A Novelist’s Secrets to Writing Great Copy


– Can I see how many
times we can say bosoms on this podcast. (upbeat music) So, my first book was published in 2006, and it’s a memoir about Tibet. And, it was my, I’d been
working on it for a long time and I didn’t know how it was going to fly. But, I was sent this very
scary publicity schedule by Random House, by my publicist. One of my first interviews
was with Richard Fidler and it was an hour long interview. And, I didn’t know how I
was gonna cope with this. And, I was, I drove to the
ABC, to the offices in Sydney and they ushered me into the booth. And, it’s a bit like sitting in a tardis, it’s a bit like this Steven, actually. But, you’ve got these
enormous headphones on but there’s nobody in the room and you’re just talking to a microphone. And, I remember being incredibly nervous and this gravelly voice came on the phone and, or sorry, through the you
know, through the headphones. And, it was Richard Fidler and he said, “Hi Claire, how are you going?” And, of course I lied and I
said, “I’m absolutely fine, and really looking forward to this.” And he said, “All you have to do is speak in word pictures.” I’d never heard that phrase before, but it was one of the most
useful pieces of advice because it stayed with me
and I use it to this day. And, I always tell people,
think about using word pictures. So, think about using some color, some sense of the senses
to tell your stories. Because, as soon as you do that
they come alive for people. The rest of the hour just flew by. And, I told him about my time in Tibet, about my book and I
used as much as possible these very fresh images. So, in describing people, rather
than just with names, but, so you could picture someone. So, for example the nun,
I described her with shiny red cheeks and wild dreadlocks. For the Chinese army
officer, I described him, you know the way he scowled
at me, the way he growled. Those small things can
make a huge difference when you’re telling a story. (upbeat music) – Welcome to Tale Making. I’m Steven Lewis, director of Taleist. Tale Making is a weekly podcast about getting your business message out with a particular focus on
the pair of storytelling and the techniques of
journalism to do that. My guest today is that
philosophy in human form, Claire Scobie is the award winning author of “Last Seen in Lhasa”
and “The Pagoda Tree”. She’s written as a journalist for publications all over the world. And, she consults with companies on how to harness the
power of storytelling as a strategic business tool. So, basically Claire you should
be presenting the podcast and I should be having
nothing to do with it. But, as it’s the other way
around, firstly welcome. – Thank you, gorgeous to be here, Steven. – And secondly, I wanted to
ask you, my first experience of a journalist writing
a profile was on my boss. I was probably about 21 at the time and I, we were living in Hong Kong. And, my boss was this massive personality and Hong Kong being
essentially a small town from an English speaking point of view, she would probably be
profiled in the paper once every three years. And, she was a generous person. She’d spend a lot of time with you. She’s very funny, very
open, very personal. And this profile came
out, and the first thing it said about her was that it looked like she got
dressed in the dark. Which struck me, she was
obviously very upset. – Yup. – As you would be if you spent a lot of money and time on your clothes and that was the assessment
for the populous. But also, having seen it
from that side of it as a journalist it made me very
wary about describing people. How do you go about
painting an accurate picture of somebody which may be that
they’re 300 pounds overweight and look like they got
dressed in the dark. Do you say that? – No, I don’t, I tend to be quite kind. I think there are always
ways to say things and it’s hard when somebody,
you know if someone is 300 pounds overweight
and they look like they have just come
through a hedge backwards. Then, you can be diplomatic. You can think about how you say it. You can use a metaphor, perhaps. In fact, I was just working with one of my clients yesterday and
she described someone with a teddy bear stature. And I said, “Look, that doesn’t work because it’s a bit patronizing.” So, then we went through
all the different ways of perhaps describing
this person, voluptuous. She said, “Big bosomed.” I said,
“Probably not big bosomed.” – Because you’re not writing
a Jane Austen novel or? – Yes, and then it starts to
become like a bodice ripper. (giggling) Ah, so, and in the end we settled on broad-shouldered and welcoming. So, it’s not, it wasn’t
exactly, we weren’t close enough I think she’s still gonna
carry on working with it. But, I think you can
always, you can allude to certain things without being
so bold in your description. Now I, when I’m thinking
