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5 Billy Joel songs that will make you a better copywriter
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1. Tell her about it

‘Listen boy / It's not automatically a certain guarantee / To insure yourself / You've got to provide communication constantly’

Great copywriting starts with a great brief. Don’t leave it to the client to give you the information you need about their product or service. Interrogate them. Ask questions (especially ‘stupid’ ones). Then ask more questions. Until you’re 100% clear about the benefits of what you’re selling to the people you’re selling to.

2. Just the way you are

‘I don't want clever conversation / I never want to work that hard / I just want someone that I can talk to / I want you just the way you are’

Whatever tone of voice you use for the project, make sure it’s human. Plain English will speak to your audience in a way they can understand. And it’ll get your message across quicker. Only use jargon if it helps build familiarity and trust with your audience. 99% of the time, it just gets in the way of clear communication.

3. Big shot

‘You had to have the last word, last night / So much fun to be around / You had to have a white hot spotlight / You had to be a big shot last night’

Your copy is not about you. It’s about your client and, more importantly, your audience. Leave your ego at the door and make sure your words are focused on one thing only - getting your reader to take action.

4. The entertainer

‘Ah, it took me years to write it / They were the best years of my life / It was a beautiful song / But it ran too long / If you're gonna have a hit / You gotta make it fit / So they cut it down to 3:05’

Your client will make changes to your beautifully crafted copy. You won’t always agree with them. But they’re paying your bills, so suck it up and move on.

5. Honesty

‘I don't want some pretty face / To tell me pretty lies / All I want is someone to believe’

Make sure your client can backup your sales pitch. Promising the reader the earth and not delivering will lose their trust and business. Yes, dial up the benefits of what you’re selling. But steer clear of lies. No one likes a fibber.

Need a copywriter to add some rock ‘n’ roll to your content? Let’s talk.

(Oh, go on then. Here’s the playlist. You’re welcome.)

Richard Steelecopywriting
Your only limit is you (T&Cs apply)
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This ‘motivational’ graphic popped up in my Facebook feed recently. ‘Your only limit is you.’ While I’m pretty confident it was created and shared with the intention to make me feel good about myself, and go about my day with a little more puff in my chest, it had the opposite effect.

It’s essentially saying, “If you’re not everything you want to be, you only have yourself to blame.” Which, excuse me, is rubbish.

There are plenty of external limits trying their best to stop you being everything you might want to be. How about:

  • Your age

  • Your gender

  • The colour of your skin

  • Your credit rating

  • The contents of your wallet

  • The country you were born in

  • Who your parents are

  • Which school you went to

  • Your ‘social capital’ (how many useful connections you - or your family - have)

  • Your health (physical and mental)

  • Whether you like girls or boys (or somewhere in between)

  • How attractive you are

I could go on.

How many old black lesbians from rural communities in low-income countries do you see in positions of ‘success’ and power? It’s not because they don’t try as hard as young white straight men born and raised in the US by millionaire lawyers. It’s down to a little thing called privilege.

So, yes. You do need the right attitude to succeed. But let’s not kid ourselves into thinking it’s all you need.

If you’re not achieving everything you want to right now, go easy on yourself. And give yourself a well-deserved pat on the back every time you smash down any one of the barriers in your way.

Richard Steelelife
Is your smartphone killing your creativity?
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When was the last time you were bored? Like, really bored. Not the boredom of a pointless office-based task that would crush the soul of an AI bot. But the liberating boredom of time spent thinking about nothing in particular and letting your mind wander free.

In today’s ‘always on’ culture, boredom is a sin. Being bored means failing to make the most of every second. Being less than your most productive self.

Luckily for us, our smartphones flat out refuse to let us have a moment to ourselves. Craving our attention with notification, after notification, after notification. No longer is waiting in a queue just waiting in a queue. No longer is lying in bed on a Saturday just lying in bed on a Saturday. Every moment of ‘downtime’ is filled with the latest game, social media platform or news website.

