cartoon by Gaping Void

11 Life-Saving Tips for Copywriters Heading Out to Sea

by Richard Pelletier

They are the beloved ones. The ones who know how to work with writers. Who know good writing when they see it. Who know that good business writing is incredibly difficult to produce. They profess their love. They say things like, “Love this, but can we move that sixth line up a little?” We love them to pieces. And then there are the other ones. Who don’t quite know how to work with writers. Who don’t quite know how hard it is to create good writing in a business environment. We love them, too, but they are, sadly, a bit harder to love. Like your strange uncle Bob.

Herewith, an instruction manual for writers sailing into the murk. Who think they’ve boarded the tiny ship of order, only to learn they’ve been cast into a vast sea of chaos; the agency or firm with zero experience working with writers. For purposes of illustration, our fictional firm is Ace.

1 — no brief, no work

Never, not even if Hades, Miami and Cairo doth freeze over on the very same day, take on a significant writing project without a brief. If there’s no brief — signed by, or at least agreed to by the client — no work. Matthew Stibbe has a great example of what a good brief looks like.

2 — trust but verify

Don’t assume anything. Just because you’ve been hired by Ace, a seriously reputable firm with an impressive client list, and a good friend of yours brought you onboard, and they’ve agreed to your fees, doesn’t mean that Ace knows how you work, what you need to succeed and how to evaluate your product. If you want to trust team Ace, that’s great. But remember, trust is earned. Don’t give it away.

3 — claim your authority

You’ve been brought in for a reason. You’re the expert. Set the parameters. Write everything down and make it known early. “This is how I work and here’s what I need to ensure success for the client.” If you need frequent, direct access to the client, say so. If you need to revisit and rework assumptions, say so. If you think you need to add specificity to the scope, speak up. If you sense you’ll have to work around a problem person at Ace, find a way to make that happen. Your reputation is on the line, protect that thing, it’s precious.

4— introductions matter more than you think

You should be introduced to the client as an outstanding professional who has the chops and the experience necessary to meet the needs of the moment. There are a couple of reasons for this. The first is that it’s true, youare outstanding. The second is that it shows due diligence on the part of Ace. Third is the power of suggestion. If the client has some trust with Ace and Ace says you’re the person for the job, then you have some instant credibility. If you don’t get properly introduced, pay attention because the people that hired you or that employ you, are not singing your praises. Which could mean they see you as a commodity. You are not a commodity. If there’s trouble down the road, you’re probably on your own. If you think there might be an issue, take over. “Here’s how I’d like to be introduced to the client.” Keep it simple.

5 — find out who has your back

A firm that doesn’t produce content or copywriting in-house is not likely to have someone who can provide context and credibility in conversations with the client about what you are doing. As the writer, you’re the creative. If questions come up about your approach, you need someone — who is not you — who actually gets what you’re doing, to manage the situation at a senior level. If no such person exists, head, meet chopping block. Before you take the gig, find out who that person is. Find out if they truly understand what you’re bringing to this effort.

“When you’re in the shit up to your neck, there’s nothing left to do but sing.” Samuel Beckett

6— push back

Keep a close eye on everything that’s relevant to your piece. If something doesn’t make sense to you, you need to make it make sense. Ask questions. If you get a lot of hand-waving, keep pushing. Go around whoever is in your way. Your job is to help the client. If the people who hired you are making that difficult, get to the next person on the food chain. This is when you have permission to be the world’s biggest pain in the ass.

7 — know where you stand

To work onsite means entering another business with all the wondrous possibilities that entails. It’ll be nice not to work alone, right? But you’re likely to be an employee. Even if temporary, do you want that? Or do you want to be an independent contractor? If the latter, that changes things. You might lose the gig if you don’t want to join the team. But you should know this ahead of time. If this statement is true, “I work from my own space, and I work in a particular way because it’s been proven to work for me and my clients over and over again,” then can you really work onsite inside someone else’s system?

8— client buy-in

See 1, above. If, due to some unfortunate navigational error onboard your little ship — you find yourself working without clear and unequivocal buy-in from the client on your approach — stop working and demand it. You’re wasting everyone’s time and money. This is another one of those moments when you have every right in the world to be an asshole. You’re trying to protect the client’s project, time, and money. Along with Ace’s reputation and yours. The longer you go without buy-in, the more time there is for a bullseye to appear on your back.

9 — sometimes you have to say no

Most freelancers take on most of what comes their way. Not all of us are in the position to turn down work. But there are times and situations where you have to walk away. A business coach told me once that you can always tell there are going to be problems in the first five minutes. Not long after, I was on the phone with a marketing director offering me a long-term project at good money. Her child was screaming at the top of his lungs in the background. In between talking to me, she was screaming back at him. Reader, I took the gig. Do I need to tell you how that went?

