“My Name Is Ben H., and I’m a Hoarder.”

By Ben Hall
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clutterThere’s something awful in my basement. Or at least my wife thinks it’s awful. Lurking down there are half a dozen bankers boxes and a filing cabinet filled with samples from my 17+ years in advertising.

There are print ad proofs, cassettes of old radio ads, VHS tapes with TV spots … and piles of direct mail. Oh, the piles! One batch is for Microsoft to introduce the “new” version of Word in 1995. Another hanging folder contains bookmarks for AAA of Southern California. (The idea was to stick them in your Travel Guide as you planned your road trip to Yosemite or Vegas. Hey, it was their idea.) Yet another blast from the past is the 1994 agency holiday card that I designed. It’s always the last piece I show in my book, and it never fails to get a smile from a potential client.

And that’s what I keep reminding my wife. These piles of paper stored next to the furnace, with their cracking rubber bands and their fading “John Sample” addresses, are my calling cards in the freelance world, the tangible evidence that I’m a person who can solve marketing problems. They give clients peace of mind and make them think, “Phew, we’re in good hands. He’s handled this kind of challenge before.”

So I’m not ashamed to say I hoard. I’m proud of all the work I’ve done — even the bookmarks. I’ll gladly show any sample in there to anyone if it might get me an assignment. Now, if I could just get those wretched account people to pass along some results …

When Ben H. is not busy hoarding, he moonlights as a copywriter with The Hired Pens. You can reach him at blog@thehiredpens.com.

Eight of Our Favorite Sites for Writing-Related Tools and Diversions

By Dan O'Sullivan
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How did we ever survive before the Internet came along? I honestly don’t know. As a Hired Pen, I give thanks every day for writing-related tools and diversions found on websites like these.

Word Count
The dude behind WordCount got ahold of “a 100 million word collection of samples of written and spoken language from a wide range of sources, designed to represent an accurate cross-section of current English usage.” He ranks ‘em all, from 1 (“the”) to 86,800 (“conquistador”). Hours of fun.

Rhyme Zone
If you’re a budding poet or songwriter, you’ve probably spent some time with your nose in a rhyming dictionary. This site makes the process much more efficient. Type in “heart” and soak in the majesty of 114 possible rhymes. Need to fill in six syllables? Try on “organization chart” for size.

Gunning Fog Index
I wrote about this one last year. The Gunning Fog Index gauges the readability of your writing by weighing the average sentence length and percentage of words with three or more syllables. If you’re a writer who cares about readability, this tool is really worth checking out.

Website Grader
How effectively is your website marketing your business? Website Grader gives you the skinny. Plug in your URL, and it’ll spit out a “score that incorporates things like website traffic, SEO, social popularity and other technical factors.” TheHiredPens.com got a 90 – not bad, but room for improvement.

Press Release Grader
From the folks who brought you Website Grader … It does a similar thing for press releases, looking at factors such as language, content and SEO characteristics.

Word Spy
Much like Kardashian sisters and zits on teenagers, new words are cropping up all the time. Word Spy chronicles this evolution – and even tells you what the words mean. Wondering what a “vegangelical” is? How about a “mommy card”? Now you’ll know.

Acronym Finder
A pet peeve of mine: copy that references an acronym without telling you what the damn acronym stands for. If you’re a writer, don’t do this to your readers. Instead, use this tool to make sure you’re explaining yourself correctly. (Hey, who knew that DAN has such exciting meanings as “Data Accession Number” and “Desk Area Network”?)

Thesaurus.com
As a marketing writer, there are some words to which I naturally gravitate: provide, offer, deliver. God, I hate those words. This site helps me mix in some good alternatives. (It also has something called the “Crossword Solver,” of which I do not approve.)

Have any additions to this list? Send ‘em our way.

Don’t Be a Whiny Crybaby … and Other Pieces of Sage Advice for Would-Be Copywriters

By Anna Goldsmith
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crybabyEvery few weeks or so, I get an email like this:

Dear Hired Pens,

I just finished my graduate degree in obscure 18th century literature, but now I am thinking maybe I need to give up on my dreams and figure out how to pay my bills even if it makes me feel like a total sellout. Hey, tell me about this whole copywriting thing.

Sincerely,

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

To which I reply something like:

Dear Johann,

Smart move! Dreams are for sleeping. Wake up and make some money.

Sincerely,

The Hired Pens

P.S. Quit insulting my career. I actually enjoy the challenge of coming up with unique and exciting ways to describe 17 different, yet nearly identical, lavender candles.

