Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The poetry of persuasion

I seem to remember writing somewhere - quite possibly in the opening chapter of my book - that persuasive writing and true creative writing have nothing in common. But it occurs to me that one of the best known poems in the English language has a very persuasive look about it.

So how do I get out of that, then? Not easily. But I think I can just about extricate myself from this apparent self-contradiction. Because I don't believe that Andrew Marvell really wrote To His Coy Mistress with the aim of getting his girlfriend to go all the way, as I believe they used to say in the 17th century. In fact, I don't believe that he necessarily even had a girlfriend at the time. I think he was writing the poem to capture in words something he felt about the fleeting nature of human longings and pleasures in the face of mortality. His main motive, in other words, was not to influence another person, but to express himself.

Anyway, I think it's worth taking the risk of undermining my own argument if it gives me a pretext for including this gorgeous-but-in-my-view-not-truly-persuasive piece of writing:

From To His Coy Mistress, by Andrew Marvell

Now therefore, while the youthful hue
Sits on thy skin like morning dew,
And while thy willing soul transpires
At every pore with instant fires,
Now let us sport us while we may,
And now, like amorous birds of prey,
Rather at once our time devour
Than languish in his slow-chapt power.
Let us roll all our strength and all
Our sweetness up into one ball
And tear our pleasures with rough strife
Thorough the iron gates of life:
Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Sunday Worst?

I can't decide which of two ads in yesterday's Observer magazine depresses/enrages me more.

The first shows a shiny black car, with a headline that reads:

"attract plenty of interest (without paying any)"

Can the agency really not have seen that play on the two senses of "interest" in a car ad several thousand times before? No, they must have done; in which case, did they think, "Sod it, it's good enough for another crappy finance ad. And the kind of punter who spends 18 grand on a car isn't going to notice if we flog them a retread."

And here's exhibit 2. A gormless and unshaven bloke, helpfully identified by a caption as Joe Cole, holds a camera. A handwritten headline reads:

"My world is all about great shots"

Would it, theoretically, be possible to deliberately create a worse celebrity testimonial ad than this? I really don't think so. What credibility does Joe Cole have in the world of digital photography? Why, conceivably, might anyone other than a rabid Chelsea fan be impressed by the fact that he apparently endorses this particular camera?

And just how astoundingly limp is the attempt at a verbal link between endorser and product? I'm not a huge football enthusiast, but even I know that Joe Cole is a midfielder who only very occasionally shoots at goal, and mostly attempts to create scoring opportunities for his strikers. So, no, his world isn't all about great shots - and even if it was, that would still be an utterly useless and unengaging line.

So which is my Sunday Worst? I think the sheer can't-be-arsed laziness of the first just shades it over the dinosaur-dumb stupidity of the second. But only by the length of Joe Cole's perfectly art directed stubble.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Is it breezy?

Have you come across a book called The Elements of Style, by William Strunk and E B White? It's long held classic status in the US, but I only stumbled on it recently, and I'd very warmly recommend it. Just 100 pages long, it's a guide to writing muscular, flab-free English prose, densely packed with rather ferociously expressed advice, most of which I strongly agree with.

To take just one of many examples, Strunk and White are hotly opposed to nouns being used as verbs, which I also rage against in CICYM. (We were tasked with assessing how this initiative impacts the business . . .") It's interesting and a little sobering to note, though, how quickly usage turns unacceptable barbarisms into everyday language. Writing in the late 50s, Strunk and White strongly objected to both host (as in hosting an event) and chair (as in chairing a meeting), which I'd suggest even the most fastidious prose stylist would use without hesitation today.

Anyway, to the point of this piece, which is that out of all S&W's suggestions and strictures, the one that struck me most forcefully was this:

"Do not affect a breezy style."

Breezy? For some reason, the word sent a little tremor of guilty recognition through me. Without needing to read any further, I felt pretty sure that breeziness was a sin I had sometimes indulged in.

And here, when I did read on, is how the magisterial S&W described a breezy writer: " . . . he obviously has nothing to say, he is showing off and directing the attention of the reader to himself, he is using slang with neither provocation nor ingenuity . . . he is humorless (though full of fun), dull and empty. He has not done his work."

