What can Winston Churchill teach you about becoming a better writer?
All of us on the Proctors copy team love hearing advice on how to be a better writer. So last month, we asked chief copywriter Phil to chuck us an occasional nugget. Here’s his first one:
“Winston Churchill was a great speechwriter. His approach to speechwriting is often quoted as a great guide to structuring good copy. It goes something like:
Stick to a single theme
Use straightforward language
Leave a picture in the reader’s (listener’s) mind
If you do this, you’ll be writing good stuff.”
I liked this tip, so I thought I’d talk about it here.
Churchill’s advice is a succinct reminder of what a good article looks like. It’s a direct, easy-to-follow instruction. I liked it so much, I wrote it out again and pinned it above my desk at home.
But it also got me thinking. When was the last time I actually wrote something that needed this formula? In the age of listicles and bite-sized 140-character content, are we writers losing our ability to create long, thoughtful articles?
I think I have.
I’ve spent the past six years writing 100-word product descriptions, burger-themed top 10 lists, tweets and occasionally 500-word quick-n-easy opinion pieces. Editors have spent the last five years commissioning them, and you’ve spent the last five years scrolling through them on the bus. The idea of writing a lunking 1,500-word article makes me sweat. I’ll do it, but it’ll hurt.
This raises the question – do we need long-form content anymore? My initial reaction is no, save it for the print mags. People read differently on the internet so keep is short. But even though listicles reel in the big reader numbers, stats show it’s actually the longer content that gets more shares.
So there is an online audience for long reads. A very large audience that needs writers with a bit of stamina.
Churchill’s advice is a great reminder of what a good article looks like. But it's not enough in itself. If you're about to write something big, you'll need to add one more layer to this list. Here it is:
Without that, we can’t even begin to tick off those five stages.
I don’t know what it is about typing, but since putting down the pen and paper, I’ve stopped planning. Tight deadlines also mean I now tend to launch into my piece, writing isolated paragraphs and eventually linking them up into a coherent article. And I’m not sure this is the most efficient way of working.
Churchill didn’t scribble his speeches ten minutes before taking the mic. In fact, he’d dedicate eight hours to writing a 40-minute speech. He’d also revise it over the course of days – even weeks – until he perfected it.
The best way to plan an article is to create a skeleton structure. Write out your paragraphs with rough summaries of what each one will cover, sandwich it between ‘introduction’ and ‘conclusion’, then, start typing (without worrying too much about sounding perfect – that’s what editing is for).
Before you know it, you’ll have a solid article staring back at you. And, because you’ve written your conclusion and introduction first, you’ll know exactly where you’re headed, so you can stay on-topic. A plan feels like progress – and has the added bonus of breaking your article down into manageable chunks, which you can tackle one at a time.
Just think about it like this. Churchill never hit the mic without careful planning. You (hopefully) wouldn't turn up to an important meeting without running through what it is you’ll be talking about. The same goes for article writing.
So before I start writing anything from now on, I’m going to plan. Even if I can feel the hot collective breath of client services on the back of my neck, and Phil is stood behind me pointing at the clock (he never does this), the plan comes first. Followed closely by Churchill’s winning article-writing formula. Here it is again:
- Start strongly
- Stick to a single theme
- Use straightforward language
- Leave a picture in the reader’s (listener’s) mind
- End dramatically
Georgina Guthrie is a copywriter, content guru and walking thesaurus.