Rogue Ink

October 7, 2008

Stupid Fear and Smart Fear and Stupidity That’s Smart

Filed under: Writing — Tei @ 3:28 am
Tags: , ,

All right, here’s why I’m scared of marketing, are you ready?

First of all, marketing beat me up in first grade. He shoved me into a mud puddle and he stole my lunch money and he said mean things about my ponytail holder. Also, he used to smell faintly of brimstone. If that’s not enough to maintain a healthy fear of marketing on into adulthood, I don’t know what is.

There’s another reason, though. Totally irrelevant. We don’t really even need to talk about it. Much, anyway. I mean, if we didn’t talk about it you probably wouldn’t get a post today and I’d be that loser all over again, so. Well.

I’m Afraid of Looking Stupid

Which is, let us confess, one of the most idiotic fears a freelancer can have. We all have it though. We figure out somewhere around age five that someone doesn’t like the way we run or the way we dress or the way we pick our nose, and forever after we are aware that there are stupid ways of doing things, and non-stupid ways of doing things. We are pretty certain that most of the time, everyone else knows what the stupid ways are, and they’re not telling us until we’ve already done them. Then they point and laugh and won’t share their fruit roll-ups. Or their company’s money.

This is my fear. Speaking of stupid, this fear personifies that quality quite well. There are stupid and non-stupid ways of being afraid. Being so afraid of appearing stupid that you never do anything to draw attention to yourself (like, you know – marketing) for fear that someone will notice your stupidity = the stupid kind of fear.

Fear of big angry bear mama whose cub you have recently bopped in the nose = smart kind of fear. Pay attention to that fear. It will steer you down the right course. Through the blackberry bushes and into the rushing river.

So How Do We Get Rid of the Stupid Kind of Fear?

I am fearful of an awful lot of things. A long-winded example for you: I used to be afraid of going to martial arts classes, because I was afraid I would throw a punch like a girl and then everyone would point and laugh. (My father used to do this. I’d punch him on the shoulder after he punched me on the shoulder, and he’d chuckle, because I looped my punches and wasn’t getting any kind of power behind it. Just wait till my dad’s old. I’ll get him then. Though he’s been talking about getting a big stick when he’s old, so maybe not. Weren’t we talking about something else? Martial arts. Right.)

So I didn’t take martial arts for a long time, even though I really, really wanted to be Ziyi Zhang or Summer Glau and destroy everyone with the sheer power of my awesome awesomeness.

Then I took my first martial arts class and discovered that, while there are indeed guys who fly through the air with the greatest of ease and can crack your jawbone out of the rest of your skull while they’re up there – there are also guys who go through class looking like spastic upright turtles. They’re awkward. They’re uncomfortable to watch. They are much, much worse than you, but you do not point and laugh. No. Because you’re an adult now, and you really don’t have the inclination.

You do, however, take a strange schadenfreudic pleasure in the fact that you are better than they are.

That’s how you get over the fear.

There is Always Someone Worse Than You

Seriously, if you ever want to feel better about the quality of your skills, go browse around the web for awhile and look at the websites of people in your city, people who post on freelance job sites, people who blog, people all over the place. I’m not advocating getting all sneery and superior. I’m saying look at the quality of their work, and then look at yours, honestly.

Is it just as good?

Is it – dare I utter the word – BETTER?

I did this for a bit of today. I found a successful freelance writer who had written for companies I really want to work for – she had so many misspellings and grammar problems with her blog that I had to look away for fear of damage to my retinas. I found a freelance copywriter who wrote that he had too much work to handle, but his website was poorly written and his samples were more awkward than a fourteen-year-old putting on his first jockstrap. And as I sorted through these writers – whose work wasn’t bad so much as mediocre – that fear of being stupid started to dissolve into something worse:

The fear that I already was stupid. Because I hadn’t gotten off my rear and put on my shiny superman cape and marketed myself. Maybe nobody was pointing and laughing at this particular stupidity, but that’s because I work at home and no one sees my shame but me and the spider that has taken over dining room chandelier. But I know. I hung my head when I passed by a mirror. Of course, then I couldn’t see myself hanging my head, so the shame inducement may have been mitigated, but the PRINCIPLE STANDS.

