9 short books for the easy win

There are few things more satisfying in life than a finished book. Give yourself an easy win with a short novel – here are nine classics to consider, none of which is more than 160 pages

Bookshelves to illustrate a post about short books

This post was originally supposed to be a list of short books that you could read over the course of a few evenings – some titles to whizz through when time is short or you can’t quite face tackling Proust’s “In Search Of Lost Time” (3,031 pages) or even Eleanor Catton’s Man-Booker winning “The Luminaries” (a mere 864). But when I came to write about them – some of which I haven’t read for, eek, a couple of decades – I realised that shorter does not mean easier. Quite the opposite in fact; many of these books are intense, challenging and mentally draining, their short length often reflecting the fact that such a feverish emotional journey cannot be sustained for long. So think of them more as short, sharp hits – brisk, frenzied, but hugely satisfying all the same.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark (1961)
Mixing 1930s social mores with adolescent passion, facism, and some pretty questionable teaching practices, “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie” is a morally complex and ambiguous novel. The compelling but egotistical Miss Brodie singles out six gifted girls at Marcia Blaine School to receive her particular attention, and to learn from her own personal experiences. Thus, as they progress though their teenage years they are initiated into the adult world through the prism of Miss Brodie’s beliefs. While some ultimately cast her influence aside, others find themselves unable to do so – a fact that comes back to haunt Miss Brodie in the end. Spark’s crisp, drily comic writing has made “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie” a much loved classic – a short but unforgettable read.

Where Angels Fear to Tread by EM Forster (1905)
When a well-to-do young Englishwoman dies in childbirth, her friends and relatives take it upon themselves to “rescue” her baby from his flashy Italian father – with predictably tragic consequences. “Where Angels Fear to Tread” is full of drama, emotion and striking Italian architecture, but has a lightness of touch and comic tone that render its tragic moments all the more unexpected and heart-breaking. With its exploration of Edwardian upper-class behaviour and prejudices it has more than a touch of Downton about it – all in all, EM Forster’s first novel is an absolute treat.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote (1958)
A New York writer recounts his year living next to flighty “good-time girl” (ahem) Holly Golightly, as she shakes off her country roots and embraces New York’s party scene. Intrigued by her unconventional lifestyle, refusal to conform, and willingness to flirt with danger, he resolves to get to know her and the two become close. Yet Holly gives little away, and he only learns of her painful and difficult past when a family member comes to look for her. The character of Holly is as fascinating to the reader as to the narrator – is she naive and easily led, or does she know exactly what she’s doing? What are her motives and what does she really want? How far can we trust other people’s stories about her – including the narrator’s? It’s pretty easy to read, but “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” packs a heck of a lot into its 150-odd pages.

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad (1902)
Like the jungle into which its narrator, Marlow, travels, “Heart of Darkness” is dense and disturbing. The book tells the story of Captain Marlow’s journey into the heart of the Belgian Congo to join a cargo boat that he is supposed to lead on an ivory collecting expedition. He soon grows disgusted by the greed of the ivory traders and their exploitation of the natives, however, and, arriving at his station, finds his journey has been deliberately and mysteriously delayed. When he finally sets out, his apprehension turns to fear as he leaves civilisation far behind him and confronts a place of darkness both moral and physical. “Heart of Darkness” is not exactly a barrel of laughs, but it has huge cultural significance for a 100-page book.

By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept by Elizabeth Smart (1945)
A work of prose poetry, the plot involves a doomed love triangle, but the book, constructed as a “single, sustained climax”, is really about the narrator’s agonised revelations on the nature of love. Writers from Beryl Bainbridge to Raffaella Barker (who later discovered that the male protagonist was based on her own father, the poet George Barker, with whom Smart had a stormy 18-year affair) have declared the book profound and life-changing, while The Spectator described it as “a cry of ecstasy which, without changing volume or pitch, becomes a cry of agony”. A testament to the power of words to convey intense, ecstatic emotion, without recourse to cliché or melodrama, it’s an extraordinary book that still feels so fresh, more than 70 years after it was written.

Love by Angela Carter (1971)
Another love triangle – this time between a mentally fragile wife, her self-centred husband, and his violent, unpleasant brother – and a painful exploration of love’s destructive capabilities. “Love” is not one of Carter’s best known books and is not an example of the magic realism with which she is usually associated, but it demonstrates her ability to empathise with difficult, damaged characters, delving into the darkest corners of the human condition as she does so. It’s a tough read, and in all honesty you probably won’t enjoy this book, as such. But you won’t forget it, either.