But what if being ‘off’ occasionally is the secret to our creativity? Research is increasingly showing this to be the case. In the rare moments when we think we’re doing nothing, our brains are actually hard at work solving problems and coming up with ideas.

(This explains why a post-lunch creative session, after a morning of responding to emails, checking social media and catching up on the day’s news, is such a struggle.)

For most of us, getting rid of our smartphones or even turning them off (yes, they have an off button - who knew?) isn’t realistic. They are now firmly embedded in our work and lives. But we can take back control and free up a little more space in our day. To just. do. nothing.

5 creative tips for taking control of your smartphone

  1. Out of sight, out of mind. Just for 15 minutes, put your phone in a drawer or your bag. The mere sight of your device can subconsciously distract you and derail your bored brain.

  2. Turn off non-essential notifications. When you install an app it’s set to interrupt you 500 times a day by default. Take a minute to change the settings and shut the damn thing up.

  3. Get anti-social. Bit drastic this one, but removing social media apps from your phone is a sure way to stop them sucking up your time. The browser versions are painful to use. And therefore much less addictive.

  4. Before you do it, think about it. Reaching for your phone for the fiftieth time today? Before you grab your device, think about why you’re doing it. If the answer is ‘To call my husband and tell him I won’t be able to pick up the kids tonight.’ fine. If it’s ‘I have no idea but I NEED my phone.’ maybe walk away.

  5. Read Bored and Brilliant by Manoush Zomorodi. It’ll change the way you look at your phone and have your creative juices flowing freely in no time.

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Need creative support? Let’s talk.


How NOT to write for the web

Writing for your digital channels is different to writing for print. I think we all know that by now? We should do - the internet is bursting with advice on how to write well for web (yawn). So, to mix things up a bit, here are a few tips on what NOT to do. Ignore them all completely and you’ll do just fine.

1 Forget your audience

Writing in your audience’s language will just bring you down to their level and encourage them to engage with your content. It’s much better to pretend they don’t exist at all and write at length about whatever you feel like talking about on a given day. Remember, it’s YOUR website. So who cares if other people find what you have to say interesting.

2 Long sentences rule

Endless sentences of elongated words are perfect for demonstrating to everyone what remarkable intelligence you have and thus make worthwhile all those years ensconced in a darkened room imbibing the delicious intricacies of the English tongue. They may take a bit of unpicking but everyone has a brain and time on their hands, right? The longer the message the more weight it will carry. And boring people is a great way to lull them into a semi-conscious state through which to inspire them to take action.

3 Avoid headings and subheadings

Let’s face it, your writing is so impressive everyone who stumbles across it will be hooked and read every. last. word. So there’s no need to help them navigate your great work. Just present your content as a single continuous block of rolling text and they’ll figure it out eventually. (Bless them.)

4 Forget accessibility

Everyone who matters can read and write just like you, so ignore anyone who needs more support. In the UK, only 7 million people have dyslexia, so making your writing accessible is a complete waste of time.

5 Embrace jargon

Ah, jargon! It makes you feel smart doesn’t it. Part of a small, elite club that gets it. The handful of readers who understand it will have a little chuckle to themselves about how smart they are too. It’s a really great way of making your writing totally impenetrable to the unwashed general public. And let's face it, who wants to interact with them!

So there you have it. 5 fool’s gold nuggets of really bad advice to avoid at all costs. Now go and find one of those useful writing for web guides instead.

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Originally published by Digital Drum.

How to build a freelance network (from the beach)
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Freelancers are a generous bunch. Always happy to share advice, offer support and provide light relief in the way of amusing in-joke memes.

I’ve joined a handful of freelance networks online and they’ve been really helpful to me re-entering the world of self employment. ‘Could such a thing work in real life?’ I wondered. Remember that? It’s what happens when you turn off your laptop. Apparently.

