We’ve made some headway into the New Year, and it’s early enough that most of us are still sticking to our resolutions. Maybe, like us, you’ve even been to the gym for the first time in months.
But what about shaping up your words?
How about making 2015 the year you give your words a workout? You could revamp your LinkedIn profile by injecting it with some energy. Get rid of the flab in over-complicated emails so nothing gets lost in translation. Or just generally get your writing into fighting-fit shape.
We can help.
To get you off on the right foot, we’re tweeting wordy wisdom throughout January with #WriteWell2015. To round the month off, we’re running a live twitter Q&A on Friday 30th January from 2.30pm to 3.30pm. And to flex your writing muscles, we’ve got our academy courses going on all year. So you can sign yourself up for workouts on any problem areas.
Like a milder-mannered personal trainer, we’ll be there to cheer you on while you get your words working harder.
What do you get when you fill two Writer apprentices with Writer-ly wisdom and enthusiasm? A brand-busting blog series, of course.
We’ll be travelling into the Twittersphere and wading through websites. Patting the backs of the tonally consistent and pointing out the brands that could do with a hand.
What got us on to this was the uncovering of the Rowling–Galbraith pseudonym secret. Since then people have been scouring for similarities between Harry Potter and The Cuckoo’s Calling. But why? Rowling’s one author. Galbraith’s another. Effectively they’re two separate brands. But people can’t help trying to force them under the same umbrella of tone – we’re suckers for consistency.
Unlike Rowling, brands can’t just make up a new persona every time there’s something to share. Nobody would know who they were. So consistency is key. It’s pointless having one tone of voice for Twitter and another for your website. It doesn’t work. Maybe it’s because it confuses us. Maybe it’s because we like knowing what to expect. Or maybe it’s just irritating.
So what does work?
You’ll have to stick with us for the answer. Over the next few months, we’re going to unmask our heroes of consistent tone and expose those lurking, tone-deaf villains.
Keep your eyes peeled.
(And if you don’t want to end up in our next blog – for the wrong reasons – you’d better start toning up.)
People often tell us that because a particular client is very grand and important, we should use a more formal writing style for them. Not so. Our Italian writer Mariella has proof that even the Pope’s happy with a more informal approach. Scroll down for an English translation.
A me è successo di scrivere al Papa per lavoro, alcuni anni fa, e ci ho messo più tempo a pormi le domande sul come scrivere la lettera che a scriverla davvero.
Come ci si rivolge al Papa? Egregio? Gentile? Caro? Sua Santità? Ma non solo: quale è il tono di voce da usare: formale, colloquiale, naturale?
Ricordo il telegiornale di una domenica di settembre del 1999. Papa Karol Wojtyla, nell'Angelus aveva parlato a favore del computer e del suo ruolo per il progresso della società.
Era un fatto importante, davvero.
A quei tempi io lavoravo allo Smau, tra le più grandi Fiere delle tecnologie a livello europeo ed ero responsabile della comunicazione e delle relazioni pubbliche. La nostra manifestazione attirava mezzo milione di persone ogni anno e si sarebbe aperta dopo pochi giorni.
Proposi al mio Presidente di allora, di scrivere una lettera al Papa ringraziandolo per le parole spese a sostegno del nostro settore. Mi misi al lavoro per scrivere la lettera più delicata della mia vita professionale. O almeno io la vedevo così.
Primo dubbio: come si scrive al Papa? Qual'è la formula di cortesia da usare?
Non volevo sbagliare. Telefonai quindi all'ufficio stampa del Vaticano pensando di stare in attesa per un po' di tempo. Mi rispose subito una signora gentilissima che mi suggerì di scrivere al Papa in modo naturale come si scrive a una persona che si conosce. Il Papa - mi disse - amava le lettere semplici e senza orpelli.
Ci pensai su e optai comunque per la formula di cortesia: "Sua Santità". Il resto fu più facile. Quell'invito alla semplicità e alla forma diretta mi rimase impresso.
Nel giro di una settimana ricevemmo una risposta affettuosa da parte del portavoce del Papa, Joaquin Navarro Valls. Il Papa, attraverso le parole del suo bravissimo portavoce, si complimentava con noi e auspicava il successo della manifestazione. E così fu.
A few years ago, I had to write a letter to the Pope. I ended up spending more time worrying about how to write the letter than actually doing it. How to start it? Dear Sir? Dear Pope? Hello His Holiness? But not only that – what’s the right tone of voice for talking to the Pope?
It all came about after I watched the news one Sunday in 1999. I was working for the communications and public relations department of Smau, one of the largest technology fairs in Europe. Our fair attracted half a million people every year and would be opening in a couple of days. The news was about a speech Pope John Paul II had made in favour of computers and technology, and their role in advancing society. It was an important moment for people in my line of business.
So I suggested to my boss that I write a letter to the Pope to say thanks for the words he’d said in support of our industry. Then I sat down to write the most delicate letter of my professional life.
I was desperate not to make any mistakes. So I phoned the Vatican’s press office. Expecting to be on hold forever, I was pleasantly surprised when I was immediately put through to someone. I asked her my question – how should I go about writing to the Pope? And she said ‘write to the Pope like you’d write to someone you know’. According to her, the Pope preferred simple writing, without frills.
I decided to start with ‘Your Holiness’. After that, the rest was easy. The advice to be simple and direct made the whole thing really straightforward (and it impressed me a lot).
Within a week we got a lovely reply from the Pope’s spokesman, Joaquin Navarro Valls. The Pope wanted to wish us a successful event. Which it was.
Certain(e)s pourront être surpris(es) mais c’est bel et bien vrai, The Writer (L’Ecrivain) parle français.
Pour ma part, j’ai rejoint l’équipe internationale de The Writer l’année dernière. Très vite, on a compris deux choses. On peut travailler en français avec les Anglais… Et plus surprenant encore, on peut parler le même langage en entreprise, sans nécessairement se convertir à l’anglais et en gardant ses propres mots. En bref, voici la petite récolte de notre équipe.
Les mêmes principes d’écriture pour tous
En comparant l’anglais et le français, on a réalisé que quels que soient la langue et le secteur d’activité:
le langage d’entreprise rencontre les mêmes écueils,
le langage d’entreprise est améliorable,
le langage d’entreprise peut être simple, consistant et efficace.
L’anglais ne fait pas tout
En comparant des langages d’entreprises globales, il est apparu que:
le franglais et le jargon ne rendent pas international,
la traduction littérale donne une mauvaise image,
les langues doivent être respectées.
A chacun ses mots et ses pépites
En regardant des textes d’entreprises parfaitement bilingues, nous sommes maintenant convaincus que:
le français est une langue poétique et non fleurie,
le français aime les phrases longues mais aussi le style concis,
le français ne traduit pas tout, il faut lui laisser son caractère.
Un langage commun se décline – il ne se traduit pas – dans chaque langue. The Writer parle maintenant français.
A bon entendeur…
Here’s a surprising sign our Abby snapped in her local Tesco the other day.
We think it’s surprising for a few reasons.
Surprise 1: Tesco is affected by the weather
We know it’s silly, but there’s a part of us that expects the behemoth that is Tesco to be impervious to these things. Surely they’ve created their own micro-climate on a remote island that guarantees a ready supply of shiny but tasteless produce all year round?
Apparently not. And it’s reassuring to hear that they’re as susceptible to the climate as anybody else – the implication being that they’re using suppliers close to home.
Surprise 2: the sign admits there’s a problem
As readers and humans, we understand that, sometimes, things go wrong. The thing that makes us cross is when people or companies pretend things haven’t gone wrong.
Because Tesco have been frank with us about this issue, we’re more likely to believe what they have to say on other issues. It’s a way of gaining our trust.
Surprise 3: it sounds like it’s been written by a human being
Tesco’s tomatoes and peppers are struggling with the weather. They’re not negatively affected by adverse weather conditions, or whatever standard corporate blah we’d expect to see here.
Using natural, everyday words only reinforces surprises one and two: Tesco – human, not a corporate behemoth. Tesco – human and therefore more trustworthy. Canny move, Tesco.
Our Abby’s not impressed with BIC’s range of ballpoint pens ‘For her’ (designed to fit a woman’s hand, and featuring an attractive pink and purple barrel design).
Gender-based branding is feeling the heat this week, as Amazon reviews for the new ‘For her’ pen range from BIC furiously rack up. A random selection:
WOMAN: ‘I quickly found a piece of notepaper with pictures of kittens round the edges and had a go at writing my name. It was amazing! The pen just stayed in place between my fingers, just like it always had for the boys in my class at school.’
MAN: ‘I bought this pen (in error, evidently) to write my reports of each day’s tree felling activities in my job as a lumberjack. It is no good. It slips from between my calloused, gnarly fingers like a gossamer thread gently descending to earth between two giant redwood trunks.’
Humour aside, there’s a serious point to be made. It’s not like these are the first purple-pink, softly cushioned pens to be invented. It’s the incredibly glib byline, ‘For her’, that’s got everyone riled up. In fact, if BIC hadn’t used that phrase they’d have got away with it completely.
So what’s the problem? Aside from the fact that it’s utterly irrelevant if a pen is for a man or a woman, ‘For her’ irks the most because it implies BIC are doing women a favour. And it makes their brand team seem really out of touch with their customers, who are all probably fine with their harsh, angular, patriarchal writing implements.
The backlash is similar to the Femfresh hoo-hah a few months ago. I use ‘hoo-hah’ wryly, because it’s one of the names Femfresh chose to describe where their lady customers would apply their products (along with ‘froo froo’, ‘nooni’ and ‘la la’). I’m talking about vaginas. Their Facebook page was quickly bombarded with comments from people protesting against these infantilised euphemisms, and against a product that makes women feel ashamed about their bodies.
Both of these examples expose how outdated gender-based branding still is. Women don’t need either of these products, but companies think they can persuade them they do by using ‘feminine’ language.
Femfresh and BIC: get out of the 1950s. It really doesn’t wash.
Happy birthday, A Clockwork Orange. This year marks the 50th anniversary of Anthony Burgess’ classic novel. What’s interesting about this book isn’t what happens to the narrator Alex (a Mozart-loving, milk-drinking teen) and his cronies: it’s how the story is told.