No, I don’t really say that, but since I do get so many requests that are usually earnest and not the least bit insulting, I thought I’d put together a form letter of sorts. Here it is:

Dear BLANK:

Thank you for your interest. I’m not going to get into Copywriting 101. But here are a few key elements we look for when evaluating potential writers.

Your writing demonstrates a clear understanding of your audience.

You understand that you write differently for a group of financial wizards than you would for, say, real wizards — and your writing reflects that. This doesn’t mean you can’t have your own, unique style. It just means you need to know how to tailor it accordingly.

If your words are flowery, you better be selling flowers.

Many writers have a deep love affair with words. We get that. But if your flowery use of language is obscuring meaning, it’s not working. The best marketing copy is clear and concise.

And speaking of flowers …

If you want to be favorably compared to a flower, may we suggest “fresh.” If you use phrases like “synergize” or “21st century global solution,” we’re going to throw up. Of course, if your client insists you do that, it’s a different story.

Finally, whether or not you succeed as a copywriter depends a lot on how you take feedback. So, um, here’s how we want you to take it: Like a man (or a woman).

Even if you’re a fabulous writer, we’ll probably still have a few things your client will want you to change. Your ability to really listen to what they need — and make changes they request without being a big, whiny crybaby — is hugely important. Having a good attitude and not taking criticism personally is nice, too.

Sincerely,

The Hired Pens

Promised Land State Park Over-Promising?

By Anna Goldsmith
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mosesAlthough I haven’t written any blog posts lately, I’ve been keeping an exhaustive list of ideas for when I have time to write. And since my son got up at an even more ungodly hour than usual this morning — so early he was ready for a nap at 7:30 — well, this morning I had time.

So I opened up my list of blog ideas and scrolled through:

1. Billboard that says “Get Your B.S. Degree”

Yeah, it clearly proves that shorter is not always better. (Come on, third-tier-college-I-will-not-name: Think about what you’ve just written!) But what more can you say?

2. The Can-Do Conference Center

Need to figure out my angle on this one. I think there’s something here, but right now all I can think of is “Really? That’s really what you want to call your conference center?”

3. Sports Puns

Good idea that will never happen. Lateral to Dan.

Then I came to this one:

4. Billboard for Promised Land State Park in Pike County, Penn.

Who knew the Promised Land could be found a mere 10 miles north of Canadensis along PA 390?

This idea makes me laugh every time. In fact, I was laughing about it when my husband woke up and walked out into the living room. I shared my idea with him. He did not think it was so funny.

“You’re being one of those East Coast people who just assumes that anything in the middle of the country couldn’t actually be the Promised Land. You haven’t even been there,” he said. (He gets really defensive about stuff like this because he’s from a fly-over state.)

But he is right. I haven’t been there. I mean, maybe it’s this totally amazing state park. Like the best state park in the world. But it still doesn’t matter. Unless the ranger is going to greet visitors with milk, honey and the promise of eternal happiness, Promised Land State Park is over-promising and visitors will be disappointed. And that’s even before they read the firewood advisory about the invasive beetles.

Now it’s easy to mock a little state park that probably has a marketing budget of $300, so I’ll get off their back. (Sorry, Promised Land State Park, I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings. I’m sure you’re great, invasive beetles or not.)

But here’s what really gets to us at The Hired Pens: Companies who should know better — and have a lot more to spend than $300 on their marketing efforts — do exactly the same thing. That is, oversell.

Come on, Company X, is your product really “groundbreaking”?

Come on, Company Y, can you honestly call your methodology “revolutionary”?

And Company Z, I’ve been on the phone with your team. Sure, your customer service is good, but “second to none”? Come on!

At The Hired Pens, we often find ourselves across the table from clients asking them to justify these statements. Yes, we might even say, “Come on!” and roll our eyes at them. This makes them sheepish and unless they fire us, they usually agree to let us take it down a little.

Because here’s the thing: Unless your customers are idiots, they’ll see right through your overselling and their trust in you will evaporate. Now I’m not suggesting you’re so brutally honest that your copy reads, “We’re only minimally better than the other guys, and some days that’s not even true.” So how do you avoid over- or underselling?

Well, without giving away all our revolutionary, groundbreaking and second-to-none trade secrets, a good rule of thumb is to think of it like dating: You want to highlight the positives without over-inflating them and minimize the negatives, at least until your customers fall in love with you.

Curious to learn how to strike the right balance? Let me know and I’ll add it to my list of future blog topics. Right under “What’s up with all the ‘I am [fill in the blank: e.g. Quincy College]‘ ads?”