Giles Emerson calls himself a professional writer; he says he will write anything, for anybody, on any subject. “That includes copywriting—anything you can do as a professional writer, and indeed editor,” says Emerson. He’s written copy for brochures, pamphlets, booklets, advertising, speeches, presentations, government papers and nonfiction books, he’s had his own poems published, he’s ghosted books—and anything he writes, it goes almost without saying, he also edits, and copyedits too. Asked if he has a novel in him, Emerson replies, “Oh, my God, yes, I can’t tell you how many.” He has two on the go now.
Emerson’s emphasis on the difference between working as a writer for a profession rather than being a freelance writer may seem hair-splitting, but for him these two jobs reflect an entirely different approach. “Freelance writers tend to find stuff to do—they go in search of their material and dangle it in front of commissioning editors—so they work more in the style of a freelance journalist,” he says, “whereas a professional writer, at least in the sense I mean, is a hired pen.” Emerson tends to wait for commissions to come in. It’s not a journalist’s curiosity that drives his writing, or particular subject matter, it’s a determination to populate the world with clear, intelligible words. He’s almost evangelistic about making words do what they say. He abhors jargon, ambiguity, obfuscation and lack of clarity—but then he’s often working for people who can’t really write, even when they have something to express, so his job is often to make sense of what someone who hasn’t necessarily thought it through is really trying to say.
Emerson’s self-description as a “professional writer” might have begun as vanity, or as a means of giving himself a separate identity from “copywriter.” “I could direct a course in how to be a professional writer and it would have a lot of different facets to it, very few of which have to do with the techniques and capabilities of copywriters,” says Emerson. “It’s not that ‘professional writer’ is more lofty; I’ve written some unbelievably mundane copy in the past just to get some difficult explanation or info correct—although I’ve tried to make it less mundane than it might otherwise have been.” He recalls a job where he once had to explain legal aid in a leaflet aimed at people with little education. “It was bloody difficult,” says Emerson—though mostly because the copy he had to work from was incomprehensible in its original form.
Training by doing
The best, perhaps the only training, to be able to write in all these various ways is just what Emerson has done; that is, he’s just done the work. After university at Exeter College, Oxford, he worked on a few magazines on diverse subjects ranging from DIY to the Second World War; he wrote and edited various brochures and booklets for what was then called the Central Office of Information (COI), where he got a taste for writing for the government; he did PR for Extel Communications and took on two accounts for big corporations (Marconi Radar and the Cocoa, Chocolate and Confectionery Association). There came a point when he realized he was essentially unemployable as a company staffer; it was time to strike out on his own. “I couldn’t wait to get my teeth into big juicy accounts, so I moved out of London—this was the pre-fax era—and got set up with a word processor,” he says. “My productivity grew enormously, even though I spent quite a bit of time on the train.” Emerson has continued to divide his time between London and Ludlow, in Shropshire, and has made a career as an outsider working as insider.
“I think the thing that has helped me do all this is being on the outside,” he says. “What’s very important, and makes it possible to do what I do, is that I listen and have to learn very quickly.” He’s sometimes had to play down what he’s gleaned from clients—how do you know that, they say?—but he says he can sometimes detect nuances in a client’s gestures or facial expressions. “As an outsider you may not know about a client’s internal politics, so you have to be perceptive and aware of the dynamics, in order to get the inflection of things.”
“A common theme in my approach is that I really want people to do things confidently, say things that they mean, be really clear,” Emerson emphasizes. “And, in common with many people, I absolutely abhor jargon”—what he sees in big corporations or government offices where HR is speaking to communications, or marketing is speaking to the director of operations, or the director of operations is speaking to the financial officer. “So often they just don’t understand each other. ‘Delivering deliverables’!” he says. “I could give you such a list!”
