Everyone is a writer. Everyone is an editor

I know, I know. A writer is someone who writes books. An editor does something important at a newspaper. That’s not you, right?

But every time you write an email, or post something on Facebook, you are writing.

Every time you go to the local print shop and organise a card or a flyer for your business, you are writing.

Every time you send a WhatsApp message, you are writing.

And every time you pause before you send and look again at the email or WhatsApp or Facebook post and add a full stop or wonder if Coronivirus starts with a capital letter or not (it doesn’t), you are editing.

We don’t think about these things at all, because they seem so ordinary. But they are important.

When things go wrong

They are important because they are all forms of communication, with another person at the other end.

Human beings are good at face to face communication. We’re not so good at written communication. As one consultant says:

 In face-to-face communication, we rely heavily on non-verbal information like facial expression, body posture, gestures, and voice tone to interpret and predict other people’s behavior.

Without these important non-verbal cues, our imaginations fill in the blanks of what the person sending the message intended, and how they felt about the communication. We rarely fill in the blanks with positive intentions. This can lead to misunderstandings, damaged relationships, and poor business decisions.

We’ve all sent emails or made posts that blew up in our faces because the readers just didn’t get it.

How to fix it

For informal communication, the first step is taking our communication more seriously. Even a WhatsApp to your teenager could do with a second read before you send it (especially, probably, a text to your teenager). And think like a writer: do that second read while trying to put yourself in the other person’s shoes.

For more formal communication, the first step is the same. Take everything seriously. Even a hastily made poster explaining that you are closed during the lockdown needs to be thought through. Read it again. Put it away, even if just for 10 minutes. Then read it again. Make changes.

And if you are still unsure – ask a friend or colleague to read it.

And only then do you hit print.

And for the big stuff? The annual report, the novel, the flyer, the billboard. Just spend money on a professional writer or editor – or both!

Main image by Angelina Litvin on Unsplash

Contact me if you would like to chat about how I can help with all your communication needs: coaching, editing, writing, social media.

Blogging 101: Just make a content plan

Example of a content plan

My content plan for 2019.

It is now three and half months since I last wrote a blog post.

In spite of my undoubted time management skills and all I have learned about being a freelancer, it seems I still have a long way to go.

Essentially, I took on a lot of work. And tried to have a holiday – and then was still doing the work that I took on in 2018.

I have been doing ten, eleven hour days and ditching everything that seems non-essential – including my commitment to write something every week.

None of this is complaining, dear reader: I am glad of the work, and glad to be busy -but work-life balance has been out of whack.

There is now a little gap before the next round of proofing comes along (the biggest bit of work I am doing is project managing and proofreading a book for a local publisher – that double whammy is something I won’t be doing again) and so I sat down to see if I could write something, anything to get things going again.

My blog is not the most widely read of productions, and I don’t imagine people have been sitting around wondering what happened to me – rather, the weekly discipline of sitting down to write, and the accompanying reflection and research, are what I have been missing.

The other thing I have been putting off is a content plan for the year – and that’s another reason I haven’t been writing regularly.

I teach a workshop on writing engaging content for the web at a local high school, and one of the things I talk about is the importance of a content plan. The idea is to sit down and make a spreadsheet with the weeks (or months – whatever your schedule is) of the year and try to fill each week with an idea for something to write. These can be tied to external events (on National Cat Day, write something about cats for instance) or they can be internally generated (one of my areas of focus is editing, so I will devote the month of May to posts about editing, for instance). Or a mix of both.

However it is created, a content plan is a godsend for that day when you have no ideas and no momentum and no time to think: you just sit down and start doing what the list says.

So – a content plan, and a post for next week. I had best get on with it.

Main Picture: Andrew Neel, Unsplash

Tips for making content look good on the web

Fountain pen nib and writing on a page

Writing in Russian cyrillic script with a fountain pen. Picture: Petar Milošević, Wikimedia Commons

Is writing for the web different from any other kind of writing?

The short answer is not really.

Writing on any platform should follow the same basic rules: good sense, good grammar and spelling, good reasoning. Clarity and conciseness. Lack of jargon. No padding… and so on.

That said, there are some things that need special attention on the web – and those are largely to do with the fact that the reader is not looking a text on a page. Let’s break this down.