about describing people what I always do is I always make tons of notes when I meet someone. When you’re describing
someone it’s not just about what they look like,
it’s also about their gestures, which I always call stage directions. So, think about how you
describe how someone moves their hands, describe
their hands, you know? You can always focus on
one aspect of the person if you don’t want to focus
on perhaps their size or perhaps their clothes,
or their greasy hair. So, that’s one thing to think about and also think about how they speak. So, really pay attention to
their tone of their voice, the way they put their sentences together, and then of course,
think about the dialogue. So, you can build character
and you can describe people through many different ways. And describing the out, the exterior is really just the first start, you know it’s the first part of it. Then you want to think
how to develop character. – Obviously, you’ve written novels, you’re working on a novel right now. Without description a novel is an odd, it would be very odd novel. But, in your corporate work, how important do you think description is
to corporate storytelling? You know, the CEO strode into
the room and cut a swathe through people that he made
them redundant left and right. What is the? – So, I think, I think it’s
a time and place thing. It’s not often about big description. It’s not, it’s not journalism. But, it is often about one or two details, perhaps we call, the telling details that brings someone to life. And, it can be the verb that
you use, just as you said. Verbs are much, a much stronger, they are always what I say they are, they’re engines of the sentence. So, when you’re thinking
of describing someone, perhaps don’t just have
walked in the room, strode in the room. Because that, immediately
gives a sense of purpose. So, you don’t need to have full blown purple prose description,
but having enough description that the person can visualize what it is that you are saying, does
make a lot of difference. Even in the corporate storytelling world. And, it particularly makes a difference when you’re talking
about oral storytelling. So again, in your marketing copy you might not want to
have reams of description. But, when we’re listening
to somebody give a story, tell a story, again we
want these little images because that’s what we pick up on, that’s what we visualize
and that’s what we remember much better than if things are very stark. – I’m sorry, I’m picturing now, the big bosomed CEO
striding into the room. I’m still captivated by the
journey from teddy bear, through big bosomed to broad-shouldered and what was the, what generous? – Generous. It was, she was describing a hug. So, this actually wasn’t,
this is somebody who’s working on a memoir so it’s not a
corporate client of mine. So, so yes, so a lot of
it was stripped back. So, in fact what we did
was we added more dialogue to show the character more than just describe her big bosoms. (laughing) But can I say, can I see how many times we can say bosoms on this podcast? – It’s been a long time
since I’ve said bosoms. So, I’m really, it’s a muscle
I’m starting to exercise. But, what you’ve hit on though
is the process of drafting which I, having worked in
corporate world think happens, too little. I think what happened in corporate world is you go through a draft for correctness of what is being said. No, the figure should be 36, not 42. And first drafts, as you know, are famously known to be shit. And they’re particularly
if I, actually, I said they are particularly shit, I’m
talking about my own now. – Well, I think so is Seth Hemingway. – Yeah. – So Seth, a lot of writers. – And, in my case one of the things that makes my first
draft particularly weak is my verb choice, because the first verb that comes to your mind is
generally not the correct, it’s the easiest verb and therefore it’s the worst one to choose. – Yes, so another thing, there’s a couple of things
to pick up on there. First of all, yes you need to do drafts and that’s something that
even when I run workshops for writers, they don’t always realize. People come to my
workshops and they’ll say, “But, I thought I’d just
get it right first time.” And I say, “Well, if
you’re a cabinet maker and you’ve never made a cabinet would you get it right first time? If you’re a painter, would you know how to do
perspective first time? No, so it’s the same with writing. And, I think that is equally relevant whether it’s in the
corporate sphere or not. And, thinking about how
you’re crafting something does take some time and often
you need to layer it in. So, maybe the first draft
you write is very basic. The verbs you use are very basic. But then, with the second
draft and probably, the third draft, I mean
ideally that’s probably enough. You don’t have time to
