Five ways to avoid baffling your readers

by Adrian Monti

As a journalist and content writer, I find myself writing about anything and everything. This year I’ve already written about, among many other things, futuristic healthcare,  trail running shoes and testing your own sperm (yes, really).

Part of the fun and challenge of my job is to learn very quickly and become an expert in any given subject within a few hours. But I can’t do this on my own.

Last week, I was researching an article about air purifiers for a national newspaper health page. An extremely helpful company communications manager came to my aid and was happy to guide me through what was what.

She clearly knew her stuff. She was very enthusiastic but also extremely knowledgeable about her niche field.

But before I was confident enough to write about the different types of air purifiers, there was a bit of to-ing and fro-ing while we went through what the different models actually did. It meant having to break down a fair few industry terms and unpick some acronyms that only those in the know would understand. On the plus side, I now know what an HEPA filtration system is if ever I’m asked.

Here at The Sentence Works, Judy and I work with PRs from many specialist fields. One of the things we do is help them get their message across to people with no knowledge of that sector. It’s about putting that expert knowledge into a succinct written form that the layman (if that who it's intended for) can easily understand.

With that thought in mind, ask yourself if you’re ever guilty of making what you write inaccessible to people who aren’t in your line of business. If this is often the case, here are our top five ways to avoid this.

 <1> If we take the example of air purifiers once again, the key to writing something about it for the general public is to keep it fairly simple. Your customers probably only need to know very basically how it works, how easy it is to operate and why it might appeal to them. For instance, is it quiet, does it use bladeless technology? Don’t try to over-complicate things merely to sound impressive even if you know lots about your subject.

<2> Don’t fill your copy with industry phrases and jargon that wouldn’t make sense to someone not in that world. A good rule is to ask yourself whether your parents or partner would understand what you have written. If they wouldn’t, re-write it.

<3> Go easy on the acronyms. Too many abbreviations can confuse the reader, possibly slowing down their understanding of what you’re saying. It can also make a page of writing look off-putting.

<4>   If you’re quoting someone, consider using direct quotes (inside speech marks) from them to illustrate significant points. It breaks up the copy and adds a different voice to your piece. It can also give a greater sense of authority, especially if they are clearly a well-known expert on the subject.

<5> Make your copy interesting by using a varied vocabulary. Try to avoid too many tired lines associated with the subject you’re writing about.

These easy tricks can often make even the dullest subject appear actually quite exciting. As I’m sure they would say in the world of purifiers, strive to make your copy come across as a breath of fresh air. 





Is it Mother's Day or Mothers' Day?

When we talk about apostrophes on Sentence Works courses, this is one that's hotly debated.

I’ve noticed that most cards say “Happy Mother’s Day”. I’ve never been convinced this is rightbecause the apostrophe suggests that the card is referring to one mother.

I believe that it’s a day for ALL mothers, as witnessed by the fact you can’t get a restaurant booking for love nor money on M-Day. If it was only for ONE mum, you wouldn’t have a problem, surely?

But hardly any cards say “Happy Mothers’ Day”, which intrigues me. So I did a bit of research and found the reason. Apparently, Anna Jarvis, an American lady who invented the day, was adamant it was a time to celebrate each mother individually, rather than all mothers everywhere. So she insisted the apostrophe went before the “s” to indicate each special mother.

Ms Jarvis, who died in 1948, later regretted starting the whole shebang, as it became increasingly commercial. There are no records on whether she changed her mind about the apostrophe.

I’m glad there’s a good reason for the apostrophe being in what seems to me to be the wrong place, but it still doesn’t feel right somehow.

Luckily, I’ve found a solution – I just make sure my own mum receives a card that says “Happy Mothering Sunday” instead.

Hack’s hacks – how to interview someone for a story

If you have been asked to interview someone for a story in a company newsletter, press release, blog or some other web content, it can feel pretty daunting if you haven’t done it before.

In a way it’s a ‘chat’ but crucially with much more purpose and direction than an everyday chinwag over a coffee. This immediately means there’s a different dynamic between you and your interviewee; your subject might be more guarded because they know what they say is going into print. It’s certainly something to be aware of when interviewing someone.

