Updated on October 22, 2015
Why business owners should avoid clichés in their writing
Photograph by Drew Hays
You know a cliché as soon as you hear one. “The perfect stocking filler.” “So what are you waiting for?” “Treat your mum on Mother’s Day.” “The ideal solution to one of life’s little problems.” Promotional and marketing copy is littered with them and it’s hardly surprising – they trip off the tongue so easily that anyone who is writing to a deadline might well be tempted to use them. But what goes through your mind when you read a cliché? The likelihood is that you roll your eyes and move on to the next thing – you’ve heard to all before, hundreds of times, for a plethora of products that didn’t interest you; why should this be any different? Endless repetition renders a phrase meaningless and drains it of its impact. Here are five more reasons for giving clichés a wide berth.
They suggest a lack of original ideas
Writing about your products or services, or about a subject related to your industry, is your chance to demonstrate your expertise and explain what makes your company unique. You are giving potential customers a reason to come to you rather than one of your rivals – to show what makes you stand out from the crowd. If you only repeat hackneyed phrases that have been used time and again by other people then you are wasting the opportunity to explain what makes you different – and the customer can only conclude that your company is nothing special.
They disengage the reader
We see a staggering amount of text every day. From social media and blog posts to flyers, ads, magazine articles, posters, newsletters and catalogues, we are inundated with the written word. Out of necessity, we subconsciously scan and filter our way through, only stopping to read and absorb information of real interest. Clichés act as triggers that tell our brains that this piece of writing is not worth our precious time – it’s not going to tell us anything new or offer us anything different. We stop reading and move on.
They’re a missed opportunity
When you write to or for your customers – current or potential – you are trying to create or reinforce a positive relationship with them. If your writing is full of clichés then they won’t get any real sense of your brand personality and the chance to connect with them will be lost. Imagine meeting a group of people at a party for the first time – if you do nothing but talk about the weather and the price of milk, or trot out monotonous platitudes, then they won’t get any sense of who you really are.
They can lead to false claims
Many clichés fall into the grand claims category. “It’s what everyone’s been waiting for!” Er, is it really? “It’s simply the best!” Are you quite sure about that? “You’ll wonder how you ever lived without it!” Pretty sure I won’t, actually. Quite apart from any legal ramifications, making huge promises or outrageous assertions gives the impression that you are untrustworthy, dishonest and perhaps a little desperate.
Avoiding them will make you a better writer
If you are not a very confident writer, then falling back on clichés can feel comforting. They sound familiar, they sound “right”, and you don’t believe that you can come up with anything better. But forcing yourself to spot and avoid clichés in your own writing, think about what you are really trying to say, and find a phrase that more accurately conveys your message, will improve your writing enormously. How would you express this idea to a friend? What words or phrases would you use? Don’t be afraid to write in your own voice – yes, you need to maintain a professional persona but allowing your personality, or that of your brand, to shine through, is what will make your words stand out and grab your readers’ attention.
Updated on October 5, 2015
Write clearly to keep your audience reading
Photograph by Nick Diamantidis
Every time you write, you’re trying to communicate a message. So it stands to reason that the most important aspect of your writing is clarity – getting that message across without any danger of confusion or misinterpretation. If you don’t write clearly it’s also likely that your readers will switch off mentally or click away altogether. So here are seven tips to help clear the mists from your copy.
1. Plan the structure of your piece before you begin writing. What is the main theme of your piece? What is your ultimate message? Make sure you have this absolutely clear in your own mind before you start. Then decide how you are going to work towards that message – are you going to state it straightaway and then back it up with evidence? Or posit a question, look at the arguments for and against and then reach your conclusion? Will you work chronologically or will you use “climax order” – putting the least important points first and working up to the most significant? Whatever you decide, make sure that each paragraph flows logically to the next and that every single one is relevant to your theme. It can also help to have a “topic sentence” in each paragraph – one that encapsulates the paragraph with other sentences revolving around it.
2. Don’t use a long or unusual word when a shorter more common one will do. There’s no need to write fuliginous when you mean sooty, or that she adumbrated the proposal when you mean she outlined it. However pleasing they often sound, “big words” can interrupt your reader’s train of thought and obscure your meaning. The general rule of thumb here is: if you wouldn’t say it, then don’t write it.
On the other hand, a word such as estivation, meaning “prolonged torpor or dormancy of an animal during a hot or dry period”, is specific and no other word will do. If you’re writing about a specialist subject then you obviously have to use the specialist language that goes with it. Equally, unusual words with precise meanings can be very useful for explaining complex ideas succinctly – so don’t be afraid to use them, even if they’re not often heard in everyday conversation. I like analogous (comparable in some respects), specious (superficially plausible but actually wrong), contiguous (sharing a common border) and conflate (combine two or more ideas or issues into one).
