Last week, they were talking about apprenticeships on the radio in the UK. Apparently, the ‘apprentice brand’ is dwindling. It’s becoming just another word for training.
My ears pricked up. At The Writer, we’ve had apprentices for many moons. It all starts with Word Experience. Twenty undergraduates come and spend two days with us, learning how to turn words into work. Then two of them come to spend a six-week stint with us as apprentices, learning all the basics of business writing.
There are lots of different apprenticeships, of lots of shapes and sizes and industries. But what about ours? Does it measure up to what the experts were saying this morning?
‘It should be all-round preparation for highly-skilled work.’
If it’s easy to read, it almost certainly wasn’t easy to write. In the words of Dolly Parton, ‘it costs a lot to look this cheap.’ And that’s what we teach.
Not everyone can take 2,000 words of passive language and corporate speak and turn it into a page-turner. Not everyone can weed out the killer points of an annual report. Not everyone can spin a head-turning headline.
It all takes time and practice (and a fair amount of getting it wrong before you get it right). Being an apprentice is just the start.
‘It should give value to the company in the long run.’
According to the Beeb, apprenticeships have been called ‘a monumental waste of money’ by some. Ouch. We pay our apprentices a good wage while they’re with us and put a lot of our time into training them. So does it all pay off?
Well, me and Jess were both apprentices, back in the day. Fast forward to now: we’ve been here three and four years respectively. Now, I work with words, not numbers. But if you think of all the paid work we’ve done in those years – I’d say that’s a pretty good return on investment.
Are you interested in being The Writer’s apprentice? It all starts with Word Experience. We’ll be posting about the 2017 course soon – but here’s last year’s info, just to whet your appetite.
In the past week, a lot has been written about the Trump team and George Orwell. It’s all very interesting to me, as a Brit in New York. What would this classic British author make of the USA’s new president?
Not the man, or his policies – this isn’t the place for that. No, what I want to know is: what would the great-grandfather of ‘write like you speak’ have to say about Trump’s particular way with words?
If you haven’t read Politics and the English Language yet – do. It’s full of helpful nuggets: use clear, straightforward language; don’t use 20 words when five will do.
And like all good advice, there’s a handy checklist to follow: ‘A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus’:
1. ‘What am I trying to say? What words will express it?’
We’ve always told our clients: it doesn’t matter how brilliant your writers are, bad content is bad content. If you don’t actually have anything to say, no amount of wordplay will make people interested.
But in the time Trump campaigned – and even in his inaugural speech – he wasn’t really saying very much at all. He’s a master at never quite getting to the point – he’s just the best at it, truly, the best – and when you come to listen, when you actually sit down and think about what you’ve been told, you realise there was maybe one point in there, perhaps two. Sad!
2. ‘What image will make it clearer?’
Drain the swamp. Build a wall. Lock her up.
The Donald has mastered the art of the vivid mental image, of the kind that’ll really stick in his audience’s brains. Problem is, nobody’s quite sure whether those things are metaphors or promises. Like The Atlantic said, ‘the press takes him literally, but not seriously; his supporters take him seriously, but not literally’.
3. ‘Could I put it more shortly?’
Trump’s sentences aren’t sentences. In fact, the phrase ‘word salad’ has been coined to sum up his rolling syntax:
Look, having nuclear – my uncle was a great professor and scientist and engineer, Dr. John Trump at MIT; good genes, very good genes, OK, very smart, the Wharton School of Finance, very good, very smart – you know, if you’re a conservative Republican, if I were a liberal, if, like, OK, if I ran as a liberal Democrat, they would say I'm one of the smartest people anywhere in the world – it’s true! – but when you're a conservative Republican they try – oh, do they do a number – that’s why I always start off: Went to Wharton, was a good student, went there, went there, did this, built a fortune –
I’ve honestly tried to cut that at a fairly conclusive point. Short it ain’t.
4. ‘Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?’
Look at that quote above – isn’t it an ugly bit of text? It’s clunky. Clumsy. It’s full of clauses and sub-clauses opening up one after another, like angry Russian dolls.
But his is a language designed to be spoken, not written. Linguists believe his sentences never really finish because his audience fills in the gaps. He’ll raise his eyebrows at just the right point, they’ll jump to a conclusion, and nobody can hold him to account. Donald goes home happy.
So he’s only hitting one out of George’s four
Aside from Trump’s knack for picture-painting, he openly flouts all the basic ‘good writing’ rules: keep things brief, make your meaning clear, don’t focus too heavily on the negatives.
And that’s just the thing, isn’t it? Most politicians try to stick to those rules in speeches – which is exactly why Trump doesn’t.
Brands often come to us because they want their writing to be distinctive. And while banks and businesses might get in trouble if they start threading ‘alternative facts’ into their annual report, there’s still a lesson to learn here.
If you want to stand out, you’ve got to break a few rules. Sorry George.
What other Trump-isms have you picked up on? Let us know in the comments.
Russell Brand has just been awarded this year’s Foot in Mouth award from the Plain English Campaign. It’s an annual prize for the most incomprehensible writing around. They’ve called Brand’s choice of language a ‘seemingly endless stream of gibberish’. They say that his diatribes on democracy and revolution don’t actually make much sense.
