‘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.’


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.’


‘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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Decisions, decisions

DecisionsWriting well is all about making decisions.

In a sense, you begin by deciding on your first word.  Although, in practice, most writers begin by deciding on their first sentence.

Then you decide what follows those first few words.  And so it continues: one word at a time; one sentence at a time; one decision at a time.

At some stage – hopefully not too far into the process – you decide how much of your subject to include.  More importantly, you also decide how much to leave out.  And, while there is often an inclination to include everything, if you want your prose to be clear and concise, everything is probably going to be way, way too much.  Less is usually more.

But one of the most important decisions comes when you think that you have finished writing whatever it is that you are writing.  That is when you have to decide: Have I said what I intended to say?  And, in our experience, this is where a lot of writers come unstuck.

Just a few days ago, a client came to us with a nicely crafted piece of prose.  It was easy to read, and it had a satisfying ‘heft’ to it.  The only problem was that it didn’t actually say what the writer had intended to say.

‘It’s your decision,’ we told the client.  ‘But we think that you might want to decide to start again.’

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The Minister of Words

Shakespeare1An old friend died recently.  His death wasn’t unexpected; he was nudging 90 and he had been unwell for almost two years.

As a young man he had survived The Great Depression and The Second World War, and, despite coming from a relatively poor family, he had managed to acquire a good education.

By the time I got to know him, his general knowledge was truly impressive, and he had an enviable facility with numbers.  But what used to delight me most was his prose style.  It was spare, but not too spare.  And even when he engaged in fierce pen-and-paper combat, there was always an underlying tone of good humour.

Helping his daughter to tidy up his ‘stuff’, I came across a draft of a letter to his bank manager.  It was a masterpiece of grace and grumpiness.  The bank manager would have been in no doubt as to where his bank had gone wrong and what it needed to do to put matters right.  But I’m also sure that, on reading my friend’s letter, the bank manager would have smiled.

Another friend of mine, a man who spent most of his working life teaching English to high school students, once suggested that you can’t teach kids to write well.  Each good writer learns for themselves.  All of the exercises and tutorials are just opportunities to ‘develop the writing muscles that the natural writers have been given’.

Back in the early-to-mid-1980s, when PCs first started appearing on people’s desks, many arrived with bits of ‘boilerplate’, chunks of prose that could be inserted into documents of one sort or another in order to make life easier for the writers of letters and reports.  Unfortunately, the people who composed the boilerplate sections often knew what to say, but they seldom knew how to say it.  As a result, clunk reigned.  Unfortunately, there is still a good deal of this clunk about today.

Throughout many organisations, there is a tacit belief that everyone can write.  ‘Hey, if our people weren’t literate, we wouldn’t have hired them.’  But this is patently not true.  Some people can write clearly, concisely, and with graceful style.  Others can do little more than arrange words in some sort of order that, on a good day, hints at an attempt to communicate.

Just as every organisation needs a strategy expert and a finance expert and an IT expert, every organisation also needs a prose expert, someone who can help your organisation to communicate with your customers, your suppliers, and everyone else that you need to get onside.  Find that person in your organisation.  And, if you don’t have one, recruit one.  And then make them the Minister of Words.  You won’t regret it.

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Squandering our treasures

Bucket2In the English language, the meaning of words often changes with time.  It seems that it has always been thus.

When I was growing up utilise generally meant to make use of something which might otherwise have been lost or discarded.  For example, a builder might utilise bricks salvaged from an old building as part of a new building.

Today, utilise is often used simply as a posh word for use.  ‘I think we should utilise the green paint in the bedroom, Samantha.’

There has been a similar shift in the meaning of anticipate.  Once it meant to expect something to happen and to take steps to mitigate the effect of that something happening.  ‘General Smith anticipated an attack on the left flank and dispatched a squadron of light cavalry to repel it.’

Today, anticipate is more likely to be used to mean simply expect or await.  And so the announcement of every second concert, film, or TV show is the announcement of a ‘much anticipated’ event.  ‘Madonna’s much-anticipated world tour.’

I know several older wordsmiths who are greatly exercised by these developments.  And I’m sure that, for many, it’s tempting to see these people as just a bunch of pedantic old fuddy-duddies.

But here’s a question: if utilise now means use, what word do we have to express the idea that utilise used to express?  How about reculate?  No?  Well … it was just a suggestion.

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‘Leave abstraction to the painters’

Abstarct23My first grown up writing job was with an advertising and communications consultancy.  My boss was a former accountant with a degree in economics.  But his real passion was for words.

‘Tell a story,’ he used to say.  ‘And tell it in the plainest language that you can.  Make it interesting, but be direct, be concise, and keep it simple.

‘And don’t let anyone tell you that simple means childish.  Child-like, perhaps – but child-like has much to commend it.  When did you last hear a seven-year-old use words that you didn’t understand?’

Not everyone subscribed to Don’s philosophy.  One of the old hands used to grumble that he hadn’t spent 30 years hunched over a typewriter in order to write ‘for morons with a reading age of seven’.  And, to prove it, he often peppered his prose with words like grandiloquent.  But David, the former sub-editor turned copy supervisor, was on to him.  Grandiloquent rarely – if ever – made it into print.

Don’s other advice was to steer clear of anything abstract.  ‘Leave abstraction to the painters,’ he used to say.  ‘Jackson Pollock can do abstract.  You stick to concrete.’

I thought of Don recently while I was listening to ‘an expert’ explaining how to solve a social problem has, thus far, proved resistant to all of the usual approaches.

‘We should treat the whole minefield as a new landscape,’ he said.  ‘We need to interrogate the intention.  We also need to interrogate the data in order to glean the learnings.  And of course we need to build new pathways.  But most importantly, we need to kick-start the national conversation.’

