Thursday, December 21, 2006


Another good tip, which I found through Polon. They linked me to the Scamp blog where the advice is, if you're struggling to crack a brief, Pretend You're Two Blokes In The Pub. Great tip, and links to more of Scamp's 'Tuesday Tips'.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Receiving loud and clear - working with TenFour

A significant new relationship started for me recently, working with TenFour Communications based in Helsinki. Plenty of exciting projects are on the horizon as part of this relationship and I'm already in the thick of things. The future looks good.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

George Orwell's six rules of writing

Taken from Polon where they post some great copywriting articles. Seems the perfect set of rules to live write by:

1. Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

4. Never use the passive voice where you can use the active.
5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Ahh George, how right you are...

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Is your online business model a secret?

Nick Usborne asks. Nick says:

'If you can’t articulate the basic value proposition to someone in the street in ten seconds or less, you’re not going to be able to build a truly effective home page for your business.'

How right he is; in fact, you're lucky if you get even 10 seconds on the Web...

Monday, November 06, 2006

Workplace jargon isolates employees

Finally a nice high-profile article on the BBC News Web site, regarding jargon. Specifically, the article is about a survey by Investors in People, about workplace jargon and how it excludes people.

The survey points out that "The most effective bosses recognise that one of the keys to engaging, motivating and enthusing people is to communicate in a way which everyone can easily understand."

'Blue sky thinking'...honestly, what next? Anyway, now I have brought that article to your attention I am departing to readjust my nutritional priorities, think outside the box and ingest some creativity-enhancing fuel...I am off to the fridge to see what I have for lunch.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Am I falling behind the times?

Kami Huyse on her blog Communication Overtones, a blog focused on PR, in her first post discusses PR's position in relation to new media and technology.

Kami discusses the fact that 'new PR' isn't new PR at all, new media hasn't rendered PR obsolete, and the 'paperless office' still isn't here! I had a think today about all the new gadgets, tools and phrases flying my way and felt quite behind the times, but am I obsolete? Web 2.0, Ajax, user-generated content, RSS, feeds,

I draw comfort from the fact that whatever the future holds, however this 'content' is delivered, whatever colour or flavour it is, however 'dynamic' it is, it's still about using words, playing with language to deliver a message, at least most of the time anyway, until everyone gets bored and just resigns themselves to watching online videos of kids hurting themselves on skateboards instead....then I'm really done for.

Friday, October 27, 2006

The million dollar comma

Brought to my attention by (a newsletter about technology law from Pinsent Masons) a comma in a contract, regarding termination terms for a large power company in Canada, might end up costing one of the parties involved $1 million Canadian Dollars. You'd hope that now they would check up on clauses and comma usage....

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Stuck for things to write about?

Blogging and writing in general can (should) be fun, when you've got something to write about. Reading Dave Taylor's article about finding topics to blog about, the basic message is 'write what people want to read, not what you want to say'. Dave's good example is the photographer with a blog writing about 'why I'm a great photographer' - how boring would that be...?

Dave writes The Intuitive Life Business Blog and the extremely helpful tech support and business questions blog Ask Dave Taylor

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Case what's in a good one?

A good case study - you might ask 'Is there such a thing'? In my opinion yes, (here he goes again) if they're well written...

Case studies suffer from a bad reputation. They can be long, bloated documents, churned out to make up the numbers for some government funded project. They can be poorly structured, with logic or no flow of ideas in the language, appalling obscure section titles and leave the reader thinking, 'well, that taught me nothing I didn't already know'.

A frequent complaint I've heard is 'Well, no one reads our case studies anyway, so why bother...'. Yes, and there's a reason no one reads them - they're really really badly written, they may as well be written in Klingon!

When put together well, they can be informative insights into a business, a project, whatever the subject. In my humble opinion, empathy, logic and remembering who you're writing for are the key issues. The point of a case study is to describe someone else's experiences and communicate a message, eg 'This could be you'.

