Category Archives: Writing

Corporate writing: some “rules” which are actually not correct

A week or so ago I hosted a session on corporate writing for the Henshall Centre. It’s a good gig and the people were terrific. They suffered from one thing, though: they’d believed everything they learned at school.

A lot of people do. Why would these teachers lie to you? Answer: because they fell for the same old guff as well. So here is a handful of stuff you may have thought was correct but isn’t:

  1. -ise is English, -ize is American. So many people have been brought up to believe, but not if they check the Oxford English Dictionary in which -ize is perfectly acceptable. Your use of it should depend on your house style, not whether someone happens to think it’s correct or not (NB: if the person who signs the cheques says it’s wrong, it’s wrong – I’ve done bits of writing and had a client send them back for “American spelling” and just changed them. The customer is always right).
  2. I before E except after C (and when the sound’s ‘ee’). Draw yourself up to your full height (that’s hEIght) add some weight (wEIght, you get the idea) and accept that there are actually more “ei” words than “ie” words in the English language, or so I once read.
  3. You should never split an infinitive. Good grief, did they make Star Trek and its “to boldly go” for nothing?
  4. Every sentence must have a subject, verb and object. Right. But “right” made sense there so it’s a sentence. Most sentences should have a subject, verb and object, and preferably in that order. They don’t all have to.
  5. You should always write one, two, three, four…until you get to 10, which is written in figures. That is actually a little like point 1 – it’s all about house style, and as long as it’s consistent it should be fine.

Anyone else got any confessions of things they thought were rules which turn out not to be?

Do you want to sharpen your writing skills? My writing skills course at the Henshall Centre is on their site here, see you at one sometime?

Marketing and journalism are different – tell your clients!

Journalism has to be independent or else it’s marketing. That’s the theory anyway. In practice things are changing, but are they doing so for the better?

In media training sessions I sometimes get asked why journalists won’t let an interviewee change their quotes. The reasons are many: by asking to check quotes you’re hinting that we can’t do our jobs, our job is to reflect what was said rather than what you wish you’d said (unless there’s a factual inaccuracy), and above all we’re supposed to be independent and not someone who works for you. Except things are getting a little blurred.

Advertorials have been commonplace for some time. The deal is relatively simple: a company pays a publisher to write (or supplies the copy for) something that looks like an article but is in fact an advert. As long as it says something like “advertising promotion” across the top, the reader knows what they’re getting and nobody minds. The unwritten rule is that it has to be well written.

Now look at this article: http://www.pressgazette.co.uk/forbes-aims-to-bring-journalists-and-advertisers-together-on-the-page-through-new-co-storytelling-approach/?utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=2016-11-21&utm_source=Press+Gazette+Daily+new+layout

For those who don’t want to, the essence is that for six years, Forbes has been putting journalistic copy alongside marketing copy so that there is an element of what it calls “co-storytelling”. So someone like me might write something on one page about, say, the Google Pixel phone, while someone from Google writes their account on another. Their copy gets labelled as promotional.

So far, so good. Except…would that someone like me be writing about the thing in the first place if the company hadn’t booked the promotion? Therefore, if the piece wouldn’t have existed without the fee, is it really independent?

Bloggers

There are variants of this, of course. Bloggers are an interesting example, sometimes not getting paid at all and some getting paid to promote products directly, without a clue as to why anyone should object. The unpaid variety sneer at journalists, who they say wouldn’t be writing about anything at all if they weren’t being paid by someone.

Which is a reasonable point of view. And then of course there’s the fake news – remember when Donald Trump said if he were to go into politics he’d be a Republican because they’ll believe anything? It’s a great quote but according to fact-checking site Snopes, he never said it.

For the moment at least, I’m going to stick with advising clients that the journalist is going to want to stay independent, won’t allow them to change quotes, won’t let them vet articles before they appear.

But I’ll be watching what happens carefully in case things change.

Write an article: size matters

What do you do if an editor asks you to write a 600 word article?

I’m talking to the entrepreneur and PR side of the writing industry, by the way. Journalists will damned well write 600 words and make sure they’re the right length. A lot of magazines to which I contribute prefer to have a selection of “contributed content”, or writing from industry people/prominent speakers and soforth.

Write to length

So it was that I was editing something recently which was 1150 words long for a 600 word slot. Longer-term readers might remember the occasion I was expected to fill four 500-word pages with a piece that was 700 words long.

