Newsletters I love

Newsletters I love

Hello friends

Do you scan your inbox every morning for something interesting to read? I know I do!

I love getting emails from people I know in real life, but failing that, I enjoy reading newsletters from people I don’t know personally, but who send me stuff that’s interesting and entertaining.

I’ve been thinking about starting my own newsletter (it’s a work in progress) and this has led me to do quite a lot of research about what kind of email platforms are available, but also to think deeply about what sort of content I enjoy. The experts say that you should write the book you’d like to read, so I figure you should send out the newsletter that you’d like to receive. For me, this is usually a mixture of funny, interesting or inspiring things, with a few recipes thrown in for good measure.

These are my favourite newsletters at the moment:

Mary Laura Philpott, author of I Miss You When I Blink sends out a newsletter every couple of weeks with different book recommendations plus a few other tidbits: a link to something interesting or funny, a great tune, and a little cartoon or art of some sort. It’s short and fun. You can subscribe here.

The food writer and podcaster Jenny Rosenstrach has a newsletter called Three Things, which I love because the recipes are so simple and appealing. We have a lot of limes on our tree at the moment and I have become slightly addicted to gimlets (a cocktail involving gin, limes and elderflower cordial). The recipe for this, plus a simple angel-food cake, is here.

If you are a writer, think about subscribing to Craft Talk, by Jami Attenberg, author of many books which I admire. Her newsletter is always honest and inspirational without being cloying. You can subscribe to a paid or a free version, (I have taken the free option because I’m a cheapskate), but note that she donates most of the proceeds from the paid version to charity, and if you are an educator, you can sign up for free.

I always enjoy browsing through this newsletter from Jo Goddard which contains a nice mix of culture, fashion and articles about relationships. I especially enjoyed this article featuring the apartment of illustrator Carly Martin because I love looking at pictures of where people live.

This is just a small sample of the newsletters I’m currently subscribed to, but they are the ones that I always open and read. I’d be interested to know if you have any favourites and I’d especially like to know what it is about them you really find engaging? I’m still in the research phase, so please share what you like (and don’t like) about any newsletters you’ve signed up for.

Have a great week!


More or less

More or less

People often use the saying “less is more” when they want to convey the idea that simple things are more effective than things that are fussy or cluttered.

We usually attribute the phrase to the architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969), but it was was first used in a poem by Robert Browning, published in 1885. I don’t suggest that you read this poem because it’s very long and rather boring. Clearly, Browning did not take his own advice. Mies van der Rohe, on the other hand, was a master of minimalism before they even invented the term.

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you know that I’m a strong supporter of making things less complicated. I think that simple things (especially reports and other documents) are more elegant and easier to understand, but this doesn’t mean that everything needs to be reduced to the lowest common denominator. It’s okay for writing to be nuanced and even quite detailed if it gives the reader a clearer picture of what you are trying to say.

Writing is about clarity. The aim is to get your message across in a way that is accessible, but also appropriate for your audience. You need to make sure that you aren’t talking down to people. This means that using technical terms could be ok, and acronyms might not need to be explained, but you still need to remove information that is extraneous or irrelevant.

No-one needs extra words if they aren’t adding value.

But how do you work out what information is valuable and what isn’t? Here are some suggestions…

  1. Think about your audience. What do they already know? What needs to be explained?
  2. Ask yourself if the information is adding to the story, or is it just interesting to me? For example, I included a lot of information about Mies van der Rohe in an early draft of this post and then decided that I should just add a link. I figured that if you’re interested in learning more about him, you can just follow the link. This leads me to my third bit of advice.
  3. Give readers a choice. You are always going to have readers who like lots of detail, so you need to cater to their needs. This might mean adding an appendix to your report or including links to relevant documents. Just because you want your info uncluttered doesn’t mean that other people have the same requirements. They might want more, so make sure you give them options.

If you’re interested in improving your reports, can I suggest you check out this post by Chris Lysy, an incredible evaluator, cartoonist and designer.

You don’t need to be amazing

You don’t need to be amazing

Today is International Women’s Day, and I’d like to say a special thank you to all the women in my life for their friendship, love and support. Life just wouldn’t be the same without you.

We hear a lot about women being strong and invincible, but sometimes we are vulnerable, sad and lonely, and these are often the times when our friends really show their true worth.

A good friend (male or female), who sticks by you through thick and thin, and who listens without judgement when times are tough, is worth a thousand people telling you you’re amazing. I hope you have some people like this in your life to cheer you on.

