What the reader takes out

TowerOfBabelAs a friend of mine is wont to remind me from time to time: whether you are seeking to inform or persuade, it’s not what the writer puts in; it’s what the reader takes out.

More years ago than I care to remember, I volunteered to help a friend and neighbour with his campaign to become a councillor – and ideally the mayor – of our borough.

Doc did all the hard work – the public meetings, the baby kissing – and I dreamed up most of the publicity ‘events’, wrote the official press releases, and bombarded the local media with ‘backgrounders’.

Doc was a would-be politician blessed with real experience of the real world.  He had started his working life as a bank clerk, migrated into the specialist security construction industry, run a restaurant and bar in Franco’s Spain, started a successful property company (in the days when most property companies were not all that successful), and then trained as a tutor for a technical institute ‘to give something back’.

However, despite his real life experience, Doc had never held political office of any kind.  And we were very aware that, in local body elections, previous experience, and/or a familiar name, gives the candidate a certain advantage.

With this in mind, one of the backgrounders that I wrote was a piece about Doc’s extensive involvement with a couple of local schools.  We hoped that it might help voters to see him as a community-minded candidate, well capable of working with others.

I sent the release to one of the two local community newspapers which, somewhat to my surprise, ran the story almost word for word.

A couple of days later, I ran into the paper’s editor.  I asked her if the election was generating any interest.  Oh, yes.  Just that morning she had received a letter from an irate reader.  The paper was telling lies, the reader said.  And he demanded that the paper run a retraction, making it clear that Doc had had no local government experience whatsoever.  None.  Not a skerrick.

‘Well, I didn’t suggest that he did,’ I said.  ‘I just said that he had had several years working – very successfully – with a couple of the local schools.  So, unless your chaps added something ….’

‘No, no,’ she said.  ‘But it’s a good reminder that many readers read what they want to read.  Unfortunately, it happens all the time.’

The story did have a happy ending.  On polling day, Doc received the second highest number of votes.  And, clearly impressed by the new boy, the man with the most votes, that man who became mayor, chose Doc as his deputy.

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Don’t blame the dictionaries

SODOne of the downsides of having lived a lot longer than I ever expected to live is that, when it comes to language, I find that I am displaying more and more ‘grumpy old man’ traits.

Whenever I see a sign suggesting that this is a checkout for 12 items or less, I find myself muttering ‘Fewer, you fool!  Less is for stuff that can’t be counted.  Less sand; but fewer grains of sand.’

And don’t get me started on (to my mind) the mis-use of ‘anticipated’.  When I see or hear someone writing or talking about the ‘much anticipated’ new album by The Intergalactic Sparrows (for example) I find my heart going out to whomever has been charged with the task of mitigating the event’s effects.

And then, just this afternoon, I heard a woman on the radio grumbling about the use of the word resilience.

Apparently, for the best part of a year, she had found the phrase ‘resilience strategy’ ‘particularly grating’.  But, once she had looked up the ‘dictionary definition’ of resilience, she decided that she was a little more comfortable with it.  Her dictionary had spoken.

One part of me was pleased (for her, anyway).  Another part of me was anything but pleased.

Despite that fact that, as a writer and editor, I find myself referring to dictionaries several times a day, I also recognise that most modern dictionaries are descriptive rather than prescriptive.  They record how people use words; they do not prescribe how people should use words.

When – just a few days ago – I heard someone grumbling about how people ‘flaunt the rules’, my grumble should, perhaps, have trumped his.  But he was just using ‘flaunt’ in a way that many people now use it.

Is it ‘correct’?  I don’t think so.  But is it common usage?  Unfortunately it is.

So, don’t blame the dictionaries.  In the end, words mean what people mean them to mean.

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‘Please be advised …’

megaphone‘Please be advised.’  Those were the first three words of an email that greeted me when I sat down at my desk with my first coffee of the day on a recent sunny morning.  What came next, I almost didn’t find out.  Anyone who tries to crash the start of my day with the words ‘Please be advised’ is just asking to be ignored.  And the chances of me being advised are greatly diminished.

Many years ago, I got a job with a small but very successful advertising agency.

I had applied for a position as a junior art director, but after a long conversation with the head of the creative department I found myself being offered a job as a writer.  ‘Look, if it doesn’t work out,’ the creative director said, ‘we’ll see if we can find you something in the art department.  But I think you’re a writer.  In fact, I’m sure that you’re a writer.’

