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What a book about a hippo eating cake can teach us about writing

Our roof leaks.
Drip!
Drip!
Drip!

Last night when I was reading my son’s favourite book – There’s a hippopotamus on our roof eating cake – it occurred to me that the first page uses two of the most basic and powerful writing techniques: Alliteration and Onomatopoeia.

Alliteration

Alliteration is the use of repetitive consonant sounds in a phrase or rhyme – as in ‘Drip! Drip! Drip!’. It is used widely in the media. Newspapers love tongue twister headlines: Local loser finally lucky in love. Bloggers too use the technique to spice up post titles: Twitter tweeters try TweetDeck. You get the idea.

Alliteration also gives content structure and creates interest. It’s especially useful when speech writing, with everyone from Winston Churchill, John Kennedy and – more recently – Barack Obama delivering historical speeches laced with cleverly crafted content. (Sorry, couldn’t help myself.)

Onomatopoeia

Onomatopoeia describes words that sound the same as the action they are describing. Think boom, bang, drip, zap, meow, and fizzle. Or ‘baa baa black sheep’, ‘snap, crackle, pop’, and The Bells by Edgar Allan Poe.

It’s a great technique when describing a scene as it adds a layer of sound to your words:

The radiator hissed and gurgled as the old car clanged and banged into the driveway.

Just make sure if you are using it when script writing that it’s easy enough to say aloud. You’ll lose the impact of the words if they are too hard to pronounce together.

Learn more

For more weird and wonderful writing techniques, my favourite refresher is Daily Writing Tips.

I also came across an interesting breakdown of Obama’s victory speech by David Straker that shows how simple methods, combined with the right words can create such a powerful moment in history.

Enjoy.

The secret behind a good project team? A balance of starters and finishers

Are you a starter or finisher?

Do you have a stack of half-full bottles of shower gel lining up along your bathroom shelves? Does a new box of cereal always get opened while there are still a couple of others on the go? What about that novel that you promised you’d finish over the Christmas break, but is still gathering dust on your bedside table? If this sounds like you, then most likely you are a starter.

What’s a starter?

I think we all have some starter qualities in us, but a true starter lives for the buzz of a brainstorm, the thrill of a new client brief, and the freedom to have many things on the go at once. Starters quite often have the left-field ideas, the great ‘sales-pitch’ to clients, and have a tendency to jump in and start ‘doing’ things without much planning.

And finishers?

A finisher is the person who still thoroughly enjoys the freshness and excitement of a new project, but will be there at the very end making sure all the documentation is done, the loose ends are tied up, and the client is happy (and the invoices sent). Scoping and planning are a priority, and decisions are always well thought out. Sounds incredibly boring, but I promise that finishers still can be highly creative people.

Striking the perfect balance

I’m not saying one type of person is better than the other at working on projects – my observation is more that if you are able to choose, make sure you have a good mix of starters and finishers in your team. It’s also important to recognise that starters and finishers manage their time quite differently. Finishers crave a bit of order, demand a clear direction, and work towards milestones. Starters can be a bit ad-hoc, hard to pin down, and – in the worst cases – are known for letting deadlines and scope slide. Play on their strengths but don’t be tempted to give all the fun stuff to the starters, and don’t dump all the documentation on the finisher every time.

But I’m flying solo!

We don’t all have the luxury of working on projects with a team of people. Sometimes it’s just you that is in charge of – and has to do everything for – a project. This doesn’t mean that you are at a disadvantage. You just have to understand your own strengths and weaknesses, and have strategies in place to bring out your best. Enjoy the tasks you are naturally good at, and give yourself enough time to attack the ones that you aren’t.

Good luck!

(In case you hadn’t already guessed, I’m a finisher.)