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A press pass picture, me using a typewrite, and up to date image

Change, competition and copywriting: advice to my younger self

In the mid-1980s when I was at primary school, my class was asked to work out how old we’d be in the year 2000.

Answer? 25.

A full quarter century. Wow.

And I remember thinking that, by then, I’d be a fully-fledged adult: sorted with a career and family, maybe I’d even be married to Morten Harket.

Yet in my 20s, despite hunting high and low, I still hadn’t met Morten.

All was not lost though: I was making great strides at work, and I was even lucky enough to be on the property ladder.

I’d also realised that being a grown-up is a process that’s never complete: change is the norm.

With that in mind, and to mark the dubious pleasure of turning 40 this week, I considered what advice I’d give my younger self, aside from buying shares in Apple after Steve Jobs’ departure in 1985.

  • Be a sponge – From every good experience, from every bad one, learn something; engage with people; read, watch and listen to the news; make up your own mind
  • Don’t worry so much about what others think – Simply put, those who matter don’t mind; those who mind don’t matter. Generally, you’ll do better and gain more respect (although not necessarily friends) by expressing a rational, reasoned argument
  • Try not to pass up great opportunities – But don’t dwell on the what ifs if you do
  • Surround yourself with positive people, capable of dishing out honest advice – Be a trusted friend or colleague; don’t let others bring you down
  • Your only real competition is you – Only by consistently doing your job better, including learning from mistakes, will you stand apart from those you’re competing against
  • The minute you lose your patience, you’ve lost the argument – Fair to say I’m still working on this one
  • Don’t be so afraid of change – Setting up my own business was a risk. No question. Yet it remains the best career move I’ve made. Calculated risks can pay dividends, and not just financially
  • Qualifications are good, but it’s what you do with them that counts – Don’t assume your degree or qualification entitles you to a senior management role. Build on it with hard work and a good attitude, and you’ll see results
  • If you don’t know an answer, ask – Far from making you look daft, it’ll show you’re someone who’s willing to learn and not afraid to admit they’re unsure

And finally, learn to move on.

Whether it’s putting an issue or disagreement to bed; changing jobs when the Sunday fear gets too much; or even opting to move to a different city, there’s something rather liberating in personifying the immortal words of West Wing’s President Josiah Bartlet.

“What’s next?”

Over to you, what advice would you give?

Close up image of thesaurus entry for the word 'grammar'

To strand and split: unforgivable or acceptable?

I don’t have an inner pedant.

Instead, mine is particularly obvious and opinionated: liable to dole out some serious side-eye if you put an apostrophe in the wrong place.

That said, there are two so-called grammar misdemeanours I’ll tolerate and even encourage: ending sentences with prepositions and splitting infinitives.

They’re rules that grammarians, keen to bring English in line with Latin language structure, sought to introduce centuries ago.

And both continue to stimulate debate today. But, bearing in mind the years that have passed, and how they came into being, do they have a role or relevance in modern English?

I’m not sure they do.

Prepositions

Prepositions, including to, by, on, at and about, describe the relationship between parts of a sentence or clause.

Avoiding ending a sentence with a preposition can make what you’ve written seem clumsy and stilted or even, as is often said, Yoda-esque.

For example:

  • She broke the vase in the shop, so paid for it had to be.

Rather than the much more natural:

  • She broke the vase in the shop, so it had to be paid for.

Split infinitives

While I’m pretty sure it wasn’t Gene Roddenberry’s goal when he pitched Star Trek to television executives, the Shatner-narrated ‘to boldly go’ opener is probably the best known example of a split infinitive (where an adverb is placed between the word ‘to’ and the verb).

For what it’s worth, I believe avoiding split infinitives can make writing lose some of its impact or even subtly change the meaning of a sentence. Not really what you what when you’re trying to communicate clearly.

To compare:

  • Susan decided slowly to walk to work: she took a while to come to her decision to walk to work.
  • Susan decided to slowly walk to work: she walked slowly.
  • Susan decided to walk to work slowly: the meaning here is ambiguous. Did she take her time deciding, or did she walk slowly?

I think the added emphasis a split infinitive gives is important too, particularly if, for example, it’s being used in marketing materials to plainly articulate to potential customers why a specific product or service is the right one for them.

Let’s be clear, I’m not suggesting we split infinitives or strand prepositions just to be objectionable; however, I am proposing, in the interests of unambiguous copy and plain English, that there are times when it’s appropriate, even desirable, to over-ride these supposed rules.

One thing’s for sure, the grammar debate looks set to continue.

What do you think? Are these conventions outdated and irrelevant or compulsory and pertinent?

Picture of three paintbrushes in jar

The start of the copywriting journey: The DIY myth

I have a confession to make.

When I first decided to go freelance as a copywriter, I thought it would take a bit of time to build up work so I’d have time to sort things out around the house: do a bit of painting, or even have a nosey at Netflix.

Wrong.

The DIY remains unfinished (although I did lag some pipes recently), and client work has been building right from the start.

One sunny Friday in May, I set out for my first interview as a freelance copywriter, less than 24 hours after leaving my office job.

I’ll be honest, I had a bit of a spring in my step and was pretty pleased with myself, but the enormity of what I’d done wasn’t lost on me either.

Despite having clients lined up and some transitional work already complete, I still felt pretty nervous when it struck me that I was truly on my own.

But the last seven months have been incredible.

I’ve written (probably tens of) thousands of words and interviewed people across four continents for almost 20 clients operating in various industries from oil and gas to construction and agriculture.

And my overwhelmingly positive experience made me think about what advice I’d give to someone starting out.

  • Love what you do and do it very well
  • Have a couple of bob in the bank: This should tide you over until the cashflow kicks in
  • Don’t be greedy: Do your research and set a fair rate for you, and your customers
  • Build your network: Meet new people, listen to what they have to say, always learn something new
  • Be visible: At events, meetings or online. Whatever works
  • Be flexible: Dismiss the 9-5 mindset (not that I ever had one of those jobs anyway). If you need to knuckle down every weekend and most evenings, do it
  • Don’t be afraid to say no: If you don’t have the time to produce great work, despite working those evenings and weekends, don’t commit to a project
  • Ask for advice and pay it forward: Speak to others in a similar position, even form a collective, and help others when you can
  • Know where you’re going: Stay focused and motivated. Write a business plan, revisit it, update annually, repeat
  • Be upfront about invoicing: If you’ve done the work and the client’s happy, send the invoice

What do you think? Feel free to contribute.

 

Photo credit: Alan Cleaver/creative commons