05.11.19 / Hanging out with…
 Rob Self-Pierson from Verb

In March, AGDA’s Heath Campbell was delighted to chat with Rob Self-Pierson, founder of London-based writing studio, The Table. Rob had just finished his tour of Australia with Verb, the brand language workshops for the creative industry he runs with Tim Rich.

The great news is Rob’s back in Australia this November with Verb 2.0. This advanced course promises to take the writing of designers, creative directors, strategists and other lucky delegates to even higher levels. Starting in Brisbane this Thursday (a few places left).

From finding liberation in constraints to making mistakes, from the joy of scribbling to Rob’s top piece of writing advice, here’s what happened when Heath met Rob…

Part I: In the beginning

Heath: So, Rob, let’s start with the Verb tour. How did it go?
Rob: Really well, thanks! Lots of energy. Lots of positive feedback from people in all cities—all-round a great experience. I think everybody got something out of the workshops, so I’m very, very pleased. I love working with and training designers and other creative minds.

Heath: Glad to hear it. How did Verb come about? In a nutshell…
Rob: From a conversation between me and Tim, where we agreed more needed to be done to bring writers and designers in brand together. A workshop seemed the ideal way to do it. Invite designers—and later creative directors, strategists, account managers etc—into our world. Tim and I then met regularly over two years, deconstructing our lives as writers, and building a workshop from what we noticed.

Heath: So what do you get from running the workshops?
Rob: Working with and training designers over the years has made me a better writer. Through understanding design processes, and learning to see challenges like a designer as well as a writer, I’ve been able to adapt the way I work, alone and alongside design partners. The more I teach talented people, the more I learn about my own thinking and craft.

Heath: Designers often state they can’t write—that they dwell on the first sentence, trying to make it perfect. Meanwhile, when designing, they feel free to ideate and conceptualise, making a bunch of mistakes along the way and feeling comfortable doing so. Why is it different with writing? Why such fear around mistakes here?
Rob: Nearly every workshop we run we’re helping people to work through worries about their writing. I think it says a lot about how we’re taught to write in school: where it’s about what not to do, rather than the magic that can happen when we write. If we’re given blank paper and a crayon when we’re small, we’re told we can explore with colour, shapes, scribbles, anything, everything. As soon as we get a bit older and we’re given a pen and lined paper, we’re told we can’t spell that way, our punctuation’s wrong, our grammar’s off, our handwriting is ugly. Writing becomes scary and we learn to fear it.

Heath: How do you tackle this in Verb?
Rob: Verb workshops are all about creative expression within tight briefs. We make it clear we’re not there as grammar teachers, but instead to inspire, encourage and challenge. We give critical feedback throughout the day. But the main message is: enjoy yourself!

Heath: But how do you inspire and encourage to remove the fear?
Rob: We challenge delegates to relax their thinking in order to express themselves. Part of that is understanding the ‘inner critic’—the voice in your head that tells you you’re not good enough. When you can recognise the voice, you can accept it and write through it. We also do practical things, like encouraging everyone to write with chunky pens on giant pads of paper. It gives writing the same creative feel as design and drawing. In fact, during workshops designers often realise just how similar the design process is to the writing process. That familiarity removes more fear.

Heath: Chunky pens and giant pads? Sounds fun! And it works?
Rob: Yes! Delegates start drawing lines, scribbling words, making connections with arrows, and passing the paper around. It’s scribbly and—to me—beautiful. And fun! We then say: ‘There you go, you’ve gone from a blank piece of paper to ideas to squiggles to words. You’ve started. First coat down.’ We then teach structuring techniques, like the story arc.

Heath: That’s really not how we’re taught to write at school…
Rob: I’m very happy to break rules about how words ‘should’ appear on paper. I believe constraints can liberate, but first you need to turn the tap on. When copywriters and designers are asked to write, so often it’s to fill in a box on a page. If you think you’re a box filler, you’ll write like a robot. Yuck. Be creative, not robotic—that’s our belief at Verb. Challenge it all.

