Monthly Archives: June 2016

Going solo: what I’ve learned

June 13, 2016

It’s been almost two years since I handed in my key fob, tore up my travel card and became a freelance writer. That’s right – time doesn’t so much fly as screech hysterically through the sound barrier.

There are things I miss about office life: workmates, free digestives, the ignorant bliss of never thinking about tax codes. And there are things I don’t miss – communal fridge full of brown salad-mulch, anyone? All in all, freelance life has been a blast. And I’ve learned A LOT.

Now seems a good time to look back at the projects that went well, as well as some of the curve balls that came along. After all, the things I’ve learned won’t just help me to do better work – they’ll help clients (like you?) run projects that are more cost-effective, more straightforward, and more successful.

So, have a look at my posts about:

1. The perils of asking for a ‘rewrite
2. How to work with a writer on your new website
3. How to give feedback to a writer
4. Why tone of voice is not your problem

And do comment to let me know what you think – and to leave some tips of your own!

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Why tone of voice is not your problem

June 6, 2016

Loads of brands are convinced they’ve got a problem with their tone of voice. They think they need some tone of voice guidelines – ideally featuring some nice adjectives like ‘straightforward’ and ‘friendly’ – to share throughout their organisation. But, for many brands, the problem isn’t so much with how they’re speaking, but with what they’re saying in the first place. And there are other, more practical, solutions to the problem they’re trying to solve…

On the one hand, I love tone of voice jobs. They can throw up some really insightful things about a client and the way they run their business. And, for a writer, pondering and creating a set of guidelines can be really good fun.

At the same time, I’m a bit disillusioned with the whole thing. I don’t doubt tone of voice exists – you could pick a Virgin headline out of an identity parade, for instance. But I do doubt you can teach and apply tone of voice, at least in the way people claim.

And I’m absolutely positive that, for many organisations, tone of voice isn’t the problem. Hear me out.

Why tone of voice isn’t working…

I think there are two big issues with creating a tone of voice:

1. Brands usually want a tone that’s clear, friendly, professional, human… In other words, ideas from the school of the bleedin’ obvious. Which brands want to be unclear, unfriendly, unprofessional? Or inhuman??

As a result, ‘tone of voice’ guidelines often contain the same stuff: writing tips that apply to any brand, anywhere. You know: vary your sentence lengths to create rhythm, use contractions to be more approachable, don’t use ten words when three will do… Great. It’s all good stuff. But it’s not ‘tone of voice’. It’s just decent writing.

2. When a brand is so bold as to want something actually distinctive for their tone of voice – say, they want to be curious, provocative, egregious, whatever – tone of voice is incapable of explaining how to achieve this in practice.

For instance, the University of Leeds has some guidelines that are great for writing tips. They’ve got some decent stuff on how to write in a way that’s ‘straightforward’ and ‘friendly’. But as soon as they start investigating how to write in an ‘imaginative’ way, things start to unravel. They start reaching for other adjectives to describe the original adjective (a mind-bender if ever there was one). One suggestion is to be ‘visionary’:

Remember who you’re talking to. What’s exciting and visionary for one audience may not be for another. Find an imaginative headline or opening sentence to attract and hook your reader.

Sorry, but this is completely impractical. How exactly does the user, who may not be a professional writer, ‘find an imaginative headline’? How do they know what will ‘hook’ their reader? Finding the magical line, the creative flourish, the poetry that makes an idea sing – it doesn’t boil down to a three-step exercise. It takes experience, usually from someone who has spent their career trying to understand the spot where art and craft meet.

…And why tone of voice is not your problem anyway

Even if it was possible to create a perfect, practical set of tone of voice guidelines, they aren’t necessarily what you need.

I recently wrote a post about how I helped a massive financial services company with their website. The client had loads of content – but, they said, the tone wasn’t right. We rewrote the content in the tone the client asked for – clear, friendly. The usual. But the client wasn’t happy. You see, once we’d unwound the endless sentences, tidied up all the jargon and polished the big ideas, it was plain to see: the original content was saying all the wrong things.

And that’s the case for so many organisations. The problem isn’t just how they express their ideas – it’s that they don’t know which ideas to express in the first place.

