A question of grammar

Correcting the grammar on a poster

Yesterday, as I was getting ready for work, I heard a news story about a business bemoaning the poor grammar skills of their recent graduates. It seems bosses at Leeds Building Society are so concerned about workers’ written English that they have hired a teacher to give them grammar lessons.

As I arrived at the office I spotted a prominent poster with an  error that would no doubt have irritated one of their senior executives. The poster exclaimed ‘Its here’. The standard form of punctuation in this context is:  ‘It’s here’ – with it’s being a shortened form of it is.

Does grammar, spelling  and punctuation matter?

In the case of the poster, the message can be understood, so you could argue that it’s irrelevant. But as in the argument about the building society employees, does an inattention to detail here mean sloppiness elsewhere?

As a writer I have a foot on both sides of the fence. As someone who works with words every day and who has a good understanding of the conventions of spelling, grammar and punctuation, something inside me screams out, “But it’s wrong”.

I’m aware that people can get very passionate about what’s ‘wrong’ and ‘right’ when it comes to grammar. But as a writer, I’m also aware that language changes. It evolves. Words, sentence structure and punctuation that were perfectly acceptable to a writer like Charles Dickens,  would seem rather formal and verbose if I were to use them today.

We often talk about the ‘rules of grammar’ – but what are they? Where is the book that tells me what they are? The truth is, there isn’t one.

There are grammatical conventions that help us understand, for example, that although there, their and they’re sound the same, they have different spellings to help us understand that they have different meanings.

But discussions about grammar rules often lead to misconceptions, like “You can’t start a sentence with and or but”. Yes you can. And I often do. In fact I’ve done it in this paragraph.

I was lucky to have good teachers, plenty of encouragement at home and a certain amount of natural interest and aptitude for written English and I work with words every day, so I keep my skills fresh. That’s not true for everyone.

So is it fair to recruit a sales person, for example, to test them at interview on how they handle a telephone call and whether they’ll fit with your team and then criticise them when they write a customer email littered with grammatical mistakes?

Even if you were taught well, how much do you remember from your school days? If you asked me to add up a string of figures or work out a percentage, I’d be a bit stuck without a calculator. That’s partly because I prefer words to numbers, but mostly because I’m a lot out of practice.

So while it’s true that most of us use the English language every day, many of us don’t have to write it down. And just criticising someone for making a mistake, or thinking they’re stupid because they got something ‘wrong’ doesn’t help either.

If you can understand the message, does it matter? It does to me. But what about you?

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26 ways of looking at direct mail

I’m in the middle of producing a lot of copy for a marketing campaign. And I mean a lot of copy in the sense that I’m essentially writing about the same product for a number of different audiences and formats, including a whole heap of direct mails.

It’s great that my client is trying to communicate with their customers in a personal and relevant manner, but it does pose a challenge for me as a copywriter – how do I make sure that the last thing I write about Product X is as fresh as the first?

It usually starts off being quite straightforward. Whenever I’m drafting out some new copy, I start by writing a simple sentence about what I’m trying to do at the top of the page, for example:

‘Write an email to customer Y, telling them when product X will be released, explaining why it will help them and directing them to website Z for more information.’

This helps me create the structure of the copy, sometimes gives me restrictions like word count for example, and gives me a clear understanding of what I want people to think, feel or do as a result of reading the piece.

But once I’ve been writing about something for a while, it can be tempting to fall into a patchwork approach and steal a bit of copy from here and another from there. And whilst I won’t deny that I do re-use copy that I’ve already written, especially where I think it’s explained something very clearly, this approach can lead to lazy writing and the trap of the cliché.

So how to re-invigorate a brain that’s already found 21 ways of writing about the same thing?

I turned to a few copywriter mind tricks (not quite so impressive as Jedi mind tricks, but they work for me). The first is to write using a different style, so imagine you’re writing a fairy story, or a detective novel for example. In this case I imagined I was writing it as a Barrack Obama speech.

Another trick is to set yourself a constraint, such as starting with one letter of the alphabet and finishing with the next or writing your copy in exactly 50 words.

Now I’m not saying that the results of either of these mind tricks will find their way into print, but within those early drafts were some phrases and ideas that I can use that I wouldn’t have come up with if I hadn’t made myself take a different view of the words I was using.