Burgess wrote the book completely in ‘nasdat’, the gang’s slanguage. Nasdat is a mongrel that Burgess created by mixing Russian and Slavic words with Cockney street slang, German, kid-speak and old English:
‘You could peet it with vellocet or synthemesc or drencorom or one or two other vesches.’
Peet? Vellocet? Is this brand naming for hair-removal cream? No. It’s actually Alex talking about mixing drugs. Don’t worry though, it gets easier. From about five pages into the book, something strange happens. You start to understand this gobbledygook. You become acclimatised to nasdat.
It’s an example of how sometimes we can surprise ourselves with what we understand.
The best writers invent. Shakespeare created his own words when he couldn’t think of exactly the term to fit and Tolkien wrote whole passages in Elvish. Okay, so maybe Burgess was less an inventor and more a multilingual borrower, but the theory is still the same: your readers aren’t stupid, so challenge them.
Well, maybe don’t go full-out nasdat and invent a language, but making your reader reach for the dictionary is no bad thing. The odd unfamiliar word can refresh a whole piece of writing.
*Watch your words
The Twitterverse is full of nutty ideas. On one of my twambles*, I came across @ShakespeareSong – an account dedicated to writing ‘modern songs and phrases in archaic language’.
Guessing the original song is all part of the fun. Take tweets like, ‘Escort me down to the utopian civilisation, where the vegetation is of green hue and the females are elegant and graceful.’
Or ‘I witness thee parading about the village in the company of the female I am infatuated with and so I exclaim, “Fornicate thyself!”’
See? Loads of fun. But we can actually learn a lot from Shakespeare’s reincarnated Twitter self. It’s a great way of looking at how we use words needlessly – and how we can easily say something in five words rather than ten.
Shakespeare knew his stuff about grammar (he was happy to use ‘and’ to start a sentence), but language has moved on since then. We don’t need to use long rambling words and phrases to emphasise a point. (Even if you think it makes you sound smarter.)
Your readers don’t want to spend ages wondering what you’re trying to say. So, in Shakespearean style: ensure thy penmanship is transcribed as guilelessly as is feasible. Or in real terms – stick to writing simply.
Can you come up with a @ShakespeareSong?
*That’s a Twitter ramble. If you put ‘tw’ in front of any word, it automatically becomes Twitter-related. (This is definitely a real fact.)
On a recent trawl of LinkedIn discussion boards, a thread called ‘Using the right words’ jumped out at me.
The (clearly very sensible) person who’d started it was making a simple, but really important, point: that companies often think more about the words they use in their ads than the ones their people use to sell products to customers.
Take new cars. You can launch a clever, aspirational ad campaign that has customers beating a path to your door. But if, when they walk into the showroom, the sales person says, ‘It’s a 1.6 litre TDCi with Active Park Assist and Torque Vectoring Control’ – well, you’ve just wasted a brilliant opportunity.
That’s why, when we train people to become more effective writers at work, we tell them to put themselves in their customers’ shoes. So instead of describing the features of their product (a family hatchback that does 60 miles to the gallon), we get them to think about the benefits (how many school runs the parents can do before they need to fill up the tank).
So by all means fly to the Amalfi Coast to film beautiful ads with beautiful people and even more beautiful words (and take us with you). Just make sure you show as much love to the words your sales people use. Because they could be the ones that really count.
We’re not the only ones obsessed with language. So we’re gathering up the who’s who of words. First up, The Economist’s Robert Lane Greene and the advice he’d give to budding writers.
What goes wrong with business writing? There are many technical diagnoses for the problem (too many words, the wrong kinds of words, the wrong delivery). But the answers that stick out to me have more to do with how the writer in question thinks about the relationship between the reader and the writer. Is the reader a friend, a superior, an enemy, an idiot? Here are a few common problems:
Not thinking about the reader at all
This is the instruction-manual problem. Those who are expert in the wiring diagrams forget to write for people who don’t care about the wiring, but who only want their gadget to work simply. The specialist forgets to step outside himself, a blindness that the University of Edinburgh linguist Geoff Pullum calls ‘nerdview’.
Trying too hard to impress
A writer worried that the reader won’t realise how brilliant she is laces the text with buzzwords and jargon hoping to impress. Professional-services firms (consultants, lawyers) are particularly prone to this. It smacks of a desperate pickup attempt at a bar.
The fallacy here is that the writer thinks the customer wants to be told that the product on offer will solve his problems. The problem is that it assumes the customer is a gullible idiot, and most people – not being idiots – notice this and resent the implication.
Talking up to or down to an audience are ways of creating distance. By contrast, normal human language is informal but not slouched, funny, honest and most of all empathetic. If you convince readers that you understand them, that you’re even like them, their minds open. Once that attention is gained, the trust is maintained with plain language and honest promises. Everyday speech is the language of close relationships, which is why in The Economist we’re sometimes told ‘write as if you were writing for your mother’. Explain complex things in concrete and clear terms, but never with condescension. I’d modify that slightly, and just say ‘write as if you were writing to a friend’. With luck, you may even be seen as one.
Robert Lane Greene works at The Economist and writes their brilliant language blog, Johnson. His book You Are What You Speak: Grammar Grouches, Language Laws and the Politics of Identity came out in 2011. He lives in Brooklyn. But if you want to follow him, his address in the ether is @lanegreene.
‘Kind regards’. Fatuous, sententious, and perfectly clipped, in an English sort of way. Oh, and omnipresent. Why on Earth do we keep slapping these cold wet fishes onto the end of our emails?
In workshops at The Writer, we get people to think a lot about not just what they say, but how they say it. Because all language creates feelings. And we often forget this at work, because we’re a bit caught up in figuring out what we’re saying (which is understandable – that’s mostly what we’re paid for). So while we might spend ages trying to get the big stuff right, to make it sound just how we want it, it’s the little stuff that lets us down. Because we think nobody notices.
But they do. There’s a world of difference between an email that starts ‘Dear Mr Jarvis’ and ‘Hello Oliver’. And these choices we make, often without really thinking about them, tell us loads about how we see our readers, our roles and our relationships. It’s easy to see why we should focus on first impressions. But what about the lasting impression?
Next time you email someone, have a think about it. Do you really want to leave them feeling you’re an ‘All the best’ kind of person? ‘Kind regards’? You might as well just write ‘Whatever...’ because that’s how it sounds. And most of us prefer normal to formal. Because most of us would rather feel that we’re working with a living breathing human being. Not somebody who still thinks they have to write like they were taught at school.
Me? I think a simple ‘Thanks’ or ‘Cheers’ works pretty well. It’s what I’d say. And when I get an email that ends like that, it doesn’t sound unprofessional. It sounds like a human being. Not like my posh auntie, who gives Hyacinth Bucket a run for her money.
Why not tweet us your favourite sign-offs, and the ones you (love to) hate?
Kind regards, best wishes, all the best, regards, many thanks, yours insincerely...
We’re not just writing, thinking and training in Blighty.
Right now we’re busy in Hong Kong, Slovakia, Germany, the Czech Republic, Italy, the USA and Switzerland as well. It’s teaching us a lot, like the fact that there’s more than one kind of English out there for businesses to use.
In our workshops, we encourage people to put their personality into everything they write. And as our Ed was saying at the Royal College of Art the other week, that includes your CV.
But it seems you can take a good bit of advice too far, as these unintentionally funny extracts show.
The three secrets of great CVs are: be honest, be simple and be yourself. Don’t go overboard. And whatever you do, don’t just rely on your spellchecker. It may pick up the sorts of errors that make our eyes hurt (‘profreader’; ‘My qulifications include close attention to detail’), but it wouldn’t see anything wrong with ‘I’m a rabid typist’, ‘Sorry for any incontinence’ or ‘I have six years’ sock-control experience’. So get someone else to read it for you.
Preferably someone who wants you to get a job.
We've come to the end of our waxing lyrical blog series where each of us dug through our music collections to choose our favourite lyrics. To end it in style we're doing a bumper batch. So have a read, sing the lyrics if you're feeling crazy, and enjoy our final bunch of blogs.
‘Karl Marx squeezed his carbuncles while writing Das Kapital / And Gaugin, he buggered off, man, and went all tropical / While Philip Larkin stuck it out in a library in Hull / And Dylan Thomas died drunk in St Vincent’s hospital’
There She Goes My Beautiful World, by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds is ultimately about a writer’s muse deserting him. And yet it has quite the opposite effect on me. Often when I have writer’s block, or I simply need to clear my head before tackling the next section of a proposal or the next chapter of my book, I go for a run. And always, this track is on my playlist.
There’s something about being reminded of those great writers’ and artists’ hardships that really helps to put my own writer’s block in perspective. (‘What do you mean you can’t think of an opening line for that shampoo bottle? John Wilmot penned his poetry riddled with the pox!’)
And frankly, anyone who can squeeze Karl Marx’s carbuncles into a song is an inspiration to us all.
I like songs with lists in: REM's End of the World As We Know It; Rodgers & Hammerstein's A Few of My Favourite Things; Paul Simon's Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover.
I also like songs that use English place names for mild comic effect: Billericay Dickie by Ian Dury and the Blockheads, and the classic Darleydale, Meesham and Droitwich by Charlie Says to name just two. (Much better than the American habit of using place names like they possess a mystical aura: Georgia on My Mind; Sweet Home Alabama; California Dreamin; LA Woman and so on.
Which of course means that I find songs which contain both lists and funny-sounding place names completely irresistible. I give you Billy Bragg's A13 Trunk Road to The Sea. Genius:
‘It starts down in Wapping / There ain't no stopping
By-pass Barking and straight through Dagenham / Down to Grays Thurrock / And rather near Basildon
Pitsea, Thundersley, Hadleigh, Leigh-On-Sea, / Chalkwell, Prittlewell / Southend's the end
If you ever have to go to Shoeburyness / Take the A road, the okay road that's the best / Go motorin' on the A13’
By Nick P
‘Slooshy sloshy slooshy sloshy / Get that dirty shirty clean / Slooshy sloshy slooshy sloshy
Make those cuffs and collars gleam / Everything clean and shiny / Washing machine’
That’s Kate Bush singing about a woman watching her clothes go round and round in a washing machine in Mrs Bartolozzi.
It’s also Kate Bush wresting the right to be a fully fledged member of the outlandish, barmy, eccentric, Artist-with-a-capital-A brigade away from the sole domain of men.
I love her for opening that door – and leaving it open for the next generation of bonkers women in pop music.
