Just a couple of weeks ago, I wrote an open letter to Apple, about the shabby state of their end user agreement. The gist being: your superpower is elegant user experience. So why is the user experience of your writing so appalling?
This time it’s Spotify. They’ve updated their terms and conditions in such a way that it basically sounds like they’re making a land-grab for their customers’ private information. Understandably, it’s created a shit-storm of negative publicity.
Magazines like Wired are calling the updates ‘eerie’ and ‘ridiculous’. Influential customers, like Minecraft creator Markus Persson (2.4 million Twitter followers), have tweeted they’ll be cancelling their accounts. And Spotify CEO Daniel Ek has been forced to respond with a blog saying SORRY, and going into a detailed clarification of many of the points.
Are Spotify really trying to sneak one past us? Have they just expressed themselves badly? As a long-time Spotify customer and enthusiast, with just a gut-level sense that they’re not in the screw-your-users-for-profit game, my money is on the latter. But in truth, when you read the updated terms, it’s just not possible to tell.
For instance, their updated terms contain sentences like:
With your permission, we may collect information stored on your mobile device, such as contacts, photos, or media files. Local law may require that you seek the consent of your contacts to provide their personal information to Spotify, which may use that information for the purposes specified in this Privacy.
If you wanted to design a sentence to discombobulate your readers, you couldn’t do much better than this. It’s essentially giving you the linguistic cue that something fishy is going on here by using the vague legalese ‘we may collect information…’, while at the same time presenting itself as utter nonsense (‘seriously, Spotify, you’re saying I might actually have to get permission from my friends because I’m using your music player?!’).
Contrast with the clear, unequivocal, decidedly not legalese language on Daniel Ek’s SORRY blog: ‘Let me be crystal clear here: If you don’t want to share this kind of information, you don’t have to.’
(And, of course, in contrast with just about everything else Spotify write. Even their error messages are usually carefully crafted and engaging.)
I think one thing is abundantly clear: the interplay of privacy and trust, and how this is interwoven into our relationships with the brands in our lives, is currently the defining subject of the social and digital age. And if you’re a brand that’s trying to conduct that relationship with your customers through an end user agreement document that’s the length of a novel and the complexity of Shakespeare, you’re mad. It’s like trying to have an intimate conversation with someone down an extremely long toilet roll, while speaking in a silly voice.
End user agreements are a broken format, not fit for purpose.
I have a challenge for you. There’s a bit of user experience out there in the world that really really sucks. And it’s not just ‘out there in the world’ – it’s in every single one of your products.
I’m challenging you to change it. Everyone else is acting like this is basically impossible. And, well, we all know you have form when it comes to doing the things nobody else can.
The good news is, compared to designing the iPod, this will be a complete breeze. In fact, I’ve already made a start for you, just a few paragraphs further on.
So let me explain what this challenge is, and why you should care so much about it:
Every single day, billions of people across the world are bored, confused and frustrated by the way businesses write to them. Not the glossy advertising stuff. The important stuff: the contracts, the terms and conditions and so on. The words which are meant to explain where we stand, what we’re all signing up to.
You take meticulous care over even the tiniest details of all your products and services. Yet when it comes to your own end user agreements, you seem to have a complete blind spot. They’re a horror show.
The last time my iTunes updated, a menu popped up asking me to click to agree to the updated terms. In the bottom of the screen, the page count said ‘page 1 of 99’. Your Apple Music terms are nearly 20,000 words long. They’d take nearly two hours of my life to read.
And not only are they too long, they’re also a pretty difficult read. If you check the Flesch-Kincaid readability level of your terms, they score in the low thirties. That’s about the same level as the Harvard Law Review – a level that you need a college education to read easily.
I’ve asked lots of people if they’ve ever read one of your end user agreements. Every single one of them has said something along the lines of, ‘Of course not! I just click accept!’*
Frankly, Apple, I think you should be ashamed by that. That’s the equivalent of saying: ‘It’s tricky to make the battery small enough to fit into this iPhone, so we’ll just stick a big bulge on the back.’