Your aim in any interview, be it for a profile piece or update on what their business has achieved for example, is to ask loads of relevant questions. In return you should be given lots of useful information that you can than craft into a readable and accurate article. It sounds simple, eh?

Even though I’ve interviewed thousands of people for all manner articles over the past 25 years, I still always begin with some basic preparation before speaking to them.

It’s really important to do some research on who you are speaking to as this usually leads to a much better interview. Put in their details and see what comes up on Google, if anything, about them.  There may have been other articles or snippets about them with a hint of an ‘angle’ that you can ask them about. It’s always a good chance to check on their exact job title and other biographical details (when they started at the company, where they previously worked, etc.) too. Don’t worry, they won’t think you’ve been stalking them, but instead know you have done some good background research.

Although you might not be able to dictate if it’s a face-to-face interview or on the phone (or Skype), each have their own advantages and disadvantages. I find it’s always better to meet people in person as you can note their reaction to your questions. But if you’re new to doing interviews, you might not feel so flustered on the phone. If at all possible, try to avoid doing an email interview, where you send over questions for the interviewee to answer. The replies can often appear stilted when they appear in print, plus you won’t be able to ask follow up questions easily.

If the allotted time for the interview is quite limited, it might be tempting to dive straight in and start firing off your planned questions. But I factor in a little preamble first to put both of you at ease. I usually introduce myself again, thank them for agreeing to be interviewed and tell them what the interview is for and when it should appear. I usually add ‘I just need about x minutes to speak to you about…’

In many ways, you as the interviewer are in charge (but in a very unassuming way) and you ‘suggest’ what you want to talk about. So before you start, try and work out a very rough structure (in your head at least) of how the finished article will be ‘nosed’ (a good old journalist’s term for how it will be focused).  Ideally plan a few questions in advance to ask, but don’t stick rigidly to them if the interview turns in a different and more interesting direction.  

I often build up to the main thrust of what I want to specifically talk to the person about with some more general questions at the start. You want to get them ‘warmed up’ a bit first.

Also, even if you have a whole page of questions on your pad you want to ask, remember to let the person speak. Don’t keep interrupting them (ask open questions not ones that will require a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ reply too), or finishing off sentences for them. It’s their voice readers want to hear, not yours.

Often the interviewee can hare off in a direction you don’t want, as what they’re saying is slightly irrelevant to what you want to interview them about. You might have to cleverly reel them back in. You can often do this by drawing them back to the subject you want to talkabout by saying something like ‘I want to talk about that in a minute, but can you just finish telling me about…’

One of the most heart-sinking feelings as a journalist is finishing an interview and knowing your notepad is full of largely unusable waffle. But if you prepare well (by using some of these tips) this shouldn’t happen too often.  

On the other hand, one of the real kicks I still experience is when I’m interviewing someone and they say something really unexpected. Many times I’ve known what they have just said will actually make the headline for the article. It’s a great feeling.

When I was training to be a journalist, I was taught that when you feel you have enough information and quotes, wind up the interview with a quick recap with your subject. Sometimes it’s wise to go over their main points again and say something like ‘Do you think we have covered everything you wanted to talk to me about?’

This is also a good opportunity for you to clarify anything you don’t fully understand. I do lots of interviews with medical experts for health articles, so find it a good chance to make sure I actually understand a new treatment or pioneering technique in layman’s’ terms.

I make sure I have their contact details (or how to contact them via a personal assistant, etc.) You certainly don’t want to bombard the interviewee in the days afterwards with loads more questions. But in my experience, most interviewees are happy to answer the odd additional query.

Again end the interview formally by thanking them for their time and reiterating what will now happen as regards the article.

Now it’s time for you to write it up your interview.

 By Adrian Monti

Are you a grammar nerd?

Here are 10 signs that your love of grammar is taking over your life. Are any of them familiar?

1.     You find yourself correcting your friends and colleagues when they use “less” instead of “fewer”- and don’t apologise when you catch them rolling their eyes.

2.     You won’t buy a drink from coffee stall that says “tea’s £2, coffee’s £2.10” (because of the punctuation, not the price).

