We’ve heard all about the spelling and grammar test you have to do as part of your SATs. We think it sounds pretty tough.
Not just the test itself, but all the months you’ve spent learning about things like fronted adverbials and expanded noun phrases and subordinating conjunctions. We’re willing to bet you wish you’d spent a bit less time doing that, and more time making up funny poems, or writing your own adventure stories.
Well, there’s something we wanted to tell you.
We asked our team of 15 professional writers whether they knew what a fronted adverbial was. How many do you think said ‘yes’?
One. And that’s because she has a daughter in primary school, just like you.
The rest of us didn’t have a clue. Remember, we all earn our living from writing, and helping other people to write better. And we’ve all managed to get this far without the words ‘fronted adverbial’ ever entering our minds.
We did try, honest. We looked up ‘fronted adverbials’ online, and spent a good few minutes frowning and scratching our heads. We couldn’t really understand it, and then we decided not to worry about it anyway, because fronted adverbials make sentences sound a bit weird, like they were written by Yoda from the Star Wars films, and we went off to make a cup of tea instead.
All this isn’t to say spelling and grammar aren’t important
They are. Our writers all know where to put apostrophes, and what semicolons are for.
And we understand how grammar choices can affect how writing comes across to the reader. Like how passive sentences can be unclear or – worse – make it seem like you’re trying to hide something.
But we don’t know what every single little grammar thing is called. And we don’t need to.
Trust us. We’ve helped thousands of grown-ups all over the world get better at writing. And we’re going to tell you the same thing we tell them: it’s okay to sound like yourself when you write.
You don’t need to use long, complicated words to sound important. You don’t need to use fronted adverbials or expanded noun phrases to be a good writer (we think you’ll be a better writer if you don’t). And it doesn’t matter if you wouldn’t recognise a subordinating conjunction if it clonked you over the head.
If you find those things hard, it doesn’t mean you’re no good at writing.
What makes someone a good writer?
You’re a good writer if you sound like a human being, not a robot. (Unless, of course, you’re writing a story about robots.)
You’re a good writer if you’re kind to your reader: if you don’t write long, boring sentences, or bang on for pages without getting to the point.
You’re a good writer if you have something interesting to say, and you’re not afraid to say it.
You’re a good writer if you make your reader change their mind about something. Or look at something differently. Or do something they might not have done otherwise.
You’re a good writer if you can make your reader feel happy. Or sad. Or indignant. Or motivated. Or reassured.
You’re a good writer if you can keep your reader interested, even if you’re writing about something really boring, like gas pipes, or tax.
You’re a good writer if you can take something really, really complicated, and explain it so simply that anyone could understand it.
And, most importantly, you’ll be a good writer if you enjoy writing, have fun with words and even break the odd rule now and again.
Don’t worry about the test. Really.
I cancelled my Spotify Premium the other day, because I’d come to the end of my free trial. It was the usual deal – to leave, you have to click through various screens where they say things like, ‘Are you sure? Don’t go! Pleeeeeeease!’
But the last screen did actually make me hesitate. ‘We couldn’t let you leave without some music,’ it said, winningly. And up popped a window with a playlist titled ‘Can we still be friends?’
Ten classic breakup songs. First track: I Want You Back by the Jackson 5. Oh yes.
It’s testament to Spotify’s cleverness that I stuck around to listen to that song (which, of course, features the best bassline of all time). And that I got all the way to If You Leave Me Now by Chicago before I finally, reluctantly clicked ‘cancel’. (Obviously I drew the line at Michael Bolton’s How Am I Supposed to Live Without You. I do have some standards.)
Yes, I left. But I like the Spotify brand a whole lot more than I did before. And who knows, I might go back to them one day. High five to their customer experience people.
Not everyone gets it so right, though. That same week, I spotted on Twitter a bizarre email from Boden. ‘What’s with the cold shoulder?’ it said, next to a picture of a winsome girl leaning coyly against a radiator. ‘We miss you. Bad. Give us a click and we won’t disappoint.’
Boden’s tone of voice does divide people – that’s a natural consequence of being truly distinctive. Normally I love it. But even I felt this was a step too far. It certainly wouldn’t encourage me to place an order. (Take out a restraining order, more like.)
It’s great be true to your brand when you’re trying to win your customers back. But maybe there’s such a thing as laying it on too thick.
If you didn’t catch our Marianne in The Guardian’s Superbrands supplement, we’ve popped it here for you.
At The Writer, we’ve been working with lots of the brands on this list for 15 years, helping them define and roll out their tones of voice. And we’ve just commissioned independent research into tone of voice in the UK. Here’s what we’ve learnt from the most linguistically savvy brands.
1. You don’t have to sound like Innocent, or Virgin
They were linguistic pioneers, yes. But you can’t nick their tone of voice if you’re an arms dealer. Sound like you.
2. A distinctive tone of voice depends on a distinctive brand
Otherwise it’s just lipstick on a pig.
3. You can measure its effects
Check how many people respond to your letters, or call your call centres. Just changing the tone will make a difference. (That’s why 65% of brands with a tone of voice say it’s as important as, or more important, than their visual identity.)