“I will tell you what I will do and what I will not do. I will not serve that in which I no longer believe, whether it calls itself my home, my fatherland, or my church: and I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defense the only arms I allow myself to use — silence, exile, and cunning.” ― James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

10 — even the best-laid plans can turn to shit

A good friend of mine has been in the restaurant business for decades. His string of successes is rare and amazing. I’ve lost count of how many times he’s told me this about restaurants, “You can do every single thing right, and it can still fail.” Keep things in perspective. If you find yourself in a sea of chaos and you somehow manage to get back to dry land battered and bruised, take stock. Take an honest look at what you might have done differently or better. Then take your honey and yourself out and…

11— bourbon

(c) Bulleit

It’s the copywriter’s drink of choice. Good luck out there.

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Dear writer, copywriter, branding person, corporate communications professional, poet, storyteller, word lover

World-famous, there’s-nothing-else-like-it-anywhere Dark Angels writing workshop lands on east coast of America in 2017

How goes it? Is your writing everything you want it to be? Could you do with a shot of inspiration? A double shot of joie de vivre? A triple shot of ‘I never knew I could write like that?’ Is there a wee bit of room for improvement? For a potentially life-changing experience?

I want to introduce you to some of the work I do and the people I do it with. I’m reaching your way for a couple of reasons. You’re a good writer. You’re interested in words and stories. For you, business, life, and art are not all that far apart. No silos. And, you like to connect. Which means you are, ahem, the target audience.

first, the back story…

A few years ago, I went on a few writing workshops. The first was in Spain, outside of Seville. The next one was at Oxford. During which we had dinner with Philip Pullman. So, these weren’t just any writing workshops. These were Dark Angels workshops. Twelve years in, over 300 people have rolled through the Angelic writing machine. People talked. So I went on this workshop, they’d say. And they’d get all glassy eyed. The thing was a phenomenon.

Then, in 2015, I was invited to join the firm, as it were, as a tutor. Or, as we are officially known, Associate Partner. The three original founders of the company, John Simmons, Stuart Delves, Jamie Jauncey, felt the need for reinforcements. So nine additional writers, including yours truly, were, you know, onboarded. We are now 12. (Being asked to join that crew was sweet. I cried.) Here we all are at Scotland’s Creative Writing Centre.

Back row L to R: Mike Gogan, Andy Milligan, Neil Baker, (Jamie Delves along as filmmaker) Jamie Jauncey, Stuart Delves, Mark Watkins — Front row L to R; Elen Lewis, Gillian Colhoun, Claire Bodanis, John Simmons, Richard Pelletier, Martin Lee

The tagline for Dark Angels is Creative Writing in Business. We run our workshops in Spain, England, Ireland, Scotland, possibly New Zealand and this year, the US. Our focus is on business writing, although all kinds of writers have come. Our ship has three captains: London-based novelist and copywriter John Simmons; Edinburgh-based copywriter, poet and playwright, Stuart Delves; and copywriter, musician, and novelist Jamie Jauncey. You will not find three kinder, more talented writer-humans if you tried.

We stand for the power of words and writing, and for personal connection, kindness and fellowship.

When you hear the concept of ‘brand voice’ or ‘tone of voice’ in marketing communications, that’s John Simmons idea. (Many people are saying that the notion of voice in business writing was in the air in the 90s and Alan Siegel of Siegel + Gale also came up with voice as a concept at around the same time. We accept this version of history.)

I discovered John’s books in 2006 and got very excited. Long story short — I got to know him, became a friend of his and his family, have stayed with him in London, and now I’m part of the company. He and his family are lovely and brilliant people.

The whole Dark Angels thing is virtually unknown in America. (Hence, this.) At least I think it is. As far as I can tell, I’m quite possibly the only American who has been to a DA workshop in those 12 years.

The workshops usually are residential affairs between three and four or five nights. (We’ve recently added a Taster Day option.) We spend a lot of time writing. We have our recipe book filled with writing exercises — sonnets and six-word stories and all kinds of fascinating, challenging and imaginative ways of wrestling with story, with words, with language, with writing. Ours is not a ‘how to’ kind of workshop. It’s more a matter of creating a safe, intelligent space to fucking write. We help guide writers as they strike out into different territory. And this is truly different for a writer’s workshop: no critiques. We’ll offer some thoughts about the value of what we’ve asked you to do and we’ll ask you to tell us about it. A simple ‘how was it, trying to write that sonnet, tell us about it.’

The combination of our writing exercises, some collaborations, our conversations about books, writing, music, art, our dinners together, our wine, etc. — the whole wonderful smorgasbord of writers talking, thinking things out and writing, has a powerful effect on people who attend. Folks find new confidence; they get emotional, they get reinvigorated. They find their voice. Imaginations get stoked and stimulated. Lots of people have said the experience changed their lives. I’m one.

The curious and interesting thing is how we tie our creative writing exercises back to business. There are real pearls of wisdom to take back to work.

So Dark Angels is going to come to America this year in early October. We’ll be in Dartmouth, MA, right next to New Bedford in Melville territory. We’ll be in this house in the photo below. John Simmons and I are running this one together. Reader, it is catered.

