Dark Angels: Q&A

For over a year, the creative writing for business organisation Dark Angels has been sharing weekly notes with its members. Each Friday, we receive a feel-good message, in the form of a poem, some writing advice, a language exercise or more recently a Q&A with a writer. In December 2021, it was our founder Rob's turn to share what he's been up to with fellow Angels.

In conversation with Dark Angels' Gillian Colhoun:

This week we’ve invited Rob Self-Pierson to take us for a spin around his writing dance floor. Good timing too since he has exciting news to share. Hi, Rob...

"Tell us about something you're working on."

The A-Z of better brand language, my new pocket-sized book.

What started as a quick article for my studio’s website transformed into a 66-page illustrated guide to better writing. It’s packed with tips, tricks, fresh ideas and language exercises for anybody who works with words.

There’s ‘A is for Audience’, where I encourage writers to draw. And ‘D is for Decisiveness’, where I write about washing machines and endless spins. ‘S is for Surprises’ features Murakami and VW, while ‘R is for Ruthlessness’ offers advice on killing darlings. Oh and there’s ‘W is for Wabi sabi’, a Japanese concept I’ve fallen in love with. It’s something the best creative directors live by, and anybody who writes can learn from. 

It’s been a joy to create the book between client projects. I teamed up with Karina Stolf, the designer behind my travel memoirs, who has illustrated each spread. It’s the first time we’ve explored the potential of The Brand Language Studio’s visual identity together. Such fun.

Those client projects are Anglia Ruskin University’s tone of voice, and Hope and Homes for Children’s verbal identity.

"Can you recommend something for us to read?"

I have five books in my satchel at the moment. (Yes, I’m one of those.)

Elise Valmorbida’s The Happy Writing Book is a fantastic read, and great reminder of why I write. Reading Elise is like meeting your favourite super-smart writing tutor for coffee. The Unpublished David Ogilvy is like meeting your super-smart boss for whisky, and getting drunk on his wisdom.

I mentioned my love of Japanese concepts. Beth Kempton’s Wabi Sabi is a fascinating book, and a generous piece of writing. The more I read, the easier and more enjoyable life seems. The Beauty of Everyday Things by Soetsu Yanagi is chunky, soulful and deeply rewarding.

Finally, The insiders’ guide to advertising by Craig Mawdsley and Bridget Angear of Craig+Bridget. The strange separation of brand and advertising has always intrigued me. This book has helped me to understand it better.

"What’s the best writing advice you’ve read or received?" 

It’s in the A-Z and goes like this: "To be kind to your reader, be ruthless in your edits." Fellow Dark Angel Tim Rich offered it as I was writing my second travel memoir, Moonwalking. And I’ve always loved William Goldman’s "Nobody knows anything".

"To be kind to your reader, be ruthless in your edits."
Tim Rich

"Share one thing you do when you get stuck."

I walk. I do my best to focus on everything that isn’t the challenge: on the render on that house, the rook on that chimney, the speed of that cloud, the chatter and clatter of those friends on their bikes. The further I walk from the challenge, the less my mind engages with it so greater my chances of returning to my desk fresh. With the solution. Or the energy to solve.

Walking – especially in nature – is my meditation. As I give a soft focus to what’s around me, a clarity comes and the things scaring or worrying me feel far less intimidating. Challenges become exciting.

"What’s your desert island book and why?"

Bill Bryson’s Notes From A Small Island. For so many reasons. 

Mainly because I wouldn’t be a writer without Bill Bryson. Aged 14, this was the first book to fascinate me. I’d turn pages before they’d finished, then go back with a pen and try to work out how he’d got me. When lonely on the island, this book would encourage me to write through emotions.

I’d also need a chuckle, and this book is belly-laugh hilarious.

I’d also need a chuckle, and this book is belly-laugh hilarious. Bill’s from Iowa, but has lived in Britain for years so understands our idiosyncrasies. That perspective – outsider looking in meets insider looking out – leads to a well-observed, witty and at times moving piece of travel writing.

I imagine after a day of failing to catch fish and put up shelter, I’d sit down by my lifeless fire and read Bill to keep warm and fill up on nutrients.

You can now order yourself a copy of the A-Z of better brand language on Amazon.