A case study can also be the only time when both the good and the bad things that happen are set out in writing. Case studies I have dealt with succeed when I know the intended audience is going to read something and imagine themselves in that position, because the content is written in language they understand, the 'story' has a logical flow and there's an overriding message running through the document. Write from the outside-in perspective, not the inside-out.

Friday, September 01, 2006

The Web Content (not so?) Accessible Guidelines 2.0

You wait 5 years for them to come along, and the WCAG, guidelines on making your Web site accessible, aren't that accessible themselves, at least in terms of language!

As pointed out by Trenton Moss of Webcredible:

"Another major criticism of the WCAG 1.0 guidelines was how difficult it is to find specific guidance and answers. It doesn't take too long to discover that the WCAG 2.0 guidelines quite clearly offer the same low level of usability.

Reasons for this poor usability include:

  • The level of jargon and complexity of language is truly phenomenal (as outlined above)
  • The text is littered with links making it very difficult to read"
And my favourite bit of Trenton's article:

"Ironically, there's even a definition provided for the word 'jargon'!"

The full article is linked in the post title above.

Friday, August 18, 2006

The joy of a well-chosen description

This article I dug up from Elisabeth Dahl at EEI makes some good points about the delicate process of writing a good description. The thought process that goes into choosing the 'right' words for something is what I probably enjoy most about writing. Fitting it all together is what brings about that tremendous sense of satisfaction when a piece of writing is finished.

Elisabeth describes the process very well:

'Hand-picking words, turning them over carefully, uncovers the connotations behind their dictionary definitions. This work can't be done mechanically; it's labor intensive. But it offers generous rewards. It's a pleasure not to be missed.'

Monday, August 14, 2006

Be upfront

Annoyance time again. I received my weekly Proofreading newsletter in my inbox on Friday; one of the articles was about an errant comma in a contract which cost the company concerned $2.1 million! Sounded interesting so I went to read on, only to discover after a few clicks that I'd have to register with the Canadian online newspaper in which the story appeared. Frustrating.

Point being, if you're writing something with an end in mind, a purpose, a task, then be upfront about what your audience will need to do to achieve this. I probably wouldn't have bothered clicking any links at all if I'd known I would need to register before reading the story.

A simple - 'before you go and do this, be aware that...' or 'note, registration required' would suffice.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Some useful resources

Practice makes perfect they say. Occasionally I like to polish up on the many rules and nuances of the English language and I find these very useful for the odd 'remember what this rule is/what this type of word is called' situations:

Proofread Now's Grammar Tips archive
(Their newsletter is useful as well, is focused on American English)

Cambridge Dictionaries Online
My most visited site by quite a long way (Isn't all this supposed to be in my head?!)

Advanced English lessons
For those times when you just can't remember what a modal verb is or where to stick your interjections!

Monday, July 17, 2006

Online conversations

I'm breaking my silence briefly to respond to an interesting question from Amy Gahran, who asks 'Starting conversations online, what's different?'

For me, as with Amy, it's the element of control you have. You decide when, where and how to start a conversation, you hold the cards. You might take part in a conversation you wouldn't normally go for in a face-to-face situation. You might not cover a wide range of topics, as you might in person - rapidly moving from one topic to another.

You can also choose when to stop, when things are going beyond your level of knowledge or when you think an argument might be just round the corner! However, of course, if you're discussing something and need evidence to back your argument up, its all there at your fingertips. I've had chats with people on line a few times and admit to having felt slightly smug at being able to whip a set of statistics or an article up straight away to back up my line of attack!

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Staleness apology

If anyone's out there, sorry for the long break. I am in UK at the moment working on lots of things with my main customer business, so I haven't had much time to blog about the nuances of writing! I will be back at the start of August.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Empathy again, hitting the nail on the head

I've recently been reading a blog titled Captain Picard's journal. Don't run away, I am no Star Trek geek (no offence intended to the writer of this blog). I have watched Star Trek, however, and the reason I like this blog so much is that if you know what these characters are like on television, you'll see how perfectly the writing gets inside their heads. It is a brilliant example of empathy being used to bring a character to life, to speak to the reader and to guide the tone and flow of the text.