3.     Your texts are really long because they’re written in full, grammatically correct sentences – even the ones to your mum. They might even include semi-colons.

4.     If you’re eating out, you won’t have a pudding where the sauce “compliments the rich cake” – because the error will put your right off your meal.

5.     Your friends admit they’re nervous when they email you, in case you spot a mistake.

6.     You write to your local paper to point out they used a comma splice in their headline.

7.     When your child's school report says they should “practice their spelling”, you fight the urge to write back suggesting the teacher should practise their grammar.

8.     You know the difference between i.e. and e.g. because you know the Latin phrases they come from.

9.     You refuse to buy a product online because the company’s website has mixed up “there” and “their”.

10. You take photos of incorrect grammar when you're out and about and show them to your partner/ friends/ other grammar nerds.



How to make your writing slimmer

Many of us are trying to lose the flab after Christmas – but have you ever thought of applying that to your writing?

There’s no excuse for flabby writing. Unnecessary words can annoy your reader by increasing the time they need to spend reading your document or email.

Fortunately, it’s very easy to tighten it up and make it more succinct.

Here are six ways to do exactly that.

1.      Think of ways to say the same thing in fewer words. In particular, look out for adverbs (these often end in -ly) . So instead of “I walked hurriedly to work” you could say “I hurried to work”.   This makes your copy punchier and shorter.

2.      Look out for examples of tautology – where you say the same thing twice. For example, “the iPhone was first invented 10 years ago”.  You can only ever invent something once, so “first” is redundant here.

3.      Run a quick search on your document for words like “just” and “actually”. These can usually be removed without actually losing any meaning. Or they can be removed without losing any meaning. See what I did there?

4.      Many people add extra words to make a phrase sound more important. For instance, “We will conduct an investigation into that” uses more words than necessary. “We will investigate that” is simpler and more direct.

5.      Don’t make verbs longer than they need to be. You can “print” a document. You don’t need to print it out or print it off.

6.      Don’t repeat yourself! If you’re quoting someone, avoid introducing the quote by saying what is in the quote. An example of what NOT to do is:

Simon had a brilliant idea while he was driving his car. “I was driving my car when I came up with an idea that I immediately realised had the potential to become a best seller,” he says.

Instead write something like this:

Simon had a brilliant idea while he was driving his car. “I immediately realised it had the potential to become a best seller,” he says.

Easy isn't? This type of flab-fighting is certainly less painful than hours at the gym or weeks counting calories.



How to end a blog or article

Many of us spend ages trying to think of a brilliant introduction to our blogs and that’s absolutely the right thing to do.

A good intro will grab the reader’s attention, making them want to read on. If your intro is dull, irrelevant or confusing, they probably won’t bother to go any further.

But few of us give much thought to the ending of an article or blog.  I teach journalism and I often find that inexperienced journalists just don’t know how or when to stop. Some of them come to the end of what they are saying and then just abruptly “put their pen down.” Others write a conclusion, like you would in an academic essay. And some students simply repeat what they have already written, which is a bit of a waste of time and paper/screen space.

A good ending is really important. Round your article off well and you will leave your reader satisfied and wanting to come back and read more of your work.

Journalists call this the “pay off”.  A pay off is an ending that rounds off what you are saying in a way that makes it clear that it’s the end.

When I was writing for women’s magazines, I’d be mentally looking out for a pay off when I was doing the interview. So if, for instance, a woman had had twins twice said: “I still think I want another baby – just one next time, mind!” then I’d store it away as something good to end on. I’d make sure I didn’t address the issue of future babies higher up in the copy, so it would come as a bit of a surprise to the reader. It would also be an upbeat way to end the article.

You can use this technique whatever you are writing.  You can aim to go back to the beginning, to give the blog post/editorial/article/press release a “circular” feel.

For instance, imagine you’re writing about Sally, a businesswoman who had her “eureka” moment while sitting on Brighton beach looking out to sea. That could be your intro and you’d then need a few paragraphs talking about Sally and her product. But how are you going to end it? A good pay off could be something like this:

Sally’s never been back to Brighton beach since.  But she knows exactly where to go when she wants inspiration to expand her product range…”

So work on your endings and make them as important as your openings. It could be the beginning of the end of one of your big writing problems.