Are you still with us? Here are the final two.
‘Girl, I’m in love with you, this ain’t the honeymoon, we’re passed the infatuation phase / Right in the thick of love, at times we get sick of love / It seems like we argue every day’
Ordinary People by John Legend, co-written by Will.i.am.
This song’s a real, honest take on being in love. It makes a change to the two-dimensional fell-in-love-on-the-dancefloor message we get from every other pop song today. Those songs put the concept of love on a pedestal (probably in the middle of a nightclub).
Ordinary People is a raw depiction of love. It scraps the versions we get fed in romcoms and pop songs. Instead, it brings a realistic element to the surface, the we-don’t-know-what’s-going-to-happen feeling that keeps us awake at night.
And there are some less ordinary rhymes you don’t hear in everyday ballads, like ‘thick’ and ‘sick’, that suggest the all-consuming nature of love. And the loose line ‘I know I misbehaved and you made your mistakes’ shows that every word was thought about and not just stuck in for rhyme’s sake.
Write about your favourite lyrics, our Harry said.
Well ‘favourite’ is a big word. I couldn’t pick. So in a hopelessly stereotypically male way, I came up with some categories (OK, I made up some categories to fit a few front-runners). And these were the winners.
It can only be Hal David’s line in I’ll Never Fall In Love Again, can’t it?
‘What do you get when you kiss a guy? / You get enough germs to catch pneumonia / After you do, he’ll never phone ya’
Genius. (I recommend the smoky Bobbie Gentry version.)
Two belters in one song here, Want You Gone, by Jonathan Coulton:
‘She was a lot like you / Maybe not quite as heavy’
Ouch. If that didn’t sting enough, he tops it off with this:
‘Goodbye my only friend / Oh, did you think I meant you?!’
I guess we like the songs that say the things we’d never dare utter in real life.
We're almost at the end of our favourite lyric blogs.
'She handed me a heart-shaped locket that said, "To thine own self be true’"/ And I shivered as I watched a roach crawl across the toe of my high-heeled shoe / It sounded like somebody else that was talking, asking, "Mama, what do I do?"/ "Just be nice to the gentlemen, Fancy, and they’ll be nice to you."'
Fancy, written and performed by Bobbie Gentry.
A young woman escaping poverty by turning to prostitution: not the most obvious subject for a funky little blue-eyed soul ditty. But Bobbie Gentry’s richly descriptive – and, at times, darkly funny – lyrics tell an intriguing and evocative story.
The plucky heroine, Fancy, reminds me of Scarlett O’Hara: she’s got sass and gumption – those quintessentially Southern qualities – and she’s a little bit shameless, too. I love how the grotesque image of the cockroach crawling across her shoe sums up the contrast between her humble origins in a ‘one-room, run-down shack on the outskirts of New Orleans’ and her rather more glamorous situation at the end of the song: having ‘charmed a king, a congressman and an occasional aristocrat’, she’s managed to bag herself ‘a Georgia mansion and an elegant New York townhouse flat’.
Thankfully, I can’t say I really identify with the subject matter. But I’ve got to hand it to Bobbie Gentry for creating a three-dimensional character and a proper, gripping storyline in the space of four and a half minutes. Most writers can only dream of that kind of economy.
By Laura C
‘C'mon let me show you just what you need honey (I got what you need) / You need a man with sensitivity (a man like me)’ Sensitivity, by Ralph Tresvant.
The first time I heard this song (and these lyrics) I was in my cousin Greg’s blue Ford Fiesta. He was driving my brother and me back from his parents’ house and playing this song at full blast. I was in the back seat next to the speakers – probably not the best place for a ten-year-old girl – and the bass was so loud I couldn’t hear the words (which was probably a good thing considering their sexy content). I remember feeling like the coolest little girl in the world as we drove down Kilburn High Road.
Years later as a teenager I listened to this song again. It was a little shocking as I knew these lyrics were similar to the things that he must’ve been saying to the ladies at the time. I never really looked at him the same way again. I guess these lyrics show that the direct approach is sometimes the best way to get what you want.
‘I have waited with a glacier’s patience / Smashed every transformer with every trailer / Til nothing was standing / 65 miles wide / Still you are nowhere / Still you are nowhere / Nowhere in sight’ This Tornado Loves You, by Neko Case.
This song is full of metaphors about love, nature and destruction (lots going on then). But there’s one line in particular that gets me:
‘I have waited with a glacier’s patience.’
It’s a brilliant image: a graciously grumpy glacier. Maybe it’s the idea of such a powerful thing being restrained by something as intangible as patience. Whatever it is, it stays with me every time I hear it.
Over the last week and a half, we've plastered the blog with our favourite lyrics. The Ivors are round the corner (17th May) and we thought it'd be a great idea to get everyone here at The Writer involved in writing a blog.
So we've been wracking our brains to choose our most loved lyrics – ones that really mean something to us. It's a great way for the not-so-regular bloggers to get involved. Here's today's dosage, and there's plenty more in previous blog posts.
‘One day my dad said, "Find someone new" / I had to tell my Jimmy we're through / (whatcha mean when ya say that ya better go find somebody new?) / He stood there and asked me why / But all I could do was cry / I'm sorry I hurt you (the leader of the pack)’
The Leader Of The Pack, by The Shangri-las.
Ah, teenage love. This is definitely up there as one of the most traumatic songs I’ve ever heard. It’s just devastating. I love songs that literally tell a story. And this does just that.
It starts at the beginning, with Betty chatting to her pals about her new boy, Jimmy. And as the story progresses, you know it’s going to all end in tears. It’s even got motorbike sounds effects in the song to really paint the picture of that dark, rainy night when Jimmy dies. Terrible, I know. I really couldn't pick my favourite line from this song, so here's a little taster. But you really should listen to it all (the whole way through, on full volume) to truly appreciate it. Listen and weep.
‘No-one laughs at God in a hospital / No-one laughs at God in a war’
Laughing With, written and performed by Regina Spektor.
I wouldn’t call myself religious. But I guess I’d never rule it out, either. The way I’ve always put it is I believe in something. I just don’t know what yet.
But this song, and these lyrics, always make me feel a bit humble. I don’t think they’re necessarily just about God. I think they’re about the need, every so often in your life, to believe in something and have faith. No matter how much of an atheist you think you are, I don’t think there are many people who can honestly say there’s never been a time when they’ve prayed to something.
The whole song works with this hypnotic repetitiveness: ‘No-one laughs at God when their airplane starts to uncontrollably shake / No-one’s laughing at God when they see the one they love hand in hand with someone else, and they hope that they’re mistaken’. It teeters between shorter sentences and longer lines, stitching this reliable rhythm, that gets broken up by the chorus every so often.
This song and these lyrics. They make you think about just how many times you’ve prayed to something. Atheist or not.
‘No money in our jackets and our jeans are torn / Your hands are cold but your lips are warm’
Down to the Waterline, by Dire Straits.
Much to my frustration, I’m the type of person who doesn’t normally absorb lyrics. I appreciate them, no doubt. But for me the stamp of a good song is the way it sounds; the organised cacophony of cadences and lilts and riffs and bass. It’s probably why I like hip-hop, because the voice forms the rhythm more than anything else.
So I decided to choose lyrics to a song whose tune I can’t remember. (There’s logic in that somewhere.)
I have no idea what Down to the Waterline sounds like. I heard it once when I was eighteen and impressionable, and a dreamy boy from school played it to me. I completely melted, and I’ve remembered the line ‘Your hands are cold but your lips are warm’ since. Probably because it’s the most ridiculously cool and sexy line ever. (And I still fancy the pants off the boy.)
Because The Ivors are happening next Thursday, we thought we'd share the lyrics that mean a lot to us. Today's lyrics get the nod for their brummie everyday-ness, potential sarcasm and intelligent historical referencing.
‘Turn left up the street / Nothing but grey concrete and dead beats / Grab something to eat / Maccy D's or KFC / Only one choice in the city / Done voicing my pity, now let's get to the nitty-gritty’
Weak Become Heroes, by The Streets.
This is the start of the story. Each song on the album tells a different story, and together they make up the novel. To me, it just feels real. Maybe it’s because of the brummie accent. Maccy D’s just feels so familiar. Even though I’m not a brummie. (But I do a good brummie accent.)
The sound of the tune doesn’t seem to fit the words, it’s all plinky-plonky and quite upbeat. And then you listen to what he’s saying. He paints a picture and doesn’t use any artistic licence to make it prettier or brighter – he tells it like it is, and does it in his own words.
It reminds me of my brother too. He’s a teacher, and everyone calls him Mr Chavitt (instead of Chris Davitt). He’s not a deadbeat or anything. But he is a bit like Mike Skinner.
‘Human, human of the year / And you’ve won’
Human Of The Year, by Regina Spektor.
This is from Regina Spektor’s fifth album, Far. I don’t know why I like it so much – probably because Regina’s vocals soar straight into the rafters with the piano on this line, smacking the accusatory tone of the song right in your face. But, putting aside her incredible vocal ability for a minute:
How does someone become human of the year?
Is it the human of the year? Or is it a human of the year?
Is it like the Nobel Prize, but for everyone?
...In fact, what constitutes a human? What makes this particular human a special human? If you’re naming an award the ‘Human of the Year Award’, then what’s it celebrating, exactly? Is it an award that’s even worth anything? We’re all humans after all, right?
I smell her sarcasm, sense her disbelief, feel her confusion. ‘Human of the year? And you won?’ she seems to say. Or is it: ‘Human of the year, what a stupid award. Great that you won.’ Maybe she’s even releasing a sigh before muttering, angrily under her breath (hoping that no one hears), ‘Human of the year, and you won. Of course you did.’
Resignation. An admission. A rejection of what’s happening. Who knows? And that’s the beauty of it.
‘Yeah, I got more records than the KGB’
Paper Planes, by MIA.
I love this. As puns go, it’s remarkably non-groan-inducing and cleverer than your average puntastic quip.
I studied history at university. The Cold War’s plethora of big brother intelligence agencies, with records on everyone and everything, is one of the era’s defining features that really sticks out in my mind.
This song was also fairly ubiquitous when I was student. So it was always a bit of a cheap thrill hearing this 20th-century referencing lyric in the middle of a busy dance floor. And it still brings a smile to my face.
Here are some lyrics that get us dancing, thinking and make the melancholy bearable.
