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…
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…)
Oh dear. I’ve read these quizzes. You’ll be expecting me to be all liberal artsy.
Nigel reading The Guardian arts pages in a Shoreditch bicycle-repair shop. Smoking Gauloises in Tokyo’s Blue Note. Thumbing ancient copies of Flaubert in Brighton’s most-eclectic independent bookshops.
That’s kind of 100% not me. I read The Telegraph sports pages, not The Guardian’s arts section. I do tennis, not the theatre. I watch mainstream movies, not arthouse flicks. I live in a new-build in Lancashire, not a Victorian maisonette in Hampstead.
Yeah, I’m the anti-writer. El diablo of copywriting.
Anyway, you get the idea. What was the question again? Ah, coffee stains and pencil marks? Er, no. My life is very orderly. I also, ah, don’t read a great deal (quelle surprise). But I’ve applied my limited attention span to specific chapters from ‘Hey Whipple’, ‘Troublesome Words’ and ‘The Copy Book’.
What’s your all-time favourite advertising campaign?
The fact that I don’t recall whether it was a TV or print ad probably tells you how good the idea was. It was an ad promoting Scottish tourism from the early 90s and it showed a commuter looking serene on a busy train platform against the tagline, ‘Scotland – it stays with you’.
The excellent Leith Agency, I believe.
“Everyone has a book in them…” Or so the saying goes. What do you think/know/believe is the secret to good writing?
During the last recession, I penned 29,000 words of a novel about art plagiarism. It was well written but had the most convoluted, unworkable plot in Christendom. So, no. I really don’t have a book in me.
And the secret of writing? I think you first and foremost need to be born with it. I don’t believe quality writing can be significantly learned.
I’m also not convinced you need to read anything and everything. I don’t and I seem to do okay. Truth is, in the Internet age, we’re all reading constantly anyway, so we’re subconsciously absorbing structures and forms, turns of phrase, idiom, metaphor and all the other twiddly bits.
If you were just starting out, what advice would you give yourself? Which book or books would you read first?
I’d tell myself this isn’t wearing Dickensian frills and staring magnificently into space while waving a quill pen in the air. It isn’t writing as such, although that’s the medium you use.
No, copywriting is solving business problems. It’s digging deep into the buyer’s psyche to eliminate objections and offer up unique reasons why your client’s product trumps all others.
Let’s face it, 90% of your time as a copywriter isn’t writing. It’s thinking. It’s research. It’s cramming your head with facts, then going to watch A Place in the Sun for an hour and hoping your subconscious does what you pay it to do.
Books? Maybe Influence by Robert Cialdini and The Copy Book.
Silence? Radio? Or music while you work?
It can’t be anything with lyrics. This is where art directors have the edge on us. So it’s usually silence or spaced-out instrumental stuff on Spotify such as Einaudi, Craig Armstrong or Anthony Greninger.
What are your top three novels of all time – and why?
This is where I get ruthlessly exposed for the dirty heathen that I am. On my English degree, I was that pleb who couldn’t bear to read the turgid classical literature (‘the lake has never looked so lovely’; ‘do be a dear and pass the cucumber sandwiches, Hettie’).
I was far too busy captaining the men’s tennis team to the national finals.
I shudder to remember my tubby, cravated English lecturer discussing Joyce and saying how we could surely all identify with how Stephen Dedalus ‘feigned to run’ on the football field.
I was bloody good at football. I felt alienated.
That said… we’ll have One Day by David Nicholls. I love the idea of a novel that has a structural concept, that spans time and that captures multiple POVs. I have a similar idea, but I’m not going to share it with you. Cos you might nick it.
Then there’s The Rage of Angels by Alan Fisher (formerly titled Brief Candles), a story about a talented but tortured WWI fighter pilot.
And then Without Feathers by Woody Allen. I picked it up as an 18-year-old in a Copenhagen bookstore. I read the first three pages on City Hall Square and nearly soiled my trousers…
‘The authenticity of The Scrolls is currently in great doubt, particularly as the word Oldsmobile appears several times in the text’.
What’s the best thing you’ve ever written? Why did it rock your world?
I’ve always had an offbeat sense of humour. Before I went freelance, I wrote a humorous blog (I kid myself it was in the style of Woody Allen’s written stuff – see above) that developed quite a cult following. It went on to win awards in a national web magazine and in The Guardian. So, that.
I’ve won three awards as a freelance copywriter, all within three months of each other, bizarrely. But not for my best work.
The stuff I’m most proud of (and that was my most lucrative) was back in Christmas 2006. I’d already done a day’s work when the phone went at 5pm.
‘Hi, we’re a US-based recruitment firm. We’re opening our UK site tomorrow. We need someone to write as many articles as possible to fill the site before 9am tomorrow.’
I negotiated £200 for each 500-word blog, then wrote 15 before daybreak. They were so smart and so funny. And so very well paid.
The best thing I never wrote was for Innocent Drinks. I always wrote the quirky stuff, probably even before it was fashionable. One day, I got a call from Danny, the Innocent copywriter.
He said, ‘I bloody love your work. Would you like to write for Innocent?’
Naturally, I declined as I was far too busy. The hell I did. Sadly, they’ve never needed me, but I like to think my name’s on some dusty roster somewhere in Fruit Towers.