It’s a useful writing experiment that writing guru and tone of voice expert John Simmons employs in his book ’26-ways of looking at a blackberry’. He takes a rather ordinary piece of writing and re-writes it in 26 different styles, ranging from William Shakespeare to Plain English. Now, not all of them work, as he’ll admit, but the results are sometimes surprising and delightful. And they certainly offered me a way of freshening up my words today.

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The language of the World Cup

So the World Cup kicked off today and as well as the host nation hoping to build its reputation on the back of football fever, there are plenty of big name brands hoping to cash in as a worldwide audience of millions turns its attention to South Africa.

It means beer and burgers in the supermarket, barbecues at the petrol station and any amount of plastic tat on sale just about everywhere you look.

There are some big brands out there hoping to draw some of that attention to themselves through their TV adverts. Nike’s done one featuring its sponsored footballers, Pepsi and Sony have taken a humorous approach, but the one that’s caught my eye, or rather ear is Carlsberg’s team talk.

It mimics a motivational team talk, putting you, the viewer, in the heart of the action; from the dressing room out into the tunnel, encouraged on by some British sporting legends, with a rousing speech ringing in your ears.

Watch it and listen to it. How does it make you feel? Inspired? Emotional? Excited? That’s not an accident. While the film itself is undoubtedly designed to push your emotional buttons, the language is designed to do that too. In fact it users a number of tricks to grab your attention.

Here are the opening lines:
“He says he knows how good you are. You know how good you are. It’s time to prove how good you are.”

Look at the repetition. It’s like poetry. Sometimes when we’re writing, we may feel that we shouldn’t repeat ourselves and will go to great lengths to find an alternative word or phrase, but here it’s used to create a particular effect.

Repetition is often used in speeches, to reinforce a point or to get a message across. And it can be stirring stuff. Just think of Winston Churchill: “We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”

Did you notice that ‘how good you are’ is repeated three times in those opening lines? That’s not an accident either.

Patterns of two and three (doublets and triplets) just seem to make sense to our ears. In fact the rule of three is often used in speeches because people tend to remember three things. For example: “Friends, romans, countrymen”, from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, or Tony Blair’s “Education, education, education.”

It also helps to create a rhythm to the language. And in the case of the Carlsberg advert that rhythm subtly changes as it builds to its climax. Although none of the phrases are particularly long and wordy, it starts off slowly and by the end there’s a noticeable quickening created by short, sharp phrases, like: “Enough talk. Time for action”. There are two sentences there without a verb in them. Remember your English teacher told you a sentence had to have a verb in it? Sometimes breaking the ‘rules’ can create something quite powerful. The trick is knowing when to do it.

Listen again to the words in this advert. There’s nothing highbrow, nothing fancy there. “It’s gonna take bottle,” may be a sly nod to the brand’s product, but it’s also the kind of language that you’d use with your mates down the pub. The point is that it’s simple, everyday language. Nothing poshed up, no jargon, just good old everyday words.

And that’s something that I try to explain in my tone of voice workshops. That simple language doesn’t have to be dull or dumbed down. Simple language doesn’t have to lack passion. Simple language can be strong and powerful. As strong and powerful as a ball hitting the back of the net.

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My top ten tips for business writing

As a copywriter, I write for many different businesses. Here are my top ten tips for improving your writing, whether you’re communicating for business or writing for pleasure.

1. Begin with one grain of sand

In other words, you have to start somewhere. So state your purpose and outline what you’re trying to do. I often find it helps to start with a statement of what I’m trying to do: e.g ‘Write an email to let customers know about this week’s special offers’. Or to start by finishing a sentence e.g. ‘My customers would like to…’

You may not use these words in your finished communication, but they can help you to get over the fear of the blank page.

2. Be a reporter

Ask the questions who, what, where, when, how and why? And answer them. These are the questions that have served me well through my years working at the BBC and then as a copywriter for big business. They will help you get the facts and structure your story.

photographerWhen it comes to writing clear communications, imagine you’re writing for a quality newspaper or news website.

Don’t pack everything into the first sentence. Start with the most important piece of information, then add to it. Try to stick to one idea per sentence or paragraph.

3. Just do it (no critics allowed)

The best way to write something is just to write it. Banish your inner critic.

No one gets to read your first draft anyway. No one cares if it’s spelt wrong or you missed an apostrophe at this stage. Just get on and do it. You can go back and refine things later.

