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.