Thank you so much for agreeing to be a part of The Writing Desk Blog.
Now, imagine I’m about to introduce you to an auditorium, filled with the smiling faces of folks fuelled by caffeine and an eagerness to learn. What would I say?
“Hello everyone, I’d like to introduce…
Dawn McGuigan. Communications and Marketing Manager for North Tyneside Council by day.
Book reviewer by night/weekend/other waking moments.
Here’s the part where we’d sit down and try and look comfortable next to the microphones. Are you sitting comfortably? Then let’s begin…
Can you name the business book that’s always on your desk? (I’m talking about the one that’s covered in pencil marks, coffee stains and has turned down corners…)
I don’t really have a business book that I turn to regularly. However, Sarah Knight’s two books – The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a F*ck and Get Your Shit Together – have sustained me through many a dilemma. Her no-nonsense, sweary advice is brilliantly direct and has helped me obtain clarity when dealing with personal and professional problems. Whether you’re looking for a way through private turmoil or just need to re-route your brain through a bout of writer’s block, Sarah Knight can help you.
What’s your all-time favourite advertising campaign?
It’s a local one – Passionate People, Passionate Places. This campaign was developed by One North East (the former Regional Development Agency) to attract inward investment to the area. It was thoroughly researched, exquisitely delivered and resonated with local people as well as those gazing from afar. It harnessed the true spirit of our region. I always look back at this campaign when I’m working on place branding content.
I think the power of advertising reaches beyond campaigns. As a bookworm, book jackets are an obsession of mine and I adore Virago’s iconic green spines (which, thankfully, are making a comeback this year). If you can continue to remind consumers of your brand, and stand out from your competitors, while your product sits idly on a bookshelf, you’re winning at marketing.
“Everyone has a book in them…” Or so the saying goes. What do you think/know/believe is the secret to good writing?
I know good writing is about authenticity. Whether that’s writing about what you know or creating something that resonates honestly with your customers, the best writing is grounded in truth.
I’ve always found it vital to create buyer/customer/audience personas before embarking on any project so I can understand who I’m trying to reach. I identify what they care about, what they do and what they wish they could do, the media they consume and the relationships they have to recreate their view of the world. It’s the only way to produce copy that’s meaningful to your audience and will drive the results you’re looking for.
If you were just starting out, what advice would you give yourself? Which book or books would you read first?
When I left university with an English degree under my belt, I wanted to work in publishing. My dream was to be an editor. I applied for lots of positions in London but never got anywhere so opted for a job in a business publishing firm in the North East instead. If I was doing it all again now, I’d tell myself not to give up and to be more confident in approaching firms for work experience, placements and contacts.
Confidence has always been my weakness but building a network is really important when you’re first starting out; in fact, it never stops being important. As a 21-year-old graduate before the days of social media, introducing myself to someone in person (the worst), by phone (the horror, the horror) or by email (the cop-out) was terrifying and something I wish I’d been stronger at.
I’ve found Daisy Buchanan’s How to be Grown Up a fantastically useful book in realising that no one actually has it all together, despite what their outer appearance or social media profiles might suggest. One of the chapters, ‘How to survive at work’, is a perfect description of what it’s like to find your feet in a career you know nothing about. If I’d read it in 2003, I think I would have felt a little more assured than I did at the time.
Silence? Radio? Or music while you work?
I like acoustic or instrumental music in the background when I write. Spotify’s ‘peaceful guitar’ playlist is one of my favourites; it’s usually plucking out of my phone or streamed through my earphones at work if I need to concentrate.
If anything with lyrics plays while I work, the songwriter’s words will usually merge with mine to create some very surreal copy.
What are your top three novels of all time – and why?
Ah, this is always a difficult question for me.
- Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck is a firm favourite. It was the first book I studied in depth (for my GCSEs back in 1998) and that was when I fell in love with analysing literature. I remember learning about onomatopoeia and alliteration, the importance of place and time, the significance of character names, and plot. The magic and craft of writing was unveiled to me then and I’ve been obsessed with it ever since.
- Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier is just sublime. Atmospheric, chilling, Gothic, sinister, mysterious, it’s a masterpiece. Du Maurier is an expert in subtlety and manages to convey so much with so few words.
- Life After Life by Kate Atkinson is a simply wonderful book. Atkinson’s work always plays with time and her chronological manipulation reaches new heights in this expertly crafted novel. It’s emotional, suspenseful and just so beautifully written.