It’s lazy and inelegant. And very unApple.
As I said earlier though – compared to, say, inventing the iPod, or launching Apple Pay, this is an absolute breeze.
I’ll show you how easy it is. Below are a couple of paragraphs from your current end user agreement. (Note ‘force majeure’ and ‘thereto’ in the same sentence!) Followed by a few more paragraphs in which I’ve made them sound more, well, Apple.
iTunes will provide the Apple Music Service with reasonable care and skill. iTunes does not make any other promises or warranties about the Apple Music Service and in particular does not warrant that:
(i) your use of the Apple Music Service will be uninterrupted or error-free. You agree that from time to time iTunes may remove the Apple Music Service for indefinite periods of time, or cancel the Apple Music Service at any time for technical or operational reasons and will, to the extent practicable, notify you of this;
(ii) the Apple Music Service will be free from loss, corruption, attack, viruses, interference, hacking, or other security intrusion which shall be events of Force Majeure, and iTunes disclaims any liability relating thereto. You shall be responsible for backing up your own system before, during and after using the Apple Music Service, including any content or data used in connection with or acquired from the Apple Music Service.
(Word count: 273; Flesch Kincaid reading ease score: 33.1)
But you could so easily say:
We do our best to make Apple Music as reliable as possible. But we can’t promise there won’t sometimes be problems. For instance:
(i) We might need to turn off Apple Music because of technical problems.
What’s important about this: we might need to do it at short notice, and we might not always be able to warn you beforehand.
(ii) Apple Music might get hacked, be infected with a virus, or be affected in other ways that are beyond our control. (Lawyers call this ‘force majeure’.)
What this means for you: we’re always working to try to make sure these things don’t happen. But if they do, we’re not responsible for the effects it might have on your system and data. If you’re worried about that, you should back up your stuff. Ideally before you use Apple Music, but during and after too if you want to be extra safe.
(Word count: 151; Flesch Kincaid reading ease score: 73.3)
Isn’t that already feeling more Apple?
And the thing is, if you do this, it’ll change the world.
Because where you lead, entire industries follow. And while I’m happy to go round to them one by one and make the case for them fixing up their writing, frankly, if you do it, then everyone else will just do it too. Overnight, it’ll become the new default standard for communicating legal stuff to customers.
Which would be pretty cool, right?
(And, obviously, if you want a hand, just give us a call. We’ve already made a start, after all.)
*Obviously, some people have read them. Otherwise a Google search wouldn’t bring up all those examples of the bit that says you can’t use iTunes for the development, design, production or manufacture of nuclear, missile, chemical or biological weapons…
‘Talk about benefits, not features.’ It’s one of the golden rules of copywriting. Because people don’t care about the details, they care about what your product/service/widget can do for them.
So, if you’re selling broadband, don’t bang on about ‘20 meg download speeds’, just explain that ‘you’ll be able to watch Netflix without any buffering problems’.
It’s fine as a rule of thumb, but it ignores the fact that actually, most benefits, no matter what you’re talking about, are pretty much the same: this product/service/widget will make you smarter/save you time/make you more attractive/give you more enjoyment. That pretty much covers it, doesn’t it?
The most interesting writing tends to sit in the blurry bit between features and benefits – when the features imply the benefits. Here’s an example.
There’s a café near where I live that serves the ‘three-mile breakfast’. It’s called the three-mile breakfast because all the ingredients used in it are sourced within a three-mile radius of the café.
Technically, it’s a ‘feature’ – it just tells you a fact about the breakfast. But it’s a feature that implies a whole host of benefits.
* Your fry-up is likely to be fresher and tastier because the ingredients haven’t had to travel so far.
* You can eat with a clear eco-conscience because the food miles are low (and the ingredients are likely to be organic).
* Eating here might well be fun/cool/interesting because the people who work here haven’t just gone for the standard ‘full English breakfast’.
