Sunday, 4 June 2017

'Your writing sucks!' Three words we can learn to love hearing

NO ONE wants to hear that their writing sucks. It hurts. Yet while we may yearn for praise, we can learn to be grateful when we hear tough criticism. When we finish a draft, we think it's perfect. If we thought it was flawed, we'd have written it differently. And there's no point deluding ourselves that we can be objective about our writing at this stage.

What we need to remember is that the act of writing is not only about committing your thoughts and ideas to a document. Writing is also about finding out what you think — as you write.

We often need feedback to challenge ideas that are still embryonic, and to help us clarify how best to express them. The key to getting useful feedback is to enlist the right people, not just those who will naturally agree with us, and to brief our helpers well on what we need from them.

When you have a long, complex document — perhaps a business proposal or a project report — you'll need a team of helpers. For a short, sensitive email, you can scale back to one person.


People love to give feedback. It makes them feel valued — unless you've previously asked them for help and then ignored everything they've said. Chances are that you briefed them badly. 

People will naturally drift towards comments on punctuation, grammar and spelling since these are mostly objective issues we can justify. But you need big-picture comments too.

You'll be tempted to look for helpers who'll offer kindness and reassurance. Yet you need the very truth you're aiming to deliver to your readers.

That doesn't you don't want sadistic shredding of your work either. You're after balance and reason, not extremes. So choose a mix of helpers. How many you recruit is up to you. Ideally, you want to cover these bases.
  • Someone who's a strategic thinker who naturally sees the big picture. They're likely to spot flaws in your purpose and structure, and raise questions that will occur to your readers.
  • Someone who's good at detail, blessed with a solid grasp of language and a hatred of jargon. They're likely to spot research gaps, or areas where you haven't bothered to mention something because you think everyone already knows as much as you do. Warning: you may end up arguing over commas.

You may cover these bases in two people, or you may need more. Keep the number of helpers to a minimum. You're not forming a government.

Where you have more than one helper, you need a sensible system that avoids creating new muddle.
  • Circulate one document among your group, asking them to sign the document when they've given their input. Give four people separate documents at the same time and you'll get back four separate, and probably conflicting, sets of comments. It becomes a nightmare.
  • Ask everyone to mark their comments on a paper version of your document. Offer a digital one, and they'll be tempted to rewrite. That's your job, not theirs.
  • Ask people to read with specific tasks in mind — purpose, readership, consistency of information, structure, spelling and language — depending on their individual strengths.


Your helpers won't automatically know what you want your writing to achieve. An invitation to 'Let me know what you think of this' is of no use at all. It's a veiled request for people to tell you it's brilliant. You may get an unpleasant surprise when people give you a blow-by-blow plan for how they would rewrite it — if only they could be bothered to do it for you.

You need to give a clear brief with details about what you want people to consider, and — equally important — what you want them to ignore.
  • Tell your helpers your purpose and who your writing is aimed at, in reasonable detail. If you helpers are similar to your readers, tell them. Or tell them the opposite, if that's true.
  • Ask if they think you've left out anything vital. It's easy to become so expert that you forget when people know less than you.
  • If you've deviated from common templates in favour of a more creative structure, explain why, and ask if they think it works. Make sure they know you want an honest view.
  • If you have no-go areas you've been forced to adopt, say so. You don't want your helpers to waste time by offering suggestions on something you can't change.
  • If you have instincts about areas that may need fixing, ask your helpers for their take. You may be overanxious, or your concerns may be spot on. It may sound to your helpers as if you're trying to justify your work in advance. Make it clear that you're simply trying to focus their attention, and want an honest verdict.
You probably haven't enlisted professional editors, so be kind about the results. And bear in mind that helpers aren't always right.

Some areas demand particular attention...

Factual errors and possible misinterpretation
Ever read something about your own industry or personal obsession and spotted an error or misunderstanding of something basic? How did you view that author and the rest of their piece? With mistrust? If they can get this wrong, where else did they go wrong in areas where I'm no expert?

Don't forget to cross-check information that should agree. These details may be at opposite ends of a document, where they're hard to spot.

Likely reader reaction
You want engagement and dialogue. So, if you know someone who takes the opposite stance in any conversation just for the hell of it — ask them for feedback.

You want to anticipate all likely responses, even those you find annoying. Deal with these opposing views now. Don't try to hide conflict. Plant a flag on it, and turn it to your advantage. You'll be sending out the message that you're someone who thinks of everything and is prepared to tackle tough issues.

Language feedback
Our use of language is a mix of cut-and-dried precision and subjective style. It's also about you, your readers, and your aim to change the world in a way that only you can do.

This is the area where you're likely to feel most insecure. Listen to language feedback, but follow your instincts too. If you aren't sure that suggestions are an improvement, ignore them or rewrite until you know the area being criticised is in a correct or acceptable form.

Embrace corrections that are no-brainers. Pick and choose from the subjective ones. Ask yourself how strongly your readers are likely to feed about strict grammar rules. Will they embrace a more casual style that suits you and your purpose?


People will be kind, and you'll feel a 'but' hanging in the air 
You are waiting for the penny to drop. And there's usually a penny... So push. Your helpers may feel there's a problem, without being sure what it is. Don't ignore this. If you can only get a vague response, work out the details yourself.