The Sign of Four by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1890)
The second Sherlock Holmes novel finds the inscrutable detective and his sidekick Watson on excellent form as they try to solve the mystery of a missing Indian army captain, whose governess daughter has been receiving a valuable pearl, sent anonymously, every year since his disappearance a decade ago. “The Sign of Four” has all the familiar elements of a Sherlock Holmes story – an impossible murder, an exotic back story, the Baker Street Irregulars, several bizarre twists, and plenty of cocaine to jolly Holmes along. This one really is a quick, enjoyable read.

Franny and Zooey by JD Salinger (1955)
Franny is a college student who has started to develop a deep distaste for her friends’ blinkered conformity and unquestioning acceptance of others’ opinions. She starts dabbling in spiritualism, eventually succumbing to a sort of breakdown. Her brother Zooey – quietly but determinedly harangued by their mother – attempts to soothe her mind by reminding her of the religious philosophy taught to them by their older siblings, and counsels her to see her friends and teachers – and everyone else – in a kinder light. The only problems she should seek to solve, he suggests, are those within her own self. It’s a strange little book in many ways – ultimately an intellectual debate between the youngest members of a large group of accomplished, erudite, slightly pretentious siblings – but as an exploration of teenage angst, “Franny and Zooey” takes some beating.

The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (1943)
You might have read this as a child and wondered what the heck it was really about. As it mostly reflects on the weirdness, loneliness and monotony of adult life  – as well as the value of long, deeply nurtured relationships – it’s probably worth reading again from an adult perspective. Clearly an allegorical tale, there are many theories as to what each element symbolises (are the baobab trees the Nazis? Is the little prince Christ?), and it takes on whole new meanings later in life. In particular, I find the little prince’s open-minded innocence, his endless curiosity, his imaginative power, and his mix of clear-sightedness and confusion when faced with flawed adults, particularly poignant when thinking about my own children’s thought processes, and the adult world that they will inevitably have to fit into.

Finding time to be creative (when life gets in the way)

Most of us are so busy we’re merely skimming the surface of life. Here’s why we should get in touch with our creative sides – and how I’m planning to do it

autumnal leaves on a sunny day to illustrate a post about finding time to be creativePhotograph by Tomasz Bazylinski

First off, an apology and confession: it’s been eight weeks – EIGHT WEEKS! – since my last post. And while I’m hardly labouring under the delusion that my silence has cast a terrible pall over anyone’s life, it is a bit, well, rubbish.

My excuse is the summer holidays – an actual holiday, followed by several weeks of 24/7 childcare that made writing virtually impossible. Constant interruptions, distractions and desertions make it very hard to sustain a train of thought and, let’s face it, children bring all those things to the party.

So I gave up even thinking about the blog (aside from the huge pangs of guilt and frustration that is), and promised myself I would get straight back into it when the holidays were over.

Except… I didn’t. I tend to convince myself that I can only write – only become absorbed in the “creative process” – when I’ve totally cleared the decks. If housework and admin are hanging over me then I just can’t get into it. I said something similar about finding time to read in this post and I’m beginning to think I might have a teensy problem with procrastination…

But while that may be true, I’m also sure that modern life is near fatal to certain types of creativity. While the internet and social media have, on the one hand, proved incredibly effective channels for self-expression and the celebration of individuality, the opportunity to spend time just being and thinking has been fast eroded. One minute we gained washing machines and microwaves to free up our time, the next our leisure hours became hijacked by the internet, social media, 24-hour news, must-watch TV, and the consequent impulse to create interesting content for our feeds – we must be doing stuff all the time, exciting stuff, lest anyone should think our lives dull and boring.

Plus: kids, work, chores, admin. I’m sure my mother would say that paying bills online is a lot quicker than queuing at the post office, but I’m also pretty sure she never had to make a Gruffalo costume out of egg boxes for World Book Day, or help us revise for exams while we were still at primary school. And she certainly wasn’t comparing her seasonal displays to something she’d seen on Pinterest, or attempting to make a Bake Off worthy cake. (In fairness nor am I, but you get the idea.) Our standards and expectations of life are so much higher than they used to be – and that’s a good thing, mostly. But it also creates So. Much. Work.

