Tag Archives: writing

I can be your hero baby

herosEveryone needs heroes. Without them there’d be no one to learn from, nothing to strive for, and the Nazis would always end up winning in 1950s war movies. With that in mind, I’ve come up with a list of writers I admire. The list is by no means exhaustive, and it’s heavily influenced by my recent reading. But all of the following are affecting the way I’m thinking at the at the moment.

Gideon Haigh

English born but Australian bred, Haigh’s Ashes blog was one of the best reads of the summer. A wry writer with a great eye for quirks, his blog always provided original insight and stepped off the beaten track – exactly what a good blog should do.

Mike Skinner

The fleeting nature of pop music means lyricists never have time to build a detailed story. All they can do is throw out an image using a few words and hope it captures the scene. Presumably, Ezra Pound would have been a great frontman for a rock band.

Mike Skinner (leader singer of The Streets)  is brilliant at these images – listen to his account of first date awkwardness on Could well be in. I especially like ‘I’m trying to think what else I could say / Peeling the label off, spinning the ashtray.’ For fans, Skinner’s Twitter account is well worth following too.

Sir Winston Churchill

I’ve been gradually working my way through Churchill’s The Second World War since Christmas. That’s not to say it’s not great, but it was a very long war and the book is too heavy to take on the tube.

Churchill has a fittingly majestic style but is always very readable. The part where he goes to Russia to persuade Stalin to change sides is extraordinary. He weaves the domestic details of the trip in amongst an account of a conversation that ultimately decided the fate of the entire world. Very rarely do we get such a personal insight into history.

Seth Godin

I know this is hardly an original choice. And I know there’s already more than enough Godin fawning on the internet, especially as he spends most of his time recycling the same ideas over and over again.

But Godin is massively successful, and I think his great secret is his accessibility. He writes plainly, avoids getting overly technical, and above all he keeps things brief. His 200 word posts are perfect for skim-reading during a working day, and then discussing endlessly around the water cooler or on Twitter. If there ‘s one thing I will do with this blog, it’s to start writing entries of  less than 300 words where at all possible.

Writing by numbers

numbersJane Penson has written an interesting blog about the Flesch reading ease index. So interesting in fact, that I’ve spent a large part of my lunch hour working out how ‘readable’ my own writing is.

The Flesch index is a formula that decides how easy it is to read your work. The formula is based on the length of your sentences and the number of syllables in each word – fewer words and fewer syllables equals easier reading. If you’re interested, there’s lots more info about how it works here.

The formula produces a score out of 100, with a score of more than 40 being reasonably clear. Maths enthusiasts may enjoy working out the score for themselves, but Microsoft Word will do it for you. Just select Tools > Options > Spelling and Grammar and tick the Show readability stats box. Your Flesch score will then appear after you’ve run a spelling and grammar check.

The good news for me was that a couple of pieces chosen randomly from the Carphone help section did well. This page explaining how broadband works scored 71.4, while this one about online billing got 73.1. According to Jane’s blog, a typical article from The Sun scored 62. As we’re using simpler language than Chelsea, 22 from Essex, it’s safe to assume we’re not baffling anyone with our verbosity.

The obvious question to ask is: ‘is the Flesch index useful?” Like all formulas, it only measures success according to a few select criteria, and with something as abstract and flexible as writing that doesn’t seem a good idea. The other problem with using Flesch is that you’re likely to end up manipulating your copy purely to get a better score, which isn’t necessarily conducive to the initial aim of making your writing clearer.

That said, I’m sure I’ll obsessively check my work from now on to see just how ‘readable’ I can become. There’s nothing like the introduction of a scorecard to get the competitive juices flowing. And in the interests of research, I did get a Flesch score for Sonnet 18 by Shakespeare. I was sure that nothing so old could fare well according to a ‘readability’ formula. It got 81.9.

Which goes to show that beauty definitely is simplicity. And that Flesch maybe has a point.

Sonnet 18

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?

Thou art more lovely and more temperate.

Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,

And summer’s lease hath all too short a date.

Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,

And often is his gold complexion dimmed;

And every fair from fair sometime declines,

By chance, or nature’s changing course untrimmed.

But thy eternal summer shall not fade

Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st;

Nor shall death brag thou wand’rest in his shade,

When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st,

So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,

So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

Give them what they’re looking for

guide dogs

I was at the front of a very long cashpoint queue the other day. Which means I was trying to get my money and scarper as quickly as possible before the massed tutting turned to grievous bodily harm.

Anyway, having entered my card and PIN I was faced with a list of options. Scanning them quickly I couldn’t find what I was looking for. And because I couldn’t see the ‘Cash’ option I actually assumed for a second that the machine had run out of money. It was only on second inspection that I eventually found what I needed:

Withdrawal without receipt

Obviously it was my own fault for not reading properly the first time. But my behaviour was hardly atypical of someone at a busy cashpoint. And I’m probably a better skim reader than most.

What I was looking for was an option with the word ‘cash’ in it – it’s a cashpoint, I was trying to get cash out, I looked for ‘cash’. But because ‘cash’ wasn’t somewhere in the title, I couldn’t find what I needed quickly.

It’s not a biggie I know. But it’s definitely something to consider. Technical copywriters should never be vain enough to think people will give their work more than a passing glance. Readers use technical copy for information and they’ll search for that information as directly as possible.

So when I’m writing technical copy in the future, I’ll always try and give readers exactly what they’re looking for.