to skill and experience. Professional writers can envision the whole piece, almost from the beginning. Or, to put it another way, the experienced writer knows how to take the initial input and expand on it, as required.
We do it with probing questions, with competitive research, with target market research. And with extensive editing and rewriting for flow and impact. (And you thought writing was easy.)
What writers do that’s different.
Highly skilled writing can seem as unattainable as the perfect golf or tennis game. And the very same mysteries apply … is it natural talent that makes the professional writer so skilled? Or is it training, practice and application? Any professional writer will tell you it’s both.
Trades are no different. An accomplished cabinet maker, furniture builder, mechanic, chef or designer is the same – they chose a trade or profession that appealed to them and worked at it.
People who are very good at what they do are nearly always people who have worked very hard at those things, and likely love doing them. That’s why professionals make things look easy. They’ve had lots and lots of practice.
So how exactly do professional writers get over the double hurdle of getting started and getting organized? With specific questions that set the direction for what we’re hired to write.
Which questions? Oh, o.k., I’ll tell you:
- What’s the key audience for your product or service?
- What matters most to them?
- What’s your key benefit – what problem or wish does your product or service resolve?
- Who’s the competition – what’s their track record?
- What’s different about your product or service – what sets you apart?
- What will it take to win?
Drilling down for the answers to those questions gives professional writers the essential building blocks for a solid, relevant, compelling marketing piece – whether it’s a brochure, a Web site, an ad or a commercial. The very same questions apply in every case.
Beware the online writer marketplace.
Now that most of our planet has moved toward “online resourcing,” marketers face a dilemma – how do we know that those distant resources are actually good? A couple of old truisms usually apply: “you get what you pay for …” and … “if it sounds too good to be true, it is.”
The “flattened earth,” brought to us by the Internet, has introduced “developing countries” to the mix of hopeful service providers. From our U.S. perspective, that means that people for whom English (and usually British English) is their second or even third language have thrown their hats into the writing ring. Yes, you can pay just a few dollars per hour for a job vs. American pay standards … but will the end result do you any good?
I own several LinkedIn groups and someone from one of those developing countries (hoping to become part of my professional copywriters’ group) told me that she “writes killer copies.”
Apart from language issues, here’s what’s wrong with trusting those folks with your marketing needs (… and your money): understanding your target market is crucial to success. Slight cultural misunderstandings can be disastrous. A large part of effective marketing is referencing the culture in which we live. To do that requires living in the culture. Even a British writer wouldn’t understand American sayings or references (and vice versa), let alone those other folks.
In order for marketing to have its intended impact, it needs to be relevant and emotionally involving.
That’s pretty hard to do when you’re not part of the culture. After all, effective writing involves much, much more than correct spelling and sentence structure. It’s about touching emotional hot-buttons. And that requires knowing not just what those hot-buttons are, but also how to reach them.
We’re professionals, and consultants.
I looked for it because I’ve been thinking about the increasing financial challenges of being a professional writer. It’s bad enough that the Internet has opened competition to the world. (And good luck with that.) In addition to that … or because of it, the attitude of clients has dramatically shifted to cost over quality, and it shows. The same thing happened to professional photographers when “stock” came into being.
One incident early in my career stands out as a harbinger of things to come. It was during my first Madison Ave. job as a junior copywriter, at Warwick, Welsh & Miller, an agency that came into being thanks to Seagram’s, the liquor company. Supposedly, Paul Warwick and Samuel Bronfman, the Canadian founder and owner of Seagram’s, were buddies. Mr. Bronfman advised Mr. Warwick that when Prohibition ended in the U.S., branded whiskey would be a big deal. So the agency was founded. And Seagram’s (with V.O., 7-Crown and Crown Royal, etc.) got a big jump on the competition.
One of the very best things about working at that agency was that it was also in The Seagram’s Building, a breathtaking work of Manhattan architecture designed and built by Mies van der Rohe. Warwick, Welsh & Miller was, of course, the agency of record for Seagram’s, along with Parker Brothers, the giant board game company that produced, among many others, Monopoly.
You want to pay us how much?
One day, the entire creative department was sent a memo from the creative director that said Parker Brothers was looking for new board game ideas … and if an idea we submitted was chosen we’d get $50.
I chewed on this for a while then finally went into the creative director’s office to ask, “If they produce a new board game, they stand to make millions, don’t they?” He answered, “Probably. So?” I responded, “We’re supposed to provide an idea that could produce millions for fifty bucks?”
He looked at me as if I had just landed from Mars and after a moment said, “Well, you don’t have to submit an idea.” That was not the answer I was hoping for. But it turned that variations on that answer would be the same for lots of questions that came up over the years. “They” want our finest creativity. But “they” want to pay as little as possible for it.
Hardly any company or business in existence would be profitable without writers. Writers polish a company’s image, promote its products and services, help them rise above the competition … and make gazillions. Yet, we are paid like sharecroppers. And sometimes, as Harlan Ellison so eloquently points out, they don’t want to pay us anything at all.
Writers produce annual reports that help companies sell stock … and make millions. Writers create ads that help companies sell products and services … and make millions. Writers produce scripts that help companies produce movies and TV shows … and make millions.
Think your lawyer, plumber or dentist will work on spec?
If you’re a fan of books, movies, TV shows, and great journalism, then you’re a fan of great writing. But you likely have no idea how much the creators of your favorite books or shows make. Or the fact that writers are often asked to work for free.
We’re consultants and we bill for our time, just like lawyers and other professionals. Yet we’re often asked to do things for no pay, or little pay, and we’re even expected to be happy merely for receiving “exposure.”
Exposure doesn’t pay the rent, or the dentist, or the mechanic, or the painter, or the plumber … none of whom would ever agree to work on spec, let alone anything less than their standard rate of pay.
In 2008, Lynn Wasnak wrote an article for Writers Market titled How Much Should I Charge? In that article, she wrote that advertising copywriting had a high rate of $150 per hour, and a low rate of $35 per hour, with an average of $83 per hour. Catalog copywriting was only slightly lower with a high of $150 per hour, a low of $25 per hour, and an average of $71 per hour. (Are you under-charging?)
Annual reports pay slightly better at $180 per hour at the higher levels, $45 per hour at the lower, and $92 per hour on average. Speech writing/editing for individuals or corporations was at $167 per hour on the high end, $35 per hour on the low end and $90 per hour on average. (Are you under-charging?)
The same article also appeared in Writers Digest. Both covered typical rates for many more kinds of writing and editing than I’ve mentioned here. And if you’re in Canada, you have the benefit of a national professional organization that publishes up-to-date rates: Writers.CA.
You’re a professional. Charge like one.
Ours is a solo occupation, so we often don’t know what others are charging, let alone what the going rates are, and can therefore be cheated. Being aware of the going rates – and being able to point to them – is beneficial for all of us. Otherwise we’ll be expected to provide our highly trained, thoroughly professional services for less than folks who are required to ask, “Would you like fries with that?”
Here’s my version of rather serious joke: A writer is contacted by a new client who needs an ad. The writer gets the input then goes off to create the ad. He does a rough draft, then a full first draft, then edits that, then polishes that, then puts it away for a few days. Then he takes it out and looks it over and finds more things to trim, rewrite and polish. Finally, after two weeks he contacts the client to let him know the ad is ready. The client looks it over and says, “That’s not very much copy. How long did it take you to write that?” The writer responds, “About 25 years.”
P.S. If you happen to watch the classic 1944 film Laura, you’ll hear the fictional magazine writer, Waldo Lydecker, referring to getting 50 cents per word for his articles. Good luck getting that today … 70 years later.
Calling the plays, murdering the language.
Most of us have heard and likely used such expressions “legalese” and/or “corporate-speak” to describe (maybe excuse) the mangled language that comes out of lawyers’ offices and corporations.
However, little that lawyers, cube-farm dwellers, and purveyors of “investment opportunities” do to our much put-upon language can match the destructive force of sports announcers. Why? Because the mangled grammar they spew out on radio and television is immediately accepted as “blessed,” fait accompli, normal. And then it’s immediately repeated by others.
Example: if you are an American, and you watched the recent winter Olympics in Sochi, on American television, then you heard such travesties as: “He / She is going to podium!” … or “He / She has medaled!” … or “He / She is medaling!”
The Olympics of verbing.
