My Medium posts - Enjoy!

Posted: 6th Jan 2016

Medium love.

I've been using Medium for a good while now, it's cracking. I'm planning out and building my post bank up, hoping to add a post every week or so. Enjoy the collection and keep your eyes peeled for more.


Who is to blame for crap content?

Posted: 18th Aug 2015

Who is to blame for crap content? A blow-by-blow blame list.

In short, everyone.

As a copywriter, I’m not exempt from this blame list (you’ll see I’m/we are right in at #3) and quite rightly so. You see, there’s a tonne of really rubbish content out there and it just keeps on coming. It doesn’t surprise me that there’s so much poor quality stuff making the rounds; it baffles me that people are willing to hang their business hopes on the production of gumf. And even more shocking is that ‘professionals’ are not stepping up to the plate and educating the misled among us.

This isn’t a shaming list, it’s a rundown of the ways that we’ve all been conditioned to treat the production and championing of good content. More than just the Who, this is about the How - what we all do to hurt the creation and existence of healthy words, images, audio and beyond.

So, here we go.

Culprit #1 - Agencies.

A client emails you and wants you to create a website, marketing campaign, whatever, for them. What’s on your task list? Brief befriending, summoning of suitable talents (designers etc), meeting making, research undergoing, the list goes on. But is content management on there anywhere? I know budgets are tight and timelines even tighter but this really is the place where a better content philosophy can be realised.

Under one roof you have a graduating tier of professionals who can wholly embrace both the creative and practical needs of content. And more than just embracing, they can literally make space for prioritising content needs.

Project managers - These guys can make sure that content is secured as a deliverable, as well as planting the seed that review and agility is essential to content. Content goals and messages can change and be realised as the design process moves forward so these managers can make sure ample wiggle room is afforded to the creation/re-creation of effective content.

Budget makers - Factor in content management and strategy. It goes beyond a copywriter fee, although that is a great start. Great content requires time - time to research, plan, create and most importantly review and adapt. If you don’t budget any cash for content makers, you don’t place any value on content itself.

Strategists - Make content a long-term deliverable, not just a project-to-project ‘perhaps’ consideration. Argue a case for implementing a content care program for your clients. This is simply about making sure that content is periodically reviewed and updated to ensure its effectiveness. Make content a consistent concern, applying a strategy of sorts to each and every project.

The whole ‘content first’ approach to design and development is making waves and is generally championed by many agencies out there. But as with all techniques and approaches, it has become some what buzzwordy and half-heartedly accepted. It takes actual effort and reshuffling to embed a ‘content first’ strategy into your way of working but the benefits are crazy good.

Culprit #2 - Designers / developers and such.

The relationship between designers and copywriters isn’t particularly famed. But by the same standards, it isn’t a doomed one either. There’s tonnes of great designers that know they can’t create without a content consideration but we can always do with more allies.

These folks are the real game changers, the people that can fundamentally change the role content plays in everything from UX to visual branding. Designers, demand a content focus on your projects. It’s obviously tough if you’re part of a bigger (copywriter-less) team but you don’t need a writer on hand. Ask the right Qs, questions that demand that those in charge have a real understanding of the principals of messaging, tone, audience needs etc - all the things that matter to content.

Here’s a few tips for weaving some content considerations into your design process;

Understand that UI is not the same as copywriting - UI is a giant step forward in terms of putting content first but it doesn’t take into account the art of copywriting. UI is for all content, from video to images, whereby copywriting is the wordy wizardry that’s all about tone, style and all that jazz. These things are the cornerstone of consistent, effective content. If you see that the content for your project is being created by a client, or even by your fellow agency team members, ask why a copywriter isn’t onboard.

Master tone from the off - It goes without saying that the words and images should both be playing for the same team. However, it rarely does. This is about tone and style - both are content favourites. It’s not just about having the content before you design, which would be ideal, it’s also about having a solid understanding of the big picture messaging that influences everything that follows.

Put the audience first - Preparing killer content is all about understanding an audience. If you have content to play with, you have insight to design with. There’s no such thing as future proofing an experience but having a grasp of content can enable you to make decisions rooted in people and behaviour rather than fads and features.

