It’s better out than in – so talk about it

Just last week, I spoke – yet again – to somebody who was unhappy with their existing copy. “It just doesn’t capture who we are,” he said. “It’s too long and detailed. It’ll bore people.” I asked him who wrote it. He did, he said, but he just thought it didn’t do the company justice. Now it wasn’t that badly written. Mentally I ticked the boxes: grammar, punctuation, paragraphs, headings, call to action. Special offer, USPs, benefits (though a little hidden, light-like, under the bushel of features). All the elements were there, but something was missing. “Something is missing,” he said. Great minds, I thought. And so I asked this great mind to do justice to his company by telling me its story. There and then, without any preparation, notes or MindMap. The sort of stuff you normally do – or should do – when you sit down to write. Without a moment’s hesitation, he was off. He swept me up and transported me to a distant time, when the firm was but a twinkle in his eye. He conjured up the late nights, the hard graft, the despair. The joy and the sorrow, the delight and pride. The first trickle of success, followed by the unstoppable flow of clients, feedback, accolades, expansion, hiring (and some firing), big ideas and broad new horizons. What about his competition, I wondered? And his clients? Once again, there was no stopping him. He was articulate, fluent and captivating. When he finished, I wanted to rush to his site and buy his stuff. Anything, just to ride the wave of enthusiasm that was unfurling before my very eyes. But I didn’t. Instead, I took a deep breath and composed myself. And I calmly asked him why he hadn’t written as he’d just spoken.

Easier said than done written

You’ve guessed the answer, of course. Distance. Objectivity. Emotion (too much or too little). And a real, live human who’s hanging on your every word, so you know you have to be engaging, interesting and entertaining. And also, of course, that you have to tell a story. But often, you’re too close to it all to tell that story on paper. Things come rushing into your head, and you struggle to get them down in a logical, orderly fashion. Plus, there are so many of them that you write them all down indiscriminately, thinking they’re all equally important. And afterwards, when you really should be doing a spot of editing, you instead leave them all in place, thinking that you can’t cut them out. Or you simply don’t know what to cut out, as they all seem like pearls of wisdom. Or worse, like so much dead wood. So you leave everything in, and end up with long unbroken mass of copy that the reader has to trudge through like snow in January. Add to that the age-old problem that most people don’t write as they talk, and you’ve got a recipe for disaster: too much detail, little or no editing, and a tone of voice that’s stiff and starchy.

A scribe’s prescription

So what’s the answer? How do you make sure your copy reflects your thinking? Conveys your enthusiasm? Gets across your message? Captivates the essence of who you are, what you do and how you can help people? As with most things, the answer is easy. Just difficult – at first – to put into practice:
  • Brainstorm before you write. Use MindMaps or lists or bullet points or Post-its on a notice-board. Writing without preparation is like singing without vocal exercises. Ropey at best, jarring at worst. 
  • Take a break. Do a bit now, and leave it. Do a bit later, and leave it. Do a bit tomorrow, and leave it. Are you detecting a pattern here? It’s not by chance that artists don’t complete a painting in one sitting.
  • Phone a friend. Or Skype, email, IM or tweet them. Meet them for a coffee or bring muffins to work and sit at your desk. But get an outside opinion. When you do, things suddenly seem clearer.
  • Talk out loud (I do) if you haven’t got a human within latte-sharing distance. But don’t put your words silently on the page.
  • Get somebody  in and get rid of the problem. And yes, that’s a sales pitch on my part – of course it is. But it’s also common sense: if you take on somebody who does this kind of thing all the time, you (a) get better results and (b) free up your time and (c) focus on the stuff that’s important (like your business) and (d) leave the office earlier.
The one crucial thing to remember (or key takeaway, if you must) is that the journey from your brain to the page should always take a detour via your mouth. Or somebody else’s. It’s what transforms the stagnant water of unchecked copy into the clear, sparkling flow of a mountain river, wending its way smoothly down to the deep-blue sea of comprehension. Oh, and one last thing: watch out for purple prose. It gets everywhere, if you’re not careful. Careful like me, that is.