Rogue Ink

June 19, 2008

Sonnets Are Sexy

Filed under: Copywriting,Writing — Tei @ 4:15 am
Tags: , , ,

This is true. Nothing you say will deter me on this point. There is nothing sexier than the rhyme and meter of a sonnet, particularly when transposed to the modern day. I am about to make a point on writing in general and how you can take a little lesson from the sonnet when you feel all restricted about the structure many of us are forced to follow when writing, say, guest posts, or articles, or web copy chock full of keywords.

Before I do that, however, I must prove my point. To wit: three modern sonnets that are sexy as hell. None of them are Shakespeare. I figure you had enough of high school when you were in high school. Won’t make you do that again, much as we do love Big Willie. Plus, I doubt any of you are writing in Old Elizabethan English, because if you were, I would have to skewer you for using creative spelling. I realize there wasn’t a formal dictionary in Shakespeare’s day, so I would not dream to correct the Bard himself. Or Milton, for that matter. If I see anyone who was born past 1933 appending extra ‘e’s to words whence they do not belong (yeah, that’s right, I said whence) I will hurt them badly, and dance upon their grave here in blogland, under the heading “The Vanquished Terrorists of English.”

Why 1933? First person who can tell me gets a pony.

Right. So. Modern Sonnets. I defy you not to get all hot and bothered by the time you’ve finished these.

Sonnet

This is for the afternoon we lay in the leaves
After it had been winter for half a year,
And I kissed you and unbuttoned your jeans
And touched you and made you smile, my dear.
And of all the good things that love means,
One of them is to touch you there
And make you smile, among the leaves,
And feel your wetness and your sweet short hair,
And kiss your breasts and put my tongue
Into the delirium between your soft pale thighs,
Because the winter has been much too long
And soon will come again, when this love dies.
I will hear sermons preached, and some of them be true,
But I will not regret that afternoon with you.

C.B. Trail

Yeah, you thought you’d be bored by now, didn’t you? Suckers. I started you off with the easy one. Here’s another one, by the good Kim Addonizio.

First Poem for You

I like to touch your tattoos in complete
darkness, when I can’t see them. I’m sure of
where they are, know by heart the neat
lines of lightning pulsing just above
your nipple, can find, as if by instinct, the blue
swirls of water on your shoulder where a serpent
twists, facing a dragon. When I pull you
to me, taking you until we’re spent
and quiet on the sheets, I love to kiss
the pictures in your skin. They’ll last until
you’re seared to ashes; whatever persists
or turns to pain between us, they will still
be there. Such permanence is terrifying.
So I touch them in the dark, but touch them, trying.

Kim Addonizio

You and I both know I’ve already won this bet, but here’s one more, not specifically about sex, just to bring home the point that sonnets are sexy regardless of subject matter.

The Desire Manuscripts
V. In the Mourning Fields
(The Aeneid, Book Six)

The world below is starless, stark and deep,
and while you lay beside me, my golden bough,
plunged in the shadowy marsh of sleep,

I read about the infernal realm, and how
a soldier walked forth in the House of Dis
while still alive, breaking an eternal law

by braving death’s kingdom, a vast abyss,
the ground sunken in fog – eerie, treacherous –
guarded by a mad beast, three-throated Cerberus.

Tonight I read about us – foundering, hopeless –
in the Mourning Fields and the myrtle grove,
wandering on separate paths, lost in darkness.

It is written that we were consumed by love,
here on earth, a pitiless world above.

Edward Hirsch

(Note to the authors of all these poems – I am not intending to disrespect your copyright laws, just sharing the love. If you want me to take ’em down, by all means, say the word. I linked people to Amazon for your books, though. Trying to increase the poetry readers in the world. Don’t hate me.)

Now then.

What the hell do sonnets have to do with copywriting?

The English majors among you are just itching to get down to the comment box, where you are going to inform me that none of the above are technical sonnets, because they casually break some rules of strict meter. Hate to ruin your fun, but this is about to be my point, and I need it to prove to you that the sexiness of sonnets is relevant, so you’re out of luck. Feel free to rant anyway, it’s just that you’re going to sound silly now. Sorry ’bout that.

The above sonnets continue to follow the basic rules of sonnets – fourteen lines, specific rhyme scheme, and more or less correct meter. The reason the poets get away with breaking some of the rules is because they are versed enough (heh, writing puns) in the rules of a sonnet to break them, gently, so that neither you nor I notice until we go back and start counting off syllables on our fingers. Which brings me to my first point.

You can break the rules if you know what the rules are.

In copywriting, there are basic rules. One of the obvious ones is: Use correct grammar. However, this rule can be broken, and not even the immense wrath of the Rogue will befall you, if you know what you are about when you use incorrect grammar. For example, I can say the following:

Sonnets bring with the sexy, dudes.

And none of you are going to freak out, though ‘bringing with’ is not a recognizable thing to do with sexy under anyone’s formal rules of grammar. This is slang, and it is used for comedic purposes, and I am allowed to do it because I know what I’m doing. If my entire blog post were composed of slang like that, you would all want to beat me over the head and tie me to my skateboard and send me rolling back down the hill to groovyville where I would belong. Since I do know what I’m doing, you just rolled your eyes and let me be. See how you’re still reading? You wouldn’t be, if I didn’t know what the rules were. You’d be all pissed at me, and you’d leave and never come back, and I’d be sad, because then who would debate gender bias in my comments? The pixies, that’s who. And they don’t even have genders.

You can break the standard rules. You can put more text on a web page than is recommended if you know what you’re doing. You can break rules of grammar, of sentence structure, and of formality. You cannot do any of that if you don’t know what the rules are to begin with. You will sound like an idiot, and you will sound like an idiot who does not know what he is doing. If I misuse grammar on this blog, you all know that I either did it because it’s a casual turn of phrase used conversationally (because this is a pub, not the platform of the inaugural address) or because I am being hilarious.

Laugh it up, denizens. Ain’t nothin’ but a butter biscuit.

If you sound like you are following the rules, you are going to bore us all.

One of the things I love about Addonzio’s sonnet is that I damn well did not realize it was a sonnet until I hit the last rhyming stanza. That is some skills, y’all. (Looky there, did it again. Breaking rules left and right today. I must be a grammatical genius.) The best sonnets are not so obviously sonnets that they beat you over the head with it. Poets should not so painstakingly follow the rules of sonneting that doing so compromises the flow of their language.

