This is a guest post by Dave Thackeray – a copywriter, podcaster & communicator specialising in technology and travel. He blogs daily at DaveThackeray.com and started the year with a bold promise – to write 10 things every day about ’10. He’s only missed eight days so far, because he forgot to start until January 8. Humour him as he explains how designers can be great writers too.
I love burgers, and you’re the tapas kind.
I’m all about the words, you’re a picturephile.
You say no – and I say go, go go!
In many ways we may be like night and day, you designers and us writers, but while you design with tablets or paint and we hone our craft by dancing with Miss QWERTY, there comes a time where our paths cross.
You see, we need each other. We’re like Thelma and Louise, and unless we figure out the vaguaries of each other’s job we’re headed for that cliff face faster than a lightning strike.
But let’s be accurate, here (and this is of course skewed ever-so-slightly because I have a writer’s point of view): It’s a whole heap easier to become a competent writer as a designer, than a competent designer as a writer.
Trust me on this. I’ve coached hundreds of people how to write for the web, and by and large a few short sessions have transformed their efforts. These people come from all walks of life – librarians to butchers, schoolchildren to double-glazing salespeople.
Try and show someone like me, however, how to visualise and create an effective brand identity, and you’d be laughing maniacally before the end of hour 1.
It just can’t be done – I defy anyone to transform me into at least a competent artist without a few trips to the nearest sanatorium along the (failed) path.
Designers and writers work together cosily because each knows the other’s limitations – and strengths. But there comes a time when we have to do a bit of the other.
You, Mr Illustrator Champion 2010, already have an eye for a great design. And the great surprise is that thinking to write is very similar to the thinking process involved in masterminding a dazzing design.
We both follow a five-step plan:
1. Consider the objective.
In scribing stories, articles or marketing messages, we start with a rough idea of where we want to end up. The goal – whether it’s to sell more, change someone’s mind, or simply announce a product change.
In design: You conceptualize; trace.
In writing: You use the ‘rugby’ analogy – four Ws and one H, that represent five rugby guys (W) sat on the goalposts (H, just bear with me on this one):
Let’s rock in reverse order, since you designers love irony:
How did you start?
How did it happen?
How did I come up with this crazy design?
And of course, to kick things off in convivial fashion:
How are you?
What is it?
What possessed you?
Where did you get the idea?
Where does it hurt?
Where did you last see your mother?
Where can I buy it?
Where are your customers located?
When will it be available?
When did you last see a doctor?
When did you begin the project?
When did it all start to make sense?
When did you get the funding?
Why will people want it?
Why did you invent it?
Why did you leave the back door open, anyway?
Why did you put that, there?
Why didn’t you wear the mohair sweater?
Who can I talk to for more information?
Who started this whole thing off?
Who let the dogs out?
Once you’ve asked all the leading questions – of yourself, a client, or whoever it takes to make your mind wobble – it’s time to take it to the bridge.
The bridge of creativity.
2. Get some inspiration.
As designers, visual stimulation takes many forms. Mood boards, gallery shows, other people’s work. Would it surprise you that us writers dig that stuff, too? Eye candy is one of the most important ways of motivating and inspiring us to grab a pen and give it a whirl across a page.
In design: You pick up the airbrush, of the virtual or physical kind.
In writing: You think of a great introductory paragraph that sums up the work. 28 words or less is the golden rule.
Obviously the ideas can flow from anything – again, this is a similarity between the two camps. I must admit while I don’t practice plagiarism I do find haven in the scribblings of other writers. I hang out with them, we share ideas, and people like Kelly Diels (penwoman of the amazing, and completely safe for work, Cleavage blog) can not only inspire, but totally change your mindset on a theme.
If you struggle to write clearly and concisely, you might be missing the message altogether. Revert to your core objective and what it is you’re trying to say. Take five, pick up a magazine you’ve never seen before, go read a blog. Sites like Inspired Magazine offer superb examples of how designers find themselves doing the job of a writer – and doing it well.
Once you have your introduction, the rest will flow. It’s natural. Every design you create tells a story. Imagine having to describe one of your colourful creations. You start with the BAM! and then move through the elements to build up a picture in words of your picture in Paint.
You want to know the most effective way to become a grandmaster of grammar and wizard of words? Start your own blog. It’s drop-dead simple – head over to WordPress.com, create your own home on the web and just flood your monitor with whatever pours from your mind. About your job, about your latest project, about anything that you don’t mind sharing with other people.
I started writing with – gasp – a pencil. One with graphite peeping out the end. But now we’re all environmentally friendly (right?!) it makes sense to get everything down in pixels rather than pages. One week, one month down the line you’ll look back and see how your writing has evolved. The results will, I guarantee, be nothing short of spectacular.
The key to becoming a great writer, and becoming comfortable with your ability, is repetition and tenacity. While I don’t expect you’ll need 10,000 hours to master writing, you certainly need to start now.
3. Get some constructive feedback.
This is a vital element of any project, and you’ll know exactly where I come from.
In design: Client review
In writing: Editor tears up your copy and insists on a total rewrite (speaking purely from personal experience).
The best feedback of all comes from an impartial source. Don’t ask your designer friends – they’ll either say only good things which are of no use at all, or mock/ridicule you for jumping the fence to the ‘other side’. Don’t ask the client: they’ll think you don’t know your job. Clients want to be bossed, it’s a fact. They love authority. Having been both agent and client side I abhor anything approximating insecurity, as do my associates. And sometimes queries on style and content – however innocuous they may seem – masquerade as exactly that.
So get feedback from people who you wouldn’t normally chat with. The receptionist. The guy who serves your coffee in the mornings. Someone who is linked to the target of your writing, but indirectly. Collect up all the ideas, sit down with a refreshing beer, and take in those amends.
4. Edit, edit, edit.
So you have something in the ballpark of ‘finished’ on your desk. But it isn’t finished, because the second most important part of the task is ahead. You might have a piece of work on your hands, but it needs tending with both care and a hacksaw.
In design: The final flourish, the swoosh on the serif, the framing of the photo.
In writing: Time for the chop. For all the right reasons, especially your reader and their short attention span.
It’s a delicate balance, is this editing lark. On the one hand, you could probably lose most of it and still have a lucid and energetic piece of writing. Alternatively, you need to know your audience: any technical complexity in a report for youngsters and you’ll lose them at the first furlong.
In writing you have to think about each piece of work as an upturned pyramid. You get all the facts in at the top – that’s your first few sentences – and then gradually you flesh them out. The thinking behind this is that sub-editors, often called ‘dozy monkeys’ by their journalist acquaintances, can then reduce the word count by lopping the end off stories. It’s not a terribly sophisticated way to work with quality writing but you’d be staggered how many practice this dark art. But try it with your own stuff – and see how easy it is to halve the length of your work without compromising on the quality.
5. The rewards.
In design and writing: The paycheque. Congrats – you’ve earned it.
So – we’re not really that different after all, are we? Now get practicing and tell us about your writer’s block in the box below…