A novelist’s secrets to writing great copy
Many techniques that make a novel enjoyable to read are techniques that can be applied to business writing, too. From the description of colour and detail to the use of natural dialogue.
Claire Scobie is an award-winning novelist and corporate storyteller. In this interview, she gives fabulous tips to make your writing more interesting.
Claire Scobie: Can I see how many times we can say bosoms on this podcast?
Scobie: So, my first book
was published in 2006, and it’s a memoir about Tibet. 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. It was an hour-long interview and I didn’t
know how I was going to cope with this. I drove to the ABC, to the offices in
Sydney, and they ushered me into the booth. It’s a bit like sitting in a
Tardis, it’s a bit like this, Steven, actually. You’ve got these enormous
headphones on, but there’s nobody in the room and you’re just talking to a
microphone. I remember being incredibly nervous and this gravelly voice came
through the headphones, and it was Richard Fidler, and he said, “Hi
Claire, how are you going?”
Scobie: Of course I lied,
and I said I’m absolutely fine, 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’s stayed with me,
and I use it to this day. I always tell people think about using word pictures.
So, think about using some colour, some sense of the senses to tell your
stories, because as soon as you do that they come alive for people.
Scobie: 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 the way he scowled at me, the way he
growled. Those small things can make a huge difference when you’re telling a
Lewis: Welcome to
Talemaking. I’m Steven Lewis, director of Taleist. Talemaking is a weekly
podcast about getting your business message out with a particular focus on the
power 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.
Lewis: 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.
Claire Scobie: Thank you. Gorgeous to be here, Steven.
Lewis: 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 we were living in Hong Kong.
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. She was a generous person. She’s spent a lot
of time with you. She’s very funny, very open, very personal. 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, as you would
be if you spent a lot of money and time on your clothes, and that was the
assessment for the populace. But also, having seen it from that side of it as a
journalist, it made me very wary about describing people.
Lewis: 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?
Scobie: No, I don’t. I tend
to be quite kind. I think there are always ways to say things. It’s hard 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. 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.
Lewis: Because you’re not
writing a Jane Austin novel, or-
Scobie: Yes. Then it starts
to become like a bodice ripper. So, in the end we settled on broad shouldered
and welcoming. So it wasn’t exactly… We weren’t close enough. I think she’s
still going to carry on working with it. But I think you can always allude to
certain things without being so bold in your description.
Scobie: Now 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
direction. So think about how you describe how someone moves their hands,
describe their hands. 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. 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 exterior is really just the first start, it’s the first part
of it, then you want to think about how to develop character.
Lewis: Obviously you’ve
written novels, you’re working on a novel right now. Without description a
novel 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 as he made them redundant, left and
right. What is the…
Scobie: I think it’s a time
and place thing. It’s not often about big description, 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, much stronger. They are always what I say they are, the 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
Scobie: 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.
Lewis: Sorry, I’m picturing
now the big bosom CEO stride into the room. I’m still captivated by the journey
from teddy bear, through big bosomed, to broad shouldered and what was it?
Scobie: Generous. She was
describing a hug. This is somebody who’s working on a memoir, so it’s not a
corporate client of mine. So, yeah, so a lot of it was stripped back. In fact
what we did was we added more dialogue to show the character more than just
describe her big bosoms. Can I say, can I see how many times we can say bosoms
on this podcast, Steven?
Lewis: It’s been a long
time since I said bosoms. 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 happens 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 are famously known to be shit. And
they’re particularly, well I say they are particularly shit, I’m talking about
my own now.
Scobie: Well, I think so
sayeth Hemingway. So sayeth a lot of writers.
Lewis: 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.
Scobie: Yes. 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.
Scobie: 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. By the third go though, you want to have
layered 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
Scobie: 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 draw a circle
with two triangles as their ears, and eyes, nose, whiskers. That is a symbol of
a cat, it’s not actually a cat. Just like clichés 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 clichés, if you have even big bosomed, it doesn’t matter. 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
Lewis: 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 going to do is I’m going to go away and I’m going
to give you back a draft that’s really going to 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 the 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 kind of what you’re describing. It is of course ludicrous
that I would use a building metaphor as I know nothing about building, 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?
Scobie: Yes, yes, exactly.
And there’s a great book by Anne Lamott called Bird by Bird. 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? I think your
building analogy is 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, 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
waffly, I really need to get to the point. I call it my slash and burn phase.
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
Lewis: 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
Scobie: Right, yes. I think
it’s Elmore Leonard.
Lewis: And, I want a piece
of software that will go through my writing, just highlight all the adverbs, because
when you start looking for them… I was editing somebody else’s work and it’s
the really very long car drove really very fast. Cut it, cut it, cut it, cut
it, cut it. And corporate writing is no different. As soon as you start writing
that something is very big, you’ve made a mistake.
Scobie: I have also real
bugbear about adverbs because they just slow writing down. They don’t add
anything. Same with too many adjectives. Richard Flanagan, who was the Booker
prize this year, I heard him talking at one of the writer’s 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 again, people
worry because adjectives, they think oh that brings colour. So you do need some
colour in writing, but you don’t want flowery stuff. You don’t want padding.
Lewis: 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.
Scobie: 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 acknowledgements and there’s a whole team behind
writing that book. And working with editors, certainly 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.
Scobie: 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. 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 have a second pair
of eyes looking at what you’ve written.