Same holds true for copywriting. If you are writing a keyword-rich article, and someone tells you the best length for a paragraph is 200 words and the optimal number of times you can use the keyword is once per paragraph, you are going to sound a damn fool if you adhere to those rules so strictly that it compromises the copywriting. This is a rookie mistake. There’s a lot of copywriting strewn about the web right now that is technically correct. Problem is, it sounds dumb. None of the writers is paying attention to the way it sounds. They’re too busy trying to get the right number of words in the paragraph.

Listen to the way your writing sounds. Read it out loud if you have to. (Note: I would not entirely recommend reading those sonnets out loud at the office. Just a small piece of advice from me to you. Unless you work in a sex shop or something. In which case, I just upped your chances of selling something battery-powered. You’re welcome.) If your writing would sound better if you bent one of the formal rules of your chosen genre, then by all means, bend it. Wrench it sideways. Contort it into Cirque de Soleil. Then read it out loud again. If it sounds good, I guarantee you no one is going to care that you broke a formal rule.

Why? They won’t even notice you have broken it. It’s crazy how that works. If you are skilled enough, your bent rule will sound so natural that unless you have the anal editor from doom on your hands, they won’t pay your contorted, backbending, pretzel-twisted rule any mind at all. And even then, evil editors from doom often know from good writing.

Sonnets are crazy sexy.

Just felt like reiterating that. If you want your copywriting, or any other kind of writing, to be crazy sexy in a similar fashion, though not so rhymey, go ahead and bend a few rules.

Go learn what the rules are first, though. You cannot gently bend rules if you don’t know what they are. You are liable to bend something else by accident, like a gerund. And nobody likes a bent gerund, do they?

Subscribe. I’m bringing sexy sonnets back.

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June 3, 2008

Words You Use Too Much.

Filed under: Copywriting,Writing — Tei @ 7:54 am
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We all have them. I know someone who says ‘you know’ whenever he needs a space filler. I know an ‘um’ guy too, and a woman who just says ‘yes yes yes’ rapidly at the beginning of every sentence. The habit of overusing a word or phrase sneaks into the written word as well as the spoken one. We’re a little more aware that we do this while speaking than while writing. Words are spread about over many different documents allow for some distance, but we are always attached to our mouths. I think. Unless science has made some spectacular leaps while I was on the plane.

The Dreaded ‘Like’

If you are under the age of 30, ‘like’ is very probably on the list of words you should expunge from your vocabulary, including situations in which ‘like’ is an appropriate word, such as “I like sea monkeys” and “Sea turtles are like non-scary viruses.” Even in these situations, stretch your limits, young twentysomethings. And you teenagers better get your shit together, or we will go right back to the dark ages where we communicated by appropriate grunts and hand gestures and facial expressions.

“And then I was like and then she was like, like, you know?” Grunt grunt grunt. It must CEASE.

Yes. I am guilty. I am trying to stop. It’s a disease. Pity the plague-ridden.

Fall-Back Words. Different from Fallback Boy.

Beyond the likes, though, there are words and phrases we all over-use in our speech and in the written word. Have someone else read four or five different samples of your writing, and odds are there will be a couple of words that stand out to them. These are your fall back words. Mine include ‘particularly’ and ‘biscuit’. Usually you won’t overuse them within the same document, but you overuse them in the copy you produce as a whole, and this becomes a problem for a couple reasons.

Everything starts to sound the same.

The overused word has no meaning.

Take ‘particularly.’ (We’d take ‘biscuit’, but I already have. It was delicious, thank you for asking.) Particularly means ‘in particular’. It is meant to draw attention to the modifying adjective or verb in question. How fast was he? Particularly fast. Faster than your average biscuit, was he.

When I use particularly over and over, it stops meaning this. Particularly fast was he? Particularly fast the way that biscuit was particularly tasty? Because I personally found the biscuit to be of average tastiness, and you, sah, do not know from a particular biscuit.

You diminish your writing this way. Every now and again, have someone run through your writing for words you overuse, and then run a search-and-find for them after you finish a draft of new copy. Microsoft Word has only a couple of features I actually know how to use, people. This is one of them. Challenge yourself to use another word.

The Culprits

Some common overused words we tend to stick in everywhere? ‘Very’ and ‘really’. Guess how I started using ‘particularly’ more often? Trying to get rid of those other suckers. No one’s caught on yet, but if particularly becomes the next really, we are all going to be very distressed. Other fallback words frequently show up in business language, like ‘utilizing’, a word that has no practical reason to exist, and should really be put out of its misery.

What word do you use too much, in writing or speaking? I WANT TO KNOW.

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June 2, 2008

That’s Not In My Job Description.

Filed under: Copywriting,Entrepreneurship — Tei @ 8:45 am
Tags: ,

I was writing up the copy for my website (yes, James, I really was) and wrote up a quick list of the services that I provide. These, in case you feel like hiring me this morning, include writing marketing, promotional, and informational copy, editing, rewriting, and a little special something I like to call marketing strategy lite, which is a bonus. Basically, if you’re about to do something really dumb with your marketing, I will tell you. It’s common courtesy. I wouldn’t let you walk out of the bathroom with toilet paper dangling from your fly either. I’m just awesome that way. Which got me to thinking about extras.

Why I Should Never Ask Other People’s Opinion.

I ran the copy by a few people, and every one of them wanted me to add in a service or two that I’d done for them above and beyond the copywriter’s call. Transcription. SEO. Public relations. And I have done all of these things from time to time for certain clients, because I like my clients, and I’m willing to dabble in just about anything if a) they’ll pay me for it and b) I feel I can get some reasonable results out of my attempt.

I won’t be advertising those services on my site, though, because I know what happens next.

They’re going to multiply. Not like bunny rabbits, oh no. Like amoeba. Like big globby all-encompassing goo that sucks up my time and my life and eventually the entire world, because as we all know, every apocalypse begins with me in some way, shape or form.

Begin with a fairly basic service. Copywriting. Excellent. Then people want to know if I do certain kinds of copywriting (yes, I do, and no, I don’t know what you need yet, but if it involves the written word, I will write it). THEN they want to know if I do things that are RELATED to copywriting (yes, I do, because I like my clients and I will generally try to make them happy). And THEN they want to know if I will do things that are related to THINGS that are related to copy, and it is here that I put my foot down. Firmly. Upon a large beetle.

