Posts Taged creative-writing

Conversational Writing: The Art of Keeping it Real

Conversational Writing

How often do messages on websites or marketing emails make you wonder if a human wrote them? A lot of content supposedly “targeting” us completely misses the mark. The writing is not conversational. It doesn’t sound like us. It doesn’t make us want to engage, and it lacks personality altogether. Some brands still confuse professional with formal and corporate with serious. Others forget how important it is to tailor content for each medium, coming off stiff and dated in social media and blog posts.

What is conversational writing?

Conversational writing is the kind or writing that makes readers feel you’re talking with them, not at them. It’s meant to keep things fresh and casual, and to help establish a brand’s voice across their website, social media, blogs and contributed articles.

Is conversational content better?

Conversational writing works better in some contexts. When we read content that sounds like us, we immediately feel a connection. As content marketers, our job is to inform, connect, persuade and inspire. We focus on finding the right “voice” for our audience and then on tailoring messages for each medium so they are more likely to convert. Sometimes this may mean relaxing our tone in client’s website’s landing page to establish trust and open opportunities for more personalized connections. Sometimes it’s about writing friendlier, shorter emails with one ask instead of five. It’s not about ignoring all brand guidelines, it’s about tweaking them to match how readers speak in different touchpoints. Some industry experts view conversational writing it as a form of copywriting UX, a way of using language to create more engaging experiences for readers.

But what about the serious technical and business stuff?

There’s still a place and a purpose for jargon and technical writing in formal business pieces like case studies, reports, RFPs and white papers. But don’t expect visitors to stay on a website that reads like an obscure instructional manual or to click on a link inside an email that sounds like a bank’s automated phone system message.

writing, conversational writing, copywriting, audience engagement

Can we write conversationally and still respect grammar rules?

Most regular rules don’t apply in conversational writing because it’s often full of slang and crutch words, creative punctuation and sentence fragments. It’s personable and unpredictable. While it’s never okay to sacrifice clarity for the sake of style, it’s okay to start a sentence with “and” or “but” to match your natural cadence in a blog and to use contractions or #hashtags on social to keep your messages light and your character count low.

A few tips on conversational writing

Conversational writing doesn’t have a style guide. What sounds like a conversation to me may not sound the same to you. The level of flexibility depends entirely on your target audience and the style they connect with. Below are a few tips to start using a healthy dose of conversational writing.

  1. Write as if you were talking to a friend. Start by reading your content out loud. Does it sound like something you’d actually say, or does it sound like something out of the Pelican Brief?
  2. Don’t write for everyone. Know who you’re talking to and write for them. Attempting to write for everyone will only dilute your message.
  3. Start with clarity. Start with your main message first so it doesn’t get lost when you add personality.
  4. Keep your sentences short. You know that amazing white paper intro you want to share on LinkedIn? Try chopping up the sentences to sound less academic. Unless your English teacher is your target audience, you definitely want to keep it short, sweet and light.
  5. Skip the long word when the short one will do. You don’t have to flaunt your vast industry vocabulary everywhere. Don’t let poor word choice stop a reader in their tracks.

A Side of Literature With Your Burrito?

Chipotle cultivating thought

Food for thought: had lunch at Chipotle, lately? Apparently you’ve got some reading material to digest along with your chips and salsa.

The fast food chain has introduced the Chipotle Cultivating Thought series, a project that, as Chipotle states, aims to present “the words and whimsy of thought-leaders, authors and comedians through unique, you’ll-only-find-them-here essays, each illustrated by a different artist. We’re hoping this will allow people to connect with the musings of these writers with whom they may or may not be familiar and create a moment of analog pause in a digital world, provoking introspection or inspiration, and maybe a little laughter.”

Chipotle cultivating thought

Toni Morrison in two minutes

I am simultaneously tickled and totally confused by this project; evidently the idea came up when Jonathan Safran Foer met with Chipotle C.E.O. Steve Ells a number of years ago, and told Ells, “You have all of these surfaces in your restaurants, like the cups and the bags — why don’t you just give something to people, not as any kind of marketing tool, not with any particular message, but just something thoughtful?”

