Boring books: should you keep going or give up?

Some books are less than gripping – but should you persevere until the end or is life too short to waste on a book that you just don’t love? photo of woman reading a book to illustrate a blog post about boring books

Photograph by Dylan Luder

I have a confession to make. I’ve been reading Don Quixote (by 16th-century Spanish author Miguel de Cervantes) since the summer and I’m, ooh, all of 200 pages in (out of 900…). Since I started it I’ve finished several other books and dozens of magazines and somehow it always seems to end up on the bottom of the pile…

Well, I say somehow. It’s pretty obvious that I’m finding it *whisper it* rather boring. I am not even a quarter of the way through, I have no idea where it is heading and I can’t pretend that I’m desperate to find out. So far, deluded nobleman Don Quixote and his hapless servant Sancho Panza have lurched from one outlandish escapade to the next, determined to carry out noble deeds yet almost always inadvertently achieving the opposite. At this point in the book there’s no obvious progression or development, just one ludicrous scrape after the next. Is this really going to go on for another 700 pages? (Actually, no, I know that Cervantes’ narrative style changes at several points in the book, but STILL.)

OK, I’m sure if I were paying more attention I might grasp its meaning more fully. It is doubtless an allegory about morality, sanity, truth and perception, and probably much more besides. But it is such a struggle to stay focused and attentive, and the sheer thickness of the rest of the book is so demoralising. (I also think I have a somewhat florid translation – a more natural sounding version would probably be more compelling and I’m going to invest in the much lauded Edith Grossman translation.)

And yet. I am determined to stick with it and see it through to the end, however long it takes me. Question is, if I’m not really expecting to enjoy it then why bother? The fact is that Don Quixote is considered a hugely important book – the first modern novel, with a groundbreaking approach to storytelling and narrative structure, and revolutionary social commentary. If you have an interest in literature, and its development, then Don Quixote is clearly a must-read. As literary critic Harold Bloom once wrote: “Like Shakespeare, Cervantes is inescapable for all writers who have come after him. Dickens and Flaubert, Joyce and Proust reflect the narrative procedures of Cervantes, and their glories of characterisation mingle strains of Shakespeare and Cervantes.”

So, I will persevere on the grounds of the novel’s significance. But what if it were a lesser known book? Would I bother if it were a more obscure and less influential title? The fact is that I would – once I start a book I feel it’s only right to finish the thing. I’m not sure why this is – there are so many other fantastic books waiting to be read that it’s hard not to feel that you’re wasting your time by struggling through one that’s less than gripping. I certainly wouldn’t bother to sit through a film that I wasn’t into. But I suppose I feel that the books that stay with you, and create the greatest impression, are not always the most fun to read. They can be hard going and challenging and a bit dull in places, but see them through to the end and you never know what effect they might have, now or later. Don Quixote is not supposed to be an easy read – Cervantes’ work was in deliberate contrast to the two-dimensional chivalric romances that were popular at the time. And the book purposely defies simple analysis – its structural twists and turns, and shifting narrative perspective, reflects its multiple layers of meaning.

And maybe this is a bit of a romantic notion about the noble art of writing, but I like to believe that even books that are silly or badly written contain enough magic to conjure something that’s worth taking away. If someone has taken the trouble to write something, and has written from the heart, then it seems like common decency to read it to the end. Perhaps that’s why I tend to stick to the classics – or at least books that have been well received all round. When I start a new book, I make a commitment to stay with it and throw myself into it as much as possible, so I want to be reasonably sure it’s going to be worth my time.

Do you read boring books until the bitter end? Or are you happy to abandon one that’s not holding your attention?

Why your business should have a house style and how to get started

Do you write 10 December or December 10th? Tee shirt, t-shirt
or T-shirt? Every business should have a consistent
way of writing words and phrases with tricky or alternative formats – here are a few to consider

photo of a row of differently painted houses to illustrate a blog post about house style

Photograph by Bernadette Gatsby

When I worked as a freelance sub-editor, pretty much the first question I would ask at a new magazine (well, maybe after “Where’s the tea station?”) was: “Please could I have a copy of your style guide?” The style guide is the sub-editor’s bible – a reference booklet that tells editorial staff how that particular publication writes times and dates, book, film and exhibition titles, weights and measures, phone numbers, photo credits, and any other words and phrases that have alternative formats or tricky spellings. All these rules together make up that publication’s “house style”, in which all copy should be formatted.

