How do you spell that again?

The ability to spot spelling and grammatical errors is both a blessing and a curse. It’s helpful at work when you are asked to proof someone’s report but it can drive your partner crazy. My husband is still annoyed at me for correcting his spelling in a poem that he wrote for me forty years ago and I’m still sorry that I didn’t restrain myself. It was a stupid and unnecessary thing to do and I still regret it.

I have managed to stop myself from correcting the shopping list as there’s really no point and it doesn’t really matter.

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Shopping list

I share this skill/curse with other members of my family, all of whom find it difficult not to comment on errors on signs in public places, for example on menus and the like.

Sign with spelling error

But no-one really appreciates being corrected, and who want to be a grammar nazi? Not me.

On the other hand, spelling can matter a lot in a professional environment. This week I signed up to become an member of an organisation for evaluation professionals and I was surprised to see quite an obvious error in their sign-up form.

It made me pause and think about whether I wanted to join an organisation that could let such an obvious mistake slip through until I realised that the people running the organisation probably never see their sign-up form because they are already members.

If you’re thinking that I should just discreetly get in touch with them so that they can fix it, you are right and I probably will, but it did make me think about how much we judge people by their writing skills.

I’m currently working with a very nice person who has English as his second language. He often asks me to double check that his syntax is correct and that any colloquialisms have been used correctly. I commented the other day that his writing sometimes contains some linguistic oddities which I find charming, but he said that some people don’t find it charming, they just see it as wrong. I guess he’s right, but in reality his writing is almost perfect. Better than most of the things that come across my desk.

Another thing I try to keep in mind is that everyone makes mistakes and that includes me. I was reading a note I wrote for my mother’s funeral the other day and I realised that I had misspelt my sister’s name. Sorry about that Beverley.

It’s never a good idea to be too high and mighty about these things, lest you be hoist on your own petard (thank you Mr Shakespeare for that lovely saying). And God bless whoever (or should that be whomever?) invented spell check.

 

Instructions for life

 

Like many people, I am a bit of a sucker for reading ‘Instructions for life’. You know the kind of thing I am talking about. They usually include things like being kind to yourself, trying new things and being kind to others. The other day I read a list which included having some lemony water every morning before breakfast. I’m not sure exactly what that does to your body, but I’m guessing it wakes up your mouth.

 

Instructions are very appealing. Just being called ‘instructions’ gives them a level of importance and authority. They are much more impressive than mere suggestions . The underlying message is that you just need to do exactly as you are told and all will be well.

 

So I was quite puzzled by the instructions printed on a new garment I purchased today, which read “Think climate cold wash and line dry”.  I misinterpreted this to mean that in a cold climate, one should wash and line dry the item, when of course it was actually an instruction to use cold water and a washing line instead of using hot water and a dryer.

 

I know that not many people would have misread this instruction, but it did make me laugh when I realised my mistake. I also know that a simple hyphen would probably have helped.

 

 

 

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Using plain English

I have lots of conversations with people at work about using plain English. It seems as though everyone thinks it’s a good idea, but people are less sure how to go about it, and even more importantly, how to get other people to use plain English instead of ‘government speak’. I work in a government organisation, so we see plenty of examples of long wordy documents filled with jargon and buzzwords.

It’s worthwhile thinking about why people don’t use plain English. Apart from people wanting to hide their true purpose, many people think that they need to write in a stuffy convoluted way in order to sound ‘professional’. This is far from true. Being professional is about being clear and writing clearly can be hard work.

As Woody Guthrie said… “Any fool can make something complicated. It takes a genius to make something simple.”

So next time you start writing something, think about how you make yourself as clear as possible. If you’re writing an important document or email, get someone else to read it before you send it. Be open to feedback about how you can improve your writing and practice as much as you can.

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Writing at work

Have you ever been in the situation where you just suddenly forgot whether you should use affect or effect or how to spell accommodation? This happens to me quite a lot, especially at work, and I find it really helpful to have a few good writing books and blogs to refer to when the need arises.