Well, yes, it’s true that if you’re going to bang on about politics and revolution, it’s probably a good idea to make sure that people can understand what you’re saying. And yes, we suspect that Mr Brand isn’t exactly an avid reader of, say, Ernest Gower’s Plain Words. Here’s an extract from Brand's most recent book Revolution:
This attitude of churlish indifference seems like nerdish deference contrasted with the belligerent antipathy of the indigenous farm folk, who regard the hippie-dippie interlopers, the denizens of the shimmering tit temples, as one fey step away from transvestites.
But then clarity isn’t always the point. There’s also intriguing, provoking, engaging. He chooses the words that are interesting; he obviously likes the shape, the flow, the sound. He’s a logophile:
On what basis can an energy corporation claim to own gas at the earth's core? What's next? Are they going to claim they own our earwax and our uncried tears and start burrowing into our heads for a few sheckles?
He’s got a distinctive voice. You can instantly recognise the, ahem, Brand brand. You can’t say the same for most people talking about politics in the public eye. In fact, Mr Brand, we award you our inaugural mellifluous language award.
But it’s true he might benefit from a bit of help structuring his argument. Fancy coming to our Writer’s secrets workshop, Mr Brand?
Work experience: but not as you know it
Hello, we’re The Writer, the world’s biggest language consultancy.
We’re looking for second-year undergraduates to come to our two-day Word Experience on Thursday 10th and Friday 11th April 2014.
What’s ‘Word Experience’?
We get a lot of requests from people wanting to come on work experience. But we’ve always felt work experience was pretty unsatisfactory all round: we can’t help many people in a year; you inevitably end up doing quite a bit of boring stuff; and, if we’re honest, it’s a lot of work to do well. (And who wants to do it badly?)
So we cooked up Word Experience: every year, we gather about 20 people together for two days of creativity, workshops and fun stuff. Along the way we’ll talk to you about how you can make a career out of writing for business, show you how our agency works, and some Writer folk will tell you their own stories of how they got into business writing. We might even get you working with us on a live project.
Plus, we usually pick two people from each year to come back and join us for a short paid internship. (And some of those have ended up working here.)
Here’s what previous Word Experiencers have said
‘I loved every minute of it! The look into the world of business writing was insightful and I’ve come away with two realisations: A) You can make a living from words, without becoming a journalist, and B) I actually have a bankable skill set.’
‘Hands-on activities included the sorts of word games that seem like harmless entertainment while you do them, but come loaded with Karate Kid-style moments of realisation that detonate later on. The other day I was struggling over an email to a tutor, then something clicked and (wax on, wax off) I realised I could cut out half the words to make it cleaner and clearer. Who knew writing poems about Ryan Gosling and Tweets for a bike charity could lead to that?’
Keep reading if:
You already write for your course
Maybe you study English, journalism or creative writing. Or maybe you just write a lot of essays.
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.
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 we should pick you (and a way for us to get in touch with you) to firstname.lastname@example.org. Make sure ‘Word Experience’ and your name are in the subject line. And get it to us by Friday 7th March 2014.
A few weeks ago, a man called Jamie Jones tweeted a letter from We Buy Any Car (hereon WBAC because life is too short to type that out over and over). He’d offered them a toy car, and they’d said, essentially, ‘No, we don’t want to buy your toy car even though we’re called We Buy Any Car.’ The letter went viral. It was exactly the kind of corporate telling-off that you’d expect from a big company: ‘The frequency in which you refer to the toy as a vehicle annoyed us’, so do ‘refrain from contacting us again’. We all laughed (well, smirked) because Mr Jennings – the author of the letter – wrote in such a hoity-toity tone. It’s fun to laugh at officiousness, and we all recognise that haughty corporate attitude.
But the letter was a fake. (Of course it was – nobody sends letters anymore.)
And as it turns out, WBAC reacted pretty well to the spoof, using the whole thing to flash a nicer side of their personality. They took to Twitter straightaway; ‘We do love the colour of the Little Tikes and it’s clearly in good condition – but toy cars are just not our area of specialty... maybe Jamie should try eBay?’
And then they leapt into action with webuyanytoycar.com. The site lets users donate their old toy cars. For each, WBAC will give a tenner to charity. Their tone is adorable: ‘We’re not saying we’re experts in buying toy cars, but we just can’t get enough of those Tikes – their red and yellow bodywork, zero carbon emissions and pedal power just make us happy.’
Over the years, there’s been a lot of academic research into theories of humour and what makes a gag work. Jamie Jones’ initial joke was all about laughing at superiority – the (made-up) authority-complex of a big company. But WBAC subverted that with another type of humour; the humour of the unexpected. They used the opportunity to step out from behind the corporate spiel and say, ‘Hey, look. We make jokes too.’ In short, they proved what we’ve been saying for ages; that when companies show personality it’s unusual, fun and refreshing. And it catches our attention in a good way.
The results from the Youth 100 are in.
It’s a survey to find out what young people like in brands. And what they don’t like.
It turns out they think there’s just too much waffle.
And they love brands like YouTube, Google and Facebook. Who just shut up and get out of the way.
Get out of my face. Quit over-talking. Save me from the sales spiel.
So we’ve kept this blog short.
For the kids.