Math is the Language of the Devil.

I am not certain who told my clients about this snowballing effect, but they all seem to believe heartily in its existence. A copywriter who can weave SEO keywords into her copy can surely also figure out what those SEO words should be. This is true, but only to a certain extent. Good SEO analysis involves more than a Wordtracker subscription, and I know it. I know it involves knowing about whatever algorithm Google is using this week and which keywords people are spending money on and analyzing the value of incorporating other keywords that aren’t worth as much into your copy, and I will tell you right now that THE SECOND SOMETHING STARTS TO BE MATH, I HEREBY RESIGN. I do my taxes under duress. I dislike counting my change jar. I cannot, and you do not want me to, analyze an algorithm to determine optimal keywords.

But if you will tell me which ones some savvy math guy has figured out are the best for you, I will craft copy around them all the live-long day. Singing merrily and flinging pennies about.

Awesomeness Has Reasonable Limits

Do not pretend you can do things that you simply cannot do. When a client insists that they’d really like me to come up with the SEO keywords, I will, but it will be with the fair warning that I am using common sense, not math, to arrive at my conclusions. Most of my clients are just fine with that, but I will never claim to be an SEO expert, and I will never claim to offer the service, any more than I will claim to be a professional sword swallower. Would I try to swallow a sword for a reasonable fee? Sure, why not. Just so’s no one expects it not to end in tears.

I know that we all get ashamed of admitting when we don’t know how to do something. A client asked me the other day if I did graphic design as well, and even though I am not personally to be trusted with art supplies in any form, including a piece of chalk and a sidewalk, I felt a little sad to say no. I cannot explain this. I think it has to do with the hero complex. If a client wanted to know if I practiced law as well as wrote copy, I would probably also feel a little ashamed, even though he has no reason to assume that I do either of those things. Writers are not designers. You can tell, because they’re spelled differently. Sometimes people are BOTH, and those people are very cool people, but the one does not automatically imply the other.

Some professions do this, and I think they’re screwing it up for the rest of us. Actors and waiters come to mind.

You can bend over backwards a little bit for your customers. Like a good morning stretch, the kind that cracks your back with that perfect little pop. But only Cirque de Soleil performers can bend all the way back and touch their foreheads to the backs of their knees, because guess what?

That’s THEIR job description.

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May 30, 2008

Roleplaying for Writers, Or Why It’s Cool to Geek Out.

I have a confession for everyone. I was such an outcast in high school, I had to beg other outcasts to teach me Dungeons & Dragons. Their geekiness had advanced to such a state of cool that the circle was pretty exclusive, and they’d been playing for a long time anyway, and besides, the last girl they’d taught to play had wound up scalping her first kill and stitching a hat out of the skin.

I did learn. I played a bit. And I discovered a secret that I have just uncovered again, playing Escaping Reality, a creative writing role-playing game which the good Men with Pens have just created.

Roleplaying is good for writers.

Hah, say you. Yes, I’m sure that many fantasy writers had their start in role-playing. Adorable. You’re supposed to be a businesswoman, dude. (Side note: Businesswoman Dude is the title I want on my business cards.) Why are we screwing around with barbarian dwarves and psionic magicians?

And I say unto you: HOW CAN WE RESIST?

Also, it’s useful to copywriting. Really it is. Roleplaying hones a huge number of skills that are useful to copywriters, and to PROVE TO YOU THAT MY GEEKINESS HAS PURPOSE, I shall cite some of those reasons for you.

Ahem.

Finding a voice.

We talked about finding your client’s voice some while ago, and I’m not going to recap, because I have learned to hate the recap since TV shows started to come out on DVD. You would think that a logical place to allow your ‘skip to the next scene’ button to do its thing would be RIGHT AFTER the recap. But NO. They skip right to the middle of the next scene, when the new story begins, and then you either have to watch the recap of the story you JUST SAW, or miss part of the scene, or learn to fast forward on your DVD player, and there is only so much time in the day. Recaps, therefore, are evil. Finding your client’s voice is a good idea. If you’ve forgotten just why, you should go check out that episode again. It was a good one. Trust me.

Finding a voice is what roleplaying is all about. You have a character, and your character needs to think and talk and swear, and you need to know what all of that sounds like. You can’t give your character a voice until you know who your character is. Male or female? Large or small? Confident or shy? Quiet or brash? You need to know who this person is, or his voice won’t match. Try giving a woman’s voice to a male character sometime. It won’t work. Or it will, but not the way you wanted it to. Your male character will be ordering the pink frilly drinks in the bar, and that is going to get awkward right quick.

Likewise, you need to know who your client is in copywriting in order to find their voice. You need to know who they are and what they’re about, or the voice in which you’re writing will come out wrong. If the atmosphere your client projects is fun, young, and enthusiastic, giving them the voice of a forty-year-old accountant simply will not fly. No one will believe you, and the client will feel a little humiliated and betrayed, which is never the reaction you’re going for, but seriously, imagine how you’d feel if someone gave you the voice of your Aunt Esther. You’d be pissed. That’s how it works.

Getting rid of cliches.

Cliches in fantasy games are no fun. Cliched characters are boring. They make everyone else playing want to stab your character while he sleeps. Actually, if everyone else in your party attempts to murder your character for no apparent reason, there’s pretty good odds your character is Legolas with, oh, different colored eyes, or something. Ditto for creating a situation that’s so common as to be annoying.

Really? I’m going to go and avenge my dead parents by killing an overlord who is the epitome of all that is evil? I personally cannot think of at least five major films/books/plays/interpretive dances that follow that storyline. This may have something to do with the fact that I live in a cave. Tra-la!

It’s annoying, and no one wants to play it, because they know how this one ends already. THIS, by the way, is why guys hate chick flicks. It’s not that they’re about love. It’s that they’re all identical. He’s seen this one before. He’d rather go roll a half-orc with hydrophobia.

Cliches in copywriting are equally annoying. Actually, cliches in copywriting are more annoying, because they don’t come with dragons and treasure. There is no upside to the writing cliche. It is pure scribbled annoyance. On a stick.

“Ever wish you had a solution to that problem we all have? Then have I got a product for you!”