do too many more drafts, you’re not writing a novel. Then, you, on, by the third go though, you want to have lead in the
other aspects of the story. So, it’s not just the facts and figures, you’ve also got a sense
of telling the story, if you’re going to use storytelling. Now, as far as using
verbs and strong verbs. Something I often ask people is if I asked you to draw a cat,
how would you draw a cat? So, most people say,
“Well they’d draw a circle with two triangles as the ears and you know, eye, nose, whiskers. So a cat, that is a symbol of a cat. It’s not actually a cat. And, just like cliches, are
symbols of what you’re trying to say, so it doesn’t
matter in the first draft if you have boring verbs,
if you have cliches, if you have even, big bosomed. It doesn’t matter, you, your, you’ve got it in
there the first draft. But then, it’s only a symbol
of what you’re trying to say and then you think about how to make that come to life more vividly. – I had the, it’s, I
use a building metaphor with ghostwriting clients. So, when I’m ghostwriting a book for them. I say, “Look, the first
thing I’m gonna do is, I’m gonna go away and I’m
gonna give you back a draft, that’s really gonna have
none of the description and none of that in it. It’s going to be about
whether I’ve got your facts and figures and your model and the stuff that you want to get across correct. And, then process is, it’s
like building a house. That’s the structure,
then we put on the walls and then we put on the
first layer of paint, the second layer of paint, which is kinda what you’re describing. It is of course ludicrous
that I would choose a building metaphor, as I
know nothing about buildings. So, for all I know houses are
built completely differently. But, it is that wash isn’t it? As you continually wash through. And, learning perhaps in a way
not to hate yourself as well, because when you go back
to that first draft, you just think to yourself, how did I possibly
think that sounded okay? – Yes, yes, exactly. And there’s a great book by Anne Lamott called “Bird by Bird”. And, she talks about how
shitty the first draft is. But, if you don’t have
a shitty first draft how can you then write
a better second draft and a third draft? And, I think that your
building analogy’s a good one because it is about, you
build up from the basics and then at the end you’re
giving the final polish and the final coating. And, certainly for me
this, when I’m drafting there’s often a great, sort of enjoyment that comes when I’m really stripping back and I’ve written too
much, it’s a bit wafflely, I really need to get to the point. And I call it, my slash and burn phase. And it’s quite liberating,
people get very worried about cutting words out of
their stories or their copy. But, I actually find it liberating because by doing that
you’re actually getting to really what the heart of it
is that you’re trying to say. – I can’t remember whether it was reading Elmore Leonard’s book on writing or Stephen King’s book on writing. But, one, I mean I think both of them, but one of them in
particular loathes adverbs. – Right, yes. I think it’s Elmore Leonard. – And, I want a piece
of software that will go through my writing and just
highlight all the adverbs. Because, when you start looking for them, I was editing somebody
else’s work where you know, it’s the really very long car, you know, drove really very fast you know, cut it, cut it, cut it, cut it. – Yes. – And corporate writing is no different. As soon as you start writing
that something is very big, you know which is you know,
you’ve made a mistake. – I have also a real bug
bearer about adverbs. Because, they just slow writing down. They don’t add anything. Same with too many adjectives. And, Richard Flanagan who was
the Booker Prize this year. He described, I heard him talking at one of the writers festivals, he described how he wrote
to his editor and said, “Please cut out any extra adjectives. You have my permission to cut them all.” And I think, and again, people worry, because adjectives, they
think, oh, that brings color. So, you do need some color in writing, but you don’t want the flowery stuff, you don’t want padding. – Interesting again, you’ve got the process of writing drafts and not hating yourself because
your first draft wasn’t good because your first draft is what gets you to your second draft. But also, working with somebody else, real proper professional
Booker Prize winning writers work with other people. – Yes, I think that’s a great point. People will read a book and think it was written by the author. And then of course, you
go to the acknowledgments and there’s a whole team
behind writing that book. And working with editors, certainly is as a professional writer, it’s a great pleasure and
it’s a great privilege. Because, you know that
they are on your side and they are trying to improve, or they are improving