The result is that we’re no longer granted the swathes of time and space that might allow our imaginations to run free, and our thoughts and ideas to coalesce into something new and original. Would the Brontës have written such remarkable, radical novels if they hadn’t spent all that time rambling about the Yorkshire moors? If Netflix and Facebook and Twitter had been available in 19th-century Howarth?

Have you ever noticed how your best ideas come to you in those few precious idle moments we still have? In the shower, in a queue, on a crowded bus. It’s usually when we let our minds wander and be free and open that the maelstrom of thoughts, opinions, sights, sounds and stories we constantly encounter can really be processed and shaken down into something meaningful. Only in that loose-minded state do we start to join the dots between the things we really care about – allowing what truly grabs our attention to bubble to the surface and then, perhaps, exploring it further. But most of the time we are too busy – watching TV while surfing our iPads, cooking tea while supervising homework – to sit there and just think. We skim the surface of life, never really plumbing its depths.

Well, obviously some people do. There are those who have an obsession, a creative need, and make time for it. But we all need to make time for some kind of creative outlet – even if that means reading other people’s books or looking at other people’s art and then thinking about it, processing it and working out what it means to us and how it touches upon our life or beliefs. Creativity comes in all shapes and forms and everyone needs something that fully absorbs their attention and allows them to produce something, make something, create something – even if it’s just a new idea, a plan, heck, a spreadsheet. Whatever does it for you.

I never thought of myself as particularly creative – I wasn’t good at art, or making things. I put my obsession with rearranging shelves down to some kind of OCD-like tendency – but now I realise I was doing something creative. I was – am – experimenting with the proportions, shapes, colours and contrasts around me, creating a sense of balance and making my surroundings feel calmer, cosier, more characterful. Who knew? And although this blog started out as a work thing, writing it has turned out to be so much fun and has taught me so much about so many things – from coding to content to the sheer joy of just creating something, good or bad. I have a LOT more to learn, let’s face it, but I’m looking forward to doing so.

So my resolution for the new term is to keep the creative spark alive – to spend more time on my blog (famous last words), less time on social media, and less time doing mind-numbing household chores. It’s going to be a fight – a constant battle against the detritus of everyday life – but I’m in! And I hope you can join me.

10 grammar rules for super-geeks

Many of the stricter rules of grammar have fallen by the wayside – but true grammar geeks just can’t let go. Here are 10 for the truly committed…

Photo of a koala to illustrate a blog post about clinging onto grammar rulesPhotograph by Jordan Whitt

It’s become deeply unfashionable to get wound up about grammar rules. Linguists argue that regional variations render certain usages as “non-standard” rather than wrong, that language evolves, and that the meanings of words change over time. Others simply insist that if what you are saying is clear and unambiguous, it doesn’t matter if you break a supposed rule.

While I would agree that many of the things that were once frowned upon (splitting infinitives, starting a sentence with “and” or “but”, ending a sentence with a preposition) are completely fine (and in many cases preferable), I would also argue that there’s more to language than basic communication. Great writing has an elegance and beauty borne of fluency, precision and economy of expression – and following the rules of grammar is surely the first step to achieving that. Contrary to popular belief, most grammar rules have a logical basis and, when those rules are ignored, sentence structure goes awry and that elegance is lost. You might not know the rules, but you can feel a neatly constructed sentence that has been composed using a logical, highly evolved system. I think we have an affinity for well ordered communication – when we can convey exactly what we’re thinking, or understand exactly what someone else is saying, we experience a sense of satisfaction that feels comfortable, reassuring and deeply gratifying.

More prosaically, once you have been told a grammar rule and become used to it, it’s very hard to unsee/unhear it. When the rule is broken it trips you up and, to your ears, sounds clunky and awkward – even though you know that the rest of the world has MOVED ON.

So, as this may be my last post for a couple of weeks (school holidays…), I thought I would indulge myself a little and share the grammar rules that I’m still clinging onto (all alone on my little grammar raft). I know that language shifts and changes as its users do, and that’s fine. But I still love the linguistic logic and order that grammar rules reflect – so today I offer you this unapologetic celebration of grammatical pedantry. Let’s go.

1. Past/last
“The last five years” means the final five years of someone’s life, or imprisonment, or employment, or whatever. So you can only use “last” when something has come to an end or has a finite time span. If the event or situation is ongoing then the correct word is “past”. “She has been living in France for the past five years”; “He has been considering his options for the past three days.” However, it’s safe to say that very few people abide by this rule, darn it.