4. Be active

Choose the active, rather than the passive voice eg. ‘I am doing this’, rather than ‘this is being done’.

It makes you sound more involved, interested and less shifty.

5. Sell the sizzle

Every time we write in business we’re trying to get a response. It’s not just about increasing our sales (though that’s a distinct advantage), but also about how people feel about doing business with us. So we have to write persuasively and that means talking about benefits not features. Answer the question ‘What can it do for me?’

Think about perfumes – their feature is they make you smell nice, but they’re sold on the benefit that smelling nice will encourage the object of your admiration to fall at your feet. Answer the question ‘What can it do for me?’

6. Leave it

autumn leavesIt’s easy, particularly when you know your subject really well to get wrapped up in what you’ve written, to lose perspective. Take some time to away from it and come back with new eyes.

It can be as little as a few minutes while you make a phone call, grab a coffee, whatever – but try to read it as though you’ve never seen it before.

I’ve found it really helps to read things backwards, starting at the end and working back to the beginning. You may realise there’s a better place to start.

7. Prune it

Read through what you’ve written and look for places where you may have repeated yourself.

Look for the businesses and doublespeak; the handy jargon and short cuts we might use everyday but that make little sense outside our own circle. Cut big, then cut small.

Pruning also means you have to let some areas grow. Sometimes it might be better to take a couple of sentences to describe what something does instead of referring to what it’s called.

So rather than telling me it’s a personal GPS system, you might want to describe it as a gadget that helps you pinpoint exactly where you are.

8. Map it

Help your reader out by signalling where you’re going.

  • New paragraphs help single out thoughts.
  • Bullets and lists are great for drawing attention to things – and they’re easy to read.
  • Subheadings help the reader to skim through to key points of interest, or to pick up reading from where they left off

9. Check it

Ideally you shouldn’t proofread your own copy, but in reality most of us have to. Use your spell check if it’s an electronic document (make sure you’ve chosen English dictionary), but remember it’s not infallible. Take the time to read it through again.

Read it aloud. Start from the end. Turn the paper upside down. Read every word one by one. If you spot a mistake, look for the one next to it.

10. Test it

Does your piece of writing do what you set out to do? Get a second opinion. Does your tester understand it? Did they encounter any mental speed bumps? Bits where they had to go back and read it again? Did they spot any errors?

There are lots of tools that help you track digital communications these days, so you can see how well your email, website, or even social media is engaging with your customers. Is there a keyword or phrase that works well for you. what time of day are your customers most responsive. Take note of your analytics and look at areas where you could improve in future.

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This made me smile…alot

We all make mistakes. And it’s easy to make them when you’re writing. The English language has some rather unusual spellings and lots of words sound the same, but have different spellings e.g. write, right, wright. They’re called homophones by the way.

So when someone sent me this link, it made me chuckle:
http://hyperboleandahalf.blogspot.com/2010/04/alot-is-better-than-you-at-everything.html
It’s a light hearted look at a common error in writing.

I have to confess, it’s the kind of error that would normally make me tut and roll my eyes. But now, if I see it, I’ll smile and point the perpetrator to this post to help them remember the correct way to write ‘a lot’.

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What does a copywriter do?

I’m never quite sure how to reply when people ask ‘What do you do?’ If I say I’m a copywriter, they either look at me blankly or start asking questions about the little c in a circle symbol (that’s copyright – something different entirely).

If I say I’m a writer, people start talking about novels and films, or ask me to read something they’ve written.

Basically I write things and read things. ‘Great!’ I hear you cry, ‘I can do that…can I be a copywriter too?’ And yes, my job does use basic skills that most of us have. I just choose to specialise in them.

So what do I do?

Writing

A copywriter will generate language to express ideas, themes and concepts. Part of my job is to be inspired, to come up with new ways of saying things. To find the truth at the heart of the thing.

One of my skills is in recognising what language works and what doesn’t, then tweaking and refining it so that will appeal to potential customers. My aim is to choose words that will attract their attention and get them to read on. It’s my job to put myself in your customers’ shoes and ask ‘What does this mean for me?’

And that’s just the start of it. Explaining what a business does and how it does it, can be tricky. I work from research and commercial information available, that’s often technical and jargon filled. My job is to take that and out it in terms that customers understand, and more importantly, relate to.

