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Media Professional Writing

Pitching is hooking

Ever had a great idea but just couldn’t sell it? You’re not alone.

Bill Lawrence is the creator of hit US show Cougar Town, which has run for 56 episodes so it clearly has legs.

Yet according to this interview with the AV Club, Lawrence had a ton of problems selling it – until he changed the name into something catchier with a clear hook.

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Author Editor's Pick General Jonathan Richardson Link Opinion Original Writing Research Review Site Crash

Jonvocation is Considered Words!

This site is no more! Head to ConsideredWords.com for all the latest on writing as a profession.

Yours,

Jonathan,

Editor

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Professional Writing

Netflix, apologies and why blogs are for anyone but you

Words have power all right and there’s no better way to see this than when things go wrong.

Netflix is a US DVD and online video rental service. Or rather it was until a September 1st when it split itself into two sites, one for DVDs and one for video streaming.

There was uproar, not least because users were told to pay separately for each site whereas before they got both services for one price.

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Professional Writing

Dissecting people

The pleasure of dissecting people is only matched by the knowledge it brings.

Not the sharp surgeon’s scalpel but blunt books have let me dissect human behaviour and made me be a better writer.

More importantly, it has helped (much) greater writers than me to create characters and stories we have enjoyed and respected.

Focused groups

If writing is the study of people, as I argued in a previous essay, then we should study them thoroughly, dissecting human nature and its whys, whats and hows.

I’m not the first to say this – the anthropologists, psychologists and journalists got there long before me. Even politicians want to know what people think, even if it has resulted in ‘focus group politics’ under Tony Blair (though he does deny it).

Autopsy by Scurzuzu
A tight operation

More significantly, dissection leads to more surprising discoveries than anything others could make up. Much like Renaissance science saw the shift from classical ideas that everything could be proved by deduction to that of empirical research, research into a subject will turn up more than could be ‘deduced’ from prior knowledge.

There are more things in heaven and Earth

I’ve written a script about an exorcist, Personal Demons. Researching exorcisms turned up more strange characters and alleged events than even my 30-years of pop-culture and Hollywood could have imagined, let alone claimed to be real.

For example, there’s Archbishop Emmanuel Milingo – an exorcist who in 2001 married a Korean nearly 30 years his junior in a ceremony presided over by Sun Myung Moon, better known as the leader of the ‘Moonies’. It was then down to Cardinal Ratzinger, now known as Pope Benedict XVI, to go and drag a protesting Milingo away from his wife.

The charismatic Milingo, who was later excommunicated, cheerfully held daily exorcisms and had a compound complete with nuns, the possessed, and armed guards, as well as got into disputes with other, ‘lesser’, exorcists.

Greater than fiction

If I were to write a script about a future pope, the head of the Moonies and a married exorcist bishop who lives under armed guards I’d be lucky to sell it as a B-movie, although I’d probably be too embarrassed to tell anyone about it.

Likewise, I discovered priests who have set up help lines for former Satanists, people who believe they are possessed due to curses by their exes, and glamorous dustbin ladies who take a daily exorcism in the middle of their rounds.

Perhaps I’m limited in my imagination, but I wouldn’t have discovered any of this had I not took apart the area I was researching and studied its people.

Showing the body of research

Dissecting also serves another purposes – showing over telling. I can tell you ad projectile nauseum that I am interested in exorcists, but it is only by research and doing the work that I can show it.

Dissecting people shows that you’ve found your passion and that you want to explore.

As writing is for and by people, the least you can do is dissect them.

Next time, I’ll write about the great surgeons, those who have dissected people and reassembled them to suit their audience.

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Professional Writing

The Science of Writing

Writing is not an art; it’s better than that.

Or, more correctly, does it matter if writing’s an art, a science or even a humanity and does it have to be just one of them?

My belief is that it’s the attitude of how you treat the subject and the attitude to writing as an art, science or humanity makes a world of difference.

Word Science
Word Science

Arts and crafts

Arts are seen as crafts, each artist unique, their work imitable but not reproducible as it’s the sum of all previous, unique, experience.

I generalise hugely, but I see the central belief of writing as an art is the attitude that you either have it or you don’t, it’s your calling, and if you want to become better all you can do is practice and self-reflect – it’s down to you and you alone.

Arts and eras

Yet we, people, like art. Art defines eras more than science (has anyone outside of physics heard of 1905 described as annus mirabilis?) yet artistic eras come easily to mind – the Renaissance, Gothic, Art Deco.