The quirky ‘three-mile’ detail is a feature that works much harder than any generic benefit ever could.
I suppose ‘talk about benefits, not features, except when your reader will understand the benefit implicitly and the feature is more interesting’ isn’t such a snappy rule of thumb, though.
There’s been much fevered blogging about Apple’s fancy new wrist-watch (or ‘wearable’ – ugh). Some people think it’s a great example of Apple’s innovative spirit. Others think it’s proof that they’ve lost their way. But most people agree it’s a masterstroke of usability design; a beautifully crafted thing that Apple have clearly obsessed over. They’ve spent years getting all the tiny details of the size, the strap and the crown (there’s a watch-word I didn’t even know until the Apple Watch turned up) just right.
It’s a shame they don’t take the same care over the details of their language.
Back in June, we pulled together a report of the longest, most difficult Ts and Cs. It’s a shame we didn’t include Apple – they’d have been a contender for the top spot.
Today iTunes asked me to click to say ‘I agree that I have read these terms and conditions’ on a document that was 15,022 words long, with a Flesch-Kincaid Reading Ease score of 42. That’s effectively the same length and reading difficulty as Shakespeare’s Macbeth.
How many millions of dollars did they spend designing the 21st-century watch?
How hard would it be in comparison to fix this regular dose of iGibberish?
It’s one of the ironies of advertising that adverts selling the benefits of advertising itself are usually really lame.
But Exterion Media and Campaign have played a blinder with the ad for the Big Bus Challenge, aimed at getting advertisers to advertise on buses more:
‘It’s big. It’s red. It sticks in your head.’ Genius.
And coincidentally, on the way into work today I saw the best bus ad I’ve seen in years, by Comedy Central:
It’s so good I don’t even care that the gag doesn’t work because the bus is empty.
It also reminded me of one of my favourite writing-on-buses ads – from Dutch Railways:
I love Cancer Research UK’s 2013 Race for Life ‘cancer, we’re coming to get you’ TV ads. There’s real attitude in the people talking straight-to-camera: You mess with her, you mess with all of us; I laugh in your stupid face; Up yours, cancer. It cuts right through the usual language of ‘victim’/‘survivor’, and even the way we talk about ‘battling’ cancer, and instead slaps us with the focused rage of actual fighting talk.
So it makes me sad that the current tube campaign just doesn’t capture the same spirit.
That first exclamation mark sets the wrong tone from the off (‘Oi, cancer’ has fight-picking menace; ‘Oi, cancer!’ is much less confident) and the comparisons just don’t have the defiance of the TV ad. Obviously we hate cancer more than ‘the girl whose headphones go bmmmm-tssssst’ and ‘the muppet who doesn’t get out of his seat for a pregnant lady’. Who wouldn’t? But those aren’t really things we hate are they? They’re just a few mildly annoying clichés of commuter life, used to make a forced link between ‘cancer’, ‘hate’ and ‘commuting’.
When your tone is that bold, your content needs to walk the walk, too.
Of course, it doesn’t change the fact that Race for Life is an amazing and inspiring thing. There are over 300 races this year – sign up for one.
The poster reminded me of this VSO ad from a few years back: in contrast, this is a brilliantly written call to arms that uses the truth of mundane commuter life to much, much better effect.
There’s a new bit of jargon that seems to be having its 15 minutes of fame at the moment. It’s the word ‘land’:
‘That idea really landed well.’
‘We need to make sure our project lands.’
‘This initiative just isn’t landing.’
Superficially, what’s not to like? It’s a fine Old English word (which conjures up synonyms like ‘ground’, ‘earth’, ‘homeland’ and other down-to-earth expressions like ‘being safe on dry land’ and whatnot). There’s also an implicit sense of some kind of journey: your project ‘takes off’, then it ‘cruises along’, and finally it’ll need to ‘land’. And everybody likes a journey metaphor, don’t they?