Size definitely matters. Actually the majority of people get the size bit right; here are some other areas I come across that people get hopelessly wrong. If you want to see your marketing material in print, bear the following in mind and you’ll stand a better chance:

  • As per the above notes, when an editor gives you a length they mean it. In the online world we can be a bit more flexible; both of the extreme examples above were for paper-based publications. We can’t stretch a piece of paper – it has to fit.
  • Perhaps you’re paying to take part in an advertorial. This is welcome and it pays our bills, and readers appear to like it. However, making it nakedly commercial is a turn-off. Write something the reader will enjoy so that they come to you asking for more – “my company is wonderful” will have people switching off en masse.
  • Read your work out loud to yourself if it’s at all practical. If it sounds awkward, don’t allow yourself any excuses, rewrite so that it’s clearer.
  • You probably won’t spot all of your typos. I never do and I’ve been doing this job for years. Here’s an article that explains that I’m very intelligent as a result (it is therefore factually correct). If it’s at all practical get someone else to check it. No, it’s not infallible and of course we’ll check it but yes, a professional writer may well start judging you if you seem less than 100% accurate and therefore professional.
  • Don’t get precious about your house style when you’re in our publications. Yes, you might be very particular about your job title having capital letters, or you might insist your own jargon is vital (I once had a client who decided all of its products were not products but ‘routes to value’ or RTVs – and I had a blasting every time the word ‘product’ was in the copy). That’s fine in your own marketing materials but when you’re dealing with an independent publication, our rules will trump yours. The reader really doesn’t care. Write a clear and engaging message and they’ll be a lot more attentive than any upper case v. lower case argument is going to make them.

Tomorrow I will be tutoring a client on writing in the corporate market. If your own copywriting skill needs smartening up I can help – contact me by clicking here, calling 07973 278780 or filling in the form below.

Five grammar and writing myths

You’ll have learned a lot about putting pen to paper at school but there are a lot of grammar and writing myths around. It’s useful to get some of these out of the way before they start impeding you in your business writing.

A good, useful rule is one that helps your work remain comprehensible. This short article is about some of the others:

Writing myths 1: I before E except after C

When I was at primary school a teacher tried to moderate this rule by saying “and when the sound’s ‘ee'”, so that he could allow words like receipt. Unfortunately there are also words like “science” and “conscience”. In fact here’s a Wiktionary page with 96 “e before i” words. It looks to me as though this rule has so many exceptions and needs so many extensions to work, it’s useless.

Writing myths 2: Never split an infinitive

The infinitive is the “to do” part of a verb. So the infinitive of “write” is “to write”. And if you want to write clearly, then you won’t split the infinitive up, so that was “if you want to write clearly” and not “if you want to clearly write”. However, any self-respecting Star Trek fan will tell you that “To boldly go…” is perfectly comprehensible.

I’m indebted to the Grammar Girl website that confirms this was never intended as a hard and fast rule anyway. Basically if something sounds clear, it probably is.

Writing myths 3: Never start a sentence with a conjunction

The basic function of a conjunction is to join two sentences together. Two of the most common are “and” and “but”. So I might write: I had a cheese sandwich. I had coffee. Or I could use a conjunction to make that into “I had a cheese sandwich and I had coffee”. I can write really boring sentences when the mood takes me.

So in principle, ideally, you don’t begin a sentence with these – only, I did when making point 2 above, twice. Look at the second and third sentences: one begins with “so” and the other with “and”. They do work, so as long as you don’t use a conjunction to start everything you should be OK.

Writing myths 4: “ize” is an American construction

I first picked this up from an old episode of “Inspector Morse”, in which the old grouch accuses Lewis of illiteracy when he’s using “ise” at the end of a word, I forget which one. In Morse’s view, “ize” is British English. On checking the Concise Oxford English Dictionary I find he was right. You can Anglicize something and keep the “z” perfectly happily, in fact it gives the “z” as its first preference.

Only….

Writing myths 5: Your client will listen to this stuff

And here’s the rub. In business writing you can get too hung up on grammar and the rules, as I hope I’ve shown. What you need to understand is that the client, or your employer, pays the bills. Very few clients, I find, will listen to me on point 4; their house style says “ise” and that’s the last they want to know of it. Likewise they don’t want an “and” at the beginning of a sentence and if they don’t like split infinitives they’ll strike them out.

It’s all about getting the job done and this generally involves subsuming your creative writing instinct and doing what the client wants unless it’s just silly. I had one of those once. The client insisted that her company’s house style was to put a “www” in front of every website. I referred to “http://news.bbc.co.uk” and she said it didn’t work. I said it did, if you took the “www” she’d inserted (http://www.news.bbc.co.uk doesn’t work). She insisted that her company’s policy was to put a www in every time. The fact that the universe appeared not to be wired this way wasn’t an issue for her.

I grant you I could simply have changed it to www.bbc.co.uk/news and on reflection I think I did so – but since there were other examples she clearly wasn’t going to allow, I walked shortly afterwards.

Do you or your team need help with writing skills? I can help – either email me by clicking here or fill in the form below and we’ll sort something out.

Writing tips: Get someone else to read your work

Writing is a solitary activity. Even in a crowded office, there’s you and the keyboard, your brain, your fingers. This can turn into a problem.

There’s no way of getting around it of course; it’s your work and the mechanics of writing are universal, dictated by the human body. However, it puts the writer in a uniquely vulnerable position. When I write something I am the only person in the world to know what it’s all supposed to mean before it appears on the screen.

