Sunday, 9 February 2014

Weird stuff my mum used to do that I am now really vibing with ...

When I was a kid I thought my mother's obsession with the pigsty in my bedroom was weird.

"What's her problem?" I thought to myself.  "It's not like she has to live in here."

I also didn't understand why she got mad when I "cleaned up" my room by shoving the big wodge of mess into my cupboard and then leaning heavily on the door until it was tightly packed in like a Jack-in-the-box.

"What's the problem?" I thought.  "It's tidy enough for me."

One day I was minding my own business, hosting a tea party in the pigsty when my mother reached the end of her tether.

"I said, 'Clean up this pigsty!'" She shrieked.  (I suspect now, it was about the tenth time she'd said it.)

Then she slammed my bedroom door so hard that my little China tea set shattered and everyone at the tea party fell backwards.

The door flew open again; Mum was mortified.  She then spent the next six months scouring the shops to try to find a replacement tea set.  It so happened that the tea set was irreplaceable. (It was that one high quality toy item  that we just happened upon in a toy shop and then never saw again.)
But every day when I came home from school there would be a new "peace offering" sitting on my bed: a plastic tea set, an "almost-but-not-quite-right" China tea set, a new doll for my tea party.

She told me recently that she still feels bad about losing her temper and breaking my tea set 35 years ago. I told her that I completely understood why she did that.

Until you become a mother and find yourself shouting things like, "Whose shoes are these?", "Take your bowls to the sink!" and "The dishwasher is now receiving!" you do not really understand that there is method in what appears to be the madness of motherhood.

(It's a bit like being the humourless office manager that no one likes: walking around with your necklace pen so that no one can steal it; making sure that everyone got the memo about the meeting in boardroom five, because if you don't remind everyone, no one will turn up and everyone will say, "I didn't know there was a meeting in boardroom five?")

Here are some other "weird" things my mother used to do that I now completely understand because I do them myself.

1. Shimmy around the kitchen floor on a towel


You know what I'm talking about: the old "mop the kitchen floor then shimmy around on a towel to dry it before kids and dogs can come in and ruin your good work" trick.

And then this seemingly absurd demand: "Don't come in here, I just mopped the floor!"

So we're all supposed to stay out of the kitchen for the rest of our lives now? I used to think.

Well, yes. Got a problem with that?

I used to see my mother doing the kitchen floor shimmy and think it was hilaaaarious.  What a nutbag! I thought to myself. Now? I love me a good shimmy around the kitchen floor on a towel.

2. Walk into kids' bedrooms and obsessively sniff the air


"The Nose knows." We used to snigger about my mother.  She could sniff out a dead sock in the crack of the couch or a mouldy orange in a school bag at ten paces. It used to annoy me that she'd come into my room and immediately start sniffing the air:

"What's that ...? Is it ... parmesan cheese? Did something die in here?"

Now I find myself doing it every day. Why are kids so stinky? And why are they so impervious to their own stink? It kills me.

3. "It's the dotty bits of paper that I can't stand."


My mum used to say this. And I used to go, "Whatevs crazy lady. Whatevs." (Or the 1970s equivalent of "whatevs.") She'd bend over and pick at my bedroom floor where the offending "dotty bits of paper" resided. I could not for the life of me see what she was talking about.

Now? I am constantly picking up "dotty bits of paper" off the floor ALL OVER MY HOUSE!  And I find myself muttering, "It's the dotty bits of paper that I can't stand."

4. "Do you have to make pancakes and no thanks I don't want one."


Remember when you decided to make pancakes and you couldn't understand why your mum wasn't thrilled about the prospect of someone making pancakes?  And then you didn't understand why she didn't want you to make her one? What's not to like about pancakes? What is she? CRAZY? 

Recently my eldest son offered to make crepes as a special treat for breakfast.  I watched with gritted teeth as he sifted flour like wedding confetti all over the kitchen, used a metal spatula on my Jamie Oliver non-stick frypan and slopped pancake batter in the unreachable gap between the bench and the cooktop.

As it happens he makes a pretty good crepe. My sister and I, however,  used to do that thing where you make crepe batter then you try to make pancakes with it.

Mum used to decline our anemic, gluey "pancakes", quietly wait until we had lost interest, then sidle in and make herself the perfect thin, lacy crepe.  I used to think that was impolitic of her.  Now I understand.

5. Swim in the pool without getting her hair wet


I don't know what it is about getting older, but my hair just ain't what it used to be. As a result, if I'm having a good hair day, there's no way I'm going to ruin it by putting my head under the water when I go for a swim. It'll take hours to dry and when it does it will be a big, old, bag-lady, fright-wig. And don't even get me started on the prospect of going to bed with wet hair and waking up with the wig-on-backwards look.

So I make like Esther Williams and breaststroke my way elegantly around the pool with my head out of the water.

