Sunday, November 27, 2011

"Be a Successful Writer: 99 Surefire Checklists"

The next book is “Be a Successful Writer: 99 Surefire Checklists” by Gordon Wells. After hearing about “The Checklist Manifesto” and the incredible effectiveness of lists, I've started putting together my own lists, so the title jumped out at me. Unfortunately, this book is mostly about writing for publication, not commercial writing. But there are still a few techniques I can apply to any kind of writing.

Getting Started
This section has most of the lists that are useful to me as a copywriter. It's all about laying the foundations for successfully selling your work, and the first list is how to get your first piece into print. This is extremely important. Once you have something in print, you can use it as a sample, you gain confidence from others' approval, and it makes getting your next assignment easier, even if you'll be switching markets.

After this, you need to take yourself seriously, because if you don't, who will? And you need to write every day. Time and again I've seen the advice “just write,” and when I've written every day for extended periods it helps in a lot of ways. If you've ever been intimidated by a word count, just write a minimum number of words, say 300, every day. You could do more, but 300 is the minimum. At the end of the exercise, you'll find yourself producing significantly more without a noticeable increase in effort. I've also found this to be true in other areas such as exercise or diets.

A few other things that I have found unique to this book are the exercises for warming up each day and keeping a writer's notebook. The warmup suggestions aren't for copywriters, but they are easily adapted. I will be doing them in the future not only to get started each day, but also as an aid for writer's block.

As for the writer's notebook, I think it will be much more useful for fiction writers, but I still use my phone to keep track of ideas. Since I'll be receiving assignments rather than choosing subjects, it's much less likely I will stumble upon a good idea by chance.

This book also has a great section on polishing (editing), which I'll use in the future. It's only two pages, so I won't get frustrated before the end and skip things to finish the editing stage. It also has a reminder not to polish too much, so things don't get too dull and dampen your enthusiasm. The author also followed this advice with the list itself.

Writer's Block
A good checklist is as hard to make as a poem, since there's so much you need to say in such a short space. This book had tips for conquering writer's block that I hadn't seen before, and I'll keep them in mind as well if and when I have writer's block. Except maybe the recommendation to get “a large slug of something strong and alcoholic.” Yes, that's really in there, but it'll end up causing more problems than it solves.   

"How to Write Effective Business English"

Today's book is “How to Write Effective Business English” by Fiona Talbot. It made me consider something I hadn't thought about, which is the problem of regional differences and non-native English speakers. The main lesson I took from it is to be extremely careful when you are writing for an overseas audience. As the many websites on amusing mistranslations prove, not saying what you mean can be extremely embarrassing.

International Audiences
The first thing you need to do is agree with your client on which region's English you will use to write, if it's not already obvious. There are differences in both vocabulary and spelling from place to place, and word processing programs will even mark some of your words misspelled if you don't pick the appropriate region.

More importantly, you have to make sure that one mistranslation will not obscure your message. It's not always obvious which words will be mistranslated. For example, in Chinese, there is no exact translation for all the nuances of the word 'exotic.' The best Google Translate can do is 'foreign country sentiment.' Since even translation programs won't tell you about such subtleties, you have to carefully restrict your vocabulary. Mistakes will still happen unless you also know the target language, and if you have any doubts make sure your message is still clear after a bad translation or two.

You also cannot make too many assumptions. Whenever you use an acronym, abbreviation, jargon, or other similar word, you have to think “will my audience understand this?” and react accordingly. Writing to a child is one example that the book used. You automatically adjust your vocabulary in that situation, and writing for overseas viewers will require significant changes as well.

The author of the book seems to think that some of its readers won't understand what can go wrong if you write badly. On the surface, you might have to rewrite some messages that recipients couldn't understand and waste their time as well as your own. But bad writing can cost a huge amount of time and money as well as undermining the company's credibility. The author submitted a database entry to a company that would list her business Europe-wide. They then edited it so that it contained at least one major error in every paragraph.

“What ultimately was the cost of this regrettable incident? The answer is that there was a cost to pay on a number of different levels. I refused to pay the invoice because the entry was incorrect, so the company suffered the loss of that income. That company then had to redraft a correct entry, and replace the incorrect entry at their own cost. The cost to my company was in terms of undermined professional credibility (both in the short and long term).”

Sometimes a book that isn't at all what you expected can pleasantly surprise you. Now I'm much more confident in writing for people in different regions, which might have caused me a lot of trouble before this book.

"Coach Yourself to Writing Success"

Today's book is “Coach Yourself to Writing Success” by Bekki Hill. This book is also more about writing for publication than it is about copywriting, as are most of the writing books out there. However, I decided to pick it up because it's almost exclusively about the mental aspects of a writer's life, such as dealing with rejection and positive thinking. These will apply to me as well and so I thought I could still learn something from it.