The Intelligence of Stupidity

Now, these people whose work I was pleased to note came far short of mine? They clearly had no idea their work wasn’t great. Or at the very least, their copy and their self-promotion showed no such weakness. They thought they were awesome. They were psyched about ‘there’ new clients. They had tips for better writing, even though one of those tips may have been ‘use corect spelling and grammar’. They were totally oblivious to the notion that they were not the best damn copywriter to come down the pipe.

Children are stupid like this before the finger-pointing starts. They run stupid. They talk stupid. They do stupid things. They pull their shirts over their heads in public and stare open-mouthed at bald people wondering where all the hair went. But they don’t care, because as far as they’re concerned, they’re awesome. And we, as adults, we buy it. They’re children. They ARE awesome. What else could they be?

Remember the cool kid in high school? Not the popular one, not the handsome football player guy. The COOL guy. Or the COOL girl. The one I’m thinking of was named Sofia. She had about every attribute that could make her goth – the clothes, the makeup, the dyed hair. She ought to have been a cliche, like all the other goth kids. But she was so beatific, so haloed in her own gloriousness, that she was nothing of the kind.

She dyed her hair in mermaid colors and designed her own tattoos. Other goth kids were trying, like they knew you might catch them, like they knew what they were doing might possibly be stupid. You could never in this world have pointed and laughed and said Sofia was stupid. It wouldn’t have occurred to her that she could be. So it wouldn’t have occurred to you, either.

If you’re unaware of your potential for stupidity, so will everyone else be.

Unless you fall over a small Pomeranian and fall nosefirst into a vat of custard. There’s really no cure for that one.

Subscribe. Tomorrow I’ll talk about confidence, which means James’ll be making an appearance.

P.S. Addendum. It occurs to me that I never thought sales guy was stupid. I thought he was underhanded and a shyster, but I never once thought he was stupid. There was no room for that. You can’t be a sales guy and think that you’re stupid. So let this be a lesson to you – stupidity is not necessarily doing something stupid. It’s thinking you’re doing something stupid.

October 6, 2008

Why Sales Patter Kind of Sucks

Filed under: Writing — Tei @ 5:22 am
Tags: , , , ,

So I’m joining a leads group in my local Chamber of Commerce. This is very cool, because it makes me feel like a grown-up. I’ll explain what a leads group is in some other post when I’ve got a better handle on what goes on and I can figure out whether I’m for them or against them. At which point I shall take a righteous stance on one side or the other and woe betide those who dissent.

Trouble is, I don’t know if a leads group is a worthy investment of your time. Because I apparently was not at the leads group meeting that Thursday. Instead, I found myself in the middle of a sales pitch for a ‘success’ seminar lead by a dude named Brian Tracy, who is apparently (according to the always-helpful Wikipedia) from Canada, so be it known I am holding that illustrious nation responsible for the following story.

Don’t fret, James. You don’t want to KNOW all the stuff I hold the U.S. of A. responsible for. Paris Hilton, for a start. Oh, and Australia is responsible for Crocs. Just so everyone keeps track here.

So this guy walks into a room . . .

He’s short. Notably so. I might not have noted the short (being as we were all sitting down, he was standing, and heights tend to get a little skewed in that situation) except that he was so obviously compromising for it by being well-groomed, and well-dressed, and holding his chest about four inches out from his sternum. There is a relaxed quality that most people who don’t much think about their appearance have, and this guy lacks it. Now, I’ll grant you he didn’t go the alternate route of getting all shy, but over-confidence is equally unnerving. It lets us know you’re compensating for something, and then we simply must find out what. (Low sex drive? Secret garage full of old Star Wars memorabilia? Third nipple?)

This is also true for guys in nice cars. You can tell the sort of guy who has a nice car because he’s just really into cars, as opposed to the kind of guy who has a nice car because he thinks everyone else is into cars. Even if you have never consciously had this thought, you know exactly what I’m talking about. This guy had the physical appearance equivalent of a midlife-crisis car draped all over him.

He was also, just so I’m not ragging on him all the way through, quite good-looking. Nice jawline.

And starts to ask us about our small businesses.

Which is kind of nice. We go around the room, we give the ten-second version of the elevator speech, everyone smiles at everyone. We feel congenial, banded together, pleased with ourselves for not accidentally saying ‘like’ when we have repeatedly told ourselves to do no such thing (what? I’m young, and my generation says ‘like’ a lot. It’s a horrible habit, I’m working on it. YOUR generation probably smoked, and that’s way worse for you).