Meddling is a word. Medaling is not … at least not in the way our sports announcers used it: “Norwegian athletes medaled in 12 of the 14 events.” (Brrrrghhhh.) And “podium” is in no way, by any stretch of anyone’s imagination, a verb.
Those horrors are known as turning nouns and adjectives into verbs. And, no, in case you’re wondering, it’s not o.k.
Sports announcers excel at deconstructing language. Or simply creating their own versions … because they can. They have carved out a unique place in the history of language, doing far worse than splitting infinitives (as in, “to boldly go where no man … ” etc.) – a truly minor offense compared to “verbing nouns.”
Thanks to sports announcers confounding themselves with “pick up the ball” and (the entirely incorrect) “pick a player,” “pick” is now universally used instead of “choose,” despite the fact that “pick” is only appropriate to describe a physical action while “choose” is what we do when we make a mental selection – an intellectual choice.
Pick or choose … pick or choose …
We look at a menu, then we choose something. We look at draft choices for college sports, then we choose one. We do not ever, under any circumstances, walk over to a draft choice and pick him or her up.
We pick fruit, we pick up something that has dropped, we pick at our food, and so on. But “choose” is the only correct word for the intellectual process of selection. (Don’t point me to the AP Style Guide … I’ve kissed them off.) So while sports announcers constantly talk about “picks,” one cannot, in actual fact, “pick a player,” one can only “choose a player” … or a wife, or husband, or a piece of music, or a color … or an item on a menu.
But rules of grammar and language rarely stop people from abusing their language. And you will, of course, find plenty of people who defend “pick” instead of “choose” as an all-purpose verb, transitive and intransitive. I find their position defenseless.
I have no idea if sports announcers in other parts of the world performed similar acts of murder with their respective languages during the recent Olympics – perhaps you can tell me? But such onerous crimes are not, sadly, limited to sports announcers. Lawyers and politicians, for example, have given us such non-words as “impactful.”
Are you ready to be hoaxed?
From The Guardian (US edition): “Trick or tweet: the boy who hoaxed the football world”
This joins the ranks of recent Winter Olympics sports announcing mentioned up-top. It’s apparently in the same category as “are you joking me?” Not something I’d ever say.
I love the rules of grammar, as I learned them and as I adapted them over time with various style guides. Because they bring order out of chaos. I am generally the opposite of a conservative, but I believe that “descriptivists” (linguists in grammarians clothing) are inviting anarchy.
We – professional writers and editors – are the keepers of the flame. We have to be the final arbiters of what’s correct and what’s not. It’s part of our job description.
To my mind, we need some rules, not just to be told “things evolve.” As in the AP Style folk deciding that “over” and “more than” are interchangeable. (Bah, humbug.) Of course things evolve. I wouldn’t want to be driving the ancient, noisy ’65 VW bug that I was driving during college days in this day and age. It’s just that “evolution of language” more and more often feels like dumbing down of language. Alas …
Spell-check won’t save you.
Language, grammar and typos, oh my! A typo for the books was in the Theater Arts section of The New York Times on January 16, 2014:
“The Academy Award winners for the best foreign language film category have seemed preordained in past years, but the 2014 field has five strong nominees lead by the Italian film, ‘The Great Beauty.'”
Did you catch it? “Lead ” instead of “led?” This groan-inducing use of “lead” is appearing with growing frequency. As if lazy and stupid are highly contagious. And it’s not just in the New York Times. (Wouldn’t have minded a comma after “nominees” by the way.)
I’d guess that this typo, as with so many others, has a lot to do with the Internet. We’ve come to expect to see errors clearly stand out in red when we type online. The problem is that “lead” is an actual word – in fact it’s two actual words, with two distinct meanings. So no red. No warnings. Just laziness.
The lesson here is that expecting spell-check to save your ass will leave you assless.
“Lead” (the metal) and “led” (the past tense of “lead”) are homophones – words that sound alike, but are spelled differently and mean entirely different things. You could say that this all-too-common error could be the result of the confusion caused by the identical pronunciation of these discrete words. I wouldn’t say that. To me it’s unforgivable laziness on the part of journalists and editors. (Or complete stupidity…)
Self-editing is the first thing one learns. Skip that crucial step and you end up with “lead” instead of “led.”
But it could be even worse than that … it could be that whoever wrote that New York Times bit about foreign language films didn’t really know the difference. (Horrors.)
There was another homophonic winner from Australia in January 2011 that proved the need for journalistic fact-checking, something else that seems to be fading away. A newspaper there reported:
“… more than 30,000 pigs have been floating down the Dawson River since last weekend.” (Wow.)
The correction appeared the next day:
“What Baralaba piggery-owner Sid Everingham actually said was ‘30 sows and pigs,’ not ‘30,000 pigs.’”
If somebody – anybody – had checked on the (astounding) facts of the false story, an accurate account might have appeared instead of an absurdity. (Kudos, though, for their proper use of “more than” rather than “over.” More on that below.)
Better to be picky or choosy?
I’d guess that sports reporting is to blame for the sad predominance of “pick” when “choose” is the only appropriate choice. If you follow sports, you’ll continually hear about “picking players,” “picking teams,” “picking winners,” etc. Despite the fact that “choose” and “choosing” are the only correct options.
The problem for our grammar-challenged citizens is that both “pick” and “choose” refer to selection. Hence the confusion. However, the two words differ significantly in whether that selection is physical or intellectual.
“Pick” should only be used when describing a physical action – we pick fruit, cotton, pockets, etc. We choose a wine then pick it up. “Picking” is always a physical act. “Choose,” on the other hand, is always an intellectual process. We consider the available options, consider pros and cons, then make a choice.
Want an irrefutable example? You can’t “pick to ignore” something. You can only “choose to ignore” it. (Lightbulbs, anyone?)
“Take your pick” is an idiomatic expression that defies all efforts to explain it. I like to think of it as a poorly educated man’s version of “the choice is yours” or “your choice” or even “you choose.”
“Over” vs. “more than.”
Over is everywhere. What do I mean? We can’t escape the use of “over” when “more than” is, by far, the more appropriate choice.
Some examples: “Over 30 years in business;” “over 1,000 items to choose from;” “over 50,000 people attended.” That’s the kind of grammatical error that slinks its way into our language with a trickle, then suddenly becomes a deluge. Each of those examples should have been “More than” rather than “Over.”
Why? “Over” is only appropriate in relation to measurement, as in “over a mile away” or “over six feet tall,” and to signify repetition, as in “do it over.”
“More than” is the only appropriate option when we’re talking about quantity, especially of amount of time. As in, “more than 30 years in business,” and quantity as in numbers: “more than 30,000 people attended,” or “more than 1,000 items to choose from.”
Yeah, I know, it’s subtle. Especially since “quantity” refers to a form of “measurement.” But think of it this way: “over” is for length, width, height and distance; “more than” is for a number of something – number of years, people, ingredients, votes … pigs, etc.
Some folks may disagree. I choose to ignore them.
That’s what it takes for movies to work.
Without our granting movie-makers “suspension of disbelief,” we could hardly enjoy the moment when it seems that the bad guy has gotten away alone on a plane, but suddenly hears some ticking and searches for the source of the sound. He finds the bomb that the hero has planted on the plane, looks somewhat surprised, then … cut to the hero and his pals on the ground looking into the sky as the plane with the bad guy on board explodes in a very satisfying ball of flames, sparks and smoke.
We never ask, “What about the camera crew that filmed the bad guy in his last few seconds? Or the director and lighting people? Weren’t they on the plane when it blew up?”
We don’t ask because we want the story-teller to tell us a story. Because we enjoy being entertained. So we agree to suspend our disbelief for the duration of the entertainment. And we do it most often for movies since they are the most popular contemporary medium for story-telling. (If you loved the movie, read the book.)
Of course, we do it with books, too. Melville’s Moby Dick starts off as a first-person narrative – “Call me Ishmael.” – but as soon as our narrator is aboard the Pequod, he melts into the background. The first-person narrative becomes an omniscient voice, invisible, yet all-seeing, even reporting what’s inside other characters’ heads. Suspension of disbelief at work.
We’ve been doing it since long before Samuel Taylor Coleridge formally named the phenomenon of our willingness to suspend belief in 1817. It has been thus since our earliest ancestors sat around campfires, wearing animal skins, being enchanted by stories of particularly good hunts by someone who was particularly good at telling those kinds of stories – the primordial story-teller.