‘You can’t always get what you want / You can’t always get what you want
But if you try sometimes well you just might find / You get what you need’
You Can’t Always Get What You Want, by The Rolling Stones.
Written in 1964 by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, most people interpret this song as a slightly jaded look at the end of the swinging 60s – how the big peace and love movement maybe wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.
Whereas I find it quite reassuring and comforting. The melody’s brilliant and every time I hear the words I think – yes Jagger, so true. It’s a good reminder that sometimes the things we really want aren’t the best for us. But in the end we get what we need and everything works out fine.
‘So I broke into the palace / With a sponge and rusty spanner
She said “Eh I know you, and you cannot sing” / I said “That’s nothing you should hear me play piano”’
The Queen is Dead, by The Smiths. Written by Morrissey and Johnny Marr.
There’s comfort in melancholy, said Joni Mitchell (on Hejira). She’s right. Songs about life’s trips, stumbles and disappointments are much richer than the rictus-grin, chest-beating ones. Sure, I’ve fallen into the trap of getting up to dance to Dancing Queen (with its sneakily undanceable tempo). And if you get me tipsy, I’ll admit liking That’s the Way I Like It and Jump. But, to get all Tina Turner for a moment, Private Dancer beats Simply the Best all day long.
Melancholy isn’t about slitting your wrists. It’s any sort of regret, loss or longing. Coming second, being wistful, not belonging. Things we all experience. To namecheck a few of my faves, it’s there in the outsiders, fantasists and has-beens loafing through Steely Dan’s often jaunty jazz-blues-rock catalogue. It’s all over Joni’s stuff, from Case of You and Edith and the Kingpin to People’s Parties and Chinese Cafe. Nick Drake did it exquisitely. I think Bon Iver does too, but can’t make out the words. You can’t feel sad listening to music like that.
The Smiths, though. Depressing, say the naysayers. But look at those words up top – funny aren’t they? Actually, nearly all Morrissey is funny, albeit a bit mordant. Even the sublimely, dangerously grave That Joke isn’t Funny Anymore is kind-of amusing. (It dug me out of a hangover when I first heard it anyway.) So there’s the comfort in melancholy. You can have it with fun.
‘When I had you to myself, I didn’t want you around / Those pretty faces always make you stand out in a crowd
But someone picked you from the bunch, one glance is all it took / Now it’s much too late for me to take a second look’
I Want You Back, by The Jackson Five.
A party classic. A floor-filler. Surely every wedding DJ has it on their playlist. I’ve loved this song since the first time I heard it as a child. I couldn’t listen to the joyful intro without breaking into a cheesy grin. (Followed closely by an embarrassing dance.)
As I got older I started to understand what the pre-teen MJ and his brothers were singing about. Everybody’s inner child can relate to this, right? We want what we can’t have. The grass is always greener on the other side. As a child (and an only child for the first eight years of my life) I threw the odd tantrum over something I wasn’t allowed to have. I didn’t care, or understand, if I was being unreasonable. As far as I was concerned, someone else had stopped me from having what I wanted. It wasn’t my fault. End of story.
These days, I’m more likely to reflect on a missed opportunity in my life. Something I once had, but didn’t appreciate.
Woah. What happened there? Suddenly my mood’s changed. I think I read way too much into those lyrics.
At the end of the day it’s a catchy pop song. I preferred the way it sounded when I was a child. And that’s the way I’ll keep listening to it.
If you didn't know, all of us here at The Writer have been sharing our favourite lyrics over the past week. If you've not had a chance to catch up, you can backtrack in the blogs below.
‘Shadows, tapping at your window / Ghostly voices whisper will you come and play / Not for all the tea in China, or the corn in Carolina, never, never ever’
Land of Make Believe, by Bucks Fizz.
Excuse me while I lose all my credibility. For those of you not of, ahem, a certain age, Bucks Fizz were one of the bestselling groups of the 80s, famously winning the Eurovision Song Contest in 1981 (helped in no small part by the now infamous Velcro skirt rip, which many a child of the 80s re-enacted).
They were all over the radio when I was growing up and as a child I absolutely loved Land of Make Believe. It may still be on my iPod. I always liked the evocative imagery of the child safe in her bedroom, trying to ignore the ghostly voices trying to lure her outside for god knows what (‘to have her heart’, we find out later). For a child who spent many long hours looking for the doorway to Narnia – and still harbours a small hope that it might turn up one day – it was the perfect theme song.
‘And I need you now tonight / And I need you more than ever
And if you'll only hold me tight / We'll be holding on forever’
Total Eclipse Of The Heart, by Bonnie Tyler – written by Jim Steinman.
Yep, you read right. It’s not the cheesy lyrics that do it for me. In fact, they’re pretty awful. But it’s my absolute favourite karaoke song. I've even been known to hit repeat. Shameful.
With all of its two lines, repeated to make up the entire song, it’s nothing inspirational. But those simple rhyming couplets and dramatic vocals do it for me. It’s so bad that it’s actually good.
And it’s a real belter of a song. Give it a go.
'Gloomy is Sunday / With shadows I spend it all
My heart and I / Have decided to end it all'
Gloomy Sunday, by Laszlo Javor. Translated by Sam M Lewis.
In the wrong hands this song is a melodramatic stinker (that means you, Serge Gainsbourg). But when I first heard it whispered over an intricate guitar, it was perfectly bleak and very beautiful.
Banned by the BBC for its effect on WW2 morale, Gloomy Sunday already had a bad rep for encouraging suicides in 1930s Hungary. With its sparse statements and simple cadence, it’s florid yet to-the-point. You could do a lot worse in a ready-made suicide note.
What’s interesting is the idea that death could enter through the ears; that a pop song could have such power over the listener.
Seven mildly-obsessed years, 60 or so versions and several languages later, I've whittled it down to Billy Holliday for heartache, Paul Robeson for rumbling gravitas and Diamanda Galas channelling sheer unhinged morbidity. Believe me, you don’t want her singing this about you.
All this week we've been blogging about our favourite lyrics. So far we've had Elbow, The Velvet Underground and Kings of Leon. Here are some more for you.
‘And I don't think that I ever loved you more / Than when you turned away / When you slammed the door
When you stole the car and drove towards Mexico / And you wrote bad checks just to fill your arm / I was young enough, I still believed in war’
Poison Oak, by Bright Eyes.
It’s the lyrics of this song I love as the singing’s not the best. They’re poetic. And they tell a story. When looking up the words (to make sure I hadn’t had them wrong all these years) I came across a few sites that offered up the meaning of the song. I don’t want to know the real meaning; I’d rather imagine my own. It’s like not wanting to see your favourite book made into a film.
Every time I hear this song, a bit older and maybe a bit wiser, I decipher more of the words, and piece it together. I could listen to it over and over again, and each time unravel more of its secrets. These lines speak of youthful impulsiveness. And the consequences of something decided in anger, and its finality. The rhyming structure leads you to expect a happy ending, but instead winds up with war. Having listened to it on repeat, I know this of course, but it still startles me every time.
‘I kissed the spikey fridge / And that’s the way she is’
I Kissed the Spikey Fridge, by King – written by Paul King.
It’s 1984. I’m 11. And I’m trying to figure women out. Duran Duran are not helping. Someone called Rio. And she’s dancing on the sand. I’m not getting it.
And then one cold night, I’m curled up in bed plugged into a large Telefunken valve radio – the one that my Dad used to use to hide bottles of rum in when he was in the navy, but which now conceals half-smoked cigarettes. And my treasure. Which I believe to be a) extremely important fossils, b) the philosopher’s stone and c) new elements I’ve discovered. Then these words squeeze their way out of the invisible radio world and attach themselves to my central nervous system: ‘I kissed the spikey fridge / And that’s the way she is’.
Goldfish are shimmering through my bloodstream. I know my destiny. I must find my own spikey fridge to kiss. And when I’ve found one, I won’t let her go. I’m going to be that man whose lover people gasp and point at: her spikeyness, her beautiful smooth sleek lines, her perfect freshness, her mind-bending ability to keep her cool and switch the lights on and off, her talent for humming, for making funny noises in the night (ahem), for staying plugged in and for just being there: solid, serene and hell, yeah, a prickly riddle with quills – and I’m going to be that man who stands there and says: that’s the way she is.
It took about 22 years.
‘Being smart can make you rich and bring respect and reverence / But the rewards of being pleasant are far more incandescent’
Waiting for the beat to kick in, by Scroobius Pip.
I was tempted to champion some earth-crunchingly titanic rock anthem here. But instead I want to focus your eyes on an unassuming spoken thought from this backwater of a b-side.
The line is advice as much as lyricism. Which is always a dangerous route to go down with any art form. As a rule, people don’t want to be told what to do or how to act in their art: they want to get behind something. A movement like Punk perhaps. Or the culture the music or the artist panders to, like the darker, more gothic styles of rock. But for me, Scroobius Pip has risen above cultural propaganda with this slice of songery.
The fact is, being pleasant over being smart is wonderful advice for almost anyone to follow. Particularly if you take ‘smart’ to mean ‘pretentious’ or ‘smart-mouthed’. If you’re an investment banker, or you’re a surgeon, I’d probably prefer it the other way round. But if not, I think the more people that take this advice the better. That way you’ll be less likely to constantly try to impress your friends, colleagues and everyone in between, more likely to say what you mean, and (is that a segue I see on the horizon?) more likely to write like you speak.
So bravo Scroobius Pip. Great advice. Great song. And another sound reason to write in a really confident and effective way.
Because The Ivors are coming up, we thought we'd pick out our own favourite lyrics and say why. You'll probably notice a fair few bloggers you haven't come across before. That's because everyone here at The Writer's having a go.
‘Lippy kids on the corner again. Lippy kids on the corner begin, settling like crows / Though I never perfected that simian stroll. But the cigarette scent, it was everything then.’
Lippy Kids, by Elbow – written by Guy Garvey.
It doesn’t matter where I am in the world, or what time of the day it is, this song envelops me like a shroud of nostalgia.
The lyrics, for me, paint a picture of a happy youth. They take me back to my own school days of meeting mates on street corners. Clutching cheap tennis rackets, bottles of fizzy pop and anything else we could drag to the park to while away the summer holidays. Summer holidays that seemed to go on forever back then.
The idea of us ‘settling like crows’ makes me smile. All the boys had ‘that simian stroll’ which they’d spent term-time perfecting. And some of us smoked, but not all.