2. Try to, different from, compare with…
Verbs and adjectives usually take a specific preposition. This is not an arbitrary rule – there are logical reasons. For instance, the preposition “from” suggests a distance between two things – they are moving away from each other. Whereas “to” suggests similarity or closeness – they are moving towards each other. So we say that something is different from something else or that two things are similar to each other. (Not different to – see how wrong that sounds now you KNOW?) You also compare something to something else if you are suggesting that they are alike in some way – the famous example being Shakespeare’s “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” If you are emphasising difference, then you compare with: “This year’s figures are promising, compared with last year’s.”

Here are a few more:
arise from (not out of)
bored with (not of)
centre on (not around)
correspond with (a person), to (a thing)
die of (not from)
fed up with (not of)
independent of (not from)
part from (a person), with (a thing)
reconcile with (a person), to (a thing)

A similar problem arises with “try and” (“I will try and get in touch with her later”). In fact, this is not to do with prepositions. “And” is a conjunction – but what you need here is actually “try” followed by the infinitive form of the verb (that specifies whatever it is you are trying to do). Cast your mind back to your GCSE French lessons and you’ll remember that the infinitive form is the “to” form – to jump, to help, to find – ie, the base form of the verb when used without any connection to person, time or number. It is the infinitive form that must come after the verb “to try”, whatever the tense: “He is trying to climb up that tree”; “They tried to call the fire brigade”. The simple present and future tenses are no different: “We try to do our best”; “He will try to find a suitable candidate for the post”. Never “try and” – it makes no sense. Think of it this way – change the word “try” to “attempt”: “We will attempt and find it by this afternoon”? Exactly.

3. Who/whom
This one’s a losing battle – I’ve even worked on magazines that ban the use of “whom” on the basis that it sounds old-fashioned and “no one uses it any more”. Well, I disagree – I think it sounds pleasing and elegant. What annoys me is that it’s not even that hard to understand. “Whom” relates to “who” as “him” relates to “he”. He does something; something is done to him. “He” is the subject of a sentence, “him” is the object. In the same way, we talk about a man who does something, and a man to whom something is done: “Her team includes an experienced lawyer, whom she has appointed as chairman of the committee”; “The man, whom we had called Bob, turned out to be a fraudster”. The lawyer and the man are the objects of the sentence, so they take “whom”. If you’re not sure, double check by rephrasing that part of the sentence using “him”: “She made him chairman”‘; “We called him Bob” – it’s “him” not “he”, so it’s “whom” not “who”.

4. Like/such as
These are easy to muddle up, but they have different functions. “Like” makes a comparison: “Manatees, like dolphins, are mammals that live in the sea.” Whereas “such as” introduces examples: “Marsupials, such as kangaroos, wallabies and koalas, carry their young in a pouch.”

5. All of, off of
As in, “He ate all of his dinner” and “They took 20 per cent off of the price.” In both cases the “of” is redundant: “He ate all his dinner” and “They took 20 per cent off the price” are correct.

6. Over/more than
There is a very old-fashioned grammar rule – popularised by the Associated Press style guide – that “more than” not “over” should be used when referring to numbers (because “over” is more suggestive of physical position). As in “More than 100 people attended the party” or “More than £5,000 was raised at the fair.”  Even AP has recently relented on this and yet… I can’t help thinking that “more than” sounds more elegant. “Over 100 people…” “Over £5,000…” Ick. Is it just me?

7. Former and latter
They refer specifically to two things, not more than two. Former is the first, latter the second. That’s it.

8. Shall/will
In the first person (“I” and “we”), the future tense of the verb “will” is “shall”: “I shall do it tomorrow”; “We shall see him later”. All other pronouns take “will”: “She will try again in the morning”; “They will organise a leaving party for the end of the month”. However, this rule is often inverted for the sake of emphasis: “I will have a job by the end of this week!”; “You shall go to the ball!”

These days, however, very few people use “shall”. This is because, when contracted, both “will” and “shall” sound the same: “I’ll do it tomorrow”; “She’ll try again in the morning”. And so the distinction has been lost. Sad face.

9. The subjunctive
The subjunctive mood suggests hypothesis – something that may or may not happen, something recommended or imagined – and, this being the case, the first and third person should take “were” and not “was”. “If I were you”, “If that were the situation”, “If he were to move to Spain…” It’s not commonly used in everyday speech any more, but apparently scientists use it all the time. Yay the scientists!