But like most bits of corporate jargon, while it sounds precise and solid, it’s actually rather slippery. I can’t quite put my finger on why. Perhaps it’s because it’s a word that lends itself to deflecting responsibility: ‘the idea hasn’t landed’ or ‘the initiative didn’t land’. Both of which help give the impression that the success or not of the ‘landing’ was probably something to do with the initiative itself, or was perhaps in the lap of the gods. Compare that to the word ‘embed’ – which has similar connotations of making something ‘stick’ or ‘take hold’. If you use embed like this you get ‘the idea hasn’t embedded’ or ‘the initiative didn’t embed’. Now it might be just me, but in those contexts the word ‘embed’ draws attention to itself, instantly making you think: ‘Yeah – but embedding doesn’t just happen by itself. Who was responsible for that, eh?’ (Grammarians might say it’s something to do with how ‘land’ works well in the context of passive sentence structures, and as an intransitive verb.)
And I’ve been in two meetings this month where clients have talked about their ‘ideas not landing’. Initial discussions about the big reasons behind this failure to land eventually got round to the truth – which was more like ‘we didn’t explain our ideas in a way that people could understand’, or even ‘people just didn’t “get” what we were saying’.
In both cases, the problem was a language one: the ideas needed explaining in a simpler way, or in language appropriate to the audience. Or they needed bringing to life with stories or examples.
So, next time you hear something hasn’t landed, check: is it really that there’s some complicated process problem — or is it just that something needs explaining better?
I’ve just read – for the fourth or fifth time today – this blog post on the BBC Ouch website by Mark Neary. His 23-year-old son Steven has autism and other learning difficulties. One of the many consequences of this is that his life is awash with the jargon of social care, which, says Mr Neary, ‘seems to make his life sound even less normal than it is’:
‘I live in my home. Steven’s current placement is in the family home... When I make a pizza, I’m making a pizza. When Steven makes a pizza, he’s increasing his independence skills (as overseen by an occupational therapist)... I have friends. Steven has a circle of support and influence.’
Even in just the short blog, you can get a feeling for the weirdly dehumanising effects of this soulless, patronising language. And that’s just from reading 500 words while sitting on a train – let alone being forced to live and think in these terms day in, day out.
For most business writers – and, I suspect, most people working in big companies – corporate jargon tends to play the role of the comedy villain in our working lives; there’s a certain pleasure in it being around, because we love to hate it. We can laugh at its gormlessness; we can share particularly execrable examples with each other; and heck, some of us can get paid for rewriting it.
Mark Neary’s excellent blog is a big reminder that sometimes, it can have a much more real effect on people’s lives than whether you win the next round of buzzword bingo.
Hey, banks – if you want a killer reason why your brand needs a tone of voice, and why you should use it every time you write to your customers, it’s this: it’ll help stop your customers falling foul of phishing emails.
Why? Because online fraudsters can’t write. Most phishing emails are full of grammatical errors, clunky phrases and – deliberately or not – are written in a strangulated formal tone.
Even the quickest nose around banksafeonline’s archive of phishing emails turns up a whole crop. How about this from an attack on Co-operative Bank’s customers:
‘The Co-operative Bank P.L.C. Internet Banking Security Department has been receiving complaints from our customers for unauthorised uses of the Co-Operative bank accounts. As a result, we are temporarily shutting down some selected Online Accounts perceived vulnerable to this, pending til the time we carry out proper verification by the account owner.’
‘For unauthorised uses of’ is just bad grammar. And the strangulated formality of accounts ‘perceived vulnerable to this, pending til the time...’ is just weird.
A recent phishing email sent to Halifax customers crams the same two bad habits into a single sentence:
‘Important notice: note that your Security Question and Answer should be match correctly for proper re-verification, in order to avoid service suspension.’
Of course, most people who fall foul of these attacks aren’t reading the phishing emails in this kind of detail. And that’s the point. At a quick read, people obviously just get a general feeling that these emails are genuine.