Love or loathe Elbow, there’s one thing Guy Garvey does well. He poetically structures lyrics that effortlessly drop you in a given time and place. And for me, Lippy Kids does just that.
‘The end of the day remember the way, we stayed so close till the end / We'll remember it was me and you.’
High, by The Lighthouse Family.
I know it sounds cheesy but I love this song. And these lyrics. When I hear it I feel warm and smiley. I remember all the times when things have worked out for the best. They always do in the end. You just need to wait and see what happens.
I guess these lyrics have a special meaning to me because I connect them to when my dad passed away. Obviously a horrible time. But it’s also when I had the closeness and support of Mark (who I married three years later), and I felt like I could get through anything with him by my side. So it reminds me that good things can come out of awful times. Even when it’s hard to see the light at the end.
You don’t need fancy words and phrases, complicated poetry or metaphors to say what you mean. By keeping it simple these lyrics get their point across in an honest, straight forward way.
Here's the second dose of our favourite lyrics.
One of my favourite bands of the eighties, The The, weren’t exactly poster boys for falling in love. (‘I've been deformed by emotional scars / And the cancer of love has eaten out my heart.’ Ouch.)
But that’s probably why we liked them so much. All that anguish made us feel terribly grown up and clever. And there was something comfortingly consistent about their world view. You knew where you were with The The (usually looking morosely into space).
So Uncertain Smile, from the album Soul Mining, is a bit of an anomaly. Not only does it feature a piano solo from a young and incongruously cheerful Jools Holland, but it’s also a love poem, as only The The could write one.
‘Peeling the skin back from my eyes, I felt surprised / That the time on the clock was the time I usually retired / To the place where I cleared my head of you / But just for today I think I’ll lie here and dream of you’
See what I mean? It starts off with a weird self-mutilation image, then goes almost slushy. But fear not – the chorus is a return to form: ‘I’ve got you under my skin where the rain can’t get in / But if the sweat pours out, just shout / I’ll try to swim and pull you out.’
Eew. It’s both gorgeous and gross. Which is pretty much how we felt about the opposite sex.
‘I wore my teeth in my hands / So I could mess the hair of the night / Well I’m beginning to see the light’
Beginning To See The Light, by The Velvet Underground. Written by Lou Reed.
I had these lyrics scrawled on the inside of my wardrobe as a teenager, in Miss Selfridge’s sparkly black nail varnish. (Later to be painted over with duck egg by my dad.)
People might interpret the first line as being about keeping shtum. But for me it conjured up an Edward Scissorhands-type figure with comedy dentures for pincers. In my mind he was roughing up the hair of the night, tangling it into a frenzy with dance moves of reckless abandon. The locks of hair were like a sea of spaghetti guitar strings. And I imagined them littered with trails of tobacco, smelling of sweat and whisky.
Lou Reed’s words were a teenage manifesto: do what you damn well want and sod the consequences. When you read them in context, it’s a little bit more complicated than that. But at the time, it didn’t really matter.
The Ivor Novello Awards are coming up so we thought we'd share our favourite lyrics over the next couple of weeks. Whether they're from a musical, an anthem or a ballad, we're interested in the words, not the tune. ‘
And it came to me then that every plan is a tiny prayer to Father Time’
What Sarah Said, by Death Cab for Cutie.
The first time I heard this song, I misheard it.
In my head, every plan was a tiny prayer to having more time with your dad. It doesn’t really make grammatical sense, but hey, these are the words of a musician. He’s allowed to play a bit fast and loose with language.
It was only when I saw the lyrics written down that I realised it was Father Time, not father time (or even father-time). Of course. Whenever we make a plan, we’re sort of assuming we won’t die before it comes to fruition.
I like my version more.
‘And the bare-chested boys are going down / On everything that their momma believes’
Trani, by Kings Of Leon – written by Caleb Followill, Nathan Followill and Angelo T Petraglia.
This lyric first stuck out to me because it’s one of the few things you can actually understand on the early Kings Of Leon records. Caleb slurs and yowls his way through most of the tracks, and that’s a shame because you miss out on a lot of beautiful words.
I love the imagery in this song. It takes you right there, to the parking lot of a sleazy, grimy, run-down bar on the edge of town in Nowheresville, USA. And this line in particular slaps you about with the pointless machismo of the plosive ‘bare-chested boys’ drinking and brawling their lives away. The whole album revolves around the experience of young men with nothing much better to do than drink and get high, distilled perfectly in these thirteen words.
Sadly it looks like Caleb learned to enunciate properly around the same time he forgot how to write songs. (See: ‘you, your sex is on fire’.)
Certain things didn’t quite wash in The Apprentice this week.
More unbelievable than Jenna’s remark that she was ‘turning on the charm’, was Adam’s brazen-faced aggrandisement of cheap minced beef as ‘gourmet meatballs cooked to an authentic Italian recipe’. (Thank God he didn’t go for corned beef.)
As expected, the dish was less ‘deliziosa’ and more ‘dogs-a-deena’. Looking at the hashed-up mess of meat, perhaps Adam knew that it would take a hell of a lot to convince punters to cough up £5.99 for a portion. So what better tactic to use than the old supermarket naming trick? Simply tell the customer it’s gourmet.
Adam jumped right in and went for ‘Utterly Delicious Meatballs’. And if that didn’t make it obvious just how amazingly, agonisingly scrumptious these meatballs were, he larded on the strapline: ‘Italian splendour with oodles of taste.’
Are you salivating yet? Thought not.
Telling not showing is something we always warn companies about. Saying you’re credible doesn’t give you credibility. Just as saying, 'I’ve got a purple-feathered parakeet on my head' won’t make you believe I have. We think Adam should've spent less time coming up with a delicious name and more on making his dish edible.
Llb hljff ool;@n
(Oops, sorry. That was the parakeet.)
Every now and then we set a little writing task for our Twitter followers. This time, one of those followers got sick of waiting for us to do it and started one herself. So this blog is brought to you by @jennyjustjenny. (You should follow her. She’s funny.)
On with the stories:
Shouty men judge a cooking contest.
Misery, melodrama, failures sucking at life.
Take Me Out
Screeching women. Meat market. Beautiful pair?
Steptoe and Son
Life stifled by ‘dirty old man’.
‘Make something!’ ‘I'm amazing!’ ‘You're fired!’
‘Are you gonna turn around, Tom?’
Financial crisis, war, death, skateboarding dog.
The Good Life
‘Don't bleed in the sink, Jerry.’
Intense. Intense. Intense. Intense. Blonde! Bipolar!
And two we’re not sure about (any ideas?)
Owls are not what they seem.
Muscle Mary with cat. Not gay?
Last week our apprentices, Maddie and Meg, blogged about the business speak coming out of The Apprentice. And because it went down a storm, they've done it again.
Pineapple chutney. Not so sterling.
So, the task this week was to invent a condiment. And newly reformed team Sterling (headed up by Duane) decided to make chutney.
Nick, never one to shy away from a good pun, quipped ‘Chutney – if they get it wrong, they could be in a pickle.’ And Nick was right.
They turned up to the tasting session without a sample. And all they could do was ‘sincerely apologise’. There’s nothing sincere about those cold formalities, if you ask me.
When it came to thinking up a name, potential One Direction member Nicholas suggested Infusion – but with a capital F. Only slightly better than the others, Charlie Chutney and Spicy Nicey.
And Jade set high expectations for Sterling’s condiment. Pitching their pineapple concoction as ‘rustic, but revolutionary’. Nice use of alliteration, but a shame she didn’t know what she meant. Another case of abstract business speak taking over.
You didn’t rise from the ashes, then?
So this week, Katie was project manager of Phoenix and decided to come up with her own collective noun as she husked about ‘manipulating a pack of men’. Phoenix made Mediterranean ketchup for their condiment in last night’s episode. And things very quickly took a turn for the worse as we listened to ‘wastage’ shrieked by Ricky, until it lost all meaning. You know what the real ‘wastage’ there is? The energy used on that extra syllable. You could just say waste.
Next came Stephen’s sales shpiel – ‘Put your hands in the air when you feel that chilli’ – turning him into less of a businessman and more of a wedding DJ.
And then there was the product name. ‘Belissimo’. Katie said they should ‘probably check that word’. They should’ve. Because dictionaries don’t just have the right spelling, they also have the right definition: ‘very beautiful’. An unusual description for spicy ketchup.
This week, points go to Lord Sugar, whose figurative language brightened the otherwise beige boardroom: ‘the best rescue since Dunkirk’, ‘running the production like you’re Henry Ford’ and ‘queen bee and the workers’ (potential band name?). These little treats lifted the mood, unlike Phoenix’s boring business-speak. They thoroughly ‘under-delivered’.
We’ve noticed a spate of opinionated adverts around town this week. Here’s one from Transport for London:
Here’s another. It’s from Survivors UK, a rape support network:
And here’s a third, from Thames Water:
Each of these ads has made one of us do a double take (or even stopped us in our tracks).
Because each of them invites us to disagree:
'My newspaper is not rubbish.'
Or, 'only women get raped.'
And, 'we can’t be – it rained only last week.'
When it comes to your writing, stating an opinion is a way of starting a conversation. We’re not saying you should be shocking for the sake of it. But if you know where you stand on an issue, don’t be afraid to tell people. If they disagree, good: you’ll get them talking.
We've gone and got ourselves our first apprentices. Maddie and Meg were picked from Word Experience – a two-day work experience type thing where we invite 20 second-year uni students to Writer HQ.
Maddie and Meg are joining us for two weeks over Easter, three weeks in the summer and one week at Christmas. We'll show them the ways of the business writing world and get them making tea. Kidding.
This week marks their first week with us. So we thought it'd be rather fitting if they blogged about all the hot air on The Apprentice.
Our apprentices on The Apprentice
Hooray. It’s back. Another series of Lord Sugar wannabes who inevitably look like Big Brother contestants. But in suits. The difference is, this lot like to use business clichés and abstract metaphors almost as much as the boys’ team love their nasal-strips.*
The task this week was to design some kind of household gadget. The boys, being out-there, came up with a bin. But like the entrepreneurs they are, they called it a ‘waste compactor recycling appliance’. Which is about as easy-on-the-ears as Jenna’s voice.
