Right … and Wrong

Have you ever noticed how when people don’t know right from wrong, they often aren’t too bothered whether they get something right or wrong?

Just look at politicians – or journalists – for instance. (Yes, yes, I know, easy targets …) Or more to the point, look at how this trend is spreading – both to business and the working world in general.

The Writer’s Curse:

Look, I was born under a curse – the need to write. And when I started writing for a living, I began looking more and more at the way punctuation and grammar actually work.

And, partly as a result, one of the things I got to noticing, was just how bad the standard of written English is on the websites of a lot of companies. And on their billboards. And social-media channels. And … well, everything, really … (I’d go on, but it almost feels kind of mean at this point.)

Now, maybe not everyone has to know the subtler niceties of this or that bit of punctuation (although, it would be nice if they did) – but if you’re doing this stuff for a living, as copywriters are, then you really ought to know at least the basics. (Just as graphic designers, in an ideal world, would be more familiar with how punctuation applies to typography and layouts – like whether to use a hyphen or an en-dash (‘-’ vs. ‘–’), or how to use spaces with an ellipsis (‘…’).)

And for me, that’s one of the more frustrating things about offering my services to companies like this. It’s hard to find anyone that knows – or cares – about the difference. Who actually cares about getting it right.

Brave Part …

“… Ye can take our lives … but ye’ll never take our … punctuation?”

Okay, as battle cries go, maybe it needs a little work – but the point remains: getting it right is still important. Bad punctuation is distracting – it puts out a subtle and off-putting sense of wrongness that people pick up on, even if they’re not quite sure why.

It’s distracting and irritating, and the general sense of sloppiness that it conveys comes along with the message, ‘False in one thing, false in all’. And the same goes for bad writing.

People notice these things, if only subliminally – and more than you’d give them credit for. So give them a little credit. Read up on punctuation. And pay attention to whether something’s well-written or not.

Your customers – and your employer – will thank you.

Technical Difficulties

Sometimes, technical jargon creates more problems than it solves. Marketing is no exception (for example, anything that describes people – and your customers, at that – as “users” is already in trouble from the get-go).

And the thing about technical jargon is its tendency to make simple things more complicated than they need to be. Maybe it’s because some of the things it describes often seem very new (but are actually very old) that it’s hard to find words for them.

Whatever the reason, we don’t actually need big-sounding words and thousand-page manuals to do most of these things. A few brief sentences “and off we go” will generally do the trick.

Otherwise, things can easily get confused.

When we think of “search-engine optimisation” more as giving a search engine some words to find our Web page with – it starts to make a lot more sense.

When we remember “users” are readers, viewers, and listeners – and people – it’s easier to think about what they might want: Bigger, easier-to-read text, for example. Useful links, handy clickable buttons – and so on.

By dispensing with abstract and confusing technical jargon, it’s easier to just get on with writing, designing, or doing whatever it is we do. And doing it far better and more creatively.

Well, it’s a theory, anyway …

Into the Ether

When writing or publishing anything online, it’s often hard to know what effect it has. Does anybody see it? Does anybody read or look at it? 

Sure, different “platforms” offer viewing figures and the like. But what they actually mean is often questionable. How do you know you’ve reached someone?

For companies trying to market their products this takes on a very real importance. People’s jobs depend on this stuff. (Not to mention how happy their customers are.)

The danger, I guess, lies in taking things like viewing figures and “analytics” too seriously – thinking we can read too much into them.

We can probably learn a certain amount, sure, but things like this are still very abstract – very hard to read. We’re better, I think, to rely more on instinct, and our own best judgement.

And we’re better at gauging things like that than we think: we just need to have the confidence to trust ourselves.

Readers and viewers, “marketers” and writers – we’re all human beings where it matters. And that tends to be a more reliable guide than (admittedly shaky) statistics.

Just a thought …

QWERTY Experiences

Using an empirical approach to solve creative problems – in writing, copywriting, business, or marketing:

I have kind of a quirky skillset. (I once met someone with a QWERTY skillset: 120 words per minute – true story.) I tend to look at how things work.

I’ll ask questions like, ‘How do we know what we know?’ (Doesn’t always make me popular, but it does help get things done.)

Seriously. How often do we look at something that’s stated as if it were true and ask, ‘What’s the evidence?’

When looking at why something’s going wrong – writing, marketing, creative stuff – more often than you’d think, we find a distressing shortage of logic and hard facts.

Now, okay, we don’t have time to check everything – but when it’s something a lot depends on, it may be worth taking a second look.

My approach is two-fold. I’ll ask questions designed to get at the root of a problem. And then I’ll get creative about trying to fix it.

This “creative–analytical”, empirical approach tends to produce pretty positive results. In fact, it produces results that amaze people, who’d never thought to try the kinds of things I suggest.