While writing isn’t the sole definition of an artistic period, it is part of the wider cultural movement. John Donne, The Great Gatsby, Brett Easton Ellis are linked very much as shaping and being shaped by the times.

Humanities

“The humanities” – a malleable definition if there ever was and I’m not going to hammer out a new one. At my school humanities was the study of history – and its relatives including my chosen child, archaeology – geography and religion.

They are about people, even geography, which focused on humans and the land.

Stories too are about people. Even tales with few ‘real people’ like Watership Down or TRON ending up being about people, they anthropomorphised their subjects and presented in a way to engage their human audience.

Data and people

Unlike art, humanities also collect data – data on people, on use and on things that affect lives. It also makes judgments and evaluations.

However the most judgmental of disciplines is science. Science is man’s measure, evaluator, tool, critic. It pokes and studies, alters and remeasures and publishes.

It is cold and exact, uncaring and indifferent if its work harms or helps humans.

That’s its image based on pop-culture, but how much of this has been produced by science itself.

Robert Millikan

Robert Millikan
Artistic licence

Robert Millikan helped devise the oil drop experiment that helped determine the charge of the electron and throw an electric light on the new world of sub-atomic physics.

However, Millikan may have discovered more than this, or not even the proper charge of the electron – he had to judge and interpret his results. We know now his results were slightly yet he won the Nobel Prize – his experiment, it seems, was flawed yet he chose which results to publish and went ahead anyway.

Messy science

This example reminds me of my days of scientific study – results are not neat, they never match the neat graphs and charts, even when following an expected test.

Science is as much about the scientist and their skill, judgment – and following their instinct.

Just like an artist. So how can I argue that one is better than the other?

Greater than the parts

What makes science greater than art to me is not the discipline. Artists work hard, like scientists the greatest have had training and spend years on their topic. They come together in movements but it seems to me to be more coincidental than through shared development.

The advantage to me of science is not the hard work of the individual, or even the study of data. It’s the attitude to others – science is about replicable, shared ideas.

The whole point of Considered Words is not just to study writing and produce data, it’s about sharing it freely and openly for others to reproduce, debate and share.

Science can artistic, but sharing is the beauty of science. And that’s what makes it the greatest.

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Professional Writing Write Heroes

Selling words – Ogilvy, advertising and what works

David Ogilvy took on the world by knowing the power of words and won, coming out on top with several million dollars and an advertising empire.

Advertising is a dirty word to some – in his 1963 book Confessions of an Advertising Man Ogilvy has a whole chapter defending it – but it does convert words into cash.

David Ogilvy
Professional gent

Flow of money and words

I like measuring things and money is the ultimate measure – people can profess, swear and blog as much as they like, but it’s not until they put their money into that we see they’re serious.

Advertising is all about making money flow, the ad world’s awash with half a trillion dollars of it each year. David Ogilvy, a Scot who at age 38 set up his own New York ad agency that soon became Madison Avenue’s giant, helped create this and he did this through his attitude and beliefs.

Professional gent

Ogilvy is happy to sell himself in Confessions of an Advertising Man, but what sets him apart from his rivals is his combination of attitude towards work, his setting of rules, focus on business and focus on research. And this is as relevant to ‘artistic’ writers as to the ‘selling’ writers in advertising.

His attitude to work was gentlemanly and professional. Don’t be a buck-passer, have gentle manners and take a risk on first-class talent, but keep defeats private and never lie.

Research power

Ogilvy also knew the power of research, something I too am only just beginning to discover. He was fortunate enough to have worked at the Gallup Audience Research Institute, and intelligent enough to have brought this experience with him into advertising.

He writes in depth about the importance of researching the product and market before launch, and this advice can apply to a creative piece – research what you’re writing and research your audience. If you don’t have an audience, you’re unlikely to get a market.

From knowledge.ca

Specifics

He also came up with some highly specific things writers need to think about, from the headline downwards.

The headline is “the meat on the ticket” and should appeal to the reader’s self-interest. It should also inject “newness” if possible and must convey as much appropriate information as possible as five-times more people read the headline than the body.

Images were to entice and body was to serve an audience need, particularly if it gave advice, but only if did so in a way that wasn’t pompous. I’ve just broken one of his other rules – don’t use negatives, particularly in headlines, as the reader will often misread it and focus on the negative.