10. This/that
“This” refers to the present or future, “that” refers back to the past. So in a sentence you use “that” to refer to something you have mentioned previously: “Our aim is to teach all the children to swim, and the new funding should help us to achieve that“; “The committee voted to repair the existing structure and we intend to move ahead with that.” To me those sentences sound correct (those not these – same rule!), but when I correct this to that at work I’m usually overruled, which makes me think that no one else is with me on that one…

Are you clinging on to any much loved grammar rules? Do you still abide by any of the above? I’d love to know that I’m not alone, so please comment below or on The Wordy House Facebook page.

 

How I let go of my to-do list

Does your to-do list rule your day? Here’s how to ditch it for good – and still get everything done

Photograph of colourful balloons in the sky to illustrate the blog post "How I let go of my to-do list"

I was in two minds as to whether I should write this post, because I will probably end up sounding like a crazy lady. The system I’m about to reveal makes me sound like the psycho (and biologically miraculous) lovechild of Bree Van de Kamp and Martha Stewart. But the fact is I am not naturally domesticated or organised. I’m forgetful, easily distracted and rubbish at time management – which means that over the years I’ve had to develop foolproof systems for getting stuff done. Obviously the to-do list was my weapon of choice and for many years I was on a never-ending mission to get to the end of it. And so, inevitably, I lived in a constant state of frustration because it only seemed to get longer and longer.

In fact it was more than one list. There was a main list and then several satellite lists (all written on a sheet of narrow-ruled A4, and kept tucked inside my Filofax, because I am super-technical like that). I can’t remember exactly what the satellite lists were for, but I think one was a shopping list, one was “weekend jobs”, one was a list of what I considered my husband’s responsibilities, which he needed to be nagged gently reminded about… that sort of stuff. I’d refined the layout to such a degree that it looked soooo pretty and in a way it made me happy because EVERYTHING was there, on one piece of paper. All the things I could ever realistically dream of achieving in my near future neatly contained on a bit of A4 – it was comforting, somehow.

And yet my inability to get anywhere near the end of it made me increasingly stressed and miserable. I could never rest because there was always more stuff to do. And then, after going on maternity leave for the second time, it finally happened. My daughter went a long way overdue and I had a clear diary so – I guess it was the hormones – I powered through those final items.

I was COMPLETELY elated. But I also knew it wouldn’t last – especially with two children to look after. Unless… unless, there was a way to do things differently? In the end I came up with the following method. It’s not completely original by any means and I’m entirely aware that it does sound nuts. But I’ve never had to write another to-do list and sometimes – just occasionally – I find myself with nothing much to do.

OK, so here goes.

The first thing is that you have to write a list (ahem) of all your regular tasks, from tidying up the house to getting your eyes tested. If your life is anything like mine, it will mostly consist of household chores (yawn). It it also likely to be a work in progress for a while as you remember more things that need to be done (turning the mattress, anyone?). Next, divide each item between the following categories:

A. Daily
B. Weekly
C. Monthly
D. Every other month
E. Every four months
F. Every six months
G. Yearly

For instance:

C. Monthly
Clean oven
Wash hairbrushes
Clean windows and sills (inside)
Wipe down doors and woodwork
Download photos from camera
Check smoke/CO detector
Clean washing machine drawer
Clean car, inside and out
Wash mattress protectors
Wash pillow protectors
Back up computer

D. Every two months
Turn mattress and hoover both sides
Delimescale showerheads
Clean the tops of cupboards
Launder coats
Clean under/behind fridge

You’re probably already doing the daily and weekly jobs (lists A and B) in some kind of routine way. If not, I would definitely recommend doing the weekly stuff on the same day of the week, so it becomes automatic. For instance, I make a meal plan and grocery list on Monday, then do an online food shop on Tuesday. That way, we know roughly what we’re going to eat each week and we’ll have the necessary stuff in the fridge. This might sound totally obvious to the more organised among you, but it took us YEARS to start doing this and stop dashing to Tesco for a ready meal at 8.55pm every night…

So, you have your week roughly sketched out. Next, plot the letters C-G on a yearly chart, like so:

Jan Feb March April May June July Aug Sept Oct Nov Dec
C C C C C C C C C C C C
D D D D D D
E E E
F (hol) F
G

Now, referring back to your list, you can see what jobs you need to do every month, eg, in January you will need to do the jobs on lists C and D.