whatever it is you’re writing. So again, in the corporate
sphere when you’re writing, having someone just proofread your work before you send something
out is incredibly valuable. Even if it’s just a
straightforward press release or a straightforward memo. But, if it’s an important one, just having a second pair of eyes, because there is something
very strange about writing. And that is, when you
are in the woods, I say, when you’re in the story, it’s quite difficult to get distance. And so even though you’ve read
something three or four times you can’t spot the spelling mistakes, you can’t spot the typos. So, you do need someone
else to give you feedback and you know, have a second pair of eyes looking at what you’ve written. – Dave Cornford and I, co-wrote the Taleist Self-Publishing Survey where we surveyed 1000
self-publishing authors. More than half of them claim
to proofread their own, claimed to have proofread their own work. Which is, I don’t know, like
claiming to have proofread to have put your finger behind you eyes. It’s not possible to
proofread your own work. So, essentially what
they were saying is we have put our work out un-proofread. – Right, yes and I think
something I always say to people if they’re gonna go down
the self-publishing root is if you’re gonna spend money, spend it on an editor,
spend it on a proofreader that’s the most important thing. People think they have to spend a lot of money on the cover etc, but actually it’s about
getting the words right. Because, it’s so disconcerting as a reader and once you’ve lost that
contract with the reader and you’ve lost that trust,
that what you’re saying is correct because you’re
misspelling small things, they won’t trust you
for the bigger things. And that’s exactly the same
in the corporate sphere. You know, if you read
a few typos in a report then you think well, what
about the rest of it. You know, who’s, do I believe
the facts and figures here? Do I believe the strategy? Do I believe the arguments? Probably not, or not as much. – When you’re writing,
you were saying earlier that you were let’s say big bosomed again, the author of the infamous
now, big bosomed description or nearly, the author of the big bosomed until you saved her from herself. You’ve gotta find someone you trust. So, in a corporate environment, you, there still needs to
be an element of trust even if you’re giving
somebody your press release to give their commentary on. You’ve got to trust them not to say, “Oh my God, you’re
incompetent or this is ter, you’ve gotta trust them to work with you. How do you go about finding somebody whom you trust to collaborate
on a piece of writing? – I think I go about it by
asking the right questions. And also, seeing what
else they’ve written. Interestingly enough,
I have a writing buddy. Who I work with for my fiction. And, we started try, we tried
to start to writing group and we tried two or
three different people. We had three or four
groups at various times and in the end everyone just fell away. And it’s just been us two,
which has been perfect. We’re very different. I don’t think you need to find someone who writes the same way
as you in whatever sphere. But, you want to be able to trust them and more than anything you want them to be able to give you honest feedback. It’s not about someone
saying, “Oh, that’s great.” That’s not helpful, people,
you want someone to say, “This bit really works
because the flow is there but perhaps this bit you need to work on because it’s jarring or perhaps you can fix this in this certain way.” And that is actually a skill that a lot of people don’t have. Knowing how to fix writing is half the battle with being a good writer. – You’ve got, you’ve got to, you’ve got to mesh with their style of giving feedback as well, I suppose. I remember once when I
was working in corporate. Somebody complained about
me because she’d asked me what I thought of the board
paper that she had drafted and I’d said, I thought it was awful. And, she complained to the boss. Who said to her, “Well, can
you give me the circumstances?” And she said, “Well, it
was you know, Friday night. We were in the bar, I went
up to him and I said.” And she said, “Well, let me
just stop you right there.” – Yes. – “It’s Friday night, he’s having a drink, you went up to him and
asked him for feedback on your board paper,
probably he wasn’t giving you the same kind of considered
professional feedback he might have given if you’d
waited till working hours.” But when I think of that relationship, she and I were never going
to work well together on it. Because I need to work
with people who like I am, are open to, and I think having
been a professional writer I’m not precious about it. – Right. – I want you to help me
make, like Richard Fla, well, I’m not like Richard Flanagan ’cause I haven’t yet won the Booker Prize. But, what I mean is, I am