Professional attitude

There are drawbacks to a book written half-a-century ago, and not all of it applies to writing.

Yet throughout the main thing that comes out, other than his self-promotion, which even he admits in the updated prologue was a bit much, is the professional attitude. He paid for top talent, he worked hard, he visited potential top men at home to see what they were really like – to confirm if they showed rather than told him.

At heart, David Ogilvy was a professional who not only cared about what he did but showed it by putting in the hours and researching it in depth so he had data to show others.

Confessions of an Advertising Man is still going strong and a good, quick read, but if you’d like to read a summarised version you can read my notes on David Ogilvy – Confessions of an Advertising Man.

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Professional Writing

Writing as a profession

Data analysis and psychological studies show that treating writing as a profession is the most important way of achieving success, whether it is dreams of being a writer, blogger, selling online, or any one of the myriad ways we present ourselves through writing.

It’s important then that we act now. Statistics show that in 2010 we presented ourselves and our ideas through writing and other creative means more so than at any point in human history.

Yet while the technology has allowed us to change how we write and produce more, our attitude towards writing has not altered.

Writing on the mind
Writing on the mind

Profession and writing

The reason that we don’t think of writing as a profession is because most of us think we don’t need to, our attitudes are still stuck in the 20th century, whereas the range and scope of our writing is firmly in the 21st.

Gone are the days of personal writing, instead we have the age of everyone treating writing as a profession, and to me writing as a profession means:

  • Knowing the rules of spelling and grammar (although not necessarily following them).
  • Reading and studying the art as you would for anything you want to be good at.
  • Thinking and planning what both you and your audience will get out of your work.
  • Being able to sell the point of what you’re writing about.

We’re all authors with a large (enough) audience

Writing as a profession is not new, but its universal application is more relevant than ever as more people become writers with an audience.

As recently as 20 years ago a single letter was unlikely to have found a wide audience, and our essays and thoughts would only have reached the teacher or lecturer marking it. In 2011 thoughts and opinions are spread rapidly and easily to our friends, acquaintances and beyond. And they’re judged, from spelling and grammar to content.

The modern person sends 1.7 emails per day and there are 25 billion Tweets sent on Twitter and 30 billion bits of content shared on Facebook, with 6.1 trillion text messages sent. This is just personal writing we can measure and doesn’t account for blogs, work reports and other methods of writing.

What this means is that the average person thinks they know how to write. But the average person is wrong.

Unskilled and unaware

This isn’t me saying this, it’s science.

According to the Dunning–Kruger effect  a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

Their main premise is that once we acquire the minimum amount of knowledge to perform a task to its minimum level, we believe that we have mastered it. And as the skill, knowledge, time and effort taken to master the basics is usually much less than that of advanced levels, we tend not to progress further and believe we know all there is to know.

As such, the basics of writing and composing an email, text and Tweet as simple and the entry level is low, lower than it’s ever been. According to the theory, we are unlikely to progress much beyond the basic writing skills required to draft these messages. This is fine if we are simply messaging a friend, not if we are expecting to have an audience.

All affected

The Dunning-Kruger affects everyone, of all ages, educational and social level.

One of the aims of Considered Words is to help break through writing’s Dunning-Kruger barrier and there will be a regular essay on treating writing as a profession and what we hope to learn about it.

Let us depart on that promise and one thought. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing – if we realise we’re unskilled in writing and unaware of this, what else are we dangerously unskilled at and in complete ignorant about?

Categories
Professional Writing

My rules of writing

  1. Treat it professionally.
  2. Have heroes and study them and their work. Aim to become one yourself.
  3. Know where you want to be and a rough idea of how you get there – but don’t be afraid to adapt if needed.
  4. Critique, critique, critique. But don’t feel superior as “there’s an awful lot of rubbish out there”. Of course it’s rubbish, if you’re not the target audience, and if you do deem it rubbish say why.
  5. Research. Research writing, research themes, research characters, but most of all, research people. I’m more interested in what a sociologist or psychologist has to say about character than an English graduate.
  6. Have something to say.

Why have them

These are my personal rules on writing and I will no doubt add to them (and the following statements) over time, but these are my core rules. Not principles; rules that I intend to follow for whatever I write – fact or fiction, drama or comedy, essays or scripts.