As I may have mentioned before, one of my favourites is Writing at Work  by Neil James from the Plain English Foundation. It’s an excellent reference book and sits on my desk within easy reach, next to the dictionary.

My favourite blog is Grammar Girl (Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing) which can answer just about any grammar question you may have, and also has a list of the top mistakes that people make. It’s really useful, easy to understand and often funny.

Future Perfect is the website of a company which offers writing services but also has a heap of free resources including grammar quizzes (don’t we just love quizzes) and good advice about writing, punctuation and proofreading.

These are three of my favourites. Check them out and start improving your writing today. Let me know what you think and if you have any personal favourites.

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Finding focus

I’m guessing that most of us have spent at least a little bit of time recently deciding what we will focus on, and what skills or interests we want to develop in 2013.

I don’t know about you, but one of my biggest problems is that I am interested in way too many things, to the point where I flit from topic to topic always hungry for new and interesting ideas but not really digesting or absorbing very much. And while this is very entertaining, it results in knowing a little bit about a lot of subjects, but not being an expert on anything in particular. This is not a good thing in the world of business (so they say), which favours those with marketable expertise.

So this year I am going to focus on being more focussed.

This means finishing one book before starting another. (Well maybe I can have one fiction and one non-fiction on the go, but not five at once).

Attention
Attention (Photo credit: aforgrave)

It also means spending more time writing about practical ways that you can craft your material so that your messages are clear.

This doesn’t mean that I’ll only talk about one thing. As far as I am concerned, there are many elements to clarity. Regardless of whether you are writing a report, creating a presentation or designing a website the principles and elements are the same.

You need:

  • Clear concise writing that makes sense to the reader
  • Consistent and logical ordering of your content
  • Plenty of white space so that your text is legible and doesn’t overwhelm people
  • Graphs, charts and illustrations that help people to understand your message
  • An understanding of how people learn and how they make sense of information

But above all, you need to KNOW what it is you are trying to say. Working this out is by far the most important thing you need to do and is the place where you should start.

So my plan for the coming year is to focus on writing helpful, inspiring and practical blog posts. What are you going to focus on? Are there skills that you want to develop and can I help you?

 

 

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Are you a lazy writer?

Thermometer-lazy-1
Thermometer-lazy-1 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I see a lot of poorly written and badly designed information in the course of my travels. I suppose that sounds a bit harsh, doesn’t it? Maybe it’s not so much that they are badly written, they are just sloppily put together.
For example, the other day someone gave me a big long memo about a meeting they had been to. It was kind of them to take the trouble to make some notes, but they had really just poured out their thoughts onto a page without any consideration of which order the content should be presented in so that it made logical sense to the reader. This resulted in some of the key points about why we should go down a particular path being in mixed in with very detailed points about how this should happen (process notes). They had gone to the trouble of typing up their notes but they hadn’t taken that one extra step of organising them so that they made sense. Just a few extra minutes would have made the whole thing make more sense and have been more persuasive as well.
This is often the case with emails as well. People just write down whatever pops into their minds without thinking about what the reader needs to know first. I don’t think this is intentional but it would certainly help if writers did a little editing. By all means write down whatever comes to mind, but feel free to move it around so that it makes sense. Put it in a logical order. Your readers will thank you.

What should you be reading to improve your writing skills?

Plain English Handbook
Plain English Handbook (Photo credit: arellis49)

If you want to improve your writing skills then the first thing you need to do is write. And then write some more. This is the advice that you usually get from writing books and I agree that the best way to hone your skills is to practise as much as you can. Sadly, you can’t really avoid the fact that you need to work hard to be good at something. But you also need to get feedback on your writing and it’s not usually helpful to get feedback from friends and relatives. They are either too harsh or too kind. They never tell you what is wrong with your work or how you can improve your writing, but perhaps they dont know exactly what is needed. This is where writing books come in. They probably aren’t a substitute for a really good writing teacher but they can help you a lot.