Shoot me now. Make me play Harry Potter through all seven books. I can bear that, but I cannot bear “the best just got better” one more time. I need some magic tricks to make it worth my while. Even that stupid light-trick.

Thinking on your feet.

In a good roleplaying game, your character will constantly encounter new situations. You won’t be certain how you ought to deal with the situation. You’ve never seen this situation before. (This is because we took all the cliches out back and had them shot. You’re welcome.) Instead, you have to put yourself in your character’s shoes and think quickly to determine how best to react. If you do it well, your character both survives and is believable. If you do it badly, your character is mauled and everyone hates him. Totally up to you, but I know which side of the cat my bacon is taped to.

Copywriters are constantly asked to write about products, people, or philosophies that they’ve never before encountered. I throw myself into other people’s shoes all the time in order to keep up in meetings. Thinking on my feet is rarely useful in terms of pretending I know something I don’t, but it is extremely useful in projecting an aura of capability. Being able to hear a lot of new information and apply it sensibly to a situation in a way that makes sense to your client is a valuable skill, and I swear, the time that you set off a spell trap and you didn’t know what it was and you had twelve minutes to identify and disable it will in fact serve you well. If nothing else, you’ll remember not to hyperventilate.

Shameless Pimping

I’ve been playing for a day now, and I missed it so much I nearly broke my cheeks grinning. All of the above is completely and utterly true, but I mostly wrote this post because role-playing makes me happy, and I want everyone to get involved.

So now that I’ve already secured my slot in the limited roster for Escaping Reality, I think all of you should go over and try to get in. Or at least enter the contest on their creative writing and online gaming blog, Capturing Fantasy, because I haven’t won that yet, and you can ruin my statistical likelihood of winning if you skedaddle on over there. That’s math working for you and against me, which is the way I am most comfortable with my math. The day I have a comfortable relationship with math, you will know the Apocalypse is short a horseman.

Subscribe. I may never post again, for I shall be role-playing.

May 29, 2008

Save your world. Write.

Yesterday, we talked about procrastination, and why it works. Because when you get down to those last few minutes, you know you have to write, you have to finish. This works great for me, but that is because I have a hero complex. Come along. We’re about to geek out.

The Hero Syndrome

I know a lot of people who cannot handle the pressure of a last-minute deadline. I was one of them when I was small. The thing is, I need an impetus, a push. I need a reason to write, and I realize that there are a good many romantics who consider breathing to be a good enough reason to write, and I hope that they all make lovely poetry somewhere, preferably at the top of a tree where I can’t hear them. I choose to not be a poet. I think the whole pen-and-sword thing started because writers need to believe themselves heroes in order to get any work done, ever.

If you don’t get the writing done, horrible things will befall you. The rent won’t get paid, you’ll starve, you’ll have to subject yourself to the horrible tyrant at the Widget Factory and be chained to a cubicle and have fluorescent lights shined in your eyes forever. The weight of the world is on your shoulders. You are the only one who can get it done. You are the chosen one. You are the ring-bearer, Frodo. You are the hero. You are the child, Bastion. Save us. The force is strong within you. There is no one else. You, and only you, can keep your world spinning.

Think. Fast.

You have to think. Shutting your eyes and jumping only works at the very last moment, just before the explosion happens and you’re shot across the atmosphere in a very cool movie still. Before that happens, there’s a moment of inspiration. Listen to it. What are you going to do? What are the first words going to be? You have to decide, and you have to decide now. There’s just no more time.

Make the decision and stick with it. No time for waffling. If you figure out something brilliant halfway through, you can change tactics, because that is the privilege of the hero. If some magical connection suddenly clicks into place, spin around and go in that direction. You’ve already started. You’re a man of action. (Or a woman, but seriously, being all PC totally ruins the rhythm of these things. We have to GO, people. There’s only five minutes left.)

Don’t look up.

The girl is crying, the sidekick is babbling, lightning is flashing, big explosions are exploding and someone nameless is screaming in the street. There’s probably an adorable puppy whimpering somewhere. Don’t look up, don’t you dare. No distractions matter at this moment, because the clock is running out. Whatever you do, don’t look up. Don’t check Twitter, don’t look at your email, don’t answer the phone. There’s no time for that. You’re writing.

Don’t stop.

If you stop, you’ll fall down. If you stop, you’ll stop forever. If you stop, Mount Doom will open cracks below your feet and it will always be winter in Narnia and the Nothing will eat Fantasia. You cannot stop. Keep writing, keep putting words one after another. Your words are your footsteps. You can correct them to keep yourself from falling down, but don’t ever stop putting one foot in front of the other. One word, another word, keep moving, keep going.

Believe.

I swear, nothing was ever so powerful as being a hero, ever. I got myself a big hourglass at the Z Gallerie just because it was the coolest, most romantic thing I’d ever seen. It measures out, shockingly enough, one hour, which is a good unit of time to get something significant done. A press release, your web content, the first five pages of your short story. Reach out. Turn the glass over. Start running, start writing. This is your world, and you save it every day. John Steinbeck said something amazing that is my official writer’s mantra. It goes:

“The writer must believe that what he is doing is the most important thing in the world. And he must hold to this illusion even when he knows it is not true.”

My time’s up. Subscribe now, or the world will end.

May 23, 2008

War on English: Bad Copywriters

Filed under: Copywriting,The War on English,Writing — Tei @ 3:01 am

I have seen the apocalypse, and it comes with a dangling gerund.

They’re EVERYWHERE. They’re not only copywriters, they’re PR experts and marketing professionals. People whose business, theoretically, is the creation and sale of effective, enticing communication. Somehow, inexplicably, an absurd number of these people seem to be unable to form a sentence with all its nouns and verbs matching up. For those of you figuring out how to do this, it goes in pairs, people. Like Noah’s ark. And line dancing.

Where do they come from?

I know at least one client who hired a marketing service to make up some – wait for it – marketing materials. Yes. I KNOW. It shocked me, too, but it doesn’t stop there. These people created some of the most painful, hair-raising, excruciating copy I personally have ever read. It was somehow humiliating to even be seen looking at it. Like watching Queer as Folk with your grandmother. They mixed second and third person without SHAME, people. Like so:

“One won’t believe how much you’re going to love this!”