The book begins with several chapters on identifying what you really want and planning how to get there. My choice of freelancing itself already reflects my core values, as the book would say. It's really difficult to come up with new ideas all the time, but copywriting means that your clients tell you what to write about. Freedom to set my own schedule and live wherever I want are even more important to me. I might come back to this book though if I'm going through a rough time and questioning the freelance life, but for now I have the questions in this section answered. So I learned from this book that given the experiences of other writers, these questions may become problems in the future.

Get More Done
The most important things I learned were ways to overcome mental blocks to productivity. For 76 pages, the book deals with how to motivate yourself and overcome procrastination and lack of motivation. I do like writing, and the challenge of selling something, but marketing myself is by far my least favorite part of the freelancing business. Other books tell me how to do that but ignore the thoughts that keep me from getting started. Since the author is a writing coach, she uses personal experience and surveys to identify and deal with these issues. Other authors either ignore the problem or don't haven't fought procrastination in themselves and others before. So far this book has helped me a lot in overcoming procrastination, which is the foundation for doing anything.

New Ideas
After you handle procrastination, turning on the creativity is also key. Clients supply me with the subject, but the new points of view need to come from me. This book explains creativity in a way I'd never seen: alpha brainwaves, which occur in a state of deep relaxation just short of meditation, are responsible for creative ideas. Hence Einstein's complaint that many of his best ideas came to him in the shower (according to the book). “We often drift into it when doing repetitive tasks,” says Hill. I've always done well on standardized tests, and now I think one reason that I was able to enter this state of mind and concentrate. I will be using these techniques on future projects.

After a while, almost every book on a given subject says the same thing. This book is the rare exception. Your shelves are already fully stocked with books on using correct punctuation and active language or how to write a query letter. Buy this book and you will get started on your projects faster, and move on to the next in a better state of mind even if you didn't get the response you want.

"The Writer's ABC Checklist"

Today's book is “The Writer's ABC Checklist” by Lorraine Mace and Maureen Vincent-Northam. While I had seen plenty of its subject matter, such as punctuation and tense, in other books I still learned something from it.

New Website Marketing Tool
One thing this book covered that none of the others did was e-books. I've learned from various websites that e-books can be a good way to keep visitors coming back to your website for excellent free material, or they could be another product for you. The format is quite different from a normal book. They're generally in .PDF format, and “generally read straight from a screen.” They also can't be copied or altered. Staring at the screen is hard on the eyes, so there needs to be a lot more white space than a normal book. Also, these books aren't long, “around 30 pages on average,” though the reason is still a mystery to me.

Almost all of the useful material in this book—like kill fees, websites and blogs, or grammar--has been covered in the other books I've reviewed. There are times when a book on writing for publication can still be useful to a copywriter like me, but this one isn't one of them. The main selling point seems to be the questions' “ABC” format, but a table of contents does the job just fine. I'll be sticking with my other books.

"The Craft of Effective Letter Writing"

Today's book is “The Craft of Effective Letter Writing” by Gordon Wells. Although I assumed a book from 1989 would be a bit dated, writing advice is to some extent timeless. Advice from the 18th century, for example, might be hopelessly out of date, but even some Mark Twain quotations over a century old give some helpful tips.

The Planning Stage
The word budget is one new concept this book introduced. It means that if you have a required length, you should allocate a certain number of words to each topic so that you don't say too much about one or too little about another. I think this will be particularly useful in sales letters. As I discussed in another review, long copy does work, so word budgets will help organize thoughts when you need to present a lot of information.
This book also reminded me of the broad range of factors that define the audience. Obviously, you need to understand your audience as best you can. But there are more factors that affect your writing than you might think, including native language, identity (do they define themselves as individuals or part of an organization?), whether they have the authority to respond to your call to action, and so on.

Writing Style
The Twain quotation mentioned above is:
“I notice that you use plain, simple language, short words and brief sentences. That is the way to write English. It is the modern way and the best way. Stick to it.”
I found that most books said little about style, but rather focused on what is grammatically correct. Proper use of punctuation, abbreviations, commas, and so on. Also helpful and unique to this book was the advice to avoid pauses for thought, tautologies, and exaggeration. Thanks to other books' advice about unnecessary words, I generally avoid these errors, but it's good to be aware of other classes of mistakes.

Specialized Letters
I already knew that business letters are quite different from normal letters. For example, you can use things like exclamation points and underlining that you would never use in other writing. But this section also reminded me that the letters also have to be attractive, and how to do that. If your printer is running out of ink, stop printing, get rid of those letters, and get more ink. Choose a good font. Use a letterhead. Other books, like “Writing Copy For Dummies,” mention presentation options but don't go into much detail. This is a very important and often-overlooked factor: it's hard enough to get your letter opened, much less read. Don't hurt yourself with ugly packaging.

This is another area the other books didn't cover in depth. The main differences between reports and other letters lie in organization and presentation. You need an in-depth table of contents with numbered paragraphs and also plenty of white space to make it easier to read. As this is another task listed in “Secrets of a Freelance Writer,” but seldom discussed in writing books, I was pleasantly surprised to find it covered in this book. Word budgets will also be useful here. Reports are even more regimented than other copywriting tasks, and it's easy to unbalance the report when dealing with so many smaller, separate topics.