One of the most exciting parts of my job involves working with other creative  people, including designers, to come up with ideas for campaigns, websites, adverts and other forms of marketing. Together we will develop the themes, look, feel and design that a business will use on brochures, leaflets, emails, websites, product boxes and all over the place.

The finished idea may only include a few words of copy – a sentence, a line, three words or less – but in the process of getting there I’ll have written many more that your customers will never see.

Reading

I also read. Good writing starts with reading. And I’ve been a voracious and experimental reader of everything, ever since I first learned the skill. When books were banned from the breakfast table, I’d read the back of the cereal packet.

postercorrectionIn business I often read factual reports, documents and insights that help me understand the subject that I’ll be writing about. My skill is to take those words and turn them into something that a customer will understand, and engage with – to make them think ‘oh, that’s just like me.’

Because I work with words all the time, I’m good at spotting when there’s one that’s spelled incorrectly, or picking up on a bit of grammar that doesn’t make sense.

Sometimes I read with a red pen in my hand and filter out mistakes. I don’t profess to be a professional proofreader, but by acting as another pair of eyes to check over your writing, I can stop you from making the kind of mistakes that put people off dealing with your business.

Understanding

I also help people and businesses understand the importance of language in their communications. That means talking about and demonstrating tone of voice in action and applying it to different businesses. I do this though workshops, training sessions, writing examples, offering advice and constructive feedback.

Communicating clearly with customers is just one part of business writing. Doing it in a way that gives a real sense of connection, showing the face behind the business, being authentic is what really drives me as a writer.

There’s often a bit of a debate about the term copywriter – and whether there’s a better word we could use to describe what we do.

Personally I use the term writer, but then put it into a business context. In any case, what I call myself is just the start of the story. Keeping you interested is the real skill.

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A copywriter’s top spelling and grammar tips

I really enjoy my job as a creative copywriter. I spend most of my days reading and writing things. Sometimes I’m coming up with new ideas, other times I’m just helping other people get their message across. It also means I get to see a lot of things that often confuse us when we’re writing (even me). So here’s my quick guide to some of the things I see every day that cause the most head scratching:

The apostrophe
The apostrophe ’ often seems to cause confusion. It appears where it’s not needed and goes AWOL when it is.

The apostrophe has two main uses:
1) To show something belongs to someone or something.
2) To show there’s a letter or letters missing from a word.

1) Using the apostrophe to show ownership or belonging

The client’s software (one client)
Doris’ business (in this example Doris’s is also correct, but we prefer the less cluttered punctuation)
The children’s father
My clients’ business
(more than one client)

But AVOID the green grocer’s apostrophe e.g.
The apple’s, the cauliflower’s, the carrot’s

When I see examples like this I always want to ask, ‘The apple’s, cauliflower’s, carrot’s, what?’

Note Possessive pronouns like yours, his, hers, ours, its and theirs are not followed by the apostrophe.

2) Using the apostrophe to show there’s something missing

There are lots of examples of this. Some we use everyday without really thinking about them:

I’m; you’re; we’re – I am; you are; we are
Don’t, won’t, haven’t, isn’t – do not; will not, have not, is not

Others sometimes seem to cause confusion:
Let’s for let us

Common mistakes
There are four common cases where it is easy to get confused.

It’s has an apostrophe when it means it is. When you want to show possession, the correct form is its.
It’s a long way to Tipperary.
Every business has its challenges.

Who’s stands for who is or who has. When you want to show possession, the correct form is whose.
Who’s running the company?
The manager, whose business was doing well, booked a well-deserved holiday.

If you can replace the word with “you are”, then the word you’re looking for is you’re. If you want to indicate that something belongs to someone, you need your.

You’re going to have a busy month.
Is this your tax return?

They’re stands for they are. The possessive is their.

They’re the people who bought our business.
It’s their business now.

If you want to show where something is, the correct form is there.

The business is over there.

Still confused? Check out this humorous, comic style guide to how to use an apostrophe.

Words that sound similar but are spelt differently

license (v) / licence (n)

practise (v) / practice (n)

advise (v) / advice (n)

To get these right, you basically have to know your nouns from your verbs. Remember from your English lessons, a noun refers to a thing and a verb is a ‘doing word’. Then use this sentence to help you choose the right spelling:

Stop the crocodile.

