My sweet spot in literature starts around the 50s with Jack Kerouac. Reading On the Road as a teenager was akin to a spiritual experience – the open highway, snapshot happenings and that unlimited sense of freedom that accompanies wide open spaces.
If I’d known then that about every other English student was reading the same thing – making notes in the margin, pining for adventure and getting off on the possibility of falling in love with a complete stranger – I would have chosen a better book.
I wanted to travel America, yet I never started a savings account, planned when I do it and (crucially) how I would get there. I just waited for spontaneity to bite, like a muse.
This view of spontaneity and inspiration extends into modern writing. It’s unfortunate, but what is widely accepted as best writing practice is often confused with pumped-up prose, and its younger sibling, bureaucratic speak.
For example, look no further than how councils share information about your Christmas bin collection:
“Residents in Birmingham are being reminded of this year’s Christmas and new year waste collection arrangements, as the festive season nears.
As is normally the case, the council’s crews, who work on all other Bank Holidays, will not operate on Christmas Day, Boxing Day (or any Bank Holidays when either of those two particular days are at the weekend).
This year that means there will be no collections of refuse or recycling on Monday 25 December and Tuesday 26 December.”
Do people actually talk like that? Could we have used fewer words? How about:
“There will be no rubbish or recycling collected on Christmas Day and Boxing Day.”
To understand why we default to inflated prose, we have to go back to the past; beyond Beat Fiction, through Modernism and Victorian Literature to Romanticism:
A seventeenth-century arts movement where, in literature, dudes bang on for hours about existence and suffering while looking at a hillside.
Keats, P B. Shelly and – by far the worst offender – William Wordsworth, promised that ‘filling the paper with the breathings of your heart’ was a sure road to writing success. It was innovative at the time, reacting against Rationalism and tapping into the narratives of human emotion, suffering and the self – indeed, perhaps the Romantic poetry is the earliest collection of selfies in history.
Miraculously, this self-privileging and (mildly) narcissistic form has endured well into the 21st century. Perhaps this is a testimony to the human condition – that despite the postmodernist movement, the wave of metafiction and the shift to networks rather than hierarchies – that we still enjoy one person taking on the world and painting it with their feelings.
The Romantics had a lot to say about words, so I’ve scooped it up and deconstructed it through the lens of a 21st-century copywriter.
My goal is to give you a few key takeaways and make you slightly better prepared the next time you come across the superfluous.
Wordsworth on writing with spontaneity
‘Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: It takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.’ – Wordsworth
Two things are at work here, first the perception of spontaneity or ‘eureka moments’ as the source of all great writing. Second, that said work is only possible when charged by emotion in a vacuum of ‘tranquillity.’
As a professional writer, you rarely have time to sit and smell the roses. Research, deadlines and ‘the client’, who is convinced that your use of full-stops goes against the grammar lesson they received in 1962, are always on your back.
We are suffering a tranquility deficit. Silence is a luxury reserved for the privileged few. If you need evidence of this, take your typical business class airport lounge. Oliver Burkeman writes in New Philosopher:
‘The reason that business class airport lounges feel so luxurious […] isn’t really the nicer furniture or the gourmet food; it’s that they provide the quiet to hear yourself think.’
The same goes for creative workspace – everything comes at a cost. If you want access to a high-quality creative space in Birmingham, you’re looking at £35 (+VAT) for the privilege of using the Impact Hub for 2 days a month (!!!) For reference, that’s more expensive than your typical millennial’s monthly phone contract.
My answer to tranquility and spontaneity is process and habit. It may sound contradictory, but blocking out time to write at the same time every day, switching off emails and sliding on flight mode does wonderful things for your attention, regardless if you are in a public or private space.
It’s better to think of spontaneity as a specter, channeled by control conditions. If you really are stuck for words, just start writing around the subject. Keep typing, uninterrupted for 5 minutes or so. Go back, paste the best bits and repeat until you are happy.
Similarly, you can use writing games to give your prose some lift. For this, I recommend a great book by Hazel Smith, The Writing Experience – a superb example of how creativity is done best within constraints.
Worthworth on getting started with writing
‘To begin, begin.’ – Wordsworth
This reminds me of that one person in meetings, who, when everyone is in deep discussion, raises his or her hand and says, ‘people,’ pausing for effect, ‘let’s take a step back here.’
If getting started were this simple, we wouldn’t have entire industries and careers built around getting people to do stuff better.
Anyway, it’s not wise to just begin. Charging headlong into a blank sheet of paper will only result in a series of loosely connected ideas.
Research and preparation are key – think of it as your commercial prologue.
You need a micro-story that sets the scene, rather than, for example, a vague sense that you are targeting generation zs with an interest in entrepreneurship.
Ryan without a commercial prologue
- Located within 20 miles of your university
- Registered interest in entrepreneurship
- Aged between 16 – 18
- Planning to study this academic year
- Targeting affluent neighborhoods
Ryan with a commercial prologue
Ryan lives in Edgbaston, Birmingham. His mother and father work long hours in city centre jobs and he is often greeted by silence when he returns home from college. Poor Ryan!
This doesn’t bother him, as such, but it does give him more space to think about the future than other teenagers his age. Most of his friends have siblings.