That doesn’t say much for our impression of how banks communicate with their customers. But it does present a clear opportunity: if you make sure the way you write to customers is clear, natural and distinctive to your brand – especially for ‘unsexy’ day-to-day emails – then these shabbily-written phishing emails will instantly feel wrong to your customers. They’re much more likely to think ‘hang on, this doesn’t sound like my bank...’.
Ironically, the phishing email that prompted me to write this post was this one, purporting to be from HM Revenue and Customs:
‘After the last annual calculations of your fiscal activity, we have determined that you are eligible to receive a tax refund of 468.50 GBP. Please submit the tax refund request and click here by having your tax refund sent to your bank account in due time.’
Its pompous and formal tone sounded exactly like how HMRC actually sound. Which is really dangerous for them.
PS: Hey, phishers! Ever thought about signing up to one of our writing workshops?
Get lost. We only use our powers for good.
In workshops, we tell people to watch out. To watch out for the long sentence. Because long sentences are bad. They’re confusing. You lose your thread. You have to go back and read them again. It’s all too easy to do, of course. You start on a thought and then you’re off. And before you know it, you’ve gone on. And on. And on. For ages. They’re difficult to follow, long sentences.
But recently we’ve noticed something else. And that’s the opposite problem. The problem of the short sentence. Where people over-compensate. And go the other way. And start to make all their sentences short. Really short. It’s copywriters. Mainly. And it’s just as bad as the thing about short sentences. It’s juddering. Jarring. Twitchy. Staccato. Stuttering.
When you read a long sentence, you run out of breath. When you read a passage that’s all short sentences? You hyper-ventilate.
A short sentence gives you pace, punch and timing. But they’re your spice and seasoning – not your meat and potatoes. Please, addicts of the stuttering sentence, use them more sparingly: ‘emphasise everything, and you emphasise nothing’, as somebody once said about something else. It’s time to re-acquaint yourselves with the elegance of the well-balanced sentence, the pleasures of a graceful comma, the more subtle rise and fall of a full-bodied sentence. There’s more to phrasing. Than the full stop.
Not sure if you’re a short sentence addict? Watch out for the following symptoms:
- You’ve forgotten how to use a comma, a semicolon and parentheses. (Or brackets.)
- You have an unusually high percentage of sentences starting with ‘and’ and ‘but’. But for no real reason.
- You read this post and didn’t see anything wrong. With it.
In Politics and the English Language (1945), George Orwell suggests six rules of writing. If you’re in the habit of reading blogs written by language consultancies, you’ve almost certainly seen them: ‘(i) Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print; (ii) Never use a long word when a short one will do; (iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out; (iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active; (v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent; (vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.’
Much less frequently quoted is the advice that Orwell gives just a few pages earlier, while discussing what goes wrong when writers aren’t interested in the detail of what they’re saying, only in a vague ‘emotional meaning’. He says:
‘A scrupulous writer, in every sentence he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus:
What am I trying to say?
What words will express it?
What image or idiom will make it clearer?
Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?
And he will probably ask himself two more:
Could I put it more shortly?
Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?’
I’ve always preferred the list of six questions to the more finger-wagging six rules. They’re quieter but somehow more challenging, I think.
If you’ve never read Politics and the English Language in full, then a) shame on you; and b) now’s the time. Penguin have just published it in a 99p version. Buy several. Give them to friends, relatives, clients. Leave them in public places.
I’m reading Rework by the 37signals software people. (It’s a ‘nuggets of wisdom we’ve sussed out by running our own business’ type book and was a Sunday Times and New York Times bestseller recently.) Among their various nuggets of wisdom was this advice: When you’re recruiting, if you can’t choose between two candidates – hire the best writer. Why?
‘…because being a good writer is about more than writing. Clear writing is a sign of clear thinking. Great writers know how to communicate. They make things easy to understand. They can put themselves in someone else’s shoes. They know what to omit. And those are qualities you want in any candidate.
‘Writing is making a comeback all over our society. Look at how much people email and text message now rather than talk on the phone. Look at how much communication happens via instant messaging and blogging. Writing is today’s currency for good ideas.’