It was horrible to behold. And it went on and on. Page after page. I’ve seen copy that would make your fingernails start to grow inward to try to avoid making contact with the print on the page. I’ve seen copy that third-grade English teachers would point to as a cautionary tale to all those students who refuse to learn ‘i’ before ‘e’ except after ‘c’, after which the students would rush, feverish with fear, to their dictionaries. I’ve seen copy that makes me, personally, want to blow my brains out, and I want to know why.

How do they survive?

Darwin, bless his heart, tells us that the strong survive and the weak die out. Now, the strong have certainly survived, but why haven’t we EATEN the weak long ago? Why are they still out there, producing their terrible copy, day after day? Who is feeding the beast?

I have a partial answer, but not one that fully satisfies me. However – some of them have learned camouflage. The client referenced above was suckered into paying for a marketing package without viewing samples of the marketing company’s work. She paid for the package and then she felt too guilty to demand her money back. That’s right. The bad copywriters are surviving by preying on the unsuspecting clients. New clients, baby clients, clients who don’t know better. They are eating the young.

There must be more to this. They must have a secret weapon. We have to find it and destroy it before they start writing scripts in Hollywood. YES. It gets worse than the Star Wars I-III trilogy. It’s almost too horrible to contemplate.

How do we kill them?

Damned if I know, Johnson. Try to warn as many clients as you can. Tell them to watch out for the warning signs. Tell them, by all that is holy, to look at a portfolio, to ask to see a writing sample, to get one shred of proof this person can produce passable English. Only by educating the populace can we stop the scourge.

Don’t they have any redeeming qualities?

Well, yes. Sort of. Once a bad copywriter has produced copy of a hideous nature, it’s a fairly easy job to produce better copy. I wouldn’t call it a challenge, but it’s a low bar. If you can clear that bar with a foot to spare, you’ve just become pretty impressive to your client, and that’s worth while.

The down side is that your client might not have any money to repair the problem now that the bad copywriter has cleaned them out. They might be stuck, desperately looking for someone to save them, but to no avail. Take pity on them, the poor bastards. Give them a preposition or two. Move an apostrophe. A little kindness is all I’m asking for. Don’t let the scourge win.

What’s your deal, dude?

They make my head hurt. No, literally. I have a microchip in there inserted by the Grand Society for the Preservation of Grammar and Sanity, and it zings me every time I see someone say ‘breath’ when they mean ‘breathe’. I see that, and I get half a taser shot worth of lightning. For the love of JERUSALEM ARTICHOKES, PEOPLE! You BREATHE air. You stop to catch your BREATH. They are pronounced differently, and they mean different things. WHAT MORE CAN THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE DO FOR YOU?

Subscribe. Or the GSPGS will zap me again. Help!

May 7, 2008

Versatility, Hats, and the Happy Man

Filed under: Copywriting,Entrepreneurship,Writing — Tei @ 6:42 am
Tags: ,

Charlotte was versatile. You remember Charlotte, right? With the web? Well, she was. She made a huge egg sac and Wilbur was looking at it and she said, by way of explanation, that she was versatile.

“Does ‘versatile’ mean ‘full of eggs’?” Wilbur asked.

“No. Versatile means that I can change with ease from one thing to the next.”

Which is how you know that Charlotte’s Web was one of the best children’s books ever. NezSez did a fantastic post yesterday on versatility, and I wanted to riff off of it, since versatility is one of the things that’s been amazingly useful to me as a writer and a business owner (she says, as though it has been SO LONG since she became that latter thing).

Sure. I can do that.

I would never, ever utter those words again if I weren’t versatile. When you’re a freelance writer, you very rarely see the same project or the same subject twice in a row. One week you’re writing about a cow’s gastrointestinal tract and the next you’re writing about underprivileged children in downtown Oakland and five minutes later you’re writing weird trivia facts about chocolate.

Favorite trivia fact about chocolate: A survey of office workers in London found that almost three quarters would reveal their network-access password in exchange for a bar of chocolate. Now that I know what the going rate is, I’m holding out for two bars.

If I worried about having the exact relevant experience necessary for each job as it presented itself to me, I’d never write again. But I don’t. I’m versatile. I’ll write about chocolate, and then I’ll write about electronic resumes, and then I’ll write about modern art. Different voices, different backgrounds, different set of facts. One of the great things about being versatile is that you’re never bored, and you’re never boring. And as we’ve established over here in Rogueville, being bored sucks, and being boring sucks more.

Mad Hatting

It finally happened. Wendi made the Tei party joke. And since she has, let us celebrate with a Mad Hatting Tei Party, and talk about wearing different hats in a business.

I get to be a lot of people in my business. I’m the project manager and the head honcho (a VERY cool hat, by the by, like something out of Dr. Seuss) and the secretary (what, like you have someone to make your coffee for you?) and the accountant (surprisingly cool hat, it’s one of those visors the money-counters wear in Vegas) and the marketing director (evidently, no hat, but a yellow jumpsuit and a katana) and, of course, the copywriter, or as I like to think of it, the talent (beret. What? I look great in berets).

Versatility is your friend when running your business. You can’t have someone call and ask you for a price quote and say, “I’m sorry, but I’m wearing my head honcho hat right now, I’ll have to refer you to my secretary hat.” You are all hats, and no hat, and every hat individually. You are Zen and the Art of Hatting, my friend. That is what versatility is.

Wisdom from a Cabbie

This is a true story, so parts of it aren’t funny. It’s worth the payoff, though. Come along with me.

When I was moving out of my apartment in Chicago into another one, I left everything too late. I tried to move everything, by myself, in the Chicago heat, which is another way of saying I wandered into hell and tried to take over for Sisyphus. I was so stressed out and unable to sleep that I actually gave myself shingles. Yes, that is correct. Old people’s chicken pox. If you are insane enough, you too can fool your body into thinking it is past menopause and on into second childhood.

There was a great moment where my man-friend at the time convinced me that some of this stuff just wasn’t worth it, and we spent a delightful hour or so throwing all my glassware twenty-two stories down a garbage chute. It was wonderful and it didn’t last long enough.

The final morning, I had six boxes that needed to be transported from one apartment to the other. I had not slept at all. We both had flights to catch. The moving van had already been returned, since I couldn’t afford to keep it an extra day. We called a cab.