So that’s all good. He asks us whether we need to improve anything in our small business running, and we of course all confess that we do, except for a very tall grumpy guy looking put upon directly across the aisle from me, who maintained an expression throughout this session that is probably best described as ‘smells something foul in his sister-in-law’s house and is waiting for the right moment to undercut her by drawing attention to it’.

As it turns out, he had the right idea.

Presentation guy asks us about our strengths and weaknesses.

He’s got a little chart. We write things down gamely, rating our ability to do certain things from 1 to 10. If you’re interested, the stuff I suck at is prospecting and procrastination (even in my faults, I am alliterative). Everything else I’m fantastic at. No, really. I rock at everything else.

There might’ve been some sevens in there, but whatever. Seven’s a lucky number.

He gets motivational.

Fear is the mind-killer, he says. No, he doesn’t, because most people aren’t dorky enough to get a Dune reference. Instead he uses some handy acronyms – False Evidence Appearing Real and Forget Everything and Run. Fear is a bad thing. We get it. Stop being afraid. Get out there and do your business up right. Awesome. We’re all feeling motivated and groovy, like we can conquer the world.

Then he name-drops.

He picks up a book from the table and starts talking about how it changed his life.

Now, all the way through this whole presentation, this guy has had a patter going. He’s gotten us to finish sentences with him – “How do you eat an elephant?” – “One bite at a time.” Stuff we know, stuff that gets us involved with him. I can hear the patter, it sounds like patter, it sounds like the sort of voice a frat boy puts on when he’s read The Game one too many times and thinks he can pick up Madeleine Albright if he wanted to. I knew it was coming.

But I still felt like a jackass when it did.

He sells.

He sells us the book, the man who wrote it, the man whose seminar he’s hawking. We all like him by now – of course we do, he’s likeable, he’s used all the techniques sales people use to endear themselves to their audience. I watched him do it. I know what’s up. When he asked us to spend $500 to see a day-long seminar – go now, we won’t be back through Denver for another two years! (OFFER ENDS NOW!) – I was not at all surprised.

And I still felt kind of used.

The problem with sales of this kind.

Sales copy does more or less the same thing. You’ve seen websites and ads like this all over the web – “I made over $1,000,000 with this technique and so can you. This book shows you step-by-step everything you need to get a great career going in a new field. In just one week, people who have read this book got an average of five new clients. Start your new career today.”

“Oh. Cost? Right. Um. Tell you what. I’ll patter at you for another eight pages, get you really psyched about this new career of yours, and then tell you the cost, okay? At which point one of two things will happen. Either you’ll get really pissed at me for dragging you along for all that time, building up your hopes only to discover it’s $120 for the package, which is way too much of an investment for a book that’s probably going to wind up to be a scam, OR you’ll be in such despair you’ll think, well, I guess I’ll buy it anyway. Maybe this one is for real.”

I saw people at this seminar have the exact same thought process. Words are words whether spoken or written, and sales patter is the same throughout the kingdom of communication. The way that these guys make money is through those people who feel guilty. They’ve come this far, they might as well take the chance. Maybe it’s for real. Maybe it will work. Those are the people who buy.

Which is good for them. But it sucks for you.

Sales patter is very, very rarely the prelude to a product you want. Sales patter is there to disguise the product itself. Good products don’t need patter – they stand by themselves, you don’t need to be convinced that you want them because you really, really want them. You can tell that they’re worth hiring because their statements are straightforward and unambiguous. They don’t need to say things like, “And one guy who bought this product came home and found an elephant just waiting for him in his front yard! He’d always wanted an elephant, ever since he was a boy! A childhood dream came true because of this product! Also there was cotton candy! And acrobats! And a fire-breathing dragon that unfortunately set a small community alight but OUR GUY WHO BOUGHT THE PRODUCT WAS UNHARMED! HA!”

Companies who have something worth selling have statements that usually run something like, “I’m very good at this. You should hire me to do it for you.”

The Difference Between Buyers and Clients

Sales patter gets a lot of admiration because sales copy and sales patter tend to get buyers. I’m not denying this. They definitely get buyers. However – and this is a big however – they don’t get clients. If you actually go through with buying the book and it’s the same drivel you’ve heard a million times before for free on blogs, you’re never going to buy from them again. That’s okay – they’ve got your hundred bucks. And there’s a lot of people out there just waiting to be lulled by patter.

