Big Words


When I started writing professionally in 1988 I scribbled my stories with a pen, then pounded out final drafts on a funky manual typewriter. When the old beast died a year later, I replaced it with a finnicky electric model. I was finally delivered from ribbons and rants in 1990 when I bit into a Macintosh Plus. Reborn, I've since worshipped at the altar of the almighty Apple.



From image to message

A prominent US website developer recently hailed the launch of a new site for a client who happened to be a photographer. As you'd expect it to be, the site was visually stunning. However, in reviewing the site, I noticed a slew of spelling mistakes and grammatical errors on the About page.

I emailed the photographer to say that a website's message is as important as its design and if the words don't reflect the same standard of excellence as the design, a company's image – and market presence – will be affected. A day later, the About page had been cleaned up and the photog followed up with a note of appreciation.

Remember, a website's overall strength isn't just in its form and functionality. When visitors move from image to message, any amount of window dressing won't keep them reading if the words are spelled wrong and the sentences are sloppy.


Moving forward – taking risks is the right thing to do

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in business it’s that all risks weigh the same. It’s the consequences that are measured in degrees of danger.

In February 1988, I spent a quiet hour talking with Carol Shields, the late Governor General’s Award and Pullitzer Prize-winning author, about the challenges of becoming a writer. I was pondering a freelance career, contemplating whether leaving a dead end job for an unsure future was ingenious or ill-advised.

To Carol, moving forward was the only choice. “Why are you still working at a job you don’t like?” she asked. The clear resolve in her question had an impact. A few months later I’d quit my job and transitioned into writing as a livelihood.

Twenty-three years later, I’m still taking risks, albeit mitigated ones. As an independent contractor, every decision can be unpredictable but experience allows you to measure risk and reward on a scale that places as much emphasis on personal wellbeing as pure profit. It’s a perk of not having to prove yourself again and again, of risking your reputation by taking on unqualified and unappreciative clients.

Risk can be a bully with a sharp stick. It takes courage to stand up for an idea or a belief and to move forward in the face of doubt. Self-determination also requires vision because it’s the ability to see the result of your actions that will inspire the single-mindedness needed to get the job done.

Every time you take a risk you eliminate a regret. Risky situations have a default setting and the moment you back down because of fear or indecision, remorse sets in. As a rule, a life filled with regret is a life lived without taking chances. You may not always succeed but you’re never a failure for having tried.

I’m grateful that I integrated Carol Shield’s wise counsel into my personal decision-making all those many years ago. Moving forward without regret was – and always is – the right thing to do.

First published as a guest post at, (a blog by graphic designer Matt McClay).


The true power of marketing

Marketing is the powerful process of promoting and selling products and services. It’s a buzzy world out there – full of din and dazzle – and for many marketers, discovering a unique way of portraying a product or service is the same as boosting its benefits. Sometimes it works ­­– for example, a tanning salon cleverly wrapped up its service offering by calling it a Vitamin D Infusion – but most of the time it doesn’t work because behind every clever descriptor is the reality of the marketplace.

Astute consumers can see through the froth. No matter how you slice it, Butter Crunch Bread is still a white loaf, a Visual Journal will always be an artist’s sketchbook and Cinnamon Sticks from a pizza joint is nothing more than a slick trick conjured to sell more dough.

True marketing power comes from highlighting the features and showcasing the benefits. Intuitive marketers know that what’s in it for the consumer is always more important than how it appears in an ad or how it sounds on the radio.


Without a message, an ad is just an image

In the highly visual world of marketing, it’s become too easy for image to trump message. By simply endorsing the adage that a picture is worth a thousand words, creative types who overlook the value and power of great writing in advertising are selling their clients short.

For instance, in a well-written, well-designed print ad, it may be the image that initially captures and moves viewers, but it’s the words that draw them in further – turning them into readers and thinkers, and then hopefully into consumers as they contemplate the message and react to a call to action.

The most successful marketing materials integrate words and visuals around a concept that began with a writer whose words inspired a designer to produce a dynamic design. This process is time-honoured in the creative industry and proves that a distinctive design built on a foundation of professionally written words can be trusted to deliver results.

Words and pictures should work together to convey the message but any amount of beautiful images won’t overcome spelling mistakes and grammatical errors. It’s a competent writer who’s committed to the rules of language.

Writers listen to their clients and pay attention to the marketplace. An effective ad can be measured against the competition’s marketing. Is there a decided difference in product benefits? Does the ad break away from industry clichés? Does it reflect corporate values and create a positive perception? These are questions that writers ask of their work, because to them, the answers determine the effectiveness of the message.

It may be true that one picture tells a better story than 1,000 words, but adding just a few well-written words to the picture will help it sell a product or service. And isn’t that the real reason for advertising?

First published in design+business, (a blog by graphic designer Carson Samson).


A short message from Gettysburg

In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln delivered the perfectly-crafted Gettysburg Address. It took Lincoln just over two minutes to read and the strength and succinctness of his message has endured. The orator who spoke before Lincoln – the long-winded but popular Edward Everett – droned on for two hours and his words have largely been forgotten.

The lesson? Memorable speeches are insightful and inspiring, but above all they're incisive.