The point of my rambling here is that if you really know who you are writing for and about, everything seems to just fall into place: 'oh, they wouldn't say that in this way, they'd use this word here and it would sound like this'. It makes things so much easier, and has been the cure for a few nasty bouts of editing/writing block which I have experienced. Think like your audience and you can experience some very enlightening 'oh yeah!' moments.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Don't miss the wood for the trees

I get stuck writing all the time. If I didn't I'd figure something was wrong. Somtimes it is easy to get lost in the detail and suddenly start worrying about tenses, verbs, minor points of grammar, headings, paragraph size, all sorts of stuff. I occasionally have panic attacks and start reading my Penguin guide to grammar, thinking I have suddenly forgotten how to write properly.

Sit back, think big. I get through these 'blocks' by always keeping the big picture in mind: what am I writing this for? WHO am I writing this for? What's the overall message I am trying to communicate? These important issues help you stay focused and you can craft your piece of writing (whether it be a web page, email, newsletter, whatever) around them, tidying up the bits and pieces later.

If you don't have your reader and the message you want to communicate at the forefront of your thinking all the time, instead getting lost in the detail, you'll be off the beaten track and will lose focus, resulting in an unfocused piece which doesn't do its job.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Talk to your reader, even especially when you make a mistake

How many times have you seen an error message and actually understood what is going on?

'Error 6214, server supercalifragilisticexpialidocious database restart, please report this 6214 error to rumplestiltskin immediately'

Was that my fault, did I click on something I shouldn't have? Is it their fault, what is going on, I feel scared, I'm off to the BBC site where I feel much happier because they TELL me what is going on, and what's more I understand what they are saying to me!'.

Game over, they've gone. The article linked in the title of this post is from Jakob Nielsen's site. It is 5 years old but still totally relevant. He also links to another article of his, Improving the Dreaded 404 Error Message, which is great advice because if something does go wrong then you really need to avoid losing people by telling them:

  • What happened (in plain language)
  • Constructive steps to take to correct the problem.

Golden Rules of Copywriting

Amrit Hallan has a great article about the elements of good copy on his site . The first rule he mentions, Keep It Simple, is one I whole-heartedly agree with for all forms of writing. Overblown language and complicated constructions stick out like a sore thumb and simply turn people off, and this rule is particularly relevant on the Web. If you're not talking your readers' language there's always another site that is...and it's just a few clicks away.

His rules are as follows:
  • Keep it simple
  • Cut to the chase (don't waste your reader's time)
  • Indulge in conversation (talk to your reader!)
  • Study your market (know who you are talking to)
  • Make your message customer-centric ('I, me, you' instead of 'we and us')
  • Be perceptive
  • Sincerity gives you strength
  • Avoid superlatives (If you write like a pompous ass, your readers will probably think you are one!)

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Web writing mistakes: 'We'll leave that bit to the IT guys'

A frequent error in web writing, as pointed out by this excellent (again) article from Webcredible, written by one of my favourite experts, Nick Usborne.

Every bit of 'written' content on your site is important and this includes the page title and meta description. Here, you're putting up your hand and showing the searcher/reader/potential customer that you are there, and that your site content is relevant to what they are looking for. I have been misled countless times by poor titles and descriptions appearing in search engine results. Indeed, sometimes they don't appear at all, because the webmaster/web team have left that bit to the programmer, who forgot to add it or figured it was not important, or added something that just won't do.

These elements are important and the point made by the article highlights one of my favourite topics: page title and meta descriptions help BOTH of your main content targets. They help your readers/customers AND they help the search engines - too many websites concentrate on one or the other of these; very few consider both human and 'non-human' users when writing content.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Rain not falling in Spain

I´m on a Spanish break at the moment, hence the lack of posts. It isn´t raining on the plain, or indeed anywhere near Barcelona at the moment. Normal service, if indeed anyone is reading this, will be resumed on my return next week.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

The writing food chain...who is top dog?

It's rare in my experience that the proof reader gets much thanks for working on a text. How does the food chain work out? Writer -> top plaudits, and deservedly so. Editor -> Normally an honourable mention? Proof reader -> If you're lucky, and we remember who you are...!