4. Make it someone’s job
Brands like BT have a ‘head of brand language’, with the power to sign off (or veto) important comms, even outside brand.
5. Chief execs are interested
Most CEOs want to make an impact on the culture of their business, and language is a brilliant way to shape culture: 91% of businesses with a tone of voice say their senior leaders get its value.
6. Make it practical
It’s not enough to tell your people, or your agencies, ‘we want to sound bold’. Or ‘innovative’. How do you really express that in an ad, or a white paper, or a tweet?
7. Make it stick
No one reads guidelines more than once. So you need to find ways to keep your tone of voice in your people’s heads, years after you’ve launched it.
8. Invest in it
£116k is the average spend on a tone of voice programme.
9. Obsess about the details
These days, the millions you spend on an ad campaign can be undone by some dodgy Ts & Cs, because grumpy customers will take to Twitter to berate them. The nooks and crannies matter.
10. Don’t stop at brand and marketing
In most organisations, everyone writes. So getting HR, or legal, or customer service to think about tone of voice will get HR, or legal, or customer service thinking about your brand.
10½. They use language experts to do it, not any old brand people
We would say that, wouldn’t we? True, though.
Boy, the British Government loves wading into debates about English usage. The Department for Education has just issued rules on which uses of the exclamation mark will get kids credit in tests (only in sentences that start with ‘How’ or ‘What’). A few years ago the Justice Secretary (and former Education Secretary) Michael Gove fired off his own idiosyncratic hodge-podge of guidance about what’s acceptable English and what’s not.
Now, here at The Writer, we bemoan the over-use of exclamation marks with the best of them. But an arbitrary rule about which sentences should have them, and which shouldn’t, is barmy. That’s not how language works.
We should be teaching kids (and exam markers) that these aren’t black-and-white issues, but questions of context, judgement and taste. And if you really want to know where exclamation marks actually get used, do some science. Get some data. There’s what an academic linguist would do. The Department of Health wouldn’t recommend a medicine on the basis of what colour pill some minister happened to prefer, so why do we tolerate the same subjective amateurishness about language? That’s how unsubstantiated superstitions like ‘You can’t start a sentence with “and”’ become accepted, but ill-informed, wisdom.
It’s not like it’s difficult to investigate. At The Writer we were debating how to describe in the US what our UK clients call ‘tone of voice’. In the US, we hear ‘brand voice’, ‘verbal branding’ and all sorts of alternatives. So we checked which terms people searched on Google, and ‘tone of voice’ was still the clear winner. Two minutes’ research into real usage and job done. Using facts, not hunches, or prejudices.
I’m in the heart of the Daintree Rainforest in Far North Queensland, Australia. I’ve never, ever been this vigilant. At every turn I expect a redback, taipan or crocodile to spring out and sink its teeth into my face.
In my mind, every plant I accidentally brush is a gympie-gympie; a tree with a sting that can leave you in agony for years. Every rustle in the undergrowth is a cassowary; a huge bird with a dagger-like nail on its foot that’s been known to sever carotids.
In the end, the closest I get to danger is a golden orb spider that’s set up home in a café. And as any half-decent arachnologist will tell you, the golden orb spider is about as cuddly as it gets in Queensland.
But it got me thinking. With so many dangerous animals and plants, surely Australia’s warning signs represent the pinnacle of warning sign achievement?
Let’s see. Here are three lessons from three signs.
Lesson 1: The perfect warning sign only tells me things I need to know
I saw this sign on a stroll along the banks of the River Torrens in Adelaide.
I love it for its madness. And it’s pretty effective too. It made me both wary of pelicans and aware of what to do if one turned its fearsome gaze in my direction. I assume that pretty much nails the brief.
So I’m giving it one thumb up. It does the job it’s meant to do, but it could’ve been a lot shorter. I don’t need to be told to leave the park if necessary; I’ll just do it when the relentless pelican attacks get tiresome.
Lesson 2: If you want to warn people about four things, you need four signs
I saw this before a walk to Erskine Falls, just off the Great Ocean Road.
There’s something wonderfully deadpan about the last item on the list. This is Australia, it says. There are always snakes.
But I can only give it one thumb. It made me watch out for snakes, but I instantly forgot about all the other things. And anyway, what could I possibly do if a tree decided to fall on me?
Lesson 3: A sign should make you smile. (Or at least not frown.)
Australia’s signs are good. But it wasn’t until I got to New Zealand that I saw the perfect, two thumbs up sign.
It might just be me, but I think whoever wrote and designed this one did so with a bit of a wink. The subject matter is silly (penguins) and the sign is formal (shouty capital letters, black on yellow). That combo is one of the oldest tricks in the comedian’s book.
So thank you, Australia (and New Zealand). Without your warning signs I might’ve been mauled by pelicans, drowned in a flood, concussed by rocks, crushed by trees, poisoned by snakes and pecked to death by bloodthirsty penguins.
Now if someone can just tell me what this is all about, I’ll be a happy man: