Blog in Wordy thoughts
Last week, they were talking about apprenticeships on the radio in the UK. Apparently, the ‘apprentice brand’ is dwindling. It’s becoming just another word for training.
My ears pricked up. At The Writer, we’ve had apprentices for many moons. It all starts with Word Experience. Twenty undergraduates come and spend two days with us, learning how to turn words into work. Then two of them come to spend a six-week stint with us as apprentices, learning all the basics of business writing.
There are lots of different apprenticeships, of lots of shapes and sizes and industries. But what about ours? Does it measure up to what the experts were saying this morning?
‘It should be all-round preparation for highly-skilled work.’
If it’s easy to read, it almost certainly wasn’t easy to write. In the words of Dolly Parton, ‘it costs a lot to look this cheap.’ And that’s what we teach.
Not everyone can take 2,000 words of passive language and corporate speak and turn it into a page-turner. Not everyone can weed out the killer points of an annual report. Not everyone can spin a head-turning headline.
It all takes time and practice (and a fair amount of getting it wrong before you get it right). Being an apprentice is just the start.
‘It should give value to the company in the long run.’
According to the Beeb, apprenticeships have been called ‘a monumental waste of money’ by some. Ouch. We pay our apprentices a good wage while they’re with us and put a lot of our time into training them. So does it all pay off?
Well, me and Jess were both apprentices, back in the day. Fast forward to now: we’ve been here three and four years respectively. Now, I work with words, not numbers. But if you think of all the paid work we’ve done in those years – I’d say that’s a pretty good return on investment.
Are you interested in being The Writer’s apprentice? It all starts with Word Experience. We’ll be posting about the 2017 course soon – but here’s last year’s info, just to whet your appetite.
My daughter’s learning to play the flute. And while her squeaky blasts and spit-spraying puffs into the mouthpiece might sound terrible to our neighbours, my more generous ears think otherwise. Which is why, in a moment of proud parenthood, I told a Spanish friend all about her efforts. How she’ll spend forever piecing the parts of the flute together and slotting it back in its velvet-lined case. And how, even if a note comes out an octave higher than anyone expected, she’ll firmly press her fingers down on the keys and give it another go until she gets it right.
It turns out that my Spanish friend’s son is studying music, too. ‘He’s in his second year of classes now,’ she confided. But when I asked what he’s learning she looked at me blankly. ‘Nothing yet. He starts with music theory, like everyone does.’ I was stunned. Two years of lessons about dotted minims, clefs and the like and he doesn’t even get to touch an instrument.
Which made me wonder how much theory is enough theory. When I run a writing workshop, people often fret about their spelling or where they should put an apostrophe. They’re concerned that if they don’t get that stuff right, they won’t be able to write in the right tone, or on brand. Which is nonsense.
I always make a point of parking the technical details at the start of a workshop – it can get in the way of enjoying writing (just as I’d rather play a piece of music before I analyse it). When people give different types of writing a go not only does it prove that their corporate career hasn’t sucked every single ounce of creativity out of them, it also shows that they can improve a piece of writing (even if the odd apostrophe’s off).
Most people want to see better writing at work – just as my neighbours would appreciate a little less shrillness from my daughter’s flute – but studying the theory alone won’t make that happen. I think we learn best by doing. Our workshops give the long-forgotten ‘writer’ inside everyone a job to do. One that they can keep on doing, even when the session’s over.
And the semicolons? Well, let’s leave them for the editor to deal with.
Words by Suzanne Worthington
Are you already testing your documents to check their ‘reading age’? Well, one company is taking it a step further.
I spotted this piece in the Chartered Insurance Institute’s Journal, about a focus group set up by Covéa Insurance.
They ran a real-life reading age test
Covéa wanted to find out what was tricky to understand in their policy wording. (So they’re already a step ahead in trying to make their wording clearer.) But they did something extra-clever: their focus group participants were all between 11 and 13 years old.
That may sound odd, but their rationale makes sense. If, as the Covéa study quotes, 16 per cent (5.2 million) adults in England have the literacy level of, or below, an 11-year-old – why not just ask 11-year-olds?
Turns out kids don’t like over-complicated documents either
You can only see the Journal online if you’re a subscriber, so here’s what they found.
1. The children were confused about the meaning of words like ‘premium’, ‘excess’ and ‘write-off’.
2. They found it much easier to understand concepts when the researchers used simple words to help them imagine something happening. For example, if you tipped your home upside down and shook it, the stuff that falls out is the ‘contents’. (Neat.)