The cabbie showed up on time, driving a cab-van. I was so thrilled that he had a huge van instead of a little cab that I ran outside and said something blatantly honest, which is not generally wise if you have not slept and you have shingles: “We are going to be a huge pain in the ass for the next three hours, but there is a huge tip at the end of it for you if you can help us out.”

The cabbie, who was tall, dreadlocked, about thirty, and looked like he’d rather be doing Capoeira or some other highly difficult martial art, immediately perked up. Versatility, people, I’m telling you. “What can I do?” he said, and we had a friend and an ally. He not only folded down the seats in the back of the van, but helped my man-friend carry all six of the boxes up three full flights of stairs and refused to let me do anything. I suspect this was because I looked like the living dead, but it was still sweet.

While we were driving to the airport, my man-friend inquired after the best fare the cabbie had ever had.

Immediately, the cabbie said, “The happy man.” My man-friend and I waited in the backseat. We can see a good story coming. We know from introductions. “There was one man, older man, and he was just incredibly happy, shone all over with it. And I asked him, I said, wow, you look like you’re having a good day.”

The man says, calmly, as though he’d thought about it before, “I’m always having a good day.”

The cabbie was a little startled. “That’s . . . that’s unusual.”

“I suppose,” says the old man, and smiles at him.

“Look,” the cabbie says after a moment of thinking about it. “I don’t suppose there’s any wisdom you have that you can offer a young guy like me, just trying to figure it out.”

The man leaned back into his seat and smiled. “Well,” says the old man. “There’s one thing. I learn something new every year.

Versatility. That old man learned to wire electricity one year, learned glassblowing another, learned how to take a car apart and put it back together again, learned to play the guitar. Every year, he picked something he didn’t know anything about, and in his spare time, he learned all about it. And he found that every new thing he learned made him happier, because he understood more and more about the way the world worked. He never stopped learning. As he neared the end of his life, he was happy enough that a young Chicago cabbie was so taken by his air of contentedness that he asked him to impart some wisdom upon him, as though any of us ever actually says such things to each other any more.

That’s the story. From my Chicago cabbie to you. Learn something new, be a jack of all trades. It will make you better at life.

I hope that’s useful to you. I stopped being sarcastic just to tell you that story. But hell, I can be sentimental sometimes. I’m versatile that way.

I am also full of eggs. Omelettes for dinner are the best.

Subscribe. Roguishness is always versatile.

May 6, 2008

Being a Wuss is Bad for Business.

Filed under: Copywriting,Entrepreneurship,Writing — Tei @ 5:06 am
Tags: , , , , ,

I have an announcement I would like to make: I am a coward.

No, seriously. Hiding in trees is what I am all about. The brave ones went off to be paladins and stuff. Me, I stuck to my roguish ways, stayed in the shadows, tried not to be noticed, and every now and then, I’d poke my head out and trick some unsuspecting customer into hiring me for a gig. This is how I operated my business. And it actually worked decently well. No one is expecting a sneak-attacked by a copywriter. It’s the perfect disguise. I appeared, fully geared up, resume and references in hand, charm at the ready, to certain select clients I had decided beforehand would be amenable to my proposal. It was a very roguish way to go about things.

It is also REALLY cowardly.

You can’t be a wuss and run your own business.

I had a little wake-up call on this the other day. I’ve asked the good Men with Pens to make me a website (and a new blog, so consider this your first announcement that Rogue Ink will be relocating shortly), and Harry came up with a banner for me. It is quite possibly the coolest thing that ever happened to life. I had a small orgasm just looking at it. It is entirely possible that I threatened to kiss Harrison, just for being the mastermind behind it. I immediately forwarded the thing to twenty of my favorite people, and every single one of them wrote back saying, “Dude. What kind of virgin did you sacrifice to which unholy gods to get this banner?”

Look. Isn’t it awesome?

Okay. So we have established that it is, in fact, awesome. I went to bed all excited about it, dreaming blissfully of my beauteous website-to-be, and woke up in the morning with that strange feeling of doubt and guilt and possible impending doom that usually accompanies a Coyote-Ugly sort of morning-after. I had doubts about the banner. I suspected it was perhaps the kind of cool banner that you take home one night only to discover the next morning that he is not a good banner, he is not good for you, and he stole twenty bucks from you for whiskey. I was gazing at the banner, which was still blissfully sleeping, looking beautiful, wondering when it was going to wake up and be a very, very bad idea.

Why?

Because I am a coward.

I came up with some reasons why the banner was a bad idea. That my clientele wouldn’t like it, that it was too aggressive, that I couldn’t pull it off. All of this was complete and utter bullshit, though. I was scared the banner was a bad idea because I knew it would get me noticed.

Note to everyone: You are TRYING to get noticed. This is a good thing. If you have roguish tendencies like me, screw them. Consider this your biggest con. You are playing the role of someone who loves the spotlight, in order to serve the greater you. You have to ride the dragon, baby. Get some balls and just do it. Get out there.

Ride the Dragon. Or the Purple Cow.

I just read Seth Godin’s book Purple Cow. Yes, I know everyone else has already discovered the magic of Seth Godin. I am coming a little late to this party. Why don’t we all just celebrate my arrival and let it go, shall we? Excellent. At any rate, Purple Cow. Fun name. Good little book. If he’d put it out in paperback I might have bought it. I am not questioning the lack of paperback, for I know Seth Godin works in strange and mysterious ways his wonders to publish, I just don’t like hardbacks and I am too broke to afford them. So instead, I sat in one of the big cushy chairs at Barnes and Noble and read the thing cover to cover.

The Purple Cow theory, in essence, is that nobody needs normal. Everyone wants exceptional, extraordinary, remarkable. So freakin’ cool they wet themselves. So why was I afraid of the banner? Because it was a Purple Cow. And you have to be a special kind of rogue to ride a Purple Cow. Seth mentions this, actually, that there are few people becoming extraordinary because it’s scary to become extraordinary. Which it is. It most certainly is. It’s also really freakin’ cool.

An Anecdote From My Geeky Youth. And Adulthood.

When I was sixteen, I learned to swordfight. I was really good at it. Naturally good, born-to-it kind of good. Nobody had expected me to be any good at it initially, since I was tiny, blond, and a chick, so there I was on the sidelines, stealthily beating everyone, systematically. There was a tournament at the culmination of our training, and I almost didn’t participate in it, because I was incredibly fearful that I would lose, and that all of the acclaim I’d been getting by staying on the sidelines and only showing up to be awesome would all go away.