Any time you want the verb, use ‘s’ – like you do when you say ‘stop’. If you want the noun, it’s a ‘c’, as in crocodile.

license and licence:

He may be licensed to kill, but James Bond was still booked for driving without his driving licence.

practise and practice:

Mr Jones likes to practise his juggling at his accountant’s practice.

advise and advice:

You can advise people as much as you like but you can’t get them to listen to your advice.

Words that sound similar but mean different things

compliment / complement

A compliment is a nice thing said about someone. So if you say, “I like your new dress”, you’re paying someone a compliment. Something that’s given away free is also complimentary.

Complimentary drinks with every meal.

Complement has a number of meanings associated with matching or completing.

If you’re ordering business cards, why not choose some complementary letterheads?

stationery / stationary

It’s easy to remember the difference between these two. Just remember ‘e’ is for envelope and ‘a’ is for ‘at a standstill’.

affect / effect

To affect something is to change or influence it.

The computer failure affected her business.

Effect has a lot of subtle meanings as a noun, but it mostly refers to something that’s happens as a result of something else.

The new layout had a positive effect on the magazine’s circulation.

Effect is also a rather formal way of saying to make it happen.

The Government has effected a change in policy.

Most of the time affect is a verb and effect is a noun.

Some other places to go to if you get stuck
Online dictionaries
www.askoxford.com/?view=uk
(check out their better writing section too)
http://dictionary.cambridge.org/

Online thesaurus (for when you’re short of an alternative word)
http://thesaurus.reference.com/
(watch out for US spellings though)

More grammar resources and style guides:
Daily Writing Tips
Economist styleguide
Guardian styleguide

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The Writer

On Friday I spent a very inspirational morning with John Simmons at the offices of The Writer in London. John is a very influential writer who’s advised and worked with some very big name brands, so spending a couple of hours with him was a real privilege.

I came away re-invigorated and refreshed, as though seeing what I’d written for the first time. And picked up lots of ideas that will help me keep things fresh and interesting in future. It was enlivening to spend time with someone who loves working with words and really understands the power of saying things simply.

Here’s what I jotted in my notebook on the train home:

What I take with me from today…
An invitation to join the dark angels
To revel in black ink on paper.
A journey in someone else’s shoes
To find new ways to see the old, tired and too familiar.
The freedom of constraint.
And the confidence to face the world as a writer.

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Is imitation really the sincerest form of flattery?

I caught the new Ford TV advert this week.

Not a bad idea I thought, but not as good as the Sound of Honda.

Honda has created some very clever, eye-catching television adverts over recent years. So when I start to watch an advert that’s a bit quirky, I instinctively start to think of Honda. That’s a really powerful bit of brand association. (But I still drive a Mini!)

Familiarity can be a good thing for a brand, but what happens when you start to see the same thing everywhere?

Innocent is a brand that’s really established a strong identity through its tone of voice (which I have to admit I love). But now it has its imitators. Barclays seems to be trying to adopt a more ‘innocent style’ and fellow smoothie makers PJ’s are desperately trying to catch their cheeky, fun, irreverent tone (but not quite getting it IMHO).

So what happens to the Innocent brand if one element of its uniqueness, is no longer so unique? Will their smoothies be diluted by these pale imitations? Or are the other brands just savvy by trying to sparkle in their reflections?<

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Drumming gorillas and Phil Collins?

It’s the latest advert to cause a buzz in the world of marketing, picked up and posted on YouTube and the subject of much debate and discussion.

First aired in a plum slot on UK TV during the Big Brother final, it depicts a man in a very convincing gorilla suit sitting behind a drumkit and launching into an enthusiastic rendition of the Phil Collins drum solo from In the Air Tonight.

And that’s it. That’s all. No pack shot, no company reference, no strapline, no musical sting, no web address. None of those things that countless textbooks on marketing recommend.

So how do you know what it’s trying to sell? Well there are clues of course. Catch the very start of the ad and you’ll see it’s made by A Glass And A Half Full Productions, and the wall behind the drumming gorilla is a particular shade of purple. I got the association pretty much straightaway, but whether that’s due to the strength of brand association or my over-familiarity with its product – I’ll leave you to decide.

But I wonder how many times “drumming gorilla” was entered as a Google search term before the advert was shown? And how many more afterwards?

Will it sell any more product? Or help restore the feel good factor of a brand that’s taken some knocks? We’ll have to wait and see. But it’s certainly got people talking.

And if you’re still wondering what the heck I’m blathering on about, see for yourself.

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