Quick spelling tip

I was training a group from a local law firm last month and we were discussing spelling. We weren’t scheduled to cover spelling but it’s amazing how it always comes up.

One of the delegates said she could never remember how to spell that thing we’ll all be buying soon for next year – is it calender or calendar?

Followers of this blog will know that I am a big fan of mnemonics – little memory devices – as these can help you remember how to spell the words that catch you out.  With this word, the difficulty is remembering that the penultimate letter is an ‘a’.  So, as I pointed out, you just need to remember that buying a calendAr is an Annual event and you’ll never get it wrong again.

Heard the one about the grammar joke?

With our 11 year son about to take his primary school SAT tests, grammar’s no laughing matter in our house at the moment.

My poor boy is trying to remember the difference between active and passive,  work out what a subordinating conjunction is and master the use of the past progressive tense.

So to cheer up any parents in the same position, here are seven grammar jokes. Please feel free to share them with any other small children who aren’t looking forward to the tests either.

1.       The past, the present and the future went to the pub.  It was tense.

2.       The pub was walked into by the passive voice.

3.       A comma splice went to a restaurant, it had fish and chips and a glass of lemonade.

4.       My English teacher asked me to name two pronouns. I said, “Who, me?”

5.       She texted me “Your adorable”. I replied “No. YOU’RE adorable”. Now she thinks I like her, and I was only correcting her grammar.

6.       “Let’s eat grandma.  I mean, let’s eat, grandma”. Punctuation saves lives and avoids family feuds

7.       The door is alarmed. (And the wall is surprised. And the floor is somewhat taken aback).

Spelling is child's play

I’ve been doing lots of work on spelling with my 11 year old son ahead of the dreaded SATS.

It’s actually been really interesting as I’ve tried to come up with strategies to help him remember how to spell tricky words. These are exactly the same methods I talk about in Sentence Works courses.

Sometimes, you just need to think about what the words actually mean. He initially wrote government without the “n”. We then discussed what the government actually does – ie govern – and that has helped him to remember it.

If you’ve been to a Sentence Works course, you’ll know all about mnemonics – clever ways of remembering difficult words. So we looked at the word “favourite” and now he just thinks of OUR favOURite. (This works with our neighbOUR too).  He had a habit of spelling “queue” as “que”.  I reminded him that a queue might be longer than you’d like, so repeating the last two letters makes it longer.

I wish he knew some Latin, because that would help him remember to spell “desperate” which so many people get wrong.  If you are desperate, it means you’ve lost hope. Latin for “I hope” is “spero” -  this helps you to remember the second vowel is an “e”, rather than an “a”.

Do you have any ways of remembering awkward words?

Let's Celebrate National Grammar Day


Delegates on the workshop I’m co-running in Bristol today (media skills and press release writing, in case you were wondering) might notice there’s a real spring in my step.

After my birthday, Christmas Day, Easter Sunday, and any day Watford win, today is my favourite day in the calendar. It’s National Grammar Day, the day that highlights  the importance of correct grammar and punctuation. The day when it’s OK to be a grammar nerd, for 24 hours at least.

I cover common grammar mistakes and how to avoid them in many Sentence Works courses. Before we start, I always ask workshop delegates whether grammar really matters in the twenty-first century.  I’ve always been prepared for someone to say it doesn’t, so I can argue my corner, but in two years of running these courses, no-one has ever said it doesn’t.

Grammar (and I include punctuation under its banner) matters for a number of reasons. Good grammar simply makes writing easier to understand. Punctuation exists solely to make meaning clear. Speech marks show who’s talking. Apostrophes identify who something belongs to. Commas help with the general clarity of a sentence.

Take this example:

·        I’d like to thank my parents, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.

·        I’d like to thank my parents, Donald Trump, and Hillary Clinton.

That extra comma in the second sentence may be subtle but it really changes the meaning. It makes clear it’s a list of people being thanked, rather than suggesting that the parents are Donald and Hillary.

