Lessons learned and disasters avoided (with a little sack-cloth and ashes thrown in)

Image courtesy of arztsamui at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Cyberspace is full of people telling you what to do, how to succeed, who to target and how to make the sale. Fewer people give you the scoop on what not to do, as that can appear too negative and might just make you think ‘how do they know that?’ – and wonder if they too have made those mistakes. Well in the spirit of openness, and as this week’s mindfulness exercise is embracing discomfort, I’m going to dish the dirt and live with the consequences. Isn’t that liberating for both of us? Some of these mistakes I’ve made myself, and others I’ve let other people make when I should have pulled the emergency cord and stopped the train.
  1. If it’s wrong, don’t try to make it right. Never try to rewrite copy that just doesn’t work, no matter what way you look at it. It’s almost always easier to throw it out and start again. I’ve learned this to my cost, as I’ve struggled to hammer errant prose into some kind of presentable shape. It’s like a painting that’s wrong – you need to re-prime the canvas and start all over again. In the long run, it’s always faster and easier.
  2. Don’t leave the copy until last. Websites take months to build. Brochures often take weeks to design. So why leave the copy right till the end? An unholy rush is not a sure-fire recipe for quality. So handle the design and content in tandem, to make sure they play nicely together. Or as a former art teacher or mine put it: ‘work the entire painting, not just one area at a time’.
  3. Don’t write in-house unless you have an in-house writer… and most people don’t. It’s always easier to outsource it to somebody who’s a specialist, and who can bring an experienced, objective eye to your company, market, message and sales pitch. Remember also that letting somebody internally do it has an ‘opportunity cost’ – they’re defocused from their regular job, they’re not a specialist, it causes disruption and it takes longer. Now add up the cost.
  4. Don’t under-budget for it – and that means money and time. Copy is not an optional extra. It’s a salesperson in print or on the web, one that sells, informs and entertains 24 hours a day. Isn’t it worth paying what it takes to get it right, and setting aside the time to do it properly?
  5. Never rush it. Nothing good was ever created in a hurry. If you rush it, it’ll look rushed. Planning well ahead of time, and briefing properly, means that it’s all happening in parallel and you can get on with the really important stuff. Remember as well that deadlines are almost always self-imposed, and often unrealistically tight. So loosen up, cut yourself some slack, and remind yourself that getting it right later beats getting it wrong earlier.
  6. Don’t write before you plan. (Yes, I’ve done that a few times, and mainly on account of no. 5 where I was pushed into rushing it.) The fist step isn’t sitting in front of a blank page to write. It’s sitting in front of a blank page to plan. These days, I don’t do linear plans any more as they’re too constricting. Something like a MindMap is far more flexible and allows you to represent how things really look in a fluid environment.
  7. Don’t start unless you know where you want to end up. This is related to 6, as you’ve probably worked out. But it’s worth a point all of its own, as it’s so important. The easiest thing to do is to ask yourself a question: what am I trying to achieve? For example, are you trying to close a sale, or get somebody to fill in a form, or pick up the phone? Are you trying to build credibility, or to establish yourself as a thought leader? A really easy way to plan is to start with the goal and work backwards.
  8. Never write for yourself. Yes, you’ve done it, and I’ve done it. But unless you’re writing a diary (and even then, you might have an eye on posterity and publication) you’ve got an audience, and they’re the ones who come first. So who are they? What are they looking for? What do they absolutely need to know? What can you safely leave out? What tone of voice will they respond to?
  9. Never trust a first draft, which is partly related to the sub-commandment Just do it. Yes, you should stop procrastinating (ask me about it) and just get something – anything – down on paper. The sense of release is enormous, and it’ll really get your creative juices flowing when you most need them. But it’s only a start. Leave it overnight, and see what you think tomorrow.
  10. Don’t multi-task. Don’t write and email. Or write and post on somebody’s wall. Or write and tweet. I’ve tried all three combinations and I can tell you now, they don’t work. Shutting everything else out and just writing is like meditation: difficult at first, but immensely rewarding when you settle into it. And the results will show in the copy, which will be sharper, more focused and more flowing.
And lastly, never have more than 10 points in a list (that wasn’t one, by the way). If it’s good enough for Moses, it’s good enough for you. And for me.