House style also extends to design – the font, size and spacing of headlines, standfirsts, body copy and captions are usually determined by a set of rules to ensure visual consistency across the whole magazine. And most publications will also adhere to a strict colour palette, often digitally mixing a selection of their own shades for designers to use.

Tone of voice is harder to pin down, but should also be considered as an intrinsic part of written style that reinforces brand personality. Warm, friendly and informal, or brisk, business-like and straight-to-the-point? Is this a no-nonsense brand that sticks to facts and no-frills advice, or does it use emotional language to empathise with its audience and gently inspire them to action?

In fact, all businesses should have an in-house style guide. Signage, catalogues, leaflets, brochures, newsletters, emails, blogs, website copy and customer letters should follow the same rules and should all sound as if they are coming from the same source, no matter who has written them.

House style is important for several reasons. The most important is consistency – ensuring that all written communication across your business uses the same formatting. It looks tidy, makes copy easier to read and promotes qualities of credibility, dependability and trustworthiness – subconsciously suggesting to the reader that your business can always be relied upon to deliver consistently great results.

The options you choose also help to reinforce your brand personality. Do you want your company to be known for speed and efficiency? Then you might want to opt for the shortest version of a phrase, using figures and symbols wherever possible (20/10/15, 45%, SW London). Is your brand more traditional, or renowned for its craftsmanship and artistry? Then 20th October 2015, 45 per cent and south-west London might help to emphasise those qualities.

So how do you go about compiling your own house style guide? You could start by looking at other people’s. Both The Guardian and The Economist have published theirs as books, and there are several more available that have been written specifically for business and online writing. However, most of these go into more detail that you probably need, at least to begin with. The alternative is to create one from scratch and add to it as you go along – if you write a lot it will build up quickly. To get you started, here are a few style questions to consider:

Abbreviations
Will you write eg or for example, or are both allowed? Will you allow months or days of the week to be shortened or should they always be written out in full?

Acronyms
Upper or lower case? The usual rule of thumb is that if you can say it as a word then capitalise the initial letter only (Bafta, Nato), otherwise it’s all caps: BBC, IMF.

Brand names
For stylistic reasons, brand names are often grammatically incorrect – LinkedIn, IKEA or eBay, for example. The question is, will you follow suit when you refer to them? You can deal with them on a case-by-case basis or you can decide to always or never follow them. My preference is to never follow them because it can look as if you’re the one who’s made a mistake – although having said that, when a brand name is well known it can look weird to write it “correctly”; Linked In looks pretty odd. This is a tricky one and generally the cause of much hair-pulling in sub-editing departments!

Companies, groups and teams
Companies are usually referred to as a singular entity (“John Lewis has some lovely Christmas decorations this year”), whereas groups or teams – despite being technically singular – are usually pluralised because we can identify their individual members (“The Rolling Stones have released a new album”).

Dictionaries
To keep spelling, capitalisation, italics and hyphenation consistent, everyone in your company should use the same type of dictionary, ie, Oxford, Collins, Chambers – or the Mac Dictionary app if you like!

Numbers
The standard is to write one to ten as words and 11 or more in figures.

People
After the first mention, will you refer to them by Christian name or surname? Will you capitalise ranks, titles and office holders?

Places and points of the compass
West Country or west country? South-East London or south east London?

Quotation marks
Single or double? Singles inside doubles or doubles inside singles?

Telephone numbers
How will you space these out, and will you use brackets for codes?

Times and dates
10 December or December 10th? Nineteenth or 19th century? 1990s, 90s, ’90s, nineties or Nineties? What about someone who’s in their 90s – or nineties?

Titles
How will you write book or film titles? In italics? In quotation marks? With every word capped up?

Weights and measures
Will you abbreviate these and, if you do, will you use capitals and spaces? Two litres, 2L or 2l? 40 SQ FT, 40sq ft or 40 square feet? Tablespoons or tbsp?