The title of the excellent book “Eats, Shoots and Leaves” by Lynne Truss is another example of the power of the comma. With no comma, we might assume we are learning about the finer points of a panda’s diet. But if the panda eats, shoots and leaves then we can imagine it wandering into a bar, having a nice dinner and then picking up its rifle and shooting something before strolling out. The comma can be a powerful tool.

Grammar also matters because other people think it matters. If your grammar is inaccurate, you won’t impress the potential employer looking at your CV. A website riddled with grammatical mistakes makes you look sloppy and unprofessional – as if you don’t care. And research shows that grammatical errors on your dating profile can reduce your chances of finding love. Proof reading company Grammarly found that 88% of women and 75%  would judge someone based on their grammar. That’s more than would judge someone for having bad teeth.

So make sure your grammar and punctuation are tip-top. You could transform your love life and your job prospects in one go.

Never Write a Boring Business Blog Again

I’m often asked to help people write their blogs. It can be one for a charity, related to their hobby or a very personal one about their take on life.

But I’m asked to cast my eye over the blogs people write for their company or area of business expertise too. Many are informative, witty, engaging and everything you would hope a well-crafted blog would be.

Sadly a few others I’m asked to help with are, to be honest, fairly dull.

Luckily, with almost 25 years of journalistic experience behind me, I’ve picked up many skills to make even the most turgid subject matter sparkle a little brighter.

Here are my top seven tips on how to make your business blog a more satisfying read.

* Business is certainly about acquisitions and projected sales as well as quality control and the bottom line. But it’s also about people. Try to make your blogs focus more on the human angle if you can. Your boss may run the most successful but also most mundane of firms in the area so try to pull out any interesting personal tales that are hidden away. We all like being told a good story.

* Keep your reader in mind.  Don’t stuff your blog full of industry jargon and acronyms if it’s for the public – they won’t understand it. And even if it’s for others in your same line of work, that’s no excuse to make it a real effort to read.

*Of course, we all like to bask in some well-earned praise when we do well. But I’ve read many blogs where winning regional industry awards in obscure categories has taken on the importance of scooping an Oscar, Nobel Peace Prize and Olympic gold medal all rolled into one.  A bit of self-congratulation is fine, but try and keep it in perspective, even in your own company blog.

 *Use your blog to demonstrate your expertise and knowledge in your particular field. Maximise its relevance by commenting on topical issues in your business or use it to set the agenda and raise relevant points. That will engage others to comment too.

*Decide on your tone of voice and how you want to come across. As mentioned above, you may want to be seen as an authority in your business sector. You also might want to come across in your blog as less formal and present a lighter touch as a way of getting others interested in your business. That’s fine too, but think carefully about how others inside and outside of your business will view your blog if you take a more idiosyncratic approach.

*Not every blog should be a full-on sales pitch. Be more subtle and use it to inform your reader about something extra about your product or service. For instance, you may take it for granted where your raw materials come from, but to others this might be a fascinating nugget of ‘insider’ information. Again a story and some additional insight can be part of a much more softly-softly long term campaign approach.

*It’s hard if you have to produce a regular blog to a set deadline. You might struggle to find something fresh or interesting to say. But don’t waffle for the sake of it. It’s better to keep the blog short and work on a single idea rather than allowing it to turn an unfocused rant. Impose your own word limit - in my opinion anything between 500-600 words is ideal.


Adrian Monti

Journalist and MD of The Sentence Works

Six ways to get a letter printed in the paper

I had a letter published in my local newspaper yesterday. It’s only the second one I’ve ever written to them, and I have a 100% success rate so far.

Without trying to sound smug, I was confident it would be published without any changes – and it was.  After all, I train companies in letter writing techniques, soit would be pretty embarrassing if I couldn’t manage to write a good one myself.

So how do you go about writing a good letter for publication? Here are some techniques that I used when writing mine.

1)      Make it topical and relevant. My letter was in response to a story in that day’s paper about the council considering changing school holiday dates.

2)   Write an attention grabbing intro, explaining why your opinion is relevant.

3)   Use words that fit the style of the publication you’re writing for.  Local papers like words like “ludicrous” which are unambiguous and (shh!) slightly exaggerated. I also included a couple of puns at the end.

