What I read in September

Hello, and welcome to a new way of reviewing books on Thought Dump. Rather than just reviewing one book each month, I thought I’d talk more about all the books I read during the last 30 days.

By discussing more titles, I thought I could inspire you to give these books a try. As this is the first time I’ve done book reviews this way, I’m also seeing if it works. 


The Movie Doctors

Mark Kermode and Simon Mayo, Cannongate Books 2015

Packed with film trivia and script-formatted segments, this book on movies and the moods they should be watched in is a lot of fun. You’ll come away with a ‘to watch’ list that will keep you busy, but the inclusion of spoilers for many iconic films will undoubtedly bother more knit-picky readers.




the_girl_on_the_train-coverThe Girl on the Train

Paula Hawkins, Doubleday 2015

I was curious to read this much-hyped thriller before its cinematic adaptation is released in theatres in a couple of weeks. Train is full of ‘Oh my goodness!’ moments, although these sometimes feel like they’re only done to cause shock. Maybe that’s down to the story’s unreliable narrator, who is kind of tedious. If the aim is to shock, however, then Train shocks well.



how-to-be-a-tudor-coverHow to Be a Tudor

Ruth Goodman, Viking 2015

Having previously read Ruth’s How to Be a Victorian and been impressed with the detail that had been dug up on the everyday life of the era, I was expecting to be just as impressed with Tudor, and I have been. It’s refreshing to read history that focuses beyond royalty, and accessible instructions invite you to live the Tudor life yourself.


Graphic design makes me want to break things


If you’re a graphic designer, let me reassure you that I don’t want to hurt you. But if you make me do your job, I will break your computer.

I also believe it’s good for writers to have an awareness of graphic design. Knowing what shapes and sizes your copy will getting put on to can help you visualise how it will look on the finished marketing material, and help you plan your copy accordingly.

Writers and designers need to work in close proximity of each other because collaboration is essential. They are integral players in creating marketing materials, and their disciplines need each other to get the work finished.

But these disciplines aren’t the same thing, and experience has taught me it’s impossible to be both a writer and a designer.

Umbrella job

Sometimes, I read job descriptions that ask prospective employees to have experience of both writing and designing. This makes me want to break things.

These descriptions suggest the two disciplines fall under some kind of umbrella term, and this is far from true. Design requires concentrated training in software that takes years to become fluent with.

Experience has also taught me that you need to ‘get’ the software as soon as you start using it. I never had the patience for design software when I was younger, and I don’t now. I have tremendous respect for those who do.

Always a writer

Writing and designing are disciplines that should always be working in collaboration with each other. But they shouldn’t be treated as an umbrella discipline. I will always be a writer, but I will never be a designer.

How corporate branding guidelines can help your text TOV


Sometimes, tone of voice guides don’t actually offer guidance on how to use tone of voice.

When you read one of these guides and it tells you to write ‘clearly and concisely’, ‘using simple language’ or ‘as if you were talking to someone’, this doesn’t say anything about how to write your message.

This is just advising you of the principles of writing. To be even more pedantic, the principle of writing. Arguably the above statements all have the same sentiment. Although it is a useful sentiment.

When it comes to tone of voice guides, descriptive language is what you need to look out for. If you’re writing to sell jewellery, your copy may need to sound glamorous. Or if you’re writing a blurb for a war-based computer game, your copy may need to sound anarchic.

Delicate becomes devastating

Text messages and social media platforms have become the standard way of sharing news with each other. The kind of news that used to be reserved for phone calls and face-to-face conversations.

It’s easy to get a message across this way, but the lack of tone of voice in these mediums can make delicate situations even more devastating. Just think of how many times someone’s ‘phrased something wrong’ in a text and caused an upset.

They have a message, but they haven’t considered the tone of voice they should be using. While I don’t think it’s great for a couple to break-up over a text, for instance, the situation could be made slightly better by using words that show you’re considering the other person’s feelings.

Be assertive to show that’s what you want to do, but also be soothing so you don’t make your ex-partner even more distressed. And don’t read this blog for relationship advice.

Take a moment

When we read game-changing news in a text, it’s easy to misinterpret the message through misplaced tone of voice. But considering the tone of voice and descriptive language you use could make a big difference.

Your flaws could make you a good copywriter

For Flaws blog post

You probably have flaws, which can be distracting in your personal life. But yours could make you a good copywriter. I’ve shared some of mine below, and discussed ways of stopping them from becoming destructive professionally.

Sounding better on paper

As I suspected from my negative job interview experience, where I would always get invited to interviews but never past this stage, I’m better at using the written word to describe things than with verbal communication.

Copywriting is about using the written word to persuade, or get some kind of response from your reader. If you’re good with words, this could be a profession to consider.

But being a writer isn’t an excuse to never talk again. You should always be prepared to explain your creative choices if asked, and your research process should involve talking to people. Luckily, writing is also a form of preparation.

Worrying what others think

Worrying about other peoples’ feelings can have a devastating impact on your own. In copywriting, you are always making work for an audience. It’s never about you.

You should spend lots of time learning about the people you’re writing for, and ask yourself ‘what would my audience think of this?’

Of course, obsessing over anything can become unhealthy. Identifying who your audience are, how they talk and what they want should provide you with enough insight.

