Notebook

A lot of the same questions and problems crop up time after time. Here are a few of the regulars, now with added Chekhov.

Brand names

In the last ten years (ish), some brands have started to use funky punctuation to write their own names and products. Which?, Yahoo!, iPad and eBay are some of the biggies.

They do this to sound modern and stand out on search results.

For the copywriter, making these words look readable on a page of text can be a real pain.

My advice is this: only mimic their style if their brand identity is important to you, or if a reader needs that funky punctuation to understand what you’re writing about.

For example:

  • Write iPad because your readers won’t know what an Ipad or an ipad is.
  • Write Innocent when you talk about the juice people, or readers won’t know you’re talking about the brand.

And if a company’s name starts with a lower-case letter (adidas) or it’s in all capitals (CHANEL), ignore it. Just use normal sentence case: Adidas and Chanel.

Different reading needs

There is a lot your writer and your designer can do together to make your communication more accessible for people

  • with dyslexia
  • with low vision
  • who are on the autistic spectrum
  • who use a screen reader
  • who have motor disabilities.

The UK government has a great blog on this – check it out here .

Diversity

‘Well, I could be wrong, but I believe diversity is an old, old wooden ship that was used during the Civil War era.’

Diverse means a mix or a variety, or including many different types of things.

It does not mean a specific ethnicity.

It does not mean gay.

It does not mean ‘different from me – the norm.’

But that’s how a lot of organisations use it.

If you feel that what you’re saying might be offensive unless you tippy-toe around it by using words incorrectly, should you be saying it?

Check out how the absolutely excellent Radical Copyeditor explains a pet peeve with the misuse of the adjective ‘diverse’ .

En-dash (also called n-dash)

This might be my favourite punctuation mark.

With a space on either side, it breaks up a sentence in a way that mimics speech and thought – often better than a comma could.

The best way to explain its use is to see it in action with something relatable:

  • Laura likes en dashes more than the sweetly fragrant coconut dream that is Malibu – or so she says.
  • The best thing about en dashes – about punctuation in general – is that they can improve a sentence. The same way a glass of Malibu can improve a wake.
  • The en dash is the length of a letter n – hence the name. A dash the length of the ‘m’ in ‘Malibu’ is called an em dash.

Everyday

Every day means each day. It’s about frequency.

Everyday means ordinary or typical. It’s an adjective.

If you’re not sure which to use, swop them around and see if it sounds right. Like this:
  • I wear this feather boa each day / I wear this feather boa ordinary (= every day is correct).
  • This is my ordinary feather boa / this is my each day feather boa (= everyday is correct).
As always, read it aloud. If it sounds odd it’s probably not right.

Gobbledygook at work

Just because you’re writing for people who have to read it, like staff or suppliers, doesn’t mean you should make it brain-meltingly laborious.

Everybody deserves plain English.

Use the words your readers use. Write short sentences without too much fussy punctuation. And go for clearly defined sections, simple diagrams and bullet-pointed lists whenever you can.

Hiding the important bit

If your one job is to give some really important information, stick it at the top of the page, in the subject line of the email, or at the front of the document.

Don’t make your readers trawl through pages of background or abstract statement – the history of the subject, why you’re talking about it, a quote from your founder – to find the bit they actually came for.

For example, if you’re in the UK and you Google ‘how do I make a Victoria sponge?’, you’re likely to get a BBC page first.

That’s because the BBC puts the recipe and the method at the top, with a clear photo of what the finished cake should look like.

People like this, therefore Google likes this*.

Sites that talk about the first time the author ever had a Victoria sponge (and how it reminds them of their nan, and how it’s perfect for entertaining, and how bunting is also great for entertaining and OH MY GOD MY FANTASY TEA PARTY IS ALL ABOUT CAKE AND BUNTING, and here’s what I’d wear to it…) before they get to the recipe will be lower down the search results.

(*Free hint to search engine optimisers: Google just wants things to be human.)

I don’t know about you but I was ready for a picture of a cake.

Show don’t tell

Don’t tell your readers how to do something – show them. Use photos, diagrams, bullet points or video.

As a writer, I will take pride in telling you when not to use words.

