Friday, March 30, 2007

Language, not Lego

Here's the line on the cover of a big law firm's graduate recruitment brochure, which I saw recently:


Of course, you can see what they were trying to do. Opportunity is the generic graduate recruitment promise: join us, and you'll soon be power-breakfasting with world leaders in exotic locations. And "hands on" was an attempt to be bit more specific; to convey that this particular law firm makes a point of giving even its most recent recruits real responsibility.

But, sadly, the result of combining these two components is meaningless. "Hands on to opportunity" is, simply, a phrase no one would ever utter; completely without force, resonance or the truthful ring of everyday speech.

Our language is infinitely malleable, and can be coaxed and moulded into all kinds of extraordinary shapes. It isn't a box full of building blocks that can be snapped together in any combination, to serve the writer's purpose.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

This week I have been mostly watching cricket and thinking about punctuation

I know I may sometimes give the impression of believing that punctuation is a waste of time; but nothing could be further from the truth. And watching the World Cup on TV reminded me that a while ago I came across two examples of commas serving a useful purpose, both of which oddly related to injured cricketers:

Gough hopes to be fit in time for the Ashes. "I want to play badly," he says.

Vaughan, said Fletcher, was progressing steadily.

In the first, of course, there should be a comma after "play" - unless Darren Gough was actually hoping to turn in a sub-standard performance, which seems unlikely.

In the second, which is perfectly correct, removing the commas would reverse the meaning of the sentence: Vaughan would be reporting on Fletcher's progress.

And it also occurs to me that, although spoken rather than written, the greatest ever cricketing misunderstanding could be said to have resulted from a missing comma. Put a comma after "Holding", and it's hardly funny at all:

The batsman's Holding the bowler's Willey.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Damn their journalistic eyes!

Roughly six weeks until my book is published and The Independent has been running what I believe is known in the newspaper trade as a spoiler: a pre-emptive series of handy free pull-outs on how to be a better writer.

I'd love to be able to tell you that they are garbage. But it wouldn't be true; the pull-outs I've seen so far have been full of good stuff, very little of which I could actively disagree with. And, while I'm at it, I might as well admit that there are plenty of other places where anyone who wants to learn how to write better can turn for similarly sound advice and helpful hints. The Economist's online style guide is just one example:

But I'm undaunted by the presence of so many apparent competitors in my marketplace. Why? Because they don't work.

Well, maybe I'd better qualify that just a little. My observation would be that, despite the existence of a pretty wide consensus on what good writing looks like, and the ready availability of decent quality teaching resources based upon that consensus, most people continue to write badly.

I could write a book explaining why. (Hang on, maybe I have.) But, very briefly, my explanation for this puzzling phenomenon is that all the writing guides I've ever seen issue a multitude of hints, advice and sometimes stern commands on how you should write without ever really explaining why.
More specifically, they fail to understand that good writing isn't about what appears on the page or screen, but what happens inside the reader's head.

Without this understanding - that's to say, a basic grasp of how the relationship between reader and writer works - you'll find yourself trying to follow rules that don't really make any sense to you. (Why is jargon so bad? And what, actually, is jargon? How plain can Plain English be before it becomes Dull, Uninspiring English? What's so terrible about passive verbs?)

Think of it like assembling a really complicated piece of flat-pack furniture. No matter how clear the instructions, you'll struggle to follow them if you've no idea whether you're making a wardrobe or a table. Or, for that matter, what a wardrobe/table looks like.

To become a better writer, you need to change the way you think about writing. And that, I hope, is what my book can help you do. Though I have to admit the Independent has a better sports section.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Proud moment

I've just this morning received two advance copies of the book from the publishers. After such an astoundingly long gestation period, it's hard to believe that I've finally given birth. But there it is in the picture (if you can tear your eyes away from the crazy dishevelled character on the right): "Can I Change Your Mind? The craft and art of persuasive writing", published by A&C Black on 30 April, available for pre-order from Amazon for £6.59.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

An audience of one

The other day, I emailed a group of half a dozen friends, letting them know that unfortunately I wouldn't be able to make a meeting we'd planned. None of them replied.

It might look as if my so called friends don't much like me. But I don't think it was that. In fact, I'm pretty certain that the reason none of them wrote back to say "sorry you won't be there" was that I had addressed them as a group. Seeing five other names at the top of the email, each individual felt absolved from the responsibility to respond.

Good persuasive writing - the kind that aims to elicit a specific response and achieve a clearly defined result - always addresses an "audience of one".

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Another severe case of Bolted-on Tone of Voice Syndrome.

I'm sure sustainable fishing is a good thing, even if I'm not entirely clear what it involves. But I strongly object to the way Britain's Best Loved Retailer is telling us about it, for two reasons - the first of which may sound pedantic.

The idiom is used incorrectly. You don't believe something hook, line and sinker; you fall for it. The associations conjured up by the phrase are all to do with with naivety or gullibility. And, actually, that isn't a niggly, nitpicking objection: the familiar but misapplied phrase undermines the intended sincerity of the communication.

My second, more obvious cause for complaint is the complete redundancy of the second sentence. I suspect the brand communications team responsible would defend it on the grounds that it makes a dry, factual piece of information more engaging, by addressing the reader in a tone of voice appropriate to Britain's Best Loved Retailer.

But does it, really? Or is it just a laboured play on words that adds nothing but an air of facetious self-congratulation? You decide.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Another Blair-related post. (Oh dear, am I starting to sound obsessed?)

Picked up an anti-war leaflet in Gloucester Road on Saturday. I'm strongly opposed to war (well, this one, anyway), so I should have found myself nodding in agreement, as I read. But, in fact, the writer managed to lose my sympathy in the opening sentence - by referring to the prime minister as "BLIAR".

Don't misunderstand me; my contempt for Tony Blair, in his role as the USA's staunch warrior ally, is bottomless. And I don't have much time for those quibbling arguments about whether or not knowingly using dodgy evidence to support the case for war actually amounted to lying. (In fact, with Mr Blair, I pretty much go along with that old anti-politician gag: "How can you tell when they're lying? Just look and see if their lips are moving.")

But, while it's a happy accident that his surname very nearly accuses him of mendacity, that doesn't make BLIAR an effective piece of persuasive writing.

What's wrong with it? The obvious answer is that it sounds like a playground insult - and, as such, it trivialises the writer's case. With hundreds of thousands of Iraqis dead, those of us who believe the war was both illegal and a foreseeable catastrophe, surely have a duty to argue our case powerfully, soberly and without descending to the level of "your mum's a fat slag, and your dad's a pooftah".

But it isn't just a matter of taste. What I really object to about BLIAR is that it won't change a single mind. Insults never do. They may give a warm feeling to others who feel as outraged or angry or fearful as the writer; but they will usually have precisely the opposite effect on anyone a little less certain what they think or feel about the subject in question.

When you're really angry, icy cool courtesy is your only chance of winning the argument.

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