Getting a client – one who will stick with you for years to come, who feels loyalty for you, who is grateful to you for always being exactly what they needed – is far, far different from getting a buyer.

People who are seeking buyers are like the people who run Vegas. They only need you to come once. They’ll show you a good time, they’ll make you feel special for a bit. You’re taking a chance, going crazy – WHOO! But then, at the end of it all, you’ll feel kind of used and you won’t know why. You signed up for it, after all.

What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas because you’d be too ashamed to admit you did it anywhere else. If I’d signed up for the day-long $500 seminar the guy wanted me to sign up for, I’d never admit it to anyone. Because I would have been had, and I would know that this was my own secret shame, to be confessed to a priest and maybe a bartender immediately after.

Don’t fall for sales patter, seriously. It’ll make you get that old-vodka taste in your mouth and an empty wallet, and you won’t have anyone to blame but yourself.

And the short guy. And Canada.

Subscribe. I will denounce more people tomorrow, I’m sure. Maybe weasels. The weasels totally have it coming.

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.


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.

April 25, 2008

Finding Your Client’s Voice. Hint: It is Not In the Fridge.

Filed under: Writing — Tei @ 3:25 am
Tags: , ,

It has come to my attention that in my zest and fervor (this came out zert and fesvor the first time. I don’t know what it means, but I’m pretty sure it’s dirty) to start taking some pride and confidence in my work, I have completely overdone it. I have started to brag about stuff that I know to be true, but that you people have no way of verifying. It is, in short, put up or shut up time over here at Rogue Ink.

And so we hereby commence with the practical advice on copywriting.

I’ve been talking a lot about my ability to listen to a client, to understand what they want to say and how they want it to come across so I can produce that in my writing. “Great,” say you, “I suppose you just flap your wings and fart and that magically happens.” Now, this is only true if we have a fairly flexible definition of what ‘that’ indicates, so let’s move on.

When a client hires me, often they’ve had another copywriter in the past. (No consolation prize jokes here. I am very young and my clients tend to be older. They’ve been around, okay? I am a breath of fresh air for them, goddamnit.) The thing they complain about most often with their previous copywriters, and this is very important, is NOT that the writing was bad. Often, the writing was actually quite good.

The problem was that the writing SOUNDED wrong.

Clients, especially small clients, want the writing to sound like them. Or at least their company. Most writers’ writing winds up sounding like the writer, not the client. Having a distinctive writing voice is great if you’re Raymond Carver. It is horrible if you intend to make a living writing business copy. And I have news for everyone. Raymond Carver never wrote business copy. He worked as a night custodian once, but that is as close as he ever got to an equivalent payscale. If you’re going to work as a copywriter, you have to learn to write in the client’s voice. And to do that, you have to listen to your client.

Learn the Vernacular.

There’ll be a guy who hires you (or a gal, whichever). This guy has probably been with the company for awhile. If it’s a small company, he may own it. Either way, the voice of the company has permeated into his language. He’s going to use terms and phrases you’ve never heard before. He’s going to refer to his company’s clients in a certain way and his colleagues in a certain way and his cat in a certain way. Listen to all of that. Write it down if you have to. (You’re taking notes, right? For the love of all that is holy, take notes when you are talking to a prospective client.) He will never know that you are writing down the fact that they refer to their employees as ‘scrubs’ and their clients as ‘pains in the ass.’ You may never quote him directly on this, but the voice is what’s important, and the vocabulary is a huge part of that.

Example: when I was writing for the library, I assumed when I began that they would refer to the people who used the library as ‘patrons.’ Why? Because ‘library patrons’ is a phrase I’m used to. It’s how my library used to refer to me, when I was a wee tot. Get this, though: I was wrong. Brooklyn Public Library was busy marketing themselves as hip and cool and altogether dopesauce. They were modern, they were technology-savvy. And they called their patrons ‘customers.’

The only reason I didn’t completely screw that up in the first round of copy was because I was listening when the marketing department head was talking. And I thought, “Weird. They don’t call them patrons.” And I never mentioned this, but it was one of those little subtle edits that the client never had to make, because I was listening. Because I ‘got’ them. I got that they were hip and cool and savvy and that they had customers.

