Free stuff: the Content Marketing Show in London

Content Marketing Show

This Thursday it’s the Content Marketing Show. It’s a free, one-day event for anyone interested in content marketing – AKA creating and sharing content in order to attract customers – and it’s held at the Institute of Education in central London.

Free tickets always go pretty quick – it’s worth signing up for the mailing list as you’ll get an email when they’re available (at the time of writing all the freebies are gone, but you can still snap up a ticket for £44.75 if you’re desperate).

I can’t go this year, but I’ve been several times before and always come away with a long list of resources and a large dose of inspiration. If you can’t make it this week, there’s usually a second event held in November. And if you can’t make that one either, just watch the videos instead – all the talks from November 2013 are here.

 

 

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10 essential books for writers and editors.

10 books for writers and editors

I’ve got a bit of a thing about reference books. I sort of collect them. I never usually manage to read them from cover to cover (so I’d recommend reading some more in-depth reviews if you’re thinking about buying any of these), but they’re great for dipping in and out of for information.

Here are 10 books I’ve found really useful. Topics span copywriting, digital copywriting, idea generation, editing, content marketing, social media, and blogging (and, to a lesser degree, SEO), and I’d highly recommend all of them*.

* I’ve only just started two of the books, as detailed below, but I’d already rate them as essential reading. Here’s hoping they don’t take a nose-dive after the first few chapters…

10 essential book for writers and editors, from the bottom up:

1. The Yahoo! Style Guide – The Ultimate Sourcebook For Writing, Editing, And Creating Content For The Digital World

Yes – the title’s very long. But the book is worth it. Having started out in print and moved into digital publishing relatively recently, I now work across both, which means I need to keep reminding myself of the differences between writing for offline and online platforms. This book is perfect for that – it’s essentially a guide to writing for an online audience and how best to tailor your copy. It also touches on the basics of HTML and XHTML coding and Search Engine Optimisation (although it really is just the basics), as well as internet law (although this is all tailored to US law). It’s easy to read and I’d definitely say essential reading for anyone working in digital copywriting or editing.

2. Copywriting – Successful Writing For Design, Advertising And Marketing – Mark Shaw

If you’re not clear on the difference between a writer and a copywriter, this is the book for you. It explains how to work as a copywriter – when the whole point of your writing is to move the reader to some sort of action (usually you want them to buy something) – with examples from brands like Pret and Innocent. It shows how it’s possible to be creative within the confines of a client brief, and it looks nice, which is always a bonus.

3. WordPress For Business Bloggers – Paul Thewlis

This is one of the rare books I have read from cover to cover, just before I began editing our company blogs. If you’re starting out in business blogging in WordPress this will give you a good basic grounding in the essentials – from the difference between categories and tags to the basics of SEO (my copy was published in 2008, though, so Google has moved the goalposts when it comes to the bulk of this info – the link above is to the 2011 edition, but even that will be out of date in places). Nevertheless, it’s a great basic guide to get you started.

4. Guardian Style – David Marsh and Amelia Hodsdon

This isn’t a book I use often, but every writer needs something to look to when it comes to issues of style, and this is the one for me. It works brilliantly as a back-up to our in-house style guide at work, for those times when only the Guardian has the answer.

5. The Associated Press Stylebook 2013

Another one for dipping in and out of occasionally. The first two-thirds of the book are dedicated to style – from air bag (two words) to zip line (no hyphen). The final third includes some really useful social media guidelines, a separate style guide for food, and a good basic guide to media law.

6. Contagious – Jonah Berger

I bought this on the recommendation of a speaker at BrightonSEO and am only halfway through, so I won’t wax lyrical about it just yet. That said, the few chapters I’ve read have been an interesting study into word of mouth advertising, or what makes people talk about stuff. I’m interested to see if the second half of the book is as easy to read as the first.

