The Review section of Saturday’s Guardian newspaper has a short column called ‘The books that made me.’
Interviewed for it in December 2020, the journalist Craig Brown said The Quest for Corvo had ‘opened his mind to the underused tricks available to writers of non-fiction’.
It’s rather an extraordinary book, and has an unusual structure. But if I understood what Brown was referring to, here are 13 of its ‘tricks’.
They teach us lessons about writing style, sentence construction, and grammar rules (they can be broken – sometimes). I hope it gives you food for thought, or just to enjoy reading.
(My page references are to the Penguin Classics edition, 2018.)
1.) Verbs needn’t always come early in a sentence
After the war he became a dealer, in a small way, in a rare and unusual books; and by this means, a small pension, and the legacy of 100 pounds a year which his friend Ross had left him, he lived. (2)
Frustration and poverty had been the condition of his early years as of his last; tutorships, odd jobs, and charity were the actual lot of the dreamer who (in his dreams) had ruled the world. (16)
Rolfe was no student. He gave no real indication of any real piety beneath the surface – if there was any ‘beneath’. No earnestness and fineness of purpose, no discernible interest in the souls of others – so we judged. (64)
2.) Lists of things can be made (really) interesting
He would buy salmon for his supper, carry it home greased paper, and cook it himself; but it must be scotch, and the prime cut. Bread and cheese would suffice for his lunch, but the cheese must be a choice stilton. Modern beer was his despair; and he abhorred in equal measure imported meat, and credit accounts. In the matter of wine he was less exacting: he relied upon a reasonable Val de Penas, which he brought from a shipper friend, and drank at any hour that pleased him. (2–3)
3.) Commas in a sentence – need there be a maximum?!
He expressed himself in that haunted book; and his Self was something beyond the ungrateful beneficiary that so many, in daily life, found him to be, something beyond the unscrupulous, egocentric, homosexual pretender of Aberdeen, Hollywell, and Rome. (145)
4.) Simple, effective repetition
He would not take the half-share, he would not take the whole, he would not allow his name to appear on the books will, he would not say what he wanted. (199)
There was good reason for his excitement. In an expression that used to be popular, he had an elective affinity for Italy, a fostered devotion for her sunshine, her history and her speech. (184)
The new that he had little or no money, and that without money he could not stop in Venice; yet in Venice he seemed determined to remain. (189)
5.) Add-on statement to the end of a sentence
The feline figure of Rose, sore, suspicious, ready to take offence at any slighting word, immovably convinced of the justice of his cause, moves alive in front of us; we can hear his voice. (5)
6.) Good use of a colon and semi-colon
Throughout all the letters one purpose was visible: they were an entreaty to the recipient to bring his wealth into a market where it would bring value. (11)
My white-haired visitor had a very interesting story to tell; for he had known Rolfe intimately, and, as I found later, nearly everyone who knew Rolfe thought him the most remarkable man of his acquaintance. (22)
7.) Letters and their extracts can be introduced in flowing ways .. .
Finally, I was delighted to receive the following: (52)
By lucky chance, O’Sullivan had been a more or less regular correspondent for mine for years, and I was able to get details without difficulty: (58)
The deadlock was a second time broken in unexpected fashion: (106)
But that proposal was of no avail, and he was soon as tart as ever: (110)
These letters are for the most part friendly in tone, but at the least transgression beyond the expected the claws show: (138)
Fortunately, some letters exist which give Benson’s side of this unlucky squabble: (177)
I was almost frightened as I opened it. (226)
8.) Negatives can be expressed in all sorts of ways
He had found his way to Wales, how or why I knew not; he had become a writer; and, four years after the end of his adventures in Aberdeen, he had endured the newspaper attack. (47)
Yet somehow he had met squalls at Oscott, which he had left hurriedly; those squalls clearly not severe enough to deprive him of the chances of ordination, or he would never have been sent to Rome. (47)
He did me the honour of making me a Cardinal, not because we were intimate or friendly – we were not – not because of anything unusual in my character or abilities – there is not – but I imagine he saw something in me that satisfied his artistic sense, though what that could be I myself am utterly unable to divine. (65)
Such hope as remained to me rested on the unusual beauty of Rolfe’s written manuscripts, which, judging by those I had seen, were not likely to be thrown away by anyone with eyes in his head. (238)
9.) Such elegant phrasing!