After searching around for local freelance groups and finding a big fat nothing, I thought I’d start one of my own. What was the worst that could happen? I’d end up sat alone in a pub every month nursing a pale ale and talking to myself. The usual, then.

I took the plunge and contacted a few people on LinkedIn. I waited… and waited… and waited. ‘Do people still check LinkedIn?’ I wondered. ‘Have they seen the message and blocked me, thinking I’m a nutter looking to create a cult from vulnerable sole traders?’

Then, a breakthrough. At a beach clean on a Sunday (yes, this is how I spend my Sundays now) I met C, who said she worked for herself helping graduates find work placements abroad. Obviously, I lept at this opportunity with, “BRILLIANTI’MSTARTINGALOCALFREELANCENETWORKANDLOOKINGFORPEOPLETOJOINWOULDYOULIKETOJOINPLEASESAYYES.” Amazingly, she was keen. I had my first recruit!

Just a few days later, J, a writer on all things food and the environment, responded to my LinkedIn message. Hooray! We met for a peppermint tea in a local cafe and made plans to put together a small but perfectly formed gang.

As soon as I got home, I created a Facebook group and made some flyers to put up on notice boards around the town (I love that Aberystwyth has community notice boards in every shop and cafe - even Starbucks has one). A few weeks later, we’re now eight members strong, including the people who run the local shared working space.

Our first meetup is in the diary for next week!

Watch out freelancers of Aberystwyth. Things are about to get social.

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Do you belong to a local professional network? Have you started a group of your own? I’d love to hear how you network with other freelancers in your area.  

Five easy ways to keep your clients happy
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I’m a freelance, sole trading, self-employed solopreneur. I work in my kitchen, live in my tracksuit bottoms, and shower at lunchtime. So it’s official.

But I have had ‘proper jobs’. Most recently, I was brand and editorial manager for a big charity, poised at the flipside of the freelancer/client ping pong table.

It taught me a lot about what to do (and what not to do) as a freelancer.

Here are my five insider tips to stay on the right side of your clients:

  • Say hello. Good suppliers are hard to find. An introductory email with a link to your website is welcomed. It may be filed in a folder called ‘People who bother me for work’, and you may not hear back for a while, but when they need extra support it’ll be the first place they look. Trust me.

  • Don’t be desperate. Having a supplier continually bother you for work is really annoying and will not have the desired effect. It also suggests you’re sat at home twiddling your thumbs which doesn’t shout ‘high quality, in-demand supplier’.

  • Be honest. If you don’t have capacity to take something on, say so. Don’t sign up to a deadline you know you can’t meet and leave the client hanging. It’s much better to say you don’t have time for the project (which has the added benefit of showing them you’re busy) and even more helpful to recommend another freelancer. The client and the referred freelancer will both think you’re extra nice and super helpful.

  • Don’t be greedy. Be confident in your abilities and quote fairly for the project.  Clients (the ones you want to work with anyway) will have budget to get the job done. But they’ll know if you’re taking advantage. If a project ends up taking less time than you initially quoted for, reduce your invoice appropriately. The client will appreciate it and be more likely to work with you again.

  • Invoice promptly and accurately. Make sure you include all the necessary information. There’s nothing more annoying than regularly having to chase  Finance for the status of a supplier’s unpaid invoice, and finding out they marked it FAO the wrong person, left off the budget code and didn’t include a description of the project. And waited until the last week of the financial year to submit it.

Bonus tip: Say thank you. And send chocolates at Christmas. Clients DO notice.

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Originally published by ProCopywriters.

ProCopywriters Member Spotlight
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Why did you choose a career in copywriting and how did you get into it?

I’ve always loved writing and editing. I used to edit my friends’ uni assignments for fun.