7. Made To Stick – Chip and Dan Heath

I was loving this book – about how to make your ideas and messages memorable (or ‘sticky’) to your audience – and then I dropped it in the bath. The half I did read was brilliantly entertaining and really engaging – this is a must-read guide for anyone who needs to get important messages across in their job (teachers, trainers, managers). The second half is soggy and blurry, but that’s my own fault for reading it in the bath.

8. It’s Not How Good You Are, It’s How Good You Want To Be – Paul Arden

I love this little book of creative inspiration from advertising bigwig Paul Arden – former creative director of Saatchi and Saatchi. It’s made up of anecdotes, images and short stories from Arden’s advertising days and offers advice on everything from getting out of a creative rut to seeing the positive in getting fired (yes, really). There are lots of headlines in shouty caps along the lines of ‘DON’T LOOK FOR THE NEXT OPPORTUNITY. THE ONE YOU HAVE IN HAND IS THE OPPORTUNITY’ and ‘I WANT TO BE AS FAMOUS AS PERSIL AUTOMATIC’ (Victoria Beckham’s words as a teenager on her ambition to become a household name). Somehow it manages to be self-affirming without tipping over into self-help.

9. A Technique For Producing Ideas – Young

Another pocket-sized book – just 48 pages long – this one is a classic that’s stood the test of time since it was first printed in 1965. Young’s 5-step plan to unleashing your inner creativity starts with one simple instruction: absorb and take note of everything you learn and discover day-to-day in something like a notebook or scrapbook. Only when your mind is open and ‘listening’ – and you give yourself some space to let ideas form naturally – will you come up with anything new. In essence, don’t expect to formulate a groundbreaking new idea if you’re too focussed on the task (or limited by time) to be aware of what’s going on in the world around you, because you never know where the spark will come from. Permission to daydream, basically.

10. Ladybird Spelling and Grammar

Everyone assumes I’m some sort of expert on spelling and grammar because of my job. The truth is, I can (usually) spot bad grammar and edit it. I can’t usually tell you why it’s bad grammar, because I’m rubbish at remembering the proper terminology (I don’t remember ever being taught it at school, but I may have been daydreaming at the time). This book is written for school-age kids, so you don’t get any of the waffle you find in weightier tomes on the subject (and believe me, I’ve got plenty of those). In a nutshell, it does exactly what it says on the tin.

I’ve linked to Amazon UK for all the titles above, purely because I find the customer reviews on the site really useful. They are – of course – available to buy elsewhere.

How to edit your own writing.

Cutting letters

Photo: Laborant/Shutterstock.

I should probably start this post by explaining one fundamental thing about editing your own writing.

You can’t.

That is, your writing will never truly be at its best if nobody else has read through it before it’s published. Sorry. The role of an editor (and I’m not just saying this because it’s my job) can’t be underestimated. No matter how amazing the writer, it takes a second pair of eyes to truly ‘see’ a piece of writing for what it is. Plus, it’s just really hard to spot your own typos.

I’m talking from experience here. When I started copywriting I was mortified to have several weeks’ worth of work returned covered in red pen. After several more weeks, having fought through a mixture of anger and embarrassment, I realised the final version was – I hated to admit – better than the original. And after a few more weeks again I started paying attention to the revisions and self-editing my work before I sent it over. Fortunately the red pen vanished, my editor seemed pretty happy and I managed to keep my job.

I realise, having said all that, it’s not always possible to have someone read through every single thing you write – particularly if you’re blogging (suffice to say this post won’t be edited before it’s published). So while I’d still recommend that someone, anyone, reads your stuff, there are things you can do to distance yourself from your writing so that you can edit it from a more objective point of view. Starting with…

1. PRINT IT OUT.

Yes – I know printing costs are a pain in the *ss if the money’s coming out of your own pocket. But it’s worth printing your work so you can read through it on paper with a pen in hand – you’ll spot so much more than if you just read through it on screen again. At the very least (or if you’ve run out of paper), change the view to a different layout, or adjust the zoom so you’re looking at things fresh.

