Putting words in people’s mouths: a ghostwriter speaks

Ghostly hands on keyboard

A talent for mimicry is a gift to a ghostwriter
[Photo: striatic shared under Creative Commons]

I’m a natural mimic. Always have been.

At least since the age of 7. Can’t help myself.

Thankfully, I’ve learned how to use this gift responsibly. As a ghostwriter and tone of voice expert.

In fact, I’ve been putting words in people’s mouths since 1975.

To find out more, read my guest article for the Verbal Identity blog.

If you’d like me to use my ghostwriting talent on your behalf, please get in touch!

Either email me – garethcook@justtherightwords.co.uk or call me on 07972 018366.

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The waiting game

Freelance is great … apart from the wait

WAIT sign

What are you waiting for?

I’ve been a freelance business writer now for just over 8 months. It’s almost certainly been the best thing I’ve done in my career.

I love it.

I love:

  • the chance to work on a wide variety of projects
  • the flexibility of the working hours
  • working with clients in a number of different industries
  • getting great feedback from satisfied customers
  • being my own boss

But there are some things I’m still getting used to. In particular, the ebb and flow of the workload. And the unpredictability. Even with three regular clients, some weeks it’s hectic, and other weeks it’s eerily silent.

So, what do you do when the work doesn’t come in?

That is rarely, if ever, an issue when you’re an employee. Up until last May I worked for ten years as a writer for a technology company and never had a single day when I wasn’t busy. At least a bit busy. And when things were slack, there were always lots of colleagues you could talk to.

But the nature of freelance means that there are peaks and troughs. Days when no-one needs you.

How do you handle that?

What do you do while you’re waiting?

I’d be interested to hear from more seasoned freelancers about what they do in such situations. As a newcomer, I’ve found this quite a challenge. Yes, I can hear all of you who aren’t self-employed grumbling “nice problem to have”, “wish I could have a day off” etc.

But the point is, you don’t get a day off. You just don’t get paid.

I follow a lot of copywriters on Twitter: many of them are freelance, and some of them talk about staying in bed, going to the pub or just having fun on days when they’re not busy. They may be joking. But if not, I envy them.

I still have that ’employee’ work ethic that doesn’t let me relax and take the day off when I don’t actually have any work to do. That’s not a humble brag: it’s actually a right royal pain in the arse. I’d rather just turn around and say: “Right, I’m having fun today. I’ll take my phone in case anyone calls or emails, but I’m taking the day off.” But I don’t. I try to. But then I start to feel guilty. Naughty, even.

So, what do I do? I sit at my desk and wait. While I’m waiting:

  • I tweak my website
  • I write the occasional blog post
  • I check my email and phone
  • I research potential new business opportunities
  • I read a book in between checking my email and phone
  • I go to the gym at lunchtime
  • I do my accounts and admin tasks
  • I get lost in Twitter
  • I turn Twitter off because all the other writers seem to be super-busy and still have time to write kick-ass blog posts
  • I check my email and phone again

And that’s OK. Because it’s usually the odd day here and there, and then all of a sudden things are busy again.

How do you respond when your patience is tested?

But just recently the trough has lasted a little longer. I’ve just finished two big projects for regular clients, and there’s nothing else coming through for a couple of days. I am also waiting to see if my quote for a significant project for a potential new client has landed me the job. It was nice to be asked to quote for it, but in doing so, I’ve had to curtail my usual chase for new business to ensure I have time to do the job if I get it. Nothing unusual there, that happens when you’re freelance. But when there’s a work lull at the same time, the waiting game takes on more significance, gets more frustrating, and tests your patience just that little bit more.

Except this time, I’ve changed tactics. I’ve had an epiphany. Instead of waiting, I’m going to get on with some writing. Just for me. Just because. The path that has led to me going freelance started when I took a three-month sabbatical in May 2010 to start writing a novel. I’d never done it before, but loved it. I worked really hard every day and even at weekends. For no money.

I got a third of the way through it, including some ruthless redrafting and then I had to go back to work. The draft has stayed on the shelf and in the Dropbox ever since.

You’d think it was a no-brainer to go back to the novel whenever the work dried up a little, but it wasn’t. I’d think about it, then the cycle of feeling guilty and naughty would start again. So I went back to pingling and waiting again. Until yesterday.

Give yourself permission to get creative

Yesterday I resolved to give myself permission to start writing my novel again. I’d got stuck at a certain point, and after allowing myself to go back and investigate things yesterday afternoon, I realised what I need to do to get unstuck. I need to rip up a chapter and a half and start them over again. By the evening I was getting excited by the prospect, and started having new ideas for the first time in ages.

And today I’m getting stuck into writing my novel again. As soon as I’ve blogged this. Until the work starts trickling, or flooding back in again.

Wish me luck!

Are you waiting patiently?

How do you handle the waiting game?

Is it time you gave yourself permission to do something you’re really passionate about while you’re waiting?

Accuracy counts as mistakes cost £millions

Spelling mistake on billboard

A single mistake makes a world of difference.

Yesterday the BBC website featured a story that put a smile on the faces of all of us involved in business writing, as the headline screamed “Spelling mistakes ‘cost millions’ in online sales“.

