I recently judged D&AD’s Writing for Design category. While browsing the tables of entries I bumped into Brazilian journalist Claudia Penteado, who was there to write about the work entered and the judging process. A few days later Claudia asked me for some longer comments on the topics we discussed at Olympia, from the quality of copywriting today to my own approach to writing. If your Brazilian Portuguese is up to scratch you might prefer to read Claudia’s cut of the interview – for Epoca Negocios – which is here. If not, there’s an English version below. Please drop me a line in the comments, or on Twitter, if you disagree with my views or have something to add. And apologies in advance for using the p-word. Obrigado.
What is good creative writing, in your opinion?
I think we need to separate creative writing as art from commercial writing here.
For me, the artist or creative author is free. They may choose to adhere to constraints – for creative, financial, technical or personal reasons – but that’s their choice. Good creative writing makes a deep impression on you as a reader, perhaps because the story draws you in or because the language and the ideas conveyed are beautiful or surprising or enlightening.
Good commercial writing marries creative writing techniques with a clear purpose and within limitations. It uses the power of language to convey a message or idea. The writer is in a three-way relationship with the reader and the client, but the reader must always come first.
You were recently a judge at the D&AD looking for the best work in Writing for Design category. What were you looking for?
I was looking for work where the written language drew me in, made me think, perhaps surprised me, and certainly left me with a memorable message or idea or experience. I was looking for a smile in the mind, but I was also happy to be unsettled or challenged.
I also wanted to see a strong relationship between words and design. And the writing had to be so well crafted that it felt natural, in the same way that a great photographer disappears, allowing you to move into the world of the subject. I’m always looking for writing that does something new, but most of all I want it to take me somewhere interesting.
Was good writing in design hard to spot?
Yes, partly because there are relatively few entries in that category compared to, say, the graphic design category. There’s some terrific work being done out there but the general standard of writing in design is simply not good enough. There are many reasons for this – from the limitations imposed by inexperienced or ignorant clients to the quality of writers. We writers need to work much harder to inspire companies to commission and support great work, and to develop our own abilities and confidence. We must fight to create better work on behalf of our readers. That’s one reason why I and others set up 26, a collaboration that brings writers and editors together so we can learn from each other and raise standards.
Why is it so hard to find good writing in advertising these days? Or in journalism?
There’s great writing out there but it’s surrounded by a huge swamp of mediocre copy. As content multiplies so good writing becomes more and more of a potential differentiator. This is something that most clients and agencies pay lip service to while in reality creating standard work. You can talk endlessly about brand storytelling and content marketing and tone of voice but unless you have people who can really write you’re just generating more noise.
How creative were you as a kid?
My obsessions as a young kid were football and reading. Then I got into music and writing lyrics. I was a drummer and I think that has helped my writing enormously. Rhythm is the hidden magic within great writing.
Can good writing be taught?
No one is born with a gene that means they’ll be able to write well. Good writing starts with good reading, which should start in school and hopefully at home. But even if you have an awful education you can still learn to write well later in life.
I help people to write at work through training – horrible word ‘training’ but there you go – and I run workshops for designers helping them to develop their confidence and skills with words. The change in their ability with language can be remarkable. But the person must be hungry to keep learning and developing their skills once the teaching stops.
You also have to remember that good writing starts with good thinking. As David Ogilvy wrote: “Woolly minded people write woolly memos, woolly letters and woolly speeches.” You must develop your intellect if you want to write well.
Can creativity be taught?
I think you can inspire people to have the confidence to think creatively and you can teach techniques for helping the development of ideas and expression. But the student must go on to think for themselves and express themselves. There’s a restlessness about creative people – unless someone has that constant desire to do things in a new way all that teaching will be pointless.
What does it take to be a good writer?
It starts with having an interesting, curious mind and ends with knowing which words to leave out, and there are a few things in between too.
How did you become a writer?
My mother worked in a newsagent’s shop so I was surrounded by newspapers and magazines as a child. From comics to Vogue to football magazines to broadsheets and tabloids, I read constantly and soaked up written language. But I also became interested in how the words related to the visuals, the type and the layout, even the inky paper itself. I went on to study English Literature and Film at university, then managed to get a job as a writer on a group of magazines for the creative industry. I ended up editing Graphics International magazine (now Grafik) and writing for titles such as Print in New York and Design Week in London.
Now I work as a writer and communications consultant for businesses and organisations, specialising in helping companies when they’re in crisis or going through a major change or need help to define their purpose. I write for myself in the spaces between work projects.
Can you describe your creative process?
With my commercial writing it’s all about knowing who the readers are, what they care about, what we need to say to them and what we want them to think, feel or do having read our words. Then I investigate what the company’s story is, test and develop their arguments, and search for facts and examples. I don’t start writing until I’ve thought through the argument or developed my story structure.
Story structure is vital to almost everything I do. I define story in terms of challenge, action, transformation. There must be a danger, problem or mystery to be solved or overcome – that’s the challenge. An individual or group of people must do specific things in response to the challenge – the action. The world must be a substantially changed place as a result of their actions – the transformation. This structure gives your narrative energy and momentum.
Businesses tend to shy away from talking about the difficult issues they face, but by bringing out the challenge you can make their story or campaign or speech powerful and persuasive. The more you humanise the story the closer you get to evoking emotion in your reader. I use story as the basis for helping companies to transform their entire way of communicating. But they must be prepared to talk about what they’re against – the challenge – as well as what they’re for.
