She opens the office door. She smells something…wet metal, steak tartare? On the breeze from the window, a dripping sound. Grace Emmerson sees Harold John, her boss of 10 years, slumped in a corner…
What question do you ask yourself when you read this? I imagine you thinking ‘What’s happened here?’ but you can let me know if otherwise…
This could open a news article, a work of fiction or a presentation even, aiming to create drama and grab your reader’s attention. Whatever you’re writing, Stephen King homage, technical spec or marketing video script, your writing will succeed when you hold your reader’s attention in thrall.
On Halloween then, here are some tips to thrill your audience in your writing.
Be An Attention Engineer
At the excellent Killer Women Festival run by London female crime writers, Erin Kelly took us through how to create suspense, emphasizing the importance of sensing what questions your readers will be asking. Whatever you’re writing these three questions matter:
You may not be addressing these three questions directly in your work, but you need to have answered them in your head. And when questions are answered for your audience, then new questions need to be posed. Getting to the key questions is the cruncher.
Like this example from a book review in the Atlantic magazine:
Play With Your Readers
Misdirect them, puzzle them and surprise them. If you love Gone Girl and The Girl On The Train you’ll know that at least the first half of these thrilling novels are misdirects. We think someone’s done something heinous, but we’re not quite sure… I’m currently reading Tammy Cohen’s excellent When She Was Bad, about half-way through, and a character has drunk some coffee which has a violent effect on his innards, which he believes is down to deliberate contamination… If so who’s done it, I wonder, and why?
If your writing in any form has what’ s known as a ‘baggy middle’ can you give it that shot of poisoned caffeine?
Create Sufficient Threat
Whatever you’re writing too, there must be sufficient threat to a featured character, for it to matter. Or indeed to ourselves, the readers.
So if a business is threatened by change for instance, you need to show just how much they value what is under threat. Sometimes a gripping headline is all your writing needs to convey sufficient threat:
In business writing, personalized case histories can help illustrate threat, as shown by Abbi Whitaker on Forbes.com:
This threat can be delivered with shocking suddenness as fear supremo, Stephen King describes here: “No waking or dreaming in this terminal, but only the voice of the writer, low and rational, talking about the way the good fabric of things sometimes has a way of unraveling with shocking suddenness. He’s telling you that you do want to see the car accident, and yes, he’s right—you do. There’s a dead voice on the phone…something behind the walls of the old house that sounds bigger than a rat…movement at the foot of the cellar stairs. He wants you to see all of those things, and more.”
What do you want your readers to see this Halloween?
Isn’t life grand when an accident becomes an opportunity?
A start-up tech company hired a freelance writer friend to create some news blog posts for them. Now this friend is canny, so she negotiated her fee upwards based on her network of tech PR specialists and journalists. She would be doing some of the connecting for the client.
But, when her network read the posts, they said ‘Nothing new here, nothing to get excited about’. When she told the client, they were disappointed but also grateful. She’d saved them time and money, pursuing an idea which was going to be a hard sell. So she didn’t get shot, but paid…
And now she’s establishing a reputation in this sector as an ace traction-detecting copywriter, for new ideas.
So first step to increasing your value is:
That is, the chattering classes of PR and journalists who specialize in your type of writing. I can think immediately of three students of mine, whose targets for this would be left-wing campaigners, alternative health experts and establishment politicos, for instance. You will have something they want – news and opinion – and they will have something you and your clients need – feedback.
I know I don’t need to tell you how useful Twitter can be for tracking down PR experts and journalists – and you can store their handles in a list.
Book publishers Hodder Headline recently set up a site for book bloggers to connect with new titles and review them: Bookbridgr, endorsing how useful the blogosphere can be for marketing. Here’s another site that links book authors directly to bloggers: Bookbloggerlist.
If you’re floundering as to where to start hunting down bloggers, then Alltop, which agregrates websites and blogs in every subject matter, may help.
At a writing festival recently, thriller writer Matt Johnson suggested that book blogging can be a good way to get a manuscript seen by publishers, when they already know and like the way you review.
In this blog, I write partly for freelance writers, often starting out on their careers. So on the whole, you don’t have a lot of disposable cash…Forgive me, those of you are loaded.
But my cv and online courses are evidence of knowing something about writing, so this means I’m asked to provide consultancy services to government and on and offline teaching media to institutions. They are people with reliable cash in this niche.