totally open to you saying, “That’s rubbish, re-write
it, it makes no sense.” – Right, so I think there’s the two really good points there, Steven. The first is, that it’s important to know what you’re wanting from your reader. So, if you are asking
someone across the office to read what you’ve written to just check there are no typos or errors. Then that’s one thing. And, you know as long as
they’re a competent writer and they know their grammar that you know, that you don’t have to have a strong relationship with that person. But, if you are asking a person for feedback on how well
you’ve crafted the argument, how well a piece is put together, does it flow from beginning to end, is the executive summary
what it should be? Then, you need to have someone who’s advice you’re gonna take on board. And, the second thing is, a lot of people do get very attached to their words. You know people, it’s that famous phrase, “kill your darling”. So, if you have a pet
phrase that you love, often that’s the first one that has to go. And people do get very attached and almost, the more insecure they are, the more attached they’ll
be to their words. And therefore, if someone
comes in and says, “No, I don’t think you
need to do it like this, perhaps think about doing
it in a different way.” Then, that can be hard for people to take. As a journalist of course as we both know, you can’t be attached to your words. Because you’ll send stories in and the editor will chop and change them. Often, you don’t even have a say and then they’ll get published anyway. So, you get, you know I mean
I’m not attached to my words. I’m more, the only place I’m
more attached to my words is actually with my fiction. But, in any other sphere that I write people can do what they
want to it, really. – It’s almost funny, isn’t it? When you say that to a client you know, you can do whatever you like with it. And they look kinda shy. I’m like, you bought it. – Yes, right. – It’s yours. We’ve just bought a house,
I fully intend to do, I’m not gonna be phoning the builder up every time I think about making a change. They’re your words, you paid. – Yes. – They’re yours. – Yes, exactly, and I think
that’s quite liberating. Because then you know,
people can you know, and if people make
corrections and they incorrect then of course I’ll come back to someone. But, if it’s about
changing words or style, then you know, it’s
theirs to do that with. – In corporate writing, so I
mean I gave you the example there of the lady who put
the board paper together and the argument was not well structured. In that, to get back to the
question of describing people and things, there are certain
areas of corporate writing where describing things is
not going to be welcome. Do you think it’s easy
to draw the line on it, because I think most of the, when I think of most of the corporate writers I know, they would draw the line at not bothering to describe anything at all. That would be where their line is. If you’re working with
corporate people and saying, “Listen, let’s try and get a
little bit more color into it.” Do you start them off
anywhere in particular where it’s a safer place, for instance, to have some description? – Well, a safer place
could be with a case study. Rather than, just have a boring case study that doesn’t come to life, turn that case study into a real person. And, even the smallest
amount of description such as their real name, the real title of what it is they do. People love names, people
love being described exactly in the role that they are playing. And, we are gonna connect with that person with a real name in a much stronger way. So, start with a case
study, see how you can bring that person to life and then think about, I mean products you can, and services you can add a little bit of color to. You can also think about emotion. Is there anywhere bringing
in a particular emotion with a piece of text, can you
give an impact on a customer? How did the customer react? The other things that I
always say to people is, there are certain aspects of storytelling which you can easily
incorporate within business. So, one is having a time place marker. So, a time marker is don’t say, long ago, once upon a time, or be, yes– (laughing) – In a bank far, far away. – Be vague, be very specific. On February the 15th, 2015, this happened. Then giving it a place. This happened, where did
it happen, locate it. Because all of those things, they’re tiny little
elements of storytelling, but what they do is they anchor the reader and they anchor the story, then, think about specific moments. So, rather than make it all head stuff and right now I’m gesturing to Steven above my head because a
lot of business writing is basically above the head. It’s not anchored in the body. So, bring us back to moments, bring us back to absolute concrete events. And then, so you’re