People will over-edit and suggest a rewrite in the style they'd use if it were their document
You may have been soft with your brief, or your helpers may be trying to show off, or indulge in a power trip. Cherry pick from their suggestions and then do your own thing.

People will suggest a place where they believe a problem exists, but it feels wrong.
Your helpers are probably right and wrong at the same time. There is a problem, but not where they think it is. They may see a research gap, when the problem is structure. They may feel language, when the problem is purpose. Over to you for some detective work.

People will spot a flaw — and it makes you incandescent with rage.
Sadly, they're right. Drop all resistance. You knew there was a problem when you started writing and ignored it because you didn't want to interrupt your flow. You reread your work and ignored the issue again, thinking that no one would notice. And they have...


Read your work aloud
This will help you to pick up stray pompous words that stand out from your simple, direct work. If you stumble while reading aloud, readers will stumble as they read. If you wince... if you pause... if anything prompts you to stop reading... you have fresh alarm bells.

Check more than spelling
When you check a spelling, check the meaning too. You may find you need a different word.

Find one more helper
You want a fresh pair of eyes able to spot final flaws. Every time you change something, you   open the way for new mistakes to creep in.

You have to let go eventually. When you send something out into the world, you'll probably spot at least one mistake. Don't beat yourself up. You will never achieve perfection. 

Sunday, 21 May 2017

Who wants a history lesson? Well, sometimes we do

EVERY significant moment in our lives becomes background sometime in our future. Winning a key business proposal becomes background to our elevation to the board. The launch of a new product becomes background in our company's stock market flotation. Winning an industry award becomes the stepping stone to an OBE.

Background is often useful in understanding a big picture, but it's rarely the most important thing we want to express once we've moved on from that experience.

When you overdose a document with background you think is vital to understanding the big picture, your readers are likely to bin it.

So how do we use background information constructively?

The trick is to recognise the difference between 'essential context' and 'interesting background' and to use them at different points in your document.

Here's an example from The Guardian's business section.

1,100 Jones Bookmaker jobs at risk as private equity deal collapses

JONES Bootmaker is expected to call in administrators on Friday in a move that will put more than 1,100 jobs as risk. 
The shoe retailer, which employs 1,145 people, has nearly 100 stores and a handful of concessions in department stores. It is understood to be close to going under after a deal with a private equity firm collapsed. 
Jones's difficulties came... (the story continues for several paragraphs, until the final one...) 
Jones has humble beginnings. The business was launched in 1857 by Alfred Jones and his wife Emma who opened their first store in Bayswater, west London, before expanding nationwide. The Bayswater store opened from 8am to 8pm, and until midnight on Saturdays, while the pair looked after 11 sons and three daughters.
The second paragraph is essential context. It gives us the scale of what's about to happen and the immediate reason why the company is taking it's next step. It tells us why we should think of this as an important business story.

It's the second paragraph because we don't want readers to wait long for this context. But it's not so important that we need to start with it.

The final paragraph, a snapshot of the company's history. counts as interesting background. If we don't have room to use this, we can cut it and lose nothing that stops us understanding the company's move into administration — the main focus of the story.

Sometimes we can offer background in a trickle, instead of a lump. Here is another example from The Guardian.

Jaeger collapses into administration putting 680 jobs at risk

Fashion chain Jaeger has collapsed into administration, putting 680 jobs at risk.
The brand, which dressed Audrey Hepburn and Marilyn Monroe in its heyday, had been trying to find a buyer to keep its 46 stores going, but its owner threw in the towel on Monday and appointed administrators.
The private equity owner, which dates back to 1884, has appointed administrators at Alix Partners after proving unable to find a buyer for a suggested price of £30m.
If we take out the coloured text, we would still grasp the essence of the announcement while losing some interesting background. And that's the key to understanding the role of background and where we want to place it in our document.

What do we lose if we leave information out? 

If the answer is nothing, you can tuck it away at the end of your piece or cut it.

If the answer is that we'd lose important context, find a place for the information in your second paragraph. But keep it brief and tightly expressed.

Forget about the timeline of events and tackle the essential points you want to make. Only then will you find the right way to tackle background.

Sunday, 7 May 2017

Five classic business writing mistakes you can easily stop making

BUSINESS writing should be engaging, not boring. It should be packed with passion and purpose, not taken from a blueprint everyone else uses. It should get your juices flowing, instead of making you yawn.

We need individuality to be successful in business. Cookie-cutter imitations of someone else's drive and enthusiasm are a recipe for disaster. 

Yet our courage often fails us when we write for business purposes, and we fall into one of several traps that keep us stuck in the crowd.


The love of writing may not be what makes you bounce out of bed each morning. Your passions may lie in science, fashion design, technology, engineering or one of many other disciplines.

Your writing is still vital to you. It can help you to big success, or it can be your undoing.
A computer manufacturer lost $35m in a single quarter and eventually went out of business. Why? Customers bought a new line of the company's computers, and then rushed to return them because they found the instruction manuals to be badly written to the point of being incomprehensible.
A one-off horror story? Not really. 
An oil company spent hundreds of thousands of dollars developing a new pesticide, only to discover the formula had already been created five years earlier — by one of the same company's technicians. His report was so poorly written that no one had finished reading it.