4)  Write in short, clear sentences.  The average number of words per sentence in my letter is 16, with a word length of just 4.3 characters. The language used is simple and straightforward.

5)   Back up your argument.  I’ve written that I don’t believe current proposals will work andadded some reasons why not.

6)   End it well. Don’t be too abrupt and don’t ramble.

So if you have something you want to sound off about, don’t hold back.  Just follow the tips above and you’ll see your name in print in no time.

How to use apostrophes with plurals

One mistake I see time and time again is apostrophes being used incorrectly with plurals. Many people are just not sure where the apostrophe needs to go when referring, for instance, to men, children and people.

The rule is actually pleasingly straightforward. With a singular word, most people know that the apostrophe goes after the thing or person in question for instance Cameron’s government, the child’s bedroom and Wenger’s Arsenal team.  It’s pretty straightforward - Cameron’s government means the government of Cameron.  Wenger’s team means the team belonging to Wenger.

And it’s exactly the same with plurals.  The children’s bedroom is the bedroom of the children. You don’t write the childrens’ bedroom because it isn’t the bedroom of the childrens. Similarly, it’s the people’s decision  not the peoples’ decisions. And it’s the men’s race not the mens’ race, because the plural of man is men, not mens.

How to write a brilliant opening paragraph

Every introductory paragraph is different, but all great intros have some things in common.

A good introduction (intro) will grab your attention, keep you reading and offer you the promise that you’re about to discover something you didn’t know before. So those opening words have got a fair bit of work to do.

As a journalist, I’m sometimes guilty of agonising a little bit too long over how to start an article. But I know I need to get it right or the rest of the piece is unlikely to be read.

There are several ways you can make that all important intro become extremely effective when you write.

Firstly, you want your opening line to hook your reader so they carry on reading what you’ve written. With that in mind, don’t just trot out a well-used line you’ve seen somewhere else, or one that’s full of clichés and lazy phrases. Try to be more inspired and make it sound fresh.

When you’re thinking about your intro, avoid words or phrases that are going to cause some of your readers to switch off. So don’t put in industry jargon, technical speak or obscure acronyms that those outside of your business world won’t understand, especially if you’re trying to appeal to a broader audience.

You also don’t want to bore your readers, so keep that opening sentence relatively short and succinct by cutting out any waffle. Don’t try to  squeeze loads of information into the opening line either.

A good ploy for an intro  is to tell the reader something they didn’t already know. A really interesting fact you have discovered in your research or a  quote (or a part of it) can often be effective too.

Try to avoid repeating the headline in your intro. Even if it’s really clever, does it really need saying again straight away? Instead try to make sure the opening line develops the topic and adds more to it.

Finally, try to make your writing topical. Ask yourself why are you writing it right now. Is it to promote a new product or service? If so, focus on the ‘new’ and ‘now’ if that’s the strongest angle that needs highlighting.

But remember, sitting at your keyboard trying to dream up that perfect intro doesn’t always work. Sometimes it’s a better idea to stick down a fairly pedestrian intro just to get you started. Having a blank screen can be daunting, but if you have a line or two of text there, it can get you going more easily.

It means once you’ve got further into your writing, you can return to that troublesome intro and improve it. You’ll be surprised how often you come up with the perfect first sentence just as you’ve written your last.

Top tops to writing a great intro

*Make it attention grabbing.

*Avoid clichés.

*Make it succinct.

*Tell the reader something they didn’t already know.

*Give it a topical feel.

                                                                                             by Adrian Monti


My favourite mnemonic

At the end of every Sentence Works course, we have a little section on spelling.  Although most people groan, it’s actually one of the most entertaining parts of the day.  It’s also the time I get the doughnuts out, which helps too.

Now, I can’t teach people to spell in 15 minutes flat – if I could I’d be a very rich woman – but what I can do it to give delegates strategies on how to remember the words that trip them up.

A mnemonic (ironically a word that is hard to spell) is a technique to help you remember information – spelling, in this case.  Put simply, mnemonics are memory joggers or little tricks to help you to remember how to spell a word.