I did go to the tournament. And I won. It was glory on a stick and wrapped in bacon.

That victory led to a lot of things. The fact that I am a swordfighter has always been one of the things that made me stand out, made me get noticed. It was what I wrote my college entrance essay on, and it was the reason one of the admittance counselors noticed me and wanted me at University of Chicago. It’s a great icebreaker at parties. It’s a good thing to talk to hardware store guys about. They always remember me. That’s the chick who swordfights. You can’t BUY branding like that.

Swords have done good work for me, all my life. And I was afraid of a banner that touted this brand that has always worked for me. That’s just dumb. It’s unforgettable. It’s exciting and daring and memorable. And I’d be a damn fool not to keep using it, scary as the idea is.

There is a moral to this story. Harrison was very sweet about the whole Tei-is-being-a-wuss thing, and quoted Polonius at me. I will not do this to you, because I believe in wielding Shakespeare in a wrathful manner, not a comforting one. The moral of the story, therefore, does not come out of the Bard’s mouth, it comes out of mine:

Do not be a wuss. It is bad for you.

Thank you. Subscribe. Ride the Purple Cow.

April 29, 2008

Writing for Non-Profits or Why Cheese is Awesome

Filed under: Copywriting,Entrepreneurship — Tei @ 5:25 am
Tags: , , ,

I was going to write a post on freelancing ethics, but I’m not feeling particularly ethical today (you have to sort of be in the mood to get on your moralistic high horse) so I’m going to talk about why writing for non-profits is different than writing for other kinds of companies.

As with all things, the key is in the words (oh, English language, how I heart you). A non-profit does not work for profit. A for-profit, as in all other companies, works for profit. I know. It’s all so clear and magical. Wait a sec, though, because I’m going to change it up: this means that when you are writing for a for-profit, you are generally selling something. This is, in fact, a good thing to tell people about yourself if you write sales copy for a living: I can help you generate more profits. The granddaddy of sales copy is Bob Bly, and this is exactly what he tells people, over and over again. I can make you more money, says he, and he is evidently correct on that point. And that’s awesome for Bob, but it doesn’t work for non-profits.

This is not because non-profits do not need money. They actually always need money. Throw a stone into a roomful of non-profit people, and you will give some non-profit guy a head wound, and that guy will not have health insurance, because non-profits always need money. So money is still a factor here.

The difference is you are no longer getting people to buy something. You are getting people to invest.

We HATE investing.

When we buy things, we know exactly what we’re getting, and what it’s going to do for us. I buy cheese because I really like cheese. It is delicious, it smells good, it is frequently studded with nuts or rosemary or apricots, it goes great with a glass of wine, it keeps me from getting too skinny (a thing I worry about constantly, let me tell you) and it featured very prominently in the wonderful Redwall books of my youth. These are great reasons to buy cheese.

When we invest in things, we do not usually know what we’re getting. Very few people actually own stocks and bonds, few people have CDs or savings of any kind, because they don’t understand the investment. So someone has to explain it to us.

Here’s the clincher: nobody likes to have stuff explained to them.

We get bored. We tune out. We start counting the freckles on the bank guy’s face, and deciding that maybe he should have been a little friendlier with the sunscreen in his youth, because some of those freckles are big and strangely-shaped and look decidedly precancerous. We start wondering what we’re going to have for dinner. We start hating the term ‘CDs’. Not really, because music CDs are great, but we mostly use mp3s now and why would they call investment-CDs CDs when there were already CDs in the world and those CDs had music on them? Investment CDs are never going to compete with music CDs, we think. We are wondering if this guy is still talking about the CDs. We kind of have to pee. We wish he’d finish up.

When we get bored, we never find out what the awesome investment is going to do for us, and so we never invest. We take our money and we go buy cheese, because we know all the delights of cheese, and they are numerously delicious.

Back to the Non-Profits

Non-profits get their money from donations. There is a huge list of things that fall under the category of ‘donations’ – grants, government and state monies, privately wealthy folk who for some reason don’t see the immediate necessity of funding my personal lifestyle and choose to write checks to other causes instead – but for the sake of discussion, ‘donations’ about covers it.

When someone is being asked to donate to a non-profit, they are being asked to invest. They personally are not going to get the return on their investment, but they want to know that their money is going to accomplish something good. I know, these are selfish evil people, but they want to be able to have the warm fuzzies that come with sending your money off to save starving children. They want the fuzzies. They are complete addicts for the fuzzies. They want to know why your brand of fuzzies is better than the other guy’s fuzzies, and in order to do that, you’re going to have explain, and as I’ve already said, nobody likes shit explained to them, so you’re going to have to be entertaining. You’re going to have to tell them a story.

Writing for businesses is selling. Writing for non-profits is storytelling.

When writing for a non-profit, you have to craft a story that makes the potential donor’s heart grow three sizes in one day and cracks the Grinch’s face and sends him sledding down to Whoville with Max. That’s your job. It is a little easier than the Grinch, because your potential donors are good-hearted folk already and they aren’t green and they don’t have weird evil-shaped eyes, but you have competitors out there, competitors who will try to make their warm fuzzies seem warmer and fuzzier than that damned Snuggle bear, so you better craft a good story.

Good storytellers get the investments, because they can explain things without the listener being aware of the explanation. If the guy at the bank could craft a really compelling story about the CDs, I would sit there all rapt and attentive and he would probably get my money. They do this occasionally. They tell this wonderful story about a woman who started a twenty-dollar CD when she was fifteen and then retired at the age of thirty and went off to live in the Bahamas with an actor. A cool actor, not a creepy Hollywood type. A Johnny Depp type actor.

Although, I have to say, even then, I go: that sounds great, but do I HAVE to invest now? If I don’t invest now, I could use that money to buy cheese instead. And the immediate satisfaction of cheese is so much more real than the eventual satisfaction of financial stability. I don’t believe in financial stability anyway. I think financial stability hangs out with the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus and none of them are ever coming to my house again, because I’m a grown-up now.

I don’t feel this way about non-profits though. If you tell me I can save a small child from AIDS with my quarter, you have got my quarter, no problem. I’ll buy cheese some other time.