3. Consider your commas. It goes without saying that you need to use the correct punctuation in order to write clearly. But where some punctuation marks follows strict rules (see this post on apostrophes), others, such as commas, are there to guide the reader’s understanding and their usage is open to debate. There are some instances where commas are clearly needed (in lists for instance) but at other times the position is less obvious. The important thing to remember is that commas should never slow the reader down. Excessive use of commas can get in the way of the flow of a piece – but leaving them out could make your meaning unclear. So while I often favour the less is more approach, commas can be very helpful. Take this sentence: “He sent letters to his two daughters, David Cameron and Mary Berry.” Now, despite what you might have been told about not putting a comma before and, you really do need one here. Readers should never have to read a sentence more than once to make sense of it – so if a comma helps then leave it in.
4. Watch out for commonly confused words. Be careful of words that sound similar but have different meanings – remember that spellcheck won’t pick these up! Classic examples are:
affect (a verb meaning “to have an impact on”) and effect (a verb meaning “to bring about” or a noun meaning “a change as the result of an action or other cause”)
allusion (“an indirect reference”) and illusion (“a mistaken belief; a deceptive appearance”)
aural (“of the ear”) and oral (“relating to the mouth”)
beside (“next to”) and besides (“in addition to”)
disinterested (“impartial”) and uninterested (“bored by; not attracted to”)
imply (“to suggest or hint”) and infer (“to deduce from the evidence, facts or discussion”)
lay (“to put down” – a transitive verb, ie, one that is followed by an object as in “lay your coat down here”) and lie (“to be at rest on a horizontal surface”); just to confuse you, the past tense of lie is lay, the past tense of lay is laid, the past participle form of lie is lain and the past participle form of lay is laid…
There are a load more of these – probably enough for a post of their own, so watch this space.
5. Avoid flowery language. You’re trying to communicate a message or explain an idea – not impress your audience with your creative writing skills. Stick to short sentences, simple language and a straightforward structure and save long-winded metaphors and florid descriptions for your next novel.
6. Don’t get personal. Unless you are writing an opinion piece, or an article about yourself or your interests, keep a calm, measured tone of voice and don’t use personal anecdotes unless they truly add meaning. To sound authoritative and credible you need to stay detached and reasonable – ranting, gushing or adding snarky asides will not help to get your message across.
7. Be a ruthless editor. If at all possible, finish writing your piece a couple of days before your final deadline. That way, you can come back to it with fresh eyes and give it a thorough edit. You’ll probably sense immediately where the structure has gone awry or where certain paragraphs get a bit waffly. Don’t be afraid to ditch the parts that aren’t working – it’s painful to cut your own work but it almost always improves it. But be sure to keep a copy of the original – just in case.
Updated on October 23, 2015
It’s easy to use apostrophes correctly – just check out this guide
Illustration by Jen Peters via Design Love Fest
This is probably the grammar geek’s biggest bugbear – never was a punctuation mark so horribly abused. But its usage is incredibly simple to get right because it is only used in two circumstances – to indicate either possession or omission.
Not where an s at the end of a word simply makes that word into a plural. You will probably see this done 10 times a day but it is all kinds of wrong and, once you know how to use apostrophes correctly, it will become offensive to your eyes, nay, your very existence. So, no apple’s for sale or ticket’s on offer or key’s cut here or under 5’s free. Not even 1850’s or 1980’s – decades are also plurals (here implying the years from 1850-1859 or 1980-1989) and do not require an apostrophe. The reason people get confused is that you often see, for instance, the ’60s, to show the omission of 19 in 1960s. (For the record, you can write ’60s if you want to, but most people leave out the apostrophe these days and that’s fine.)
So, back to the point. Let’s look at possession first.
We use an apostrophe + s to show that something belongs to someone: John’s book, Amy’s phone, etc.
If the word already ends in an s, you can either add an apostrophe to the end of the word and have done with it, or you can add an apostrophe AND an s. The conventional rule of thumb is to think about how you’d say it out loud – would you say Mr Jones’ car or Mr Jones’s car? There’s no right or wrong answer – just whatever sounds right to you.
HOWEVER, where there is more than one possessor we put the apostrophe after the s: the girls’ toys, the dogs’ food.
BUT where the possessors are already pluralised, the apostrophe stays before the s: the children’s clothes, the women’s shoes.
UNLESS the plural in question already ends in an s, in which case the apostrophe moves after the s, again: ladies’ .
Still with me?
It’s also worth noting that when we say “possession”, we don’t always mean that literally. Sometimes we are not talking about ownership, as such, but a relationship or association – which is why you have phrases such as girls’ school or a week’s notice. The girls don’t literally own the school and the week doesn’t literally own the notice, but the apostrophe is still needed to show a kind of possessive relationship between the two. An easy test is this – if you can reword the phrase to include the words “for” or “of”, then that usually indicates that an apostrophe is needed – a school FOR girls, a week OF notice.