It's all to easy to forget how important writing is to business success. When you align your words to your passions in life, and realise the important of harnessing them to your bigger purpose, you naturally become a better writer.


Having strong purpose for our career goals and business interests is a great start towards powerful writing. But we need to link our interests to the goals of our readers too. Sometimes we may even find a purpose that hasn't yet occurred to them.

In My Fair Lady, the musical film version of George Bernard Shaw's play Pygmalion, cockney sparrow Eliza Doolittle wants to learn 'to talk proper' so she can get a job in a flower shop, instead of selling on the corner of Tottenham Court Road. Her accent and command of English aren't up to scratch and linguistics expert Professor Henry Higgins takes on the task of teaching her to speak well. It goes badly. Eliza just doesn't get it.

When she's on the cusp of giving up, Higgins gives Eliza a purpose beyond a job in a flower shop. 'Just think what you're dealing with,' says Higgins. 'The majesty and grandeur of the English language. It's the greatest possession we have. The noblest thoughts that ever flowed through the hearts of men are contained in its extraordinary, imaginative and musical mixtures of sounds. And that's what you've set yourself out to conquer, Eliza. And conquer it you will.'

Eliza is stunned. This goal hadn't remotely occurred to her. But now she understands. Moments later, her voice is fluid and eloquent. She rises to the challenge, stretching herself past the mechanics of voice. Eliza sets out with a small goal, but rises to a bigger challenge offered by a mentor with a grand vision.

It's fiction, of course, and fiction has to make more sense than real life. But it's not an impossible dream. When we focus on using our writing to extend our readers' ambitions in the way that Higgins inspired Eliza, our words help to expand the world we work in.


When we think well in business, we write well. We have clarity in what we want to say and how to express it. When we lack clarity, the answer lies with our thinking more than it does with any flaws in our language skills.

Great writing generally comes from knowing far more than we use. The act of leaving out information forces us to decide what is useful and important, and what is irrelevant. We may think it a waste to accumulate knowledge and then decide not to use it, but we are using it to make a conscious decision based on careful thought.

Nothing is wasted. It is simply focussed into a laser beam. And we've added gravitas.

When we have muddled thinking, we ramble and struggle for the elusive clarity we long to find. We write a sentence or a paragraph, and it feels as if we're stretching for something, an important point that has yet to emerge. So we write another sentence, another paragraph, in the hope that this one will round off our thought. It rarely does. 

We end up with a host of language flaws, partly because we're using more words, sentences and paragraphs than we need. And we're wasting our readers' time, expecting them to plough through our confused thoughts.

When we have laser focus, we have the confidence to write a sentence or paragraph that makes our point. Instinct tells us we're right, and we move on, sure that we're on track.

When we lack clarity, we should go back to research, working out what our readers need to hear, and planning our structure. 

Don't write until you're confident about what you need to say.


'MIND THE GAP' says a lot in only three words. We don't see 'PLEASE MIND THE LARGE, DANGEROUS GAP' at railway stations because adding more than we need dilutes our message.

Writing concisely demands that we couple clear thinking with a forensic approach to our choice of words. If a word, sentence or paragraph adds nothing, cut it.

Readers will be grateful. And when you next write to them, they'll open your document with anticipation, not dread.


Impress readers with your message, not with long, grandiose words and industry jargon.  Readers may expect gobbledegook in business writing, but they'll write songs about you if you keep your writing simple and clear.

Jargon feels attractive, but it can be your downfall.

Business icon Richard Branson, a man you would hardly describe as an underachiever, has blogged about the need to avoid jargon. Branson has dyslexia, dropped out of school at 16 and went on to notch up various business highs and lows. His Virgin group holds more than 200 companies, including space tourism company Virgin Galactic.

'A few years ago, we were looking into investing money in a financial company,' he wrote. 'The person I was talking to said: "We only have a five per cent bid offer spread." Later, I asked one of my team what the guy was talking about. He explained they were using jargon as a way of hiding the fact they were stealing five per cent before we even started.'

Jargon is no friend. In one crucial aspect, writing is the same as any other craft or profession. Ask a perfumer what they are trying to create with a new fragrance and the answer will be 'simplicity'. An architect, aircraft engineer, or a car designer will each give a similar answer.

Simple is good.

Sunday, 23 April 2017

Bury the lead and you bury your writing reputation

DON'T bury the lead is a mantra journalists learn early in their training and it’s a tactic you’d be wise to adopt. When you ‘bury the lead’ you’re offering readers details of little importance to them while making them wait for the main point they'll find interesting and useful.

It’s a mistake that’s easy to make, and straightforward to avoid — don't make readers wait.

Hit them between the eyes with your zinger points and dare them to stop reading. If you do your job well enough, they won’t. We worry that delivering the most useful material upfront works against us when the result is the opposite. 

When your writing is useful and interesting from the start, people read on. Here’s someone who doesn’t waste time. What else do they know? How can they help me?

Let’s assume you went to an important industry event on behalf of your company or organisation and want to let your colleagues know the highlights. It was an all-weekend conference and there’s a lot you could write about.

You’ve spent your entire weekend soaking up information so your colleagues could enjoy their time off. You’re sending out useful information, so the least you can expect is for everyone to read to the end.


The reality is that yours will be one of a likely 120+ emails in your colleagues’ inboxes. They're likely to open only a third of these emails and they’ll stop reading as soon as they’re bored or have something else to do that’s a higher priority. 