3. They found information easier to understand when it was in bullet points, tables or graphics. Just like grown-ups, then.
Let’s write off unclear wording
Policy wording, terms and conditions, contracts. If a lawyer can show that a document wasn’t clear enough for a normal reader then the document won’t stand up in court (even if people signed it to say they agree).
Too often, policy writers and lawyers assume too much of their readers. So ask a real person if they understand your wording. Or, better yet, follow Covéa’s lead – ask an 11-year-old.
In the past week, a lot has been written about the Trump team and George Orwell. It’s all very interesting to me, as a Brit in New York. What would this classic British author make of the USA’s new president?
Not the man, or his policies – this isn’t the place for that. No, what I want to know is: what would the great-grandfather of ‘write like you speak’ have to say about Trump’s particular way with words?
If you haven’t read Politics and the English Language yet – do. It’s full of helpful nuggets: use clear, straightforward language; don’t use 20 words when five will do.
And like all good advice, there’s a handy checklist to follow: ‘A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus’:
1. ‘What am I trying to say? What words will express it?’
We’ve always told our clients: it doesn’t matter how brilliant your writers are, bad content is bad content. If you don’t actually have anything to say, no amount of wordplay will make people interested.
But in the time Trump campaigned – and even in his inaugural speech – he wasn’t really saying very much at all. He’s a master at never quite getting to the point – he’s just the best at it, truly, the best – and when you come to listen, when you actually sit down and think about what you’ve been told, you realise there was maybe one point in there, perhaps two. Sad!
2. ‘What image will make it clearer?’
Drain the swamp. Build a wall. Lock her up.
The Donald has mastered the art of the vivid mental image, of the kind that’ll really stick in his audience’s brains. Problem is, nobody’s quite sure whether those things are metaphors or promises. Like The Atlantic said, ‘the press takes him literally, but not seriously; his supporters take him seriously, but not literally’.
3. ‘Could I put it more shortly?’
Trump’s sentences aren’t sentences. In fact, the phrase ‘word salad’ has been coined to sum up his rolling syntax:
Look, having nuclear – my uncle was a great professor and scientist and engineer, Dr. John Trump at MIT; good genes, very good genes, OK, very smart, the Wharton School of Finance, very good, very smart – you know, if you’re a conservative Republican, if I were a liberal, if, like, OK, if I ran as a liberal Democrat, they would say I'm one of the smartest people anywhere in the world – it’s true! – but when you're a conservative Republican they try – oh, do they do a number – that’s why I always start off: Went to Wharton, was a good student, went there, went there, did this, built a fortune –
I’ve honestly tried to cut that at a fairly conclusive point. Short it ain’t.
4. ‘Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?’
Look at that quote above – isn’t it an ugly bit of text? It’s clunky. Clumsy. It’s full of clauses and sub-clauses opening up one after another, like angry Russian dolls.
But his is a language designed to be spoken, not written. Linguists believe his sentences never really finish because his audience fills in the gaps. He’ll raise his eyebrows at just the right point, they’ll jump to a conclusion, and nobody can hold him to account. Donald goes home happy.
So he’s only hitting one out of George’s four
Aside from Trump’s knack for picture-painting, he openly flouts all the basic ‘good writing’ rules: keep things brief, make your meaning clear, don’t focus too heavily on the negatives.
And that’s just the thing, isn’t it? Most politicians try to stick to those rules in speeches – which is exactly why Trump doesn’t.
Brands often come to us because they want their writing to be distinctive. And while banks and businesses might get in trouble if they start threading ‘alternative facts’ into their annual report, there’s still a lesson to learn here.
If you want to stand out, you’ve got to break a few rules. Sorry George.
What other Trump-isms have you picked up on? Let us know in the comments.
When we were watching the US presidential debates last week (no, don’t get us started), we spotted something: Donald Trump is great at naming. Bear with us.
Right through his campaign, he’s managed to ‘brand’ his opponents with what he wants us to think about them. And he’s done two things we often recommend to our clients: first, he’s found a recognisably Trumpy pattern; and second, he’s stuck to it, using them again and again.
Brands can do this trick too. Ikea’s names are beautifully, well, Ikeaish. They don’t tell you much about the products, but if you see Fjellse, Nornäs or Oppland on a big, brown cardboard box, who else is it going to be?
Apple have iPod, iPad, iTunes and so on. Now, that system’s actually not that unique (look at BBC iPlayer) or interesting, but they’ve stuck to it so relentlessly that the pattern has muscled its way into our collective subconscious.
So, make your naming system work this hard. It’s powerful. It’s tremendously powerful, believe me.