It’s not firm yet, just some sketchy thoughts, but Ryan really likes the idea of starting his own business. Unfortunately, leafy Edgbaston isn’t the greatest hive of entrepreneurial activity and Ryan’s parents can’t relate either. They have only ever worked for brands, rather than themselves. That’s, apparently, where the money is.
Ryan’s been to a few UCAS events and heard from local universities at his college, but none of them have majored in entrepreneurial studies. A lot of them speak of rankings, some even placement years and apprenticeships, but again, it’s not what our hero is looking for.
He’s signed up to a few university websites, including the Student Room, Whatuni etc…but he often receives more generic stuff around business studies. He needs a guide that helps both him and his parents through this maze of web pages, open days and his niche interest in entrepreneurship. He and his parents need reassurance that this is the right decision.
Don’t you feel you know Ryan a little better now?
We have a sense of his pain points; him liking the idea of starting his own business, but not sure where to begin; his biggest stakeholders – his parents – not fully understanding his choice and pushing him down a more traditional, familiar, route; his choice being non-typical and not being aptly cover by university marketing teams… We can now further shape ideas that will resonate with his niche. A few ways to channel our writing might be:
- (Targeting Ryan) The ultimate guide to starting out as an entrepreneur
- (Targeting Ryan) How these entrepreneurial teens turned a rough idea into a career
- (Targeting parents) Is university the answer? How young entrepreneurs are making their own careers
All of these would fit the bill. Once decided on a particular route, it’s time to go deeper.
For example, if we choose 1, we can use tools like buzzsumo to see what’s topics are trending and identify gaps in our own content. We don’t want to write something that’s already had its day, however, it’s 2018 and there are very few topics that have not been covered in great detail. The only answer is to go niche. It’s better to write something that will be super-hot with two hundred people than lukewarm with ten thousand.
Think of research as something that shines a light in the right direction. Well-produced content speaks to a niche, provides answers and doesn’t broadcast your USPs on all frequencies.
‘A poet is a nightingale, who sits in darkness and sings to cheer its own solitude with sweet sounds.’ – Shelley
Remember, brand writers that have nothing to say fall back on listing USPs. Nobody cares about your messages. If your content is not aimed at your customer, entertaining and/or useful then who is it for?
Shelley on the power of poetry and words alone
‘Poetry is a sword of lightning, ever unsheathed, which consumes the scabbard that would contain it.’ – Shelley
Have you ever been told that ‘nobody reads anything anymore’?
Indeed, the UK publishing industry being up 7% on 2016 (to £4.8 billion) is only because consumers are decking out their shelves with Penguin Hardcover Classics.
Snapchat, the leading social platform for 18-24 year olds, is frequently hiring multilingual copy editors just for kicks.
Another way to interpret the phrase ‘nobody reads any more’ is that the person uttering it thinks this to be the case.
As a recovering poet, I’d love to believe that my words alone would be enough for the win, but they aren’t. They are competing in an image-satiated, quick-hit culture where time is eternally at the essence. Commercial writers need an appreciation of image, sound, and composition, as well as words.
We need to broaden our understanding of ‘copy’ to words working in tandem with other media. For an example, look at Manchester University’s video, We Belong.
Would the same script have been as impactful with just a poet speaking in a darkened room? Would the piece have been as striking if the actors were reciting a verse out of a greeting card?
Words don’t consume all other media, they are a vital part of it and create the overall experience. There are only 10 words in this Nike ad, but without them we would just have a bunch of people running.
Words can go even further if we think about when and where they are delivered. Immediately, I think about the below advert that attacks Donald Trump, shared in the great copywriting book Read Me, by Roger Horberry & Gyles Lingwood.
At first glance, it doesn’t appear that impressive – someone swapping around Donald’s name for mild amusement. We can all do that, can’t we? But then, there’s targeting…
This ad was placed in the programme of the Global Leadership Forum, an international conference at which Donald Trump was the keynote speaker.
Major embarrassment in front of some very influential and powerful people, thanks to the clever use of channels and timing.
Words, words, words
I’m actually a fan of some Romanticism. John Milton’s Paradise Lost is an exceptional example of how the form was used to reimagine older texts and established beliefs. If you don’t find the descriptions of Chaos, Satan’s rebellion and Earth being held in celestial chains fascinating, I don’t know what will do it for you.
Yet, the writing techniques and beliefs of Shelly and Wordsworth endure over Milton. It’s probably a lot to do with classic English Literature teaching and popular fiction, those immortal Romantic souls being pressed and preserved in the folds of a Penguin Classic.
Like conquering a bad thought, the first step is to acknowledge its presence. There is a mythology around Romantic authors that seeps into modern writing. Look closer. Has that sentence been said before? Do I need to think across media to make the most impact? How can I be more proactive in idea generation, rather than waiting for inspiration to bite?
Writing has come a long way since its elevated status amongst the muses and the Fountain of Hippocrene. It’s now down and dirty with the people; billboards, bus backs and the video in your personal timeline. We’re all publishers now.
So, erase secondary school English from your mind and blot out the lonely cloud. It’s time to write for the time-starved, attention deprived and media-saturated generation. How are you going to start the conversation?