When you are reading text on a page:

* You can see the text in a large context – if it’s in a newspaper or magazine, you can see the article in one glance along with its pictures and headlines and pull quotes and so on.

* You are likely to be spending a little time with text – with a book or a newspaper, there’s a built-in expectation that the reader has sat down metaphorically with a cup of tea or coffee and is going to read and inwardly digest as the saying goes.

When you are reading text on a screen:

* You don’t necessarily see all the related content at once – you have to scroll in one way or another to get to the pictures and other illustrations.

* You might be looking at a phone or a tablet in very small bits of time – quickly in a queue, or while sitting at a traffic light.

Studies suggest that people scan screens in particular ways – there is a whole field of research called eyetracking with keeps tabs on this, and the latest research suggests that people scan a page in a F-Shaped pattern. There’s a lot of detail on that but the takeaway for the purposes of this articles is making an assumption that people start at the top of an article and read to the bottom is not useful. Research also shows that when people encounter text which is not formatted for the web, they are likely to lose interest and click away:

“the vast majority of the web users would rather finish their tasks as fast as possible with the minimum amount of effort; they visit a page because they want to find a quick answer rather than read a dissertation on the topic and educate themselves.”

So the way in which text is formatted can be very important in keeping people reading. Vital elements of formatting for the web (or the smartphone) include:

  • Bolding important words
  • Bulleted lists (like this one!)
  • Headings and subheadings
  • Making sure the important information is easy to find
  • Visually grouping related content
  • Including pictures, maps and graphics

In other words, break the text up. Long screens on text simply don’t cut it!

How to generate ideas for your writing

Painting by Adriano Cecchi

Learn the fine art of eavesdropping. Painting by Adriano CecchiI had forgotten how much I enjoy training.

Last night, I did a two-hour workshop on making blog content interesting at Bergvliet High School in Cape Town, which runs a very good continuing education programme.
It was small group, which made it possible for everybody to ask all their questions, and for me to answer queries and go over material in some detail.
Arising out of the workshop, I thought I’d share our starting point, which was how to generate ideas for writing interesting blog posts. Continue reading

Little language tip: Distressed, distraught

I spotted this on a site which shall remain nameless*.

In an article about a musician who had killed two people in a car crash was this phrase, used as a subhead:

“Singer takes to Facebook to express his distraught”.

Distraught is an adjective and can’t be used in that place in the sentence. The verb “express” needs a noun, and the right one here would be “distress”. The singer, on the other hand, can be distraught (or distressed).

  • I never mention the sites or names of authors where I spot mistakes. My purpose is not to name and shame or score points.




When to use the word alleged? Some simple rules

One of the most apparently difficult things to get right in news journalism is the correct use of the word alleged.
A Facebook post this morning from a local radio station illustrates the point:

“A shocking video has emerged online of an alleged taxi driver hitting a woman in a taxi at a CBD rank.”

See that alleged? It’s in the wrong place (and in fact is not even really needed) – and the sentence is just clumsy. Here’s what I would have done: Continue reading

What makes for a perfect paragraph?

Promotion for online course

Long ago, at school, we all probably had an English lesson about how and where to break text into paragraphs.

As I remember it, we were taught that that one thought or subject should be contained within the same paragraph, like this in a story from the Guardian:

“The Gambia is in financial distress. The coffers are virtually empty. That is a state of fact,” Fatty said. “It has been confirmed by technicians in the ministry of finance and the Central Bank of the Gambia.”

There are two sentences there, but they both relate to the question of how much money may be missing in The Gambia, and so they form one paragraph.

Compare that to the same thought in the Daily Mail:

But amid growing controversy over the assurances offered to Jammeh to guarantee his departure, Barrow aide Mai Fatty said the new administration had discovered that millions had recently been stolen.

‘The coffers are largely empty,’ he told reporters in the Senegalese capital Dakar.

Here, the Mail is applying what seems to be the modern trend, particularly in online articles: the end of every single sentence is a sign that the writer should hit the enter key and make a paragraph.

That makes for fast and easy writing, and editing and it does make the text easier for readers to scan – and there is nothing wrong with that. Continue reading