But drawing and enjoyment counted with him before Latin exercises, though he was well grounded in classical studies, and proved himself a proficient scholar. (38)
The facts of infancy may be vital when they refer to a prodigy such as Mozart, interesting when relevant to a rebel such as Shelley, valuable when they show the growth for a man out of his place, as Poe; but in Rolfe’s case I felt that his childhood was by much the least interesting part of his life. (46)
Forms, manners, colours, sounds, shapes, and, beyond, a region of vague and uninteresting shadows – a sort of spiritual and intellectual myopia – there, I hold, you have the key Rolfe. (65)
As to what a measure of this he has already achieved, it would be unfitting of me, as his friend, to give an opinion. What I wish to dwell upon – and I speak with intimate knowledge of the whole of his career – is the unfaltering devotion with which he has given himself up to his work. (40)
But on the subject of the Aberdeen Press attack, which had bee n copied in to other newspapers, Mr Rolfe came very near warmth in his contempt. (39)
10.) Sentences don’t always need a verb
Although he was never a member of the university, he had passed somehow or other a good deal of time at Oxford, and he had what used to be know as the ‘Oxford accent’ to the extreme. A low musical voice. Very charming manners once his timidity was broken down. (58)
A word or two of my personal views concerning Rolfe. (65)
11.) Add supense to your sentence
Priests in general he had a poor opinion of, and he spoke with scorn of the kind of conversation common to their gatherings – particularly of ‘priests’ stories’ of a certain shade of blue. (125)
All through my Quest to Corvo chance helped astonishingly; it came to my aid now. Grant Richards, into the well of whose memory I plunged frequent buckets, recollected as an unimportant detail the name of Sholto Douglas as that of a friend of Rolfe’s. (128)
To console me, however, for a disappointment perhaps too bluntly expressed, he placed in my hands those letters to Rolfe returned after their disagreement. (130)
12.) Links between sentences – use a repetition!
… these things shocked me into anger and pity. Pity; for behind the arguments of ugliness of these boasts and offers, these letters told a harrowing story of a man sliding desperately downhill …(12)
13.) Sentences can be super-long (sometimes) c. 150 words!
But George Arthur Rose, suffering from pain as from a personal affront, sitting in his low, shabby brocade armchair, with a drawing-board stilted on his knee, and his little yellow cat sleep on the tilted board; with two publisher’s dummies out his hand, … ; who counts the split infinitives in the day’s newspaper Wong while he dines on soup, …; who carefully preserves the ends of his cigarettes so that he may break them up and make a fresh cigarette when he has sufficient quantity; whose mantelpiece holds, with other queer things, and cards of five literary agents …; who exists in terrified anticipation of the postman’s knock; this man starts to instant life in Fr. Rolfe’s pages, for the best of all reasons because he was Fr. Rolfe himself. (4–5)
Get people to LISTEN to you – ETHOS, Ethical/Trust
- Establish rapport – think about their emotional state
- Make them feel you understand their needs
- Use an engaging tone of voice
- Show you understand the issue – explain things from their point of view
- Use questions to gain attention
- Apply some flattery!
Add WEIGHT to what you say – LOGOS, Logic
- Demonstrate the benefits – what’s in it for them
- Use evidence and statistics – point to lessons from history, customs, etc.
- Show how your credibility – via your performance, expertise, testimonials
- Address their objections – give them space to back down
- Use alluring language: awareness words (Imagine, Notice … ), tag questions at end of sentence (… Don’t you?); negative scenarios before yours, etc.
- Use stories, metaphors and analogies, especially for more complex ideas
- In any analysis, be logical, coherent and factual – don’t go ‘over the top’
- Use rhetorical questions, with obvious answers
- Explain why they need to listen or change NOW
- Compare against alternatives, being fair in any comparisons (pros, cons etc.)
- Be flexible – persuasion can be a two-way process, requiring give and take
Editing is a real skill, not one to be sniffed at. And being an editor of your own work isn’t easy — it’s actually pretty difficult.
Indeed, lots of writing ‘fails’ merely because it hasn’t been very well edited: things haven’t been spotted. And I don’t just mean grammar, punctuation and typos, I mean problems of structure, tone of voice and content.
So here are 13 advanced editing tips from me, under three themes. to make your editing jobs quicker, less stressful and a lot more effective.
1.) Step into your reader’s shoes
- Imagine you are one of your target audience/readers reading your text, or a first-time reader who doesn’t know anything about the subject. Ask yourself: ‘Is the tone right? Do the headings make sense? Does it answer their questions?’ etc.
- Of each of your sentences, ask yourself, ‘So what?’ i.e. Check you have: included the essential content; explained and demonstrated things; etc.
- ‘The reader is more important than the writer.’ What matters more than your clever phrasing and elaborate sentences etc. is can your reader easily and quickly understand, and will they then do what you want them to.
Everyone can IDENTIFY a robin, but can they reproduce its bird call – i.e. its tone of voice?
Maybe you are you trying to decide your business or organisation’s tone of voice? How to articulate it? How to get it reproduced across staff and colleagues? Or how to tweak your tone into something more akin to you and your brand – something more appropriate?
Fuel for your thoughts now follows .. .
