What makes a great writer? Our founder Rob is in Australia, helping talented designers, strategists and copywriters to improve their writing skills. With a little more spare time than usual, he's seeing the importance of taking in the world around him.
The best writers are detectives. They’re curious and they question. They see words in a line-up and ask ‘Who’s doing what? And why?’ The best writers pay attention, and are completely present in every important moment. The best writers take things in that other people just don’t notice.
I spent last week in Sydney, Australia, running Verb brand language workshops. When not encouraging designers and strategists to also be detectives, I was sponging up the new world around me.
I noticed how ibises head-bob a little when they walk. How golden orb spiders dangle their victims like they’re weights on a fishing line. I noticed how most Australian drivers actually stop at red traffic lights, or for pedestrians trying to cross at zebra crossings. And how those pedestrians keep to the jaywalking laws with remarkable obedience. I also noticed the thousands of tourists snapping selfies in front of Sydney Harbour Bridge, and accepted that we’ve definitely entered the Age of Narcissus.
And as I listened to A Winter’s Tale by Queen on a morning run around the Harbour, as the water sparkled under a warm, summer sun, and as cockatoos squawked and fought in furious orbits between the trees, I remembered how this song had inspired a piece of writing at secondary school that had encouraged a substitute teacher to say she thought I should work hard to become a writer.
I’d never examined the song before. As a boy of 14, I merely stole lines I liked the sound of. Now, as I ran to its rhythm, there in the moment, I began to understand the mastery of Freddie’s lyrics. How he built in so many of the writing techniques I now teach.
Withhold information, I say when teaching story. Don’t give everything away up front. Build intrigue. The way Fred does when he asks: Am I dreaming, Am I dreaming?
Action, action, action, I implore. Keep your writing moving, prefer verbs over nouns. The way Fred does when he sings: Mountains are zooming higher, Little girls scream and cry, My world is spinning and spinning and spinning
Be concrete, not abstract, I beg. Be sympathetic to your reader by making things as easy for them to follow as possible. Like Fred does when he sings: Seagulls are flying over, Swans are floating by, Smoking chimney-tops
Write for the ear as well as the eye, I ask. Remember to build in rhythm and rhyme. Exactly the way Fred does when he sings: It's unbelievable, Sends me reeling
Show don’t tell, I hammer home. Don’t just say it’s wonderful, paint a picture of what gives it wonder. As Fred does from the second to the second-from-last lines of the song.
A Winter’s Tale might not be Queen’s most famous creation. It might not be their best. But it’s a remarkable piece of writing from a man who was, as he wrote it, laying on a bed beside the lake in Montreaux, Switzerland, soon to die from AIDS-related illness.
When you read his lyrics, you realise they’re the words of somebody keen to capture every last detail of the world around them, and drink in every last drop of life. When you listen to the song, you drift, in the words of Freddie himself, to somewhere truly magnificent.
Next time you go somewhere new, or even do something for the thousandth time, pay attention and notice. Be a detective. You might just become a better writer.