Tag 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?

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.

Five things not to say to editors

What should you never say to an editor if he or she is commissioning you?

I’ve been involved in setting up a new website for the New Statesman this month, editing numerous supplements for them and also editing Professional Outsourcing Magazine for more than a couple of years. It strikes me that there are still some pretty fundamental mistakes being made by a minority in the PR and business world.

Let’s make this clear: this is about people pitching commercially-driven articles rather than independent journalists or members of the public being interviewed. Journalists will know how we work and members of the public shouldn’t have to.

So, some pretty fundamental errors I’m still hearing:

  1. That’s the deadline? I’ll try. You’re trying to be helpful, I understand that. But if you’re going to struggle with a deadline, the longer I have to plan, the easier my job becomes. Editors get so close to the job (as do other professionals) that we assume you understand this – so when you say “I’ll try” we hear “I’ll definitely have the piece with you in plenty of time”.
  2. The deadline is difficult for us this month; can we go into next month’s issue? The chances are this is a “no” because I’ll already have the next slot filled. It gets worse. The person who asked me this recently was asking about a specific supplement for a specific magazine, so there would be no repeat of an appropriate slot in the immediate future; not only that but the magazine is weekly. The magazine I actually edit is quarterly. Anyone asking me about “next month’s issue” goes straight into my mental “not a clue” file. (I do stress I’m talking to people who are pitching to me for their own company or client’s gain – so I have the right to expect them to have done the basic research; readers and members of the public can make all the mistakes they want without prejudice).
  3. I’ve written over length, that’s OK, isn’t it? Yes it is as long as you don’t mind me making all the cuts I fancy. Editors, when they ask for 1000 words, mean precisely that. Technically you can indeed go over length on the Web, but if our house style is for shorter pieces we won’t accommodate longer pieces. And on the printed page we don’t have the flexibility. I’ve actually had people send 800 words for a 600 word slot and failing to understand that we can’t fit it in.
  4. I’ve got a colleague/associate to write this. This is probably fine as long as I know about it in advance. Next week there’s a supplement coming out from the New Statesman. I’ve edited it and there’s a piece from an academic; it was prompted by an interview with one of his colleagues, who I initially approached. It was clear very quickly that choice 1 wasn’t going to be able to fit it in, while choice 2 was probably a better expert anyway. They kept me fully abreast of this and re-confirmed when they’d made a firm decision; the resulting article is utterly superb. I’ve had other instances in which, at the last minute, having the layouts done including a headshot of the contributor, copy has come in by someone who’s been a complete stranger to me.
  5. I decided the subject wasn’t interesting enough so I’ve written about something else entirely. Genuinely, I had this only the other week. Now look, guys, I’m the editor – and if I’m expecting an article on a given subject I don’t want to be surprised at the last minute. Nor do I want to read an article that appears completely irrelevant after discussing it with you. If you find there isn’t enough substance in the original idea I’m fine with that – pick up the phone, talk to me, it proves you’re thinking about it and engaged! That’s a great thing. Never, though, decide you’re going to do something else and forget to tell me. For all you know I’ve commissioned someone else to write about something identical to, or too close to, your new idea, rendering it unusable.

The majority of people get it spectacularly right, most of the time. The guy in point 4 has written one of the best pieces I’ve ever commissioned, seriously. If you’re one of the small number who do otherwise, please take note!

Do you need help engaging with the press? Contact me via this form and we’ll talk.

Do you need a “hook”?

When I was learning journalism I was always told that a feature, news story or anything else needed a hook. It absolutely had to have something for the reader to hang it on – a reason for them to read on.

Mostly this meant some sort of topicality. Lately this has changed. I still see journalists on various social media platforms complaining that something isn’t timely, it doesn’t seem relevant to anything happening immediately and that it’s otherwise unhelpful.

OK, so far so good – but what’s happening out in the slightly more real world?

Social media

What’s happening is that although people are still reading news they’re also reading a whole load of timeless stuff. Not so much the celebrity interview that purports to be timeless but we all know it’s based on the release of a movie or book, but the genuinely timeless stuff. How many blog entries have you opened recently that consisted of lists? “Five mistakes made by marketers”, “Three ways to attract more followers”, you know the sort of thing. The smart money says the readers love lists, although I have my doubts myself (maybe people are wising up to click-getting titles or maybe I’m just not very good at composing lists).

Or they consist of a title with a question – if you’re reading this blog the chances are that you clicked attracted by just such a question.

Blandness

I’m quickly coming to the conclusion that the problem isn’t actually topicality and perhaps it never was. The problem is that some people send out press releases, blogs, social media entries or whatever they’re writing, with no regard to whether they’re all that interesting. There have always been elements of this, even before the online world. It’s blandness, not whether or not something is relevant right now, that’s the enemy of good content. You still need a hook to get the reader interested, but it doesn’t have to be something desperately current any more. Interesting and relevant will do.

So how many of your efforts lately have fulfilled that criteria – and have any of them been fillers just because you thought you ought to send something out, maybe even with a news story vaguely tied in?

Do you need to sharpen your writing skills up? I can help – contact me by clicking here.

How to match PR writing to journalists’ work

People often ask me  how “PR writing” differs from other writing. At base, it doesn’t; both disciplines aim to tell a story as effectively as possible. PR writers simply have to adjust their work to match a journalist’s writing process rather than their end product.

For both journalism and PR, understanding how the audience want to read and comprehend stories is the most important thing.

Any piece of writing should address the audience appropriately and in language they will find acceptable, whether it’s flat-pack furniture instructions or a press release.

  • In PR writing your starting point is to help the journalist. OK, that’s not quite true; you need to work for your client, not us, but the best way to do this is to make our lives simpler.
  • Journalists won’t care about your stories unless they are sure there readers will, so help them by focusing on the needs of their readers first.

Read the rest of this blog on the Henshall Centre’s website by clicking here