Just like my mum used to.

I also never understood why Mum didn't want to stay in and play Marco Polo with us, or at least do a few somersaults or multiple laps underwater to see how long she could hold her breath before she got out.

She knew then what I know now; 20 seconds in the pool is AMPLE!

6. A completely non-negotiable attitude to Kentucky Fried Chicken


We were allowed to have Macdonalds, but KFC was absolutely, no exceptions, don't-even-try-to-change-my-mind blacklisted.

I get that now. And don't get me started on people putting greasy chicken buckets on their heads.

7. "Tall things go on the tall shelf."


This was my best friend's mother. She had a thing about putting the tallest items on the top shelf of the fridge. And she would get very frustrated when Cassie did not comply.

"The tall things go on the TALL shelf." She would say insistently.

I get it now. If you put the short things on the tall shelf, you run out of room for the tall things. I say this every other day to my kids: "The tall things go on the tall shelf."

8. Obssessive hoarding of stationery items and a refusal to share them


This was my dad. "Don't take my stapler off my desk!"  Jeez, I used to think, Dad's pretty uptight about his stapler. But every day, as I waste another 20 minutes hunting down the kitchen scissors, the sticky tape, the stapler ... I feel Dad's pain.

FYI: I now keep my most treasured items (stapler, sticky tape, calculator and a green highlighter pen) in a secret drawer of my desk.  To the outsider, this seems like unnecessary hoarding behaviour, but to a parent, it is just a basic survival instinct.

9. "Plating up" her takeaway McDonalds


Every other Sunday we would get McDonalds.  We were never allowed to eat in, or get soft drinks. Two more things I did not understand back then, but I do now.

When we got home, Mum would get out a plate, arrange her burger and fries on it and then daintily add an extra splodge of sauce to her cheeseburger.  As I sat on the couch, with my head virtually inside the takeaway bag inhaling my food, I thought Mum was SUCH a weirdo.

I get this now: just a modicom of civility to take the edge off the idea of fast food.

10. Driving the wrong way in the shopping centre car park


I have covered this before. But this was the one thing my mum did to break the rules. She was the most goody-two-shows, law abiding citizen ... until she got into that Grace Brothers car park at Warringah Mall and all bets were off. She would flagrantly ignore the yellow arrows on the road and take the quickest route to the parking spaces nearest the store's entry.

She was so blase about it,  that as soon as I got my license I took that same route in the same carpark, thinking it was what everyone did. I was completely aghast when people "honked" and "hooted"  their outrage as they came at me the right way.

Someone even wound down their window and yelled out, "You're going the wrong way, idiot!"

It hasn't stopped me. Something about being a mother makes me think I own the place. Even my ex-husband (a shameless law-breaker in every other way) found this behaviour shocking.

Saturday, 1 February 2014

Confessions of a real estate copywriter

My name is Penny Flanagan and I am a real estate copywriter.

It's an odious confession and I am suitably ashamed of my flagrant overuse of the words, "immaculate" "stunning" and "sleek" - just to name a few of my standard go-tos.

I also have these phrases programmed into my auto-correct (with coded anagrams):

Gourmet gas and stone kitchen (ggsk)
Seamless flow through bi-fold doors to deck (sftd)
Palatial master retreat with ensuite and balcony (pmreb)

Real estate copywriting is a purple-prose artform: it is the art of saying nothing whilst using as many stupid superlatives as you can think of.

At times, out of desperation and boredom, I have invented some words.

Other times, I have reached for some fake French words: not because I am a bilingual wordsmith, but because fake French words, to an idiot, sound pretty and sophisticated.

And my client is an idiot; my client is a real estate agent.

The worst thing about being a writer who works for real estate agents is that bad is good.

Essentially what they want from me is; a very bad piece of writing.

They want sentences packed with too many adjectives and they want me to repeat the same idea over and over again, in subtly different ways, all within the opening paragraph.

They call this ingenious writing method:  "the hard sell."

If you have been unfortunate enough to have had to peruse the real estate ads in the past few years and have laughed derisively at the copy contained therein, please spare a thought for the professional writer who has been forced to shit that word excrement onto the page.

In our defence; we do it simply because that's what the client wants. 

They don't want a good, crisp, factual piece of writing with rhythmic sentences and clear intentions. They want  meaningless "floofer-fluff" sounds with stupid words like "stunning" and "superb" peppered liberally throughout each paragraph and then regurgitated again in bullet points (just in case you didn't get it the first time round.)

If we don't give it to them, they send it back with helpful feedback like this:

It's just not exciting enough.
It's a bit boring. 
You're not selling it.
I need your best, times 65%  (I think he meant, he wanted my best PLUS 65% more, but clearly maths was not his strong suit.)