Culprit #3 - Copywriters.

Yep, we need to take our share of the blame. I’m a copywriter and I hold my hands up. As much as I might not be wholly responsible for shoddy creation, we can all take a hit for not always fighting the good fight when it comes to educating clients on what good content is really all about. Over the years, here’s a few things I’ve learnt/done my best to champion more aggressively.

Be a content strategist as well as content writer - It’s always surprised me just how many copywriters don’t have a good grasp on content strategy as a discipline. To me, this goes hand-in-hand with what I do. I do my best to explain my process and approach to my clients before I write a single word of content in a bid to show they the importance of tone creation, audience research and feedback.

Can I talk to the client direct? - If you’re working freelance for an agency, as I do regularly, it’s common not to meet or talk to the client direct. Don’t settle for it. Some clients may prefer for their design agency to brief/deal with the creatives but at least ask if you can talk with the client direct. You learn a ridiculous amount from a client conversation so don’t always settle for the middleman insight.

Why stay on the sidelines? - I often don’t meet the agency team I’m emailing with about a project. The design can be a mystery until launch, in fact so can the designer! I try to avoid being sidelined and at least attempt to get an invite into the studio for an in-house session. It’s the nature of freelance to be a Skype ID rather than an actual person but if you’re close enough why not offer to work in-house and actually interact with the team while they work. Content can be the last hurdle before launch so get yourself, and your craft, in the door as soon as possible. As a copywriter you have to fight for collaboration.

Culprit #4 - The tech.

There’s a shortage of good content platforms. Whether we’re talking about collecting content, sharing content or even writing content, there’s ample room for improvement. I’d argue that content pros need to get onboard and spearhead the creation of such resources but we don’t all have the tech savvy required. I certainly don’t. Anyway, the lack of great systems and software has made the prioritisation of content a tougher task.

There is a few solid resources out there that save the content day, GatherContent being the cream of the crop, but we need more!

Culprit #5 - Clients.

They want content but do they really care about its quality? To many clients, content is just something that will fill their site. I’d argue it’s not completely their fault that they have such a surface understanding of the importance of content. Clients are not whimpering novices with no idea of what good content is but many don’t have a clue about what goes into creating and preserving quality. It’s our job as professionals to educate them.

It’s a mixture of tough love, artful bargaining and rock solid principles. Here’s a few things to translate to your clients;

Content has a lifespan - Nothing lasts forever. Content needs to be nurtured, reviewed and updated so be sure to explain this from the offset. Audiences, messages and styles change and no one wants to be left behind. Content is relevance so sell it on that concept.

Anyone can write but it doesn’t mean they should - I do believe that quality content can be created by all. That said, there needs to be a greater, big picture understanding of context to be effective. I wouldn’t encourage any client to self-pen all their content but make sure they are involved in the process. Be specific in the info you require from them, explain why you need this. Educate them on how to review content properly and direct them in giving quality feedback. Create a conversation and open culture around the topic of content and you’re doing the discipline a great service.

Don’t undercharge - As a copywriter, I generally stay pretty solid to my rate guns. What I do is valuable so I don’t need to bargain my rate. I know a lot of copywriters that have faced the “I could write it myself so why would I pay that?” line. Don’t work with these folks copywriters. Champion your craft and relevance, part of that means advocating your value.

A concluding thought…

Essentially, us the audience are the biggest culprits. We constantly create, read and share poor content as a habit. How many shitty ads, emails and posts do we read everyday? Loads. I’m not suggesting that you track down the copywriter of that annoying campaign and hurl abuse their way but we can all make the culture that surrounds content a little more pleasant and prominent.

New portfolio, New blog routine.

Posted: 13th Aug 2015

It has been a while...

Yep, it has indeed. There's no excuse other than the fact that I've been busy/a little lazy but with a new portfolio comes a new blog routine.

I'll be filling this very Distil blog with news, tips and everything in between but I'll also be creating a few posts a month on Medium. These posts will centre on a few grittier subjects such as content strategy and the creative industries in general. My first one will be published at the end of the month so keep your eyes peeled.