What’s the best thing you’ve ever written? Why did it rock your world?
I was Marketing Manager for Barratt Homes and David Wilson Homes’ North East division for three years. During that time, I got to work on the redevelopment of the La Sagesse site in Jesmond. The former school was going to be transformed into 49 apartments, bungalows and detached homes. The price tag for some properties was over £1 million so this was a big deal for the division and a massive challenge for me.
I wrote all of the copy for the website, emails, direct mail and SMS, and had to keep over 3,000 potential customers at bay for more than 12 months while the site was being redeveloped. It taught me a lot about how to transform the tiniest morsel of information – an update from the site, a progress picture, a decision about kitchen worktops – into interesting content.
The cherry on the cake was the sales brochure. It was 42 pages, had spot UV and embossed lettering on the front, glossy CGIs, interior design inspiration and floorplans. It also came in a rather fetching silk-finished gift bag with smooth rope handles. I pulled the whole thing together, from working with designers on the layout to picking out the gift bag, from nagging architects for floorplans to writing every single word of copy, and it turned out wonderfully. It’s in my portfolio and I often stroke it when I need to reaffirm my confidence in my abilities as a writer, project manager or creative thinker.
What’s the last thing you bought? And yes, that packet of chewing gum counts.
Prawns to go in the Thai green curry I’m cooking tonight. And wine. Always wine.
Who was your teenage crush?
After watching Interview with a Vampire, it was Brad Pitt. His vampiric ways appealed to my darker side.
Can you describe the best meal you’ve ever eaten?
I can still taste it. My husband (then boyfriend) Stephen and I had a holiday to Madeira in 2014 and stumbled across a little place called Beef and Wine. It did exactly what it said on the tin.
There are a lot of Brazilian influences on the island and the food has a distinctive South American flare. We were served delicious steak (sliced from a sword held above our table), cabbage with bacon, potatoes and an assortment of delicious sauces. The meal was fairly simple but seasoned to perfection, and the ample choice of red wine complemented every bite.
What’s your favourite tipple? Is it wine, beer – a cask-aged malt?
Spanish Rioja – deep, red, heavy – has my heart. But, I’m also partial to real ale or a chilled white wine when it’s hot.
If I were to give you a private jet, David Attenborough as a tour guide and a month off work – all expenses paid – where would you go and what or who would you write about – and why?
My MA dissertation was about magical realism and I’ve been intrigued by South America, its spiritual home, ever since. I’d tour the continent, tracking its storytelling culture and seeing firsthand how magic infuses life, food and love.
What’s in your pockets?
Usually, my hands or my phone. I tend to use them to stop myself from fidgeting rather than for their practical abilities.
Pen and ink, pencil and paper or keyboard and screen? What’s your writing style?
I’m a stationery hoarder – notebooks, pens, pencil cases and most things in Paperchase are my weakness. I love the act of writing; I often scribble aimlessly as a means of clearing or calming my mind.
I always map out ideas for a new project the old fashioned way with a pen and paper. I’m a fan of bullet points, bubbles and arrows, using all three to link my thoughts and curate my nonsense into something more coherent. Once I get down to writing in full prose, it’s on a laptop. My brain usually talks faster than my hands can type but I find I can get from 0 to 60 easier on a machine than I can by hand.
Do you read any blogs or magazines about writing? (And I mean read, not just subscribe to and delete/leave on your desk and recycle?)
I’m currently completing a distance-learning course with London School of Journalism on freelance and feature writing. I read a lot of features as a result – news, lifestyle, long-form – and find they’re more beneficial than reading about how to construct them. I like to collect ideas, phrases, sentence structures, stand firsts and sub-headings from great writing. I’ve recently got hooked on podcasts as I can devour them during the dead time of my commute. The Guardian’s audio long-reads is fantastic.
HubSpot is a great resource of short, punchy articles about specific communications or marketing skills and ideas. If I’m struggling with something, I usually go their first to see if there’s an article in the archive to help me.
Tea – or coffee? What’s your poison?
Coffee. But, I’m trying to cut down so limit myself to one per day and guzzle peppermint tea the rest of the time.
Do you have a favourite cup or mug? Can you describe it?
As a wedding gift, we got a set of Mr & Mrs mugs. I’ve used the Mrs one for my morning coffee ever since. It’s a plain white mug with Mrs in gold. It’s cheesy but I love it.
