Tamsin Constable

You can’t write waffle in a Tweet

Online social media is exposing just how bad many people are at writing, according to an article in Saturday’s Guardian newspaper (Work section).

More people are actually writing (using mobile phones, Twitter, websites, Facebook etc). This trend reveals just how bad many people are at writing, the article proposes.

I’m not sure that’s a fair conclusion. I think that many people regard texts, tweets, emails and Facebook updates not as writing – but as transcribed speech. Slang writing, perhaps.

In real speech, we’re all perfectly capable of working out when it’s appropriate to speak using casual language (eg with friends or family), and when more formal speech is required (eg in an interview or presentation).

Who’s to say we’re not perfectly capable of telling the difference in terms of the context of our writing? Just because someone sends a loosely punctuated text message or an all-lowercase email to a friend doesn’t mean they don’t know how to use commas or capitals.

I do, though, agree that bad writing is everywhere – particularly in formal documents. Online social media is a different beast. It is neither speech, nor writing, but something new, born out of both.

And there’s no room for waffle or jargon in a 160-character Twitter message.

Feel free to ‘Like’, re-tweet or @ me.

Bill Oddie suffers from IBR (Instruction Booklet Rage)

I was feeling fine, all relaxed and curled up on the sofa, enjoying a coffee by the fire. I picked up the Sunday papers and came across an interview with broadcaster and ornithologist Bill Oddie, and his relationship with technology. Here’s a snippet:

Question: What always frustrates you about technology in general?

Oddie: Instruction booklets. I cannot believe how abstruse and unintelligible they are. They drive me up the wall.

So I reached for the nearest instruction booklet I could find (for the tv). I was in no doubt that I wouldn’t have to look far to find an example that would surely rattle Bill Oddie’s perch (ho ho).

Here goes:

Instruction booklet: When this button is pressed the stop symbol is displayed at the top left-hand corner of the screen and the automatic page change is inhibited.

My alternative: Press the hold button to freeze a page.

Oddie’s ‘They drive me up the wall’ comment is really, really important. Dear manufacturer, is that the reaction you want from your valued customer? If not, then stop it!

And … relax.

Roosevelt’s passion for Plain English


This order concerning blackouts during the Second World War that was submitted to President Roosevelt for his approval. He was clearly a champion of Plain English, because here’s how he sent it back. We’ve got a record of what he did, but I wish so badly I could have heard what he said.

Roosevelt’s Plain English editing

If you publish online, whose copyright?

I wonder how many magazines or websites ‘lift’ work from the internet and reproduce it without permission, never mind payment? I suspect they’ll be keeping their heads very, very low right now, given how the internet lit up with hot outrage this week with a story about internet copyright.

Here’s what triggered the outcry. A US blogger discovered that a piece she had written had been published, without permission or payment, in a print magazine, Cooks Source. She wrote to the magazine editor, asking for an apology and a donation to a journalism school.

If the editor, Judith Griggs, had apologised and coughed up, the story may have fizzled out. Instead, she wrote back. She said that because the article was on the internet, it is in the public domain and not protected by copyright. (Just imagine if all you had to do to bypass copyright was to upload something…)

Her reply went ‘viral’.

First, she’s wrong. If you write something, it’s your copyright. The work is yours. You can agree to give away or sell the copyright in full or in part, but that’s your decision. You don’t even need to put the copyright symbol on your work (though that would help remind people not to lift it). You can reproduce some parts of someone else’s work (it’s called ‘fair use’), with attribution and, ideally, with permission.

Griggs went on to say, in an unforgivably patronising tone that Gaudio should be grateful that her piece was edited for free.

You can read more about this story on the blogger’s own site. There’s more about copyright on the US BlogHer network. And you can check whether anything you’ve written has appeared elsewhere on the internet (though not in print) at Copyscape.

The effect on the magazine, and on Griggs’s reputation, looks as though it is nothing short of catastrophic. Let’s hope it serves as a warning to other unscrupulous sites or publications.

PS – the story has already spawned two wonderful new memes: ‘to Briggs’ means ‘to lift someone’s writing’. And ‘buthonestlymonica’ (which Griggs wrote in her condescending reply) means a bad excuse for outrageous behaviour. Don’t you just love it?

Business case studies / success stories: message, stickiness and clout

We’ve all got something to say, a message we think others should hear. And perhaps the single most effective ways of doing this is to tell a story.

‘Story’ is quite a tricky concept. Not everyone has the ability, skill, time or opportunity to identify a story in the first place, never mind write it well. Sometimes, the people whose stories are the most important are also the ones whose stories are never heard. And the people who are doing the best work often struggle to explain this to others in a way that is effective.

So what is a story? And why is it so powerful?

Basically, a story is no more than weaving a series of events into a narrative where (and this is key) something happens above and beyond the events themselves. Stories work because they engage the reader, provoke some kind of emotional response and offer a satisfying experience. Like a tuning fork, they get the message to resonate with the reader. Trainee journalists spend a lot of time ‘getting’ the concept. There are entire books about it.

Today, there’s a growing realisation among businesses and public sector organisations that they can get their message across even better by adding written business case studies – business stories – to their marketing mix.

These can be written as simple, short and highly focused pieces, or they can be much longer and more in-depth.

Last week, for example, an article in the Guardian online reported on a report that the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) delivered to the Convention on Biological Diversity in Nagoya, Japan. The report looked at how many top businesses are now making biodiversity a priority – not just because it’s good for PR, but because sound stewardship of the world’s increasingly limited resources is now become a fundamental business necessity.

By including case studies from six heavyweight WBCSD member companies (Natura, Rio Tinto, Fibria, Weyerhaeuser, Volkswagen and PwC), the rather heavy report brought the concept of biodiversity-for-business to life in a way that is memorable and powerful.

Message, stickiness and clout: business case studies and success stories help get the message across.