Not so in marketing.
In our business, we face the most cynical critics and doubters. Advertising may be story-telling, but it’s not always entertainment. (That’s the best kind of advertising, by the way, the entertaining kind, since we’ll all pay attention if it’s fun.)
Just like stories, ads have a beginning, a middle and an end. Except in ads it’s typically the setup (the problem), the solution (how a product or service solves the problem) and the close (the call to action.)
How is it that everyone approaches our stories with such skepticism while swallowing movie story lines hook, line and sinker? Yep, the answer is simple: entertainment. We happily set aside skepticism to enjoy a good movie.
No doubt if aliens landed and we offered to take them to the movies, they’d be somewhat stunned by our ability to accept all the cuts, dissolves, jumps in action and melodramatic, manipulative sound tracks. They’d likely view us with pity, consider us “children,” and wonder how on earth (so to speak) we could possibly run an entire planet.
We want to be entertained.
Is it some mass psychosis? Or simply an agreement en masse to accept the premise of a three-dimensional world on a two-dimensional screen?
The smarter ad folk made the leap some time ago to applying story-telling methods to commercials. The great ones, that ones that broke new ground, stick in our minds: “Time to make the donuts.” “I can’t believe I ate the whole thing.” “Where’s the beef?” “Bud Weis Er.” “Volkswagen: the Force” “¡Yo quiero Taco Bell!”
We remember them, and we talk about them. Almost as much as movies. [Interesting side-note: Alka-Seltzer’s “I can’t believe I ate the whole thing” TV campaign was one of the highest-scoring in advertising history, yet sales plummeted. What happened? Chronic users thought they were being made fun of.]
Are entertaining ads and commercials sugar-coating the pill … or effective marketing? In the final analysis, our objective is to be memorable – or, to be more precise, to make our client’s product or service be the one that the target audience remembers. David Ogilvy and others called this “placing a burr in the consumer’s mind” and warned against creating ads that left people “remembering the burr, but not the sales proposition.” [e.g., Alka-Seltzer]
Tricky, isn’t it. We need to entertain to be memorable, but we also need to make sure that what’s remembered is our client’s brand. (It really is something that only professionals can do.)
Super Bowl commercials, like “Volkswagen: the Force,” are the exception to the rule. Those commercials are as much about people remembering the commercial as they are about creating broader awareness for the brand. And in fact competition is so fierce for inclusion in that most coveted of TV placements that it’s not enough to have the dough, you have to have the goods in your ad as well. After all, lots of people tune in just to watch those commercials. Imagine that.
I won’t work for free, either.
As soon as I read the wonderful New York Times piece by Tim Kreider, I knew I had to share it: Slaves of the Internet, Unite!
It’s gratifying to see these facts go “national.” And to see The New York Times bring to light how often the services of professional writers, illustrators and artists are undervalued, or not valued at all.
This Web site is almost four years old and from day one we’ve been writing about the dark side of the Internet, how it has opened competition for creative services to the globe.
Instead of raising the level of quality, the opposite occurred: a drastic lowering of pay levels (lower than could possibly be imagined) along with dropping quality down the toilet.
Instead of seeking professional services directly, many clients now seek out the “online resources” that pit professionals and pretenders against each other, bidding on far fewer projects than there are project seekers. As more and more clients seek the lowest-cost providers online, the rate of pay for professional writing has dropped well below the minimum wage. And the reason for that should be obvious: the third world is in there bidding as well. (Good luck with that.)
I doubt that it’s ever been more difficult for writers and artists to earn a living. Although, in the 1890s, the French writer Jules Renard said, “Writing is the only profession where no one considers you ridiculous if you earn no money.”
(He also wrote, “Writing is an occupation in which you have to keep proving your talent to people who have none.”)
Just say no.
Some of the worst inventions to spring up in this rapacious, virtual, electronic world are content mills, farms and scrapers. Writers are either paid peanuts for original articles (e.g., $10-15 for 1500 words), or our work is stolen and “re-purposed.” The polite Internet term for this form of plagiarism is “mash-up.”*
So did we spend all those years in school and college and university learning and perfecting our craft to work for free? Or to work for one-quarter the hourly rate of the uneducated masses who say “would you like fries with that?”
Sadly, we writers undermine ourselves and each other every time we accept low-paying projects. Those of us who are professionals are no less professional than attorneys or plumbers or dentists. Good luck trying to get any of them to work for $2 per hour.
Part of the problem – perhaps the largest part – as Kreider wrote, is that everyone thinks they can write. That is, until they attempt to produce a coherent marketing piece, or a truly compelling ad. That’s when the fecal matter usually hits the air rotation device.
The services professionals provide do more than turn out carefully crafted messages and marketing – they help clients look more professional. If clients can’t understand that and still prefer to go for “the lowest bidder,” then vaya con Dios.
Here is Kreider’s description of the current state of affairs: “The first time I ever heard the word ‘content’ used in its current context, I understood that all my artist friends and I — henceforth, ‘content providers’ — were essentially extinct. This contemptuous coinage is predicated on the assumption that it’s the delivery system that matters, relegating what used to be called ‘art’ — writing, music, film, photography, illustration — to the status of filler, stuff to stick between banner ads.”
This is the phase of history in which we find ourselves. This is the point in the evolution of the Internet in which we are attempting to ply our craft while putting food on our tables. These are, the best of times and the worst of times.
*[Copyscape can help you learn if your content has been stolen. Simply drop in the URL for your original work into Copyscape’s search field. And if you find out your work has been copied, visit this page: blog.kissmetrics.com]
Yes, languages are slowly going to hell.
The original meaning of “idiot” was derived from the Greek term for “individual,” which came from the Greek for “private person.” When someone was called an “idiot,” way back when, it meant: “one who keeps to himself” – neither a gossip, nor someone interested in politics. How it came to mean “stupid” or “moronic” is a history lesson in the devolution of language.
Finally there’s outrage. Finally a great deal is being made of the mis-use of some of the most common words in English. Such as “great,” “awesome,” “ironic,” “travesty,” “enormity,” “literally” and “terrific.” Those and many other words are increasingly misunderstood and mis-used by people who think they mean something completely different than how they’re defined.
Why? Because of the devolution of language. The group that defines itself as “descriptivists” (essentially, “linguists”) will disagree. They’ll tell you that nothing is devolving, merely changing with usage. That change is inevitable, they will tell you. Because when usage becomes common, it enters the dictionary.
It turns out that as a “prescriptivist” (someone who cares about the rules of grammar and usage) I am as disturbed as are nearly all other professional writers, editors and proof-readers by the combination of laziness and ignorance that degrades both communication and understanding.
Take “idiot.” You don’t need to look any further for proof of the devolution of language than the astonishingly altered meaning of that innocent word.
The homonym trap.
Homonyms (and often homophones) are words that sound alike, but are spelled differently and mean entirely different things. Often, all it takes is changing one letter in a word to alter its meaning. Drastically. How can we possibly expect to be taken seriously if we use the wrong word, with the wrong meaning, in our writing?
Want some examples?
Accept, except / affect, effect / allusion, illusion / capital, capitol / climactic, climatic / compliment, complement / elicit, illicit / emigrate, immigrate / lead, led / principle, principal / than, then / there, their, they’re / to, too, two / your, you’re.
The point is that language can be an incredibly powerful tool. It can illuminate. It can educate. It can paint pictures in the mind. If the person wielding that tool has full control of it.
[update: 10/2/2013 NY Times photo caption: “Tim Hodges, a police officer at Jacksonville International Airport, lead a bomb-sniffing dog around a terminal on Wednesday, the day after the facility was shut down by a false bomb report.” Clearly that “lead” should have been “led,” an absurdly common homonym error. Alas. Full Story]
Can’t tell you how often I’ve gotten that depressingly incorrect usage in an e-mail response.
It seems that if words sound similar a great many people assume that it’s all right to use either. It’s not.
Speaking of “all right,” there’s really no such word as “alright.” It’s nonstandard English. The American Heritage Dictionary advises “it’s not all right to use alright.” Similarly, “all together” and “altogether” have distinct meanings – they are not the same. Neither are “alternately” and “alternatively.” Or “beside” and “besides” – they are simply not the same.