That early government work for the COI proved an excellent training ground. “After setting up on my own, the variety of subjects was immense,” says Emerson. “I got a kind of privileged insight into many different ways of working, and communicating into different business models.” At times it was also a lesson in frustration when the inevitable bureaucracy interfered and upended projects. “I know that a lot of writing of the kind I do, however much I craft it to carry specific, general or even very nuanced messages, ends up simply being tipped from one’s little bucket into the maelstrom at the end of each day.”
I am a channel
Before Emerson writes a word for a client he’s first concerned with the nature of the message. What is this? Who is it for? Why are we doing it? Very often, he says, it’s the communicators who make it difficult, since they haven’t thought these things through. “I see myself as a funnel. I am a channel,” says Emerson. “I put myself very firmly and squarely between the audience, or audiences, and the communicator.” He asks all the basic questions. “Okay—you want to do a corporate brochure, or a website, or whatever, but the first question is why.” By challenging the brief he often finds that the solution lies elsewhere, or in another form; together they can sort through it and get there.
Sometimes the companies Emerson writes for ask him to coach people in their various departments so that they can ”cascade” (just kidding!)—i.e., pass on—what they learn. What he often ends up telling them is how to marshal their thoughts: “It took a while to realize that when people say they want to learn to write more effectively, they most often want to learn to think more effectively.”
“It works on various levels: at the low level, people expect me to take over and just write an ad for their shop or whatever, which is fine. And at the top level, I write command papers, which go to Parliament, for the the Committee on Standards in Public Life, the body that deals with issues like the MP expenses scandal. These papers were written in the voice of the chairman, Sir Christopher Kelly, so if anything, even slight, is changed you maintain that voice as far as possible. “I used to say I could write in any voice,” he says. “I can, as long as I’m putting on an actor’s hat, almost as if I’m doing a play [he also acts]. I automatically pick up someone else’s.” When he’s writing he recognizes his own style, he says, but it’s very important to find the right level at which to play that style for a specific project. “There is a difference in level and range and it’s still me,” he says.
“One of the longest projects I’ve done in my career was a two-year period when I was working for Lord Sainsbury, of the huge grocery chain. It wasn’t to ghost a book—I was writing the story of the store, Sainsbury’s: The Record Years. Sainsbury wanted somebody to write a book partly started by a Cambridge don who was an expert statistician and researcher and not so much of a writer. The task was to tell the story of the creation of Sainsbury’s, but in doing so it involved writing about the man too.
The work involved full-on working with Sainsbury, and seeing lots of him and finding out lots about retail. Sometime after the opening interview, I told him that if he wanted it to be in my name it had to be in my voice. I made it clear that was the best way, and he said, ‘That’s exactly what I wanted.’ But later, of course, he said, ‘You can’t say this, you can’t say that,” and I had to point to him what was interesting about the story and what was not. For instance, he was uncomfortable finding that I mentioned him a lot (a director told me that Sainsbury would get into a ”pink paddy” every time he had to make a decision and anyone countered him). I asked him, ‘Can I say that, John?’ And he would say ‘On no account.’ So I said, “Okay, let’s think about it for a while, but I think it is a great description of how you run your company so autocratically.’ I remember finally saying to him, ‘Hey, take Hitler out of the war, why not?’ and he laughed and saw what I was saying. So the content of the final book is based on fact, but the voice is my voice.”
Emerson still occasionally writes for government. “I copy-edited/edited the last (Labour) government’s first White Paper, called “Excellence in Schools,” although they came up with the catchy “Education, Education, Education”; a slightly different kind of paper I devised and wrote was for a much-needed inquiry report into a very serious case of murder by someone with a personality disorder for a health authority in the Home Counties.” It took nearly three years. The guy who commissioned it “would spew out vast amounts of information via his dictaphone at high speed,” says Emerson.”It was my job to sort through it and make sense of it all while retaining his voice.” He was generously credited on much of the work they produced, so his name became associated with those involved in what was then the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (part of the National Health Service, later abbreviated to CAHMS). Now, he says, “I find myself a sort of specialist in CAHMS and I still am in that area.”