Well, I hope I don't often write in a way that would leave me open to that damning catalogue of charges. And I think it's also worth noting that we live in a different age, where drawing attention to oneself - failing to be self-effacing - is no longer considered quite such a manifest virtue as it was half a century ago.

But, that said, I think it's undeniably true that a huge amount of commercial persuasive writing (including, I'm afraid, some produced by me) could justifiably be accused of breeziness; that's to say, of adopting a light-hearted and jokily facetious style in an attempt to conceal a lack of true substance.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Hello, Kazakhstan

I've got a wonderful new piece of software that tells me everything I could possibly want to know about you, the reader of this blog. It tells me where you are, when you call by, how you get here, how long you stay for, and what you look at while you're here.

It's fascinating stuff. It's also, if I'm honest, just slightly depressing. Because, as long as a writer doesn't know for sure how big his audience is, he can delude himself that there are thousands of readers out there, hanging on his every word. Whereas I now know for certain that the average number of visitors to this blog day each day is - well, I think I'll keep that to myself. But let's just say that you belong to a very exclusive group of highly discriminating individuals.

On the other hand, there is an upside to the knowledge I've acquired. I love knowing, for example, that I've had visitors here from Australia, Indonesia, South Korea, Vietnam, India and, yes, Borat's beloved homeland. (Even if, in many cases, it's perfectly possible - as my wife suggests - that they actually came here by mistake, having searched on my surname in pursuit of gay erotica.)

And here's the really interesting thing. Learning that I do have readers, however few, has increased my sense of obligation and made me try harder to be a better, more productive blogger. Because I hate the idea of you taking three minutes out of your busy day to come here and then being disappointed to find nothing new to amuse, stimulate or infuriate you.

The lesson? Whatever and whenever we write, we urgently need to make the effort to imagine real, flesh and blood individuals reading our words - and just a click or a turn of the page from something more engaging.

Anyway, I hope you'll come back soon. If you don't, I'll know.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Passionate about delivering laundry solutions

Never describe yourself, or your business, as being passionate about anything. It's one of those claims that always sounds hollow.

If you want me to believe that what you feel amounts to a passion, then you'll have to find words that - through their freshness and energy - convey to me a sense of your fervour, your excitement, your willingness to die for the cause.

It's the only way. And if you doubt it, just cast your eyes upward to the heading of this piece - which I swear on my children's lives I really did see on the back of a van that I overtook on the M4 recently.

Talk about a passion-killer.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Parking Rage vs persuasive words

The other day, I was involved in a Parking Rage incident. Well, I say involved in, but "an innocent victim of" would be more accurate.

Without going into boring detail, what happened was that I parked in a space to which another driver - a tradesman working nearby - felt that he was more entitled. Veins bulging, he shouted at me to move my car. I reasoned with him, pointing out the flaws in his argument. He shouted louder and threatened me with violence if I didn't move my car. I moved my car.

Afterwards, I felt upset and ashamed - as men will when they allow themselves to be physically intimidated. I tried to convince myself that, actually, I'd done the right thing. It was, in fact, very easy to move my car; and by doing so, I'd defused a potentially nasty situation, in which I could easily have been hurt. (I'd love to pretend that my adversary was two metres high and built like a prop forward; he wasn't, but he did have a slightly unhinged air about him that made him quite scary to a herbivore like me.) But, a couple of weeks on, I still feel unhappy about the incident.

And it's easy to see why. Persuasive words got their backside kicked by violence (or, strictly speaking, the threat of violence). My best efforts to argue my case and to establish a rapport with my "reader" were utterly unsuccessful. The pen (or, in this case, the Mac user) turned out to be considerably less mighty than the sword (or, in this case, Mr Angry's fists and his willingness to employ them).

So what is my face-saving response to that? I suppose it must be something to the effect that while force can win short term victories, it can never win hearts and minds, without which - as President Bush and that ghastly swivel-eyed bloke who used to be our Prime Minister have so brilliantly demonstrated in Iraq - a victory is worth less than nothing. And yes, I think I do genuinely believe that.

But I still rather wish I'd had the courage to head-butt him.