Rhyming phrases seemed popular too. ‘All the gear but no idea’ was said by the unfortunately-named Ricky Martin. This from the guy who described himself in his audition video as ‘the reflection of perfection’. And Azhar, obviously made delirious by the team's design prowess, wrongly referred to himself as the ‘killer whale of the sea world’. Ahem.
At least no-one is yet to be inspired by Ed from the last series. He used the phrase ‘rolling with the punches’ every 2.47 seconds until we all wanted to roll a punch into his face.
The boys’ second genius idea came from greengrocer Adam. ‘Magic Hands’ were washing-up gloves with a scourer and sponge stuck to them. But at least the name gave you an idea of what it was. Less of a mouthful than ‘waste compactor recycling appliance’.
Thankfully, the elaborately-named invention was shortened to Eco-Press. Much more human-friendly.
*Stephen’s a big fan. He got up to answer the phone just to show off his breathing aid/deep cleansing strip.
And here's another
Right. Let’s all stop hating on Maria for having a snooze in the car. You’d be exhausted too if you had to cavort around London in rush hour, hawking a bit of plastic for £17.99.
What’s more annoying is the contestants’ strange habit of complicating simple words. In the boys’ corner last night, they were so eager to sound businessy that Stephen called compost ‘produce’ and ‘goods’. While Duane was banging on about putting the cafetiere-cum-composter on his desktop. Desktop?
And it was no better when it came to the girls and their Alanis Morisette-esque faux pas*. Ladies, it’s not really ironic that there’s water on the floor after you’ve put up the Splish-Splash. That’s just a product that doesn’t work.
Somebody else that had a problem with it was Lord Sugar himself. He asked the people of Twitter** if they could ‘believe that piece of junk?’ He was referring to the toy. Sorry, ‘entertainment centre’.
Oh dear, girls. You should’ve gone with the pointless ‘tap cosy’ after all.
*She thought it was ironic to have rain on her wedding day and a black fly in her Chardonnay.
**If you’re not following Lord Sugar yet, do it now. His tweets are so brutal and so grammatically inaccurate they make for a cracking read.
This week, all week, we'll be posting blogs about good books that spawned bad films. Or bad books that produced good films. It's all a matter of opinion. First up, it's two different interpretations of Atonement.
Book: Atonement, by Ian McEwan
Film: Atonement, directed by Joe Wright
A film that fancies itself no end, from the close-up of typewriter letters thwacking into paper to that gratuitous long take at Dunkirk. And one that exposes what’s wrong with the book. Why should I care about two people I barely know anything about? Or give the time of day to a narrator who’s an inveterate liar?
Atonement the book wallows in its own postmodern take on storytelling: it’s smug and unsatisfying. Whereas Atonement the film leaves out any academic posturing on the subjectivity of truth. It’s a good old-fashioned story (with a beginning, middle and an end), where the atmospheric surroundings are brought to life. After watching the film, I wanted to re-read the book.
I would like to enquire as to your availability on 14.02.12, on which date I propose we engage in some form of evening entertainment, such as [tea and cakes/a rave/twitching].
The aforementioned entertainment would ideally take place in a venue adequately proximous to both of our abodes.
If you aim to add an overnight extension to the festivities, I would be happy to settle upon a location considerably nearer to one of our abodes than the other. To this point, I should add that I own a [bearskin rug/hot chocolate machine/Tempur mattress], though I do not want this to affect your decision.
Please indicate your acquiescence to the above request by filling in the below form and returning it to me in the stamped and addressed envelope.
[Name] --------------------- I, [Firstname Surname], agree to attend [insert entertainment] with [Firstname Surname] on 14.02.12.
I hereby agree to Have A Good Time and, if the evening warrants it, to indicate said enjoyment by way of engaging in [insert sexual act].
Date offer subject to availability. Terms and conditions apply. (At least until the alcohol starts flowing.)
Name: John Simmons
Library: Alexandra Park
Book: Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451
My local library – Alexandra Park in north London – is a shamefully neglected resource. The shame is all mine. I believe deeply in libraries. They were so important to me in childhood and youth. After that I could afford to buy books, to collect books, so I lost the library habit. It’s time to rediscover it.
I feel almost nervous now as I approach my local library. As I open the doors there’s a lot of noise: it’s the Movers & Shakers session for under-12 month babies (and parents). I hum along to Twinkle Twinkle, Little Star. At the front desk I ask about joining and the librarian is as helpful as can be. She goes to great lengths to get me the book I want to read – Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, a science fiction classic.
I’d not read the book but its theme seemed made for National Libraries Day. The title refers to the temperature at which books burn. A leading character is a fireman. In this dystopian future the job of the fireman is not to put out fires but to burn books. Systematically, alphabetically. Books are dangerous things.
Fahrenheit 451 was written in McCarthy-era America, when ideas and art and intellectual curiosity were suspect. In that sense it’s a political book, disturbing and thought-provoking. It’s also a great story, written in a simple, visual style as if primed to be turned into a film. In the 1960s it was made into a film by Francois Truffaut but no one seems to rate the film as highly as the book.
So I recommend you to seek out the book. Try your local library. There are books in libraries that you can no longer find in bookshops. Ray Bradbury wrote an introduction to an edition of the book in this century. Part of it goes like this:
'The main thing to call attention to is the fact that I’ve been a library person all of my life. I sold newspapers until I was 22 and had no money to attend college, but I spent three or four nights a week at the local library and fed on books over a long period of time. Some of my early stories tell of librarians and book burners and people in small towns finding ways to memorise the books so that if they were burned they had some sort of immortality.'
Books contain ideas, and ideas contain immortality. We need libraries to contain books.
Name: Padders, age 5
Book: The Owl Who Was Afraid of the Dark, Jill Tomlinson
A little owl called Plop confronts his fear, the dark, in a series of encounters with night-lovers. They convince him it’s exciting, kind, fun, necessary, fascinating, wonderful and beautiful.
Plop’s cured. Consequently, I imagine him and his owl friends fluttering about in daylight, and become The Boy Who Is Slightly More Afraid Of Owls Than He Was Before.
Name: Alan (and Frida, aged three-and-a-bit)
Book: Chameleon's Colours by Chisato Tashiro
You know that awkward moment when a three-year-old asks you to explain identity politics and mutability? Relax. This swivel-eyed charmer puts the fable in fabulous when his nifty brushwork sparks a revolutionary rumble in the jungle. Thankfully, great creating nature has the final, cathartic word.
Let wide eyes, wonder and joy abound.
To celebrate National Libraries Day this Saturday, we popped down to our own locals and took out the most interesting books we saw.
Every day this week, we’ll be posting our 50-word book reviews. Expect the unexpected...
Book: City of Glass, Paul Auster
A case of mistaken identity results in a fake detective trying to solve a non-existent crime. Does anything mean anything, or everything mean everything? City of Glass puts a new spin on being ‘lost’ in a book. And it’s bloody good at it too. Prepare to question even the words you’re reading.
This time of year’s all about starting new books while you sit in your favourite armchair in front of the fire (okay, maybe a bit twee). So to help you find a good one, we’ve done a book round-up of the reads we think teach us something about writing. A few of us at The Writer have recommended our favourite recently(ish) published books just in time for Christmas. So here they are.
Freedom by Jonathan Franzen
Our Ed says, ‘It’s a lesson in caring. It’s a book about life, crafted with painstaking thought and tender love. It shows that the deeper you think, the more you know your subject and the more power your words will have.’
The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas
Abby says, ‘It’s an exercise in writing as many four letter words and graphic sex scenes as possible, whilst still making you feel sympathy for every single character. Tsiolkas channels the narrative of each chapter through a different person so you get acquainted with the intimate (and often dirty) mindsets of everyone involved in the story. But, no sooner are you on the side of the narrator than he jolts you into another psyche altogether.’
On Writing by Stephen King has been recommended by two of us.
Rosh is ‘mostly indifferent about Stephen King – I’ve never read his fiction. But this book really got me thinking about how I write – whether that’s a short story (which is how he started) or other things. ‘One of the main things I took away was to write, write, write and keep writing. Sounds obvious, but his obsessive dedication to writing is what helped him become one of the best-selling authors in the history of time.’
And Emma says, ‘Stephen King stole my heart a long time ago – and probably did something horrible with it, knowing him. But this book’s a cross between a memoir and a writing how-to. Begrudgingly praised by critics (being prolific and popular is a sin in the literary world), it’s a fascinating read, giving insights into King’s writing process, his slightly lopsided psyche and how writing saved his life after he was run over and almost killed in 1999.’
Metamaus by Art Spiegelman
Jan’s suggestion’s for the comic book lovers out there, ‘In the comic books Maus and Maus II, Spiegelman grappled with how his parents survived the holocaust, and how he couldn’t relate to his father. (For good measure, there were Jewish mice, Nazi cats and Polish pigs.) They were brilliant and so is this 25th anniversary making-of extravaganza. With humour, humility and intellect Spiegelman covers his influences, his research and his unease about success. A great lesson in how words and pictures combine to make comics a unique and underrated art form.’
My Grammar and I (or should that be ‘me’?) by Caroline Taggart and J.A. Wines
Ana’s staying true to her job title (editor) and recommends this book because, ‘It’s the best grammar book I’ve come across. That makes it sound like I’ve read masses of grammar books – I haven’t. But I’ve skimmed plenty, and this is one of the few that made me stop skimming and start reading. It’s easy to get around, clearly written and just plain helpful.’
A Week in December by Sebastian Faulks
Rosie thinks by ‘writing in simple, understandable language, Faulks brings the reader into the story. He writes from the point of view of each character and puts in lots of description. This helped me paint the picture and really get absorbed into the book.’
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
Miranda says, ‘This book makes you feel like you occupy the mind of Thomas Cromwell as Mantel charts his career from humble beginnings to Henry VIII’s right hand man. It’s on an epic scale – from the making of Britain to the flux of Tudor society. And yet it’s personal, the characters are all three dimensional. ‘You see the emotional destruction caused by Henry’s decision to divorce Catherine. You feel Cromwell’s pain at losing his wife and children to the plague. You learn that Cromwell loved Wolsey and wore his ring after his death. A critic said, “After reading this book I’m suspicious that Hilary Mantel is Thomas Cromwell.” This book teaches you how history should be written but I suspect no one else could achieve close to this.’