My 10 year old son kept spelling the word “want” as “whant” (not as daft as it sounds if you think of the word “what”). So I came up with a mnemonic for him – I want Watford to win.  As you can see, the “wa” appears in both want and Watford. This works in our household as I have been a huge fan of the Hornets for 35 years and even my Brighton-loving sons are beginning to come round.  Non Watford fans (and I believe there are many) can replace it with I want Watford to lose.

We all have words we struggle with. I could never spell the word surprise until I told myself to stop being surprised there was an r in it. Ta-da! I’ve never got it wrong since. My husband always gets muddled up with staring and starring.  To help him remember the double r in starring, he told himself he’d like to see a film starring Robert Redford. Bingo again.

I ask delegates to bring in words that they struggle to spell, and we always see if we can come up with a mnemonic to help. My favourite one was a delegate who brought in the word diarrhoea. I can now spell that word without the aid of spellcheck, because the brilliant group came up with

 DIARy of a Really HOrrible Experience Anally.

 And now you know that, you’ll never spell it incorrectly again.

Don't overuse exclamation marks!

Exclamation marks are a form of shouting – journalists call them screamers for a good reason.  And if you’re writing for professional purposes, you don’t want to shout. After all, you wouldn’t shout at the person if you were phoning them instead of emailing them, would you? 

F Scott Fitzgerald, who knew a thing or two about stringing a sentence together, said that using an exclamation mark is “like laughing at your own joke.”

Author and journalist Miles Kington chipped into the debate too.

“So far as good writing goes, the use of the exclamation mark is a sign of failure,” he said. “It is the literary equivalent of a man holding up a card reading ‘laughter’ to a studio audience.”

It’s fine to use the occasional exclamation mark in a blog, email or tweet if you use it judiciously. It can be used for emphasis, or to show that you are being ironic, or to lift the mood.  Exclamation marks are useful for grabbing attention (eg help!) Just go easy on them.  When you’re reading over your copy before sending it or posting it, ask yourself if the same sentence works just as well without the exclamation mark. If it does, drop it.

If you do use exclamation marks, then do make sure you only use one at a time. Avoid using an exclamation mark like this!! Or even this!!!

Have you ever felt the urge to combine it with a question mark?! Don’t - this has the unfortunate result of making you look like an over-excited eight year old rather than the serious professional you are.

The dangers of using jargon at work

There was a really interesting news story yesterday about the use of jargon at work. A judge criticised a social worker for over-using jargon in a report for a family court hearing. The judge said it 'might as well have been written in a foreign language.'

The social worker used phrases including ‘imbued with ambivalence’ and ‘having many commonalities emanating from their histories’. Another example was ‘I asked her to convey a narrative about her observations.’

What, the judge asked reasonably, was wrong with ‘I asked her to tell me?’

Other social workers may well have understood what their colleague was trying to say.  But even they would have spent more time reading her words than if she had used more straightforward English.  Most importantly, the woman who the report was about wouldn’t have understood all of it.

Many people slip into using jargon at work because they think it is somehow expected of them. Some believe that using complicated terms makes them sound official, formal, serious and maybe even clever.

But there’s nothing clever about using big words and industry-speak. It’s far cleverer to write in a way that ALL your readers can understand, and to explain things clearly and succinctly.

I am fascinated by the use of jargon at work, and why so many people continue to use gobbledegook and management speak instead of simple English. I often ask this question to delegates at my workshops.  One told me that it is expected of her and helps her justify her day rate.  Others aren’t even aware they’re doing it.

Of course, every industry has its jargon and if you’re sure your reader knows what you’re talking about, it can be useful shorthand. For instance, I’ll happily chat to other experienced journalists about NIBs and DPSs because they’ll know what I mean and it’s quicker for both of us.

But if I’m giving feedback to my journalism students, I’ll talk about news in briefs and double page spreads and what exactly those terms mean. Just bandying about the jargon would mean I wasn’t doing my job properly, as I wouldn’t be thinking of my reader. 

Jargon is powerful – it can make your reader feel excluded, inexperienced or stupid. It can confuse the reader and waste their time if they have to unravel what you mean. So before you use any sort of jargon, ask yourself whether you really need to and what purpose it is serving. If it will save you and your reader time then go ahead. But more often than not, you can and should replace it with more straightforward English.

