Blog in 10 2011.
Have a look at these lines.
‘An S A now I mean 2 write
2 U sweet K T J ...’
Now guess when they were written.
Go on, guess. Don’t cheat.
Nope, not even close. They’re from a poem called ‘An Essay to Miss Catherine Jay’. And it was published in 1875. OMG! And this anonymous author wasn’t the only one to experiment with sound/letter substitutes. Queen Victoria and Lewis Carroll did it, too. People have been messing about with language for years.
I thought about this yesterday when I read that Maid in Manhattan* star Ralph Fiennes is grumbling about the English language going to hell in a handcart.
Apparently it’s all because of that new-fangled Twitter thing. We live in ‘a world of truncated sentences [and] soundbites’, he said (ironically, in a soundbite). And, he reckons, the youth of today are too busy tweeting about last night’s X-Factor, or what they had for breakfast, to appreciate Shakespeare.
It reminds me of all that hand-wringing about how kids these days can only write in text-speak (or txtspk). And yet study after study has shown that the more children text, the better their literacy scores are. New technology is giving them more and more opportunities to read and write, so they’re getting better at it.
Isn’t it the same with social networking sites, blogs and chatrooms? It makes writers of all of us. Some are better at it than others. But every day, millions of us are reading and writing and swapping ideas and voicing opinions through these channels.
Even better, to make yourself heard on Twitter you have to be concise, insightful, amusing. People who turn tweeting into an art form have thousands of followers, and for good reason. ‘Brevity is the soul of wit’, after all.
Fiennes disagrees: ‘Our expressiveness and our ease with some words is being diluted so that the sentence with more than one clause is a problem for us, and the word of more than two syllables is a problem for us.’ Ralph Fiennes doesn’t use Twitter. Maybe he should give it a go.
*Yes, I know he’s been in some good films as well.
When I was little, I got a bike for my birthday. I was dead chuffed. It had 15 gears, it was blue (my favourite colour) and when I saw it was called ‘Jungle Lightning’ I knew I was going to be the coolest kid in all Winchester.
‘Wow, ‘Jungle Lightning’. This bike must be amazing! What a metaphor!’ I expect the kids cried. And that’s fine. Everything’s about what makes you sound like you can battle aliens when you’re seven.
But the next thing I know, I’m some sort of adult, and I want a bike. So I stroll into Halfords and ask the man what’s what when it comes to bikes for adult-type people. And when he does, I can’t help but chuckle.
They’re amazing aren’t they? Like some new elite team of marvel heroes; wonderful hyperbole for what is still just two wheels and a frame. And yet the aspiration of the names makes me really happy. (Although I do like the idea of naming bikes more mundane, honest things like ‘The all-new Apollo Ache’, or ‘The powerful new Raleigh Heave’.)
One of our Writer people owns a bike called ‘Space Falcon’, and something tells me it will never live up to that as she battles vans, buses and insidious people on terrifying bikes named ‘Stealth’ as she glides into work. I personally love that products live in a fantasy land where our kettles are called ‘Serenity’, our shoes are called ‘Anarchy’ and our razors are called ‘Gillette Fusion Power Gamer Razor’. Just so long as we all know they’re a little bit silly. Because I still want people to stare in awe (and confusion) when I mount my ‘Paradox’.
So tell me, what’s your bike called? The one you ride now, or your past pride and joy.
Three weeks ago, I went on holiday for the first time in three years. This was a big deal. After many nights mining holiday sites, I finally found the perfect farmhouse. It was in a tiny medieval village, on the northern coast of Italy. Farmhouse booked, we found the flights to match. It was shaping up to be a wonderful, whirlwind, romantic wedge of a holiday.
Then I got this email from Ryanair: ‘
You are shortly booked to travel on a Ryanair flight (your flight details are detailed above).