To be honest, I didn’t really have any idea what a writer did – not in an advertising agency anyway.  I’d been planning on a long and successful career as an art director.  But being a writer would at least get me ‘in the door’, so I said yes.

The first thing I learned was that good writers don’t really write; they converse on paper (or, more and more often these days, on screen).  Good writers aren’t really copywriters; they’re copychatters.

‘Just imagine that your reader is sitting across the desk from you – maybe with a cup of coffee or something stronger.  You don’t need to shout at them, because they are right there.  And you certainly don’t want to lecture them, because they are likely to just get up and walk off,’ Don said.

The second thing I learned was that good writers make promises on behalf of their clients – but they never over-promise.  ‘If you promise something that your client can’t deliver, then everyone loses.’

Don’s third ‘rule’ was that good writers never show off.  ‘It is likely that your vocabulary has twice the number of words as the vocabulary of your average reader.  But there’s little point in speaking to your reader in a language that he or she doesn’t understand.  Keep it simple.  Keep it real.’

I was telling a friend about the ‘please be advised’ email.  ‘Oh well,’ he said, ‘that’s what happens when you let amateurs loose on a keyboard.’

‘Amateurs?’

‘Well, the people who write these things are not being paid to write, are they?’

And that’s where I had to disagree.  If your job involves writing – in any form – then you’re being paid to write.  And you owe it to your paymaster to try to write like a professional.

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How long should it take to write 800 words?

MsCollinsIs there anything that business executives can learn from professional writers, people who write for their living?

I think there is.

Professional writers know that unless their writing is engaging, a lot of the people who read the first paragraph are not going to be reading the last paragraph.  They may not even be reading the third or fourth paragraph.

Professional writers also have a realistic view of how long it takes to write something that the reader will want to read, something that will make the reader stop and think – maybe even change their mind on an important matter.

Gail Collins is one of The New York Times’ senior columnists.  She writes a couple of columns a week.  Each column is about 800 words.  (There’s an old newspaper joke.  Question:  What is your column about?  Answer:  It’s about 800 words.  Boom, boom.)

Unless I totally misread a recent interview with Ms Collins, it seems that each 800-word column takes her the best part of a day to write.  I say ‘write’, but what I really mean is write, rewrite, rewrite again, polish, and polish again.

Contrast this with one of our favourite clients who thinks that half a day is almost too long to spend writing five or six thousand words.  He has a busy schedule.  I understand that.  But ensuring that his readers – his customers, his potential customers, his suppliers, his business partners – read all the way to the end of the final paragraph is at least as important to his cause as Ms Collins’ column is to The New York Times’ cause.

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Don’t over-think it. Just do it.

yacht2Like many sailors, I learned to sail in a small one-sailed dinghy.  I say that ‘I learned to sail’ rather than ‘I was taught to sail’ because the chap who I thought was going to teach me to sail simply sat me in the boat and said: ‘That’s the tiller.  That’s the mainsheet.  Don’t worry; you’ll soon work it out.’  And then he pushed me out into the estuary.

It turned out that he was right.  I did soon work it out.  Happily, I survived that first voyage without even getting too wet.  And, over the next few years, I graduated to bigger and bigger boats and made longer and longer voyages.

Perhaps because I was comparatively light and reasonably nimble, I spent my first couple of years on bigger boats as the forward hand – changing headsails, rigging spinnakers, and then packing them into their turtles for their next (hopefully error-free) hoist.

Then somehow (I don’t remember quite how) I developed a bit of a reputation as a headsail trimmer.  It was probably at this point that I decided that I should get a better understanding of the physics of sailing; which meant that I needed to understand something about hydrodynamics and aerodynamics and meteorology.

A lot of what I learned confirmed what every ‘old salt’ already knew.  But some of it totally contradicted what every old salt already knew.  My new-found knowledge certainly led to some interesting conversations with some of the ‘Captain Bligh’ skippers with whom I sailed.

All of this happened in the days before on-board computers and other high-tech aids.  The only on-board computer I had was the one between my ears.  But, most of the time, it worked pretty well.  I remember one particularly black night on which we reached a rock in the middle of nowhere – which was also the second mark on a 250 nautical mile ocean race course – within a minute of my prediction.  Even our Captain Bligh skipper was impressed!