Heath: So what comes after the squiggles?
Rob: Editing. And editing. And more editing. The brilliant David Ogilvy once said he was a lousy copywriter but a good editor. We encourage people to get first drafts down quickly, then develop that draft. We teach editing techniques, and talk throughout the workshop about ‘killing your darlings’, a great quote from the novelist William Faulkner. You need to be able to work at your writing, like you would a design or strategy.

Heath: Do you ever get surprises from designers who are top writers? Or just people who lack confidence then do something special?
Rob: All the time. People come up to me when we break for lunch and ask: ‘How terrible was my writing? Be honest.’ I show them the things they don’t realise they’ve done: the alliteration, the clever repetition, the contrasts that have crept in. They’re surprised and happy they’ve started to discover their own written voice. I’ve never found someone I’d call a terrible writer. But I train a lot of people who lack crucial writing theory and the confidence to express themselves. Thanks to Verb, they learn this—and often develop their own approaches to writing.

*Intermission. Go get yourself a cup of tea and a biscuit/cookie, come back, and settle in for the final chapter.

Heath: Writers gotta read, right? The best way to get better at writing isn’t necessarily writing—though, that’s obviously a requisite—it’s reading. Great writers read a lot, correct?
Rob: Of course. I’m reading all the time: books about writing and rhetoric, like Sam Leith’s fantastic You Talkin’ To Me? Authors like Murakami and Hemingway for craft and narrative. Books about art, photography, typefaces. But also I read because my life is in words; I read design articles, client’s first drafts, editor feedback. Life as a writer is being immersed in language. But, to me, writing lots is as important as reading lots. Like with everything in life, it’s the balance.

Heath: If you could give one piece of advice to anybody who wants to improve their writing, what would it be?
Rob: Simple but so often overlooked: Write for your reader. This is even truer of commercial writing. Tim’s great with this. He recently gave me editorial advice when I was writing Moonwalking, my travel memoir about walking Britain by the light of the full moon: ‘Be loving to your reader by being ruthless with your edits.’ If you want people to read you, you need to write in a way they’ll enjoy.

Heath: So what can people expect from Verb 2.0, the advanced course?
Rob: It’s definitely a step up—but with all the spirit of the original Verb workshop. We’re taking delegates further into their emotions, encouraging them to put more of themselves onto the page. We feel that’s crucial in all sorts of writing, including copywriting: to connect with your reader, you need to connect with what you’re writing. It’s a personally stretching and memorable day. Potentially life-changing for those who have never explored writing like this before.

Heath: Sounds great, Rob. Tough final question then: if there’s one thing you feel people who attend Verb take away, what is it?
Rob: Ooh, good one. Well, you can’t turn somebody into a writer in a day. Writing is a lifestyle and takes a lifetime of dedication to improve at—practising every day, being critical, reading, travelling, opening your eyes wider all the time. Through Verb, I believe we give confidence to people who worry about writing. Like I say, many people have been taught writing back to front: by the pain of mistakes rather than the joy of play. By sharing trade secrets, inspiring examples, quotes from brilliant writers and lots more, we show that writing can be filled with fun, not fear.

Heath: Confidence. Where do you find it? How do you catch hold of it?
Rob: Confidence comes from everything we’ve chatted about. Read lots, have a critical eye, write until your hand cramps. Take feedback well and keep working at your craft. Be voracious; read and write, read and write. Repurposing the Zeldman quote: ‘Writers don’t retire. We die.’ During a workshop, Tim and I are there to support, push, encourage and develop everyone’s skills and confidence. When our delegates leave, we hope our passion for words stays with them and soon becomes their own.

And that’s where we had to leave it. Thanks so much to Rob for the chat, and to both Rob and Tim for creating, moulding and polishing Verb into the craft-and-confidence-building experience it is now.

There are still a few places on Verb 2.0 in Brisbane (this Thursday!) and Melbourne (13th). Whether you’ve completed Verb or you’re a good writer looking to improve, sign up for an advanced course now.

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Heath Campbell

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