So I launched my new portfolio this week and it wasn't as easy as I thought to pick projects to feature. In the end I selected a mish mash of my favourites plus the briefs that challenged and delighted me. In the coming weeks I'll be putting together a few case studies for some of the projects that I just couldn't fit in, the first of which will be my project with Double Double

Well, that's it for now. Remember to follow me on Twitter (@distilco) for all manner of news and wordy stuffs.

Content Strategy & Me.

Posted: 19th Feb 2014

The Gather Content Collection.

Here are all the guest posts I created for the Gather Content blog. If content strategy is your bag, here's a lovely wee collection for you.

How to write great web copy.

What is Content Strategy - Theory vs. Practice.

Engage your audience through a quest narrative.

How to collaborate - The creative and the practical.

The A to B to Content - Planning website content.

Structure and meaning - The principals of creative writing in Content Strategy.

Getting your team Content Strategy savvy.

Welcome to the fold - Be copy-savvy.

Posted: 18th Feb 2014

'I've never worked with a copywriter...'

This sentence is no stranger to my inbox. This isn't a post about copywriting taking the world by storm, it's about effectively managing the reservations and preconceptions many have about working with a copywriter.

What do you need from me?

I get asked this a lot. Many potential clients aren't sure how this copy fandango works or what level of knowledge they need to possess.

A full brief is a rare thing these days, even the most experienced agencies or clients struggle to produce a proper brief. If a client is new to the copywriter thing, they should be encouraged to learn the importance of a full brief. I often work alongside clients in producing this. Through a series of brand, tone and company history questions we get to the heart of the project together. This aligns our aims and builds some trust.

Keep things simple as this point, ask them about the nature of the project, proposed timelines, a little about their content history and then, if it floats your boat, arrange a more detailed chat. Be sure to not overwhelm and try to keep them in-tune with the true goal of their project.

Are you the right copywriter for me?

If a new client is unsure of the copy process there is a good chance that they don't know their copywriter options. Yep, there's more than one type. The worst thing you can do is take on a job that doesn't fit your skill set, you waste everyone's time. If their only aim is to pop up on the first page of Google, I'd be inclined to send them elsewhere, not before imparting some valuable advice. It's a case of speciality and personality. For instance, I work with a lot of start-ups as I love the high levels of collaboration but this isn't for everyone.

How much will it cost me?

It's a meaty subject and not one I want to go into a heap of detail about. Your rates are your rates so charge as you please but with copywriter first timers, I find it beneficial and educational to break down my process and give my quote some context. If it's too much for them, that's ok but at least they now know a little more about the intricate process of creating copy. Offering a simple quote is not only bad practice, as far as I'm concerned, but it also leaves you open to a host of questions later on down the line. Get this clear from the off, for yourself as much as for the client.

Routines, Plots & Collaboration - Same shit, different medium.

Posted: 1st Dec 2013

No right or wrong - Guardian Screenwriting Masterclass.

Last weekend I spent my Sunday with some pretty amazing writers. The Guardian hosted a screenwriting masterclass and I was lucky enough to attend. I went expecting to find out about the industry, the craft and the realities of the business. I've been a screenwriter for many years now but am always more curious about finding out about how some of Britain's best writers work on a daily basis than how to 'break into the industry'.

Every writer has a unique way of working. Each of the 5 speakers had a totally different approach and relationship with the film industry.

Joanna Hogg

I found Joanna to be the most influential of the speakers. She came from a TV directing background but is now a renowned film writer/director. She mastered social realism, each of her films centred on family relationships and unique locations.

I loved the way she wrote. Often structure, especially the strict format of a script, can limit your scope and be a real burden. Joanna combated this by writing her scripts as a prose of sorts, she ditched the typical dialogue and action format and opted for a focus on feelings and visuals. Her scripts were full of photos and off-screen references, I loved it.

Hanif Kureishi

Famed for films such as 'My beautiful Laundrette' and 'My son, the Fanatic', Hanif was one of the writers I couldn't wait to meet. He was a character with a harsh, realistic opinion of his craft. He is fearless and unromantic in his writing process, he writes for directors and is a chronic over-writer.