I have carefully distilled 150+ different tones of voice (that I researched from across the web) into what I believe are 12 main types .. . and here they are, below.
12 Types of tone of voice
What I suggest are the 12 main types of tone are listed below, with supporting examples and slight variations for each one. It should help stimulate, guide and develop your thoughts when you look at your tone of voice.
Need help with your tone?
- Download my chart to show you how these 12 tones are related, in my special diagram – download it here.
- I have developed a tone of voice function – this explains how your tone is determined, and what you can do to influence it.
Contact me here to talk through these ideas, and what you want from your tone of voice.
thoughtful, earnest, genuine, downbeat
gentle, simple, apologetic, timid, nervous
Want more followers to your blog, and more comments?
Unsure if your blog is achieving your gaols?
Use this checklist (below) for some ideas for acitons that you can take:
Your blog is easily FOUND on Google
- Effective SEO, keywords etc. – matches people’s searches, topical etc.
- Plenty of posts
- Alt text on images
GOOD and USEFUL content for visitors
- User-focussed – Content meets people’s needs, focussed, answers their Qs, etc.
- Scannability, and clear headings
- Visually attractive – and infographics, video blog posts etc.
- Variety of posts – and think of new mediums: slideshows, webinars, podcasts, pdf
- Simple navigation, menu, categories
- Links within blog, and between posts and pages
- Has ‘authority’ – demonstrates knowledge and experience of subject
- Added benefits: Freebies, recommendations/ideas, redirects etc.
Opportunities for INTERACTION – Give readers a reason to RETURN
- Like/Social Media buttons – for readers to like and share your content
- Comments fields, with responses by you
- Frequent, varied and good quality posts
- Invitations to reader: polls, questions, set challenges
Here is my review of the new WordPress editor, Gutenberg.
Will be interested to hear your views…
- Overall, greater range of content possible, and easy to set up
- Particularly good for images: lots of different options re size, background etc.
- Good visual impact also, with lots of styling options: text colours, background colour, drop caps etc.
- Wider range of formats possible beyond just text, e.g. tables and columns
- Flexible and quite good fun to use
- Works well on mobile (apparently)
- Smooth insertion of Social Media and other links – Slideshare, YouTube, etc.
- Can revert to Classic Editor (plugin available till 2022) – even for only one ‘block’.
… And also ‘Negatives’
- Overall, for the first-timer in particular, WordPress no longer feels quite as easy to use as before (or as other software, e.g. Word). Rather a headache when you get started. Somewhat fiddly menus, etc.
- You could quickly waste a lot of time doing all the formatting – whereas using a page-builder theme would be a lot quicker
- Two/three different menus, which isn’t neat; and Classic Editor has only an abbreviated menu
- Occasional gremlins and some unusual features of questionable usage (e.g. Verse mode; Markdown)
- You can’t format small passages of text without putting it first into a separate block – and you lose formatting if you cut and paste text from Word
- Plugins, and themes from small companies, may not have been updated to work with Gutenberg
- Rated poorly for people who are blind, visually impaired and dexterity impaired
One other negative …
It is surprising that there isn’t a simple list of menu options for Gutenberg blocks …
So here is mine:
MOST USED – For example
(as above plus…)
Classic (old editor)
LAYOUT ELEMENTS (arrangement on page)
Media and Text
And many more
Untitled reusable block
What do you think of Gutenberg?
Research your Keywords – 5 Great Websites
Answer the Public – Great for generating ideas for your next blog
Google Ads Planner – Keyword finder
Keyword Shitter – Get help with your keywords (Excuse the French)
Search Console – Analyse your website/blog
SEMRush – Compare yourself against competitor websites/blogs
2 Websites to Build Backlinks & Up your Digital ‘PR’
Ahrefs – Grow your traffic (se Blog articles)
Moz – Explore and develop inbound links to your website/blog
Follow Top-ranked Content – 3 Powerful Tools
BuzzSumo – Review top performing content
Google Alerts – Keep up to date with new posts on your chosen subjects
Ahrefs Content Explorer – Ideas for improving your profile
Which one did you LIKE BEST? – Would love to hear …
It is easy to forget the frame of mind of people visiting our organisation/business website.
When we write our website text, and tweak words here and there, we can forget what matters most. For example:
- People dart in and out of websites very, very quickly. — Speed
- They are often searching for particular things and key words (though they may not have formulated them precisely in their heads). — Search
- They make snap decisions as to whether or not a website (yours) can help them. — Snap
Don’t agree? / Agree?
If you need a little persuading, cast your mind back to the last time you used the web to trawl through several websites, for example to find a budget holiday, or choose somewhere to stay.
Think how quickly you made judgements of different websites, and their offers. And how quickly you decided whether or not to spend more time investigating any given website.