The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
Miranda also says ‘I know this isn’t a recently published one, but I was astounded when I put this two-brick-sized book down after devouring it voraciously – first that I'd read it so quickly and second that I'd enjoyed it so much. This book could teach you a lot about writing. It's probably one of the best plots ever as it touches on the big themes of love and fidelity, revenge and forgiveness, youth and age, and the human condition. But it also shows you how to keep a fresh and fast pace (despite its humungous size) which helps add layers to the story. And it shows you how to make a story relevant to the times without blinding you with history. It should be law to know this book.’
And for the hungriest bookshelves:
If you’ve gnawed through those already, we’d recommend The Exploding Boy and other tiny tales by our very own Nick Parker. The Guardian liked it enough to review it. Then you can have a bit of John Simmons’ Room 121: A Masterclass in writing and communication in business. And to make it a nice round number of three, Neil Taylor’s Brilliant Business Writing will do the trick. Okay, that’s it, no more plugs. Have a great Christmas and see you in the New Year.
Yes indeed. To counterbalance the naming and shaming of plain English day, we thought we’d round up some of the year’s best examples of writing at work. So here we give you The Writer’s inaugural Fine Print Awards, for people who’ve aspired to something greater than merely ‘plain’. Our list is partial and subjective. There was no call for submissions; we didn’t convene a judging panel. It’s based largely on what’s stuck in our heads over the last year. Which in itself is some kind of test, really.
The Top Words from the Top Award
Goes to Nokia CEO Stephen Elop, who in February of this year wrote his now famous ‘burning platform’ memo to everyone at Nokia. The BBC called it ‘one of the most combustible and gripping documents ever to emerge from a major corporation’. It was so good in fact that many doubted its authenticity. But it was real. And it rightly went viral. Here’s just a snippet of its urgent, brutally honest tone:
‘Why did we fall behind when the world around us evolved? This is what I have been trying to understand… We had a series of misses. We haven't been delivering innovation fast enough. We're not collaborating internally. Nokia, our platform is burning.’
A close runner-up is Warren Buffet, whose New York Times piece ‘Stop Coddling the Super-Rich’ cut through the millions of words about the financial crisis with its frank and direct honesty. All financial institutions currently bleating about ‘restoring trust’ should take note. This is what honesty sounds like:
‘Our leaders have asked for “shared sacrifice”. But when they did the asking, they spared me. I checked with my mega-rich friends to learn what pain they were expecting. They, too, were left untouched.’
The Poetry in Motion Award
Goes to BBC London Travel Alert. They’ve managed to take a thoroughly unpromising subject and give it a genuine dash of idiosyncrasy: sometimes poetic, sometimes funny, sometimes just plain odd. When we blogged about them earlier in the year, we picked out a few tweets we liked. There have been countless more since. Lovely.
BBCTravelAlert A surfeit of precipitation. Ergo A12 Eastbound between Aldborough Rd & Hainault Road – carriageway is 50% deficient.
BBCTravelAlert The Underground railway isn’t available at Liverpool Street at present whilst the fire alarms therein reverberate.
BBCTravelAlert Her Maj’s Jubilee line is ok now. This means that in fact the entire choob network is running efficiently. Let’s see how long it lasts.
The Giving it Gusto Award
Definitely has to go to discount voucher people Groupon. We love how they’ve made their madly flamboyant, energetic and frankly bonkers style a big part of their identity. (They call fingers ‘cheek slappers’, ‘clapping utensils’, ‘shake traps’ and ‘high-five dispensers’ among other things. And that’s just fingers, for God’s sake.) Some people love it. Others hate it. But in 2011, everybody was talking about it. This list of humour taboos from their writing guidelines shows just how seriously they take it, too. Yes, occasionally they get it staggeringly wrong. But we’ll take their glorious failures over plain and safe any day.
The What’s-in-a-Name Award
Goes to LOCOG for calling the Olympic mascots (OK, they were technically named a few years back, but were really unleashed on the public in November) ‘Wenlock’ and ‘Mandeville’: both names are clever references to Britain’s Olympic heritage, but most of all we liked them because they just sound so unexpected. ‘Like a pair of melancholy detectives from a minor existential comedy’, said our Nick when he blogged about them last month. Sporting names are usually so thrusting and energetic and relentlessly positive.
A close runner up was ‘Movember’ (‘the month formerly known as November’), the name of the fundraising campaign for men’s health – and of course the name of the month when men now grow ridiculous facial hair. Renaming one twelfth of the calendar was a pleasingly audacious move, and the word has already passed into everyday use.
That’s it. Agree? Disagree? Think we’ve missed something noteworthy? Then tweet us (@TheWriter) or leave a comment.
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@example.com. Make sure ‘Word Experience’ and your name are in your subject line. And get it to us by 1st November 2011.
In our workshops people often tell us there are words and phrases they use because it’s what their customers and colleagues expect, and want. We’re going to find out if that’s true.
So here’s a super-quick survey about words at work.
There are only five questions, and it should take you just three minutes to fill in. Promise. (We’ve timed it.)
Thanks so much. We’ll get back to you with the results (and remember, you’re doing a good thing for the world).
In this week’s Observer, Eva Wiseman let rip at nauseatingly cute food packaging. ‘We’re all being babysat by the stuff we buy. Lullabied with the padded language of packaging – packaging that, in recent years, has begun to talk to us. Talk to us like we’re children...’
It’s at least the fifth time I’ve read a variation on this column. (Heck, we even wrote our own version two years ago – ‘the end of fluff’ – in the annual Superbrands round-up.) Here’s what I think every time:
1. It really ain’t new any more
Innocent started it all. They showed the world what you could do just by taking the time to think about all the little details, and they did it brilliantly. But they’ve been around for thirteen years. Thirteen years. Jesus. Copying Innocent was never exactly original, but back in the day it at least showed you wanted to be part of a different tribe. But if after practically a generation your brand is still going for an Innocent-like chatty faux-naive tone, then you’re really, really not thinking hard enough.
2. And it ain’t all bad
It’s easy to lump all ‘chatty’ brands together. But there are plenty getting it right: Puccino’s coffee bars do it with swagger and knowingness (see the ads they put out for new franchises, which started ‘Hi, I’m Luigi, the fictional head of Puccino’s coffee bars...’); Peppersmith chewing gum does it with a very English intelligence and wit; and Waitrose’s ‘a pinch of...’ products do it with a nice, under-stated naturalness. Clue: they’ve all gone beyond a vague ‘chatty’ tone and worked out what’s right for them.
3. And right now, it ain’t that surprising
In her article, Wiseman wonders whether this is all a ‘consequence of sex-sells branding... If you feed in a lorryload of thighs and innuendo at the start of a decade, does it excrete cupcakes and baby voices at the end?’ Perhaps. I reckon it’s more likely that it’s a reaction to the uncertain times we live in. The verbal equivalent of nursery food and a comfort blanket. Just like the rash of nostalgic TV ads at the moment, retreating into the sepia-tinted certainty of the past. But that’s for another blog...
On Friday we held our monthly creative team meeting at The Scoop, an ampitheatre next to City Hall in London.
On a damp, grey, overcast day we tried our hand at a spot of poetry.
We took inspiration from the American poet Frank O'Hara, specifically his poem called Poem – a list of observations he wrote down while walking to a poetry competition. To show how you can take inspiration from seemingly mundane situations, we all wandered off for ten minutes, and just scrawled what we saw.
Here's what we came up with:
Relax, refresh, talk, enjoy, fuel.
How, when you can’t get in?
The grey, swooping Scoop.
It’s not Roman, it’s London.
It’s not Greek, it’s bleak.
There’s no yoga here this morning.
There’s scaffolding, high viz, hard hats, glass, grey and steel.
And those little metal things they use on stone to stop skateboarders.
Why won’t they let them skate?
Maybe it’s only More London for those who relax, refresh, talk, enjoy, fuel.
They’ve finished painting Tower Bridge Bright blue against September grey
A Sightseeing Tour of London crosses, five tourists taunting the laden sky
The Mayor’s Darth Vader helmet looks out towards the rising Dalek
Let’s pray there’s no extermination
On this, the eve of 10 years later
This looks like it’s been written by a five year old
Metal map, men in yellow jackets.
A boat called the Lady Thames II
(I wonder what happened to I?).
White vans on Tower Bridge, The Ray Linge Marquee company.
Squashed by a Japanese man taking pictures,
Midgies in my face.
Joggers jogging, boat sponsored by NatWest.
Now I’m in the Japanese man’s picture.
Wet piece of paper, pen running out.
We’re cleaning the river together
We’re cleaning the river together.
Every empty can of Foster’s. Every rainbow trout that’s floating,
upside down on top of the murky grey.
Seven seagulls stand on the Thames. Not the river. The rusty boat in the shadow of Belfast that seems to have the same colour as the sky. And the water.
Ionia passes by, pushing sand. Two piles of it. And behind it comes the next in a never ending line of City Cruises.
The origin of the Foster’s.
And probably the inverted trout too.
Take it to the Bridge
I want it. God I want it. And I’m going to have it
Not sure where I’m going to put it
But I want it all the same
Don’t care what it costs
Actually no. Play it cool.
Try to knock them down. Oh just get it
The one with the towers?
Yes, the one in London London Bridge
If they want to sell it, just goes to show
Everyone has his price
Money speaks all languages
Even Limeys know that
The deal’s done, you say
That was quick
And they’re moving it for us too
Too kind. Jolly good. Silly fools
On the bank of the river
Education is happening
And loos are for schoolchildren only
This art has been specially created
Like the bridge, specially built
And the Queen’s Walk with no Queen
And the smell of grass and autumn
Does the man in the mac and briefcase smell it?
Do the men in the high vis jackets smell it?
It’s a festival of metal hitting metal.
He’s written an opinion piece in the NY Times which starts with the words:
‘Our leaders have asked for “shared sacrifice.” But when they did the asking, they spared me. I checked with my mega-rich friends to learn what pain they were expecting. They, too, were left untouched.’
He goes on to explain why he should be getting taxed more. He’s super clear, even when he’s writing about tricky finance stuff.
Giving feedback on writing can be a tricky task. You know, sometimes, it just... doesn’t feel right. When you’re looking over someone’s writing at work, that’s the kind of remark that’ll probably earn you a colourful, unflattering nickname.
Thing is, you can turn that hazy feeling of not-quite-right-ness into some top-notch feedback. But you’ve got to take your feelings out of the equation. You’ve got to get objective.