And then one summer, I, along with three then-friends, set off on a reasonably ambitious cruise.  Somewhere not too far from our point of departure, it became apparent that two of my companions had the idea that I was the skipper for hire.  I was there to take them on a pleasure cruise for two.  My other companion, they seemed to have decided, was there to ply them with cold drinks and tasty snacks.

To be honest, I wasn’t too put out.  For the next three or four days, I sailed the boat pretty much single-handedly.  And then, on the fourth or fifth day, we arrived – at about five in the afternoon – outside the narrow entrance to the harbour at which we were intending to anchor for the night.  The entrance was a bit like the neck of a bottle: long, narrow, and with high rocky cliffs on either side.

My passenger-companions showed no sign of participating in the actual sailing, so I headed the boat into the wind and dropped the genoa.  (For those of you who don’t know, the genoa is the big sail at the front.)  And then, while my passenger-companions called for more cold lager, I turned the boat towards the entrance and tacked it, single-handedly, like a 45-foot dinghy, through the drainpipe entrance, making use of every last scrap of breeze bouncing off the cliffs.

Once we were safely inside the heads, with the anchor down, one of my passenger-companions turned to me and said: ‘Damn.  That was impressive.  How did you know what to do?  And when to do it?  You really must explain it to me.’

But I couldn’t.

I’m not saying that you don’t have to know what you are doing; but I think that it can be a serious handicap to think too much about what you are doing.  In my experience, once you know what to do, and you know that you know what to do, it’s usually best not to think about it too much.  Just do it.

And this applies to writing as much as it applies to sailing.

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Tell them a story

Once UponOur client was perplexed.  His organisation had pitched to seven prospects, and only one prospect had said yes.

The contracts for which our client had been pitching were not insignificant.  The smallest (by value) would have been worth well over a hundred thousand a year; the biggest just short of four million a year.

‘I think we need someone independent to go and talk to each of the prospects and see if they can find out what we did right and what we did wrong.  Is this something that you might do for us?’

It was.  And we did.

The first prospect with whom we spoke said that our client had understood their RFP perfectly and had put forward a credible and competent proposal.  But the company they had eventually gone with just had ‘a certain something extra’.  Exactly what that certain something was, our informant could not quite say.  It was just ‘something’.

The second executive we interviewed had a similar story.  ‘Your people were very good, very professional,’ she said.  ‘But the others had something extra.  I’m not sure what it was.  But we all agreed that they had it.’

The third former prospect knew exactly what it was.  ‘In terms of the actual proposals, there was really nothing in it.  But we felt that the other guys told a better story.  They told a story that we felt we could engage with.’

By the time we had conducted all seven interviews it was clear that our client had, in each case, lost out on just one thing.  They had ticked all the boxes bar one.  They had understood the RFPs perfectly.  They had analysed the situation.  They had offered insight.  And they had come up with impeccably logical solutions.  But they had failed to present their solutions as part of an engaging story.

As human beings, we have a natural penchant for stories and storytelling.  Stories are how we make sense of the world.  We find carefully thought-out logical arguments appealing, sometimes very appealing.  But we find logical arguments wrapped up in a well-told story, even more appealing.

The message is simple: if you want to win them over, tell them a story.  And tell it well.

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Time to leap?

ClausewitzI think it was the Prussian general and military theorist Carl von Clausewitz who suggested that ‘nobody in his right mind tries to cross a broad ditch in two steps.’  If one is going to get from one side to the other, one must make a decisive leap.

For perhaps the first 60 years of my life, unique meant ‘of which there is only one; unequalled; having no like.’  There were no degrees of uniqueness.  To suggest that something was ‘a bit unique’ or ‘slightly unique’ was a sign of an uneducated or careless writer.  It was on a par with writing ‘the woman was slightly pregnant.’

But language changes.  And the English language changes faster than most.  Today, many writers use unique to mean ‘remarkable’ or ‘unusual’.  Just today, I read a sentence that began: ‘The approach is slightly unique in as much as ….’

I must confess that whenever I see this usage, my mind shouts ‘No, no, no!’  But I also know that I can’t wind back the clock.  I must – however reluctantly – get to the other side of the broad ditch which is the evolution of the language.  I must make the leap.