He discussed his influences and relationship with the film-makers who adopt his scripts. He was happy to pass over his work and move onto the next project, he wasn't at all precious over his scripts. He also advocated criticism and believed one of the greatest things a writer needs is honest feedback from people who know what they are talking about.

Christopher Hampton

Chris was perhaps the most prestigious and credited writer at the event. As a director as well, he had a unique perspective on the role of the writer. He knew that no two scripts are the same and worked on each new project with a new perspective and routine. Freedom and narrative were heavily discussed, Chris believed that screenwriting was in fact a very limiting medium to work in.

He was highly concerned with structure and story. Discovering what makes a story a 'screen story' was integral when it came to creating the characters and narratives. As a writer who adapted novels and theatre plays, he referred to a script as simply a 'blueprint'.

I was impressed at how honest the speakers were. Each writer was open about their occasional lack of confidence in their work. How they wrote and collaborated with directors was truly insightful, their success was attributed to the fact that each writer simply wrote for themselves.

Beat the copywriting blues

Posted: 4th Nov 2013

Get yourself out your copy funk.

We have all been there. You can have a packed schedule of interesting, well paid jobs but when you get yourself into that copy lull it can be deadly. Self-discipline is an art form. It's something I have developed over years as a writer but no one is perfect. Keeping yourself motivated, on the ball and focused is tough.

So, you're having one of those flimsy, meh weeks but the clients are calling, what can you do to get back on track?

Sometimes it's just a case of boredom.

It's not a bad thing to be bored out your nut with the projects you have on. The moment your week becomes uniform and repetitive you naturally lose interest. There are some weeks where the bread and butter jobs will be anything but creative opportunities but this is the nature of being a freelancer. I find it comforting to look over my to-do lists of previous weeks, no two weeks tend to be the same. Take time to enjoy your research stages, approach topics with a new angle and use this time to perfect what you do best - write.

Get organised.

If you are living from hour to hour without a schedule or plan, you can't see the end and beginnings of each project. I'm the type of person who revels in a system of organisation. Give your projects time frames, maybe even challenge yourself to beat the clock. It may seem silly but self-imposed deadlines are the best way to get to grips with your ability.

Get away from your machine.

Sometimes there is nothing worse than a screen. Get off your arse and do the dishes, hoover, anything that allows your brain to process your day and thoughts itself. You'll be amazed at how easy solutions and ideas come to you. I write most of my copy by hand first, and this really helps me chart my thought process.

At the end of the day, you can't be in awe of your job everyday. Some projects are amazing, others mundane. Any opportunity to hone your craft is a gift, and it may say cheesy but it's true.

Collaboration & Copywriting

Posted: 3rd Oct 2013

The Value of a Copywriter.

Collaboration is one of the hottest buzzwords out there. Usually more of a selling point than actual ethos, it is one of those terms that evokes pure creativity. Aye, creativity is a huge part of collaboration but there is so much more to this than concepts and end results.

Generally speaking, collaboration and copywriting are not overly familiar bedfellows. I'm not really talking about the classic art director / copywriter pairing, but more the client / copywriter relationship. Obviously all projects and clients differ. Some are more savvy and understand the value that a copywriter can bring to a project, while other simply expect the brief to draft to invoice treatment.

You don't know it all.

Not all projects require collaboration or new ideas, personally I believe the second you bring on a professional you should be open to a re-education and discussion, but for many it's a 'me client, you worker' type of affair.

Whether a blog post, website copy or marketing materials, there are so many common factors that have the ability to redefine the initial brief. Elements such as tone, language and SEO are but the tip of the iceberg.

Copy needs to perform. It has to tick the emotional and functional boxes, all the while being as appealing, on-tone and effective as possible. The best thing a copywriter can do to enhance or introduce an aspect of collaboration is to make this clear to a client. Yes you can do wonderful things with the right words but there is a limit. Expectations are key for both parties so set them early on.

Love feedback & criticism.

Factoring multiple drafts and feedback sessions into your copy schedule is a must. Copy is only as good as the feedback that gets it there so there needs to be back and forth to get the job done. Positive and negative feedback is integral to the process, creating a dialogue of criticism and mutual understanding will work wonders.