Your email will be no exception unless you work to make it gripping, the one that stands out from the inbox fodder.

So where do you start?

Forget the order in which everything happened.

No one cares about the event's timeline. We want to know the highlights, and that may mean cherry picking items that are of most interest or relevance and presenting events out of order. Unless you're clumsy, what you write will make sense.

Start with one main point.

What was the most important or interesting thing that happened? The key point of a speech? A discussion panel’s conclusion? A surprising announcement? Put one of these, not all of them, into a single sentence — keep it simple. One main point, remember. Don’t dilute the impact of your main point by throwing in detail that can wait.

Add nuance further down.

You can flesh out the fuller picture you’re trying to paint for your readers further down your document. Pace the trickle of information so it carries most impact. Don't overload and don't overshare. If something isn't important, don't use it.

Don’t worry about having a wow ending. 

We sometimes sweat about building to a wow finish in case readers lose interest as our document tails away. You don't need to worry. The answer is simple: when you think readers are tempted to stray — STOP WRITING.

Do you need to split into sections for different topics?

Do you have a mix of issues that will interest different groups of colleagues? If you do, pick one main point that stands out from all of the others and then divide into sections with catchy headlines. Replicate the 'don't bury the lead' approach for each section and make it easy for people to flip through to what interests them most.

But be sure to stick to the basic approach. A powerful opening that sums up the main point for a particular topic, adding nuance and detail further down.

If you take the opposite approach to the one I’ve outlined, you’ll soon discover why it has little chance of working. You start with something that’s okay, maybe a little dull… you make similar points, equally lukewarm… and save the best to last. Would you stick around to the end?

You’re aiming for a result that reaches beyond the impact of one document. You’re building a reputation, hopefully as someone who cuts to the chase, someone who is an astute judge of what people really need to know and who respects the backlog in their inboxes. 

You can’t do that if you bury the lead.

Sunday, 9 April 2017

How software you use daily can diagnose your hidden writing habits

USING software to produce some objective writing analysis makes us lazy — but we go there anyway. Few of us have access to the sophisticated algorithms used to discover that Robert Galbraith, debut author of The Cuckoo's Calling, had a secret alter ego in JK Rowling. But we know how to spellcheck our work — sometimes with clumsy results we accept with little thought.

A simple Google search will throw up good and bad reviews of any writing analysis software. It's wise to approach machine-driven verdicts with scepticism and use software purely as an analytic tool, rather than as quality control of your work.

Software can't tell you if your work is capable of nabbing a Nobel Prize for literature, and it will certainly find fault with work that does meet Nobel standards. You will never win an A+ verdict from software, so don't even try. You'll just get that back-at-school feeling, the one that comes with angry red scrawls.

Language analysis software will sometimes suggest changes that will kill your writing, and it will want to add mistakes to work that's pretty damned powerful. Only a fool takes software comments as... foolproof.

So why bother? Because you'll use it in a moment of insecurity, when you desperately want validation that you're doing okay. When you're alone in the office and need a second opinion.

And software isn't all bad. It will highlight some habits you don't even realise you have.

Blunt is the word to remember...

Let's see what three different software tools tell us about the text of Apple's 'Think Different' campaign. An earlier blog (here) will remind you that it was instrumental in making Apple the giant tech brand we know it to be.
Here's to the crazy ones. The misfits.The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. the ones who see things differently. They're not fond of rules. and they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can't do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.


Microsoft Word will check more than spelling if you ask it to do so, and will generate suggestions on what you might want to change, along with readability statistics to tell you how you're doing.

These are the key points of Word's verdict about Apple, and what the result means.
  • Apple used roughly seven words a sentence, making it short and easy to read. 
A common average would be between 13 and 20 words. An average of 30+ words should set off alarm bells, as some sentences will be whoppers readers will struggle to get through. If you write short sentences, your work will have more impact. Apple has pulled this off, partly because some of these are fragments, incomplete sentences. It's an approach normally frowned upon but in Apple's campaign text shown, it works.
  • Apple uses short words — an average of four characters a word.
Short words are usually familiar to us and easy to read. Apple's text isn't bogged down in jargon and pompous language.
  • Apple uses no passive sentences. A good result.
A high number of passive sentences in any piece of writing should throw up a red flag. An earlier blog (here) will tell you why active sentences are often a better choice. It should be no surprise that passive sentences will give the impression of you being... passive.

The zero result for passive sentences in the Apple text reflects the company's nature. Visionary, revolutionary, pioneering — definitely not passive.
  • Apple's reading ease is 84.7
Word offers a verdict on whether text is easy to read. The higher the score, the easier the text is to read. Apple's result is a great verdict.
  • Apple has a gr3.2 — the education level needed to be able to read and understand the text.
The 3.2 level means that the barely literate can read the company's message.

The information Word offers is useful as a blunt diagnostic on your work. Long words or short? Long sentences or short? Mostly passive sentences or active ones? Easy to read? Or slow and confusing?

None of this tells anyone if the content is worth reading, but it gives clues on what might be getting in the way of a reader absorbing what we hope will be brilliant insights.