Lewis: Dave Cornford and I
co-wrote the Taleist Self-publishing Survey, where we surveyed a thousand
self-publishing authors. More than half of them claimed to have proofread their
own work, which is, I don’t know, like claiming to have proofread, to put your
finger behind your eyes. It’s not possible to proofread your own work. So
essentially what they were saying is we have put our workout un-proofread.
Scobie: Right. Yes. And I
think something I always say to people if they’re going to go down the
self-publishing route is if you’re going to 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, etcetera, 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.
Scobie: And that’s exactly
the same in the corporate sphere. If you read a few typos in a report, then you
think well, what about the rest of it? Do I believe the facts and figures here?
Do I believe the strategy? Do I believe the arguments? Probably not, or not as
Lewis: When you’re writing,
you were saying earlier that you… Let’s say big bosomed again, the author of
the infamous now big bosom description, or nearly the author of the big bosom,
until you saved her from herself. You’ve got to find someone you trust. So in a
corporate environment, 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 my God, you’re incompetent or this is terr…
You’ve got to trust them to work with you. How do you go about finding somebody
whom you trust to collaborate on a piece of writing?
Scobie: 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. We
tried to start a 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 are 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. You want someone to say this bit really works
because the flow’s there, but perhaps this bit you need to work on because it’s
jarring, or perhaps you can fix this in this certain way. 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.
Lewis: 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 said I thought it
was awful. She complained to the boss who said to her well can you give me the circumstances.
And she said well it was Friday night, we were in the bar, I went up to him.
And she said well let me just stop you right there. It’s Friday night, he’s
having a drink. You went up to him and asked for feedback on your board paper.
Probably he wasn’t giving you the same kind of considered professional feedback
he might’ve given if you’d waited till working hours.
Lewis: 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. I want you to
help me, like Richard. Well, I’m not like Richard because again I haven’t yet
won the Booker prize, but what I mean is I’m totally open to you saying that’s
rubbish. Re write it, it makes no sense.
Claire Scobie: Right. So I think there’s 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. As long as they’re a competent writer and they know their grammar 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 whose advice you’re going to take on board.
Scobie: And the second
thing is a lot of people do get very attached to their words. It’s that famous
phrase, kill your darlings. 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, think about doing it in a different way, then that can be hard for
people to take.
Scobie: 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. I mean, I’m not attached to
my words. The only place I’m more attached to my words is actually with my
fiction. But in an any other sphere that I write, people can do what they want
to it really.
Lewis: It’s almost funny
isn’t it? When you say that to a client, you can do whatever you like with it,
and they look kind of, sure mate, you bought it, it’s yours. We just bought a
house. I fully intend to do. I’m not going to be phoning the builder up every
time I think about making a change there. They’re your words, you paid, they’re
Scobie: Yes, exactly. And I
think that’s quite liberating. And if people make corrections and they’re
incorrect, then of course I’ll come back to someone. But if it’s about changing
words or style, then it’s theirs, to do that with.
Lewis: In corporate
writing, so I mean, I gave 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 that? Because 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 colour
into it, do you start them off anywhere in particular, where there’s a safer
place for instance, to have some description?
Scobie: 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 going to 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. Then think about, I mean, products, and services,
you can add a little bit of colour too. 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?
Scobie: 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 vague-
Lewis: In a bank, far, far
Claire Scobie: Yes. 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. 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.
Scobie: 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.
Lewis: On the dialogue
point, I record a lot of things now, strangely enough. 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. I love interviewing people on the phone now. I
would much rather go and have an interview on the phone than go and see
somebody because I can type while I’m talking, and it’s those bits of dialogue.
Lewis: I wrote a story once
in Thailand, a journalistic story with a group of people living in Thailand. 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 not something I could quickly note with a bit of shorthand.
Scobie: Yes. I think
dialogue 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. My first
book was partly set in Tibet and we were being arrested by the Chinese. But,
the things the investigator and the chief questioner was saying were so
fantastic I thought I’ve got to write this down. 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 feigning the runs so then I could write down
those brilliant comments that the investigator was asking us.
Lewis: So dialogue, and I
wanted to touch very briefly on clichés, because often we don’t recognize the clichés
that we go for. Do you have any tips for people on avoiding clichés in the way
that they’re describing people and things? Because to just defend it, I was
reading some research the other day that says that clichés just become noise,
so people don’t even understand it. If you say, at the end of the day, they
don’t even read it. They’ve moved on past it.
Scobie: Right. Look, I
think if you’ve read it before, if you heard it before, it’s likely to be a cliché.
It’s difficult if you don’t recognize your own clichés, 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 clichés. So you can actually
check your copy with this list. But apart from that, it’s really just having a
good eye and getting in someone else to second read it for you.
Lewis: All right, well I’m
going to research that list. Obviously I don’t need it, but I’m going to
research it so that I can put it in the show notes. Claire, thanks so much for
sharing with us today.
Scobie: Oh, you’re welcome.
It’s been a pleasure, Steven.
Lewis: If people want to
work with you to improve their writing or their storytelling or just because
they’ve really enjoyed listening to you today and they want to spend some more
time with you, how can they do that?
Scobie: 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. 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.
Lewis: So often lacking.
Steven Lewis: You’ve been listening to Talemaking, the podcast about getting your business out, with me, Steven Lewis. There’s a lot more to find out about Clair Scobie at wordstruck.com.au.