One word. That’s all. The vocabulary is half of the voice.

Listen Between the Lines.

The frustrating part of being commissioned to write (or design, I have it on good authority) for another person is that they often know exactly what they want. They cannot explain what they want, but they will know it when they see it. That’s all well and good, but given the infinite possibilities of tone and style, hitting the nail on the head first round is going to be damned difficult if you can’t use some intuition.

Yes, I’m a woman, and yes, my intuition works great. I am very sorry if any menfolk out there take umbrage. Suck it up. I can’t pee without dropping trou. We make trade-offs.

Intuition is only a wee bit genuine intuition, actually. Mostly it’s a multiple choice test. Like this:

What sort of tone do you want for your copy?

a) professional
b) friendly
c) hip and savvy
d) stick-up-the-butt

The client is not going to volunteer any of those options. But you can listen to what they’re saying, and circle the correct box. I was talking to a woman who was one of the first clinical health psychologists in the world. She’s a very smart, matter-of-fact, wry-witted sort of lady, and you might have gone with d) at first blush. When I asked her about her work, though, while she was being smart and matter-of-fact, she was also being intensely caring, somewhere underneath. I asked her if she wanted to have a more medically technical tone or a more personal approach, and she instantly said she wanted a more personal approach.

This was a woman who had no idea what she wanted when I first met her. She did variations on the theme of “I really don’t know. You’re the professional. What do you think would work?” for about an hour. You have to pry a little bit. Get it down to options b) and c) just by listening, feeling the situation out. Then ask her which of those two she wants. She’ll be able to tell you. She’ll know it when she hears it.

If she doesn’t want either, start over. You’ve eliminated two options. You only have infinitely more to go.

Do Not Cheat

I can’t believe how often I say ‘don’t cheat’ on this blog, but apparently it’s what all those other guys do all the time. And I’m the rogue. I should be a cheating fool.

Here’s what I mean. Do not, under any circumstances, assume that you already know what the client wants before you meet them and assess the voice and the content they’re looking for. I got my first big job because they had first hired a huge marketing firm to write their copy. This was New York, so the marketing firm in question banged out some perfectly serviceable copy, professional, eloquent.

Boring as fuck-all.

I mean, really. I can’t even give you an example of how boring it was. My mind simply refused to coalesce to it. It ran through the channels of my brainpan like water off a duck’s back and then sat there, in a stagnant little pool on the ground, and a squirrel came by and peed in it.

When they hired me, they explained what they wanted. And I heard the word ‘inspire’ over and over again. We want to inspire our donors, we want to show that we inspire our clients, inspire would be an awesome name for a building that actually had a giant spire. Over and over. You cannot inspire with generic, normal copy. It is not possible.

Do not cheat. Do not write serviceable copy. Either you wrote it for your client, or you didn’t do your job. End of story.

Adjectives Lie.

Really, they do. This is going to be the shortest piece of advice I have, but when a client says, “I want it to sound edgy,” or “young,” or “fresh,” or even something fairly banal like, “professional,” they may very well want that thing, but that is not the only thing they want. And that adjective may, in fact, be the complete opposite of what they actually want. They think the word means something else. They are hoping like mad this cool, amazing, saucy word applies to them. And you are a writer, so you KNOW what the adjective means, and I am sure you can produce it, but it will not be what the client was looking for, because the client thought the adjective meant something else. It had such cool syllables! How could it NOT mean what they wanted it to mean?

Do not listen to the adjective. The adjective lies. The voice never lies.


This trick may only work for me, but it works great. I personify my clients’ companies in my head. There was one client who ran an online learning community for teachers, and she needed her website to have a nurturing sort of overtone, while still being professional and capable. I gave her company the voice of Mrs. Potts, from Beauty and the Beast. Would Mrs. Potts have ever described an online learning community? Nah. But her voice was the important thing. Her voice in my head, reciting the copy I was putting down, softened the edges on things that were coming out a little too corporate. Mrs. Potts wouldn’t say ‘exemplary.’ It comes out of her teapot all wrong. She’s say ‘excellent.’ That sounds warmer. Chip would be all pleased.