Please note the following important information regarding cabin baggage:
• Strictly one item of cabin baggage is permitted per passenger (excluding infants) weighing up to 10kg with maximum dimensions of 55cm x 40cm x 20cm (your handbag, briefcase, laptop, shop purchases, camera etc. must be carried in your 1 permitted piece of cabin baggage). […]
Thank you for flying with Ryanair and we wish you a pleasant flight.’
It was like someone pouring cold water on all those holiday dreams and saying, ‘You didn’t think you were that special, did you? People go on holiday all the time’.
Apart from the language being uber-dry, passive and robotic, there are also tons of unnecessary words (‘your flight details are detailed above’). Thanks so much for telling me that useless piece of information.
Anyway, I found out that I wasn’t alone in feeling let down by my flight company. Here are some other party poopers from across the board:
‘We really hope you enjoy your booking with us.’
lastminute.com (I’m much more likely to enjoy my holiday)
‘Thank you for booking. Your booking is now confirmed.’
easyJet (Do they need that second sentence?)
‘Thank you for choosing Virgin Atlantic Airways. Don't forget to come back to our website to take care of all of your travel needs.’
Virgin (‘travel needs’? Really?)
Why don't air companies make travel more exciting?
When I'm going on holiday, I'm the most excited I've ever been. I want to smile with glee whenever I get an email from my airline. I want a booking confirmation saying 'Congratulations'. And then I want party poppers and falling confetti whilst I'm waiting to check-in.
I want all the things that airlines used to be, when the pilots looked like George Clooney. And tickets were printed in embossed gold instead of being a flimsy, dog-eared printout from your inbox. Instead it's just all so boring. Come on airlines, try a little harder.
Our yearly Word Experience is back and we’re ready for your applications.
We're looking for second-year undergraduates to come to our two-day Word Experience on 15th and 16th December 2011. It’s your chance to come and get inspired to write for a living.
We’ll show you how you can make a career out of writing for business. By giving you plenty of writing exercises, fun brainstorms and home-made pecha kuchas* to get your teeth into. (*Google has the answer.) We might even get you working with us on a live project.
And if you’re really good, we have a grand prize of two paid apprenticeships.
Keep reading if:
You already write for your course
Maybe you study English, journalism or creative writing. Or maybe even PR or marketing and advertising.
You write in your spare time too
You might write for your student paper, a blog, or fiction. It doesn’t matter as long as you write.
And you’re a bit of a word geek
You have a tendency to get excited or properly riled up by all kinds of writing. From tube ads to tubes of toothpaste, Booker Prize winners to Charlie Brooker.
Yes that’s me. What do I need to do?
Send us 300 words telling us why it should be you (and a way for us to get in touch with you) to [email protected]. Make sure ‘Word Experience’ and your name are in your subject line. And get it to us by 1st November 2011.
Truman Capote, one of my favourite writers, once said*: “I think most writers, even the best, overwrite. I prefer to underwrite. Simple, clear as a country creek.”
I thought about this last week when I was working on something for a client. They wanted us to help them make a business case for doing something more strategically.
They were too close to it, they said. They wanted us to write something clear and simple so they could see the wood for the trees.
After a couple of hours, I had the bare bones of the argument down on paper. It looked all clean and new and lovely. But there it was: the word ‘strategic’, popping up all over the page like weeds on a newly mowed lawn.
There’s something about that word. It’s everywhere, yet hardly anyone seems to know exactly what it means. Including me, it turns out.
“Are we allowed to say ‘strategic’?” I wailed at Jan across the desk. “I know I shouldn’t. I just can’t think of anything else.”
He looked thoughtful for a minute. “How about just saying ‘cleverer’?”
So I typed: We need to be cleverer about how we do this. Simple, clear as a country creek. And so much better for it.
*He said it in the Preface to Music for Chameleons, a collection of short stories, reportage and interviews, including a hilarious and moving conversation with his friend Marilyn Monroe. Have a flick through it one day. It’s brilliant.