Of narrowboats, floods and copywriting

It may not quite be Prunella Scales and Timothy West, but I’m spending 10 days of my summer holiday driving a narrowboat.  A pair of original working narrowboats owned by the Narrow Boat Trust (NBT), to be precise, one of which (the butty, Brighton) has no engine: it’s towed by the other (Nuneaton).  I’ve driven  a 57-foot-long narrowboat for several holidays but I’m still expecting a steep learning curve.

Narrow Boat Trust's working boats Nuneaton and Brighton
NBT’s working pair Nuneaton and Brighton

As each NBT boat is 70’ long, the tow-line is 70’ long, and you drive from the stern of the boat, that’s a lot of manoeuvring space to think about when you’re going round a bend in the butty.  And, as boats use reverse gear to brake, there’s the small matter of how to stop the butty, since it has no reverse – or indeed forward – gear.  Like everything else, there’s a technique to it.  I’ll be with experienced NBT volunteers who’ll show me the ropes, but I’ll need to be able to do it by myself asap.

The locks on the Oxford Canal, where we’ll be travelling, are all narrow, so only one boat can go through at a time.  That means the second boat has to be “bow-hauled” (pulled by rope and human power) into each lock and out the other side.  On a staircase of locks, that’s a lot of hard physical work, on top of which we’ll be delivering coal to other boats as we travel.  I expect to be much leaner and fitter when I get back!

What have narrowboats to do with copywriting?  Just that, as with every skill, there’s always something new to learn, techniques that other people take for granted but you must pick up; and that sometimes it’s just plain hard work and not a lot of fun.  There isn’t time to be precious about writing, you simply have to knuckle down and make it work.

It does get easier – as I’m sure driving the NBT boats will get easier – if you keep at it.  Not just finding your voice but learning the techniques that make your writing work, like how to push the emotional buttons that get readers interested and make them buy.

The other day my sister sent me an award application that a voluntary flood-prevention action group she’s involved with were about to submit.  Under the heading “Tell us why you should be considered as a Local Hero” (or words to that effect) they’d put just a bare statement of what they’re doing, rather than telling a story that captures the imagination.  If I’d been a judge, I wouldn’t have given it more than a passing glance.

So I rewrote the application for them, giving examples and injecting a bit of emotion into it, and hopefully they’ll be shortlisted for the award.  That sort of writing requires a certain technique – but anyone can learn it.  I’ve been using it for nine years now, so I can make it look easy; like any skill, you need perseverance, regular practice and a desire to achieve it.  (Like controlling a pair of narrowboats: by the end of my holiday, I hope to be able to make that look just as easy but I think it may take a bit longer than a few days…)

So if you’re struggling with your writing, keep at it: persevere and one of these days you’ll realise that it’s become easy.  If you can’t wait for that day, you know where to come!


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