Ok.

Involved artists’ motivations for participating include:

“I love the idea of putting something literary in a place we might not expect to find it.” – George Saunders

And,

“It’s delightfully bizarre to try  to get people to read their cups.” – Michael Lewis

 

If you’ve been to Chipotle, you know that you are rushed through the order line faster than you can decide between refried or black beans. But evidently they want you to slow down and enjoy the moment come chow time.

Chipotle cultivating thought
The full list of participants (collect all ten!) includes:

  • Toni Morrison
  • Malcom Gladwell
  • Sarah Silverman
  • Jonathan Safran Foer
  • Michael Lewis
  • Bill Hader
  • Judd Apatow
  • George Saunders
  • Steven Pinker
  • Sheri Fink

Hey, if it gets more people to read and reflect, I suppose it’s a fine idea. And I think the art is beautifully done. What do you think–does this have real purpose? Does it speak to Chipotle’s clientele, or could it perhaps draw a new set of consumers? (Do marketing questions even have a place at the table for a project like this?) Fast food + slow literary reflection is kind of a random combination, but I’m willing to watch it play out.

At the very least, maybe it will offset my guilt after enjoying too much guacamole.

Wrestling With Your Writing

Revising Your Writing

Interviewer: How much rewriting do you do?

Hemingway: It depends. I rewrote the ending of Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, 39 times before I was satisfied.

Interviewer: Was there some technical problem there? What was it that had stumped you?

Hemingway: Getting the words right.

– Ernest Hemingway, The Paris Review Interview, 1956

Revising your writing and polishing it are two very different tasks, and though the terms certainly have intersecting qualities, there are distinct differences. Revising is an entire re-vision, a re-looking at the piece and involves heavy re-drafting, often total re-writing. It’s a broad look at things like structure, voice, pacing, sound and a minute and ruthless look at each sentence—is it carrying weight? Is it doing something to further the point? Editing, or polishing, is meant for the final look after the revision has taken place—catching spelling and grammar errors, deleting and adding and moving words. Often a great piece of writing has been revised, or as I like to think of it, re-visioned many, many times. Works of great writing can take years, even decades to complete, and I think it’s important to remember that even the best writers wrestle with their content before it shape shifts into the published version. It’s true that a little bit of wrestling is important when drafting content of any kind, from an epic novel to a company newsletter.

What can be applied to creative writing can be applied to PR. In both senses the writer is creating a world, an experience, a sound and a story. A package that will bring meaning into the reader’s mind. If done well the power of the written word cannot be replaced or compromised. And I think the power of the word rarely happens in a fit of rushed inspiration, but rather in that focused time of revision, when a total re-imagining takes place.

Revising Your Writing

When I grade my writing students, I look at their commitment to revision more than anything else. I do not expect perfection in the first draft—in fact the opposite. I expect it to be messy, full of conflicting ideas, a war-torn land baring the scars of the writer’s process. Their grade is based instead on the journey from draft one, to two, to three, to final. How far did they push the language, what risks did they take? How evident is their total re-imagining? Simply polishing won’t cut it.

So just what does a total revision entail? It would be nice to have infinite time for exhaustive revisions, and of course, in a fast paced professional world, often content has to be completed and sent out within the day, even within the hour. Regardless, take to heart the below revision tips. Even the slightest effort here can make a big difference in writing of all kinds. And by knowing you will be going back and revising your writing, the pressure to produce a perfect first draft melts away.

Strategies for Revising Your Writing, or “Re-Seeing”

Share your work. Have a few trusted readers on hand, and allow them to read your writing. Enter a dialogue about the message you are trying to convey, and access their experience as a reader. Is it consistent with your goal? What might you add? What wasn’t useful? Be sure to communicate what kind of feedback you are looking for. An extra set of eyes is a great way to catch errors and expand and execute complex ideas. What sounds great in your head may not always make sense to someone else.