Word list
It’s handy to keep a list of words that you use frequently and that have difficult or alternative spellings: adrenalin or adrenaline? No one or no-one? Rock n roll or rock’n’roll? T-shirt, t-shirt or tee shirt? Names such as Katharine Hepburn, Elle Macpherson and Leonardo DiCaprio are often misspelt. And don’t forget to capitalise trade names: Hoover, Polyfilla, Teflon, Valium, etc.

It might take a while to put it together, but having a house style guide that everyone in your company can refer to, or even just as a reminder for yourself, is essential to developing a consistent, reliable and dependable writing style and tone of voice – one that your readers will trust and warm to.

NB: Although house style should be used most of the time, there are moments when your communication format might require you to break your own rules. Offers, competitions or flash sales need to grab a reader’s attention in the shortest possible time, so using figures, symbols and abbreviations might be a better ploy in those scenarios.

The gorgeous little green-eyed pet cat – a guide to adjective order

Why isn’t this a pet green-eyed little gorgeous cat? Because there’s such a thing as adjective order – and it goes like this

Photo of green-eyed cat to illustrated a post about adjective order

Photograph by Monica Ricci

Have you ever wondered why we say “the big red bus” and not the “red big bus”? When two or more adjectives premodify a noun, we automatically order them in a way that sounds natural. For a native speaker, it’s obvious that the cat above should be described as a “gorgeous little green-eyed pet cat” rather than a “pet green-eyed little gorgeous” one – but why does the first example sound “right”?

Most people don’t realise it, but adjectives are positioned in a certain order depending on the quality they describe. This is not a grammatical rule so much as a convention, so there’s no right or wrong. But generally they’re placed like this:

1. Quantity
A specific number (one hundred) or indefinite amount (many)
2. Opinion/quality
You can take this one step further and make a distinction between general opinions (lovely, nice) and specific opinions (comfortable, delicious), with general opinions coming first.
3. Size
4. Age
50-year-old or old/new/ancient/modern, etc
5. Shape
6. Colour/texture/pattern
7. Material
What it’s made from.
8. Origin
This often refers to nationality.
9. Purpose
What it does or what it’s for (pruning knife, riding school, religious icon).

It’s not always easy to remember this list, and for a sentence containing many adjectives – “an amazing 6ft brand new low-backed purple velvet four-person sofa” – the most natural-sounding order is not always obvious (although you wouldn’t dream of cramming so many adjectives into one sentence, would you?). But one good tip to remember is that subjective judgments (cosy, beautiful) come first whereas inherent characteristics (cotton, German) stay closest to the noun.

What about the commas?
You might be wondering why there aren’t any commas between any of the adjectives in the examples above. Let’s put some in: “gorgeous, little, green-eyed, pet, cat”. They get in the way, don’t they? And they certainly don’t make the sentence easier to understand. It’s because the list of adjectives here is cumulative – the words all refer to a different quality and build upon one another to give a full description of the cat – they work in combination. If the words all described a similar property, such as the cat’s behaviour, then commas would be needed: a naughty, cheeky, mischievous cat. If you’re not sure, ask yourself if you can put the word and in between each adjective without it sounding weird. If you can then you need commas: “The cat was naughty and cheeky and mischievous” but not “The cat was gorgeous and little and green-eyed and pet”.

Did you know about adjective order? The cat’s out of the bag now…

My weird trick for getting to sleep

Do you lie awake at night with your mind racing? Tiredness suppresses creativity and makes writing almost impossible – but here’s a neat little trick for getting to sleep

Man asleep in car to illustrate piece about a trick for getting to sleep

Photograph by Lechon Kirb

A couple of days ago I sat down at my desk and… Could. Not. Write. Not a thing. This wasn’t writer’s block, however – my heavy eyelids and woolly thoughts made it pretty clear that the problem was good old-fashioned tiredness. Like many other people I know with jobs, families and some semblance of a social life, I often go to bed at a ridiculously late hour – because there just aren’t enough of them in the day. And, when you’ve got a lot on your mind, anxiety can creep in, negative thoughts loom large and sleep – however much you know you need it – remains elusive.

Now, I might not have to operate heavy machinery very often but I do try to write every day, and it’s nigh on impossible when I can barely string a sentence together let alone a page of sparkling copy. But while I haven’t yet worked out how to find an extra couple of hours in the day, I have found a nifty little trick for getting to sleep – and I’d love to share it with you.

