Thank you so much for agreeing to be a part of The Writing Desk Blog.
Now, imagine I’m about to introduce you to an auditorium, filled with the smiling faces of folks fuelled by caffeine and an eagerness to learn. What would I say?
“Hello everyone, I’d like to introduce…
Liz Doig, founder of Wordtree
Here’s the part where we’d sit down and try and look comfortable next to the microphones. Are you sitting comfortably? Then let’s begin…
Can you name the business book that’s always on your desk? (I’m talking about the one that’s covered in pencil marks, coffee stains and has turned down corners…)
I can never narrow down to just one thing. A couple of books I go back to regularly are The Chimp Paradox, by Professor Steve Peters and How To Talk So Kids Will Listen, And To Listen So Kids Will Talk, by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish. The ideas in both these books are useful in business – particularly for stakeholder management – and life in general.
I also love It’s Not How Good You Are, It’s How Good You Want To Be by Paul Arden. Right now I have Simon Sinek’s The Infinite Game on my desk, but I haven’t read it yet.
What’s your all-time favourite advertising campaign?
Oh my God, I’m a child of the ’70s, so there are loads of TV ads that jump to mind. I don’t know if I love them through nostalgia or because they’re exceptional examples of their craft. I found myself humming an old Bran Flakes ad recently (they’re very, very tasty). Also, Cadbury’s Smash robots – loved them. There were a few public information ads back then too that have stuck in my head – about not playing on train tracks, swimming in rivers, or flying your kite near overhead power cables. Utterly bloody terrifying.
I don’t eat Smash or Bran Flakes – so can’t say they’ve influenced my buying habits. I don’t fly kites near power stations though.
“Everyone has a book in them…” Or so the saying goes. What do you think/know/believe is the secret to good writing?
There’s a quote by Sol Stein which I think sums it all up for me: “The duty of the writer is to evoke emotion in the reader.” The trick is to be in charge of the emotions you evoke.
If you were just starting out, what advice would you give yourself? Which book or books would you read first?
• Remember that commercial writing and writing essays for school or uni are not the same
• Develop a thick skin – you’re going to have to deal with a lot of feedback
• Learn to listen
• Be patient
• Don’t just read about writing, read about business, trends, the news – hoover up all the information you can
• Don’t be afraid of asking daft questions – you need to ask, because you can’t write about things you don’t understand
• Don’t be afraid to suggest alternative ways of doing things
Sol Stein’s On Writing is a cracker of a book. It’s for creative writing – but there’s plenty in there for commercial writers too. But honestly, don’t faff around too much reading about writing. Just write. Get a portfolio together. Start doing the job.
Silence? Radio? Or music while you work?
If I’m doing admin, I might have Radio 4 or Netflix on in the background. If I’m working, I need total silence.
What are your top three novels of all time – and why?
There are way more than three – but here goes…
Catch 22, Joseph Heller – I grew up in a military family and this really captures the absurdity and bloody-minded bureaucracy of some of it. And of course, because I’ve read it, whenever I meet someone with the family name Major, I wonder if they’ll give their firstborn the name Major.
Half of a Yellow Sun, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – I grew up being told to eat up, because children in Biafra would be glad to have my dinner. At the time, I didn’t know where Biafra was, or why they’d want my fishfingers. I learned later about the Nigerian Civil War – but in a detached way, from facts that conveniently glossed over the UK’s role in the whole mess. This novel gives more context – and it does so with characters that feel (sometimes depressingly, sometimes upliftingly) real.
Four Meals, Meir Shalev – I love a bit of magic realism, and this has a feel of Garcia Marquez about it. I also bloody love bees – and there’s a fair bit in the book about how one of the characters traps honeybees and gets them to form colonies in hives. Aside from that, it’s a story about a man and his possible fathers. It pops into my head from time to time – especially the stuff about the bees.
What’s the best thing you’ve ever written? Why did it rock your world?
I wrote a book about tone of voice that I was chuffed with. I also created a tone of voice for Coutts (the private bank) and implemented it. It still tickles me that someone with my accent could do that. Generally though, I’ve got very short-term memory for what I write. I’m really into it for the project and then, poof! It’s gone. Deleted RAM.
What’s the last thing you bought? And yes, that packet of chewing gum counts.
Fuel. From a service station on the M5. In a thunderstorm.
Who was your teenage crush?
Oh that’s embarrassing. Probably Morten Harket from Aha – or Michael Praed in Robin of Sherwood.
Can you describe the best meal you’ve ever eaten?
I love food – so couldn’t really pin it on one meal. I remember eating coriander for the first time and thinking, what was THAT? Delicious, tasty leaves. I love bits-and-pieces meals where you get to eat lots of different things. I lived in France for a bit and loved cheeses, fougasse and dry rosé. I really like North African food. And Thai food. There’s very little I won’t have a go at – ooh, except bear. I was in Finland a while ago and there was bear on the menu. I passed. Poor bear.
What’s your favourite tipple? Is it wine, beer – a cask-aged malt?
If I were to give you a private jet, David Attenborough as a tour guide and a month off work – all expenses paid – where would you go and what or who would you write about – and why?
Would Sir David get on a private jet? Let’s assume it’s a futuristic zero-carbon jet… I’d love to go to the South Pacific islands – and to the poles. I’m not sure I would write at all on this trip – but I’d take some seriously fancy cameras.
What’s in your pockets?
My bank card (was using it instead of an Oyster card and still haven’t put it back in my purse). A tube of Burt’s Bees lipsalve. A folded sweetie wrapper I couldn’t find a bin for. It’ll all probably end up in the washing machine.
Pen and ink, pencil and paper or keyboard and screen? What’s your writing style?