We couldn’t agree more.
So, Chiltern trains have used a comedy writer to help inject some personality into their announcements.
They’ve used someone good, too – Richard Preddy, who wrote Green Wing. And they’ve got Tony ‘Baldrick’ Robinson to help coach their announcers in how to deliver them.
It simultaneously makes me think two things:
- Oh good, that’s interesting. Rail announcements have always been a joke – but for all the wrong reasons. It’s nice to see a train company do something imaginative with their language.
- Oh, god: that’s excruciating. There’s nothing worse than Organised Fun. Off-the-cuff quips get a smile. Forced humour gets a grimace. (At best.)
The whole thing is a link-up with a comedy TV channel, so presumably it’ll run for a few weeks and then all be over. The real opportunity, though, is for a rail company which realises that there’s a middle ground between funny ha-ha and the weird formal/bureaucratic gibberish of ‘de-training’ and ‘alighting’ that announcements are usually full of.
So, if you’re on a Chiltern train and you hear one of these announcements, do email us and tell us what you think. If you’re a train company who actually wants to change your language for better, for good, email us for a chat.
There’s been a bit of a kerfuffle in the blogosphere the last few months about the advice ‘write like you speak’. Back in December, Taylor Lindstrom of ‘Men With Pens’ said it was the ‘worst piece of writing advice he’d ever heard’. People have been arguing it one way or the other ever since. It seems to us that most of the disagreements have come about because of a misunderstanding about what the advice is designed to help people with. Here’s why:
It’s largely advice about not putting on a ‘telephone voice’ when you write
The reason we say it is to stop people feeling like they need to adopt a formal, posh or ‘clever-sounding’ tone when they’re writing. For example, you wouldn’t say in a meeting ‘schedules shall be agreed upon prior to commencement of the project’. You’d say ‘we’ll agree the schedules before we start the project’. Yet lots of people tend to write the former, because they think it’s what ‘proper’ or ‘professional’ writing should sound like. Writing more like you speak is really about getting people to tune in to these sorts of differences.
It’s not about including all the habits of speech in your writing
When you speak you ‘umm’ and ‘ahh’, you don’t finish sentences, you digress, ramble, gesticulate for added effect. (Well okay, I do.) Clearly, nobody’s saying you should do that in your writing. Some people caveat ‘write like you speak’ by saying ‘write like you speak – and then polish’. Or ‘write like you speak – but speak well’. I don’t like these sorts of caveats because ‘polishing’ your words and ‘speaking well’ can sometimes be misinterpreted as ‘poshing it up a bit’, which gets you back to the problem you started with. I prefer saying ‘remember, it’s write more like you speak, not literally as you speak’. The simple practical test is: read your writing out loud. Listen to your voice. Can you read it out in your natural speaking voice?
It’s not advice about how to structure your writing
One of the complaints against ‘write like you speak’ as advice is that it results in rambling, stream-of-consciousness pieces. Of course, you should structure your piece well. Start with your main point. Group your points into themes, and so on. (Though, funnily enough, there are times when we’re talking that we’re really good at instinctively structuring what we need to say – if you’ve only got 20 seconds to persuade someone of something, it’s astonishing how effortlessly you can hone in on what your main point is.)
And don’t forget: writing is only half the story
Actually writing the words down is only half the job. Write like you speak is a great start. But then edit, edit, edit.
So, the weird blank-faced Olympic mascots, Wenlock and Mandeville, are ‘in shops this week’.
Sporting mascots tend not to fare well – they always seem just a bit forced and twee and too obviously about flogging merchandising. And this pair have more than a whiff of that about them: what, exactly, do these two alien Tellytubbies have to do with sport? But I have to say: their names are great.
Wenlock and Mandeville. Wenlock and Mandeville.
Say them out loud. Roll them around your mouth. They sound like they’re a pair of melancholy detectives from a minor existential comedy. Or perhaps Wallace and Gromit’s posher cousins. Or the names of two slightly bland English cheeses.