2. MOVE AWAY FROM THE COMPUTER.

Seriously. When you’re happy with your blog post, article, paper, whatever – get away from the computer/laptop/tablet and do something else. Give yourself an hour at least, if you can. A day is better. Then come back and re-read and you’ll be AMAZED at the mistakes you’ll find and the amount of waffle you can cut out. Which brings me to point 3.

3. MURDER YOUR DARLINGS.

It’s an industry term for ‘get rid of the bits you love the most’, and it’s one of the hardest points to apply. That really clever play on words that doesn’t necessarily add anything useful but sounds really cool? Ditch it. That paragraph that goes off on a tangent from what your headline has promised but took you ages to come up with? Lose it. That opening line that will only make sense to people who are also into arthouse films? Bye bye.

Of course, I’m talking about copywriting – where you’re aiming to achieve a clear goal through your words – rather than creative writing here. And by all means, if your blog is all about arthouse cinema and so are your readers, keep that opening line. But as a general rule, if you want your writing to have the widest possible reach, this one’s got to be done.

4. CUT IT IN HALF.

Can you say it in fewer words? Then do. Point 3 will have helped to slim your wordcount down a little, but there’s still work to be done if you’re writing anything other than a novel or an in-depth research paper with no limit on wordcount (although even then I’d say you’re best to be concise). Truth is, we have very short attention spans these days, and the likelihood is – especially if people are reading your work on a screen – they’re also doing several other things at the same time. If there’s a way you can get your message across in fewer words – and therefore more quickly – so much the better.

5. SHORTEN YOUR SENTENCES.

It’s a good idea to stick to a rule of one idea per sentence. If you’ve had to use every type of punctuation going just to get your sentence to make sense, chances are it’s too long. It’s controversial I know, but things like colons and semicolons are fast becoming outdated and unnecessary for that very reason.

6. SHORTEN YOUR PARAGRAPHS.

For the same reason as the one above. Don’t be afraid of a bit of white space on the page/screen – it gives the reader somewhere to breathe. Within reason, that’s a good thing.

7. CHECK YOUR SPELLING AND GRAMMAR.

Spelling mistakes are pretty easily avoided – even if you’re typing straight into a post template in WordPress, you can make the most of the in-built spellchecker tool. And if you’re using Word or something similar, the same applies. Grammar is a bit more tricky, and I’m not going to go into subordinate clauses and the like in this post (mainly because I understand grammar in the same way I understand walking – I just sort of do it. I have no real idea of the processes involved in my body – and certainly couldn’t explain them to you – but somehow I can *usually* achieve the end result.)

One thing that even I can remember, though, is the dangling participle. It’s EVERYWHERE. This one is off the back of a book I’m reading:

Born in England, her first book is a tale of…‘ Her first book was born in England? Whaaa?

In a nutshell, the first part of the sentence modifies whatever’s straight after the comma in the second part, which is all wrong in this case. It’d need to be ‘Born in England, she wrote her first book…’ or something along those lines, because it’s the author that’s being referred to in ‘Born in England’, not the book. There. Clear as mud.

8. GET YOUR FACTS RIGHT.

Lastly, I always copy and paste weird names or words into a search engine to double-check I’ve spelt them correctly. If you’re blogging and linking to other sites, check the hyperlinks actually work, too. There’s nothing more annoying than a broken link.

DISCLAIMER: I regularly forget to employ many of these points in my own writing. Hey – we’re all human. Also, because of my background, a lot of these points are better suited to content marketing, blogging and copywriting, rather than creative writing in its most traditional sense. Please don’t be offended if you fall into the last camp and I’ve just suggested you slash your novel in half. Oh, and if there are any typos, grammatical errors or mistakes of any sort in this post, that’s because I put them there on purpose to see which eagle-eyed reader could pick them out. So congratulations – gold star to you.

PS. Want to read about this sort of stuff from people who are actually rather good at explaining it? Then you’ll want to read my list of 10 essential books for writers and editors.