I’m probably going to have to ‘cross the ditch’ on a few other words too.  Anticipate has become a slightly more pompous version of expect, and utilise has become a more pompous version of use.  Back in the days when unique meant unique, anticipate and utilise also had their own specific and useful meanings.  Anticipate meant ‘to expect something to happen and to take steps to mitigate the consequences’.  Utilise meant ‘to put to good use something which might otherwise be wasted’.

I also read today that ‘when it comes to selection, there is only one criteria’.  Well, no, there are at least two criteria.  But there is only one criterion.  Criteria is the plural; criterion is the singular.  Or at least that’s the way it used to be.

Now, could someone please hold my hat?  It seems that I have a broad ditch to cross.

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‘That’s not a word!’

SOD‘That’s not a word!’

‘Well, actually it is.  The writer wrote it – and, as far as we can tell, a good portion of her readers understood what she meant in using it.  So, for all practical purposes, it’s a word.’

‘Yeah, but it’s not a real word.’

‘It’s as real as any other word.’

‘I bet you anything that you can’t find it in a dictionary.’

‘You may well be right – for the moment – but that doesn’t mean that it’s not a real word.  Dictionaries don’t lead; they follow.  Dictionaries record the common spelling and meaning – or meanings – of words that people are already using.

‘New words are being coined every day.  Technically they are known as neologisms.  Many of them wither away within a matter of months.  But others stick around long enough to find their way into the next edition of The Oxford or Mirriam-Webster or one of the other authorities to whom we turn when we want to know the meaning or accepted spelling of a word with which we are unfamiliar.’

‘That’s just silly.  If that was the case, I could just make up a completely new word.’

‘You could.’

‘And if I could persuade a few people to use it, it could end up in a proper dictionary – even though I had just made it up.’

‘Not only could it, but it probably would.’

‘Hmm.’

And so ended the conversation.

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Learn from the best

Books1When I first started writing for a living, one of the senior sub-editors took me to one side and gave me his ‘new boy chat’.

‘Most people’s writing is heavily influenced by their reading,’ he said.  ‘So read widely, but read wisely.  Learn from the best and ignore the rest.’  Among the best, he counted Winston Churchill, Graham Greene, and Anthony Burgess.

One of my tasks this week was to tidy up a veritable bucket of gobbledygook.  The author was a man of science and a rising star in his organisation.

If his writing is influenced by his reading, I would guess that he has read a lot of rather opaque scientific papers.  He also seems to have absorbed more than his share of online ‘clickbait news’.  ‘Mineral supplements potentially as damaging as smoking a new study to be published in a prestigious journal later this week will suggest’ seems to be his idea of literature.

I sent him the edited prose and waited for his comments.

‘Spot on,’ he said.  ‘That was exactly what I was trying to say.  It’s just that your version is easier to read.  I wish that I could write like that.’

‘You can.’

‘Yeah?’

‘Just stop reading writing that isn’t easy to read.  Seek out writing that is clear and concise.  Seek out stories that say something to you.  And if you find yourself confronted with umpteen pages of opaque mumble, politely ask the author if you can have a brief summary in plain English.’

‘Thanks.  I’ll give it a go,’ he said.

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Write what you would want to read

WritingYoung writers, inexperienced writers, often ask: How can I know what my readers will want to read?

It’s a question I used to ask myself.  What will hook my readers?  What will keep them reading?  What will send them away happy?  Or mad?  Or thinking seriously about something that they hadn’t previously thought about?

When I was a young writer, I kept a scrapbook of other writers’ good openings and endings, and used them as models for my own writing.  After all, these openings and endings (and the bits in between) had worked for me.  They’d hooked me.  They’d kept me reading.  And they’d left me with a smile on my face or a buzz in my brain.

But then, as the years went by, I realised that I didn’t really need the scrapbook.  All I needed to do was to write an opening that captured my interest, a middle that held my interest, and a satisfactory ending.

I couldn’t know what my readers would want to read.  (Ninety-nine-point-something percent of my readers were people I’d never met and was never likely to meet.)  All I could know was what I would want to read myself.

So now when a young writer asks: How can I know what my readers will want to read?  I tell them: You can’t.  Just write what you would want to read.

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