Through the 1990s, Emerson’s biggest job was reworking a series of COI publications, “well-written but essentially boring little pamphlets called “Aspects of Britain” that gave you lots and lots of info, such as statistical information.” The 45-page booklets were designed to be given out by the Foreign & Commonwealth Office for all the people who go through its embassies and other outposts who might want to know all about a huge range of subjects, from British agriculture or banking services to the building of the Channel Tunnel and the lives of young people in Britain. “They would just give me the title and I would be away,” Emerson says cheerfully. He would work up a synopsis, gather the material, target the people or organizations he had to work with, write the first draft, source all the photos and/or organize and pay for the photographers or illustrator, then guide the designers to produce a visually effective final product. “In the end I did three different editions of Young People, which proved immensely popular and was later translated into various languages,” he says.
At one point almost all of Emerson’s work was devoted to producing these titles, which carried his own name or that of his company, Words. This is not unlike being the editor and writer of a small, specialist magazine, so Emerson’s early training on various titles proved invaluable. “I’m very good on that kind of macro,” he says without false modesty. “If you ask me how to organize a deal involving specific derivative options, or to write about it, I’d be able to do it after a bit of fast hard learning.” He’s written about specialist subjects ranging from highly researched surveys into consumer habits in various parts of Europe to issues such as the Single European Payments Authority regulations that affect the way banks operate in Europe, to innovations in credit card and mobile and online payment services after four years as a contracted writer for Visa Europe.
Making a difference
One unexpected and rewarding outcome from the pamphlet jobs came out of the blue, when Emerson was approached by a 15-year old from the Ashanti region of Ghana, who sent him a letter with what Emerson describes as “the most beautiful writing—meaning in the sense that his many early letters were simply an outpouring of hope and desire to learn and do more; his English as such was poor but imbued with real emotional pulling power.” Otis was living in a orphanage run by nuns in Ghana; he was very poor and had nobody, so naturally Emerson corresponded with him, gradually becoming a kind of mentor as Otis put himself through a journalism course and eventually took up teaching. “He’s now 35 and an acting headmaster and treats me like a father,“ says Emerson. “He even named his son Giles!”
Otis wanted to rename his junior high school so it wasn’t named after any of the five rival tribes that each wanted it named for themselves, a situation that had become particularly fractious. Emerson helped Otis write a letter persuading the Ghanaian education authority to allow Otis to rename the school. They figured out the one thing all the tribes had in common, which was the river that ran through all their lands. After the school was renamed, the number of pupils increased enormously. Emerson regards it as among one of the most rewarding jobs he’s done. In his own town of Ludlow, in Shropshire, he occasionally helps people with small businesses, “but mostly I don’t charge, because if you charged London rates for Ludlow clients they’d expect you to repaint the shop as well. However, I’ve charged one or two local clients for websites and I’m quite pleased with the results.”
Other people’s books
Emerson has ghosted about 12 books. “The last one I did was really interesting, although the ghostee had a very monotone voice, which I had to get accustomed to in order to work with him. I like him. The book was interesting because it was all about the nature, power and importance of questions. Andrew Griffiths is a corporate trainer, coach, mentor and a consultant and a very committed, earnest, hardworking, rather dour yet very well-meaning man. He’ll go and turn a company round—he’s done some terrific things. He does it in ways that make people think anew about the way they operate.” Listening to him talk was hard work. “For two long days I sat and listened and gave him my full attention, nodding in the right places and coming back with enthusiasm at times when he seemed to be wading through treacle,” Emerson says. “I had to listen well enough to dig him back into a structure of ideas, so that I had some semblance of a theme when I came to transcribing this enormous pile of words. One important thing was that he trusted me.”
The book became a global bestseller. Griffiths once accused Emerson of writing “too beautifully” and said his clients liked him to use business jargon; they were quite at home with “deliverables” and “value-creating propositions.”—LUCY SISMAN