This is how you switch on and use this feature in Word.
  • Open Word and go to PREFERENCES.
  • Tick the following boxes:
  • Beneath the readability statistics box, you will see a choice of writing style — standard, casual, formal, technical, and custom. Make your choice and click OK.
  • Open a document, go to the TOOLS menu, and then to SPELLING AND GRAMMAR on the drop-down menu.
  • The software will check your writing. When it hits what it sees as a flaw — grammar, spelling or punctuation — you will be prodded to change your writing, or ignore the suggestion.
  • When Word finishes the check, a window appears showing your statistics.
These are the key areas:

Average words per sentence

If your average is fewer than 20, you're working within reasonable limits. Even so, never pass up the chance to improve and cut sentences if needed.

Characters per word

If your result is in double digits, you have some long, complicated words and may want to simplify them.

Passive sentences

These can be a significant writing speed bump. But beware: the software is sometimes wrong.

Reading ease

These are the levels:
90-100     very easy
80-89       easy
70-79       fairly easy
60-69       standard
50-59       fairly difficult
30-49       difficult
0-29         very confusing

Change some of your language choices — shorter words, shorter sentences, and fewer passive ones — and this number goes up. It's simple, but it's best to treat it mostly as a guide. 

Ultimately, you should trust your instincts. After all, it's your writing, your readers and your vision.

Sunday, 26 March 2017

How a three-word verdict shows us our writing fingerprint

THE idea of having a personal writing fingerprint is not a far-fetched one. We make daily judgments, based on what we read, about the personality, credibility and trustworthiness of people we've never met or spoken to.

There's nothing wrong in doing this. Far from it. We need ways to protect ourselves from those out to cheat us at the same time as finding like-minded people we want to connect with to achieving our goals.

Read the following paragraphs and job down three words that describe the writer. Don't try to overthink the three words, just stick with the ones that instantly come to mind.
'If you think an apostrophe was one of the 12 disciples of Jesus, you will never work for me. If you think a semicolon is a regular colon with an identity crisis, I will not hire you. If you scatter commas into a sentence with all the discrimination of a shotgun, you might make it to the foyer before we politely escort you from the building.'Some might call my approach to grammar extreme, but I prefer Lynne Truss's more cuddly phraseology: I am a grammar "stickler". And, like Truss — author of Eats, Shoots and Leaves — I have a "zero tolerance approach" to grammar mistakes that make people look stupid.'
These are my three words: direct, decisive, opinionated.

These paragraphs are from a blog by Kyle Wiens, chief executive of, the world's largest online repair manual. He also runs Dozuki, which helps companies write their own technical documents, such as paperless work instructions and step-by-step user manuals.

Anyone who applies for a job with Wiens has to take a grammar test. Those who fail are shown the door. Wiens believes people who make fewer grammar mistakes make fewer mistakes when doing something unrelated to writing, even stocking shelves or labelling parts.

You may think his approach is too broad or unforgiving, particularly if grammar is one of your writing weaknesses. Our opinions all come through the filter of our own mindset.

But that's not really the point. You didn't have a problem choosing three adjectives, did you?

By now, you have a reasonably clear idea of who I am, based on what you've read so far — a mix of my content and how I've expressed my thoughts. There's also a chance you have little idea of how your own writing comes across to your readers.

When you speak, you may use short words in coherent sentences. When you write, panic may creep in. When writing to a solicitor, you may throw in quasi-legal language you are ill-equipped to use. You may throw financial jargon into an email to an accountant, while having little idea what the jargon means.

Writing can do that to people. Our common sense disappears. We want to seem knowledgeable and experienced. More than anything, we want to avoid appearing to be ignorant or stupid. So we try to impress.

You don't need a linguistics expert to highlight what we're doing. You can ask colleagues or friends to give you a verdict. For our purposes, we're not trying to prove you wrote something — we already know that. We're after the essence of authorship, evidence of how your readers see you, your personality, strengths and weaknesses.

Give a motley mix of people something you've written and ask them for the three-word verdict. Two or three paragraphs should do, although you can happily give them something longer.

There's a strong chance that your recruits will want to elaborate or justify their comments. They probably won't want to upset you, and may also fall into trying to give feedback — probably with grammar, punctuation and spelling corrections — complete with suggestions on how you should rewrite what you've asked them to read.

STOP THEM! When people overthink their choices, they spoil your chance of an authentic result that will help you.

Be prepared to interpret your volunteers' reactions. You're being given clues about your writing; it's up to you to work out where the clues lead. Your instincts will show you the difference between accurate comments and misguided attempts to flatter.

You'll love some comments and hate others. A few may make your blood boil. These are the most valuable ones

Having the urge to punch someone because they describe your writing as pompous, long-winded or tedious is a slam-dunk sign that they're right. That's why it hurts. They've hit on the part of your writing you hate most, something you thought you were hiding well.

Treat these violent urges as a gift, a sign about where you need to improve. The pain will pass...

Avoid looking for praise, but accept it when it feels genuine. Warning: some comments may appear kind, while hiding criticism. If someone describes your writing as direct, ask yourself if this is a genuine compliment about ideas expressed in well-structured sentences without wasting a word — or do they really mean angry or rude?

Is clear a euphemism for simplistic? Does ambitious mean delusional? Does inspirational imply grandiose?

Some comments will be straightforward and can be taken at face value, while others may demand interpretation. Don't try to overcook anything. Just ask yourself what you were trying to achieve and trust your instincts to come to the right verdict.