All of the above. If I’m working my ideas out, then definitely pens, pencils and paper/Post-its. Sometimes big sketch pads and sharpies. Then when I know what I’m doing and I have an idea and a structure nailed, I move to my Mac.
Do you read any blogs or magazines about writing? (And I mean read, not just subscribe to and delete/leave on your desk and recycle?)
Not really. That’s bad, isn’t it?
Tea – or coffee? What’s your poison?
Do you have a favourite cup or mug? Can you describe it?
I like mugs that are skinny. I don’t like a chunky mug.
What was your most adored children’s book? And character?
I liked the Wombles books, by Elisabeth Beresford – and Wellington, because he had glasses, like me (I’ve been extremely shortsighted all my life). I cried when I read Goodnight Mr Tom by Michelle Magorian. And I loved Tolkien books (and still do). When I was a kid, I think I secretly hoped that I’d just kind of happen upon The Shire, or some elves who needed a hand delivering the world from evil.
Your favourite word?
There are a few. I love the French word libellule, which means dragonfly. Words feel a bit more monolithic when they’re in a second language.
Your most loathed word? (You know, the one that makes you shudder and say “Ew!”?)
Is your address Downton Abbey? No? Then you have teams or colleagues.
Where can we find you? – Browsing online or lost in the aisles of a bookstore?
I live at least an hour’s drive from the nearest bookshop. So while I do like a browse in the aisles, I’m probably online.
Favourite song lyric of all time? And why?
Like a cat in a bag waiting to drown (The Drugs Don’t Work, The Verve) – genius.
Her house was very small, with woodchip on the wall (Disco 2000, Pulp) – I used to get in trouble for picking the woodchip when I was a kid.
You are the son of a mother fucker (Nimrod’s Son, Pixies) – I love a good swear.
Name the artist who is guaranteed to get you up on the dance floor.
I was at a wedding recently and danced to almost everything. That said, I love a bit of funk/soul to dance to – so maybe Sly and the Family Stone.
Do you have any strange writing rituals you’d like to share with us?
Not really. I prefer pens with skinny nibs. I prefer using a Mac (I tried a PC last year. Fecking hated it). I like having a big whiteboard to work on sometimes. I circle around a subject a bit sometimes, and it’s useful to have someone to talk initial ideas through with. But generally, I just get my head down and bash it out.
What are you working on today? What’s in the pipeline?
Today I’m working on a value proposition – and I’ve got a call with a client about language and DEI. There’s tons in the pipeline – a verbal ident for a global B2B organisation, crystalising messaging for a long-standing client… tone of voice training in London this week, plus a couple of face-to-face meetings. There’s generally a lot going on, all at once.
Can you describe the last photograph you took?
It was of my friend’s daughter at her first communion this weekend. It was when she was tired of the whole thing. She was leaning against a tree, looking quite pissed off. Her tiara had gone wonky and she had cake on her face. I also have photos of her looking like a beautiful princess earlier in the day.
What piece of advice really changed you as a writer?
It wasn’t a specific piece of advice, but more of a practice. I started professional life as a reporter on a local newspaper. My boss was always the first person in and would always have clear lists of what everyone needed to do that day. News can be hectic and frenetic, but he was super-organised – so you started every day knowing what everyone was supposed to be doing. I try to be like him – though I’m probably not as consistent as he was.
What was the last thing you wrote that had nothing to do with your job?
My friend’s kid is struggling a bit with her schoolwork, so I’ve been writing poems to help her with the lists of words she needs to learn. It’s doggerel really, but she seems to like it, and she’s remembering how to spell the words – so job done, I guess.
What’s your favourite quote about the process of writing?
Sol Stein – see Q3
Who is your favourite Mad Man – or Woman?
Can you name your favourite film – and tell us why you love it?
I love a bit of dystopia and science fiction – so maybe Terminator II.
Which book or books is/are by your bed today?
I was bought Richard Osman’s Thursday Murder Club follow-up for Christmas, and I still haven’t read it. I’m re-reading Liz Berry’s Black Country poems. I heard her on Radio 4 recently and it made me pick up that particular collection again. She writes in West Midlands dialect, which is kind of comforting. I grew up in a town where the southern half talks like they’re from the West Mids, and the northern part like they’re from Stoke-on-Trent. So a lot of the language in her poems – babbies, donnies, bonce… it feels familiar and safe.
Who was or is your greatest teacher?
School was a very long time ago. I had a couple of lovely teachers – a guy called Mr Falkes who set up a lunchtime Latin club (just me and him, most of the time). I had an English teacher called Mr Cave who had a passion for stories. He also played the double bass in a jazz club that I sometimes went to with my dad. And I had a biology teacher called Mr Smith, who basically told me I could do anything I wanted in life. (There’s probably a parallel universe where I’m a biologist pulling manx shearwaters out of their burrows to weigh them.)
I really should learn more from my dogs – two border collies who just seem to delight in the present moment. They absolutely lose their shit with happiness over the simplest things.
Who is your favourite artist?
I love ceramics and glass – artists like Rui Sasaki and the Verhoeven twins. I quite like Jami Porter Lara’s work too – it feels like Barbara Hepworth in a kind of refined miniature. (I was really lucky that my university had Barbara Hepworth statues on campus. I used to go and eat my sandwiches, staring at them.)
I like all sorts of stuff, really. I’ve got a soft spot for Tracy Emin. I went to see Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Mirror Rooms recently and it was marvellous.
Where do you like to work best – is it at a desk, in an office or in a coffee shop? And would you send us a picture of where the magic happens?
It depends on the piece of work. Sometimes I work better in groups, sometimes with my head down at my desk. My desk is pretty functional, and usually a lot less tidy than in the picture.