Don’t believe me? Here’s how a Victorian newspaper article explained pizza to its readers:

The Neapolitan pizza:  ‘The pizza!” I hear your readers exclaim; “what do you mean by the pizza?” Well, the pizza is a favourite Neapolitan delicacy, which is only made and eaten between sunset and two or three in the morning, and it must be baked in five minutes in the oven; at the very moment when it is ordered it is pulled out of the oven and served up piping hot, otherwise it is not worth a grano. The pizza baker takes a ball of dough, kneads it, and spreads it out with the palm of his hand, giving it about half the thickness of a muffin, then pours over it mozzarella, which is nothing more than rich cream, beaten almost like a cream cheese; then he adds grated cheese, herbs, and tomato, puts the cake – which, made after this fashion, is termed the pizza, just for 5 minutes into the oven, and serves it up as hot as possible. The cheese and the cream are, of course, all melted, and unite with the herbs and tomato. The outside crust must, in the case of a perfect pizza, possess a certain orthodox crispness…’

OK I give up. Wouldn’t it have been easier to show them a picture of a pizza?

Look, here’s one now. Isn’t it simple and lovely?

As Clever Chap Anton Chekhov once said: ‘Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass’.

No, not that Chekhov.

Talking with millennials

A millennial is somebody born between 1980 and 2001. Nothing more, nothing less.

Some brands have absolutely nailed the art of communicating with this group. These include Airbnb, ASOS, Buzzfeed, Deliveroo, GiffGaff, Nando’s and Vice.

These brands talk like people. They have tongue-in-cheek fun and they tend to hold their hands up when they’ve done something wrong.

They successfully mirror the way their audiences use slang and informal language – they don’t shoehorn it in like a secondary school music teacher namedropping a rapper from 2015. They’re not afraid of irony.

Good ad 1_ ASOS
Well done, ASOS. Well done.

One in ten people

If you’ve surveyed a lot of people, that ‘one’ is a plural isn’t it? It’s the same as 100 people out of 1,000. So it should be ‘one in ten people are aliens’.

However, sometimes you see ‘one’ treated as just one person: ‘One in ten people is an alien’.

That is usually wrong.

The only way you’re talking about a single person is if you only surveyed ten people. And if that’s the case, statistics aren’t the right way for you to make your point.

Punctuation

Use it sparingly and correctly, especially with brownies.

"Brownie"
What am I looking at here? Is it gluten? Is it free? Is it gluten-free? Is it even brownie?

Solutions and offerings

Restaurants: it’s not your food and drink offering, it’s your food and drink.

Supermarkets: they are not snacking solutions, they are snacks.

Taxis: you do not provide transport solutions, you provide transport.

Food and drink, snacks and transport are perfectly good things to sell. By implying that your products are something more, you kind of sound ashamed.

You’re also confusing the guy who came here for a snack before his taxi.

These are not storage solutions. These are boxes.

Talk directly to your reader

When you say: ‘To place an order, this form must be filled out and submitted by post’ you sound remote and snotty.

Instead say: ‘Write your order on this form and post it to us’.

Also, use words your reader is likely to use. For example, shoppers at the supermarket pictured below would probably call these items biscuits and chocolates. But right now it sounds like a birthday party at Enya’s house.

Ambient

Tautology

Saying the same thing twice with different words is something we do a lot in everyday speech, but we should avoid it in writing. It uses up precious page space and can complicate text.

For example, don’t say ‘in order to…’, just say ‘to…’.

However, there are some examples that are so common they’re kind of acceptable. I hereby declare these to be: advance warning, final outcome and vast majority. 

Take ‘that’

‘That’ is one of those  words you don’t need very often in writing, even though you use it a lot in speech.

Leaving ‘that’ out sounds best with the most common verbs of speech or thought, like ‘do’, ‘know’, ‘say’ and ‘think’. For example:

  1. I think I’ll go to the Malibu shop now because I know it’s closing in half an hour.
  2. I think that I’ll go to the Malibu shop now because I know that it’s closing in half an hour.

The second version isn’t wrong, it’s just kind of clunky.

If you’re not sure what’s best, say it aloud – you’ll probably find ‘that’ sounds odd.