Did you play it safe, wishing that a report you needed to finish would disappear? Did you put on a show, trying to dazzle with your use of jargon? Did you write for yourself or for your readers?

The comments people give you, and your feelings about them, are a snapshot of how you think, what you know, and what you feel. Everything's there. Strengths. Weaknesses. Knowledge. Passion. Boredom.

We are what we write...

Sunday, 12 March 2017

Are you a real writer or just a homework slacker?

WRITE with nouns and verbs is some of the best writing advice anyone can give you. These are concrete words with power and strength. When you use detail and facts to get across your message — and resort to adjectives and adverbs with caution — your writing will have greater clarity and impact. Used liberally, adjectives and adverbs weaken writing and devalue your writing reputation.


When we write, we paint pictures with words — not just in novels and poetry, but even in the most serious of business documents. One of our biggest goals is clarity. We want all readers to see the same picture that we have in our minds. The use of adjectives often gets in our way, creating confusion and possible disappointment.

A large pay rise…
A small drop in the company’s share price…
Ideally, we want concrete facts and detail in our work, not adjectives, because we’ll interpret adjectives according to how we, as individuals, see the world.

A large pay rise will carry a different meaning to a care worker than it does to a high-flying CEO. A small drop in a share price is equally ambiguous.
A 10 per cent pay rise with a bonus equivalent to a month’s pay…
A six per cent fall in the company’s share price…
Facts and detail show you as someone who does their homework, who deals with questions before they arise, and who bases their opinions and recommendations on concrete knowledge. This approach shows an awareness of what your readers need to know. They will thank you for it.

Falling back on adjectives with little thought will flag you as someone satisfied with vague writing. Of course there will be times when you need an adjective. For instance, you may be able to justify red as an adjective. But can you push it further. Is it pillar-box red, burgundy, or maroon?

Remember that you’re not writing a whodunit crime novel. And even if you were, you’d still opt for detail over vagueness.


Bestselling novelist Stephen King, a man who is no slouch when it comes to writing well, is on a crusade against adverbs. And I'm on his side. 

Adverbs are words that modify our verbs and adjectives, or sometimes even other adverbs. They’re easy to spot, and often end in –lyQuicklycompletelytotally. Most of the time, they miss their target.

Imagine this as a sentence in a business proposal.

If we act quickly, we can completely eliminate the threat from our competitors and totally dominate the market.
This hyperbolic sentence is weak and flabby for a mix of reasons, and seems naive and juvenile. The writer seems keen to exaggerate an opportunity, and that may lead to a disastrous business decision.

First, the word quickly is vague. Do we mean, today, tomorrow, or within a year? Each of us will have a different interpretation of what this means. If we expect to build our business with everyone puling in the same direction, shouldn't we expect to be precise in our writing?

Second, eliminate means to expel, remove, or get rid of something. If we aren't eliminating something, we’ll be reducing or lessening the threat from competitors. Don't mislead colleagues by overstating your case. You'll lose their trust if you exaggerate your case or show your ignorance of a word's meaning. Completely is redundant.

Third, dominate means to have power and influence over something. Do we mean control here, or simply that we’d be in a commanding position, one where we have influence but don't quite call all of the shots? Perhaps we'll control 60 per cent of a given market? If you can add specifics, say so. Of course, adding detail demands that you can back up what you say. Do you have the courage to put your head above the parapet?

When we want or expect colleagues to take action based on our words, we should be precise in our thinking and in how we express our ideas. Occasions will arise when you can justify the use of an adverb, but be tough when using them — and explain the need for vagueness where you have no other choice.

Your colleagues and clients may not mention your use of vague words as a reason for criticising your report, or for giving it less than their full support. But flabby words show flabby thinking. That's what they'll object to, even if they don't express it. 

Respect everyone's ability to see the flaws in your work and you'll raise your game. Everyone needs what writer Ernest Hemingway called 'a fail-safe bullshit detector'. 

Push every word to justify its place in your writing, and you'll gain clarity. Remember that the first person you have to convince is you. The objective version of you, not the one who is easy to please. Make every word count and you'll present your work with the confidence that you have looked into every possibility and locked down all options.

Sunday, 26 February 2017

The unconscious writing habit you may have that sends your readers to Zzzzzz

WE want people to see us as dynamic and active, someone who gets results. But when we write, we often do it in a way that shows us as passive and indirect — all without realising how we’ve sabotaged ourselves.
Carol wrote the business proposal. (active)
The business proposal was written by Carol. (passive)
The business proposal was written. (passive)
These examples show the difference between the active and passive voices, and they’re the only two we use when we write.
The first sentences shows Carol taking action — writing her business proposal, and maybe hoping for a pay rise or promotion.
The second focuses on the business proposal being written and the third shows how we can lose information that may be useful — dropping Carol from the sentence.
When we use the active voice, we show a doer acting on an object. In the active example, Carol is the doer, writing is her action, and the business proposal is the object she acts upon. We’ve written a sentence that’s quick and easy to understand.
When we choose the passive voice, we put the doer after the verb and end up with a flat sentence that often uses more words — while also losing writing energy.
Active writing carries more impact. It's that simple. Most of what we read in newspapers and magazines, and on news websites, is active: it’s the kind of writing we pay to read. It’s also how we prefer to speak.
Passive writing often feels evasive. Where it enables us to avoid mentioning the ‘doer’ it may prompt readers to feel that someone is trying to dodge a bullet.
And it also makes the writer seem… passive.
So why is the passive voice so common in business writing? Well, it feels detached and formal, and implies objectivity that’s often an illusion.
It often makes writing feel boring and obscure. Read anything written by a lawyer, scientist or accountant, and you'll understand why. Yet we may cling to this approach in the belief that it’s more professional, carrying added authority. It isn't, and it doesn’t.