Again, this may only work for me. I’ve discovered it works very, very well with one-man shops (just give the company the voice of the person in question) and it is an extraordinary detriment when trying to write one’s own copy. When I try to write my own copy, I automatically start talking in my own voice, and I am not easy to work with. Goes like this:

“Well, what would you say about your work?”

“I would probably cuss. I think I did, actually. Yesterday. Didn’t I cuss when I was describing what I did for a living yesterday? For that thing Naomi has us all doing? I did cuss, didn’t I. Fuck.”

“You just did it again.”

“Shut up.”

“You know, your voice really isn’t all that professional.”

“I hate you. I have to finish this website copy by Monday and you are not helping.”

“I’m just saying, maybe you should have been a WWF wrestler or something. They get to cuss all the time.”

“I’m not talking to you anymore.”

“Then how will you know what you sound like?”

You see the problem.

Want you should get more bipolarity? Subscribe. I’ll try to talk more about copywriting tomorrow.

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 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.

April 9, 2008

Welcome IttyBiz Peeps!

Be it known that Naomi over at IttyBiz is my deep and abiding nemesis forthwith, for the cacophony of readers she hath brought to my tiny little blog. As proof, I give you this taunting little note she left me:

Haha. Now you’re going to have to start writing “Content is king” all over your blog and using numbers in your post titles because YOU’RE A REAL BLOGGER NOW! Na na na na NAAAA na.

Oh, very clever, most excellent adversary. Very clever indeed. You think I will be overwhelmed, but I shall prevail! And live to blog another day. Today, actually. ‘Cause, you know. I’m already here.

Today, I’m going to answer an astoundingly relevant question from one of my new commenters, which is: What is it you write about over here, exactly?

I’m SO glad you asked.

No, really. I prepared for this. I had a whole diagram plotted. Graphs and charts and the whole shebang.

Unfortunately, sticking a diagram in here is an aspect of bloggery that I have not yet mastered, so I give you instead


Rogue Ink is going to provide you with a slew of great information on writing professionally, freelancing by the seat of your pants, and blogging rogue-style (which is to say, with no idea what I’m doing). Why Rogue? Because no matter how desperate the situation, I will manage to wiggle my way out of it. I will climb trees, pick locks, and seduce devilishly handsome men to do it, but I will post daily, goddamnit. Here’s what I’ve come up with so far. I’ll be adding things to this as they become necessary.

  • Entrepreneurship: I will be officially founding (and by officially founding, we mean “putting up money to register with the state of Colorado”) my copywriting business, Good Ink (because not everyone likes the idea of a delightfully mischievous rebel writing for their company), on May 1, 2008. I’ll be chronicling all the ups and downs of that venture, including any marketing and business-running advice that has proven useful to me. The good news: my mother’s a marketing guru. The bad news: my aforementioned nemesis is also a marketing guru, and as we have seen, she will stop at nothing. Stay tuned for the ensuing exciting chronicles. If they’re really good, we’ll make them into a comic book.
  • Copywriting: By dint of its being my bread and butter (no, not literally, that would be greasy and disgusting), copywriting is the only topic on this bog on which I am able to speak with authority. And so I shall do so. With aplomb. And that bread and butter. Toasted.
  • Blogging: For the real experts, go check out the ever-growing list of blogging blogs in my links. The stuff you find here on blogging is strictly for newbies, but if you’re like me, you get so desperate looking for matter-of-fact information (HOW do you add an RSS feed?) in a world full of professionals that some of the things I recently figured out may be just what you’re looked for. Here’s hoping.
  • Journalism: I have a dream that one day I will write for Mother Jones and The Atlantic Monthly. I secretly want to be Tom Chiarella. I want to write epic, amazing stories that will make you weep and think and wonder softly to yourself late at night. Until that day, I write a little column now and again for the SF Chronicle’s Employment section, and will be keeping you posted on any new tricks I discover in journalism. And if I ever get any idea what’s really going on in the White House, rest assured, you will hear about it.
  • The War on English: Screw the war on Christmas. Christmas isn’t going anywhere, and I think we all know it. There are, however, powerful threats to the English language out there, and they will stop at nothing until we are all babbling as incoherently as those typo-endorsing, phonetic spelling, technology-addicted HEATHENS who live in the lower ranks of the comment filters. We, the Coalition of English Majors, shall not take this assault to our beloved language lying down. Nay, we shall blog about them, and we shall blog with a righteous fury, and they will know that we are free writers here. Freelancing writers, for the most part. But still. Free as all hell.
  • Off Topic: And now, as Monty Python says, something completely different. These will be the posts that are utterly unrelated to starting, owning, and running a freelance copywriting business. Except insofar as they will generally be starring the exploits, antics, and personal irritations of yours truly, who is the starter, owner, and runner of said freelance copywriting business.
  • Quotes: Quotes are sometimes from famous people, sometimes from other bloggers out there, and mostly just whatever I felt like repeating. It is distinct from Out of Context in that these people wrote it down, and thereby gave their implicit permission to be quoted. Whereas the Out of Context folk were stealth-quoted. That’s why it’s called Rogue Ink. For the stealthiness.
  • Well Played: Sometimes there are people who just do it up right. Occasionally, I’m going to give them some props. Because I grew up in Oakland, and that’s what they called it.