They make me think of the Shropshire town of Much Wenlock, and Stoke Mandeville hospital. Both places that reek of Englishness. Sporting names are usually so thrusting and energetic and relentlessly positive. Wenlock and Mandeville just seem so... gentle.
I did a little light googling. It turns out, of course, that these names haven’t been plucked out of the air just because they sounded nice – but because of their Olympic ‘resonances’. Much Wenlock was the home of Dr William Perry Brookes, who set up the Wenlock Olympian Games in 1850, and was the ‘inspiration for the modern Olympic movement’. And Stoke Mandeville stadium was the birthplace of the Paralympic Games. It all makes sense now.
In a way it’s a shame the names turn out to be so specifically Olympic-related. Even so, they’re corkers.
(Also, a good thing Dr Brookes didn’t live in Slough, eh?)
There’s a stylistic writing thing that’s doing the rounds on Facebook, Twitter, et al, that I love. It’s this: Three. Single. Words.
I’m guessing it started out as a way of emulating the exaggerated way that American teens say things like ‘Oh my god’, with big pauses between the words. (Try reading it out: ‘Oh. My. God.’) It’s now mostly used as a way of saying something’s great (‘Best. [Insert noun here]. Ever.’)
I love the fact that it’s all about the comic timing: you have to read it out in your head with the exaggerated pauses.
So it’s a shame that it’s probably had its day. It’s just turned up on the poster for comedy medieval rompfest film Your Highness. (‘Best. Quest. Ever.’) When Hollywood gets its hands on anything, you know it’s done for.
The Government have cut their funding for Booktrust, the charity that gives every child in the country free books.
Cutting this funding is idiotic in so, so many ways. If you haven’t already read this letter from a girl who had to write her book report about Yellow Pages, because it was the only ‘book’ her parents had in the house, please do so. It’s heart-breaking. I’m a writer. I need books like I need air. Reading that letter just makes this cut feel all the more like the government turning off our children’s oxygen supply.
Quite apart from just being the mark of a civilised society, there’s the small matter of the cut being utterly self-defeating. Home reading has such a profound effect on literacy, emotional development and indirectly things like exclusion rates, that it seems pretty obvious that every penny the Government ‘saves’ by cutting the funding will inevitably have to be spent fixing stuff further down the line.
There’s been much big talk recently from the Government about ‘nudge’ theory: thinking smarter about identifying the small triggers that can ‘nudge’ people towards making big positive behavioural changes in things like diet or exercise.
It’s doubtful, of course, that anyone in the Government is reading any of the hundreds of outraged letters, articles, blog posts, tweets or comments against this cut. (They’ve proved they’re not much into reading, after all.) But maybe, just maybe, they could understand a little better if we use their jargon:
Putting a book into the hands of every single child is an astonishingly powerful nudge:
It’s a nudge towards literacy.
It’s a nudge towards empathy.
It's a nudge towards confidence.
It’s a nudge towards living a better life.
It’s a nudge towards imagination.
It’s a nudge towards creativity.
It’s a nudge towards all we want for our children, our society, our economy.
It’s a nudge you were already doing.
It’s a nudge you have exchanged for a shrug.
It’s National Plain English Day today.
It’s a Good Thing, obviously. Plain writing is better than jargon-filled gobbledigook any day.
But there’s something about the word ‘plain’ that bothers me.
Sometimes people say in workshops ‘oh yes, we do try and make our writing plain.’
They never exactly say it with much enthusiasm.
And who can blame them?
Who ever called a friend and said ‘It’s love at first sight! She’s just so... plain.’
Have you ever said to someone ‘that meal was lovely. Really plain food.’
Who the hell wants to be plain in life?
So why on earth is ‘plain’ good enough for our writing?
Especially these days, when your words have to fight for attention in the daily blizzard of emails, or you need to write a speech or presentation to inspire your team in these tough times.
Don’t be plain. Be brave. Be Bold. Be interesting.
Plain? It’s for crisps.