What taking good photographs can tell us about writing good copy

In an effort to buttress the shaky détente between the DoW and our friends at the Department of Pictures, I am willing to publicly concede that words and pictures might have a lot to say to each other.

The insight I’m thinking of in particular comes from Camera Lucida, by Roland Barthes.

In his book, Barthes develops two concepts with which to think about photographs, which are also useful ways to think about copy: studium and punctum.

Studium is “that very wide field of unconcerned desire, of various interest, of inconsequential taste”.

In other words, it’s all the stuff in a photograph that you like or can interpret using normal cultural references that are open to everyone within a culture. You get the reference with studium; it communicates clearly – but it doesn’t set your world alight. Barthes calls it “the order of liking, not of loving”.

On the other hand we have the punctum. Punctum is Latin for sting, speck, cut, or little hole. It’s the part of the photograph that ‘pricks’: the detail that rises above the ordinary and shakes you out of your complacency.

When you get stung by a punctum, you stop being a passive observer and start relating to the photograph in a deeply personal way. Suddenly, you start caring.

One punctum that pierces me is in this photograph by Reylia Slaby. It’s called ‘Never Leave Me’ and is part of her ‘Tales from Japan’ series.

Reylia Slaby, 'Never Leave Me', 2015

Reylia Slaby, ‘Never Leave Me’, 2015

Slaby is obviously referencing John Everett Millais’ portrait of Ophelia.

But look at her model’s right hand.

Where Millais’ Ophelia is a picture of relaxation, all open eyes, mouth, and hands, this model’s eyes and mouth are closed, her jaw is tense, and you can see the muscle tension in her grasping hands. That right hand is the punctum, the arresting detail that opens up the entire photograph.

As this example illustrates, for Barthes and indeed in practice, the punctum is a deeply personal and often unintended thing.

But it’s still a useful idea to bear in mind when writing copy.

Most copy is necessarily studium: understandable, relatable communication. But we should all aspire to include a punctum: a little detail that gets under the skin of a reader and makes her care: that bothers her.

A sting that takes your copy from a piece of rational communication that someone might like, to an arresting, bothersome, under-the-skin love.

And that’s something to which everyone, whether we deal in words or pictures, can aspire.


In Praise of Dialects


Glenarriff Forest Park, Northern Ireland

Before I went ‘over the water’ to find fame and fortune as a copywriter in London, my grandfather gave me some advice: ‘You should put lots of wee Irish phrases in your adverts.’

As diverse as our clients are, I’m not sure his favourites – cheugh as a wuddy and quare an’ thran –will come in all that useful, though I’ll be leaping on the first chance that I get to use them. Translation attempts on a postcard addressed to the Dept. of Words, please.

Chances to use dialects in national advertising are rare, and when they are used, they’re often reduced to punchlines, like in this advert for Hotels.com.

The joke revolves around the incomprehensibility of the Geordie dialect. Which is, I suppose, the reason why you don’t hear more of it in adverts. Dialects are necessarily exclusive, so they leave some people out. And you don’t want to muddy your copy with words that people won’t understand.

But the other side of the exclusivity of dialects is that they bring people together. They’re a response to the intricacies and nuances of a social and geographical environment. Where ‘standard’ English fails, dialects swell to meet the challenge of getting things just right. In that respect, they have more in common with copywriting than it might initially seem.

So, even if national campaigns aren’t always the place for dialect, then it’s worth getting an ear into some places that are.

Robert Macfarlane’s Landmarks contains glossaries of British and Irish dialectical words for landscapes, some of which are arrestingly lovely – to thaw in Northamptonshire is to ‘ungive’, and an icicle in Hampshire is a ‘clinkerbell’ or ‘daggler’.

I have a particular soft spot for Seamus Heaney, who was fully alive to the joy of regional Irish speech, and to its detractors.

I tried to write about the sycamores
And innovated a South Derry rhyme
With hushed and lulled full chimes for pushed and pulled.
Those hobnailed boots from beyond the mountain
Were walking, by God, all over the fine
Lawns of elocution.

The entire poem, brimming with what Heaney described as ‘the speech of Northern Ireland: rigged and jigged and rhymed for effect, the kind of flotsam and jetsam that blows in one ear and out the other in every childhood, but that finally ends up lodged between the ears of the adult’, can be found here.