“Affect” and “effect” are in no way similar. And neither are “allusion” and “illusion.” “Allusion” is a noun that means “an indirect reference,” as in “His speech made allusions to something that fascinates me.” “Illusion” is a noun that means “something that is false or not real but that seems to be true or real.”
Look it up, please.
We’re now fully in the electronic age. And that doesn’t just mean computers and smart phones. It means every form of communication. Words are flung at us from every direction because people really are trying to get messages through.
Words matter. What’s a movie worth without a good story? How effective is an ad without a relevant message?
But the ease with which words are tossed around may have a great deal to do with the increasing mis-use and misunderstanding of words. It’s just so easy to text and post. But, by the same token, it couldn’t be easier to look up a word before flinging it into the electronic universe.
Meaning matters. And so does intent. If you’re trying to get a point across and use the wrong words to make your case, your case falls apart.
copyblogger makes the same case and is well worth the read.
Save the language. Use a dictionary.
Some words really need to be looked up to be sure of their meaning because they look and sound nearly identical, even though they are not. “Discreet” and “discrete” are not two spellings of the same word, they are distinct (discrete) from each other. “Discreet” is an adjective that means “careful and circumspect in one’s speech or actions,” as in “Her discreet handling of the situation put him at ease.” On the other hand, “discrete” is an adjective that means “separate or individually distinct,” as in “Each firm is a discrete entity.”
Same with “bimonthly” and “semimonthly.” Totally different meanings. Along with “cite” and “site.” And please, please look up “complement” and “compliment” before dropping a word bomb into your text. Really. Just type “dictionary” into your favorite search engine and multiple choices will arise.
This could go on for quite a while. For example, how “few” and “less” are entirely different. As are “figuratively” and “literally.” Along with “historic” and “historical.” “Disinterested” and “uninterested” are not the same. And neither are “elicit” and “illicit.” “Elicit” means “to draw out,” while “illicit”means something unlawful. “Farther” and “further” are, in fact, different words with different meanings and different uses. “Farther” means “to or at a more distant point.” “Further” means “to or at a greater extent or degree.”
I guess I should take this no further … except to say that I’d happily be called an idiot … in the original sense and meaning of the once noble word.
This really bugs me.
There are things that bother all of us, gnaw at us in small ways, like gnats. It’s like that for me whenever I hear grammatical laziness – grammatical gaffs that are allowed to stand, or (horrors) used intentionally. They’re buzzing around, diving for our ears, making us swat at the air around our heads.
You want an example? All right. Here’s an example of the collapse of grammar as we know it, in none other than The New York Times: “But a cup or three of coffee ‘has been popular for a long, long time,’ Dr. Freund says, ‘and there’s probably good reasons for that.’”
See that? That godawful mis-use of “there’s?” That’s what drives me nuts. “There’s” can only be a contraction of “there is” (not “there are”) so it can only ever be used with a singular subject.
“There’s good reason” – fine. “There’s good reasons” – the opposite of fine.
That mis-use, which occurs with horrifying frequency everywhere (TV, movies, media) also popped up with stunning regularity in one of my favorite shows, “House, M.D.” I couldn’t understand that because Hugh Laurie, the show’s British star, must know better. (I mean, his best friend is Stephen Fry, after all – the guy who did this.) I could only assume that he wanted to sound more “American.” Adding insult to injury.
“House, M.D.” was a dazzling concept: take the Sherlock Holmes stories and make them medical mysteries. Wilson was Watson. Cuddy was a female version of Inspector Lestrade. And House was Holmes … get it? They even made House’s apartment number 221B. Great show. Except for the grammar thing, and how often Hugh Laurie said things such as “There’s lots of things this could be…” “There’s all kinds of ways to treat that…” “There’s people waiting…” Etc.
Back to Dr. Freund. Let’s say you’re Dr. Freund … or that I am … if I were I’d be wishing that the NY Times journalist who interviewed me had bothered to correct my spoken faut pas so that it didn’t appear that I had a “poor grasp of grammar,” to put it politely, no matter how good my medicine.
What do I mean by poor? Bad grammar, bad usage. What makes it bad? It’s entirely incorrect, by what we’re taught, when we’re taught grammar, and by mutual agreement on singular and plural usages, furloughs notwithstanding.
Please, make them stop.
I know I’m not alone in believing that we should, as often as practical and acceptable, correct grammar, spelling and usage. (Since it’s going to hell faster than an ice cube in a hot oven.)
And I know that I’m not alone in feeling that we’re witnessing an accelerated pace of acceptance of poor language, poor grammar, poor usage – in many instances simply for the sake of hipness, coolness, with-it-ness. How fatuous it all seems.
If you were writing dialogue in a story, I doubt you’d ever write. “he said u should phone him @ home.” Yet, that there is what many of our younger planetary citizens are doing. How long before it’s “literature” being taught in schools. How long before the Oxford Dictionary accepts “u” as a form of “you?”
I think we ought to get things “right” before we get them “wrong.” The fact that we can decipher what was written should in no way excuse how it was written. Laziness of mind is laziness of mind. The more we excuse it, the more it grows, like some ancient Japanese movie monster.
Prescriptivists vs. descriptivists.
It turns out there’s a term for those of us who worry about such things. I’m, apparently a prescriptivist. Had no idea what that even meant until someone pointed out, quite recently, in an online discussion, that “prescriptivist” and “descriptivist” are the names given to the two opposing views on grammar rules.
I had, it turned out, been arguing with descriptivists, with whom there’s no arguing, since they believe less in grammar than they do in “usage.” Descriptivists, it turned out, are linguists first and grammarians second. To them, if the mis-use of a word or phrase (such as “there’s”) occurs with more frequency than the grammatically correct way, then it becomes the rule. (See that black hole of grammar, there?)
The problem that occurs for us professional writers and editors is that without a set of rules to follow and point to, anything goes. And that’s not good for either our professions or our work.
All right, I’ll admit it. I live for this stuff – we are, after all, paid for it. What does it mean to be a writer or editor? It’s all about judgement calls. And how can you make them if you have no basis for judgement?
The New Yorker did a piece on this, which, while quite good, misses one of the greatest (as in largest) points about language. The article describes élitist attitudes, but in its self-same élitism misses why correct and clear language is important. Most of us who became writers were the ones who cared as children when the rules were being taught to us. It meant something to us to master words and grammar. It was even exciting. Because we knew those were the keys to becoming one of the people we so much admired: writers.
How could you be one of those amazing story-tellers without being able to write in amazing ways.
Are we judgemental? You bet. When I meet someone who says, “My wife and me like to go camping,” I know we’re not likely to get along, and not just because I hate camping.
Language is more than communication – and clarity of communication is what the rules are really about, not élitism – it’s literally what defines a culture.
There are mistakes all over the place showing what kind of anarchy occurs when rules are either not known or ignored. Network World printed a doozy. “Snowden seeks asylum from several countries including China, Russia.” To my mind that could only have been “Snowden seeks asylum in several countries including China, Russia.” Knowing why is what the whole game is about.
If somebody is writing a letter to a friend, or speaking in a café, I don’t give a damn about grammatical structure and correctness. However, when major publications are allowing these kinds of errors, the apocalypse can’t be far behind.
We were re-watching “Michael Clayton” (an astounding movie) and I cringed when Clooney’s character’s young son was introduced, because at that moment he’s running around his mother’s apartment, shouting, “Mom, where’s my cards?” Several times. Ugghh.
So what about that? A major motion picture seen by innumerable people. What ethical boundaries are crossed when the choice to “accurately render an eight-year-old” risks further imprinting those who didn’t pay quite enough attention in grammar, junior and high school with horrible grammar?
It would seem that, today, fiction is more literate than reality. We never watched “The West Wing” when it was on network television but have been watching it via streaming. It’s amazingly literate, and clearly shows how much literacy matters. Would that it were so in reality.
When aspiring writers attend classes or workshops, they’re often advised to sit in a café and merely listen. When you do, you will hear two things: people typically do not speak in complete sentences, and people typically do not speak with perfect grammar.
The point of the exercise is to guide hopeful novelists toward more realistic dialogue, since hardly any of us will say: “While you’re in the kitchen making a sandwich for yourself, could you please make one for me, as well?” We’d most likely say, “Make me a sandwich, too.” (Despite the fact that the only grammatically appropriate response is “Abracadabra, you’re a sandwich.”)
What we learn in meetings.