Divide each month into four week blocks and divide the tasks for each month between those weeks, mixing up quick tasks with more time-consuming ones. For example:

January Week 1 Clean oven
Wash hairbrushes
Wash mattress protectors
Wash pillow protectors
Week 2 Clean windows and sills (inside)
Turn mattress and hoover
Launder coats
Download photos from camera
Week 3 Wipe down doors and woodwork
Clean under/behind fridge
Delimescale showerheads
Back up computer
Week 4 Check smoke/CO detector
Clean washing machine drawer
Clean car
Clean the tops of cupboards

Work out a time during the week when you can get these tasks done, eg, Saturday morning. Or delegate some or all of them to a passing family member/cleaner.

Don’t think for a moment that I always do this stuff every week. I often skip things because I haven’t got time or just can’t be bothered. The great thing is that I know the task is scheduled again for two months down the line, or whenever, so I don’t have to feel guilty or stressed about it – I know it will get done at some point, even if things get totally gross before then…

So… now you have every day and week set out (FOR THE WHOLE YEAR!) with all your regular tasks divided between them. This is your framework upon which to organise life’s more interesting jobs – all the boring stuff is now taken care of (theoretically), so you can prioritise more important things.

Here’s how. Once a week (same time very week, obviously), sit down and look through your diary at what’s coming up in the weeks ahead. What do you need to do to get organised for these things? Buy a birthday present? Book a train ticket? Update your CV? Lock down some social plans? Next, run through all the important categories that make up your life (you might want to make a list of these, eg, work, family, school, kids’ extra-curricular activities, travel, health, etc) and work out if there’s anything you need to get sorted within those areas. And then… and this is the MOST IMPORTANT THING… Look through your diary/calendar and work out WHEN you can get these things done. DO NOT write a list of things to do. Instead, write each task on a specific day, or at the very least a specific week, making sure that you are realistic about what you can fit in and when. (If possible, try to keep a day completely free for fun stuff.) If you’re not sure that you CAN fit a task in… then ask yourself if you really need to do it. Can you cancel it? Swap things around? Or just, you know, not bother? The main thing is that you don’t write it down on a list to be done “sometime in the future”. THAT is what causes the stress – the build up of those jobs that realistically you don’t have time to do now and aren’t likely to have time for in the future, either.

Ta-dah – you no longer have a list of things to do. OK, so what you do have is a diary full of jobs and, yes, you will probably still be busy. But the point is that, once you get into the swing of things and sort out a rhythm that works for you, it should be relatively simple to get those things finished and then you can actually relax. Once the (hopefully quite small) list for the day is ticked off then you are DONE. There is no ongoing, never-ending, stress-inducing to-do list to worry about. At that moment in time, you have nothing more to do or even think about and you are free to read a book, obviously!

What do you think? Would you do this? Do you do something similar already? Or do you think this is the craziest thing you have ever heard?

5 ideas to improve your writing consistency

One of the most important rules of non-fiction writing is to avoid befuddling your reader with sudden changes of tone or direction. Here are 5 ways to improve your writing consistency

A photo of coffee and a row of macaroons to illustrate a blog post on 5 ways to keep your writing consistentPhotograph via FancyCrave

If someone is reading a piece of non-fiction work, the chances are that they’re looking for information, advice or analysis. They probably want to read quickly and absorb the facts immediately – so whatever they are reading needs to be super clear. I talked in this post about writing clarity – but there’s something else that will help make your writing easy to understand and digest.

Writing consistency. In other words, don’t throw your readers a sudden curveball that will confuse them or interrupt their comprehension or train of thought. A non-fiction piece of writing needs to flow lucidly, with a logical structure, coherent ideas and clear, intelligible writing. An abrupt change of direction – either in thought or style – will bring them up short and make them question what you are trying to say, which might diminish their faith in your judgment or deter them from reading any further. Which would be no good at all.

So, without further ado, here are five writing elements that you need to hold nice and steady…

1. Your message
What is your piece about? What problem are you going to solve or what question are you going to answer? What will your reader learn from this? Signpost your intention at the start and stick to your point throughout. Everything you say should come back to this idea. That doesn’t mean that you can’t add colourful asides or descriptions – but don’t go off on a tangent for long or you’ll lose your reader.

2. Tone of voice
If you’re writing something formal – an essay or a report for work – you need to set an appropriate tone at the outset and make sure you stick with it. It’s too easy to slip into a less formal voice as you progress and start to feel more comfortable, but this only serves to weaken your authority and undermine your message. Keep rereading your work from the start to check for writing consistency and to make sure it all sounds equally weighty and professional.