There's also the possibility that we might be afraid to use the active voice because it feels too bold, too definite. We may have an unpleasant truth we feel it might be best to say softly.
The point is not to avoid any use of passive sentences, but to make a conscious choice on what we want to achieve.

Mary threw Bob out of the house last night. (active)
Bob was thrown out of the house last night by Mary. (passive)
Regardless of whether Mary is being reasonable, the active version shows her taking action, which grabs our attention and makes the sentence lively. The passive version feels awkward and clumsy.
Active sentences don’t have to involve people at all, nor does the action have to be the kind you’d find in a Hollywood blockbuster. But it might be…

Blood covered the body. (active)
The body was covered with blood. (passive)
This is a nuanced choice, depending on where you want to place your focus — the body or the blood. And on how poetic you want to be about something grisly.
Where your building works are concerned, several mistakes have been admitted. (passive)
Boy, is this an ugly sentence. It feels evasive since no one is owning up to making the mistakes. Readers want answers and zoom in on areas where omissions seem part of a cover-up. The writer of this sentence has avoided making a confession but created a new issue — angry readers.
You want readers to arrive at the same meaning, even though they bring different baggage to their reading. Who made the mistakes? Workmen? The site foreman? The building company? The architect? The reader? It makes more sense to be direct.

We/I made several mistakes during your building works. (active)
This sentence won't win any writing awards, but at least it's active, direct and less likely to annoy readers — unless the mistakes aren’t fixed. Clearly, it would also make sense to apologise. How can you do that convincingly if you're not prepared to own up to making a mistake.
Sometimes, you may opt for a passive approach because you actively want to avoid finger pointing. Be careful... 

A member of the accounts department was accused of fraud. (passive)
If the accounts department has a small enough staff, one of them may feel relieved by the anonymity, while the rest feel aggrieved that colleagues believe them to be guilty. 

Of course, it's possible that legal issues may stop you from being more specific. And that's fine, even if it's a difficult choice that irritates some people. The main thing is to know what you want to say, and take the most honest approach within any obvious restrictions.
There are also times when knowing who took action is implied or irrelevant, times when a passive approach doesn't create a loss of writing impact.

Police arrested a 35-year-old man today for the murder of… (active)
A 35-year-old man was arrested today for the murder of… (passive)
Here we are more interested in who has been arrested than we are in who made the arrest — we understand this is usually the police.
Breaking into a sweat over a single misplaced passive sentence is overkill. But a document riddled with them will drive readers away.
The active voice is easier to read than the passive one, and your first task with any document is to keep people reading until they reach the end.
It may take time to diagnose whether you have a passive sentence habit, and that discovery may shock you. It's the hardest writing habit to change because it's so ingrained, but you can gradually shift to a more active approach if that feels comfortable.
Microsoft Word can be set to highlight possible passive sentences and I’ll show you the pros and cons of software analysis in a later post.
For now, look for the word was in your verb and you may be looking at a passive sentence. It’s not a fallible guide — as in the building works example given here — but it’s a start.

Bob was thrown out of the house last night by Mary.
The body was covered with blood.
Where your building works are concerned, several mistakes have been admitted.
A member of the accounts department was accused of fraud.
A 35-year-old man was arrested today for the murder of…
If you find yourself clinging to a passive writing approach you've only just discovered you had, ask yourself why you're reluctant to change. Are you afraid to be upfront? Feathers sometimes need to be ruffled for good reasons. And you’re making roughly the same point, even with the passive voice — you’re just trying to make it more palatable by disguising it. If you’re not prepared to be direct, should you say it at all? It's your choice, and your writing reputation.
Being direct is not the same as being blunt. You aren't going to become a troll as long as you choose your words with care and aim for balanced writing.

Ultimately, you are what you write. if you develop an active voice approach, and feel comfortable doing so, you’ll become a more active person — as well as a better writer.

Sunday, 12 February 2017

A few words from the 'crazy' brand show us how ambition and aspiration can conquer the world

THE notion that words can transform the world may seem a little grandiose. Yet writing is a powerful transformative tool, sometimes in a quiet way and sometimes with a fanfare.
We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
These 35 words from the American Declaration of Independence may seem a little dusty for modern language tastes, but they're one of the most influential sentences in the English language.

How does writing as a world-changing craft apply to creating stellar companies and global brands? There is no better example than Apple's 'Think Different' campaign.
Here's to the crazy ones. The misfits.The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. the ones who see things differently. They're not fond of rules. and they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can't do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.
You may see little in these words that's prophetic or delusionally ambitious. Apple, after all, is the world's largest music retailer, has more than one billion actively used products, and was the first American company to be valued at more than $700 billion. 

