Key tips for really good professional writing and stuff

They say that success is 10% technical ability and 90% communication ability*.

I doubt this is accurate, but despite its dodgy scientific foundation, it makes the point that how we impact the people we work with is often more important than the tasks.

How we communicate is the main way we judge each other, and this makes it open season for our unconscious biases to get stuck in. If someone sounds waffly and incoherent, we jump to the conclusion that they don’t know what they’re talking about. If they sound doubtful, then we assume they’re probably wrong because confidence is so much more convincing. If they’re difficult to understand, then most probably we will make the leap that they’re not worth listening to.

The same is true for writing: bad writing makes a bad impression.

Here’s a real-life example from the Plain English Campaign’s Golden Bull Award 2020:

The Executive Team concluded that it was appropriate to adjust our plans for the transition to blended learning, by rephasing the commencement of the transition phase for two weeks.

They could have just said it was two-week delay.

It’s so easy to sound muddled and confusing, to find your argument lost in poor structure, bad grammar and inappropriate tone. How often do you read something that sounds like a hyperbolic appeal to the emotions, a superficial waffle of opinionated bluster, when what you really need is an objective evidence-led explanation that will help you make a more informed decision?

Professional writing skills are key to our personal impact at work, and avoiding words like “key” is a good start. Unless you’re talking about an actual key, it’s a lazy cliché of a word that is really just an opinion dressed up as a fact.

So I asked some professional writer friends of mine to share some advice for a webinar I was running. They include a publisher, a communications expert, a (retired) consultant, a professor of creative and professional writing, and the director of an international NGO.

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I have inventified a new tensy thing in English

I think I’m going to call it the imprecise tense, or maybe the inexact tense. I haven’t decided yet.

It’s a very important tense, and we need to use it more often.

But it must be used precisely.

It is not used to convey imprecision of understanding in the subject (e.g. “these new-fangled computery thingies”), it is used to convey imprecision in the object of the sentence (e.g ”I’ve got some datary stuff on this topic”).

We are taught to be precise and professional in our speech, especially when presenting information or writing professional reports.

The problem is that precise language can be misleading.

It overstates the accuracy of what we’re talking about, appealing to the “precision bias” in us all.

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Fragment … no suggestions

Little short sentences.

Like this one.

Drive my MS Word programme mad.

It doesn’t like it at all.

It says that they’re fragments, which is all well and good, but it doesn’t have any suggestions and sometimes fragments are actually OK.

Just like this one.

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Where’s your grammar? She’s in the front room …

I didn’t get that joke when I was a kid. I pretended to, but my grasp of language was so shoddy that such subtle humour was lost on me. My grammar was, indeed, metaphorically speaking, in the front room watching telly*.

I am of that generation that didn’t get taught grammar properly, at least thats what I was told. When I were a lad, people seemed to think that teaching had gone to the dog’s and we should be focussing on the three Rs of reading, writing and mathematics.

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The wrong way

I read this article in The Guardian the other day.

It’s about why the BBC are axing Ben Elton’s “The Wright Way” sitcom after only one season.

Their point is about how social media amplifies the instant negative reaction, not allowing new TV shows time to develop and grow, and how this means that shows that might have succeeded in the past, never get a chance today.

This is a fair point, social media is chock full of unfair shouty criticism, but it overlooks the key point: the show is rubbish.

Ben Elton set out to write an “old-fashioned mainstream comedy” and insofar as it is both “old-fashioned” and “mainstream” it works, it’s the “comedy” objective where it stumbles*.

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On clumsy over-long sentences with far too much tangential detail, between commas, unnecessarily included.

This sentence, which appeared in a popular TV guide magazine, describing the final of last night’s Euro 2012 football tournament, between Italy and Spain, held in Kiev, which is in the Ukraine, next to Poland, is one of, the, clumsiest, sentences, I’ve ever seen, in, a, prin,ted mag,a,zine.


After 23 days of competition, consisting of 30 matches, just two teams remain from the 16 that had aspirations of not only competing in the conclusion of the tournament held in Poland and Ukraine, but of triumphing.

I’m assuming that the objective of the sentence is to emphasise the importance of the match: having played 30 matches over 23 days, only 2 teams remain.

This is not an unusual concept for a knock-out tournament.

The final of Wimbeldon could be similarly described*, a conclusion to a tournament consisting of a lot of matches.

Continue reading “On clumsy over-long sentences with far too much tangential detail, between commas, unnecessarily included.”

How I deal with writer’s block

I get two types of writer’s block.

Either I don’t know what to write about at all, or I know what I’m supposed to do but can’t find the right angle or starting place.

I call the first type a Content Block. I just can’t find anything I want to bother writing about.

The second is a Story Block, I can’t work out how to twist the content into a story that ticks the boxes I need to be ticking and stops the reader slipping into a coma of boredom. This is especially problematic when thinking how to write a business report.

I don’t get other blocks really.

If I have the content sorted, and know how I want to communicate it (the story), then the rest will flow.

I might get Edit Block, where I can see a whole passage, or worse the actual structure, just isn’t working and I need to unpick it but don’t want to because of some neat phrase in the middle I’m desperate to preserve … but this is more an attitude problem rather than a proper block: I know what I have to do, I just don’t want to do it.

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A mongrel would beat a toy poodle in a grammar-fight

The thing about learning Spanish is that they have a whole different approach to grammar.

I don’t mean just different grammar, I mean a different attitude to grammar.

It’s not like you can just say anything, get it more or less ballpark right, mess up a few verb endings, and expect them to piece together the meaning from the scattergun of poorly pronounced clues I might throw out.

They need it pretty tight, pretty correct.

Not 100%, but knocking at 100%’s door.

You’ve got to get your verbs and other sentence shrapnel all in a line and singing from the same songsheet.

If you start chucking in the wrong tense and you’ll be met with puzzled looks.

Where English is a cheeky mongrel and therefore more quick-witted and agile, Spanish is toy-poodle pedigree, more beautiful perhaps, but take it out of its natural habitat and it looks as silly as a … er … toy poodle.

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When marketing overlooks the pedant demographic

Do they think we’re stupid?

The word “express” means quick, not small – why was my local Blockbusters video store called Blockbusters Express just because it was tiny and had limited selection? It was no quicker, except perhaps quicker to walk straight back out of again because there was nothing worth renting.

There was a Tesco Express too, again just a lot smaller than the regular, non-express Tesco, and slower because they had fewer tills which were shared with the petrol station. Express means quick not small.

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