I got into copywriting through a series of fortunate events. I was working in an admin role after graduating and my manager saw my potential and created a marketing role for me (thanks Julie!). A few years later I moved out of London onto a narrowboat in the home counties and a local agency was looking for a copywriter. I applied and got the job. Since then I’ve worked agency-side, freelance, in-house, and back to freelance again.   

What work are you most proud of?

I wrote the script for a charity film to be shown on the big screens at Glastonbury. Seeing thousands of people reading my words on screen, and engaging with such a good cause, gave me a warm glow inside. Although it might have been the cider.

What piece of copy do you really wish you’d written?

I loved the MullenLowe We listen campaign for Samaritans. Quotes from people saying they were fine, with specific words in a different colour revealing their true thoughts. Such a simple concept and a lovely marriage of copy and design. It’s so pleasing when the two work together like that.

What do you do if you hit a bit of writer’s block?

I’ve just moved to the coast, so a walk along the seafront normally does the trick. If I’m in the city, I wander around a gallery or museum. Ideas have a funny way of popping into my head as soon as I stop looking for them.

What are your favourite and least favourite writing-related tasks?

I love working with short copy and trying to make a persuasive argument with just a few words. Editing’s great fun too - taking a hatchet to something raw and gradually working away at it until it shines.

I always dread editing or proofreading really long content but once I get stuck in and find my flow I end up enjoying it.

Any copywriting pet hates?

Anything confusing or trying to be too clever and making no sense to anybody. Making sense is a pretty good place to start, and if you can be convincing and even witty then that’s a bonus.

What’s the best piece of career advice you’ve been given?

I’m not sure I’ve ever been given any. I remember that Baz Luhrmann song from the 90s - Everybody’s free (to wear sunscreen). It was based on advice from a teacher to her pupils I think. She says, “Don't feel guilty if you don't know what you want to do with your life / The most interesting people I know didn't know at 22 what they wanted to do with their lives / Some of the most interesting 40 year olds I know still don't.” That had a pretty big impression on the 18-year-old me.

What advice would you give to people starting out on a copywriting career?

Remember it’s not about you. Write a blog if you want to express yourself. Copywriting is about communicating your client’s messaging in their audience’s language. You should be invisible.

And figure out your ethics. Who do you want to work with and who are you going to turn down? I’m much happier now I only work with charities and ethical businesses that reflect my own values.

What’s your favourite thing about being a copywriter?

Getting into someone else’s head. Learning who they are, what they value, and what makes them take action. It’s like acting without the stage fright.

And being able to work anywhere in the world (well, anywhere with WiFi) is a big plus.

What made you decide to become a member of ProCopywriters?

There are so many copywriters out there, potential clients need to know who they can trust. So joining a professional network is a good way to show you’re serious about what you do. And you get a nice badge for your website.

Where can people find out more about you?

My website is a good place to start. I’m on Twitter as @PenOfSteele. And LinkedIn. Or take the afternoon off, come to the seaside and say hi in person. The ice cream’s on me.

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Originally published by ProCopywriters.

Is a caffeine-free existence worth the tedium?
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I haven’t had a proper cup of tea or coffee for years.

No. I’m not one of those people who prefers hot water (weird) or, you know, a child.

I went through a period of debilitating panic attacks (having to get off the bus or run out of meetings debilitating) and thought caffeine might not be helping. It may have been a coincidence but cutting it out did seem to help (I still want to run out of meetings occasionally). So I’ve stuck to caffeine-free drinks ever since.

But there’s one downside.

They suck.

Caffeine-free coffee is just about OK. But to subject myself repeatedly to that kind of low-level disappointment can’t be good for my mental health either.

Caffeine-free tea is an insult to the word tea. A pale brown hole in the universe where flavour goes to die.

And herbal teas. OMFG.

  • Chamomile - Smells like cow dung. Tastes like cow dung. And grass.
  • Peppermint - Tastes nothing like peppermint, oddly. Mostly bitter. Better with honey but probably best without the teabag at all.
  • Fruit teas (any) - Look pretty. Smell nice. Taste of absolutely nothing.