And that’s where we can add real value as writers. We could have charged the client a serious wedge to create a new tone of voice and a set of guidelines – but that wouldn’t have solved their problem. Instead, we used our experience in understanding readers, in reframing the ideas, in repositioning messages, to come up with some foundations that actually worked. After that, tone was hardly an issue. Happy days.

So what’s the answer?

Instead of paying for some tone of voice guidelines (which, too often, languish either on a server or in the bottom of a drawer), I reckon clients would be better off spending their money on some great foundations: core stories and key messaging documents. These help explain what a brand does, and why it matters, in a way that really means something for customers and staff.

Then, clients could arrange regular training for staff, to help everyone understand how to use these documents to create other great content. And some training on straight-up ‘good writing’ – that will help too.

And above all, clients should really value good writers. And they should make space for great writers on their team. At the moment, too many junior marketing execs – who have no desire to be writers themselves – end up writing tons of content for big brands, on everything from email campaigns to social media stuff. And it’s partly because their bosses think writing is easy, or at least easy to learn quickly. It really isn’t. Would-be writers need time to learn, and proper support from great mentors. (I certainly wouldn’t be making a living as a writer now had I not worked with awesome people who happily let me steal their best ideas.)

If you’re a writer, tell me: what do you think about tone of voice work? And if you’re a client, let me know how you keep your tone of voice on the straight and narrow…

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Why ditching that last draft is a false economy

June 3, 2016

There are lots of ways to cost a writing project. You might agree a fixed fee with your writer. Or you might ask them to work on a ‘taxi meter’, where the costs are based on the number of hours they’ve notched up. In some projects, a writer and their client might agree on a maximum number of drafts. This is perfectly fine – but it’s worth making sure that everyone understands how the writing process works, and why some drafts are worth more than others.

The other week I was working on some brochure copy for a client. We’d agreed a price based on me writing three drafts – but, just as I was about to start writing, they asked: if it turned out that we didn’t need to do all three drafts, would that reduce the cost of the job?

(This is actually a trickier question than you might think. Yes, my fee was based on me writing three drafts. But that can get hazy – it’s fairly typical to end up doing ‘half drafts’ or ‘just a few last tweaks’ without asking for more budget. That’s no problem. The three drafts I’d outlined were primarily there to keep everyone focused and on track. Also, does this kind of arrangement actually discourage writers from turning in an awesome first draft, nailing the brief and saving their client valuable feedback time? It’s worth thinking about. Anyway.)

I didn’t mind keeping the costs flexible. But I did need to flag a couple of things that some people might not have thought about:

Different drafts do different jobs

When I cost a project like this, I don’t attach the same cost to each draft. The first draft takes by far and away the most time – it’s the one which involves all the upfront research and brainwork, and it’s the only one where I’m starting with a totally, intimidating-ly blank page. So, depending on the size of the project, this first draft could cover a big part of the cost.

The second draft, and those that come after it, are usually easier, since there’s at least a framework for the writer and client to knock about. So, even if there are big changes, they probably won’t take as long as writing the first draft from scratch. Later drafts should just be about polishing and tidying. And the final one often doesn’t take very long at all.

So, you could ditch the later drafts. But you might not save as much budget as you expect. And in saving a relatively small amount, you might end up making a false economy…

Don’t fall at the last hurdle

You might think: well, if the last drafts are easier, we can do them ourselves in-house. But I’d advise against it. Those last bits of polishing can make the difference between a line that sings and a line that falls flat. I’ve often had a well-meaning designer tweak something in the final copy, only for the parallel structure to become unbalanced, the alliteration to be lost, or for some other very clever thing I was trying to do be unintentionally and completely cocked up. Someone once said to me that hiring a writer and tinkering with their final draft was like employing a mechanic to fix your car but then trying to sort the exhaust pipe yourself. I’m no driver (got three majors on my first test, lucky for you I never took to the driving seat again), but it’s kind of the right idea.

So, even if the first draft is pretty good, think about going through a few more, refining as you go. Sometimes, in those later drafts is where the magic happens.

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