If you’re composing a social media post for business then obviously it’s fine to be chatty up to a point – but you still need to keep your tone consistent so the boundary between you and the customer remains firm. Don’t be tempted to get too personal; it’s OK to be honest and show some genuine character, but customers need to trust you and consider you reliable, efficient and positive. You might have crazy or flakey moments but no one needs to know that…

3. Subject agreement
A sentence revolves around its subject (a noun, pronoun or noun phrase) and verbs should agree with it. That seems pretty basic, but there are a few traps to watch out for. In the sentence, “The audience was very still”, we use “was” because “the audience” is singular, despite it being composed of many people. Similarly, the word “none” stands for “not one” so, strictly speaking, a singular verb should also be applied: “None of them was able to answer.” However, in the sentence, “One in ten dogs prefer our chunky food”, you need a plural verb because you are referring to lots of dogs (10 per cent of dogs), despite the misleading word “one”. Similarly, “Ten miles is a long way to run” takes the singular verb “is” because ten miles, although strictly a plural, is really referring to a length of ten miles (which would be singular). For the same reason, we say that something measures “less than ten centimetres” rather than “fewer than ten centimetres”, even though this appears to contradict the less/fewer rule.

ALSO! I talked in detail here about hanging participles (aka dangling modifiers). This is where a participle phrase* becomes disconnected from the noun it is supposed to be modifying – it is attached to the wrong subject. Or, to put it another way, it’s where a sentence has two clauses but the first clause is missing a subject and so both clauses appear to relate to the subject of the second clause – with confusing results. For example: “Having lived in London for many years, this painting of Tower Bridge means a lot.” The subject of the first clause should be “I” – “I lived in London for many years” – but because the “I” is missing, the participle “having” is forced to relate to the subject of the second clause, “this painting”. The sentence thus suggests that the painting has lived in London for many years. It should be rewritten: “I lived in London for many years, so this painting of Tower Bridge means a lot.” Other examples include, “Finishing the final chapter of my book, the plane finally landed” or “Gazing out of the window, the skyscrapers looked enormous”. In these sentences,  a plane is reading a book and some skyscrapers are gazing out of a window…

4. Tense
Tenses within a sentence should stay consistent, unless a change of time within the sentence demands otherwise. For instance, “She was reading in her bedroom, but now that Bob is here she is making him a cup of tea.” We need to change from past continuous to present continuous to reflect the temporal shift described. What you don’t need to do, however, is to change tense to reflect your present. Take this example: “He had always moved freely around the pitch before, but the rules of the game require that he stay behind the line.” The rules of the game might still require that now, but in the context of the sentence you are still talking about the past: “… the rules of the game required that he stay behind the line”.

5. Punctuation and formatting
Formatting is the visual stuff – how you lay out your document – and it’s a hugely important part of writing consistency. A long piece needs breaking up with subheadings and these should be consistently signposted (in bold, underlined, in a certain font or whatever). Long quotations should always be laid out in the same way, eg, centred, with spaces before and after. Quote marks could be singles within doubles or doubles within singles – but must always stay consistent.

Picture captions should be in a consistent style (italicised? centred? long and descriptive or short and punchy?), as should other “page furniture” such as credits, arrows, numbers, bullet points, etc.

In terms of punctuation, there is often more than one way of doing something. Commas, colons, semicolons… the way they are used is always up for – often fierce – debate. The important thing is to make your choice and stick to it, to avoid tripping your reader up and spoiling the flow of your piece.

Remember that most readers will scan a document first. The more clearly it is laid out and formatted, and the more professional and inviting it looks, the more likely they are to read it all the way through.

Is there anything I’ve missed? Let me know in the comments!

*A participle is a word formed from a verb that participates in two grammatical functions: as a verb tense or an adjective. They usually end in ‘ing’, ‘ed’, or ‘en’. Used with an auxiliary verb, a participle implies ongoing action in the present or past (‘She was playing with the doll’/’She had played with the doll’). As adjectives they are used in the passive voice or to begin a clause (‘The doll had been played with’/’Playing with the doll, the girl was happy’). They are classed as either present participles (playing) or past participles (played) although these labels are misleading as present participles are not restricted to the expression of present time (She had been playing) and past participles are not restricted to the expression of past time (The doll will be played with later).