Grassroots Copywriting

Sharp, modern copywriting for web and print. Based in Pembrokeshire, we craft quality content for clients across the UK.

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Unsolicited book pitches never, ever work. Except when they do

Everyone knows that an unsolicited book proposal is a waste of time, don’t they? They either go straight into the bin, or are lost into a pile in a corner never to be seen again.

That is, unless some sort of magic happens and the pitch becomes a book.

‘Wilder Wales’ started out as a book idea that popped into my head on a weekend in Snowdonia in 2012. It became an unsolicited proposal, which I put together to a standard format with one particular non-fiction publisher in mind.

And they liked it. The first edition was published by Graffeg in 2015 and sold out. Now it’s back in a new compact edition, continuing to prove that an on spec pitch really can work – if you have faith.


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It pays to keep your writing snake-free

I’ve just finished a hefty non-fiction editing project. The book manuscript I was given to look at was a delight to work on. Its author is a pioneer in his field (yes, he’s a farmer), knows his subject, and cares deeply about what he does.

It’s a good read, so my edit could be light-touch. That’s how I like a non-fiction editing job; some editors make changes for the sake of making changes, but most don’t.

My only grumble about an excellent first draft was that too many of the sentences were long. Most were a little too luntitledong, while a few were brain-twistingly, eye-wateringly massive.

The book in question is not academic writing – it’s aimed at the general reader. Even if it were aimed at an academic audience, I’d say shorter, punchier sentences would be preferable.

But for the general reader shorter is definitely better. Martin Cutts says: “More people fear snakes than full stops, so they recoil when a long sentence comes hissing across the page.”

Should you set yourself a target length? I do. As sentences get longer people lose the will to go on, so it makes sense to keep them with you.

One study looked at comprehension. It found that readers understand all of a text written with an average sentence length of just eight words. When the average was 14, the readers ‘got’ more than 90 per cent.

They were then given text with longer sentences. When the average reached a mind-numbing 43, comprehension disappeared below 10 per cent.

So, if you want to keep your reader happy don’t write snaky sentences. Set yourself a target and stick to it. When you review your first draft look for sentences that exceed your target and then sort them out.

That could mean cutting out unnecessary words, or it could mean adding in full stops. For example, in the last sentence I could have used a full stop instead of a comma, and I could have deleted the ‘out’.

Some people will try to impose a maximum sentence length on you, but resist that tyranny. Some sentences need more words, and a variety of sentence lengths makes for better writing.

Finally, the purpose of the text you’re creating should influence your sentence length target. For example, 12 words a sentence may be just right for brochure copy, whereas 20 might be better for a magazine feature article.

PS, for the record this post is a shade more than 400 words, has 28 sentences and the average sentence length is a lean, mean 14.3

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We all hate business BS, right?

So why do we still spout crap? It’s mystifying, but corporate BS seems to have a life of its own. Does anybody, anywhere, enjoy hearing, or reading, the likes of ‘cascading up’, ‘paradigm shifbullt’, ‘skillset’? Sadly, it seems unstoppable.

We’re all to blame, apparently. The sociologist Professor Laurie Taylor says we “collude” with nonsense-speak because we know our jobs depend upon letting it pass unchallenged. Why that has happened, and continues to happen, is an interesting question.

Take a listen to BBC Radio 4’s Talking Aloud to hear Taylor and guests explore why what he calls “obfuscating terminology” (too polite for ‘bullshit’…) cannot be stopped. They argue that the management theory industry is at the root of the problem, creating a pseudoscience that demands that simple ideas are made to sound complicated.





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Giving credit to Dr. Suess, and his cat

At the Bank of England they understand numbers, but are, apparently, not so good with words. So it’s great to know that the Cat in the Hat is doing his bit to help all of us to understand what the bank is trying to tell us. It’s a response to the discovery that the bank’s inflation reports baffle four readers out of every five.

The bank’s guide towards plainer speaking has been thepaper money small cat’s creator, Dr Suess. The Suess way with simple words is now the bank’s ideal.

But I’d say short words and simple sentences are only part of it. No matter how long or short, some words work on our emotions, for better and for worse. I know my heart sinks when I hear, or read, particular words and phrases, and it doesn’t encourage understanding.

This isn’t the place to get into politics, but I’d say that both ‘strong’ and ‘stable’ have become heart-sink words for lots of people in the UK.

The problem is that people are often blissfully unaware of the fact that they have been taken prisoner by their industry or sector’s jargon. It’s so much part of their working day that they don’t know how their insider-speak makes everybody else feel.

Let’s use politics as an example again. Just about every politician now uses the phrase ‘going forward’ in every interview. ‘In the future’ is no longer good enough, it has be be ‘going forward’.

I can be listening to what’s being said nodding agreement, but that changes as soon as I hear that heart-sink phrase. From there on in, they’ve lost me.

First published at LinkedIn.

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Why you shouldn’t knock ‘herd mentality’

Why is it that ‘flock of cows’ is wrong? Or ‘herd of sheep’, for that matter?

Collective nouns puzzle me. Some, like a gaggle of geese, sound about right. But what’s the logic in ‘a murder of crows’, or ‘a deceit of lapwings’?

The collective is important. Despite the negative implication of the phrase ‘herd mentality’, our instinctive preference for social interaction is at the heart of many of our day-to-day decisions.herd of cows

We make our minds up based on what psychologists call ‘social proofing’, that is a desire to fall into line with people that we think are like us.