Sorry. There’s no substitute for the hard stuff.

Man, I want a coffee now.

I think it might be worth the palpitations and all-engulfing terror.

 

Richard Steelelife
5 essential questions for winning website content
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Whoop! You’ve finally convinced the senior management team to approve the budget for a new website. Brilliant. The existing one is bad and you can’t wait to be rid of it. You have a vague sitemap in mind and a designer on board. So you’re all ready to start writing the content!

Or are you?

There are 5 essential questions you should be able to answer before you type a word (and they all have the word audience in them).

Who is my audience?

Convincing people to do something is hard. But when you know nothing about them, their preferences or motivations, it's impossible.

So do your homework.

If you’re lucky, you’ll have a dedicated audience insight team who can give you all the data you need. OK, you can wake up now. Most of us don't have that luxury.

So talk to the people who know your audience best. The supporter care or customer service team, the sales reps, the account managers. Better still, talk to the audience yourself at an event. Or pick up the phone and ask if they'd be happy to chat (old school I know).

You might have more than one audience. If so, gather as much information as you can on each of them. Be clear about how they differ from each other and what they have in common.

How does my audience talk?

Writing like you talk (as opposed to spouting jargon) is a good start. But people talk in all sorts of ways.

You need to be using the same language as your audience. So they can find your site in the first place and engage with it when they do.

Social media and online forums are a mine of information on how your audience talks. Find out where they hang out and lurk in the shadows with a virtual newspaper and coffee. Make a note of the kinds of words they use and the ones they don’t. What questions are they asking and in what way?

Pop a few key search terms into Google and see how many results they have. The ‘People also ask’ feature is useful too. And check out Google Trends to compare how popular various terms have been recently.

How does my audience use the site?

Unless you’re creating a new site from scratch, you should have analytics for your current site. If you are starting afresh, do you have data from your old site that might help?

What pages are most popular? Which ones keep people reading for the longest? And at what point in their visit are they leaving you?

Take care not to take analytics at face value. Just because people are leaving a page after a short amount of time, doesn’t mean it’s bad. They may have found the info they were after quickly. Which is a good thing!

What does my audience want to know?

Your website isn’t a place to tell the world everything you have to say about your organisation. There’s nothing more boring than someone talking about themselves at length. No one wants to read that stuff.

Your site is an opportunity to be helpful. To answer your audience’s questions, meet their needs, and solve their problems. (While getting them to take action or buy your product/service of course.)

User stories are a great way to figure this out.

Based on the info you’ve collected on each of your audiences, make a list of all the reasons they might visit your site.

For example:

As a teacher

I want to download the charity’s lesson plans

So that I can teach my pupils about the cause

Then make sure everything you write meets these specific needs. If it's not doing a job, scrap it.

(For more examples of user stories and other useful stuff, check out Sarah Richards’ excellent book Content Design. Buy, borrow or steal a copy if you don’t have it already. Your website - and your audience - will thank you.)

What’s the best way to give my audience what it wants?

Once you know what your audience wants, you need to decide the best way to give it to them. Alongside words, would a form, map, graphic or film help? If so, make sure what you write complements these other elements.

Remember, don't use graphics and films because everyone else is. Make sure everything is there for a reason. Be ruthless.

OK, answered all that? Now you’re ready to start writing. Good luck!

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Still need help with the words? Let’s talk.

Watch your tone, Facebook
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After being caught red-handed (or should that be blue-handed?) secretly selling off intimate details of our private lives to the highest bidder, tone of voice might not be Facebook’s number one concern. But it should definitely be in their top ten.

Suddenly those ‘We care about your privacy’ messages that pop up alongside an illustration of a cute dinosaur are more gag-inducingly fake than ever. The ‘Celebrate your friendship with…’ posts are less of a trivial annoyance, and more a reminder that the social media giant has been on the tail of you and your best friend for the past five years.