Now onto omission.
In this case, the apostrophe indicates that a letter, or letters, have been missed out in a shortened word called a contraction: can’t (the no of cannot has been removed); don’t (a contraction of do not) or they’re (from they are).
The one word that causes most confusion here is it’s, but the rule is very straightforward – you only use an apostrophe to indicate a contraction of it is. If the word indicates possession, you don’t need one.
But, you’re thinking, didn’t you say you needed an apostrophe to show possession, too? I did, but here the word its is a possessive adjective (aka a possessive determiner) – like my, your, hers or his. So, just as you wouldn’t write hi’s or her’s, you also wouldn’t write it’s.
The same goes for whose/who’s. You only write who’s when it’s short for who is.
Updated on October 5, 2015
How to stay focused on your writing and avoid internet distractions
I work from home and I’m lucky enough to have a study to write in, but occasionally I decamp to my bedroom. Despite the much publicised risk of insomnia that supposedly comes with working where you sleep, my reasons for doing so are compelling:
1. When my children are at home they often come into the study to use my husband’s computer. They are noisy and make constant demands for chocolate milk and snacks. They also watch videos of chatty people playing Minecraft which are not, I have discovered, conducive to concentration.
2. My bed is very comfortable and I’m not inclined to leave it in a hurry.
3. There is no WiFi reception in our bedroom…
And that is the big one. The internet is the scourge of the writer. Lost your train of thought? Can’t think of the precise word you need? Paragraph structure gone awry? Obviously, a quick peek at Facebook is exactly what you need to kickstart your creative process. Those photos of rude signs and crazy cats are so inspiring, are they not?
Now, I’m all for a screen break. Sometimes when you’re in a writing rut it’s good to get away from your desk and clear your head for a few minutes. But taking a quiz to discover your spirit animal or how many 80s album sleeves you can identify is really not going to help. So here are my top five tips on how to avoid internet distractions and stay focused while you write.
1. Go somewhere with no internet connection or turn the internet off. Well, duh! I mean, that’s the obvious answer, isn’t it? But of course it’s easier said than done. When we’re writing – especially when we’re writing something factual –we need to have resources at our fingertips. Google, Wikipedia, Thesaurus.com… they certainly get used a lot round here. But sometimes it really can pay to avoid going online for a while. You can always look things up later – if facts or figures are missing, or you can’t think of the exact word you need, put in a few xxxs temporarily and look it up later. Emails can wait, too – you don’t have to reply within 10 minutes of receiving them. Because, when you’re really in the zone and the words are flowing, you’re in a magical, hard-to-reach place. When you get there, the last thing you want to do is break the spell by checking social media or other websites – it will only disrupt your train of thought and make you question what you’re writing. So ban the internet for a set amount of time – you’ll be amazed at how much you get done.
2. Just keep going, even if the quality of your work starts falling off. No one can churn out sparkling prose indefinitely. Our brains get tired and our thoughts start to become muddled – but that doesn’t mean you should necessarily stop and start looking at bathroom tile options. As long as you feel you have something more to say then keep on writing in whatever way you can manage. Your sentences might descend into a stream of consciousness or you might start jotting down ideas in note form – it doesn’t really matter as long as you are getting something down on paper and managing to avoid internet distractions.
3. Take scheduled breaks. Of course, only a fool would attempt to write without regular stoppages for tea and biscuits. Now and again you do need to rest your eyes, stretch your legs, eat lunch and put on a load of washing. But schedule these breaks into your writing day/morning/afternoon/middle-of-the-night essay crisis. Don’t just take them whenever you feel the urge to clear your head or you’ll be wandering off every 10 minutes – and the chances are that when you come back you’ll start checking your social media feeds, email, etc. If you set yourself the goal of writing for two hours, say, before you’re allowed to move from your seat (that’s writing, not surfing), then you’ll give yourself more chance of getting into the writing zone and you’ll be a lot more productive.
4. Give yourself a deadline. Set yourself a day and even a time by which to get your work totally finished. Obviously you may well have an actual real-life deadline – but don’t rely on last-minute stress to get the job done. Sure, sometimes it can deliver a much needed shot of adrenalin, but that’s not always the best circumstance under which to craft your copy. However, you do need to have your own end point in sight in order to drive yourself forward, keep focused and avoid internet distractions. A good idea is to imagine what you might do after you’ve completed your work and reward yourself accordingly.
5. Have a social media frenzy when you’ve finished – and notice how little you’ve missed. You’ll probably think that you’ve been offline for ages and there’ll be loads of fascinating posts for you to pore over – but the chances are you’ll find that little of any interest has happened. Commit that feeling of anticlimax to memory! And whenever you’re tempted to stray online when you’re supposed to be working, remember that you’re unlikely to be missing much at all.