While these clients are not necessarily the sexiest, they are usually stable and trustworthy. And the other consideration is that while these clients are not spending their own money, they are often prepared to invest in high quality writing, which will make them look good and endure.
How do you meet these people? Well, keep an eye on conferences and meet-ups in your sector which have a government and institutional bias, or if you’re seeking PR and marketing professionals in your sector, then do the same. Check out Eventbrite and MeetUps in your locality.
Sam, a freelance writer friend, has an admirable technique. He’ll say: Obviously I’ve bread to put on the table, children to school and dogs to worm, but may I ask what is what is the top rate you’d consider for this job, and would you be so kind as to consider paying me this?’ It works like a charm, he says. Gentle humour can be a great way of dispensing with embarrassment…(the embarrassment could be just a Brit thing, so please ignore if it does not apply to you).
You’ll find more on market rates in this post.
To be truly helpful to a client as a freelance writer, you need to know what their overall goals are.
When Finn stared blogging for a HR dept, he suspected it was just ‘something we feel we should do’. But as the client got to like his work and ideas, she told him the company was most interested in the online education potential of HR. So Finn suggested some E-Book and video ideas, which got commissioned. He quickly had to find a freelance team who could help him with production aspects beyond his skills.
Many effective executives are too busy with their day-to-day job concerns, to poke about in online potential and creative ways to explore this. You can do this for them. The demand is there, as this article shows, with Business Writing coming in quite high on the list.
The upside of having an idea-supplier relationship with your client, is that you no longer need to sell yourself to them. You can use enthusiasm and your latest discovery instead. What this means though is that you have to be quite nifty at finding out what new ideas are emerging and how they work. You’ll need google alerts to the most newsworthy sites in your sector, and you’ll need to decide where to upskill yourself and where to outsource to other freelancers. And you’ll be helping your clients move forward bringing both business and relationship value to your collaboration.
It makes me think of that old saying about luck being the result of preparation and opportunity.
Fascinated with business writing and speaking skills, his recent post: ‘Um and Like and Being Heard’ caught my eye.
Now the art or analysis of using role models effectively in any context, is to work out what they do. Not how they are or the effect they create, but what they do, that is, their actions, described as verbs. When you use this sort of behavioral analysis, you give yourself scope to use these actions yourself, if so inclined..
So what is it Seth does to be brilliant?
Well he is ace at asserting and warning, opening this post with the lines :’You can fix your “um” and you probably should’.
He goes on to do a neat job of contextualizing his subject matter:’For a million years, people have been judging each other based on voice. Not just on what we say, but on how we say it.’
Then Seth goes on to help us:’Talk as slowly as you need to. Every time you want to insert a podium-holding stall-for-time word, say nothing instead. Merely pause.’
Followed by a final masterstroke:
‘The best part: Our default assumption is that people who choose their words carefully are quite smart. Like you’.
This is a masterstroke, because he compliments and rewards us, so we’re left with a warm fluffy memory of this post, in our parting neurons.
So Seth makes this particular sauce when he warns, asserts, contextualizes, helps and rewards us.
But I wouldn’t be doing my job properly if I didn’t add a bit of contextualizing, too. Seth is wizard at headlines ‘Um and Like and Being Heard’ is one that stops you in your browsing tracks. And of course he’s written some bold and brassy books. His own branding, of wise wizard of creativity in marketing, is impeccable.
Pardon me if you’ve been smart enough to work this recipe out for yourself – and by the way, where do you think Seth gets his eyeglasses, please?
ps: Sign up here if you’d like more lessons like this.
For course students at Udemy and Learning.ly, here’s an update on some recent new leads I’ve come across, to find freelance writing work.
Then a site – anonymous and crowdsourced, but not too populated currently – listing publications and rates for writers:
Who Pays Writers.. Handy for setting those all important rates.
Next some grand straight-talking advice about how to earn a living from your writing at Writing Revolt.com . Jorden Roper, who runs this blog also has a copywriting business here – and I think her advice is excellent…Focus on your niche, and hang with marketing people, as well as fellow writers. Warning: If you’ve sensitive ears, on her personal site, Jorden is sweary.
Just like to thank you all for being students, remember you can ask me anything anytime – and happy hunting and happy writing!