Relatively early in my advertising career I was in a meeting with a client, an art director and an account executive. (No, that’s not a set up for a bar joke.) The art director and I presented the creative work for a year-long campaign, and then the account executive presented the total costs.
“Five hundred thousand dollars?” the client wailed. “I could hire ten sales people for that!”
The account executive shot right back, “Yes, you could. But how many prospects could each of those ten sales people get in front of in a whole year? One hundred? Two hundred?” I was listening as intently as the client. “This campaign will be seen by at least ten thousand people from day one and that number will grow exponentially with each exposure in your media plan.”
I was very impressed. No defensiveness about justifying the costs of advertising. No back-pedaling on what we’d presented. No offers of scaling things back. Just the facts. And the facts were enough. I’d learned a big lesson: how advertising can be more effective than feet on the street. (And, by the way, the bigger the budget the less resistance we usually encountered. Million-dollar TV buys were treated like “just another day at the office” by the big boys.)
I had learned the concepts of advertising: why ads we need to be attention-getting; why we write intriguing headlines that pull readers through the copy; why we need a pay-off at the end. But I hadn’t been exposed to the gritty facts of how to sell a campaign, or how clients sometimes look at marketing as a choice between spending money on ads versus sales people and trade shows until I started going to presentations.
I also learned, along the way, that advertising sets the stage for the sales team. If a member of the target audience saw an ad and then asked for a sales call, you had a very warm lead as opposed to an ice cube.
What we learn from each other.
These were not lessons I’d been taught along the way to becoming a copywriter. I learned them in meetings, the same way the clients learned what a good ad agency could bring to the table. Every meeting taught me something new about the client’s perspective and the purpose of advertising, as well as the smarts of the people I worked with. (People in ad agencies are some of the smartest I’ve ever met.)
I also learned how account executives could be crucial to the creative process – from making sure the creative team had all the input it needed to making sure the media plan fit the overall objectives. In some agencies, there was a cold war between creative departments and their account teams. The account teams in those agencies were treated like messengers and order takers. In the agencies where I worked account executives were as crucial to the process of achieving clients’ objectives as copy and art were. We’d even invite account executives into our offices to show them rough concepts and get feedback.
The job of creative teams is to “blue sky” ideas. We get the creative brief and the marketing strategy, then we take off. We look at what the competition is saying then we push the envelope as far as possible. It’s the job of the account team to bring us back down to earth – if necessary. As long as our work was on strategy and achieved the marketing goal, they were fine. But if the work was off-target in any way, they pointed that out. It was often incredibly helpful.
What we learn from clients.
I was part of an agency team that was invited by a client – a computer networking products wholesaler – to meet with one of his primary manufacturers. The very large, northern California maker of hubs, routers and switches (one of the top three) had set up all-day presentations of upcoming products for our mutual client. At the end of each presentation, the client asked the engineers one or both of these questions: “How will this work with the current products in the field?” or “How will this work with the last new product we were shown?” To a man, each engineer answered, “Not really sure. That’s not our department.”
The client, who rarely showed what he was thinking, finally erupted at the end of that day: “How the heck are we supposed to sell this stuff if you can’t explain to us how all the pieces work together?”
That was another incredibly valuable lesson: the client’s pre-advertising perspective. Typically, the client would present us with the products we’d be promoting and he would tell us a cohesive story about how those products made specific improvements in network performance or reliability. Clearly, our client didn’t merely invent those benefit stories – they came from the manufacturers of the products he was wholesaling. If the manufacturer hadn’t figured out how to tell a cohesive product story, our client’s sales people wouldn’t have one … and neither would we.
What we learn along the way.
Good clients ask good questions. Good ad agencies have good answers. Really good ad agencies truthfully say when they don’t have an answer and promise the client they’ll research it and come back with answers. Seeing that in action taught me that the popular truism that “all ads are b.s.” was not, in fact, based in fact. Good clients provide real benefit stories to their agencies. If they don’t know how to do that, good ad agencies know how to draw out those benefit stories in order to differentiate the client’s product or service. That was often my job, as copywriter. (It takes good input to have good output.)
As we move up the ladder in ad agencies, we become the people who answer client questions. What we learn along the way prepares us to have real answers based in fact. Because it’s our turn in the hot seat when the client asks, “Why will this work better than that?” we have to be ready with answers. That’s another critical thing we learn along the way: you don’t just prepare creative work for clients, you prepare to be challenged on the work you present.
And when we move on to becoming independents, then we have to have all the answers to all the questions. “What’s the best media for us?” “Why is an ad better than a brochure?” “Why isn’t our current brochure good enough?” “Why do we have to run ads more than once?”
I was taught quite a bit along the way. That’s why I have most of the answers to most of my clients’ questions.
Clarity is everything.
If people can’t make it through your messaging, how will they ever get to your product or service? Writing isn’t just about writing; it’s about conveying an exact message. That’s what the old saw “writing is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration” is talking about. The easy part is putting down a bunch of thoughts. The tricky part is arranging all those letters and all that punctuation into something that truly grabs your target audience by the lapels and makes them remember what you said.
There’s truly no point in putting out confusing messaging. It’s a waste of time, space and money.
A local doctor did a landslide business after creating her own billboards. That’s a rather unusual occurrence. But she understood the importance of simplicity and clarity – especially in billboards. Hers were made up entirely of her smiling face, name, phone number and a large headline that said simply “I cure acne.” Those were the only words. And they were the only words needed because the people who needed her help found her.
I’m by no means advocating that every advertisement be that basic. But I am saying that honing your message can really pay off. Hers did. Her business boomed.
Imitation is for amateurs.
People who don’t know where to begin often begin by copying. Example, the “Got milk?” campaign that was so effective and compelling that a local land developer copied it with “Got land.” (Down to the all-black background and white type.) But … notice the punctuation? Did he miss the fact that the question mark was key to the milk board campaign? Or was he trying to say that he has land? (God, I hope not.)
It only confuses things to have writing that sounds like something else. You’re actually making the reader think of the original rather than you and your message.
Another common error is copying style, if not content. People will imitate a tone thinking, for example, that if they sound like Mercedes Benz they’ll be perceived like Mercedes Benz. But … that doesn’t really work, does it? Especially if you’re Subaru. (Not saying they do; only how silly it would be.)
The essential lesson here is: don’t write the way you think others expect you to write. Write the way you want to write. Write in a way that conveys not just what you do but also how you feel about what you do.
A recent LinkedIn article by Vivek Wadhwa described how he worked his way through the challenge of writing articles with advice from journalist friends: “What they said was that I should just write down my thoughts as though I were telling a story to a friend: forget all I had learned about structuring high-school essays; and be brief, hard-hitting, and to the point.”
Extremely good advice. My version is very similar: “Pretend you’re writing to one person, a close friend. Be direct and honest. Be unafraid of judgement.”
Be brief, be clear, be compelling.
When I got my first job at an ad agency in New York, I spent the first few weeks having panic attacks. Every time I got an assignment, I stared at the blank, white page in front of me, thinking I was expected to put down perfect, award-winning thoughts. So, naturally, my brain seized up each time.
I knew full well, however, that I wouldn’t keep my hard-won job very long if I didn’t produce. So, after struggling this way for a while, I got tough with myself one day and thought: “Just put down everything you can think of and edit it later.”
That breakthrough turned out to be every professional writer’s approach. We all do that. So can you. Just start writing. E.L. Doctorow describes the process of placing one word after another as “… just like driving at night. You can only see as far as the headlights illuminate, but once you’ve gone that distance you can see the next piece.”
The first time I did it as a copywriter, I put down an entire page of copy … then crossed out nearly all of it. I ended up with one or two sentences. But they were the perfect thing to build on. And when I did, I made sure the copy was brief, to the point and entertaining.
Then I repeated that process with every assignment. Little by little, I began putting less unusable stuff down and more “perfect things to build on.”
That’s because writing is like any craft – the more you do it, the more you know which steps to cut out and which to keep. You begin to have the ability – before even putting anything down – to separate the valuable thoughts from the merely distracting.
Write for them, not you.
One of the hardest things to learn as a writer is that we don’t write for ourselves – we write for our target audience. So we have to cull what will bore them and only keep what will make them respond.
That means, as so many writers have quoted, “In writing, you must kill all your darlings.” (William Faulkner) That, too, is what it means to be a writer.
