I did a couple of courses on writing recently, which may sound rather strange and unnecessary for me, as a writer – but they were rom a linguistics perspective (given by Dr Michael Kranert).
Here are a few things I found interesting:
Men are from Mars; Women are from Venus.
Maybe, maybe not … but the book points out the following:
- Clearly, language and communities matter more to women, who are more verbally skilled than men. Men’s goal in using language tends be to instrumental (getting things done) whereas women’s tend to be interpersonal or relational (about making connections to other people).
- Men’s way of using language is competitive, reflecting their general interest in acquiring and maintaining status; women’s is cooperative, reflecting their preference from equality and harmony.
- These differences routinely lead to miscommunication between the sexes, with each misinterpreting the others’ intentions.
There is evidence that people acquire the particular communication skills (and vocabulary) that match the people around them, what are called communities of practice. The research applied to nurses and office trainees. It matches my view that I acquired a particular writing style when working in local government – as do solicitors etc. – and they had to shrug it off.
Children in particular are aware of variations in language, and speak differently in order to fit in (in the playground versus with adults).
In the same way that headlines are used to engage with an audience, we use the weather as way to break the ice with people we meet – not really to talk about the weather at all.
Lessons from law
According to the author David Crystal (Investigating English Style), the language of law: ‘is perhaps the least communicative, in that it is designed not much to enlighten language-users at large as to allow one expert to register information for scrutiny by another’.
One feature that makes legal language more complicated is its pairing or words (e.g. breaking and entering… null and avoid, etc.), which results in longer sentences and potential confusion. This practice dates from the days when English stood alongside French or Latin here in the UK, and therefore the word for both languages had to be used in legal texts.
And finally, ‘right justified’ text was introduced in legal texts to prevent people from inserting words … and changing the meaning.
GREAT writing tips below, from an article ‘Take the First Step’ by the novelist and professor of creative writing, Colum McCann (The Guardian, 13 May 2017) – relevant for writing non-fiction as well as fiction.
Your first line
‘It should plunge your reader into something urgent, interesting, informative. It should move your story, your poem, your play, forward. It should whisper in your readers’ ear that everything is about to change.’
The terror of the white page
‘Don’t worry so much about the word count as the word cut.’
‘Writers have to have the stamina of world-class athletes. The exhaustion of sitting in the one place. The errors. The retrieval. The mental taxation. The dropping of the bucket down into the new empty well, over and over again. Moving a word around a page … Questioning it … Shifting it around again and again … than Not conceding victory to the negative… Dusting yourself off. Sustaining what you have inherited from the previous days of work.’
‘Structure is essentially a container for content. The shape into which your story gets is a house slowly built from the foundation up. Or maybe it’s a tunnel, or a skyscraper, or a palace, or even a moving caravan ….’
‘Sometimes it’s the life or death of a sentence.’
‘Parentheses in fiction draw far too much attention to themselves.’
‘The language of the street eventually becomes the language of the schoolhouse.’
Your last line
‘Try if possible to finish in the concrete, with an action, a movement, to carry the reader forward.’
‘Your last line is the first line for everybody else.’
‘Allow your reader to walk out from the last line and into her own imagination.’
‘Don’t tie it (your story) up to neatly. Don’t try too much … Have faith that your reader has already gone with you on a long journey. They know where you have been. They know what they have learnt. They know already that life is dark you don’t have to flooded with last minute light.’
All good advice!!
I had some useful comments on my book yesterday. An old work colleague reminded me of three additional things that I could (and should) have included in my book … although, as it happens, they paralleled feedback I had given to some delegates on a training course that I had run earlier in the week. Read on.
Make your document LOOK attractive
Yes, the rest of my book is about words – what you say and how you put them together – but it is important that your document LOOKS attractive on the page, so that readers want to read it – or at least they are NOT PUT OFF reading it. If you think about it, publishers spend ages making books look attractive to buy.
Earlier in the week I had been asked to comment on this (above). To me, it looked rather uniform, bland and unappetising.
A lot of the content of business writing is pretty dull, and it is competing for people’s attention … so you need to do everything you can to make your text an easy, or interesting looking, read.
You need a layout for the reader that:
- draws them in
- informs them which is the important part
- encourages them to explore the content of your text.
Draw readers’ attention to the important sections
In the same vain as the above, make sure you direct the reader to the important sections e.g. through using bold, boxed paragraphs, coloured text, colour background, shading (or on a limited basis, using underlining).