So, where to go from here? Stick with the cutesy tone and hope all this nasty news goes away. Or try to rebuild trust with something a little more grown up.

Consumers aren't stupid. We can smell an inauthentic tone of voice a mile off. ‘Craft’ brewer Brewdog talks like a punk but acts like a suit, ‘acquiring’ pub chains, flooding supermarkets with now mass produced beer, and threatening family-run pubs with legal action. And oil giants like BP tell us how green and future-thinking they are while sucking every last drop of oil out of the ground (and spilling quite a lot of it in the ocean).

Facebook now looks as ridiculous as these fat fibbers. It needs to figure out what its values are fast (if it had any to begin with) and how to talk about them authentically. Before the giant becomes another dinosaur.  

The first rule of blogging
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Uh oh. One month in, and I’ve already broken the first rule of blogging - blog regularly. What can I say - it’s been a busy month.

We’re now all settled in our new home in Wales.

We arrived during the worst weather the area had experienced for 30 years according to one local. (Yes, people actually have time to stop and talk about the weather here - even when it's snowing horizontally.) The freezing wind was blowing in through the plug sockets no less. Cue a morning of the husband covering any crack or crevice in the walls and windows with masking tape.

Luckily, things have calmed down a bit and the temperature has even hit double digits - whoop!

We’re getting used to ‘working from kitchen’. No home-office politics yet. Although I have become more aware of my manic typing. I never knew I was such a keyboard abuser. Trying to address it for the sake of my marriage.

We’ve been getting out for a walk along the seafront every lunchtime. I’m sure the novelty will wear off at some point but I still can’t believe we live this close to the sea. It’s even more beautiful here than I remember. Probably because my 20-year-old student self was too drunk or preoccupied with whatever 20-year-olds are preoccupied with to notice.

I’m living a double life at the moment. Still working full time and trying to get the freelancing gig off the ground. It’s more stressful than I’d like. I’m looking forward to being able to focus 100% on the new chapter. Two weeks to go. I can do this.

I have managed to get myself a shiny new client though! I’ll be writing content for a website they’re launching. Starting from the beginning with user personas and journeys which is fun. I have a meeting in London with them this week. It’s going to be a shock being back in the city. If only for a day.

Apparently there’s more cold weather on the way. Masking tape at the ready.

The best/worst decision I will ever make [delete as appropriate]
 Photo: Neil Jones

As I type, things are pretty good. I have a nice place in London, one of the most desirable cities in the world (OK, I’m still renting at the age of 38, but we’ll gloss over that). A good job for a well-respected charity. And a handful of friends - actual IRL friends.

Only a fool would give this up, right?

Which is exactly what I’m about to do.

At the end of the month, I’ll be venturing beyond zone 9 (yes Londoners, there is a zone 9) and moving to the Welsh Riviera (Aberystwyth to be precise - just about as far from London as you can get before you hit the sea) to wield my lance (well, pen) freely!

My train of thought currently looks like this:

  • This is the best decision I will ever make.
  • This is the worst decision I will ever make.  

[repeat ad infinitum]

But today at least, I’m feeling positive. I’ve made quite a few stupid decisions in my life (all beginning with the immortal phrase, “Fuck it…”) but I haven’t yet come to regret any of them. And I don’t intend to start now.

So goodbye short sharp breaths through the nose to avoid inhaling cancer-causing pollution - hello big fat lungfuls of fresh sea air!

Goodbye getting up in the dark to get a precious seat on the tube - hello brisk morning walks along the beach to set me up for the day (or, more likely, an extra hour under the duvet).

Goodbye spending money like a man with no arms (my mum’s phrase - and one I’ve never been able to figure out) - hello a life of frugal simplicity (more out of necessity than choice).

Only time will tell if wielding a lance freely in the land of dragons is a wise decision.

I’ll keep you posted.

Richard Steelefreelancing, life