Who, what, why and where: 10 Wordsmithy Q&As

1. Where is The Wordsmithy? I work from my home office in Twyford, between Reading and Maidenhead, Berkshire.

2. Have you always been there?
No. I founded the business in 2003 from my then home in Central Reading. I’m originally from Cheshire but I’ve also lived and worked in London, Manchester, Leeds and Stoke-on-Trent.

3. Why is it called The Wordsmithy?
I wanted a short business name that conveyed the practical, hardworking nature of copy, rather than the airy-fairy creative side. A smithy is where a blacksmith forges metal with a hammer, anvil and furnace. His or her craft demands vision, skill, accuracy, stamina and patience and the outputs are are essential, practical items like horseshoes or gates. They may be aesthetically beautiful but they are primarily functional and well made. I am passionate about the idea of making words work to achieve specific goals.

Words are not just ornamental. They’re strong, tangible and powerful. They act on people to stimulate behaviour and change feelings and perceptions – your choice of words really does matter.

4. How many staff are there?
Just me. I’m owner, manager, administrator, finance, sales, marketing, technology, operations and dogsbody. I have several terrific associates I call on if a project demands more resources (hello Fiona Henry and Patrick Moore!) but I’m the only person on the payroll here.

5. What are The Wordsmithy’s specialist sectors?
I don’t have any. I actively seek to work in as many sectors and industries as possible, because I think it keeps my approach fresh and I can bring good practice and innovation from one area to another. On a personal level, I love the diversity and variety of my work.

6. How many clients does The Wordsmithy have?
From 2003 to today, I have carried out billable work for exactly 101 client businesses! Usually I have projects on the go for five or six different clients at any one time.

7. Who is your biggest client?
In terms of their organisation size, it would be IBM, followed by DHL, Vodafone and Sainsbury’s. In terms of the amount of work I’ve done for them, Vodafone utilised about 75% of my time for two or three years. They used me to write the standard copy for customer service letters – as you can imagine, many were needed! These days I believe they use a much larger agency to do this job. It was great while it lasted!

8. Which is better, business or consumer?
At the moment I have a lot of business to business clients – I enjoy the intellectual challenge of getting to grips with their subject matter though it’s sometimes a bit dry and technical. For marketing briefs, clearly it’s my job to make it impactful and interesting! I feel I learn a lot writing for B2B and I particularly like keeping up to date with ever-evolving digital topics.

I do love it when a consumer brief drops into my inbox. I’ve written packaging copy for consumer brands that I now see in the supermarket, which still gives me a little thrill! Ad, online and on-pack consumer copy is often short, which can make it harder to be original and clear. So a few good words can take a very long time and a lot of effort to craft.

9. What’s the best project you’ve ever worked on?
I used to write for the Sainsbury’s colleague magazine and I loved going to stores and events to interview employees. Everyone had a fascinating story. I also met TV presenter Nick Knowles, paralympian Ellie Simmonds, footballer Daniel Sturridge and actor/chef Lisa Faulkner.

10. What’s the most unusual writing brief you’ve accepted?
I think my lovely client Kitty French won’t mind me naming her. She writes erotic fiction and I have edited five of her published novels and novellas. Fiction editing is a fascinating, time-consuming and absorbing job – this subject matter throws up plenty of diverting challenges, like keeping the vocabulary varied and making sure descriptions of what people get up to are feasible. Kitty and I have had amusing exchanges about whether or not hands or legs could reach that far or bend that way!

The story of The Wordsmithy… once upon a time in 2003

Charlie Hobson

2018 is a milestone year for me.

It’s 15 years since The Wordsmithy was born – the company name registered, the website set up, the email account created. Open for business! I sat at my desk in Reading in 2003, chewing the end of my pencil and watching tumbleweed blow through my inbox. Would it ever be a viable business, capable of supporting me financially and providing the job satisfaction I craved?

And here it is today, bucking the trend of 53.7% of UK businesses that don’t make it beyond three years, according to the FT last autumn. A misleading statistic perhaps, since many businesses are registered but never even get to the point of operating. But still. 15 years feels substantial. The Wordsmithy is my longest employment ever – something to do with the very understanding boss perhaps?!

I’m proud of the work I’ve done since then and deeply appreciative of the client and peer relationships that have blossomed on the way. Thank you all for being part of my journey.

This year I’ve decided to take a different direction with this blog, which has tended to stick to technical and practical writing topics. It struck me recently, when I received a marketing email from a friend and fellow entrepreneur (fabulous photographer Asya, if you’re interested – highly recommended for business portraiture amongst much else), how engaging and interesting I found her personal reflections on her work and the genesis of her business. So I’m going to give it a try this year.

While – wonderfully – I have some clients who’ve been with me since 2003, I’ve connected with many of you in later years, so you may not know how The Wordsmithy came to exist and how I came to a career in writing. If you’re interested, I hope to enlighten you!