Do you believe in creative blanks?
Yes. They happen to me when I don’t have the right raw material – an understanding of my reader, the client’s story and the argument. Until the foundations are in place I can’t build something.
Does the creative process cause you anxiety, pain, little sleep? Or is it easy, natural, light?
When I’m struggling with a brief it feels like I’m lost in a maze by the sea, with the tide coming in. It’s become less worrisome as I’ve gained experience. But it’s rarely simple. As American journalist Gene Fowler said; “Writing is easy: All you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.”
What inspires you?
The older I get the further afield I look for inspiration. Next week I’m going to hear a diplomat talk about how to negotiate. The week after I’m spending the day with a police hostage negotiator so I can learn how he uses language to persuade people to act in a certain way, in life and death situations. I’m also inspired by scientists who refuse to accept conventional principles and engineers who redefine what’s possible physically. When you see what great architects and engineers create, there’s no excuse for dull, badly structured, badly presented prose.
I’m also inspired by people who argue a line that’s unpopular. There’s a journalist in the UK called Brendan O’Neill who interrogates orthodox thinking brilliantly. I believe passionately in free speech, not least that people should be free to say things that others find deeply offensive. I’m surprised so few people working in advertising, design and communications care about this issue of freedom and self-expression.
The creative industry likes to think it’s full of brave thinkers and imaginative souls but in my experience agency people are usually politically correct and socially conservative. They’re happy to support obviously liberal causes but rarely want to engage in debate about complex or controversial matters. They think climate change is awful but very few think about how restrictions on energy supply might keep billions of people in the developing world in poverty, for example.
What turns you off?
Corporate jargon. And companies who have nothing interesting to say about themselves. I ask new clients ‘if this company disappeared right now would the world be a worse place?’ If you don’t believe in what you’re doing why should anyone else?
Do you prefer to create alone or are brainstorming processes interesting or even necessary?
I like to collaborate first, then take away the material and work on a first draft on my own. Then I’ll share that draft, discuss with everyone again, then go away and rewrite. I’ll keep doing that until we get to where we need to be. Sometimes I’ll bring in a second writer for part of the process.
Collaboration is vital; so is concentrated solo thinking. But it’s important that the draft becomes everyone’s property, not just yours. The final piece should be the result of all the minds that were involved.
As the writer you need to fight like mad to protect the story and the words while recognising that ultimately they are the client’s story and words, not yours. You must be protective but not precious. I always share my rationale for why I’ve written the draft a particular way – that’s something I learned working on high-profile crisis projects for BP. I never say ‘it just sounds right’, always ‘I believe this is right because X’.
What do you do when you’re not working?
I write for myself – poetry, stories, essays – though time is tight. My wife is a creative director and film maker, so we talk a lot about the world, particularly art, music, politics and food. We travel as much as we can, particularly to Italy, the Middle East and North Africa at the moment. And we watch football. I support Chelsea and she’s Arsenal, so sometimes it gets heated in our house.
What would you do if you were not a writer?
I would love to be a politician, artist, photographer or vet!
Who are some of the most creative people who inspired you along the way?
My writing has been helped by many of the designers I’ve worked with and met, particularly those who have the conceptual talent to transform complexity into simplicity without losing subtlety. They include Josef Muller-Brockmann, Alan Fletcher, Mike Dempsey and David Stocks.
I’ve also collaborated with some great commercial writers such as Jim Davies and Nick Asbury, and a commercial writer with an unusual mind called Tom Lynham. He’s been a product designer, photographer, cartoonist, tree surgeon and furniture exporter and he brings an incredibly imaginative approach to language, as if words are tactile materials. I’ve also been fortunate to collaborate with the author John Simmons, who has probably done more to inspire clients to think creatively about words than anyone else I know.
What do you recommend to young people who want to become good writers?
Read everything, from great novels to the copy on the back of shampoo packs. Read books on writing by George Orwell (Politics and the English Language), Harold Evans (Essential English), William Safire (On Language), David Ogilvy (On Advertising), Stephen King (On Writing), Peggy Noonan (On Speaking Well) and John Simmons (We, Me, Them and It). But start with Chip and Dan Heath’s Made to Stick. Read great poetry, both old and new. And listen closely to the lyrics of the songs you love. Then find other writers and talk about writing.
Don’t confuse creative writing and commercial writing – they are related but have different ends. Don’t be afraid to develop your own way of writing or your own voice – the world needs new writing not a poor imitation of what’s already been written. Don’t worry if some people hate what you do – that’s better than being considered just ‘OK’. Always read your words out loud – you’ll immediately know what works and what doesn’t. And finally, don’t mistake talking or thinking about writing with getting on and doing it. Writing is first a verb, then a noun. In other words, get to work on that draft!
I’m on holiday in Sicily right now, so I’m reading some of Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Montalbano detective thriller series. The plots keep you hooked but it’s Montalbano’s character that gives the books such depth and charm. He’s a man of principle grown weary of a world led by compromise and corruption. There’s murder and fear but also wonderful moments of humour and friendship and loyalty – and Sicilian food.
On film, I prefer documentaries, or films set close to everyday life. I just saw Matteo Garrone’s Gomorrah for the second time, which is based on journalist Roberto Saviano’s non-fiction book of the same name. It looks at life in modern Naples, particularly the toxic effect of the Camorra on the poorest in the city. Dark and fascinating.