Clients that work this way are gifted with a new perspective and wider scope for possibility. Copywriters are strategists, writers and curators as much as creatives. It isn't a case of being an idea factory, it is about knowing how to develop relevant, functional ones that please both client and audience.

Collaboration is as much about sharing expertise as generation and development. With every new project I learn more about a specific industry or sector while building a long term relationship. I'd like to hope that with my help my clients prioritise a Content First ethos, an approach that demands they understand the role of tone, structure and language.

Better feedback = Better copy.

Posted: 26th Sep 2013

How to give a copywriter feedback.

I like criticism, I love collaboration, I need feedback. No first draft is perfect, every copywriter needs the client’s input to get the best results possible. Copywriters can have a pretty hefty To Do list when it comes to getting down to a project. Research, tone, style, messaging, appeal and pleasing the client are only a few of my boxes to tick.

As far as I’m concerned, the more feedback the better. Some clients worry about commenting too much others not enough, but here is a few pointers to help give your copywriter the best feedback you can.

Be detailed, be specific.

I need to know what’s good and what’s bad. ‘Reword’ does not help me improve my copy so be sure to highlight words or phrases, explaining what works about them or what really doesn’t. Ideally I would favour the humble phone call. By all means add notes galore to my doc but if there’s a tricky comment to get across then get verbal, it’s so much easier to rectify.

Share ideas or suggestions.

Have you seen an example of the type of copy you’d like? Why do you like this particular piece? It’s important that both parties keep an open mind. Trust in each other’s vision, expertise and ability.

No drip feeding.

Feedback needs to be delivered in one batch. Dribbles of comments here and there is not acceptable. Good copy has a flow to it, a flow that can be disrupted by the slightest change. I like to read all the changes in their entirety and ask questions before starting a redraft.

One person only.

Select one person to communicate your feedback. Going through a list of comments all from different people is a sure fire way to make your copy worse, not better. If more than one person does comment, make sure they review the existing comments as they review the draft. Repetition is likely to confuse, not emphasise.

Ultimately every project and every client is different. Kick things off with a phone call and a brief, be detailed and precise in what you want to achieve and what you can deliver. Feedback is beneficial to the client and the copywriter so anything you can do to keep things clear, swift and easy will result in a better experience for all.

The pre-writing process.

Posted: 10th Sep 2013

Before you put pen to paper....

With every new project comes a whole new attitude. Some projects make you want to jump right in and get busy, while others take a little longer to get flowing. Regardless of your enthusiasm, I would rarely recommend getting stuck in straight off the bat. We all know the importance of research and planning but there's always more you can do to make sure that your scheduled writing slot goes swimmingly.

Demand a brief.

Yep, it seems like an obvious thing to say but I've lost count of the amount of times I have had to tell clients that I need one, as well as the designer. A brief isn't just an outline of what is needed or expected, it can be a real indicator of the scope and planning your client has done. For copy to be as effective and engaging as possible it has to be relevant, don't start creating copy for an audience that you presume your client has established already.

Do your own research.

Don't take anyone else's word for it, always conduct your own research. A bit of background is a good starting point but research performs more than one function. Yes you will come across ideas as you go, but hints at tone, keywords and existing thoughts are far more useful to me at this stage. Everyone interacts with information differently so undertake your own research your own way.

Create a schedule.

Again, it may seem a tad obvious but scheduling is about more than deadlines and drafts. Figure out how you are going to create and work with your copy. There's no point spending days on research only to be left with a day to draft. Limiting yourself can be effective in focusing your energy towards ideas that aren't fleeting. Round up each section of your schedule with key points or milestones so you can easily get yourself on the right track if you wobble.

A proposal for your eyes only.

Some may see it as a waste of time but I always create a proposal of sorts, whether for me, the client or both. It's pretty much a summary of the money makers. It consists of a project overview, tone of voice run down, key themes / ethos as well as a proposed structure. Not only does it set my mind straight but it makes sure all parties are on the same page.

Drafting is a whole other kettle of fish but if you put in the man hours at these stages, your copy will take shape quicker and be of a better quality. Actual copywriting can takes up but a fraction of your time so get the pre-writing practices down before embarking on the content climb.

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