A little trick for getting to sleep that works for me every time
Think of a favourite book, film or TV show with a really complicated plot – it has to be one that you enjoyed and know well. Now try to explain that plot to an imaginary audience. The stranger and more complex the better – one with an unusual narrative structure and a tortuous storyline would be perfect. I use the TV show Lost – I LOVED that programme but very few people understood what had happened – or why or how – and its narrative was hard to follow, making it perfect for my sleep-inducing strategy. I would imagine that any book that jumps back and forth through time, such as The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger; or a long book with a host of characters and sub-plots, like Dickens’ Bleak House or David Copperfield; or a series of books with a long story arc, like Harry Potter or The Lord of the Rings, would also work well. Really, the longer the better – TV or film series are great for this reason. Heck, the Star Wars films would be perfect!

This may not make you feel sleepy right now, but try it next time you find yourself lying awake in the middle of the night. It sounds counterintuitive – racking your brains to untangle complex plots and narratives hardly seems likely to induce a state of calm – but there is something about focusing your mind on a fictional world that quietens your scrabbling thoughts and anxieties. When you can’t sleep, the usual culprits are dark fears that pop out of your subconscious and jolt you wide awake, persistent internal chatter, or an adrenalin/caffeine-induced racing of the mind. Whichever one I’m struggling with, the complex story trick still seems to work. I think it’s because it gives my brain a difficult but stress-free task, which pushes away other thoughts and worries and is rather fun to do. This in turn makes me relax and… the next thing I know, it’s morning. In fact, I find it so effective that I barely get through more than a few sentences before I’m asleep.

I would love to know if this works for other people. Try it, and let me know!

Don’t let hanging participles pull your writing down

Hanging participles can be pretty funny – but they can also
undermine your message and dent your credibility. Here’s how to spot and rewrite them

A hang glider flying over mountains to illustrated a blog post on hanging participles

Photograph by Vincentiu Solomon

Recently, I read the following sentence in a review of a TV documentary: “Endorsed by the charity CALM, the rise in male suicides and depression is dealt an inside hand.” It’s unfortunate to say the least – CALM (Campaign Against Living Miserably) is clearly not endorsing male suicide – quite the opposite. So how did this mistake come about? It’s an example of a very common grammatical error called a hanging participle (also known as a dangling modifier) in which the participle phrase* (in this case endorsed), is attached to the wrong subject (in this case rise). The sentence needs to be slightly reworded: ‘Endorsed by the charity CALM, this documentary deals an inside hand to the rise in male suicides and depression.’

Here are a few more examples:

1. ‘After being assured of a place on the team, the kit was put in his care.’

2. ‘Having said that, the guinea pig was still very restless.’

3. ‘Stepping off the bus, the house looked extraordinary.’

You can probably see the problem clearly now! In example (1), after being assured is attached to the kit; (2) having said that is attached to the guinea pig; (3) stepping is attached to the house. All these sentences begin with a participial clause but then continue with a subject to which the participle is not related. And if no subject precedes a participle, it appears to relate to the subject of the main clause.

Here’s a slightly different example:

‘I cleaned the house from top to bottom, followed by the car.’

Here, the participle followed is not attached to any noun in the sentence so it attaches itself to the car.

Once you have learned to spot these little beasties, it’s very easy to rewrite the sentence to marry up participle and subject, or ditch the participle altogether:

‘After he was assured of a place on the team, the kit was put in his care.’

‘Having said that, I should also mention that the guinea pig was very restless.’

‘As we stepped off the bus, we saw that the house looked extraordinary.’

‘I cleaned the house from top to bottom and then I cleaned the car.’

There is – of course! – an exception to the participle/subject relationship rule. Take this sentence:

‘Assuming that she’s read the note, the plan should go without a hitch.’

Here, the participial clause assuming that has an indefinite subject, ie, it is equivalent to saying ‘if one assumes that’ or ‘if people assume that’. Participial clauses with indefinite subjects (one, people) do not then need to qualify a subject elsewhere in the sentence because their subject is already implied.

Participles can be very useful in writing – just don’t keep them hanging!

*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).