Yeah right.

Is it any wonder that nobody seems to know what to do next?

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Radio rules. OK.

BoseI love radio.  I grew up listening to light static interspersed with music, comedy, news, and drama.

Is there a radio gene?  I suspect that there might be.  My father was a big fan of radio (‘wireless’, as he called it).  And my only other sibling spent most of her working life presenting, producing, and directing radio in four different countries.

Among my earliest memories are programmes like Take It From Here, The Navy Lark, Brothers In Law, Hancock’s Half Hour, and, of course, The Goon Show.

But I also enjoyed American shows like Nightbeat.  ‘Hi there.  This is Randy Stone.  I cover the night beat for the daily.  Stories start in many different ways ….’

And I was an enormous fan of Alistair Cooke’s Letter from America.  I loved the way in which his ‘letters’ took you on a journey and then, perhaps when you least expected it, they returned you to the point from which you had set out.

Quiet early in my writing career I heard radio described as ‘theatre for the mind’.  And that seemed about right to me.  That’s what it is.  You hear sounds; and your mind ‘sees’ pictures.

After I had been writing for radio for a year or five, I attended a workshop led by a couple of radio ‘gurus’.  Over the course of the day, they stressed three things.

Tell a story.  Whether you are reporting news, presenting drama, or pitching a commercial message, what people are listening for is a story.  They are listening for something that tells them something.  They are listening for something that ‘makes sense’.  If there is no story, they will probably tune out.

Use language that people can easily understand.  If the listener has to stop and mentally – or literally – look up a word or phrase, they will miss part of your message.  And maybe they will abandon it altogether.  Use plain language.  Wherever possible, eschew jargon and other esoteric language.

Don’t over-write.  Let your listeners use their imagination and ‘fill in the gaps’ in their own way.  Leave space for them to think, to digest, to ‘file’ what you have told them.

Over the past few years, most of us have learned to deal with potential information overload.  We have learned to pick a path, however imperfect, through the multiple messages we are presented with each day, each hour, each minute, even each nanosecond.  And yet the old radio ‘rules’ still have a lot to recommend them.  Just a thought.

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We’re all technicians now

Piano2Find something that you love doing and you’ll never have to work another day in your life.  At least that’s what we are often told.

My maternal grandfather combined his aptitude for things mechanical with his love of music to become a piano repairer.  That was back in the days when every second middle-class – or aspiring to be middle-class – household had a piano.  The piano was the family’s centre of in-home entertainment.

But pianos tend to require quite a lot of maintenance.  And so my grandfather travelled from house to house, tuning, regulating, voicing, repairing, and, sometimes, basically rebuilding the household’s treasured (but often neglected) instrument.

If my grandfather was plying his trade today, he’d be a piano technician.  And he wouldn’t repair pianos, he would service them.

Something similar has happened to the mechanics who used to repair motor cars.  They too have become technicians.  And rather than carrying out repairs in a garage, they provide service in a service centre.

Back in the days when many university students managed to get a summer job that would almost make them enough money to see them through the rest of the year, I spent a couple of summer breaks working at a meat processing plant.  I started out as a general hand, progressed to being a packer, and then becoming a strapper.  The following summer I started out as a lab assistant and moved on to become a production analyst.  (Knowing something about chemistry helped.)

As you might expect of a meat processing plant, a lot of the employees were butchers.  But, from the slaughtermen at one end of the chain to the graders at the other, there were at least seven or eight different kinds of butchers.  And that was before you dropped down a floor to where perhaps the most skilful of all the butchers – the boners – worked.

Elsewhere in the plant,  you could find pattern makers, founders, fitters, turners, riggers, fellmongers, tanners, cutlers, and fettlers ( the chaps who kept the plant’s private section of the railway in tip top order), as well as men and women from many other trades.

Not far from the meat processing plant there was small building that housed a luthier, a maker and repairer of stringed instruments.  About 25 years after I last clocked off at the meat plant I went past the luthier’s building.  It was still there.  Except its sign now proclaimed that it was the workshop of a guitar technician.

I guess that makes me a word technician.  But I can’t help wondering what sort of technicians the fettlers have become.

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Farewell, Mr Zinsser

ZinsserIn Chapter One of William Zinsser’s classic guide to writing nonfiction, On Writing Well, he tells the story of sitting on a panel of two, answering the questions of a group of students and teachers eager to hear about the glamourous world of writing.

His fellow panellist was a surgeon who had started writing – with some success – in his spare time.  For each of the questions, Dr Brock, the surgeon-cum-writer, had a sunny answer.  Writing was easy.  Writing was fun.  The words just flowed.  There was seldom any need for revision.  And if, for some reason, the words didn’t flow, then just go for a walk, go fishing, whatever.  Tomorrow would be another day.

In answer to the same questions, Mr Zinsser said that writing was not easy.  And it was not fun.  It was hard work.  He also said that rewriting was the essence of writing; that writing was a craft not an art; and ‘the man who runs away from his craft because he lacks inspiration is fooling himself.’

The point of the anecdote was to illustrate that there is no single ‘right’ way to write.  Over time, each good writer discovers what works for him or her.

He concludes the chapter by saying:

Good writing has an aliveness that keeps the reader reading from one paragraph to the next, and it’s not a question of gimmicks to ‘personalize’ the author.  It’s a question of using the English language in a way that will achieve the greatest clarity and strength.

Can such principles be taught?  Maybe not.  But most of them can be learned.

I discovered On Writing Well in about 1982.  Since then, I must have read it – from cover to cover – at least twenty times.  It’s always a rewarding experience.

William Zinsser died last week at the age of 92.

Farewell, Mr Zinsser.

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