It’s what many of us have been saying for years, and so it’s quite gratifying to have the importance of accuracy expressed in terms that business people can understand. If you’re sloppy with your copy, it’ll hit you where it hurts. In the bank balance.

Admittedly the article itself presents a slightly less convincing case in terms of empirical evidence than the headline suggests, but that’s not the point.

Accuracy counts

The point is, accuracy counts. And we have now got your attention.

As a business writer and plain English specialist who trains business people how to write more effectively, I am passionate about accuracy, in spelling, punctuation and correct usage. I’m not a pedant, but I value the correct use of the language I love, and I recognise how powerful it can be to communicate ideas quickly and easily when it is used properly.

What angers me is when people don’t think accuracy is important. When they shrug off spelling mistakes and take a weird kind of pride in the fact that they can’t use an apostrophe correctly.

“Because, at teh end of the day, as long as people understand what your saying, whats the problem?”

That’s something such people might write, and leave uncorrected, or not even realise there’s anything wrong with it.

But there is, and it’s hugely important!

Why?

Accurate = professional

The point is of course, that if you are dealing with a business, you expect them to behave in a professional manner, and adhere to certain standards. You would expect, and no doubt often do receive a high standard of customer service from many businesses on the telephone. Indeed many companies spend tens of thousands of pounds to train their staff to perform to exacting standards, and even record and monitor calls to check performance.

But for some reason, businesses pay far less attention to the accuracy of their written communication. Always have done. In the past, they could perhaps get away with it when they sent out letters to customers – who reads letters anyway?

But now, with the prevalence of e-commerce, so many businesses rely almost entirely on written communication through their websites and emails to attract, interact with and retain their customers.

And they are starting to come unstuck.

Good.

It’s about time!

The BBC article quoted William Dutton, director of the Oxford Internet Institute, who said:

“when a consumer might be wary of spam or phishing efforts, a misspelt word could be a killer issue.”

The fact is, customers are much more careful when transacting business online. They are wary of being caught by scams, identity theft, or security threats to their computers, so they tend to look for websites they can trust. Ones that look professional. If the home page of a site features spelling mistakes, consumers could be forgiven for thinking “Well, if they don’t care whether their own website is spelt correctly, how much are they going to care about looking after me?”.

And who can blame them?

We all make mistakes, but only some of us correct them

People make mistakes. We all do. It’s part of being human. No blame there. But there’s no excuse for not checking the accuracy of what’s been written and making corrections.

The entrepreneur in the article found that revenue on one of his sites doubled after a spelling mistake was corrected.

Sometimes it’s not because people can’t spell, or don’t care, but just lack of attention to detail.

Many years ago, a company I worked for came up with a new mission statement that they were keen to share with their customers and the general public. It was quite good, as mission statements go, but as soon as I saw it I realised that there was something seriously wrong with it. About halfway through it referred to offering “complimentary services”. What was meant of course was “complementary services” – services that would complement the company’s primary business offering. What they’d said though was “complimentary services”. As in free. Gratis. Not paid for.

Which was not what they meant at all. In fact, had the mission statement gone to press and been published on the website as it was intended to be, it would have at best been an embarrassing PR faux pas. At worst, the company could have ended up having to give away a lot of things for free.

I pointed out the error, and thankfully the crisis was averted. But it could have easily slipped through. And the reputation of the company would have suffered as a result.

You can’t guess in finance

Accuracy always counts in financial matters, so why not in writing? Can you imagine a senior management team presenting their annual report and accounts to their auditors with a note saying:

Some of the figures might be wrong, there’s a few decimal points in the wrong place and some of the calculations are a bit haphazard, but you get the general idea..”

Of course not! It would never wash. Which is why companies spend lots of money employing accountants and auditors – financial experts who are qualified to iron out any inaccuracies and ensure that everything is spot on.

Which brings me to my final point. As fellow writing professional Richard Hollins blogged yesterday, good copywriting is more than just spelling. We’ve established that spelling and correct punctuation is important, but let’s face it, those are just the basics. There’s far more to effective communication with customers than that. You need to engage them, enthuse them, excite them, entertain them even. And make sure you explain to them clearly why they need you and how you can help them.

Get professional help

It isn’t easy. Not everyone can do it. Which is why it’s a good idea to call in an expert to help you. Someone who spends all day, every day producing messages for a wide range of audiences that are pitched in just the right tone of voice, and use just the right words to attract, then keep their interest.

Someone who is a professional writer.

An accountant doesn’t  simply ensure that the figures are correct. They do much more than that. Clever financial things, with budgets and projections that help businesses plan for the future, manage their resources effectively, receive the maximum return on investments and make the best profits they can.

In the same way, a writer can do so much more than just ensure that your communications don’t contain mistakes. They can conjure magic with their words, transforming run-of-the-mill messaging into something compelling and persuasive. They can make your customers sit up and listen. Make them smile. Make them buy. Make them tell others how great you are. While you get on with doing what makes your business great in the first place.

Can you afford not to hire a copywriter or business writing professional?

It seems a lot of businesses think they can, and they’re not even getting the basics right.

Can you afford to lose customers?