bringing us into the moment. We’ve got a time and a place,
introduce real characters with real names and some dialogue. Even dialogue, even little quotes can be a way to add description. Because, as soon as you add
dialogue you’re bringing in another voice and you’re authenticating whatever it is you’re saying,
you’re not paraphrasing. And then lastly, is there
any way you can bring in anything unanticipated,
something unexpected. Because as soon as you do that, with how you craft
something, that’s story, that’s giving the reader
what it is they’re hoping for which is a surprise. – On the dialogue point, I record a lot of things
now, strangely enough. – Yup. – Because one of my big
regrets as a journalist was I never learned shorthand. I tried to teach myself out of a book, it did not work. So, when, I love interviewing
people on the phone now. I would much rather go and do, have an interview on the phone than go and see somebody
because I can type. – Right. – While I’m talking and
it’s those bits of dialogue. I wrote a story once in
Thailand, a journalistic story, with a group of people living in Thailand and I kept getting up to go to the loo so that I could write down
their dialogue in my notebook because I knew I would not
remember it the next day for various reasons. But, it was you know, not
something I could quickly note with a bit of shorthand. – Yes look, I think dialogue is that, is sort of an unsung part of writing. And, you can use it, obviously
you use it in journalism but again, tiny little
quotes or fragments of quotes immediately can lift the
quality of a piece of writing. I’ve got another story like that. I wasn’t rushing to the loo in Thailand, that was in Tibet, when we when, for my first book was partly set in Tibet. And I, we were arrested, we were being
arrested by the Chinese, so. But, the things the investigator and the chief you know, questioner was saying was so fantastic, I thought I’ve gotta write this down. (laughing) But I thought I can’t
really bring out my notebook because obviously they don’t
let journalists into Tibet. So, I was rushing off to
the loo faking the runs so then I could write down
those brilliant comments that the investigator was asking us. – It, so, so dialogue and I
wanted to touch very briefly on cliches, because
often we don’t recognize the cliches that we go for. Do you have any tips for
people on avoiding cliches in the way that they’re
describing people and things? Because to, just to finish that there’s, I was reading some research the other day that says that cliches just become noise. So, people don’t even understand it and if you say at the end of the day, people aren’t, they don’t even read it, they just, they’ve moved on past it. – Oh, right, ah look I think if you’ve, if you’ve read it before,
if you’ve heard it before it’s likely to be a cliche. It’s difficult if you’ve never actually, if you don’t recognize your own cliches. That’s where having someone
else read it, is useful. There is a resource online
because somebody told me about it which lists 600 and something cliches. So, you can actually check your, you know your copy with this list. But apart from that it’s
just really having a good eye and getting in someone else
to second read it for you. – Alright well, I’m
gonna research that list. Obviously I don’t need it,
but I’m gonna research it. So, that I can put it
in the show notes clip. Thanks so much for sharing with us today. – Ah, you’re welcome, it’s
been a pleasure Steven. – If people wanna work with you to improve their writing or their storytelling or just because they’ve
really enjoyed listening to you today and they wanna
spend some more time with you, how can they do that? – They can head to my
website which is as you said, wordstruck.com.au. They can work with me either
on a one-on-one level. I do mentoring for writers for
both in the corporate sphere and people who are writing
for personal reasons. And also, they can hire me to run a Storytelling for Leaders workshop. I’m a partner with Anecdote, which is Australia’s leading
storytelling consultancy. And I run workshops
in-house for companies, helping people develop
storytelling skills. Helping leaders develop those
skills to better communicate and to foster unity and to bring out the human element within a business. – So often lacking. – Yes. (happy music) – You’ve been listening to
Tale Making, the podcast about getting your business
out with me, Steven Lewis. There’s a lot more to find
out about Claire Scobie at wordstruck.com.au. And there’s more about
the Tale Making podcast at taleist.com. That’s tale, as in telling
tales, taleist.com. You can sign up there for access to our exclusive subscriber library. And, if you head over there now, you can see what Claire
has very kindly donated. And so, until the next
story, thanks for listening. (happy music)

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