What about you guys – have any of you had similar experiences?

Dot Logic

How we can write more readably by paying attention to the underlying logic of words and punctuation:

Writing is actually easier than a lot of us think. Or, perhaps, it’s simpler.

There’s actually a very strong logical component to writing. We may not always be able to see exactly how it works, but it’s there.

For example, punctuation isn’t there to trip us up – it’s there because it serves a function. It pauses, it separates, it connects – it helps us read what something says reliably.

Similarly, writing is never “just words”. Even when words are misused, they have an underlying logic to them that explains why they work or don’t work.

We can see whether words work together, whether a sentence makes sense, or why something might be misunderstood unless we add or change a word.

With punctuation, logic shows us where there should be an apostrophe, where a dash might be necessary because it produces a heavier pause than a comma, or where it makes sense to use a semicolon or not.

And this is important: not least, because when something’s mispunctuated or doesn’t scan, it can put us off or distract us – to the point where we stop reading.

So, on a practical level, the logic of writing – for punctuation or words – is worth paying attention to. Because it helps determine how readable what we write is.

Anyway, that’s my idea. What do you think?


Technical jargon and abstract theories can over-complicate marketing and copywriting. Simplifying what we know into practical “guidelines” can help us focus on real-world results:

Marketing and copywriting tend to cover a lot of ground. There’s social media, search-engine optimisation, photography and video, user-experience writing – let alone the basic writing and copywriting side.

It can be easy to get lost in all the technical details and competing theories – to the point where we’re not sure why we’re doing what.

So, how to fix that?

Pause and simplify:

  • We look clearly at each area to see what’s actually going on underneath all the technical words.
  • Then we summarise that understanding in a simple one-sentence “guideline”,
  • which we can then use to sort through competing abstract theories,

and give ourselves the confidence to focus on what we can see works.

Yours might vary, but just to illustrate, here’s how some sample guidelines might look:

  • Search-engine optimisation: Making it easier for people to find us on search engines.
  • Social media: Sharing “content” or setting up paid ads to help us market what we do.
  • User-experience writing/design: Making it intuitively easy for people to use our website, for example.

There’s more to it than that, but simplifying what we know into guidelines helps us focus on:

  1. why we’re doing something, and
  2. how it actually works in the real world.

So we can then get more creative in coming up with ways to make it happen – and produce better results.

It’s a thought, anyhow …

Writing Clearly

One area of writing we seem to have a lot of trouble with is how to write more clearly. Particularly, simplifying an idea, explaining what we mean, and clarifying what we’ve written:

One of the easiest ways to write more clearly is to become more aware of what the words we’ve written actually say.

Just as the way we use letters and punctuation affects how we read a word, so the meaning of a word itself can change depending on the words around it.

A word out of place can change the whole meaning of a sentence. And the way that sentences work together can change the emphasis of a whole paragraph.

Learning to be more aware of that helps us see what’s actually going on in what we’ve written, and can help us to write more clearly.

And, as it so happens, so can looking at how to simplify, explain, and clarify.

Simplifying an idea:

When we’re writing about a complex idea, one of the things we seem to have trouble with is knowing when to leave out particular details or nuances.

Points like these are important — but when we’re just introducing a topic, trying to say too much can get in the way.

Sometimes we have to simplify it down to focus on the overall idea – and leave the nuances for another time.

Explaining what we mean:

When something’s hard to explain, a good place to start is breaking it down into easier-to-understand pieces.

Particularly, separating it out into more concise – and more readable – sentences and paragraphs.

Another way is to ask ourselves questions that can help us focus on how to explain something more clearly. For example:

  • Is there enough context for someone to immediately understand what we’re saying?
  • Have we left out any relevant facts – which may seem obvious to us, but might not be to the person reading?
  • Are there any topics or sub-topics that could do with being explained more fully?

It’s about asking ourselves, is there anything else that the person reading might need, or want, to know?

Clarifying what we’ve written:

We tend to have a hard time with the idea that what we’ve written isn’t already perfectly clear. And it may be – to us – but it might not to the person reading.

This is why it helps to develop our awareness of what the words we’ve written actually say. Again, it can be just a case of asking some questions to get ourselves thinking. For instance:

  • Is the person reading familiar with all the words we’ve used (or can they work out the meanings from context)?
  • Does what we’ve written make sense? Does one point logically lead to the next?
  • Is there any word or phrase that sticks out as not quite saying what it should?

And, above all, is anything we’ve written superfluous – does it get in the way of understanding the overall meaning?

In summary:

So, there we have it, writing more clearly by being more aware of what we’ve written and by simplifying, explaining, and clarifying.

Hopefully this brief introduction has given you something to think about.