Anyway, recently my work volume has upped a few notches and it really puts a smile on my face when I get feedback from clients, remembering that a lot of work comes client - agency - me, end of the line. So when a client specifically says thanks to the proof reader for getting that text just right, it really made a difference to the final presentation, I go to bed a happy man and with more drive and determination to keep going on this one man business route.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Free rein

Once in a while I get to work on an editing assignment or 'proofreading plus' where I get more of a free rein with the text. Most of my work is tinkering here and there with texts, correcting errors and tidying things up. When you get to work on a job where you are allowed to flourish a little, play with the text, rewrite to how you as a writer think something could come across better, it is very liberating.

Proofreading and certainly editing demand a certain restraint and some caution; eliminating the author's voice is not what you want to do, and alot of the time you are working within someone else's house style. The 'free rein' type of assignment once in a while is a bit like having had a Ferrari for a few months, but only first and second gear were working, and then suddenly you manage to fix the gearbox...

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

The battle against jargon

The Plain English Campaign people have been taking the fight to purveyors of confusing writing and ridiculous jargon for years; I'm with them all the way. I particularly like the fact that a lot of what they talk about nowadays involves the Web. They give a Web Award every year and its great to see that this year and in the recent past, plenty of public sector organisations have been getting in on the act.

Having previously worked for a county council, its easy to see the problem from both sides. The people whose services you are administering (and they're major services remember: education, environment, roads) are sometimes at the end of their tether, being force fed huge long forms and booklets with complicated terms, full of jargon and unusable to the point of frustration. The people inside the council/public sector organisation are battling with a huge number of departments, long-established (often outdated) ways of doing things and, most tellingly, people producing material for public consumption who have never actually been taught how to write clearly and concisely.

Before you start getting on your local council's back, I stand up for them in that the majority are really trying to do something about their image as stuffy, jargon-heavy organisations; indeed, many councils, at least in the UK, have better organised and accountable Web and publication teams than many private sector organisations.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

When is proof reading not proof reading

...when it is editing. It seems people have different ideas about which is which. If you're in this line of work it's important to draw the line somewhere so that you can charge accordingly. I won't take on work without seeing a sample, generally. The only exception is if it's familiar material from a regular client and if I trust the project manager involved.

I learnt this after my first assignment here, touted as proof reading but ended up being (quite a few hours) editing to get the language in line. This was no proof reading assignment. Words, whole sentences, meanings, punctuation...the list goes on. I prefer editing, it is more interesting, but proof reading sometimes does give you a geeky sense of satisfaction; perhaps that's just me?

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Back off the wagon...words are everywhere

I'm taking on a job for what I think is the Finnish equivalent of Trading Standards. It has made me realise how varied this work can be. I would never have thought I would be looking at documents about wine labelling regulations, but it has given me a new lift and got me thinking about all sorts of areas where translators might need text proof read. Time to get that Yellow Pages out again and look for some more prospects.

Empathy is my best friend

I've been editing and proofing a lot of instructional material recently: manuals, software help files, among other things. Pretending that you are the person using the software/product/Web site to which the instructions relate is the best way to sort out any glitches in the text.

It has long been accepted that good Web writing follows the same principle. Sit and think: what would my customer/reader/user/subscriber do here? What are they thinking? In what environment are they accessing this page? What do they really want to read?

I found myself thinking back to my school history lessons, where my crazy Welsh teacher would talk at great length about empathy being the best way to appreciate what people really went through during some historical event. It works: you try and use that software and be that person; you try and fill out that application form online as if you've never seen a computer before; you try and set up your new DVD player not knowing what an S-video cable is and where the SCART connection on your TV plugs in and out.