I think there’s far too much emphasis on being amazing. We don’t all need to be extraordinary, sometimes just being ordinary is enough. Sometimes doing the dishes and looking after the kids and getting through the day is enough. Many people would like to think they are making a difference in the world, but they think they need to do something remarkable. I think just holding things together is remarkable enough. Just being a good friend is enough.

I love this quote…

All you can do is face the world with quiet grace and hope you make a sliver of difference. You must trust that you being the best possible you matters somehow, that being an attentive and generous friend and citizen will prevent a thread or two of the social fabric from unravelling.”

Brian Doyle

Be a good friend. It matters.

Using a web editor to improve your writing

Using a web editor to improve your writing

Yesterday I had to get some spelling advice from my sister. I’d already spent an hour trying to find the answer on the internet, but everything I read just made me more confused, so I gave up and emailed my sister (ex-teacher and librarian), and she replied quick-smart with a definitive answer. Yay for sisters.

I still miss being the go-to grammar and spelling person at work, but to be honest I didn’t always know the answers and often had to look things up on the internet or in one of my trusty books, my favourite being Writing at Work by Neil James, Executive Director of the Plain English Foundation. If you are ever going to buy a writing book, I recommend this one.

Like most people, I have several words which I commonly misspell. (It amuses me that misspelt is a word that nearly everyone misspells). I spent many years with a yellow sticky note stuck on my monitor with “separate” written on it because I had a mental blank about how to spell it, despite having my spellchecker turned on. Other people tell me they struggle with broccoli, cemetery and when to use stationery/stationary, although that one is easy to remember. A pen is stationery, and we spell both with an e.

Today I read an article where the writer had used pneumonic instead of mnemonic, and it made me laugh. She can blame spellcheck, I guess.

Writing is hard, and everyone makes mistakes, including me.

I recently started using a tool called ProWritingAid, an online editing tool. It’s not as good as a real editor, (by which I mean a person), but pretty useful. I have the free version which allows you to upload a small quantity of text and it will check it for grammar, spelling and style errors. I also use their Chrome add-on which highlights mistakes when I’m doing any online writing, for example commenting on other people’s blogs. It makes helpful suggestions which you can easily ignore if you don’t like them or don’t agree.

It’s interesting to observe the mistakes I commonly make and try to correct them. Most of them are poor writing habits such as using passive voice and unnecessary words. Best of all, you get a brief report at the end of the week telling you how many improvements you’ve made.

I have learnt that my main issue is using modifiers that weaken my writing.

Examples are “just”, as in I just wanted to say; “somewhat”, as in I was somewhat discouraged; and “a bit” as in I was a bit sad. We commonly use these words in academic writing, which encourages tentative language. Sentences often start with the words, “the research shows”, or “it would seem that…” You can’t be too confident just in case you can’t back up your claim with evidence.

But I’m not writing academic essays anymore, so I’ve started removing these words. As a result, I think my writing is much stronger and clearer. And as you know, I’m a big fan of clarity and brevity.

Why don’t you try it and see what you think?

Happy birthday to my blog

Happy birthday to my blog

My blog turned 10 in January, but we didn’t have a party, mainly because I didn’t notice. It was only when a fellow writer mentioned they had been blogging for 10 years that I went back to check how long I’d been posting here.

There is an enormous gap between my first and second posts in 2011 (about ten months) and I can’t remember why this was the case, but I’m the first to admit that my posting has been sporadic over the years. I’m trying to post more regularly now. Thank you for hanging in there.

I originally started this blog because I was doing a graphic design course and desperately wanted to share what I was learning. It was all so new and interesting, and the teacher in me just wanted to tell the world. I’m not a natural born teacher because I’m way too impatient, but something kicks in when I find out something interesting. I always think “who can I tell?”

I originally called my blog Design Basics. I set about explaining the principles of graphic design in simple terms, covering topics such as white space, balance and proximity. When I grew tired of imagining myself as a graphic designer (too many poor results and not enough talent), I started writing about anything that interested me, and some common themes emerged. I frequently wrote about communication with a proliferation of writing tips, and suggestions for ways to improve your PowerPoint slides. In those days, my job involved reviewing slide decks, and it constantly amazed me that they were so terrible. When I left that organisation 14 years later, things had improved a little, but not as much as I hoped.

When I look back over my early posts, I’m a little embarrassed by them. They seem amateurish and rather puffed up, as if I actually know what I am talking about, when I was was really just pretending, but I can’t bring myself to delete them as they represent part of my blogging journey and therefore my life. It’s a bit like throwing out the drawings your kids did at pre-school. They may have grown and matured, but you still remember them as little boys and girls.

Having reached this milestone, I wonder what I should write about for the next ten years? The experts advise you to pick a topic and stick to it, but the idea of doing that bores me to tears. I don’t like the idea of being boxed in and having to write about the same thing week in and week out.