What was your most adored children’s book? And character?
As far back as I can remember, I had a bookshelf in my room filled with Ladybird Classics. I always remember reading The Magic Porridge Pot over and over and over again.
There’s a book called A Little Love Song by Michelle Magorian that I just adored. I first read it when I was about 13 and loved the protagonist, Rose. She was feisty, independent and a reader – everything I was ridiculed for being by my peers at the time. I’ve reread it a few times as an adult and it still captures my heart with every page.
Your favourite word?
Your most loathed word? (You know, the one that makes you shudder and say “Ew!”?
I’m more annoyed by phrases than individual words. Things like “direction of travel” really wind me up.
Where can we find you? – Browsing online or lost in the aisles of a bookstore?
As a book reviewer, I get tonnes of electronic proofs from NetGalley so I read on my Kindle a lot. As a result, I preserve book buying for my favourite authors or most coveted novels. Waterstones in Newcastle is usually where I go to buy, stroke and sniff new books.
Favourite song lyric of all time? And why?
“You can go your own way” from the song of the same name by Fleetwood Mac. The song is about Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham’s tumultuous relationship but I love how its meaning can bend to suit whatever you’re going through at the time. It’s a wonderful lyric that should be liberally applied to most of life’s problems.
Name the artist who is guaranteed to get you up on the dance floor.
Disco-era Michael Jackson
Do you have any strange writing rituals you’d like to share with us?
If I’m writing for my blog, I always do a final proof on my phone. Downsizing the screen from a laptop to a Samsung Galaxy 7 makes me view the copy differently – not just from a formatting perspective – and I always pick up a few edits or typos missed on the big screen.
What are you working on today? What’s in the pipeline?
I have a pile of book reviews to get through.
I’m developing a personal project at the moment that may result in something interesting. I was recently diagnosed with endometriosis and, while researching it, found a lack of information from women who are living with the condition. I’m developing a book idea – provisionally called ‘Bloody Women’ – to gather stories from a variety of women and shed some light on the realities of the condition.
Can you describe the last photograph you took?
It would either have been of my six-week old niece (I’m obsessed) or my latest read. I love a #newbookday post on Instagram.
What piece of advice really changed you as a writer?
Every writing tutor I’ve ever had has told me my sentences are too long. I now try to keep them varied. No more than 30 words per sentence was the latest advice from my LSJ tutor so I’m trying to stick to that. (I’m sure you’ll find longer ones in here – it’s a difficult addiction to kick!)
What was the last thing you wrote that had nothing to do with your job?
A review of Kit De Waal’s new book The Trick to Time. It’s a brilliant book.
What’s your favourite quote about the process of writing?
“All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath” – F Scott Fitzgerald
Who is your favourite Mad Man – or Woman?
Peggy. Or Joan. It’s a tough call.
Can you name your favourite film – and tell us why you love it?
Mary Poppins is my all-time favourite. I was obsessed with it as a child and still love watching it now. It’s a lot darker than first impressions indicate, and I see something different in it with every watch.
I also adore The Devil Wears Prada. It might seem frivolously fashionista to some but it actually runs pretty deep with commentaries on career, women, integrity and what you have to do to achieve your goals (or define them in the first place). I’m still a sucker for a New York fashion montage, though.
Which book or books is/are by your bed today?
The Two Houses by Fran Cooper as I just finished that the other night. I always keep Bedtime Stories for Grown-Ups on my nightstand for emergencies.
Who was or is your greatest teacher?
David Walker, one of my lecturers at Northumbria University, had a huge impact on me. He worked on the shipyards and in the navy before retraining to become a professor and specialising in Shakespeare. He was able to get to the heart of any book, play or poem like no one I’ve ever met.
Who is your favourite artist?
These often change with my mood but the stalwarts are Gustav Klimt for paintings, Kate Atkinson for words and Fleetwood Mac for music.
Where do you like to work best – is it at a desk, in an office or in a coffee shop? And would you send us a picture of where the magic happens?
I love working in coffee shops. If I need to concentrate, you’ll find me tucked away in a corner of Flat Caps Coffee on Carliol Square in Newcastle. If I need some bustling background noise and human behaviour to watch, I head to the Tyneside Cinema Cafe. It’s a fantastic place and I host my monthly book club in the gorgeous art deco Tyneside Coffee Rooms on the second floor.
And finally, where can this caffeine-fuelled audience find you?