Different versions for different audiences
Don’t be afraid to tweak your text for different audiences. To change, for example, your opening paragraph, your key points (or their ranking). It is easy to do on a computer, so why not have multiple versions of the same document. In fact, it is lazy to do otherwise. And it is naïve to assume that readers with different backgrounds and interests will take the different messages you want them to from the same text.
As my friend kindly pointed out to me, my book had followed the above principles, with an easy-to-read layout, with key points highlighted/drawn to readers’ attention (thanks to Fakenham Prepress Solutions, for doing the typesetting), but I hadn’t actually made this point to readers, for their writing.
So easy to forget!
The paragraphs below explain each of the main types of punctuation. But the punctuation is missing. By doing this exercise you will therefore learn not only where and what type of punctuation to use, but also get practice in using it. My suggested answers are given at the foot of the blog.
Commas are used in lists of things to clarify meaning after introductory words and phrases like however (at the start or mid-sentence) when providing additional information and in more complex sentences (especially if the subject changes) after conjunctions like and. In summary they are used where a pause or breath seems natural.
Q: What is the Oxford / Serial comma?
Semi colons are used between lists of items that individually are longer/more complex in addition they can also be used between two related clauses. In the latter, each side of the semi-colon is independent and could be a stand-alone sentence a comma between them would be too short a break and a full stop too long. In such uses they can be translated as ‘and’ or ‘but’.
Q: What are the pros and cons of using semi-colons?
Colons can be translated as either of the following ‘namely’ or ‘that is to say’. Most commonly they are used to introduce lists and direct speech. They are also used to introduce something or announce an important idea. Here, either side of the colon is dependent on the other. They are also used in in publishing between a book’s title and its subtitle.
Q: Why do academics use lots of colons?
Commas, Dashes and Brackets
Parenthetical phrases which can be taken out of the sentence like this can be marked either side by commas, brackets or even dashes.
A comma is used when the information is most integral to the sentence’s meaning. A bracket is for information most ‘removed’ from the sentence e.g. when providing the year someone was born and died, reference details, or to indicate something is enclosed or attached, etc. Dashes which mid-sentence have the effect of emphasising what is within them can also be used at the end of a sentence like an aside or afterthought.
Q: Do you know about ‘en’ and ’em’ dashes?
Be careful of hyphens, the rules about which are complicated and tricky. (1) They are compulsory after a prefix (pre-, semi- etc.), where nouns and adjectives or participles combine like a red haired computer mad money saving IT specialist to avoid confusion after re- words (recover/recover), and in numbers etc. (twenty three, 35 year old, and 4 minute mile, etc.). (2) Sometimes usage is optional, e.g. where words are on their way to becoming one word on going pre war and back office. (3) Places they are mistakenly used include between an adverb that ends in –ly and an adjective (A badly-written report). (4) One word they are commonly forgotten in is the adjective ‘award winning’.
Here is my P-E-S-T of emails and emailing
P ressure of workplaces makes us over hasty when sending emails – or not check and work, and therefore make mistakes.
E motions are hard to convey in text, and can easily be misread by readers who don’t know us etc. So, don’t email when annoyed, nor late at night/end of the week. Second, be careful of writing overly strong views (e.g. ‘best’, ‘worst’) and stating firm negatives (‘We don’t do that…’ and ‘We can’t help you’), which can sound rude and abrupt to the recipient. Third, be careful of using subtle emotions (like irony or humour) which people will not realise.
S eduction and speed of emails means we check up on them far far too often (Admit it!). And we often reply to them within minutes, which means without thought, pre-planning, checking or proofreading. Don’t be seduced into that way of working.
T echnology of emails means any errors we make are right there in print, and can’t be retracted. Which means that any typos and mistakes, plus personal/private remarks, might be shared with people that you didn’t mean to include. Oh no!
Remember the PEST of emails – put this acronym above your computer, as a reminder.
Don’t regret sending that email …
Getting the right tone of voice/writing style is an essential part of writing …
Here is an exercise to help you with your writing. How would you describe these writing styles – there are some prompts below? (They are all the very start of real reports, although I tinkered with the first one.) Secondly, what factors influence your decision, and influence a writing’s tone of voice?
Keep reading. There is a surprise right at the end .. .
❶ To celebrate Reserch4Life’s 10th anniversary in 2017, we launched a competition. We asked users to share with us how HINARI, AGORA or ORAE have improved their work, their life and their community. Sixty entries were received – from across all five continents. Now we’d like to share with you the array of inspiring testimonies, each of which reveals some of the positive impacts brought about by Resarch4Life. Thank you for your support.