These days I frequently write about books and writing, because this interests me, but I don’t want to become a book blogger because then I would have to read books I don’t really like, and I can’t see the point of that. I am very particular about what books I read and like the freedom of being able to pick and choose.

Over the past ten years, I’ve learnt to be more critical about what the ‘experts say’ and more inclined to just do whatever I like. I think this is one of the benefits of growing older. You worry less and less about what other people think, and it’s very liberating.

On a final note, if you have been reading my blog since the beginning, thank you. I love knowing you are there and appreciate your support. If you’ve arrived here more recently, welcome, I hope you will stick around.

Love your work

Love your work

I was chatting to my daughter yesterday and reflecting on the fact that although I’ve had quite a few different jobs in my career; I have more or less been doing the same work, just in different environments.

I started work at 15, straight out of school. It was common in those days for girls to leave school at 15 and go to secretarial college for a year, or get work in a shop or hairdresser. My grandmother went ‘into service’ as a housemaid when she was 11 or 12, and this meant living away from home during the week and returning home on Sundays, her one day off. Younger readers will think this sounds a lot like Downton Abbey, and I guess it was quite similar, except that she worked for a middle-class couple who owned a chain of shops, rather than for the landed gentry.

My mother left school at 15 and went down the secretarial path, working as a typist in an office in Perth before leaving to get married and have children. This was also a common pattern. I didn’t want to be a secretary and as a result I deliberately avoided learning to type when I was at school. I have regretted this decision several times in my career.

I wanted to be a music producer, an unlikely career choice for a girl living in a smallish city with only one recording studio. Employment opportunities in the creative industry were very limited, but I did snag a job as a film editing assistant with a small production company who made documentaries and television ads.

My job involved typing letters, (one letter would take me all morning), doing the banking, getting lunches, and learning the rudiments of film editing.

Film editing is about storytelling. You start with a lot of content (much more than you can use) and you decide (with the director), what serves the story best. Next you decide how to organise the content so that the narrative arc is entertaining, surprising or interesting, or hopefully all three. It doesn’t have to be linear, it just needs to engage the audience and move the story forward. Often a circular pattern involving flashbacks works well.

Looking back, I realised that this sort of work: choosing, sorting, and ordering content has been the through-line of my career. Teaching also involves choosing salient information and arranging it in a way that makes sense to the students, and doesn’t bore them to death. Writing and editing reports (especially evaluation reports) involves deciding what’s valuable and then arranging the content so that it’s meaningful.

Now I’m interested in writing memoir and realise it involves the same set of skills. When you are writing about your life, you need to think about what the important moments were. The critical turning points that changed the course of your life. Then you need to arrange those pieces in a way that illuminates bigger, more universal themes so that your readers can identify with your story. It’s quite hard work, but the principles are the same, so the process is familiar.

Can you identify any themes or similarities in your working life? Are there tasks that you gravitate to, regardless of your role or job description? I suspect that these are things you are probably good at.

Please share your thoughts, I’d love to know what you think.

Literary fiction

Literary fiction

I’ve been watching a series called Love, Nina on the ABC. It’s based on a book by Nina Stibbe about her early days as a nanny working for a single mum (played by Helena Bonham-Carter) in a somewhat bohemian household in London.

Bonham-Carter plays Mary-Kay Wilmers, editor of the London Review of Books, who Stibbe worked for as a young woman. Nick Hornby wrote the script, and it’s very amusing, especially the dialogue between the two boys and their mum. There’s also an odd neighbour (a Scottish poet) who comes to their house for dinner every night and constantly criticises Nina’s cooking.

In the series Nina moves from Leicester to London and discovers ‘literature’ because of her friendship with a young man who lives three doors up. Early in the series he sees her reading Shirley Conran’s Lace, a trashy novel popular in the 1970s, and gives her a copy of The Return of the Native (Thomas Hardy), but she finds it frustrating and impenetrable. There’s a delightful scene where she’s reading it to her nine-year-old charge and pretending that it’s Enid Blyton so that he can help her understand what it means, but he sees through her plan and demands that she reads him The Famous Five instead.

Eventually Nina realises Hardy is writing about the characters’ interior life and not just documenting their everyday activities. She marvels at the idea that everyone has an interior life, even Aunty Gladys, and that this is what literature is all about.

I’m not sure whether this is true, and to be honest I have read little Hardy since I was about 17, but I have noticed that when you go into a bookshop, there’s always a shelf labelled ‘literary fiction’, and one labelled ‘fiction’ or sometimes ‘general fiction’. Sometimes there’s another shelf called women’s fiction, but never a shelf called men’s fiction. Poor men, why don’t they get a shelf?