So when I read my drafts back to myself, I’m going to see them with that knowledge already in place.

Fresh eyes for your writing

This in turn means that if I’ve written a sentence that doesn’t quite flow, or made an assumption that concept A is linked to concept B and not spelled it out, it’s probably going to make sense to me when I read it back. Crucially, though, it won’t make sense to other people every time.

Working by myself I don’t have the luxury of showing my writing to colleagues. You might, and if you can do it you should do so. The stuff you think is obvious but which needs explanation if someone else reads it doesn’t suggest the reader is thick; it suggests it’s missing from your copy.

Writing by yourself

If you can’t show someone else your writing, there are ways of tricking your brain into thinking you’re reading something new. Something I’ve always done is to change the font size. If your eye thinks it looks different your brain will start processing it as if it were at least partially new.

You could also extend the trick as my colleagues at the Henshall Centre do, changing the font completely including the colour. The more different it looks, the more you’re going to process the text as fresh. And if it starts looking unclear then it probably is. Finally, if you’re somewhere this is achievable, read it out loud. Author Graham Greene swore by this; if it sounds bad, he said, it’s badly written, and there are no exceptions.

Do you need help training staff to write for business? I can help. Email me by clicking here or fill in the form below and I’ll come back to you.

Should you swear when you’re writing?

A writing colleague had an interesting problem just lately. He was editing something for someone and they’d used a profanity a few times. He wanted to know what people thought about the use of swearing in the written media and what he could use instead.

Should you swear in corporate writing?

For me this raised the question of whether swearing is appropriate at all in the corporate world. Sir Richard Branson’s book (one of them) is called “Screw It, Let’s Do It” after a phrase he apparently uses a lot when presented with ideas, except he doesn’t say “screw”. Using the “f” word is presumably on brand for him, and I’m guessing the prospect of being banned from bookshops persuaded him to moderate his language for the book title.

A colleague of mine from the Professional Speaking Association, Richard Tyler, takes it a step further. His brand is “BTFI” which, moderated as above, stands for “Beyond The Screw It”.

For these people, the profanity is part of who they are. So when you’re writing your corporate prose, should you feel free to swear?

Consider the audience

For me, if I’d put such a word in I’d be aware of its weight and would not want it changed. If an editor was effectively the gate keeper of the website or magazine for which I was working, fair enough, they can change it; if, as in this case, the writer had hired the editor and was paying them, diluting my message would not go down well with me.

However, I probably wouldn’t have put them in at all. The reason is simple enough; every piece of corporate writing should have a call to action at its heart. You want the customer to buy something, you want to expand your brand awareness, the purpose can be a number of things but you’ll have a purpose.

Presumably your objective isn’t to alienate a section of readers before you’ve started, and even in 2016 a lot of people will react in that way.

So for me, swearing would be out. If I were editing something that included it, I’d go back to the brief and find out what I was editing for. If it’s simple readability then frankly I’d probably be overstepping the mark if I watered the shock value down.

Do you need coaching on corporate writing? I can help, fill in the form below or email me by clicking here and we’ll get in touch.

Writing tips: don’t do it all at once

When I’m coaching people on their writing skills they often start by making a huge assumption. They think they can do it all at once. Sit down, start writing and it will be perfect automatically. Worse, they ask me how long it takes to write a blog or news item.

The answer from me, honestly, is “not very long” but then I do it every day. Like or hate my style, I’ve been in the habit of putting  finger to keyboard every working day of my life since 3 January 1989, my first day at the trade magazine, MicroScope.

So asking me how long it takes to write something readable is a bit like asking a marathon runner how big a sweat they’d work up running around the local park. It’s not arrogance to say I’m quite proficient, with 27 years of daily practise behind me it would be a scandal if I weren’t.

Writing takes redrafting

Even then I’m not afraid to redraft and take feedback, scrap everything and start again. Corporate writers should be the same. If it’s a lengthy document, and it often is, the first draft is effectively for fun. Write it then check through for typos, house style, non sequiturs, repetitions. Depending on the length of the document you’re almost bound to find something that doesn’t work as you thought it did.

Read through again and see whether everything makes as much sense as you thought. It often won’t because you were that close to it when you were in the process of putting it together. Show someone else if you can. Try changing the font and look at it the following day if time allows; if you can trick your brain into thinking it’s looking at something new, you’ll find it easier to spot any errors.

Suppositions

It’s easy to assume writing should be easy. You learned it at primary school, it should be second nature. So asking me how long it takes me to knock out a story or blog entry might make sense.

Like any skill, however, the various techniques improve with practise, and if you haven’t done a lot of it, don’t sweat. You’re allowed to be rusty.

And don’t be afraid to redraft. Your first stab at a document doesn’t have to be definitive. A bit of spit and polish can be an excellent thing.