But these words would have struck you differently in the late 1990s when Apple's fortunes were bleak. Having previously been forced out of Apple, Steve Jobs had been wooed back to save the company he'd co-founded years before. Apple was three months from bankruptcy. It needed a miracle.

Jobs and Lee Clow, the creative director of ad agency TBWA/Chiat/Day, had worked together before and agreed on the need for a brand image campaign that would remind people of what was distinctive about Apple. Despite its financial woes, Apple was one of the top five brands in the world, thanks to some faithful customers.

But it had a fundamental problem. 'We at Apple had forgotten who we were,' said Jobs. 'One way to remember who you are is to remember who your heroes are.' This realisation was to kick off a campaign that become known as the 'crazy ones', a campaign praising those who 'think different'. 

Even with a simple core idea, it wasn't an easy plan to pull off. Consumers were already holding back from replacing old Apple computers thanks to the publicity about Apple's financial woes. And Jobs was known to be uncompromising, someone notoriously hard to please. He hated the first draft of the TV ad, but agreed it carried a brilliant idea, confirming the ad agency's view that the soul of the campaign was there from the beginning.
Ultimately, the final draft used the 101 words shown above as a voiceover by actor Richard Dreyfus, a dedicated Apple fan. Black-and-white footage of 20th century icons — the likes of Albert Einstein, Martin Luther King Jr, Richard Branson, Muhammad Ali, Mohandas Gandhi, Alfred Hitchcock and Pablo Picasso — provided the visual backdrop.

You can see the ad here

Few companies could have pulled off such an audacious plan, associating a nearly-bankrupt brand with a host of world-changing figures. But Apple backed its 'Think Different' approach and the campaign was instrumental in the company's path back to profit. 

The words defined the company's target audience at the deep level of values and philosophy, and declared its purpose of changing the world. Unusually for a tech company, the campaign used not a word of jargon.

In time, Jobs and Apple would transform five industries — personal computers, mobile phones and tablet computing, digital publishing, and animated films. You could argue that Apple made a dent in retailing too, by launching stores radically different than those of most retailers. But it's a path few have dared to follow.

So how do the words work?

There's no quick fix here. No computers, technical specs or prices. Instead, we have long-term vision, a reflection of Jobs, the man, and Apple, the company. The campaign foreshadowed the company's mission... 'The people who think they can change the world are the ones who do.'

Apple would follow through on its ambitious declaration by creating and selling revolutionary products to people intent on making a difference in the world. That's where we came in. And, let's face it, we'd all like to believe we can change the world a little before we die.

We've all been through times when we felt different from the crowd, out of sync with the accepted norm. 

And we identify with the rebels and heroes who stand up for their beliefs, no matter what the consequences. We admire them for getting back up when they fail, dusting themselves off and having another go. We wish we had their courage, persistence — and their eventual success.

The Apple campaign invited each of us to become a crazy, genius disrupter, someone made of the right stuff — creative, courageous and full of vision. How could we resist? 

Jobs was not a man keen on research and focus groups, preferring to trust his gut instinct and personal vision of how the world ought to be. More often than not, he got what he wanted.

But Apple also had an existing product niche in the creative industries. The company had evidence to support the belief it was already a magnet for those crazy rebels who wanted to make a difference. The goal was simple: make that group bigger.

These words are in the style of a toast being delivered at an industry event just before a lifetime achievement award is handed over with smiles and greeted by rapturous applause.

A clear idea, carried by simple words, building with momentum, emotion and punch.

We may feel this to be the area where all the writing happens, but the heavy lifting had already been done. Apple had a huge vision and clear target audience, along with a workable structure — the only job left was to choose the right words to express its message.

We all recognise good writing when we read it or hear it. Our reaction is both visceral and intellectual. With great work, we don't mind if the writer breaks grammar 'rules', and the chances are we won't even notice, so caught up are we with the power of the vision.

Apple showed the confidence to break a couple of language conventions:
  • sentence fragments — at odds with grammar 'rules'.
  • sentences that start with conjunctions — something most English teachers would tell students to avoid.
Since Apple's target audience were the crazy genius types, it was unlikely they'd object to breaking a couple of 'rules'.

But where it was important, those involved in the 'Think Different' campaign grappled with anal detail as well as big-picture vision. They even debated the grammatical issue of whether 'different' was being used to modify the verb 'think'. Was it an adverb? A grammatical mistake? Should it be 'Think Differently'?

Jobs insisted he wanted 'different' to be used as a noun — as in 'think big' — not an adverb — as in 'think differently'. It was no mistake, but a deliberate choice.

It's important to remember that the message of the 'Think Different' campaign stretched beyond potential customers. It targeted staff too, becoming a touchstone that reminded everyone of Apple's philosophy. 

Given the parlous state of the company's finances, the campaign risked scorn and laughter. Instead, it marked a turning point in the company's fortunes. It told staff what they needed to do to keep the company on track, reminded existing customers why they bought Apple in the first place, and wooed new ones with an ambitious, appealing vision.

This handful of words is simple and brave, aspirational and inspirational, shows clarity and purpose, and demonstrates the confidence to break some language 'rules'.

Whether we're building a world-class company, rallying a cause, or trying to turn a complainant into a follower, these words show that we don't need a thesaurus of words to make a strong case that enlists readers to your purpose. We just need smart ones.