“That very beautiful medium, the English Language”

When I was a teenager, two of my favourite writers were Max Beerbohm and Lytton Strachey. 

Lytton StracheyPut aside their subject matter for a moment. What thrilled me about these two was the structure, the cadence, the musicality of their prose.

I’ve been rediscovering them both. Today I re-read Beerbohm’s 1943 Rede Lecture on Lytton Strachey. It’s a slender, purple pamphlet my grandfather gave me (or which I liberated from his shelves).

It’s twenty years since I read it, so every word was fresh. Take a read:

The English language, being part Latin, part Saxon, is, in my rough insular opinion, an even finer medium than the French one. Latin is, one might say, its bony structure, Saxon its flesh and blood.”

Then: …read more

Podcast: How to write your way to freedom

On 19th April 2013, I spoke at the Who Needs Copywriters? conference, organised by the UK Speechwriters’ Guild and copywriting agency A Thousand Monkeys.

My topic was the first real ‘killer copywriter’ – the murderer Louis Victor Eytinge, who wrote his way to freedom from his prison cell. This bloke was coining $5,000 per year during the early 20th Century while doing a life stretch. His story is truly astonishing.

If you’d like to hear how he bust out of prison with nothing more than good ideas and a typewriter, listen to the podcast here.

And if you’d like to hear some of the talks given on the same day by talented writers like Andy Maslen, Roger Horberry, Andy York, David Levin and many others, follow this link.

Writing a sales letter? Put your heart on the envelope

When I was 19, I was deeply in love with a brown-eyed girl who did the world’s best impression of a duck.
I don’t mean that she waddled or had webbed feet or begged people to chuck bread in her bath. She didn’t.

But she could smile in a way that made her upper lip look ever so slightly like a bill, gaze at you with warm, gentle eyes and say ‘quack’.

Maybe you had to be there. And maybe you had to be in love with the girl. But I had never seen anything so endearing. …read more

How a murderer’s talent for copywriting won him freedom

Next time you open a book on copywriting, I bet you won’t read a more surprising introduction than this one.

Louis Victor Eytinge, the writer of the excellent articles which compose this book, is a life-termer in the state penitentiary at Florence, Arizona.

That sentence greeted me last night when I opened Writing Business Letters which Get the Business – a once-popular series on copywriting that was published in 1914.

All six articles were so good – still valuable to any modern-day copywriter who cares to read them – that I felt no surprise when I learned it was Eytinge’s copywriting talent that ultimately set him free. …read more

Is your business communicating in ‘bafflegab’?

In 1952, Milton A. Smith, assistant general counsel for the US Chamber of Commerce was presented with a plaque for coining a punchy new word.

He first used it in the Chambers’ Washington Report, criticising the Office of Price Stabilization for the bureaucratic language it used in a price order.

Milton had spent many frustrating hours trying to explain the order to his colleague, and eventually decided the maddening blend of “incomprehensibility, ambiguity, verbosity and complexity” needed a new word to describe it.

So he created one: …read more

The ‘only known joke about collective nouns’

I was listening to radio last night, and laughed my head clean off when I heard this joke – billed as ‘the only known joke about collective nouns’.

I hunted it down and pinched it off the Time website for your pleasure:

Four dons were walking down an Oxford street one evening. All were philologists and members of the English department. They were discussing group nouns: a covey of quail, a pride of lions, an exaltation of larks.

As they talked, they passed four ladies of the evening. The dons did not exactly ignore the hussies—in a literary way, that is. One of them asked: “How would you describe a group like that?”

Suggested the first: “A jam of tarts?” The second: “A flourish of strumpets?” The third: “An essay of Trollope’s?” Then the dean of the dons, the eldest and most scholarly of them all, closed the discussion: “I wish that you gentlemen would consider ‘An anthology of pros.’ “