How? Separate out your thoughts into three things:
Has your colleague included all the information you, as a reader, need to know? (Like when and where the meeting’s taking place. Or what the report’s recommendations are.) Or do you get to the end with a list of questions as long as your arm?
What’s the most important bit of information in the piece of writing? Is it easy to find? Has the writer put their ideas in the right order? And have they used headings and subheadings to help you find your way around the document?
Is it in your brand’s tone of voice? Is the writing clear and easy to understand? Or does it sound like it might have been written by a robot, rather than one human speaking to another?
Breaking the news
Once you’ve sorted your thoughts into content, structure and tone you can explain just where someone’s going wrong – objectively. That way you don’t hurt anybody’s feelings.
Importantly, it’ll also help you tell people exactly what they’re doing right. Like this: ‘Your tone needs a little work,’ (give them some pointers) ‘but your content and structure are spot on. Don’t change a thing about them.’ And that’s the kind of feedback that’ll probably earn you a winning smile and a nice cup of tea.
I like a good rhyme. Even better, I like a good rhyme that shouldn’t actually be a rhyme but the writer has decided to shoehorn one in anyway. On a totally unrelated note, I also like to prop up broken furniture with books or other bits of broken furniture and I tend to carry a roll of duct tape in my bag, just in case something needs mending.
Anyway, let’s take a moment to celebrate one of the rhyming greats: Ogden Nash.
Ogden Nash, who had his first job writing streetcar ads with the same company that F. Scott Fitzgerald began his pencil chewing (although I can’t quite imagine the creator of Jay Gatsby using his prose to flog laxatives or trilbys). Ogden Nash, who once fell in love with a woman because (he later reflected) her last name was Blorange and offered a solution to the fruit with no dictionary rhymes.
Ogden Nash, who when asked why he left New York for Maryland replied "I could have loved New York had I not loved Balti-more."
You get the idea. Here are some of the best extracts from his word mangling poetry:
And he said the world was round,
And everybody made an uncomplimentary sound,
But he went and tried to borrow some money from Ferdinand
But Ferdinand said America was a bird in the bush and he'd rather have a berdinand.
Bankers Are Just Like Everybody Else Except Richer
Yes, if they request fifty dollars to pay for a baby you must
look at them like Tarzan looking at an uppity ape in the
And tell them what do they think a bank is, anyhow, they had
better go get the money from their wife's aunt or ungle. (and)
And all the vice-presidents nod their heads in rhythm,
And the only question asked is do the borrowers want the
money sent or do they want to take it withm.
He’s also a master of brevity,
While still maintaining a sense of levity.
We’ve been writing our very own style guide here at Writer HQ.
We’ve had some arguments. Granted, Padders cracked the ‘jshuzh’ problem, but that was only the beginning.
Focused or focussed?
Targetted or targeted?
Straight away or straightaway?
Never before have I seen harmonious working relationships turn to mulch quite so quickly. Each side starts off by making their case from the point of view of history, or etymology, or current usage. But the battles usually degenerate into variations of ‘it just doesn’t look right.’ Or, as these guys would argue, it just doesn’t:
Then there’s the ‘who cares as long as it’s understandable’ camp. Contentious, but lots of people can relate to it. The painters of this road, for a start.
Stay tuned for more judgments (or judgements).
Taking up the local-story baton from Charli, I went home to Ireland recently. Passing through the nearby town of Naas, I was greeted with the sign ‘Naas: A nice place to shop’. As a tagline, it’s not quite up there with ‘Las Vegas: What happens here stays here’, but that’s what’s so quietly appealing about it.
I have quite a fondness for local advertising, it’s a nice change from the mindlessly generic (McDonald’s ‘I’m lovin it’ – that’s probably because you’re drunk) and the remorselessly hyperbolic (Peugeot ‘The drive of your life’ – actually the drive of my life was a coast to coast US road trip and it had nothing to do with the car I was in).
From Flannery O’Connor to William Faulkner, great writers have always understood that the universal is rooted in the local. As Patrick Kavanagh, the Irish poet, said: “All great civilisations are based on the parish.”
And there are companies who use their locality as a real strength. Robinsons and Pimm's do a good job of savouring an English summer evening. Marmite have been targeting their advertising to a local audience, and building from there.
But my favourite example comes from a relatively new company in Galway.
A quick nautical lesson: a Galway hooker is a traditional type of sailboat that was mostly used to bring supplies from Galway to the surrounding islands on the Irish west coast.
So, recently a local brewery has named their beer after it. They’ve called it The Galway Hooker.
Their tagline? ‘Nothing goes down like a Galway Hooker’.
In the dark days after graduating from university, and before convincing someone to employ me properly, I paid my bills by taking on the usual string of temp jobs and piecemeal work. One of these jobs was to transcribe audio files.
The audio files had to be typed up verbatim. The rules were that I could cut out the ‘erms’ and ‘errs’, but nothing else. So every ‘yeah but’, every ‘like’, every ‘you know’ and every false start to a sentence had to go in.
The finished texts were some of the more surreal pieces of writing I’ve ever come across. It’s not what people said that was odd (though I could tell you some stories). It’s how they were saying it. Here’s an example:
Well, I mean, I think it is slightly more than, like, you’d have for a smaller car but I think I have heard via, kind of, the news and, sort of-, they’re going to really be, you know, penalising, you know, four by four owners.
And here’s another:
No I kind of do the whole leftover thing so if I get a chance to do Tuesday then I, kind of, do a big thing so that serves me until-, both of us until Thursday-, kind of, type deal.
That’s what speech – actual speech – looks like. It’s incoherent and rambling, even though, when spoken out loud, it makes perfect sense. That’s because when you’re talking to someone you can use other signals, like your facial expressions, or intonation, to get your message across.
When you write, the reader doesn’t see your face or hear your voice going up and down. You need a different set of visual clues. Grammar and punctuation take the place of a raised eyebrow, a hand gesture, or a pause.
So when we say to write more like you speak, we don’t mean grammar and punctuation go out the window. They’re your best friends; use them wisely and you’ll keep your reader’s attention.
You live in Bath. It’s four in the morning. You’re stumbling home after many too many. And you hear the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse commanding you to prepare yourself for the end.
Nothing out of the ordinary then.
At least in Bath.
For anyone who didn’t take the time out to attend, the Bath Literature Festival staged a five day reading of the King James Bible last week. That’s five whole days. Of 24 hours. They called it: ‘The Bath Bible Challenge’, which kind of undermines the levels of endurance required. It’s a bit like calling the Shackleton expedition, ‘A Stroll in the Snow’.
But dig a little deeper and you find that it’s not just a wheeze dreamt up out of nowhere by a publicity hungry festival manager. These marathon events are popping up everywhere.
The New York theatre company ‘Elevator Repair Service’ have recently been touring the world with their staging of The Great Gatsby. I say staging, not adaptation, as they plunge through the entire book. All six hours of it. And it’s not the only one doing the rounds. Heart of Darkness (five and a half hours) and As I Lay Dying (five hours), have also gone through the full treatment.
If you stop to think about it though, it’s not surprising. Great writing is not just about content or plot, it’s about using rhythm and imagery. It’s about finding unusual words and a consistent voice. Very simply, great writing stands up to being read out loud.
Next time you’ve finished a brief and come up with a perfectly shaped piece of writing, read it out loud to see if your word choices are boring or all your sentences are the same length or maybe your punctuation is wonky and it’s got loads of sentences that ramble on for so long that you find yourself straining to get the words out while rapidly... running... out... of... breath. (Phew.)
If, while reading your words, you find that you’re shouting, mumbling or sounding like a children’s TV presenter, you’re writing in a voice that’s not yours.
So start again.
Our Neil was speaking at The Economist's The Big Rethink Conference this afternoon. The consensus...
@Armo: Neil Taylor of @thewriter speaker of the day so far. #bigrethink inspirational stuff.
@jcredland: @thewriter brilliant talk at #bigrethink - let's scrap ideation once and for all!
@pitch_design: Neil Taylor, The Writer, says brands hide behind meaningless language #bigrethink is your copy clear?
@brokenbottleboy: Boris is "a fantastic linguistic case study" says Neil Taylor. Amazing. #bigrethink
@andycutler: Hurrah an entertaining and informative speaker most excellent #bigrethink
@brokenbottleboy: Neil Taylor from The Writer is the best speaker of the day so far. Really inspiring and funny #bigrethink
@SAtweeting #bigrethink - @TheWriter says language choices can profoundly change behaviour and even how we think about issues - blog on this next week
@kiethv: Loved listening to Neil Taylor from The Writer at #bigrethink
The boy done good. (And we'll have to take their word for it – we haven't heard it yet.)
Or so the saying goes. But when it comes to words about size, it’s the little one that counts. Big. You could say it’s the big daddy of size words.
A few years ago I wrote a couple of pages about ‘big’ in a book. Americans hate ‘big government’ was my starting point. But big’s not gone away. In fact, it’s got bigger.
A Blankety-Blank style poll of The Writer today came up with these big combos….Big picture. Big ideas. Big Brother. Big dipper. Big cheese. Big Sur. Big bananas. Big potatoes. Big Kahuna. Big belly. Big sleep. Big time. Big shop. Big Mac. Big Bertha. Big bang. Big foot. Big ‘ead. Big Easy. Big Issue. Big up.
It’s almost a poem, an Ode to Big. I was wondering about Big because it was another relaunch this week of David Cameron’s Big Society. It seems to me that this is an idea shaped by words. Behind it lies the imperative “we need a Big Idea” dreamed up by political party policy wonks. But there’s also a distancing from Margaret Thatcher’s belief: “There is no such thing as society.”
So I can understand why they got to the phrase ‘Big Society’. I suspect, though, that people’s real experiences will focus on big spending cuts and that will undermine the Big Society in a big way. Big. Such an innocent-looking little word. What’s big in your life?
Nick, our creative director, is in Trainingzone talking about how brand writing needs to be more than just a catchy mission statement.
"Most organisations have a bit of a brand problem: they spend a lot of time and money crafting their 'brand values' and their 'mission statements'. They know what they stand for, what they believe, and where they're headed. Yet too often they just can't find a way to bring these ideas alive for their people. The brand values are just vague abstract words on posters. The grand mission statements feel irrelevant to the reality of most people's day-to-day jobs. Read on."