Welcome To My Working Writers Series

I’m fascinated by the work habits of writers.

I’m addicted to the “The Setup” site, and have consumed all of John August’s “Workspace” screenwriter interviews.

Sadly, copywriters are poorly represented in the writer’s universe (there are some real and imagined biases that account for that), and I thought it was time to shine a spotlight on a handful of working copywriters. And by “working” copywriters, I mean writers who rarely get to enjoy the luxuries of writer’s block, sloppy work or a byline.

Good copywriters play in a merciless arena of ideas and tight writing, and writers who thrive in that space are probably worth a little study.

First up in my Working Writer’s series is Bad Language’s Matthew Stibbe — author of what is probably the only copywriting blog from the mid-aughts still in my RSS reader. Copywriting blogs tend towards transparent self promotion, yet Bad Language has remained a sometimes funny, always authentic look at copywriting and marketing.

Matthew Stibbe

The umbrella site for all Matthew Stibbe's sites (not a bad idea)

Stibbe’s English (so he sounds funny but writes well), and works with blue-chip clients like Microsoft and HP.

Not a bad place to start. Welcome to Working Writers.

Tell Us Who You Are and What You Do (briefly)

My name is Matthew Stibbe. I’m CEO of Articulate Marketing where most of my work is business-to-business copywriting for large tech companies, including Microsoft, Symantec, HP and LinkedIn.

My background, hopping on one leg, is: history at Oxford, a decade making computer games and a few years as a freelance journalist. When I’m not writing, I’m flying, learning Dutch or running my other business, Turbine.

I have a writing blog and a flying blog and I’m a contributor to Forbes.com.

What Hardware & Software Do You Use?

My main day-to-day writing machine is a bit of a frankenputer made up of bits of other computers glued together. It has a five year-old motherboard but 16GB of RAM and a new SSD plus two huge 1920×1280 screens of hinged arms.

Why I like it and why I keep nursing it long after it’s sell-by date is that it is completely silent. It has a double-walled aluminium felt-lined case, an enormous but silent fan and a graphics card with a huge brass heat sink. Silence is the best working environment for me.

It runs Windows 7 Professional 64-bit (hey, I work for Microsoft, what did you expect?) I do almost all my writing in Word, after nearly two decades of hard wired habit. I use an Apple USB keyboard after I wore out two Microsoft ergonomic keyboards in as many years. It’s not so much the durability or the feel of it (though both are good) but it’s just really quiet when I’m typing so that works really well when I’m taking notes during a phone interview.

I have recently swapped my trusty HP notebook for a MacBook Air. The HP is okay (and their new Folio 13 is very good indeed) but the Air is the most beautiful laptop I have ever owned. It’s fantastic and I love it deeply.

I’m a connoisseur of ultraportable laptops and most of them have been disappointments. The OQO, Libretto, tiny Sony Vaio, the 1995 HP 200LX, two Newtons, four Pilots and many more have all been through my grubby paws but only the Air has really delivered portability and functionality in the same package. (Although the old Toshiba Portege 3440CT did a pretty good job in its time.)

I use some others pretty regularly: Balsamiq for UI mockups, OneNote for note taking, Outlook for task management, Live Writer for blog posts. I’m slowly moving to hosted cloud apps for routine business stuff and I’m loving Freshbooks for invoicing and Capsule for CRM. I use Microsoft Office 365 for email hosting and it works really well. And Dropbox, but you’re already using that, aren’t you?

I have an iPad which is great for reading. Every aspiring writer should be a greedy reader and I have the New Yorker, Atlantic, Wired, Economist and Kindle on my iPad. I also like the Readability app. Not sure I could write a long article on my iPad but I’m thinking about how I might be able to use to mark up or edit documents via Dropbox.

Any Special Copywriting or Workflow Tricks To Share?

Three big breakthroughs in my working life:

  1. Ruthless task management. I have a good list that tells me all the time what I need to be working on and when it’s due. I have had this since I was 15 but it’s evolved from a school notebook to a carefully curated Outlook task list.

  2. Document parsing. I studied history at university and learned, mostly by practice and enlightened laziness, the ability to read through a lot of material quickly and soak up the bits of information I needed. Also, for larger more formal projects, the ability to take notes and clip out the bits of data I need for references. This makes large projects much easier.

  3. Doing interviews on the phone rather than schlepping out to see people and then taking notes while I’m talking so I don’t need to write a post-call transcript. When I was a journalist this technique literally saved me two or three days a week. Even as a copywriter, interviews are a valuable tool and this approach means I can do a bunch of them without spending a lot of time on the process. There’s nothing like talking to an expert to get a project kick-started.

I don’t know how useful this is as advice. If you want some advice, I think my best tip is to learn to concentrate. Getting up early and writing in the morning is also helpful, but again, I already wrote about it.

What Pieces of the Puzzle Are You Missing?

Context switching between jobs is a big issue. It takes a while for my brain to Alt-Tab between one client’s project and another. So when the phone goes and I have rewrites to do and two or three little things to do in a day, I’m much less productive than when I have one big project and the whole day (or week) to do it. So I love it when clients give me big chunky projects to do. It’s not just the money, it’s the chance to really get up into top gear and put get motoring.

What I’d love is two or three screens with the resolution and size of the new iPad 2.5. It would be easier on the eye and better for reading.

I think my perfect setup would be three iPad-style screens plus a computer that is as quiet as my current one but much faster. However, I suspect that in two or three years, I’ll be running very little local software. It’ll all be in the cloud and all I need is a great screen and a great keyboard and a good Internet connection.

The biggest non-technical problem I have is that my intellect knows it has to write because of deadlines or mortgage payments but my ego doesn’t want to. The more I write, the more I sympathise with Ezra Pound’s gentle satire:

O God, O Venus, O Mercury, patron of thieves,
Give me in due time, I beseech you, a little tobacco-shop,
With the bright little boxes
piled up neatly on the shelves
And the loose, fragrant cavendish
and the shag,
And the bright Virginia
loose under the bright glass cases,
And a pair of scales not too greasy,
And the whores dropping in for a word or two in passing,
For a flip word, and to tidy their hair a bit.
O God, O Venus, O Mercury, patron of thieves,
Lend me a little tobacco-shop,
or install me in any profession
Save this damn’d profession of writing
where one needs one’s brains all the time.