Having rules is not restrictive, it guides and sets parameters. Shakespeare’s sonnets were in iambic pentameter, as were his plays, and none the worse for it. Rules can be a challenge that forces you to think, think and think again on how to meet them, and it’s this reiteration of thought that I find produces the best results.

Having rules acts as guidance, sets parameters within which to explore rather than the lazy leaps from one place to the next.

Breaking the rules

Ultimately, it’s only those who know the rules who can modify and reset them. Picasso is famous for his abstract work, but he was trained as classical artist before doing so. Likewise Tracy Emin is an accomplished painter and knows ‘the rules’ she’s breaking (although I still wouldn’t fancy paying more than a tenner for any of her work).

Ultimately it’s about choice – are you breaking the rules on your own terms, or are you merely  trespassing?

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Site Crash

What is Site Crash?

Do you want more people coming to your website ? And do you want them staying for longer and recommending you to others? Then let me introduce Site Crash.

I’ve improved websites for several years, tightening up the content and vastly increasing traffic, and while it’s great getting paid to do this, it’s time to give something back to charities, voluntary sites and other places that deserve more traffic but may not have the time or resources to do the work needed to improve them.

I’m an editorial expert – I look at not just spelling and grammar, but whether a site is confusingly over-written. You know what I mean, those bitter flavours on the English tongue – meaningless jargon, buzzwords, business-speke. More importantly, I’ll look at how you’re selling your site.

Site Crash logo
Site Crash

Selling a site

Everything is sold.

Think of the last film you saw, you can probably sum up in a few words why you chose it and what you were expecting (although whether it lived up to expectations is another matter, but at least the selling worked). Think too of the last luxury you bought, it met some perceived need. Think also of the last… well, you get the picture.

Everybody sells.
Whether it’s themselves, products or services, your website is your pitch to the world at large. However, we don’t always do it well – key information is missing or confusing, the unique selling point – why people should use you and your site rather than the hundreds of millions of other sites out there – is not obvious.

Key content

When people visit our site, we sell ourselves through our content – mainly writing, but also images, audio and video. This may sound distasteful to some, but we when there are only a few words, a few seconds to sell, you need to do it well.

In addition, your audience (and that’s assuming you even know who your audience is) needs to find you. Good content, the right content that makes use of the different tools of the web can help do this.

This is where Site Crash comes in.

Site Crash

Site Crash is purely voluntary, only the sites where you the owner has invited me will be critiqued here. I’ve based it on similar expert-advice sites such as Janet Reid’s Query Shark and Nathan Bransford’s Page Critiques.

Like them, any criticism will be constructive, and the comments on each post are also encouraged to be constructive. Those that are clearly not will be removed.

The focus will be on how you use your content and the things you could do or add to improve the site, and ways to think about your content.

You will be given key points to digest, and a suggested timeline and priorities and I would like to follow up a few months down the line.

By the end of the Site Crash you will have some key points and, ideally, simple things you can do to make your site better and increase traffic. And who doesn’t want that?

What’s needed

If you’re interested I’ll need a few things from you.

First I’ll need your website’s URL, obviously. Then I need to know the aim or point of your site, as well as your resources. Don’t worry, I won’t publish your resources or any other confidential information, but I do need to know what you’ve got to work with, including how the web is hosted (is it you, an independent company, a friend…)

Once you’ve done that, I’ll get back to you to let you know if I’m having a look and will do my best to post something constructive as soon as I can, although please be aware that this will all be done in my own free time.

So if you’re interested, drop me an email at editor AT ConsideredWords DOT com.

If you could send from an email account that’s part of your site rather than Gmail etc this will enable me to ensure that you are the site owner. Otherwise I’ll have to ask for some other proof of ownership.

Categories
Editor's Pick Jonathan Richardson Professional Writing

Writing as a profession

Data analysis and psychological studies show that treating writing as a profession is the most important way of achieving success, whether it is dreams of being a writer, blogger, selling online, or any one of the myriad ways we present ourselves through writing.

It’s important then that we act now. Statistics show that in 2010 we presented ourselves and our ideas through writing and other creative means more so than at any point in human history.

Yet while the technology has allowed us to change how we write and produce more, our attitude towards writing has not altered.

Writing on the mind
Writing on the mind

Profession and writing

The reason that we don’t think of writing as a profession is because most of us think we don’t need to, our attitudes are still stuck in the 20th century, whereas the range and scope of our writing is firmly in the 21st.