I have tried to single-handedly improve the genre

 In my early years, I decided to pioneer a crisp, factual journalistic style; something I would be happy to put my name to. That was my litmus: "Would I be happy to put my name to this?" If the answer was "no," I went back in and toned it down.

I produced some lovely, clean pieces of writing ... and as a result, I got no work for about three months.

Then the first job that landed to me (after no one else was available, I was so far down the chain with my crisp, factual prose) I just went to town and gave it a bit of  "superb" and "fabulous." I may have even used the word, "spectacular" to describe some pretty ordinary district views. 

All of a sudden I was in demand again. I realised then, that there was no byline and so I just went all "fabulous" and "spectacular" on their real estate arses.

 I got quite popular.

And as writing gigs go,  it's money for jam.

If you can grin and bear the constant "feedback" from the client (a person with no tertiary education who gives you helpful "pointers" on how to write better) it's relatively easy money.  And the work is sporadic enough to allow you to do other things with your life in the downtime.

But in terms of purposely writing badly, working for someone who tells me to give it my best TIMES 65% and using dumb words ...

Where is my limit?

I have hit my limit a few times in the last five years. For a while I simply gave them mean nicknames as a coping mechanism.

Fat Neck
The Amazing Pear-Shaped Man
Roberta (She was very common and reminded me of Cat Stewart's, Roberta in Underbelly.)
Nuggety Joe (A miniature bag of walnuts who claimed to be a cage-fighter in his downtime)
The Gymp (He would specifically request me by name,  but always, ALWAYS sent my copy back with petty grievances. It occurred to me that he was the kind of guy who would like to tie his girlfriend up and keep her in a dungeon below the house.) 

Then mid last year I hit my limit again after Nuggety Joe sent my copy back with the complaint that I had not used enough pretty words to describe the backyard. (It was a south-facing square of dirt and I made the judgement call; the less said the better. )

So then I decided I would only work with agents who didn't give me the shits.  As a result, my client list is rapidly dwindling.

Then, just the other day,  I received this email from one of my previously preferred agents: 

Hi Penny,

Pam from (company name omitted) here, I work with (agent's name omitted)

The copy writing (sic) has been great as usual, and thank you. (Agent's name) has just asked if we could avoid using the words spacious and refurbished. Generous and renovated work, or anything else you can think of.

Let me know if you have any questions.

Warm Regards


At first glance, it seems innocent enough.  The tone is friendly and I like the way she started off by "stroking" my ego, to prepare me for the ridiculous request that follows.

So hats off to Pam for her people skills.

But can I avoid using the words "spacious" and "refurbished"? And by "avoid," she meant,  don't use them ever ... Again ...

In any bit of copy.


(Because as requested, I called her to let her know that I had some questions and she clarified it for me.)

I could give you a detailed and thorough argument for why it is near impossible NOT to use the words "spacious" and "refurbished" when writing real estate copy; something around how I have to say the same thing in different ways over and over, so I actually need three words that mean the same thing: Large. Spacious. Generous.

If you can think of a word that isn't ridiculous that can replace "spacious" in my magic three, please post it below.  And no, "capacious" is not an option.

As for "refurbished."  Call me a word nerd but to my mind there is a subtle difference between "renovated" and "refurbished."  "Renovated" implies something old, brought back to life. "Refurbished" implies a sort of polishing up, a more decorative sort of makeover. 

And considering most homes on the market in Sydney have been to some degree, tarted up for sale, whether it's repolishing floors and adding a fresh coat of paint, or a total overhaul situation, I need to distinguish these nuances with different words.

(For the record, a learned colleague of mine once coined the phrase, "freshly schemed" to describe bathrooms and kitchens that have been tarted up for sale but not properly renovated. She said I was welcome to use it and it has served me well.)

And I don't mind if people have a really good reason for not liking a particular word.  For instance, one elderly Catholic gentleman once very kindly asked that I not use the word, "immaculate" when writing his copy.

"I'm very religious," he said, "and to me, that word is only appropriate for the Virgin Mary." 

He spoke to me personally and he was very polite and apologetic about it: acknowledging that it may be a weird idiosyncratic request.

(I have a soft spot for the veterans: the old school real estate agents with their strong work ethic and "no lies" integrity.) 

So, part of my problem with the email is:

a) the lack of good reason for banning these words
b) the delegation of this trivial task to someone lower down the food chain

One of the things on Pam's "to do" list that day was, "email copywriter re the words spacious and refurbished."   

It's just a dumb power play by a small man in a cheap suit.

But my real point (and I do have one) is this: 

I have just taken you through the ridiculous words I have used in real estate copy. I have made words up, I have used faux Frenglish words, I have completely overdone the superlatives to an embarrassing degree on a regular basis.

I have joined two words together to create new compound words that do not (and should not) exist.

And THESE are the words that I am no longer allowed to use?


I think I have just hit my limit.

Consider this the detonator that will blow the bridge.