Until next time, write on …

Literally Speaking

When you read something, I mean actually look at the letters and punctuation on the page, how do you know what it says? I mean, the letters spell words – that’s relatively straightforward – but beyond that, what determines what the letters and spaces and bits of punctuation actually say?

This may seem a silly question, but you’d be surprised how relevant it can be. If you’re a copywriter, or an editor, or a graphic designer – and definitely if you’re a writer – or even just someone interested in making sure your meaning is understood, then “orthography” (roughly translated, “correct writing”) is a discipline it’s worth getting your head around.

For example, should the abbreviated forms of “mister” and “doctor” in names be Mr. and Dr. or Mr and Dr? (I personally prefer the dot on the end to mark the abbreviation of a word.) Why is it ‘e.g.’ rather than ‘eg’? (There, the dots distinguish a lowercase abbreviation from the sound “eg” pronounced as a word.)

With more ordinary punctuation things can get a little complicated. It can vary according to context and personal style and of course which country you’re writing in (American and British use of dashes, for example).

Last time, we touched on the comma for direct address, which, on a related note, helps us avoid misreading sentences by separating the name of the one being addressed from the rest of the sentence (e.g., ‘Use the Force, Luke.’). Here are a few brief examples of how to use other commonly confused bits of punctuation:

  • The ellipsis (or ‘…’) – used for omissions and that trailing-off-into-the-distance effect – e.g., ‘Who knows what horrors lurk below …’ (note the space between the word ‘below’ and the ‘…’).
  • The hyphen (or ‘-’), often confused with the en-dash (‘–’) or forgotten entirely – used to link closely connected words (e.g., ‘tax-free’, ‘oven-ready’, ‘over-complicated’), and a tricky little bugger at the best of times (which we haven’t got time to go into thoroughly now).
  • The en-dash (‘–’) – used to signify an explanation or interruption, and the like (see what I did there?). Also used (rather than a hyphen) as follows: ‘the 1939–1945 war’, ‘pages 203–219’, ‘the London–Edinburgh train’, ‘U.S.–U.K. relations’.

You don’t need to overthink it, though. How you would say something out loud can often be a useful guide – or at least provide a hint – what to do. Generally, the more natural-sounding way will work better (as long as you have an idea how to signify/punctuate it). Rules are there to help us, after all, not trip us up.

Of course, all this is without going into things like italics for emphasis and the Proper Use of Capitals, and a whole range of more specialised or creative ways of using punctuation and type, as well as other ways of using symbols to convey meaning when we write (which is kind of what orthography and, to a certain extent, typography are all about).

It can seem intimidating when you first start learning – but being aware of the differences and how they affect meaning is a useful first step, and will hopefully help in the meantime.

Of course (blatant-advertising alert), if you have a project it’s really important to get right, a good copywriter – just to pick an example completely at random – could help you with that …

Until next time, write on …

“Word, Dude”

Why does punctuation matter? A lot of people seem to have a problem with the idea of punctuation that they’ve never been taught to use and that ‘looks funny’ to them.

Fair enough. So why do we use it? Because it prevents ambiguity – so we can reliably look at a sentence and say it says one thing rather than another.

Most people, I’ve found, if you tell them to look at how dialogue is punctuated in a story will be a bit surprised when you point out the weird way that there are commas separating names from what’s being said to someone. For example:

  • ‘Use the Force, Luke.’
  • ‘Hi, Max.’
  • ‘Look, honey, we could do that this year.’

This mysterious anachronism is the comma for direct address. Except, it isn’t – an anachronism, I mean. It serves a useful function. It helps stop us misreading a sentence and having to go back and work it out – and really knocking us out of the story, dude …

Except, when it comes to thinking up examples out of the blue, you can never seem to think of one that demonstrates it until much later, when someone’s already walked off thinking you’re just being fussy and it doesn’t make any difference how you punctuate a text message or an email …

On a text … ah, people get what you’re saying … probably. A business email … well, I’ve dealt with some pretty senior people over the years who don’t bother with it.

Actually, while I’m at it, indulge me – go back and look at the end of that last sentence:

‘[…] I’ve dealt with some pretty senior people over the years […]’

What happens if I add a comma and change it to:

‘[…] I’ve dealt with some pretty, senior people […]’

Then it becomes senior people who are pretty, rather than people who are pretty senior.

Why I should go around finding these people – some of whom were the wrong gender, let alone the wrong age ­­­– pretty … well, that’s just embarrassing for everyone concerned.

But it demonstrates the basic principle. Small changes in punctuation, big changes in meaning.

Well, that’s probably enough for now, but hey, even if you knew all this already, hopefully it’s helped refresh your memory, and maybe entertain you a little along the way. Peace out, dude …