Read the full story here.

The comma splice and how to avoid it

I’ve been asked so many questions about commas that I have a little section about the curly little blighters at each workshop.

One thing we look at is the comma splice. Now I didn’t know that this grammatical faux pas even had a posh name until about a year ago. I just knew that when I read a piece of copy containing a comma splice (and I have read many), it felt so wrong it made me want to cry. I always tell this to people at my workshops but they never seem to quite believe me.

I’m serious.  When I see a comma splice, I feel a little knot grow in my stomach and (if it’s a document I’m working on for a company) I have to edit it out very quickly. I then take a number of deep breaths before I can carry on.

Even misused apostrophes don’t have that effect on me, so you can see why I am so keen to kill the comma splice stone dead.

A comma splice is where you use a comma to splice together two independent clauses – ie two clauses that make sense on their own.

Here’s an example.  (I’ll try to hold back the tears).

I wore a pink bikini on the beach, the yellow one attracted flies and wasps.

The above sentence could be divided into two separate sentences -   I wore a pink bikini on the beach. The yellow one attracted  flies and wasps. The two clauses could be joined with a semi-colon – I wore a pink bikini on the beach; the yellow one attracted  flies and  wasps. A third way to change the sentence is to use a connective (a joining word).  I wore a pink bikini on the beach because the yellow one attracted flies and wasps.

But you can’t use a comma to link the two clauses together because that just isn’t a comma’s job.  

Married to the job

It’s my wedding anniversary today and, feeling nostalgic, I decided to look at the website of the hotel where we got married all those years ago.

Did my eyes light on the photos of the glorious gardens, the beautifully decorated function rooms, or the descriptions of the wedding feast? Did they heck.  Instead of reminiscing, I ended up spluttering at the number of mistakes on the website.

There were random capitals (we offer Beauty treatments) and mixed-up words (you can have fine wines to compliment your meal” as well as complementary WiFi). There were very long sentences (42 words) and some that weren’t complete sentences at all.   

I’ve got a bit of a Thing about Unnecessary Capitals. They shout at the reader and just make the page or screen look ugly. Writers tend to use them when they want to emphasise that something is important, but they just distract the reader.

On Sentence Works courses, we have a whole section on pairs of words that are often used incorrectly (including affect and effect, eg and ie, continuous and continual). Complement means that something goes well with something else (you can remember it by thinking it completes it). Compliment means either saying something nice to someone, or giving something for free. There’s a full blog post about it below if you want to know more.

We also look at the importance of writing in short sentences (top tip: avoid writing sentences of more than 30 words).  Incomplete sentences can also confuse readers as they often have to read them twice.

Adrian and I got married so long ago that our wedding venue didn’t have a website back then. And it’s just as well.  To me, a website full of errors shows a lack of attention to detail. It looks sloppy and unprofessional – and not the sort of place you’d want to trust with such an important day when everything needs to be right.

If this has sent you into a panic about your own website, don’t worry –  come to a Sentence Works masterclass and we will improve your writing skills for life.


What’s the difference between compliment and complement?

One of my favourite sessions during Sentence Works masterclasses is where we look at commonly misused words. Everyone gets a big tick and cross to wave in the air when they think a word is being used correctly or incorrectly, before we discuss if it is correct and why.

We look at pairs of words including ie/eg, continuous/ continual, affect/ effect and  compliment/ complement.

It’s this last one that I’d like to explain today. And you’ll be pleased to know that it’s very straightforward.

There are two main meanings of compliment.

1)      If someone says something nice about you, it’s a compliment.

I’ve had a rubbish day so your compliments about my new glasses really cheered me up.

 He was very complimentary about me, but he still didn’t give me the job.

2)      If you get something for free

Please accept these mints with our compliments.

The use of towels within the gym is complimentary but please put them in the laundry bin at reception.

Complement means something quite different. It means something that goes well with something else, to improve it.

The custard complements the rich chocolate cake perfectly.

 They are great job-share partners as they have complementary skills.

 One way of remembering the difference is to think how if something complEments something else, it complEtes it.