You can find useful advice no matter how old the book is. Don't pick up “The Craft of Effective Letter Writing” for up-to-date tips about using the internet, but it can still teach you about writing in simple English, effective business letter formulas, and using headings effectively.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

“Graphic Design School: The Principles and Practices of Graphic Design”

 Today's book is “Graphic Design School: The Principles and Practices of Graphic Design” by David Dabner. Although this is not a writing book at all, graphic design is a problem that I expect to have—e.g., a client hires and asks if I can design the brochure, website, or what have you as well as write the copy. Hopefully, knowing basic design principles will help me not only to get more jobs and help clients stay within budget, but also make things go more smoothly if and when I have to work with graphic designers.

Lessons Learned
I learned quite a bit from this book, and everything was well organized. But one thing I wish it had had was a list of beginner's problems and how to overcome them, such as a lack of inspiration. This is a particularly pressing need when you're not even familiar with all the elements of design. It would be like trying to write a story for adults with a third-grade vocabulary. If you don't even know the elements you can manipulate, your designs will always be bland. But if you're aware of the different areas in which you can experiment, e.g. font, color, layout, etc.--then you might find several new ideas and move forward much more quickly.

Form and Space
If you've ever gone to a website with text a full screen wide, then you know how important white space, which is the unmarked part of the page, is. Without it, a good number of people will instantly ignore your message as difficult to read. White space can also create effects by itself, for example keeping text to a minimum with a large image of the product to achieve a more expensive look.

Everyone knows the more common colors have certain things associated with them, but I was surprised at the level of detail. Each one has a half dozen attributes or more, and given that people will always notice the color whether they read your material or not, I'm going to carefully consider it in everything I design. It needs to be balanced with other considerations—after all, you can't have the same color text and background—but deciding on the color could also give me more ideas for my writing.

You wouldn't use Comic Sans in an ad about luxury cars (and hopefully a professional wouldn't use it at all) but font is another consideration that might be alien to writers, who might be used to 12-point Times New Roman day after day. Even after you select the size, spacing, and emphasis that will deliver exactly the desired effect, you still have to take into account legibility. For example, today I saw a mural with brown and white silhouettes for a community center, crowned by its name in alternating brown and white letters. Unfortunately, these made it very difficult to read and I can't remember the name or where it was even now. Practical considerations have to come first; people have very short attention spans and if there is any difficulty at first glance, your message won't even get the opportunity to make an impact.

Clarity, Efficiency, Economy, Continuity
You can tell whether you have met these four criteria listed in the book very quickly. Take a step back and look at what you've designed. Does it seem cluttered? Is it hard to read? Is it obvious where you should focus your attention? In both writing and design I always eliminate anything that is not absolutely necessary as my overarching principle, and it's been very helpful in achieving the above four goals.

"Writing Copy for Dummies"

Today's book is “Writing Copy for Dummies” by Jonathan Kranz. I've read quite of few of the “Dummies” and “Complete Idiot's” books, and I've always been happy with both of them (though if you're looking for photos, the Idiot's guides are the clear winner). Whereas many of the other books about copywriting assume that you are already excellent and therefore focus on how to market yourself, “Writing Copy For Dummies” is an easily-referenced guide for the most common types of project you might have, as well as troubleshooting for likely problems.

The specific project guides are divided into four rough sections: making the sale, building awareness, sales support, and special situations such as fund-raising and promoting health. From reading other books, I already knew that there was a vast array of copywriting opportunities, so that was nothing new. What I did learn was the difference between forms, e.g. a letter and a brochure, and between purposes, and how to select the appropriate methods.

If you are selling an expensive product in the mail, for example, a postcard campaign will probably be ineffective. The customer will need to read a lot more about your product before he can be comfortable with the purchase, so you might opt for a letter campaign instead. In that case, a novice might think that it's best to keep things as short as possible. With many people so pressed for time, most will not even read the body and just scan the beginning and the end (or other information you decide to highlight via bullets or other means). However, anyone who is interested will want as much information as they can get, right then and there. So longer letters are often better.

This book itself is organized like a good piece of promotional material: you can easily find what you're looking for in both the book as a whole and on the page with good use of bold headlines and bullet points. Now I always think: “If someone just scans this, did I get my message across? Is the first thing they see going to make them want to keep reading?”

The most helpful things of all, though, are the lists in the book. The first two pages have the following checklists:
  • Guaranteed Ways to Make Your Copy Successful
  • Questions You Should Always Ask Before You Write
  • How to Find Inspiration, Fast
  • How to Work More Creatively
  • Things That Customers Always Want to Read About
  • The Three Building Blocks of Copy
These are all elaborated on both on the first two pages and in Chapter 20. Some of these are problems I have already experienced in writing these reviews, but I found that other writing books mostly ignore the creativity and inspiration issues. These solutions alone make this book well worth your time.