It’s hard to nominate my favourite writing book. I have quite a few and like my children, I love them equally, so I will have to give you a small list of my favourites. My number one is probably Paula Rocque’s book called ‘On writing Well‘. This is a great little book which gives plenty of practical advice. Paula covers topics such as cutting wordiness and using the right word.

My second favourite (for the great technical advice) is by an Australian called Neil James. Neil is the head of the Plain English Foundation and has written a great book called ‘Writing at work” which is a terribly useful and surprisingly readable book. By that I mean that the book not only gives good technical advice but is full of interesting information.

My third pick is Brilliant Copywriting  which will help you write persuasively. I found this book to be funny, entertaining and helpful. If you are writing to persuade (and aren’t we all doing that in some shape or form) then this book will help you craft your message. There’s lots of good advice and the book itself is very enjoyable to read.

So these are my picks for today. I hope you find this useful, but if you disagree or have other books to recommend, feel free to comment.

Three tips for clear writing

I don’t really like the term plain English. It reminds me of a plain girl or a plain biscuit, a bit dull and unimaginative and slightly boring. Clear writing on the other hand, can be descriptive, even whimsical but it must be understandable (and therefore clear).

The need to write clearly is more than just a hobbyhorse of mine. I think that we have a responsibility to write as clearly as we can. As Tim Phillips says in his book, Talk Normal.

‘If you’re in government, isn’t it your responsibility to make your language accessible to all the people who need to understand you?’

http://talknormal.co.uk/the-book/

Yes, yes and yes!

It just so happens that I do work for a government organisation and I agree 100% with this sentiment, however it can be hard to write clearly, especially about complex or serious topics.

It’s easy enough to write something simple and engaging about a new product or service – all you really need to do is write about what it can do to make your life better. Explaining the intricacies of a piece of legislation or writing a paper about a complex policy issue is much more difficult. This is where all the big words come into their own don’t they?

My friend Megan says that there are expensive words ($5000) and cheap words ($500) and that you should use the $500 words as much as possible. These are words that are short and to the point. These are not weasel words*. You should only use a $5000 word when no other word accurately conveys the point you are making.

But, I hear you cry… this is easy to say and hard to do. Well, yes and no. Here are a few pointers for you to think about when you are writing.

1. BE CLEAR ABOUT YOUR MESSAGE

One of the easiest ways to improve your writing is to be clear in your own mind about what you are trying to say. By this I mean that you should know exactly what the point is that you are trying to make and not be afraid to express it as simply and clearly as possible. I read a lot of documents where people just ramble on. It’s pretty obvious that they are trying to work out what their point as they write.

This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t put your thoughts on paper in order to find out what you really think; it just means that all those words don’t necessarily need to end up in the final version.

2. VARY YOUR SENTENCE LENGTH

Secondly, you should try to vary your sentence length. It makes your writing easier to read if you use both long and short sentences. A lot of writing is unclear because the sentences run on and on forever. Keep some of them short. Yes, really short.

You should try to keep to one idea per sentence. Long dense sentences always lead to fuzzy writing.

3. THINK ABOUT YOUR READER

Thirdly, always think about your audience. Do they know what that acronym stands for? It can be terribly confusing for people when you use terms they aren’t familiar with. Don’t try to impress people with your intelligence by using language they don’t understand. Of course if you are writing for an audience of technical experts, feel free to talk the talk. They won’t mind. Just be very careful that you don’t alienate your readers by using jargon.

Are there any writing problems that you face that you would like to discuss? For example, do you need to give other people feedback on their writing and don’t know how to go about this?

I’d love to hear from you.

An image to illustrate weasel words on Wikiped...

* ‘Weasel words’ is the title of a book by Don Watson and refers to words and phrases that are over used in the corporate world and essentially meaningless (for example: innovative approach, optimisation, going forward). See http://www.weaselwords.com.au