Did an attractive PICTURE (e.g. a luxury bedroom, or tasty-looking buffet) or CATCHY HEADING (‘River view’, ‘Convenient for …’) lure you into looking further… or maybe to book?
I make those comparisons as a reminder that people browsing websites are reading so fast that your text has to engage with them in a flash, and/or catch their attention immediately.
‘A picture is worth a thousand words’ – the saying goes.
But the right words can achieve the same ‘pull’.
Mistakes to AVOID
With this in mind, here’s the main heading on 5 homepages of websites that I reviewed recently – followed by my comments and suggestions.
1) ‘Finding clients for our customers’
How effectively does that engage with target customers. Instead, I’d suggest ‘We find you more clients. Guaranteed!’? — Be absolutely clear with your main message
2) ‘Increase your online presence in Style!’
What is that about? Putting something like this requires reader to read further in order to find out. But will people bother? — Make sure you have an impact.
3) ‘No sooner said than done’
That was used by a promoter of voice recognition software. But I’d argue it is a little cryptic. Instead, I suggested something clearer, like ‘Discover how to type at double speed – no course required.’ — Don’t try and be too clever.
4) ‘Welcome to …’
Looks a nice greeting, but people have already typed in your url, or selected it on Google, so do they need it? Plus, it means they are crowding out their main message. — There is no need for such ‘Happy talk’ on websites.
5) ‘Working with small and large businesses in the UK. No job is too small’
Don’t a lot of companies claim things like that? Does it distinguish you enough, I asked them? — Try and be unique, if you can
Advice for your homepage
The way to engage people, and lure them into your website, is by making sure your homepage’s words ‘speak to’ the reader in one of two ways:
- Pick up on ‘problems/issues’ that they are looking to solve/answer
- Highlight the benefits that your product/service can do for them.
For further information
This is one of a series of articles to help you ‘self-test’ your website and the effectiveness of its writing. In my next article I will look at how to Engage more clients through your text.
We encourage you to consider using a professional copywriter to draft the text for your new website. Here are eight reasons why, connected with the written content and the production process :
- Correct perspective – Being external to your business, a copywriter will see things from the perspective of one of your customers, not one of your staff. So there’ll be better able to describe your service/product, and its benefits, and create copy that engages well with target customers.
- Freer to ask questions – Because they are not one of your staff, freelancers are freer to ask questions that may arise when writing about your business – questions that a staff member might find awkward or hard to ask of colleagues or their boss.
- Appropriate tone of voice – The way your website speaks must reflect your brand, the culture and values of your business, and match your customers’ expectations. A copywriter can ensure your tone of voice is consistent across all marketing collateral, and draw up tone of voice guidelines if you don’t have any.
- Will go the extra mile – As ‘wordsmiths’, copywriters love playing with words. So they have the experience, and are willing to go the extra mile, in order to find just the right words, phrasing and tone for your new website.
- Refresh/recycle existing content – If the text on your existing website has got a little tired or dated, a professional copywriter can refresh it and give it a new lease of life.
- Websites are more powerful when the design and text work together – Your new website will use visual and written media, and their messages are more effective when the graphic design, images and words are created alongside one other. This can be achieved by your design agency and copywriter working closely together.
- A perfect fit – Another benefit of developing design and written content in parallel is that approximate word-counts for body text can be agreed in advance, which means that draft text fits well first time around, rather than needing lots of cutting and editing later on.
- Avoid delays to your new website – Most copywriters can write with ease and speed. Not least because, once contracted, they will clear their diary for the job in hand. Plus, they don’t have the everyday distractions and commitments of employees, which can sometimes hold up the launch of your new website.
It is is not easy to get the right tone of voice – for example to politely decline when we are asked to go somewhere, do something, or be at a certain place and at a certain time.
At times like these, many of us are overcome by guilt and responsibility. We feel we really ought to say ‘Yes’ … but really, we want to say ‘No’.
How can you avoid feeling guilty? How can you say ‘No’?
Here are 10 ways to answer those difficult and embarrassing questions …
1. Use modal verbs (i.e. could, might, should, would)
I would have loved to have come, but I don’t think I can – I might have come, but I have another engagement
2. Put things into a question
Would it be OK if I came on another occasion? – Might/Could I come back to you?
3. Express some doubt
I don’t suppose you could ask me again in a few days time?
4. Be apologetic, even for small things
Sorry to disappoint you, but I might not be able to attend.
5. Use If – If followed by will, would, can or could
If you don’t mind, I will look at my diary and come back to you. – If you wait a few days, I could get back to you.
6. Use the past tense even though speaking of the present
I thought we could have a chat about it – I was wondering if we could talk? – I wanted to ask you a question about it.
7. Include the person’s first name
Robert, I am awfully sorry but I don’t think I can come.
8. Use polite phrases, eg Sir/Madam etc
Madam, can I consult my diary and get back to you.