Then you really appreciate the kind of hell that badly written, badly organised, jargon-heavy text puts people through.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Help your readers' eyes climb down the mountain

Plenty of other more experienced and well-known Web writing experts have espoused the value of a good sub-heading. Sites I read regularly all agree on this, including the excellent Nick Usborne on his Excess Voice site and a site I use a lot for its straightforward, understandable advice on Web content, Webcredible

Subheadings are like climbing footholds

I see subheadings as footholds on a mountain climb, except most of the time you're climbing downwards. Readers' eyes need something to anchor on, hang on to, whilst on their way down. If they're not sure of their route, they can always go back to a foothold and check. If they finish the climb down, then they can look at the map of footholds and see if the route they took was what they were intending.

Subheadings work in the same way. Readers use them whilst they scan a page, checking their route, 'Is this reallly what I want?' After reading, and more importantly before, they can look at those headings and judge for themselves whether your page has really got what they want. And they know from your subheading 'footholds' that they'll either be safe on the way down, or that they might fall half way and disappear off to someone else's Web site.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

When does blogging for pleasure become blogging for business?

Writing is what I do, so I figure if I'm doing this then why feel guilty about taking time out from 'real' work to write here. If this goes in the direction I want it to, then it will (hopefully) focus on issues relating to my work and anything I think might interest others. I like to think (am I deluded?) that every time I write I'm getting in some practice, reawakening those tired brain cells and the creative centre of my brain that sometimes goes to sleep during the day.

Spend time crafting and tweaking other people's words like I do and you can often feel like just a cog in a really big set of wheels; write your own words and put them out there, even on an obscure blog, and you feel different somehow. Proof reading and editing to a nice, polished final product for somebody IS satisfying; an original piece, even just an opinion, makes me feel like I've finally got round to saying something outside the constraints of someone else's house style.

Do journalists have all the fun?

Monday, April 10, 2006

Let it slide...breaking the rules is ok

Since starting to learn Finnish I've had countless conversations with people about grammar, the rules and the ins and outs of various cases, tenses, punctuation, everything you can think of really. In my assignments, proofing and editing, clarity is always the deciding factor - sticking rigidly to the rules is further down the list of priorities. I'm dealing a lot with non-native writers of English who if anything are more clued up on many points of grammar than I am, having been taught English within a strict, structured format, and certainly taught more recently than I have been!

Without referring back to some of my well-thumbed reference manuals on grammar and English usage, there's plenty I will forget. Do I lose sleep over this? No. If my client ends up with a clear, flowing, readable document and the intended audience will understand it, and perform whatever action is required of them, then I figure the rules can be broken sometimes.

With a little help from...

...anyone I can get my hands on frankly. Being a one man business means being everybody's friend. I've not turned a proof reading job down yet despite what the subject matter or medium may be. Initially this had me thinking 'what am I doing?' but now I'm more than a year down the line I'm glad I have taken on all those jobs: now I can boast working with all kinds of material that I would have never taken on if I had stuck to my original plan.

I came here with the idea of only working on English text for Web sites, being a Web writing 'Santa's little helper'. If I'd have stuck to that plan I would be writing out my 'hungry, please help' sign on a piece of (recycled, this is Finland you know) cardboard by now. Anyways, I can happily file away those jobs working on software help files, university thesis material, online betting scenario testing manuals (!) and push on.

I also discovered recently that I'm not alone: fellow Everton fan and one-man businessman Aaron has recently shipped out to Scandinavia to do something similar, in Copenhagen. His blog, Somethingrotten, is linked over on the right in my links list. I'm hoping now we're in touch we can help each other out, even if its just releasing some frustration at the end of the week and talking about the football. It does make you feel less alone when you find someone else doing almost exactly what you're doing. Being an expat isn't all moaning about missing beans and marmite you know.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Dirt-flavoured slush puppy

Spring finally comes to Finland, and outdoors now looks like a giant dirt-flavoured slush puppy. Seriouslly though, I've been looking forward to seeing the ground again after 3 months of snow cover. Despite being cold and rather dark, the winter has been a very successful period with more and more jobs rolling in from Finnish clients. I started working with a great company here in Tampere called Multidoc. The amount of stuff I've been working on is great, I love variety: software help files, job adverts, academic papers, instructional material, so it looks like there's plenty more to come in the future. Roll on the Spring...