Tag Archives: writing tips

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.

Mistakes people make: The too-clever headline

A headline is important but I see bad ones on press releases too often. The fact is that these make me less, not more, likely to read on in the release. The headline is important and it’s worth taking some time to get it right.

Some examples might include the colleague who edited a number of women’s magazines. Every year, around February, she’d receive releases with something like “Hurrah for chocolate” and on about paragraph seven you’d find it was actually a plug for a new Easter egg, or offer of some sort.

That’s when she bothered reading it. Often she wouldn’t, because journalists receive around 60 press releases a day and if they don’t leap out and grab us, the chances are very good that we’ll ignore them.

What to put in a headline

…and when I say “headline” I mean it. That’s how we’re going to regard subject lines of emails, they are headlines and they need to reflect the story.

So, what am I looking for? First a lot of journalists like to have the word “press release” or at least “release” at the beginning so that their smart folders on their email systems can file it for them. Second, just tell me what’s happening. Nothing florid, nothing grandiose, just A is doing B, C has signed a deal with D, whatever is going on.

This can cause an issue for writers of some press releases. I get releases because a client has expressed an opinion, because a client is attending an event and plans to make a speech, because a client is going to fire the PR company if a release doesn’t come out soon.

Underlying problems can be very real, and the client who insists on a release coming out when they don’t actually have anything to say is a problem. It’s worth considering behaving as a consultant and pushing back properly when this happens.

Actually, perhaps a good test of a press release is whether it’s possible to write a short, snappy headline to go with it. If you descend to the need for waffle, perhaps it’s time to go back to the client and tell them the story isn’t up to scratch?

Do you or your clients need help with your corporate writing? I can help – contact me by emailing here or fill in the form below.

Writing tips 1: don’t overcomplicate it

When I train people on corporate writing, either independently or with the Henshall Centre, there can be a tendency for delegates to overcomplicate things. Ideally corporate writing, and indeed journalism, needs to be as accessible as possible. The best thing to do therefore is to keep it simple.

One way of managing this is by keeping sentences relatively short. This is something I was told as a young journalist. Everything needs to be short and staccato. There is only one problem with this. The resulting paragraphs end up stilted. They look artificial because the sentences are too uniform.

I actually had trouble writing the sentence above, it was so uniform and manufactured it didn’t read naturally at all. So if the short, sharp approach is likely to be stilted, what will work instead?

Subject, verb, object

There are times when the stuff you learned at primary school will pay off, and if you’re struggling with your writing then the old structure of “subject, verb, object” is a good one to stick with. (And don’t worry about people who tell you not to end a sentence with a preposition like “with” – I’ll deal with that in another post but it’s nonsense.) So, subject: who or what is doing something in the sentence; verb: the doing word; object: the recipient of the action.

So you get “The cat sat on the mat” rather than “The mat was sat on by the cat” – it just tells the story more easily. Sometimes a verb doesn’t take an object, which is OK – “The Prime Minister resigned.” is obviously fine.

Try also to keep the subject and the object close together. “The cat, which had a ginger head but an oddly dark body and which would scratch you if you tickled it in the wrong place but probably didn’t have a vicious bone in its body, at least no more than most of them, sat on the mat” isn’t good. There’s too much going on. Not only have I lost track of the mat, but in the reader’s mind there are probably many more interesting things than mats going on by this stage.

Writing traps

The trap a lot of corporate writers fall into is that they think it has to be articulate and to look somehow “official” if it’s any good. Too often this comes out as “officious”. If you’re on the staff somewhere you’re almost certainly going to have to adhere to some sort of house style; within the confines of that, though, try to keep it as simple as possible.