Today’s well played: Naomi of IttyBiz.

A clever gambit indeed, sending your readership over here. I would almost think you meant well. Oh, but I know you have secret plots in store, I do indeed. I will be watching you VERY closely.

If only because your blog is kind of, as we have mentioned before, ridiculously awesome and hilarious. And offers incredible insight into what entrepreneurs should do when they’re scared shitless (this would be me), as well as cutting commentary on bad marketing, truly unique SEO words, and some of the funniest analysis of the current media scene I’ve yet encountered. And your husband is absolutely adorable, and clearly loves you in a deep and abiding fashion.

For making me welcome, for sending your readers, for being clever and funny and encouraging and calling me a bitch several times in a way that somehow made me feel as though I had attained a new level of epic, I would like to say, well played, Naomi. Well played indeed.

Duel at dawn? Your place or mine?

April 3, 2008

The War on English: Why, when I was a girl . . .

Filed under: Writing — Tei @ 9:29 pm
Tags: , ,

Right after we slogged through snow and sleet uphill both ways (okay, this was northern California, so not so much snow and sleet as sheeting rain, but still, the hill was there, and it was effing steep), they sat us down in our little chairs and they made us journals out of regular ol’ writing paper and a manila folder, stapled along the margin, which we then decorated with colored pencils and one madly maligned Sharpie. We would write in those little journals every single bloody day, and we would get them back next week with spelling corrections and grammar corrections, and sometimes a note that recommended we see the school counselor, if the topic we had chosen to write about happened to be, oh, I don’t know, the way we decapitated and tattooed our Barbie dolls. That is how we did it, when I was a girl.

Apparently, no more. What is happening to the children? Won’t anyone think of the children?

Here’s the good thing about this study. Girls are out-performing boys. Which is as it should be and has ever been, so this is no surprise, but it is nice to know that for yet another year, the universe has not tilted off its axis. (Does the universe have an axis? Discuss, all you aerospace experts out there.)

Here’s the other good thing about this study: there are very few good writers graduating into the workforce, which means I don’t have to worry about some young upstart booting me out of my field in a few years. I am a member of a dwindling but elite group. We are those who properly capitalize and punctuate our text messages, who know the difference between ‘who for’ and ‘for whom,’ who carry Strunk and White and the Chicago Manual of Style and the AP Stylebook, because we are nothing if not stylish, baby. In the future, the only ways humans will be able to communicate with each other will be through copywriters. We will hold all the power. BWAH HA HAAA!!!

Unless they bring smoke signals back. In which case, we might be a little screwed.

April 2, 2008

Conducting Interviews for Folks Who Hate Conducting Interviews

The Golden Rule has always worked for me. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Which is why, occasionally, my friends will awaken to me on their doorsteps with a chai latte and a muffin at the ready. One of these days, someone will do so unto me. And that will be a good day. Because every day is a good day when it begins with a muffin.

Days that begin with a random stranger calling me up and asking me to give them money are not, however, good days. They are days that leave me fumbling for the coffeepot and growling at the cat. (Just to give you an idea of how annoyed I would be, I have no cat.) And yet this is the thing that, as a freelance writer, I have to do, over and over again. I call people who do not know me and I ask them for things. Frequently those things are money. More recently, those things are information.