Writer and teacher Allison K Williams says that in simple terms, a literary book is just one that has sold less than 10,000 copies, but I think there’s more to it than that (and I think she’d agree). She is merely making the point that if you are planning to write literary fiction, then you’d better not expect to sell thousands of copies unless you win the Booker Prize or another big literary award. Commercial fiction is written with the market in mind, and the big publishing houses seem to think that most people want to read books that are just like other books. That’s why you see books marketed as the new Eleanor Oliphant, for example.

The dictionary defines ‘literature’ as written work that is considered superior or has lasting artistic merit, but I’m not sure who decides these things. Some books are more thoughtful and engaging than others, and these are the ones that I like to read, regardless of the label.

I’m keen to know what things mean, and perhaps be moved to think about wider themes such as the value of friendship, honesty, and love, but I think these ideas can be explored in a well plotted murder mystery or a romance novel. In order for a book to move me there needs to be something that resonates at a conscious, or perhaps unconscious level, but I’m not bothered if it’s also a page-turner. I like complex characters and long sprawling multi-generational books, but most of all, I like strong storytelling.

I like books that stay with me after I’ve finished reading them. Sometimes I even catch myself wondering how the characters in the book are going, as if they were actually friends or people I’ve met somewhere. I like flawed characters and dislike one-dimensional goody two shoes. People who are good all the time are just not realistic in my book. Who’s nice all the time in real life? Not me, that’s for sure.

Tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor

Tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor

In the olden days there was a lot of emphasis on being ‘regular’. People were obsessed with it, especially parents. As children, we had a choice between eating prunes or being dosed with castor oil, a horrible substance kept in a dark brown bottle and meted out to us along with a daily fluoride tablet.

Prunes were also pretty cheap and a good filler if you were feeding a family. We had them for breakfast with our cereal and sometimes for dinner with creamed rice or baked custard. It was common to soak them in a little bit of hot water so that they were less chewy. My mum made terrible baked custard and I still really hate it to this day. Recently, my friend Megan explained to me mum’s custard was probably thin and watery because she didn’t put enough eggs in it, or too much milk, depending on how you look at it. This is probably true, because although she was a good cook, she had a lot of mouths to feed and everything was stretched as much as possible to feed the seven of us.

We always had five prunes, never four, and certainly never six, because that would mean that you were going to marry a poor man when you grew up. The prune stones would be lined up on the edge of the dish and we would recite the following…

Tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor, RICH MAN, poor man, beggar man, thief. Five was definitely the optimal number.

The number of prune stones also determined what you would wear when you got married.

Silk, satin, rags, bags, and then back to silk. So if you wanted to marry a rich man and wear silk you definitely needed to only eat five prunes lest you jeopardise your future. I still stick to that rule and only ever eat five prunes, even when they have no stones.

I read somewhere that when Barak Obama made the comment about eating eight almonds as a nightly snack, he was only joking. He was tired of people asking him stupid questions about every part of his life. Nevertheless, I have read over and over again that eight almonds are the optimum number for a snack, as though this were an actual rule and not simply an off-the-cuff comment. It made me laugh to think how gullible we are.

It also strikes me that we put a lot of emphasis on counting things. We measure the number of steps we take every day, the number of hours we sleep, the number of calories we consume. We’ve become obsessed with counting things and unable to judge for ourselves how many glasses of wine we should drink of a night, or how many laps of the pool are enough. I always used to count the number of laps I was swimming until I realised that it was interfering with my capacity to think about other more interesting things. So in the end I just decided that it didn’t matter. I swim until I get tired or my fingers go wrinkly, whichever happens first.

I think that the more we focus on counting, the more we disconnect ourselves from our own inner voice, and the less control we have over our own lives.

I’m not suggesting that there isn’t an optimum amount in relation to what you consume, only that your body probably knows very well what you need, and it must surely vary from person to person. I don’t see how there can be ‘rules’ that fit everyone, so my suggestion is that we listen more to our own bodies and less to what other people say.

Of course this means that I may have to rethink my five prunes rule and marry a poor man.

Plain and simple, with a bit of pizzaz!

Plain and simple, with a bit of pizzaz!

I often see ads for writing courses and conferences on various social media platforms, and it really surprises me that many of them are so visually unappealing. Weird colours and strange font combinations don’t make me want to sign up, and let’s face it, I’m probably their target audience.

I appreciate that the fine folks promoting these events are writers and not graphic designers, and they probably don’t have any money to spare, but I really think that design matters if you are trying to attract new readers, clients or customers.