Read aloud

You may feel silly talking to yourself, but this is one of the simplest ways to detect tone inconsistencies, missing words, and run-on sentences. You will also get a feel for rhythm and sound that doesn’t come through in silent reading. Sometimes hearing yourself transition from idea to idea can provide new insight to structural revision possibilities as well—if there’s something clunking around in there, your ear will hear it.

Revising Your Writing

Don’t be afraid to start over.

We all want to get it right the first time, but sometimes opening up a new blank doc and re-writing the piece is a sure fire way to strip away the sentences that didn’t work the first time, and bring important ideas to the surface.

Read a hard copy.

In my experience, whenever I print something out and read it, I see things I didn’t notice on the computer screen. It pays to take a pen and mark up your sheet.

 Reverse order.

Try reading your work from the last sentence forward. By isolating each sentence, your brain cannot skip ahead. You may just find errors you would have missed.

Take a break and read something else.

It always pays to pause when revising your writing. Even if you only have a few minutes, it’s helpful to put your writing away and read another piece of work. Then go back to it with fresh eyes. The small break can also spur new thoughts and ideas for your revision.

 

 Featured image by Nic McPhee. https://www.flickr.com/photos/nics_events/2349630643

 

 

Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle

oulipo

More than writer’s block, what plagues me the most in writing is when I can feel my language getting stale. When my sentences aren’t popping like they should, my syntax is weak, and something just feels off. In creative fields like public relations, when the original and effective arrangement of words is vital to conveying a client’s message or representing their unique business, the need for fresh and alive language is never more paramount. Tired sentences just won’t do. Sometimes the solution is as simple as taking a break. Walking around the block, reading work I admire, or talking to a friend are all things that can disrupt a lull. But on occasion I need a more focused approach. And sometimes the solution is found in writing itself.

Oulipo

One of my most admired mentors and former creative writing professors, Leni Zumas, introduced me to Oulipo, short for Ouvroir de littérature potentielle, a French term that roughly translates to “workshop of potential literature.” It’s all about writing with constraints in order to create a new sound, a new way of saying something. It’s like cleaning your smudged glasses and viewing the world again. I love writing exercises of most kinds, but I was amazed at the way this exercise not only spurs new sentence structures, but how it even pulls new content to the page. The first time I tried it, I wrote a short story that came out of the obscure dictionary words I had “constrained” myself to use and the omission of commas, semi-colons and colons. The sound was sharp and more abrupt. The character’s dialogue shifted into something different, and voice and tone were altered in interesting ways. The images and situations had blossomed from the integration of new vocabulary, and the story seemed new for me as a writer in all the best ways.

180h

When I finished the story I realized I had been so wrapped up in the game of Oulipo, of keeping with my constraints, that I had spent almost no time being aware of the page count. I wasn’t adhering to my natural rhythms, and the result was refreshing. I endured practically no writer’s block at all in the process. Later, I re-worked things and relaxed with the constraints where needed for clarity and fluidity, but the piece was wholly a result of getting out of my head and creating a game, so to speak.

I applied this technique to fiction writing, but it can be used for any form. When I teach college level composition, I use this exercise with my students. I have them create constraints that will directly challenge their writing struggles, grammatical and otherwise. Maybe you’re too long winded with run ons? Try no commas, semi-colons or colons. Perhaps you’re looking for fresh vocab—try lipograms—when you omit a letter from the work completely, you are forced to use new words to say what you mean, avoiding commonly used words. You could also challenge yourself to omit letters with ascenders or descenders (b, d, f, g, h, j, k, l, p, q, t, and y) for some extra fun. I find that students create more open, less self-conscious work when we use constraints, often producing some of their most creative and surprising prose of the term.

There is no wrong way to practice Oulipo. If nothing else, it brings you out of writer’s block and back to the page. And you can always edit things later to fit your objective. I find this especially helpful in copywriting—when the text needing to be written is simple in nature, but the actual writing feels anything but. A little Oulipo is a functional creative solution and a fun way to shake things up.

It’s about potential literature–the magic inside you waiting to be prompted.