Being too detail-oriented

In the past I’ve been criticised for spending too much time perfecting work, reading pieces over and over in search of the most pedantic errors. But bad spelling and grammar is a HUGE turn-off to readers. A good eye for detail is always good for a copywriter.

But you shouldn’t necessarily go crazy. Always read your work out loud and if you can, get someone else to proofread it for you. Keep the detail, and lose the obsession.

Do you think there any flaws that could make someone a good copywriter? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Review: Smoke Gets In Your Eyes by Caitlin Doughty (Cannongate Books, 2015)

Smoke Gets In Your Eyes.Cover

“Why would you ever write about us?” asks Mike, Caitlin Doughty’s colleague at Westwind Cremation & Burial, after she tells him her plans to write a book about working in the death industry. “We’re dull. You should make it fictionalised characters. Like us, but better.”

“I would argue that you guys are pretty interesting,” replies Caitlin, and she’s not lying. At the beginning of Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, she’s a novice mortician coming face-to-face with dead bodies. From here she delves into death rituals and procedures in other cultures and encounters the families of the deceased.

Caitlin’s personal and professional journey as a young adult also gets its fair share of page time, as she ponders where to take her career next and what will happen to her own remains once she dies. A side effect of the job, perhaps?

Tapping into curiosity

When the author starts questioning her relationship with death, she’s also challenging how the rest of us think and feel about mortal decay. Some readers will shy away here, while others will find it stimulating.

While the book does reveal what each corpse leaves behind on Earth, it only offers a glance of the lives that were once lived. More backstories could’ve made for interesting reading, but maybe this deserves its own book.

For everything that isn’t in Smoke’s pages, the extensive bibliography makes up for this and will satisfy those who’ve had their curiosity prodded by Caitlin’s insights.

Ultimately, her mission is to get us more comfortable with talking and learning about death. If you find yourself looking up the titles in the bibliography, then she’s succeeded.

Journal of a mortician 

Smoke Gets In Your Eyes is best viewed as the journal of a mortician, whose explorations and trials offer growth to both the writer and reader. It might not be as seeded in obituary as some would hope, but it’s hard to find such open access to the death industry anywhere else.

My biggest job interview mistake

No job

There have been a couple of times on Thought Dump where I’ve written about my experiences of job interviews. These are mostly bad experiences.

For a long time, the process went like this:

A prospective employer would see my CV, and I’d get invited to an interview. Clearly they were impressed by something they’d read, and thought I could be the person for them. After the interview, I would find out I didn’t get the job. I’d ask why, and be told I didn’t have enough experience.

Hearing this always bothered me. My CV describes my experience, so the employer would know what this is before inviting me to an interview. Why give me hope when I had no chance of being the one in the first place?

It was as if I sounded better on paper than I did in person. When you’re after writing jobs, you’d think that’d be okay. 

Sounding epic

When I went to job interviews, I always aimed to answer questions as simply as possible. I thought using plain English and avoiding employment jargon would make me stand out.

During one of my freelance jobs this year, I had an employer who gave me good job interview advice. When I told her about some upcoming interviews I had, she explained how I should prepare to answer interview questions.

She made my experience sound so epic. The language she used sometimes bordered on corporate-speak, and to me, this made my experience sound untrue.

But this made me realise my biggest interview pitfall: I was being too modest. By describing my experience in plain English, it was getting lost in translation. I was saying what employers wanted to hear, but not in the way they wanted to hear it.

Right message, wrong TOV

By answering job interview questions without any employment terminology, I missed out on several job opportunities. If prospective employers were my audience, I had the right message for them. But I used the wrong tone of voice.

What I learned from my first direct mail campaign

For direct mail post

Recently at work, I oversaw the smooth launch of my first direct mail campaign.

I didn’t write the copy for the letter that went out, but I was responsible for making sure it was going to the right people and it got sent out on time.

This was my first direct mail campaign, so mistakes were inevitable. I thought I’d talk about them here so you could learn from my slip-ups.

Sort out your addresses

For any direct mail campaign, you’ll have to do a mail merge. This involves importing names and addresses from an Excel spreadsheet onto your letter in Word.

When I first looked at my spreadsheet, I saw all the addresses had been written out in full in one column, like so:

direct mail spreadsheet example

I didn’t think much of this, until it came to transferring the information onto the letter.

As the full addresses were in one column, they camp up in one row on the letter’s address bar. To fix this, I had to break apart all the addresses over several columns in Excel. And I will be doing this in all my future campaigns.

Putting your addresses in several columns will seem like a tiring process, but this does pay off later. 

Keep a generic letter  

Before you print out your letters, make sure you save a version with a generic address bar. Something that reads like so:


Job title

Address 1

Address 2



Show this version to the people who will approve or suggest any changes to the copy or design.

DO NOT print copies of the letter that are going out to your audience until you have been given the go ahead. I did, only to be told I needed to make several changes to the copy.

I wasted hundreds of sheets of paper, and as these all had addresses on them they couldn’t just be thrown away. Each individual letter had to be shredded, which took up a lot of time. I won’t be doing this again.

Your first time

If you’re ever involved in a direct mail campaign, I hope you can learn from my pitfalls. If you’ve ever been part of a campaign, what mistakes did you make during your first time? Feel free to share your mishaps in the comments section below.