Writers who fall in love with what they’ve written and are unwilling to change it – even after being told that it’s not relevant – would be better off keeping a journal. Writing is communication. If your objective is to communicate with a potential target audience, you’d better know what they find interesting, and what they don’t.
Or, to pass on the advice I was given in my first few months on Madison Ave., “if you won’t be there to explain it to every reader, then your ad better be able to stand on its own.”
Tag lines tell us who you are.
Thought I’d start the first post of 2013 with one of the first principles of truly good advertising campaigns: truly good tag lines.
Lots of people think of them as an after-thought. Not me. I’m always thinking about tag lines from the first moment I start thinking about a campaign or Web site.
Headlines come and go. Tag lines hang in there through campaigns and often for years after. Headlines are a flash in the pan. Tag lines have to sum up who you are, what you offer and how you think … sometimes in as little as two words.
For example, “Think different.” (TBWA\Chiat\Day, 1997-2002.) Even though it’s been one of the most enduring tag lines of the past two decades, I’ve always been bothered by its flagrant abuse of grammar. (see Grammar matters.) Despite that intentional flaw, one has to admit that those two words (in combination with the Apple logo) have truly defined Apple since the 90s. (Yes, it’s been that long.) Even though they moved on from that tag line way back in 2002.
Copywriters, not clients.
Tag lines are also one of the most important things ad agencies bring to the party. Take military recruitment ads – perhaps the most tag line-dependent campaigns in existence. All those ultra-inspiring, “sign me up” tag lines (“Be all that you can be.” “It’s not a job. It’s an adventure.” “The few, the proud, the Marines.” “We’re looking for a few good men.”) were written by (ta-da!) copywriters, not the Army, Navy or Marines.
The same is, of course, true for every attention-getting and easy to remember tag.
What happens when clients come up with their own tag lines? Take a look at Mezzetta, a California company that makes our favorite stuffed olives, jalapeños, dill pickles, etc. Their tag line? “Don’t Forgetta Mezzetta.” (Are you reminded of the Marx Brothers? I’m reminded of the Marx Brothers.)
A tag line defines the brand.
Brand names tell us the rudimentary facts about a company or corporation: we know that Melitta makes stuff for making coffee; we know that Chevrolet makes cars and trucks, and we know that McDonald’s sells fast food. Those are the simple facts.
Add a tagline and you add an emotional message that makes those brands stand out and stick in our memories. Tag lines take the brand up a notch. (Did they cover this in Mad Men? I can’t remember.)
When Chevrolet wanted to convince people that they built really tough, reliable trucks, they did it with a tag line: “Like a rock.” (Campbell-Ewald, 1992-2004.)
When Avis wanted to take on Hertz, the number one car rental company, they did it with a tag line: “We try harder.” (Doyle Dane Bernbach, 1962-2012.)
When FedEx wanted to put its name on the map as an overnight delivery service (a breakthrough concept at the time) they did with a tag line: “When it absolutely, positively has to be there overnight.” (Ally & Gargano, 1978-1983.)
When AT&T wanted to humanize the monolithic communications company that was euphemistically called Ma Bell (since they owned and controlled everything in U.S. telecom) they did it with a tag line: “Reach out and touch someone.” (N.W. Ayer, 1979-1983.)
When GE wanted to humanize its massive research, electronics and appliance manufacturing company, that did it with a tag line: “We bring good things to life.” (BBDO, 1979-2003.)
In my opinion, none of those companies would have become what they are without those tag lines. That’s why I call them crucial. Think about this: each of those tag lines accompanied hundreds of headlines through the years. Who remembers the headlines?
Great tag lines through time.
Many of these tag lines are classics, not even used any more. But we remember them. People even borrow them to use for our own purposes. Because they’re so often so pithy and convey so much, folks find they can’t help themselves. (“Betcha can’t eat just one.” – Young & Rubicam, 1963.)
Naturally, you know that none of those companies came up with those classic tag lines. It was their brilliant ad agencies … or to be fully precise, the brilliant creative department folk at their ad agencies.
Here’s a Wikiquote list of “slogans” and a Web site that lists the results of a survey trying to list the 100 Most Influential Taglines Since 1948. (FYI, can’t stand the term “slogan.” Only folks who haven’t worked in ad agencies would use that term. Almost as bad as “jingle.”)
That list of 100 includes tag lines chosen from a field of 400 candidates. Not a list I would have put together. For example, I can’t believe the UPS “What can Brown do for you?” was actually nominated in place of their short-lived and far superior (IMHO) previous tag: “Moving at the speed of business.” (Ammirati Puris Lintas, 1995-2002)
But that’s show biz.
Thanksgiving has just come and gone in the U.S., and we’re moving on to the holidays that soften everyone’s hearts … while forcing wallets open. These are the in-between days when we know that the coming new year is another chance to address regrets and disappointments – to change direction, if we feel that’s needed.
This year, in the days leading up to Thanksgiving, others sent and posted messages of thanks, taking the holidays rather more seriously than I recall before. It made me think I should add my own.
I’m thankful for:
- clients who happily pay appropriate professional fees for the services we happily provide.
- clients who understand the effort we put into writing and designing, and appreciate what we do for them.
- the opportunity to help new clients introduce products and services with the best possible language and marketing materials.
- returning clients who appreciate the level of professionalism we provide.
- clients who appreciate and value the skills, talent and effort required to produce effective marketing.
- clients who understand what it takes to create materials that break through the clutter and stand apart from the competition.
- clients who express sincere appreciation for how we polish copy, craft sentences, perfect paragraphs and marry that copy with design.
- clients who understand the value of the concepts we create for them so that their marketing materials are more effective.
- the opportunity to do what I love and be paid for it.
- being in a business that means partnering with other creative professionals.
- the opportunity to work with people who nearly always teach me something new.
- the fact that honing copy for marketing helps me be a better writer in every way.
Life is not a straight line. And neither is marketing. There are always ups and downs; periods of perfection coupled with challenges … even disasters. How we respond to those times and events defines who and what we are. How we address all the challenges that life brings defines what our lives add up to in the end.
So, most of all, I’m thankful for the opportunities to do the right thing, every day.
“I always wanted to be a writer.”
Do you remember being taught and encouraged to write as well as you possibly could? To write a first draft, set it aside for a couple of days then come back to it and cut out everything that made you stumble?
That was called “crafting your writing.” We were also encouraged to read the greats in high school and college, and were told it was important to understand what made them great … maybe even to emulate them. Perhaps, like me, you wanted to write as well as Conrad, O’Connor, Hemingway, Woolf, Dickens, Melville, Austen, Carver, Munro … et al.
When did all that striving toward quality turn into … teen vampire erotica? When did that emphasis on quality writing disappear in favor of … content?
If content is king, why is the writing so poor?
What we have online is far more often merely content vs. actual writing. Why? It’s a conundrum with multiple, dead-end answers. Here are a couple of stabs at the why. Content was desperately needed when, in the early days of the Internet, there was an explosion of Web sites desperate for clicks. (No content, no visitors.) But because of the nature of the Internet, Web sites also exploded our competitive frame of reference. Suddenly, anyone, anywhere, in any country could see and bid on writing jobs posted on the Internet.
It’s common knowledge that bidders out of Asia and Africa (many of whom barely have a command of English) will take peanuts compared to the Western world’s concept of fair pay … so, we have “Web site content needed: will pay $50.”
Too many clients cared too little about quality. Most wanted to fill up their pages for as little cost as possible. Or, as one ill-conceived boss out of my past put it with deep regret: “I guess we need some words on those pages.”
The problem created by the flattened earth (brought to you by the Internet) is that lots of folks in far-flung places think $1-2 per hour is just dandy, thank you. For those of us who live and work in an $8-10 per-hour minimum-wage economy (as in, $8-10 per hour to say, “Welcome to Walmart”) it’s the opposite of good.
That’s part one.
Part two is that content mills and farms (oDesk, Demand Media, guru.com, Elance, etc.) are stockpiling generic “articles.” They’re paying $10-15 for 1,000-1,500-word articles. Then, when starving publications (thanks to the Internet) go shopping for content, the mills and farms offer some that’s “good enough,” and underbid actual writers by treating written work just like stock photography.