What’s the last thing you bought? And yes, that packet of chewing gum counts.
Sudafed Blocked Nose nasal spray for my son.
Who was your teenage crush?
Oh Lordy, this is going to sound preposterous. Martina Navratilova.
Can you describe the best meal you’ve ever eaten?
Again, here’s where I fall down. You’re going to expect something exotic. Bird’s nest soup in Shanghai or live octopus in Seoul.
Truth is, it was after Interrail as a teenager. With a beggar’s budget, we’d gone a month living off scraps in the street and lost about three stone. But we’d saved £3.50 to devour plaice and chips in the café at the Hook of Holland ferry terminal.
I swear, no meal since has come close to that divine feast.
What’s your favourite tipple? Is it wine, beer – a cask-aged malt?
I try to avoid alcohol as much as possible. This is owing to my scary inability to stop once I’ve started. A nice Cabernet Sauvignon works well, though.
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?
It wouldn’t be in a jet. If I were 30 years younger, I’d probably trek across the centre of Iceland or ride a bike to Norway’s Nordkapp. I like wild, lonely places devoid of humans.
Dave would also probably need to be considerably younger. So we’d have to somehow shatter the space-time continuum to pull it off.
Oh, and I wouldn’t be writing. Why would I want to write when I’m on holiday? Writing’s my job. Dur.
What’s in your pockets?
Poo bags. For my dog. Not me. That would be weird.
Pen and ink, pencil and paper or keyboard and screen? What’s your writing style?
My weapons of choice are a Featty Gifts quill pen hand-built from birch wood with stainless-steel nib tipped with iridium alloy, and 95gsm Decadry champagne parchment.
Actually, just an HP desktop.
Do you read any blogs or magazines about writing? (And I mean read, not just subscribe to and delete/leave on desk and recycle?)
Yeah, I collect back issues of Lürzer’s Archive. It’s a bi-monthly magazine for the ad industry featuring campaigns for print and TV from all over the planet. It’s great for nicking ideas inspiration.
Tea – or coffee? What’s your poison?
Tetrodoxotin. With a twist of lemon over ice.
Do you have a favourite cup or mug? Can you describe it?
Any hideous, novelty, Easter-egg-type mug is perfect. My wife hates them. So, naturally, we all buy more for her every Christmas.
I’m also very excited to have just placed an order for this.
What was your most adored children’s book? And character?
When I was seven, I was one of those kids with a reading age of, like, 32. So I used to read grown-up stuff from a very early age. So I’d have to say Lord of the Flies, which I read aged eight.
Your favourite word?
Your most loathed word? (You know, the one that makes you shudder and say “Ew!”?)
Everyone always says moist, but some of the nicest things in the world are moist. I mean cakes, obvs. So I’ll go with crepuscular.
Where can we find you? – Browsing online or lost in the aisles of a bookstore?
What do you think?
Favourite song lyric of all time? And why?
‘What kind of dream would you call it, to have one foot in Eden, one foot in Hell, to be always numb, plagued by demons, summoned by angels, at the same time endlessly?’ The Waterboys.
Why? Frankly, cos I’m a bit screwed-up.
Name the artist who is guaranteed to get you up on the dance floor.
I’ve never understood the urge to dance.
Do you have any strange writing rituals you’d like to share with us?
Before I can write a single word, I need to sacrifice a newly born goat at sunrise and bathe my naked body in its warm blood.
Apart from that, I draft in Times New Roman. When I’m happy with anything I’ve written, I convert it to Arial.
What are you working on today? What’s in the pipeline?
I’m writing a strange autobiographical quiz for a copywriter in Newcastle. This is preventing me from writing a website for a kids’ wall-sticker company and doing some edits on a design-company’s site copy.
Next week, it’ll be another website for a care-home business and an email sequence for a longstanding holiday-homes client.
Can you describe the last photograph you took?
Some ‘Minger’ cheese that I saw on the shelf at Tebay services on the M6.
What piece of advice really changed you as a writer?
‘Get yourself a really comfy chair.’ My mum.
What was the last thing you wrote that had nothing to do with your job?
A mortgage application. We’re buying a holiday home.
What’s your favourite quote about the process of writing?
“When I write an advertisement, I don’t want you to tell me that you find it ‘creative’. I want you to find it so interesting that you buy the product.”
Who is your favourite Mad Man – or Woman?
Never seen it.
Can you name your favourite film – and tell us why you love it?
Ah, here’s another great plebby admission. It’s Stealing Home. It’s about baseball, friendship, nostalgia, the seaside, and what to do with your dead friend’s ashes. I’m a sucker for all those things.
Which book or books is/are by your bed today?
Hey Whipple, Squeeze This. I’d have given the same answer if you’d asked me three months ago. I read two pages every night while my wife is cleaning her teeth.
Who was or is your greatest teacher?
Fritz Ainscough. He somehow got me through O’level maths.
Who is your favourite artist?
Alphonse Mucha, Katarina Niksic.
Weren’t expecting that, were you?
Where do you like to work best – is it at a desk, in an office or in a coffee shop?
In my garden studio, completely alone, with my dog at my feet and the door open to the summer sound of the woodpigeons in the trees. Here’s a picture of my uber-clinical desk. No George III rolltops picked up from some eclectic Cotswolds emporium here, thank you very much.