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, I’d like to introduce…
Mary Whitehouse, copywriter/PR and owner of Word Service Marketing Communications
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…)
The one that’s there right now is ‘The Art of the Click’ by Glenn Fisher (@allgoodcopy) which is so well-written I am jealous. David Ogilvy’s ‘Ogilvy on Advertising’ was my bible when I started out for its no-bullshit approach. I lost it some time in the 1990s and a kind ex-colleague gave me a copy for my birthday a couple of years ago.
What’s your all-time favourite advertising campaign?
There are a couple. I really love and admire Indra Sinha’s work on the Bhopal Medical Appeal campaign. They’re long copy ads, which most (un)informed ad industry opinion believed would never work, but every single word works so hard and means so much. I think about them for hours after reading them.
At the opposite end of the spectrum are the Economist typo ads – short, tight copy lines exemplified by the one that says, “I never read The Economist. Management Trainee, age 42.” Simple and clever at the same time – and perfectly targeted.
“Everyone has a book in them…” Or so the saying goes. What do you think/know/believe is the secret to good writing?
Get an idea of one person you want to talk to, and write for them. Read it out loud afterwards – preferably having printed it off first and with a red pen in your hand.
If you were just starting out, what advice would you give yourself? Which book or books would you read first?
Have confidence in your abilities – you will get there. I’d read the aforementioned Ogilvy Book and also Andy Maslen’s ‘Write copy, make money’, about building a successful freelance business.
Silence? Radio? Or music while you work?
If I’m really trying to think, silence; but if not, then a Spotify playlist. The one I’m listening to now is called ‘Totally Stress-Free’.
What are your top three novels of all time – and why?
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee is amazing. I read it at school and it opened up a world I never realised existed.
Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy: I love Hardy, his novels are so ahead of their time. I love the painful study of fate versus self-determination and how little of the latter most of his women were able to have.
And finally The Rotter’s Club by Jonathan Coe. It’s set in the place I grew up, about the events I remember from my childhood – the Birmingham Pub Bombings, the constant strikes at the Longbridge car plant, the number 62 bus down the Bristol Road… everything, Coincidentally my mum now lives opposite his mum and they have become best friends. They’ve just been on holiday together.
What’s the best thing you’ve ever written? Why did it rock your world?
When I worked in an ad agency in the late 80s/early 90s I wrote a headline for BT’s early cable TV division with the headline ‘Sky’s not the limit’ (they offered Sky TV and its main competitor). I was quite chuffed with that one.
I’m proud of anything that managed to simplify a very complicated subject and am quite satisfied with some of the stuff I’ve written about evidence-based investing.
What’s the last thing you bought? And yes, that packet of chewing gum counts.
A huge bar of chocolate last night to accompany my glass of Sauvignon Blanc and Handmaid’s Tale Season 3 Episode 1.
Who was your teenage crush?
I didn’t really have one. I loved Donny Osmond but that was when I was about 9.
Describe the best meal you have ever eaten.
I often go to Amsterdam as one of my best friends lives there, and once went to a pop-up restaurant called C. Amsterdam. It was all a bit nouvelle, with foams and crumbs and tiny portions and the like, and I was expecting pretentious over-priced rubbish. But it was heavenly, amazing, melt-in-the-mouth, orgasmic stuff. There were so many dishes I can’t describe them all, but I think it’s still there in a permanent location now, so Google it and go!
What’s your favourite tipple?
Gin and tonic – I love experimenting with different combos and have about 5 different types of gin.
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?
The Antarctic – I’m not a hot-weather person. I’d interview the crew of the research stations about how they all get on with each other. Two weeks would be enough – the plane could drop me off in New Zealand for the last couple of weeks on the way back. And David, if he wants to join me.
What’s in your pockets?
Nothing at the moment, but normally dog poo bags and a scrap of paper saying, “Milk, bread, bananas.”
Pen and ink, pencil and paper or keyboard and screen? What’s your writing style?
Keyboard and screen. My handwriting used to be so lovely when I wrote real letters to people in my teens and as a student, but now it’s like a spider has lost its way on the page.
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 like the Good Copy, Bad Copy blog by Clare Lynch and I need to start listening to her podcast. I’m more of a podcast girl now – the only time I have to myself is in the car so I listen while driving. I love the All Good Copy podcast.
Tea or coffee?
Tea! I don’t drink coffee at all. Although I love coffee-flavoured things. Weird.
Do you have a favourite cup or mug? Can you describe it?
I have two – one my husband bought me that says ‘Genius at Work’ for my regular PG Tips, and my new Freelance Heroes one for my peppermint tea (after breakfast and lunch).
What was your most adored children’s book? And character?
I loved Roald Dahl, especially Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and James and the Giant Peach. But I also have a soft spot for two books which were so special to my children – ‘Giraffes Can’t Dance’ by Giles Andrae and ‘Dogger’ by Shirley Hughes.
Your favourite word?
Defenestrate. I think it’s amazing that we have a word specifically for throwing someone out of the window.
Your most loathed word? (You know, the one that makes you shudder and say “Ew!”?
Leverage. It’s so over-used when it has a very specific meaning. Also ’passionate’… don’t get me started.
Where can we find you? – Browsing online or lost in the aisles of a bookstore?
Both! Mainly online, but I adore bookshops.
Favourite song lyric of all time? And why?
It’s a toss up between Stairway to Heaven by Led Zeppelin and American Pie by Don Maclean. I know them both off by heart.
Name the artist who is guaranteed to get you up on the dance floor.
Love Shack by the B52s is the track I always get up and dance to, however tired I am. And I love The Dandy Warhols’ ‘Bohemian Like You’.
Do you have any strange writing rituals you’d like to share with us?
Other than procrastinating for ages before I finally get down to doing any writing, no.
What are you working on today? What’s in the pipeline?
Today, two newbiz proposals that I really should crack on with. A couple of nice websites coming up, hopefully, in the education sector, plus some nice stuff for a co-operative I work with, along with some more investing copy for a new financial advisor client.
Describe the last photograph you took.
One of my standing desk to show another writer on Twitter who said he was thinking about getting one. It’s probably quite similar to the one I’ll take for this article, to be fair.
What piece of advice really changed you as a writer?
No-one has to read your copy, so make them want to.
What was the last thing you wrote that had nothing to do with your job?
Probably an email to one of my son’s teachers.
What’s your favourite quote about the process of writing?
“If I had more time, I would have written less,” which is often attributed to Mark Twain. Editing is at least 50% of copywriting, which is why charging by the word is such a stupid way to price yourself.
Who is your favourite Mad Man – or Woman?
Peggy. I AM Peggy (apart from the getting pregnant by an account exec and giving away the baby bit). Mad Men reminds me a lot of my early career in ad agencies, the misogyny and everything.
Name your favourite film.
Some Like It Hot. A classic.
Which book or books is/are by your bed today?
Phillip Roth – The Human Stain; The Order of The Day by Eric Vuillard, about the lead-up to WW2; and ‘How To Be Right’ by James O’Brien.
Who was or is your greatest teacher?
A young English teacher whose name I can’t remember who told me my essay was like reading Nancy Banks-Smith in The Guardian. I had no idea who she was, so went and bought a copy and decided that I was going to be a writer.
Who is your favourite artist?
I’m quite traditional and love the impressionists, especially Monet and Renoir.
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?
At my desk, looking out onto my garden, in my office that is so cold I have a special office cardigan.
And finally, where can this caffeine-fuelled audience find you?