And you do know what stock photography did to professional photographers, don’t you? For a frame of reference, prior to content mills and farms, actual writers of actual articles were getting $1-2 per word. (Per word.) A 1,500-word article could mean $3,000 in those days … and an o.k. income if you could sell 10-20 of them per year.
Any writer worth a damn will spend at least four hours on a 1,500-word article. (Way more than that when being paid properly.) At $10-15 per article, that’s $2.50 to $3.75 per hour. Hence, that’s why largely developing country respondents are writing those “articles.” And that’s also why the quality of much of what we see online is deplorable and has significantly downgraded the relevance and value of the Internet itself.
Apart from only fair-to-middling writing, we also have endless mash-ups – original content “re-purposed” and rehashed again and again so that when you go online to look up “concussion,” you’ll see multiple hits that are virtually indistinguishable and entirely unhelpful.
Wake up writers or you’re all through.
Part three is that we’re letting it happen. “We” means writers. Ours is a lonely, isolated profession. (All the more reason to take advantage of the online communities for writers – one of the good things about the Internet.) Some o.k. writers, who are desperate, accept the pitiful pay, which establishes precedence and perpetuates the developing world pay level. But there’s no crafting of copy. Who would bother at $2-3 per hour?
The Internet has been a tremendous boon. Yet it has also been a life-altering phenomenon. Most of us, today, go online first for news and research, so traditional pubs are losing sales and subscriptions (more every day). Advertisers are increasingly shifting away from traditional media and into “online efforts.” What’s the result? Less actual writing being done by actual writers. Way more “content” is cluttering our world. And the quality of writing and information is falling like a dead duck.
The outlets where we can still find quality writing are diminishing every day. They’re still there, but there are fewer of them every day. Literally. Saying no to the mills and farms is one way to stop the attrition. And supporting the few publications that still demand quality writing is another.
I’m certain it will take some time for the tide to turn, for people to get fed up with being fed garbage rather than quality writing. In the meantime, here’s a fairly pithy forbes.com article titled: Why you shouldn’t be a writer
Only if you’re a member of Congress.
“Write what you know.”
Take writing workshops or classes and you will inevitably hear this piece of advice. Things that sound so obvious often belie their depth. This particular advice is ultimately about producing writing that rings true, whether you’re writing fiction or non-fiction. When that advice is passed on, it means: try to BS your way through your writing and the BS meters will ring instead.
For copywriters and marketing writers, that means we have to study our subject until we know it well enough to write about it convincingly – which can mean knowing the subject nearly as well as subject matter experts. It all begins with input. If we don’t get good input, we can’t provide good output. That simple. If the client doesn’t know how to clearly explain what they do or produce (an all too-common problem), it’s our job to dig for what we need.
This is a crucial aspect to copywriting, and one that’s not always understood. I’ve often had new clients look askance at me, wondering out loud if I really can write about their particular widget if I’ve never made any. What they don’t know is that a real copywriter is a generalist. A seasoned copywriter can write about anything. Because ad agencies can’t survive on just a single client or line of business – you’re asked to work on whatever comes up. (That’s one very realistic thing about Mad Men.)
We copywriters learn how to dig for what we need. By contrast, someone who has spent their entire career as a specialist, rather than a generalist, say for pharmaceuticals or farm implements, will have serious trouble writing about cars or perfume or shoes.
That’s the first secret.
Here’s the second: understand your target audience. It’s not enough to become familiar with the product or service we’ve been hired to promote – we must also understand who wants or needs the product or service, and why. We can’t possibly write convincingly if we don’t know that. (That’s a hint – if you’re working with somebody who doesn’t bother to learn about your target audience, you could be working with the wrong somebody.)
Example: I’ve never used chewing tobacco but I’ve advertised that product. (Not happily, but I did. See clients.) To do that, I had to learn about the products and the people who do use them. And it’s not just cowboys. They’re called smokeless tobaccos and they’re popular with people who work where smoking isn’t allowed. Ultimately – potential health risks aside – it’s no different than selling laundry soap, brassieres or riding tack: you have to know (1) the category, (2) the audience and (3) how to differentiate your client’s offering.
Yes, it takes work. Being able to craft sentences that sparkle like perfectly-cut diamonds is only half of the six-pack you’ll need for this picnic. You have to know the target audience even better than they know themselves. You have to know how to reach their emotional hot-buttons. You have to know how to get them thinking and talking about your client’s product or service. No matter how dull.
When I was building my spec book, I had a campaign for Mercedes-Benz that was a beaut. But several CDs with whom I interviewed told me, “That’s too easy. Everyone would buy a Mercedes if they could.” (Light bulb moment.) What they said, was “How do you get people interested in your client’s me-too product? Such as deodorant? Or beer? Or fertilizer? Or acne treatment?” That’s the real work. (And, yes, I’ve done all that.)
Are you convinced, yet?
Marketing is pre-sales. It’s the navy shelling the beaches in advance of troops landing. It’s about creating awareness of products and services. It’s what some of the early greats called “planting a bur in the brain.”
Here’s why. Tide advertising isn’t primarily about convincing you that they have the best laundry soap. It’s actually about trying to sub-consciously guide your steps in the grocery store so that the laundry soap you ultimately reach for is Tide. You may not remember why you think Tide is best, but you may remember that you probably ought to buy Tide (your brand here). And that’s all they ask for.
Mountains of research have shown that it takes multiple impressions (exposures to an ad or campaign) for a brand name to sink in – typically five. Ever gone car shopping? Ever gotten to the point when you couldn’t remember which car had which features, or even which one you liked best? That’s the minefield marketing is trying to step through.
Our method is to employ truth. Truth will get you through that minefield. Empty claims will get you blown up. If you really know what you’re talking about, it comes through. If the copy rings true, you might actually convince your target audience about the “superiority” of your client’s offering. And the copy can only ring true when you’re sticking to things that you truly know, and that are true. Surprised?
The opposite of truth.
We’re in the middle of campaign season in the U.S. Something like a four-year flu. Empty claims are flying all around us. The perversions of the basic principles of marketing are sickening to watch. All methodology is abandoned for scare tactics and promises of a better future. Outright lies replace basic truths.
Tobacco advertising requires health warnings – this political stuff should come with warnings that it will rot your brain.
My point isn’t to rant, it’s to point out that we all have built-in BS meters and we all know when they’re going off. Like now, during presidential election season.
The really good writing in really good marketing and branding campaigns won’t do that. It will make you feel better about yourself for wanting or liking something. It will make you feel like your life could be just a little better with that particular item that just tickled your fancy. And that’s what really good marketing will do.
Can grammar affect sales?
I think so. Easy example: if that short sentence above had been written “Can grammar effect sales?” you, being the intelligent sort, would likely have lost interest in whatever followed. Why should you read something by someone who can’t write?
Same goes for food. Do we really want “The best pizza’s anywhere?” Or “Pasta’s & Pizza’s?” Eeesh. Doesn’t it make you wonder if places like this are a few beers short of a six-pack? How can we trust your cooking if we can’t trust your grammar?
This could go on forever, alas. (Just Google “signs with bad grammar.”) Seen in a church: “No Confessions To-Day.” (Ummm ….) Seen in a car dealership: “Certified Pre-Owned Nissan’s.” (Uh-oh.) Seen in a restaurant: “Please Seat Your Self” (Noooo …)
Too many business owners don’t realize the critical importance of correct grammar and professionalism in marketing and messaging of every kind … even menues. Every printed message tells people who we are, what we’re about and how much or how little we know about grammar.
The fact that you might have been bored in school and have some trouble remembering the difference between “to” and “too” or how to use apostrophes doesn’t have to stop you from presenting a professional, polished image to the public. Just hire writing help. That’s all it takes.
The problem with ‘no problem.’
A non-print example of crumbling language use is the now ubiquitous “no problem” restaurant server response. It always leaves us shaking our heads. Why, you ask? This imaginary exchange posted by Graham Guest in a LinkedIn group may help explain:
“I’d like the steak with fries, please.”
“I wasn’t anticipating one! And a beer please.”
“I’m very pleased for you.”
Some establishments are attempting to train the “no problem” problem out of people by educating them as to what they’re really saying with that bland expression – how it bears no relationship to “my pleasure,” or “you’re welcome,” and is an entirely inappropriate response to “thank you” in a service situation.