Happy new year!


Email subject lines: a copywriting conundrum

Five or six of the hardest words

One of my most challenging copywriting tasks is coming up with email subject lines. Getting cracking on the content itself is no problem for me. But it can take as much time as a whole article draft to pick a catchy little phrase that instantly tells the recipient what the email’s about, why it’s good, why it’s important or interesting and why it’s different from and better than 100 other emails they’ve received this morning.

I have a twitchy finger myself on the delete button – like most of us I don’t spend more than a second glancing at the subject of whatever commercial emails have dropped into my inbox. Most of them don’t even get an open. So I know what I’m up against.

Short and sweet?

One of the most common directives about email subject lines is to keep them short – so mobile-based recipients can see all the words on a small screen. It’s a good principle as long as brevity doesn’t mean failing to get across what’s contained in the email, so that people who could have been interested miss the key point. I’ve heard it argued that a long subject line that bleeds off the screen can in fact tempt people to click to find out how it ends. Risky perhaps?

The goalposts keep moving

If your email distribution software has analytics, the best way to figure out the most effective subject lines is by A/B testing them and finding out evidentially what works best for your particular audience and content. But you have to keep trying and testing new things or you risk turning off readers with a single repetitive device that will bore them. People are attracted by different things at different times and in different contexts, so it’s not an exact science. Word and topic trends change all the time. Sometimes a cheesy pun or a silly emoji in an email title amuses me – sometimes I find it annoying.

Plain vs fancy

There’s an argument for keeping it simple. MailShake’s survey showed that clear, straightforward subject lines that just say what’s in the email achieved better open rates than sophisticated, quirky or creative ones.

In a situation where I don’t have analytics evidence to work with, I try to follow some simple principles for subject lines. Clear, concise, personal, linked to a current topic or with an offer or action if possible. Writing in Forbes, Annabel Acton’s short summary strikes a chord for me.

The pre-text sentence that appears in the line under email subjects in many browsers is a big help in explaining a bit more about the content that follows. Not every recipient will see it, so the subject line needs to stand alone, but it can make the difference between a click and a trash for those who do get the extra line.

Want to know more? Recommended…

Inbound marketing specialists Hubspot have this great article with detailed insight into how best to tackle subject lines.

Popular e-marketing platform MailChimp has some practical tips too. They’re particularly useful if you use MailChimp for creating and distributing your emails: the article walks you through some inbuilt features that will help you test your subject lines.

Working collectively: freedom to flourish

Last week marked the launch of an exciting new venture for freelancers like me.

The Difference Collective opened its doors to support clients in the healthcare sector with projects and extra resources. And I’m delighted to be a part of it.

So have I gone over to the dark side? Abandoned the Wordsmithy business I’ve built up over the last 14 years and headed back to the confines of the corporate world?

Not a chance. I’ve connected to a new channel that gives me access to exciting projects that I couldn’t deliver alone, working with talented, like-minded freelance professionals. I’m still free to work on my own projects and clients, while seizing the opportunity to do some different things and bring my content and writing skills to a new customer base.

I have good experience in the healthcare sector, supporting specialist communications and digital agencies. But I work in other industries too and have a track record and body of knowledge there. I enjoy the diversity of my work and wouldn’t change that. So The Difference Collective is a great way to develop more sector knowledge, use my specialist skills and complement the rest of my work. Working across many industries and project types keeps my approach fresh, and I hope that will benefit the Collective’s clients too.

As a business owner/operator/freelancer, it can get lonely. Though I’m established and well used to the ups and downs (feasts and famines!) of a freelance career, connecting with this powerful alliance of communications and strategy experts is both enjoyable and energising. The Collective has already changed my perspectives on effective ways of working, reminded me why I choose to work flexibly for myself and hooked me up with some innovative and very useful new virtual tools as part of its central platform of resources.

As part of The Difference Collective team, I’m looking forward to spreading the word to clients and new members, and both giving and getting creative inspiration from some of the best people in the industry. I feel like I’m part of a good thing here, with great colleagues and support, but none of the politics or petty irritations of agency or corporate employment. I value my independence, but I also love to learn from and work with others – together we’ll be making far more of a difference in healthcare than I ever could alone.

I think it could be the way forward for freelancers, not to replace their own direct networks but to enhance them and give a new route to satisfying team-based project work that’s focused on achieving rapid results for clients. I think we’ll see more such Collectives emerging over time, for different sectors and skillsets. It’s good to be in the vanguard!

The Difference Collective has marshalled some revealing statistics and insights into the freelance marketplace. Have a read and see why it really is “different” in a very good way, for clients and experienced freelance professionals. Look out for more of this on social media – the hashtag is #WorkDifferently.