Dartmouth, Mass: The site of Dark Angels America 2017

So I’d like to invite you to come. Or, if you think someone on your team at HubSpot, or MarketingSherpa, or Slack, or WebMD could benefit from an immersion experience that will likely excite them and boost their confidence in their writing…We’re aiming for 6–9 people. But no more than 10 I don’t think.

Many Dark Angels writers are freelancers. Many are in-house writers from places like —

Arts Council of Wales, Bang & Olufsen, Barclays, The BBC, BP, British Airways, Carlsberg Breweries, Clore Leadership Programme, Corporate Culture, Elmwood, The Environment Council, Granada Media, Innocent, Interbrand, Lever Faberge, Mazars, National Library of Wales, O2, Penguin Books, QI, Royal Society of Arts, Scottish Arts Council, Sotheby’s Europe, Swiss Reinsurance, Three.

The crew in Scotland…

Thanks for reading. If you’d like to know more, visit the website.

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An open letter to American VPs of Marketing

Let’s imagine we’re having a pot of tea…and I say…

Your job as a VP of Marketing is simple right? Build and nurture long-lasting, profitable relationships with your target audiences. Grow the business. A quick search of LinkedIn lists the needed skill set. Leadership, strategic thinking, project management, organizational and presentation skills, teamwork, recruiting. To name just a few. Piece of cake. If that weren’t enough, every part of that effort begins with words. Which we all know, have a bit of a reputation as having a mind of their own.

Make sure your words are up to snuff

But what if your words don’t quite work as well and as hard as you need them to? What if all the words you use to talk about products, services, tough decisions, working together, corporate history, your organization’s very reason for being, lack fire? What if your story, in all its permutations, just sounds…I don’t know… meh?

If that’s the case, know that I am deeply sympathetic. I know how hard it is to write with clarity, wit and verve. To persuade with clarity, wit and verve is wicked hard.

“Words are the clearest, most direct path to new relationships.”

In spite of everything, you still have to try. And you have to try because words are the clearest, most direct path to new and lasting relationships. To growing the business. There’s also the small matter of your voice.

Lyrics are just one part of the song

As important as your words are, lyrics are only one part of the song. Your voicecarries enormous power and might even matter more. It’s your voice that truly connects. Your voice can sell. It can provoke, delight and inspire, too. Voice is personality, evidence of an actual human being. But here’s the reality. The disembodied voice found in most business writing is dead, detached, bored or exhausted. Usually all four at once.

“Our dedicated team of experts are driving innovative solutions to change the mobile landscape.”

{If you needed a definition of ‘meh’ there it is.}

Carefully chosen words that come out of a well-developed brand voice are as common as a minimum wage CEO. How fragmented, noisy and crowded is the market right now? How hard is it to get heard? It’s crazy hard. That’s why having a well-developed brand voice is like opening a big can of whoop ass. It’s one of the best competitive advantages you can have.

A distinctive brand voice is like a big can of whoop ass. It might be the single greatest competitive advantage you can have. 

The real mystery is why brand voice—as a way to distinguish a brand—is so widely ignored in these United States. (It’s slightly better in the UK.)

It begins with respect

Part of the problem is that people get nervous. Corporate language should not stand out. It should sound like everyone else. Even risk takers get the willies. Visit enough conference rooms and you’ll hear this theme all the time. “Oh, they’llnever let us say that.”

“Even the risk takers get the willies.”

 That might refer to starting a sentence with the word and, or, it could mean a sentence fragment. Gawd! It might mean writing that sounds like human conversation. What’s missing is a respect for what words are meant to do—tell stories, make connections, get reactions. To get someone to pay some bloody attention to what the hell we’re saying. Somewhere along the way we stopped believing in words.

Great business writing is translation

You might find the important sounding vision statement below perfectly fine. I hope not. I do know that this is what many people expect now. Performance. Leveraging. Leading-edge. Utilize. In a lot of ways, the fine art of business writing is the fine art of translation.  What would happen if we translated this…

Our vision
Our vision is to transform our intensive care performance by leveraging critical care expertise. We provide improved outcomes with measurable results utilizing talented clinicians, supported by leading-edge technology and a commitment to evidence-based best practices and process improvement.

into this…

Where we’re going

We want our patients in intensive care to get better, faster. Everything we know about critical care is key to this. We’ll track results and act on the evidence. With smart clinicians and new, better tools, we’re poised to get better every day.

Words do matter

I’ve enjoyed our imaginary pot of tea. I’ll finish by saying that so much of our lives is centered on work. Many of us believe passionately in what we do. But along the way, we’ve learned to be afraid. We can’t say what we think. We’re not willing to speak in a clear, human voice about the cool stuff we’re doing, why it matters, why anyone should care. Given how much time we spend working, how important relationships are to our emotional lives and the life of the planet, I say we change it.

Are you with me?

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