❷ As the world slowly emerges from the devastating Financial Crisis, it is time to reflect on the lessons of this turbulent period and think afresh about how to prevent future crises. The Oxford Martin Commission for Future Generations focuses on the increasing short-termism of modern politics and our collective inability to break the gridlock that undermines attempts to address the biggest challenges that will shape our future. In Now for the Long Term we urge decision-makers to overcome their pressing daily preoccupations to tackle problems that will determine the lives of today’s and tomorrow’s generations.
❸ We’ll start with the simple stuff: microscopy is pretty much what is sounds like – using microscopes to study small objects. And imaging is the process by which the data gathered during microscopy is turned into an image. It seems pretty basic, but these terms encompass a vast range of advanced techniques. Together, microscopy and imaging are a crack team that have revolutionised science and shaped the modern world.
❹ There is nothing dark, still less satanic, about the Revolution Mill in Greensboro, North Carolina. The tall yellow-brick chimney stack, within red bricks spelling ‘Revolution’ down its length, was built a few years after the mill was established in 1900. It was a booming time for local enterprise. America’s cotton industry was moving south from New England to take advantage of lower wages. The number of mills in the South more than doubled between 1890 and 1900, to 542. By 1938 Revolution Mill was the world’s largest factory exclusively making flannel, producing 50m yards of cloth a year.
WAYS TO DESCRIBE WRITING STYLE
Flowing–Laboured; Elaborate–Plain; Concise–Wordy
Vocabulary / Tone
Formal–Conversational; Chatty–Bureaucratic; Eloquent–Inarticulate
Enthusiastic–Dull; Opinionated–Indifferent; Emphatic–Vague
- Content / Vocabulary – what is included and excluded
- Grammar – active/passive verbs, contractions, use of pronouns, abbreviations, sentence length
- ‘Bush strokes’ – quotes, rhythm, senses, etc.
- Informality – use of asides, jargon and comedy
- Mood – Here is the surprise … Yes, even your mood (as you write) can affect your writing’s tone of voice. Watch out!
Let me which style you prefer, or which most closely matches your style.
“Interesting and thought provoking- I will never look at websites in the same way again.”
“Really helpful, interesting and enjoyable training day. I have learned new things and refreshed my knowledge/understanding of others.”
“Useful theory mixed with practical tips and short group exercises.”
“It was good to be trained by someone who has actually made a living from writing – all too often, you end up being trained by someone whose business is delivering training, not necessarily having the skills in which they’re training you.”
I give training in writing skills in many different areas, drawing on my wide experience …
I know how to:
- WRITE catchy headlines, so your article will stand out…
- GRAB people’s attention in the first few paragraphs, so they get sucked in and read through to the end …
- MAKE a piece flow well and give it ‘voice’, so customers buy into your ideas …
- GIVE it impact and make it remembered, which is essentials for reports and funding bids.
And I have pooled together my thoughts into Writing-qualities-diagram, which I hope will help guide you in your writing.
There are four main areas to be aware of (listed below), and within each there are several ingredients that you need to get right.
- Read and noticed
- Clear and understood
- Impact and remembered
- Flows well, Enjoyable read
Here it is again, my Writing-qualities-diagram
At the end of 2016 I was invited by the European Commission to kick-off their annual Clear Writing Week in Brussels. This was in recognition of my book on Business Writing Tips, which they bought, found useful and stock copies of in their library.
The title of my talk was Say ‘No’ to Gobbledygook – Writing Traps, Tips and Techniques.
Here we are before the event started:
100+ people attended my 90-minute long talk, and I gave them 10 ways to help their writing. As Brussels is full of people writing in their second language, they found my advice useful.
Particularly popular were my thoughts on the following:
- Where business writing goes wrong
- How to write with ease and speed
- Lessons from the 3 Ms (writing pros)
- Being effective for your readers
- Editing tips
- Think like an artist
Email me if you want to know more, or would like a similar talk.
One way to improve your writing skills is to read quality, well written books. Here are a few books that I read and enjoyed in 2016. They come with my recommendation (I ditched about half as many again). Let me know what you think of them.
Apart from the Graeme Burnet book (which was on the Booker Prize shortlist), none are that new … but they are all worth reading.
- Amongst Women – John McGahern
- Beginning of Spring – Peelope Fitzgerald
- His Bloody Project – Graeme Macrae Burnet
- The Boy with the Topknot – Sathnam Sanghera
- Breathing Lessons – Anne Tyler
- Common People – Alison Light
- Disgrace – JM Coetze
- Housekeeping – Marilynne Richardson
- Samuel Pepys – Clare Tomalin
- Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont – Elizabeth Taylor