In conversation: Craig Watson & Stuart Delves

Co-founder Stuart Delves gets Craig Watson to deliver the big reveal. How a piece of well-crafted business writing led him to Dark Angels and a set of experiences (‘the people, the places, the playing with words’) that have become one of his life’s highlights.

So, Craig. You’re probably a first in having completed all three levels of Dark Angels courses in the space of a year. That’s quite remarkable in itself. But what’s also rather fascinating is that you’re a lawyer working within one of the big banks. Not the stereotypical lawyer I have to say (whoever that might be!) but nonetheless a corporate bod, 9-5. Obviously writing
is a part of your job. But what drew you to Dark Angels?

As some deep thinker, like Yoda or Mister Miyagi, once said: “When the student is ready, the master will appear.” And I can’t help but feel that Dark Angels sought me out. Or hunted me down? When the call came, it was through the medium of life insurance.

My corporate gig often involves reviewing customer communications from a legal perspective. On this occasion, I was looking at a bunch of letters designed to check customers had bought what they thought they’d bought. I’ve looked at hundreds of bits of customer-facing literature over the years, dozens of them relating to life insurance, but these were different: they’d been drafted by a Dark Angel.

They contained all the usual ‘legal’ mistakes, of course. But they were crisp, clear and – above all – human. They were so nicely put together that I felt bad about having to change anything. It would be like dismantling the Forth Bridge of life insurance letters. Now, Stuart, you’ve been my tutor on all three courses, so you know I like a challenge. This didn’t call for brutal edits. This didn’t even call for sensitive tweaks. No, this called for kintsugi; mending the prose with my legal-writerly gold.

I got to the meeting early and was surprised when over a dozen folk arrived: Compliance, Risk, several species of Marketing bod, and the writer – an agency guy up from London. It was me to go first. I respectfully set out my concerns and offered my carefully-crafted suggestions designed to cause minimal disruption to the text. Then everyone else piled in, ripped apart the letters and sent the poor chap off to write the inevitable compromise that keeps the client happy but lacks the flair of the original (an experience you’ll be all too familiar with!).

I was impressed, though. Impressed enough to visit the agency’s website and read the guy’s CV. I discovered he’d recently completed the Dark Angels Masterclass and I was intrigued. Over the next two years, I loitered heavily on your website, read John Simmons’s books, stalked Jamie Jauncey at the Edinburgh Book Festival and met you for the first time in the front room at Highgreen, fired up for the Foundation Course.

I’ve always seen it as part of my job to reconcile legal accuracy with the need for straightforward, engaging copy. But there was something in the Dark Angels philosophy that resonated with me. The idea of bringing your(full)self to every writing task. Of embracing the creativity in constraints. A colleague once suggested I was a frustrated marketer. I wasn’t really, I was a frustrated writer. Then, as you say, within the space of the next year, I’d completed the transition from pasty mortal to Dark Angel. Now I am a writer. And I’m a heck of a lot less frustrated.

Thanks for your fulsome answer Craig. I love ‘legal-writerly gold’.
In my mind’s eye I see a pen with a sharp nib. What were some of the highlights of your Dark Angels journey? Maybe one highlight per level, 75 words on each? “Thank God for some more constraints,” I can hear you say.

I’ll see your 75 words and raise you 17 syllables.

Highgreen (Foundation):

a little word trip / from random point advances / to where I started

Aracena (Advanced)

by a sunny pool / I find that I am happy / to write my sorrow

Merton (Masterclass)

rewriting copy / Middle English rhyme royal / invincible now

It’s difficult to edit highlights from 12 days that I can still replay in my head like a film (by Woody Allen, according to Samm Short). The whole experience has been something of a life highlight. The people. The places. The playing with words.

Each of the examples I gave relates to an individual writing exercise, set on or before the course. We all know it’s important to exercise our writing muscles. And Dark Angels is like a boot camp but with booze.

The middle example stands out, though. I’ve never had trouble making myself laugh but, when you find yourself writing through tears – and embracing it – you know you’re getting somewhere. Our job as writers is to connect with others, and that’s much easier when we’re ready to connect with ourselves.

Anyway, that’s where my Dark Angels journey took me, and I’ve since had cause to revisit.

Thanks Craig. Not only from the above but from correspondence following the courses I know that your personal writing has benefitted but what has been the effect on your writing at work?

I’ve been trying to do a lot of what Dark Angels does for a while. But, even after the Foundation course, I felt much more confident about pushing things further at work. How concise can we make this? How clear could it be? How much crap can we actually cut?

And I’ve seen tangible results. When I rewrote the customer letters for a project recently, call volumes dropped by almost half for the group most likely to ring up.

The original letters weren’t ‘wrong’. They just erred on the side of not leaving stuff out. If there’s a sniff of law or regulation involved, that’s common.

We think it’s safer to include things. It’s certainly easier. What stops us writing well is fear.

Anyone who’s ever reviewed or received overlong communications knows:

“Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering.” (Yoda)

And we writers should always remember:

“It’s OK lose to opponent. Must not lose to fear.” (Miyagi)

There’s wisdom, if ever there was!

Also published on Medium.