Surprisingly, when I posted about this in some LinkedIn grammar and writing groups, a lot of people responded that they don’t see the problem with “no problem.” They “understand” what the server means. Bad sign. To us, “no problem” means “I don’t mind that you troubled me for a glass of water,” or “I don’t mind that I had to bring you the food you ordered.” It in no way indicates gratitude for one’s business, or even one’s saying “thank you.”
When we hear it (more and more each day) we know two things: a. you aren’t actually thinking about what you’re saying, let alone understanding the meaning of words; b. you weren’t trained at all by management. And that makes us wonder, “what else is lacking here?”
(Maybe it’s an Americanization of the down-under “no worries?” It might also have arisen out of the Spanish de nada, although no server in any decent Spanish restaurant would ever dare say de nada to a customer. That would be recognized as outright rudeness.)
Commas change everything.
The importance of commas can’t be overstated. Their role in assuring clarity of communication is vital. Equally, their over-use and misplaced use can cause endless confusion. When I’m editing client copy, I often find commas stuck in odd places that could only indicate a pause when speaking. But written text is not spoken text. So it’s most often a mistake – and grammatically incorrect.
Commas are actually quite simple: they separate parenthetical thoughts, and they separate a series. They are not intended to indicate a pause when reading.
How critical is a comma? Take the recently photoshopped cover of Tails, a pet magazine, that made the rounds of the Web with Rachel Ray on the cover and this doctored (series) quote: “Rachel Ray finds inspiration in cooking her family and her dog.” Someone had removed a single comma after “cooking,” which made all the difference.
Commas matter. Properly used commas matter most. The person who perpetrated the joke understood that, even though he or she is a dunce.
Proper proof-reading protects your reputation. Without proof-reading, we look unsophisticated at best and ignorant at worst. We all need proof-readers. There are some simple, basic mistakes that our eyes simply miss. When glancing rapidly at text, we’ll skip right over things like “the the.” (I do.) And spell-check can often make things far, far worse.
Here’s a doozy from The Washington Post that would have made it past spell-check: “After the iconic and illusive Apple chief executive died last year, Wired magazine submitted information requests to the Pentagon and FBI for copies of Jobs’s secret records. Top Secret, actually.”
The first comment posted after the article sums things up nicely: “Jobs was ‘illusive’? It seems any hack can get a job with the Washington Post these days, as writer or copy editor. Where can I submit my resume? I would never let a bonehead error like that get by me.”
It’s shocking how often I spot typos in the digital versions of The Washington Post, The New York Times and many other once-honorable pubs. They’re clearly using kids for the e-mail alerts that go out each day with headlines, and they’ve cut proof-readers. It shows. And it’s embarrassing.
Blame it on spell-check? Stupidity? Hard to know. What’s clear is that proof-readers are worth their weight in Au.
Oldie but goodie: NY Times on typos
Our calendar is barely 430 years old.
Any marketing person with training and experience begins any assignment by looking at context and environment – perspective. I can’t help approaching New Year’s that way. While we may think our calendar is now 2,012 years old, it is in fact (as of this writing) only 429 years old, and was created not to mark the passing of 365 days of our revolution around the sun, but rather to know when to celebrate Easter.
As you likely know, the calendar we use is the Gregorian calendar, also called the Western or Christian calendar because it’s based on significant dates in the Christian bible. It was introduced by Pope Gregory XIII via a papal bull, a decree, signed on February 24, 1582, and took several centuries to be adopted throughout the western world. The motivation for the Gregorian reform was that the Roman Julian calendar placed the time between vernal equinoxes (a year) at 365.25 days, when in fact it is roughly 11 minutes shorter per year. (Pretty cool stuff for 1582, huh?)
That 11-minute error added up to about three days every four centuries, which resulted (back in Pope Gregory XIII’s day) in the equinox occurring on March 11, and moving earlier and earlier in the Julian calendar. You know what that meant, right? The date for celebrating Easter wasn’t reliable. And Easter is the single most important date for the Roman Catholic Church.
Easter, by the way, was calculated using the Hebrew calendar to accurately fix the date of “the last supper,” which was in fact a Passover meal that Jesus was attending with his disciples. Pope Gregory XIII wanted to be sure that Easter was being celebrated on the correct date, year in and year out, so the date of the last supper was the starting point for the development of his new calendar.
Today, of course, we think of the calendar as a business tool rather than a way to keep track of religious events. And commerce was the main reason the Gregorian calendar was slowly adopted over time through much of the world. But it’s worth remembering that its origins were entirely based on religious celebrations.
Think about this: anybody who uses a computer, anywhere in the world, inevitably is following the Gregorian calendar.
Is it New Year’s everywhere?
2012 may well be the year that globalization truly takes hold. We, in the U.S., have come to grips with the fact that we are no longer an island unto ourselves, dictating “what comes next.” Our clothing, computers and customer service (sadly) can come from anywhere in the world … and usually do. Our economy is clearly affected by global events and our export markets can be countries that not long ago did not even appear on our maps. Brazil has taken a monster lead on the global stage, moving ahead of Great Britain in 2011. So, too have Russia, India and China moved up. (Investors call them the BRIC nations and place “emerging markets” investments there.)
So, bearing that in mind, does January 1 have the same significance to all inhabitants of planet earth? How about to the Chinese or Indians? Or those who follow the Hebraic and Islamic calendars, which were both based on lunar rather than solar cycles? For the Chinese, 2011 was 4708 (or 4648 depending on their epoch starting point). For those following the Hebrew calendar, 2011 was 5771. And for those using the Islamic calendar, 2011 was 1433. India has as many calendars as it has religions, though in 1957 they settled on the Indian national calendar (Saka) to align themselves with the Gregorian calendar.
That diversity of global populations is one of the reasons that New Year’s celebrations have always struck me as a tad odd. First of all, Father Time is winning, whichever calendar you use. Every new year means that we’re all a year older. And the yearly cycle is hardly celebrated the same way by all people on earth. Perhaps some of the old Roman superstitions lurk in our Bacchanalian New Year’s celebrations. Perhaps we truly think that we and the world will be magically different when the ball drops and the calendar changes.
What do we measure when we measure time?
Clocks, watches, calendars … do they measure actual time, or the experience of the passage of time? It seems that we “mark time” rather than inhabit it. We tick off the time we’ve used, or lost. And we look forward to the next calendar event, such as a religious holiday or vacation, which will only arrive after we’ve marked off the appropriate amount of time.
But time, according to Albert Einstein, was an indication of our relationship to space and gravity – how fast and how far we were able to move through space. And, in a way, that’s what we measure when we say “day, week, month and year.” A day is the spinning of the earth on its axis (creating the illusion of sun up, sun down). A year is the time it takes for our earth to orbit the sun completely – an elliptical journey that takes us closer to and farther from the sun, creating our seasons. Days and years are actual markers of time/space travel, while other calendar-based measurements are an artificial construct that in fact measure simply the passage of time as it relates to us.
Einstein and Paul Langevin addressed that “relativity” with a theory of time that has come to be called the “twins paradox.” One twin leaves the earth traveling at the speed of light and returns; the other twin stays behind. For the traveling twin, only seven years have passed, so he has only aged by seven years, but for his brother back on earth several decades have passed and he is now elderly. How can this be? (For a practical demonstration, watch the Jodi Foster film “Contact,” from a story by Carl Sagan.)
It’s all relative.
My point? Time is not as fixed as we think it is, or as our Gregorian calendar would have us believe. In fact, time is entirely relative. So we do not measure time objectively, but rather subjectively, based on our experience of time on our planet and the calendar we’re using. We subjectively say, “one year has passed,” “our child is two years old,” “we have a doctor’s appointment next Monday.” All of these are important, yet create a slightly false or inaccurate sense of time, an imposed sense of time, one that doesn’t matter to or affect the movement of the planets around our star.
Think of it this way: if we were still using the Julian calendar, we’d experience time differently. The same goes if we were using lunar calendars. Which is why I just can’t help remembering that the actual calendar we use isn’t even 500 years old, and that it has a back-dated, subjective starting point.
In fact, the new year did not always begin on January 1 for everyone everywhere. It depended entirely on which calendar was being used. What we now call New Year’s day is a very recent innovation, and an entirely subjective event. New Year’s used to be celebrated on days such as the vernal or autumnal equinox – days when you can actually feel something new is coming.
New Year’s resolution? Nah, thanks anyway.
This just in: The world almost had a 13-month calendar