I managed to land that gig writing articles for the employment section of the SF Chronicle, which means that every week I am clamoring for people to interview on various subjects. Cold-calling strangers is not something I enjoy doing. Asking those same strangers questions about why multi-interviewing has gotten so goddamn popular is not enjoyable, either, for them or for me. Here’s a few things that allow me to make peace with my Golden Rule.

They asked for it. Instead of contacting people out of the blue, try to get them to volunteer to be interviewed. This is easier than it sounds, especially when you stretch the rule a little bit and allow other people to volunteer your interviewee to you. Name-dropping a colleague of theirs is a good way to get past the initial ‘You’re a stranger, why should I even glance at your email?’ problem. Online forums are also a good place to find people – and people who know people. I’m on MediaBistro and a member of a women in consulting community, and when I send a little note out into the ether, dozens of people get in touch, wanting to be famous. Or in print. Which, for most of us mortals, is the same thing. Which brings me to . . .

Everybody wants to be an authority. We really do. You know that little thrill you get when you hear someone recommend you as the best person to talk to about how to grout your bathroom? Admit it. You get a thrill. And this is GROUT we’re talking about. When you’re calling someone to ask for an interview, you are asking them to be the authority on a topic. You are basically saying, “Hello, I’m doing an article on refinishing bathrooms, and so-and-so tells me you are the Queen of Grout. Would you, your highness, be so kind as to enlighten the rest of us peasants?” And everyone likes to be the Queen. Or King. Even if it is of Grout.

Grout is a funny word. Unrelated, but true. Related is the fact that being funny is the best possible thing you can do when speaking with a stranger. This is akin to the reason you should admit you were speeding when the cop pulls you over. It is so antithetical to what the cop was expecting that he will be thrilled. Same goes for interviews. When you first introduce yourself and do the perfunctory martini-chat, the interviewee is expecting you to be boring. If you’re funny and charming, you’ve just delighted them sideways. Low expectations are your friends.

Nobody likes a time-waster. Wham, bam, thank you Ma’am is bad for dating, but good strategy for interviews. Once you’ve got this interviewee actually talking to you on the phone, you want to get all the questions answered before the thrill of being an authority wears off. For most people, the upper threshold is about half an hour. If you’re Hunter S. Thompson and you are doing a full-length book on this person’s perspective, then you can take longer, but for articles and background information, keep it short and on-topic.

Questions are a beforehand activity. Seems obvious, but most of us consider ourselves savvy people, and we think, Hey, I’m bright. I can wing it. And we can’t. We are wrong. You will be typing up what this person is saying, and trying to follow their words, transfer them to paper, and remember what you were going to ask next is too much for your poor little brain. It is a fragile being. Be kind to it. Sometimes, without warning, it will come up with a brilliant off-the-cuff follow-up question, and then you can give it a cookie and feel superior to the rest of us. Do a little beforehand research and ask insightful questions. You’ll know you’ve done that when the interviewee says, ‘That’s a great question.’ Either that, or you’re talking to a professional politician. Back away slowly.

There is a magic question. If you’ve got a good authority on a subject, and you’ve liked what they have to say, you can usually squeeze one more drop of toothpaste out of the tube with the question “Is there anything I haven’t asked that I should have?” Some of the best anecdotes come from this question, and most of the best ledes I’ve ever written. It is a magical question. Use it wisely.

Know when to fold ’em. There are a few people who simply do not respond to leading questions. You could ask them to describe their adorable grandchildren, and they would only be able to come up with, “Well, they’re small.” Be polite to these people, but don’t try to force responses out of them. Go through your list of questions as naturally as you can with the crickets in the background, and then make a graceful exit.

Exit like a ninja. When I’m finished with an interview, I like to pull the trick my ex-boyfriend used to when he was tired of talking to me. I thank them, and then say, “Well, I should let you go.” Look how considerate I’m being! My interviewee is a busy person! She has dictates on Grout to deliver! And I remembered that! Aren’t I thoughtful!

Yes I am. I am also probably telling them I appreciated them taking the time, telling them I’ll contact them when the article runs, and saying goodbye, all while they’re still under the blissful little umbrella of my thoughtfulness.

Get a headset. Or your neck will hurt. That is all I need to say about that.

There’s some very practical, and well-written, advice on how to conduct an interview for normal people, who are not jaded and bitter, over on Words on the Page and (addendum) Smithwriting. Check it out.

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