The Small Matter of Hero Creation

The donor is making an investment in someone else’s life. That is good and noble, but he needs to know why he is doing that. Tell him a story. Tell him a story about illiteracy if you’re writing for a library, tell him a story about poverty if you’re writing for a non-profit business loans company, tell him a story about disease if you’re writing for a health-care facility.

Then make the donor the hero of the story. Give him the power to rectify the situation, right the wrong, save the world. No one can resist being a hero.

Here’s what’s really fun: it’s true. You just told a true story, and you made a real hero. Which makes you the guy who makes heroes. It makes you Zeus. Zeus got all the lightning bolts and women and those cool arm-band things. Zeus is a good guy to be.

Yeah, yeah, real heroes make themselves, I know. I just want to be Zeus.

If I were Zeus, someone would bring me some cheese right now. I’ll bet you Zeus never had to buy his own cheese.

More cheese obsessions later. Subscribe so’s you don’t miss them.

April 24, 2008

Good Ink. It’s What I Do.

Filed under: Copywriting,Entrepreneurship — Tei @ 4:27 am
Tags: , , ,

I’d like it known that I wasn’t going to do this, because I have fawned over Naomi quite enough this week, thank you, and pretty soon I am going to be less her nemesis and more her bitch, if you know what I mean, and I think we all do. She put a thing up on her blog yesterday that challenged all of us who blog to answer a couple of simple questions about what it is we do, exactly, for a living. Now, I’m not sure I want anyone but my priest knowing that information, but then I got to this line:

This also could be for people who don’t have a damn clue what they’re going to write about tomorrow.

And I thought, well, she’s got me there.

For future reference: I never know what I’m going to write about tomorrow. I never know what I’m going to eat tomorrow either, nor where I will go running, nor, for that matter, where I will have put my keys (answer: nowhere a sane person would put them). So if you ever want to tell me what to write about tomorrow, feel free.

Here are the questions, and their respective answers:

What’s your game? What do you do?

I write.

What? My English teachers always said simple sentences were best. Okay, fine, you greedy bastards. If we’re going to get all specific here, I write marketing and promotional copy for businesses, which usually consists of brochures, white papers, newsletters, annual reports, budget requests, case studies, and website copy. I try to write for cool people, people who save babies from malaria, people whose companies save the Amazon rainforest, people making cool stuff that I personally would like to own. Previously, I’ve written for a major public library (Brooklyn, y’all), marketing companies, PR firms, technology companies, non-profits, medical institutions, and a lone clinical health psychologist.

Why do you do it? Do you love it, or do you just have one of those creepy knacks?

I love writing, in a big way. If it were possible for me to make a living writing fiction, I’d do that, but it’s really not, even for the great ones. Stephen King is about the sum of writers-who-live-on-their-writing. I like words and the way they go together, and I really fucking LOVE writing for people who love what they do. I like that time in the office where they’re trying to explain to me what they want their website to say, and I’m taking notes and they’re getting frustrated because they don’t know exactly what they want to say. If they knew exactly what they wanted to say, they’d write the damn thing themselves.

But I know. I totally get what they want to say. I know that a few days later, when I hand them their first draft, they’re going to recognize it as a solid form of all the little ephemeral disconnected thoughts they were floating by me before. I love that rush. It’s like crack for writers.

It happens right after the initial moment of panic that they will HATE EVERYTHING. Secretly, though, I know it’s perfect. And usually I’m right. Yeah, I’ve got a bit of knack. For listening, mostly, for translating emotion into words. If I could ever get that into a functioning short story, I’d be famous.

Who are your customers? What kind of people would need or want what you offer?

My customers at the moment are varied. Who I want to write for includes people in education, the environment, non-profits, health, the arts, small businesses, local businesses. Coca-Cola needs my services too, but screw them. Frankly, everyone with a business needs what I offer, because good writing equals good communication, and good communication means the people who need your services will find your business. Then, instead of spending time finding customers, they can keep saving baby seals or making local butter or whatever it is they do.

There are actually two categories here: non-profits and other businesses. Philanthropic institutions tend to need a copywriter to help them get donations, so they can keep doing the good stuff they do. Business in general tend to need a copywriter to get them get customers, so they can keep doing the good stuff that they do. Subtle difference. Big one, though, if you’re the writer. Which I am. And see? I know the difference.

What’s your marketing USP? Why should I buy from you instead of the other losers?

I care. I really do. I want to know all about what your business does and I want it to succeed. I want to get its soul down, even if it’s for your company newsletter. I care what you do, I listen to make sure I’ve got it right, and I turn out writing that you recognize as a part of your business. I want to make you happy, in a real way. If you’re practically squirming with delight at the way the writing came out, I get off on that. I will work my ass off to make that happy moment happen. I secretly want to be Superman or Robin Hood, one of those guys who swoops in at the right moment and gives you just what you needed to save the day. That’s my USP, Naomi. I’m a goddamn superhero.

Also, I’m never late. I hate late people.

What’s next for you? What’s the big plan?

Starting a copywriting business that focuses on the niche groups I just mentioned. Do-gooders, basically. I want to write for good people doing good stuff. I don’t really care about huge corporations – they’re not that interesting. I want to work for people who care about their business and what their business does, because those are the ones that I can actually make happy with my writing. Nike’s marketing director doesn’t give a good goddamn if I write copy that reflects Nike’s soul, even if I actually reach in, find the soul, and put it on paper in a way that makes it pulse like a creepy horror movie beastie. Nike only cares if it’s going to sell.

I want to work for the shoe guy down the street who frickin’ loves his shoes, who makes them so they’re beautiful, who buys his leather from a guy he’s known for years, who spent some time figuring out what shoelaces were best. Where’s that guy? I’ll write his website for free.

I actually am planning, when the thing gets off the ground and I have a reliable amount of work coming in, to do one giveaway project a month to a worthy cause. I’ll probably have a place on the site where you can propose a business for that giveaway. I’ll also be offering a hefty discount to non-profits. Because they don’t have any money, and I hear that.

It’s officially going up May 1st, (I hope I hope I hope). The company’s called Good Ink, and if I can’t wrangle that URL away from this guy I’m in negotiations with, it’ll be http://www.goodinkinc.com. I’ll let you people know when it’s up.

Right. Bit of a tangent there. This was fun, Naomi.

Now then. What am I going to write about tomorrow? Suggestions from the peanut gallery?

Want to find out whose suggestion got written? Subscribe. Because knowledge is power.

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