Things You Can't Teach...

Some of the things I'm about to list maybe can be taught - let's admit that from the outset. But like experience behind the wheel of a car, there's some knowledge that's best acquired hands-on.

I've been writing (and typing) since I was about two. Typing came first, propped up at the keyboard of a ZX Spectrum. By the time I started primary school, I could hand-write in block capitals. The school were annoyed; they liked to teach lower-case first.

Aged five, I was reading the end-of-day story to the rest of my class at school, and contributing my own short stories to the school library for classmates to read.

This combination - writing simple computer programs on the Spectrum, and writing creative fiction at school and for fun at home - still serves me on a daily basis as I compose web copy that engages with readers on a personal and emotional level, while keeping to the structures of both English grammar and SEO.

Written in the Stars

Do you believe in horoscopes? I don't mean the daily "here's what's gonna happen to you" kind, but in birth charts.

Personally, I can see why the time of year that you're born could have a big effect on how your personality develops.

Late-summer babies face being the youngest in their academic year (I was born in late June, and am the youngest of three siblings, so the effect was doubled for me) while September babies get to be the oldest, and inherit an automatic tone of authority as a result.

I always had to win my respect, which I still try to do today with exceptional use of language, whether in the copy I write or in conversation with friends. It's a whole-life commitment, really.

As well as being Cancerian, I was born in the Chinese Year of the Pig. Both signs are typically considered wise and loyal, with a strong capacity for emotion. Astrology aside, I'd say that's a decent description of me.

A Life Online

I wasn't the first to get the internet; I'd guess we got it around 1998, when I was 15.

By today's standards, though, that's pretty early. We had dial-up, back when an ISDN line was the only real way to get a faster connection at home.

At the end of 1998 I was already running my first website. Since then, I've gone through the following stages:

  • WYSIWYG publishing

  • Microsoft FrontPage

  • Adobe Dreamweaver (back when it was Macromedia Dreamweaver)

  • Pure HTML coding (in Notepad, these days!)

  • Self-hosted WordPress
Coupled with those stages, I've learned:

  • CSS

  • JavaScript

  • Flash (although I always preferred to use Macromedia Director)

  • PHP (getting the hang of it since adopting WordPress...)
...and, of course, meta tags and on-page SEO techniques.

I've used Google Analytics for longer than I remember. These days it's a daily ritual, checking traffic stats, keyword reports and where most of my readers come from.

On Phronesis, I'm proud to say, it's an almost perfectly even split between searchers, direct traffic and Twitter referrals. I write for all three audiences, so it's always good to see each group staying in its target proportion...

"Grammar, what big rules you have..."

"All the better to confuse you with."

I've worked in agency environments, I've rewritten copy by other writers, I've created thousands of words from a one-line brief, and I've been one of a hundred voices contributing to large projects.

Whatever the scale of the assignment, however fast the turnaround needs to be, and however many other people are involved, for my part I make sure my grammar is spot-on.

Somewhere in the back of my mind, there's an encyclopaedia of grammatical fallacies, which I update and edit on a daily basis.

I try to always know when a semi-colon, colon or comma is the right choice; when to use 'forgo' and not 'forego'; when a hyphen is justified (setup, set-up or set up?); and, where possible, the origins of an unusual or oft-misquoted term.

Too many people - even professional writers - see grammar as the enemy. Countless 'blogging advice' articles suggest ignoring it in favour of a conversational tone. Don't listen to them.

Grammar's one of the basic construction tools of language, whether it's written or spoken. Next time you're having a conversation, have a think about what you're saying. Of course it's still built around the basic rules of grammar.

To cut a long story short (too late)

There are career copywriters out there, like me, who are truly committed to perfecting their art. I'm not trying to offend anybody by suggesting otherwise.

But there are also Johnny-come-latelies (or Johnnies-come-lately, if you prefer) who have just decided to have a go at writing.

When it comes down to it, choose somebody whose style and work ethic matches your own, and you should have an easier ride of it.

As the frequently retweeted tweet says - if you find you're rewriting everything your copywriter sends you, you're saving neither time nor money. Or something like that.