Frighteningly prepared: why it’s important to plan your writing

Fourteen years ago, on 31 October 2003, I was dressed in a regency gown, face whited out and eye sockets darkened with makeup. I was carrying a big stick and wearing the heaviest boots I could muster. I had a radio strapped to a belt at my back, under my cloak.

“Weirdo!”, “What does this have to do with copywriting?” I hear you cry.

Patience, please.

I was working at that time for the National Trust at Attingham Park and it was Halloween. I was helping out with the mansion’s ghost tours. We’d enlisted a professional storyteller to lead the tours around the house and grounds, but a gaggle of staff members were dressed up, poised and ready to loom menacingly from dark corners at the right moments. It was great fun.

The heavy boots and stick were for hammering on doors and making stomping footsteps at crucial moments in the stories. The radio was so that we could get a signal to know exactly when to make the bell in the clock tower strike thirteen times. And the makeup and costume meant I could appear slowly out of the darkness with my lantern as the visitors were told my character’s ghostly tale.

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That’s me on the right, with my stick. Not so terrifying under indoor strip lighting and camera flash but the costumes worked in the gloomy darkness outside, I promise. I’ve messed with my colleagues’ faces because I don’t know if they’d want to be recognised. But I think they look all the more scary this way anyway…

I had great fun trailing the group at a distance through the gardens, never close enough for the visitors to get near to me (or hear the crackling radio) but not far enough away that they could relax or ignore me. We managed to make quite a few of the adults scream on that tour (we went for a more ‘friendly ghost’ vibe on the kids’ one) – and we were very proud.

So yeah, nice memories Megan but what does any of this have to do with copywriting?

Well, it was the preparation that went into the night that made it work.

The costumes, the makeup, planning out the ‘ghosts’ so they tied in with the stories, practicing the timing so that the footprints and hammering on the door came at the right moment (even though I couldn’t hear the storyteller on the other side of the door).

The tour wouldn’t have been scary if the wrong ghost appeared at the wrong time, if the door knocks followed an awkward pause where the storyteller waited for me to catch up, or if one of us had jumped out of the wrong door at the wrong time. We were weaving a story and enchanting the audience, who all knew perfectly well that we were living, breathing humans but WANTED to be swept up in it all.

All that preparation brought the tour together, made it work and gave it a certain power. Copywriting is the same.

You can’t just sit down and write without having all the right foundations and planning in place.

You need to know what you want to say. You need to know where you’re heading and what your call to action will be. You need to know who you’re talking to (adults who are there willing you to terrify them, or kids who might want a bit of a fright but don’t want nightmares for the rest of their lives). You need to find your tone of voice. You need to grab your audience’s attention at the start but keep them engaged, keep them guessing, keep them moving towards the real point of what you’re saying. You need to craft the shape of your story, the order of the poltergeists and ghosts you present, to keep momentum and make sure you don’t lose people’s attention.

Whether that preparation is formal or informal is up to you, but you need to do it if you want to write good copy. Some writers will sit down and plan things out on paper. Others will go for a long walk in the fresh air and throw ideas around in their head. Others still will talk it through with someone (or something. I’ve been known to talk to my plants. Perhaps I shouldn’t have shared that).

Whatever works for you, do it. But the planning needs to be there. Next time you sit down to try to write, make sure you get your ghouls in order first.

Don’t have time to herd your poltergeists? Let me help with that.

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