Friday, January 26, 2007

What's wrong with this sentence?

Here's a sentence written recently by one of my favourite political columnists:

"The left too has a heritage it may have forgotten, a libertarian, anti-statist tradition dating back to the 19th century."

And I'll answer the question above straight away: I don't think there's anything wrong with it. But, if I'd written it, I would probably have punctuated it a bit differently. (Commas on either side of "too" and a semi-colon after "forgotten", since you ask.)

My point? That, despite what disciples of St Lynne of the Truss may tell us, punctuation is very largely a matter of taste and judgement. Did I stumble over the writer's meaning because he failed to use the same dots and squiggles as I would have done? Not for a second. Would the sentence be any easier to read punctuated my way? Almost certainly not.

For persuasive writers, the only cast iron rule - to be enforced with "zero tolerance" - is that every mark we make on the page or screen must make it more rather than less likely that the reader will be won round to our point of view.


Friday, January 19, 2007

12 steps to better, more persuasive writing (if you can't be bothered to read the book).

Publication is getting closer, at last. And I've just written an article for a management magazine explaining why every organisation can benefit from learning to use words more persuasively. But, to make the piece a bit more user-friendly, I also included a few handy hints on how to communicate more effectively in writing. Here they are:

1. Start with a bang
Remember, if your opening doesn't give a busy person a compelling reason to read on, he or she almost certainly won't.

2. Splurge, then edit
Don't agonise over every word. Just get it all down, fast - then go back and cut and shape and polish.

3. Write as you'd speak
Don't be chummy or jokey, but do write as if you are talking, articulately and knowledgeably, to another intelligent person.

4. Use the "y" word
Is there at least one "you" in your first few sentences? If not, your reader will be feeling neglected.

5. Never utilise elongated verbal formulations.
And avoid clichés like the centre of town on a Saturday night.

6. Read it aloud
Hearing what you've written is a foolproof way to spot clunking phrases or convoluted sentences.

7. Is it a good idea to use questions?

8. Put a figure on it
"Customers in 37 countries" not "customers all over the world".

9. Go for a walk
When the words won't come, leave it and come back later. In my experience, it always does the trick.

10. How does it look?
Make things easy for your reader: break it up with headings; pull out key quotes; include a bullet point summary.

11. Don't just spellcheck
Give it a proper read-through. No point getting the spelling right if you've used the wrong worm.

12. Never stop editing
. . . until you finally hit "print" or "send".

Monday, January 15, 2007

According to Voltaire. . .

". . . the secret of being a bore is to tell everything". And I couldn't agree more. Except that I might phrase it, "The secret of being a bore is not knowing how to edit."

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Hunting out dishonest language

I don't feel particularly strongly about fox-hunting, though, in general, I'm opposed to pleasures that depend on inflicting non-consensual pain. But I was quite seriously agitated by the Countryside Alliance car-sticker I saw earlier:


Of course, you can see what they were trying to do: reach out to the not-strongly-committed (people like me, in fact), by making their preferred rural pastime a civil liberties issue. "OK," they wanted us to feel, "I may not really be in favour of hunting, but only a bigoted animal rights fanatic would want to ban it, and deprive country people of their age-old right to ride to hounds". But it all falls down on their hateful use of the word prejudice.

Prejudice is popping a dog turd through your neighbour's letter-box because his skin is a different colour from yours. It's daubing a swastika on a synagogue. It's assuming that every dark-complexioned young man with a rucksack is a terrorist. It most emphatically isn't questioning the right of the county set to pursue a "sport" that a very large body of public and expert opinion believes to be cruel and barbaric.

It's dishonest communication, and it won't work. Not a single mind will be changed by that slogan. By adopting what we might call the Martin Luther King defence, the hunting lobby have made a mockery of their own case.