I know I’ve written about this before, but for those of you who’ve missed it, here are three reasons why I think that you should care about your visual design.

  1. Good design makes you look professional and reassures your customers that you know what you are doing. If you are offering courses or promoting a conference, you want people to be confident that it is safe to spend their money. One way you can do this is by investing some time and effort into making sure your website is well organised, clean and attractive, and that your ads are informative and not laden with unnecessary information.
  2. Good visual design helps you tell a story about who you are and what you stand for without you having to use a lot of words. I love words, but I’m also a busy person so I don’t have time to read a lot of waffly stuff on your website or in your ad. Cut to the chase. People want to know when it’s happening and how much it costs. They also want to know a bit about you, so a photo of yourself is a good idea.
  3. Good design also makes your content more user-friendly. A nice uncluttered design is easy to read, and your visitors won’t have to search for the information they need.

I’m definitely not an expert, but here are a few tips that you can apply to any kind of graphic design.

  • Use a limited colour palette. Use one or two main colours and a third to highlight any really important information. Avoid using red unless it’s part of your branding. Red text, in particular, is very alarming and shouts warning, warning, so be very cautious about using it.
  • If you’re unsure about what colour combinations work, look to nature for inspiration. I’ve used the beautiful image of the blue kingfisher by Vincent van Zalinge as a header for this post as an example of how mother nature always seems to get the colours right.
  • Don’t use more than two fonts. Ever. And make them different, not similar. There are some classic font pairings if you’re not sure what to choose, but in general, choose one bold font and one lighter font.
  • Line things up neatly. Don’t plonk things all over the place. Don’t be afraid of being tidy, it’s very soothing and people like it.
  • Don’t centre justify your body text, it makes it very hard to read. If you aren’t sure what to do, just align everything left and use columns if necessary.
  • Use lots of negative space. This is sometimes called white space, but it doesn’t have to be white. Just make sure you have a bit of room around your words. They need to breathe.

You can be quirky, you don’t have to be boring. Let your personality shine through but don’t go mad with colours and fonts. In general, good design is about making careful choices. Everything needs to be there for a reason.

If this still seems all too hard, there’s plenty of help at hand. There are lots of graphic design apps that are free or very inexpensive and Shutterstock has a free online photo editor that helps you design Instagram ads and other social media posts. They want you to use their photos (which costs money) but you can also upload your own photos and just use their templates which are excellent. You can look more professional in no time at all.

If in doubt, make it plain and simple and use some nice images. It always works.

Back to work

Back to work

I retired from my day job a couple of months ago and naively thought that I would have the time to do whatever I wanted to do (chiefly, more writing), but instead I just futzed about generally enjoying myself, but definitely not making that much progress with my new writing career.

I occurred to me that this is because I haven’t been treating writing as a career at all.

I was always a good worker; conscientious and reliable. I always turned up on time or messaged my boss to explain why I would be late (medical appointment, pet emergency). I never turned up late because I couldn’t be bothered coming in on time. I went to work every day whether I felt like or not. I always met my deadlines and was able to work unsupervised because I was a grown-up and that’s what grown-ups do. So I don’t know why I thought I could take such a cavalier attitude to my writing career and simply not bother writing if I didn’t feel like it. Which turned out to be most days.

So I’ve decided to treat my writing like a job and disregard the fact that I don’t get paid to do it. After all, I didn’t get paid to do any of my degrees and I usually submitted my essays on time, although I did need a few extensions when the kids were sick. I took my studies seriously and I took myself seriously.

But there are a few things that I’m going to do differently in my new job. I’ll have a quick peek at my emails in the morning but I’m not going to answer them until I have put some words down on the page. I’m not going to wander off to the kitchen and chat with people until I’ve done some actual work, and I’m not going to start reading interesting articles on topics unrelated to my work until I have done some writing. I’ll make an exception about getting up from my chair to hang out the washing because seriously, it can’t just sit in the machine all day.

I will change my hours to part-time because I’m my own boss now and I can do whatever I like. I might also schedule in some walks and some coffee dates because my back gets stiff when I sit for too long and I need to talk to someone other than my husband. He’s lovely, but there’s only so much you can say to the person who shares your home. Perhaps some kind of walking and talking arrangement with a friend might work?

I’m not going to work on weekends, and I’ll give myself some annual leave and a Christmas bonus (some new books!) if I’ve reached my writing quota on a regular basis. Perhaps I need to set myself some KPIs and develop a strategic plan as well?

I just can’t wait to get started in my new job which quite frankly, I think I’m going to love. The pay isn’t very good, but the conditions are excellent, and I hear the boss is nice.