An understanding of this fundamental need can be used to influence others in all sorts of ways. If you’ve got five minutes head over to Robert Cialdini’s site and take its ‘influence master’ quiz – but wait until you get to the end of this post (it’s what the majority of really bright people do, you know).

The quiz will test your understanding of how marketers use social proofing. And it provides you with an idea of how sensitive you are to the tricks of the influencers’ trade.

For me, the most exciting thing about harnessing social proofing is the punch it can bring to environment-related messaging. The classic example is hotel towels.

When guests were told that re-using towels saved their hotel money it made little difference to behaviour. They were also largely unmoved when told about environmental impacts – the ‘save the planet’ argument.

What did work was adding in a reference to the herd, or whatever the collective noun for hotel guests might be (how about a weariness?) When told that most other guests who stayed in their room did re-use towels, a majority of people became re-users themselves.

UK politicians are now talking about levying deposits on plastic drink bottles to reduce litter. A deposit scheme is definitely worth a try, but it should be communicated with just a twist of social proofing.

A recent study in the Netherlands tested-out a number of messaging approaches in the hope of reducing bottled water consumption on a college campus. One of the approaches involved students being told about a (fictitious) survey that showed that 65 per cent of their peers were already cutting down on bottled water use.

Yes, that was the approach that worked best when it was linked to facts and figures about environmental impact. Powerful thing the herd, flock, school, shoal, charm, troop, or whatever.

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Guidelines: keeping your writing on track

‘A hotel’ or ‘an hotel’? And, what’s the plural of zero? Answers later. But first, do those questions matter?

If you’re one of those people who is happy to use ‘your’ when you mean ‘you’re’ then possibly not, but good spelling and grammar do mean a lot to plenty of people. Getting these things wrong can eat away at the reputation of your business or organisation.

Poor writing will also cost you search ranking. Being close to the top of Google’s page one will get you noticed, but that’s less likely to happen if your site’s pages are full of shoddy text. Google says that ‘reputable sites tend to spell better’ – and reputable ones rank above less reputable ones.

So, what can you do if grammar isn’t your strong point? You can catch lots of errors using the spellcheck function, or better still a writing app. I like Ginger.

But don’t put all your trust in tech. It’s still best to also ask someone else to scan through your work before hitting print or publish.

Ultimately though, I’d recommend that you put together your own set of brand guidelines for writing. If you’re running an SME I’d guess there’s a good chance that it’s something that you haven’t got around to. There is only so much you can do in a day, isn’t there?

It is worth getting around to, however. Putting some time into creating a set of common-sense rules for your marketing effort will make them feel more professional and can save you time in the long-term.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

It’s easy to do for yourself. And, as you put your guidelines together, you will be creating a ‘brand book’, a body of information that everybody can turn to when they are creating marketing material for your organisation.

Start out with the basics – say how your logo should be used and which colours and fonts are OK. It’s also a good idea to have some guidance for how photos (and video) should be used; collecting some examples of what’s right (and what’s not) is often the easiest way to make the point.

Finally, give time to working out a set of rules for writers. Some of that will be about spelling, grammar and the way you use names and titles, but it should also cover tone of voice.

Make that voice consistent. The way you ‘talk’ to your target audience through your web copy and print materials should same similar to the content of emails and social media posts.

It’s easier to grasp how good brand guidelines work if you can get a look at a well-crafted brand book. Mostly, they’re guarded like state secrets, but one US health care provider, Cleveland Clinic, has taken the enlightened step of making its brand rules open-access.

If you have time, take a look at the way they do at Cleveland and use their book as a blueprint for yours. What works for a big, complicated organisation like Cleveland’s hospitals, will also work for you.

And those questions? Both are examples of the grey area between right and wrong, which is where the style guide comes in. News organisations have their own in-house rules that reporters and editors are expected to follow and they can be a good reference resource for copywriters and brand journalists.

Personally, I like The Guardian style guide, which can answer just about every question that might come to you when you’re writing. So Guardian wisdom says it’s ‘zeros’, but that ‘he, or she, zeroes in’ on something.

And Guardian editors say it should ‘a hotel’. Use ‘an’ before a silent H (like ‘the honest politician’) but ‘a’ before an aspirated H – a hero, a hotel, a hedgehog, or whatever.

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Brand journalism for beginners

Brand what? Good question because ‘brand journalism’ is a label that’s a lot newer than the idea that it’s pinned to, so it makes sense to start at the start.

In truth though, you know the answer because brand journalism’s ‘product’ is part of everyday life. For example, if you shop in a supermarket you’ve probably flicked through the store’s free magazine – a classic exercise in brand journalism.

It has actually been around since at least the 19th Century and is about building trust between a brand and its ‘audience’. It’s best to say audience rather than customer because just about every organisation now puts out marketing materials (print, video, online content) that are, essentially, brand journalism.kitten soft

It uses the traditional principles, techniques and tools of journalism to tell stories that relate to its brand. If it’s ‘sell’ at all, it’s at the kitten-soft end of soft sell (cue a gratuitous kitten pic).

Done well brand journalism creates interest and generates a conversation between a consumer and an organisation. It works as a B2C tool, and in a B2B context, too.  But best of all it is the beginning of the end for old-school push marketing.

If you want to know a lot more about brand journalism get your hands on a great book by Andy Bull. Or, perhaps, start at the shallow end with the book’s supporting website.