Archives for posts with tag: Writing

Subject line signposting is the most decent thing we can do as communicators. It’s a pull thing. You pull interested parties to you rather than pushing stuff to them – or rather at them.

We should do it with all our emails, tweets and advertising. I hope I do it with my blog posts.

With a good subject line you pique the interest of your audience while still signposting them to either read on or move away. After all, what’s the point of encouraging an audience with a poor fit through intrigue or duplicity?

Subject line signposting saves everyone’s time, yours and theirs. After all, we don’t want to be labelled time-wasters.


When you decide to publish a book, and put it out there for the world to consume, critique or ignore completely – either consciously or unwittingly – you have to decide what author’s name you’re going to use.

At first glance this might be an obvious choice, namely your own name. Then again, you might opt for a nom de plume. So it’s a decision between nom de plume or not de plume, you might say.

When it’s your own name, the not de plume option, there is the advantage of leveraging off and building on the reputation and social media equity you already have. Sounds obvious. But, there is a surprisingly long list of reasons why you might want to go down the nom de plume path. Here’s 9 I can think of off the top of my head:

  • you can distance yourself from your actual name
  • it allows you to forge a new identity that’s different from your ‘real’ one
  • it keeps you safer in the event of adverse reactions, mushrooming fame or notoriety
  • you can stay under the radar
  • your actual name may already be taken
  • your actual name might be not be easy on the eye, tongue or ear
  • your actual name might not be memorable
  • you can make something cool up
  • you can explicitly or esoterically doff your hat to someone you respect and want to acknowledge

Of course, if you go nom de plume then you do have to overcome the advantage of not de plume and build a following out of nothing, which is a lot of work.

I love the definite article, otherwise known as ‘the’. This is not a post about the ’80’s electronic band of the same name as the blog post title, it’s about the importance of the word the.

Some languages do without a definite article, like Russian. What an awful waste of possibilities! Like having one hand tied behind your back.

When I was in my mid-teens and studying ancient Greek, I remember disagreeing with a writer on Greek tragedies. He argued that the ‘the’ was a small, unnecessary word that didn’t deserve to grace some of the greatest plays of all time, like Agamemnon or Persai. They deserved to stand on their own, he said. It’s one of the earliest times I can remember where I displayed to myself a developing critical faculty, that I didn’t simply believe everything I was told or read from learned people.

For me the the was grand, majestic even. ‘The Agamemnon’ sounded so much more substantial than leaving it to its own devices, naked without its accompanying defining word. Agamemnon, meh!

You’ve probably noticed, if you’ve read a few of my posts, that many of them have titles starting with the the. It’s not called a definite article for nothing. ‘The’ defines what you’re talking about, gives it focus. It’s not a something, it’s the something.

What’s your filter when you’re writing, for business or pleasure? As with many things, physical or digital, I find it often helps to put something through a filter to clean it and make it suitable for consumption.

I create a lot of content in the area of business software. Some of it is quite technical and some of the concepts are quite complex. I’m not technical and I sometimes find it hard to fathom technical stuff. I do complex well either, and I always strive for simple if I can. If you haven’t explained software in business terms for a business audience, you haven’t explained it properly.

So the filter I use is me. First of all I have to be sure that I can understand something. Someone has to be able to explain something new to me in a way that helps me understand it, without hiding behind jargons, TLAs or short cuts. If I don’t understand it, I ask a question to get an explanation I understand. If I understand it, then that’s half the battle.

Once I understand, I try to write it in a way that I would understand. I know that sounds silly when you read it that way. Sometimes, however, we can write about something without fully understanding what we’re writing. So I ask myself, ‘could I understand this if I was reading about it as a novice in this area?’

If it’s not understandable to me, I try and re-write it until it is. Of course, I’ll make mistakes and accurately convey a misunderstanding or else inaccurately describe something I understood correctly. But that’s why we do drafts, so we can get feedback and improve them.

My golden rule: if it’s understandable to me, it’s understandable to anyone.




Here’s a pretty obvious thought for you: write about what you know.

It’s the advice that would be novelists always receive, and in fact it applies to anyone in the creative space.

Once in a while you get insights from the really good writers into how this applies to them. I remember Ricky Gervais giving the perfect illustration of this from when he was a budding writer at school, and clearly it has served him well from that moment on.

I recently finished reading an early crime thriller by American author Michael Connelly. It was his first book featuring the detective Harry Bosch. The Bosch series is now at about 20-plus and growing. At the end of the book, Connelly explained how his eponymous character came about, and it was essentially the melding of 3 or 4 important influences on him when he was growing up. As simple as that.

It’s the same for business of course. Write about you know. Otherwise, you’ll be found out. If you don’t know, find out and get the facts, so you do know what you’re talking about.

I find that when I’m researching something that’s new to me, so that I can write compellingly about it, the more people I speak to the better, up to a point. It’s like a reverse onion. With every new person you talk to, you get a new layer, a fresh perspective, a different angle on what you thought you knew, until you have as full a picture as you’re going to get without the decreasing marginal returns of going to more people.

Then you can write, because you know.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog you’ll know that my blog posts are Monday, Wednesday, Friday things, relatively short and designed to be read in a couple of minutes.

I thought it would be useful to let you know how I write them. I use WordPress as my blog engine by the way.

First, the idea. I either come up with a series of posts based around an involved topic or I get a specific thought which prompts a standalone post. Then I pen the title and scribble some notes in the body. Then I click save draft. About 1 per cent of the time, I click publish by mistake, and since the default time is set to publish immediately, this results in a largely blank post being sent through social media and emailed to be subscribers :-(. Then I have to remove it. But let’s stay with the 99%.

My next task is to schedule the publication for a time in the future. I always set my time window between 7:30 and 8:30 in the morning Irish time, since for Irish and UK readers that’s a good time for them to be checking their social media. I then set the categories for the blog post and think about the tags that are relevant for this post. Then I click save draft.

Now I’m ready to write the post. I compose the post, staying on topic so I don’t mismanage the expectations of the reader and for SEO purposes, though I don’t use sub-headings since my posts are so short. I click save periodically, especially if I’m on the move and my wifi is flaky. I also insert outside links and links to other posts where I think they enhance the post, never for their own sake.

When I’m finished writing, I save the draft, then re-read the post carefully for spelling mistakes, typos, sentences that don’t make sense or that could be improved. I iterate, clicking save draft which each iteration. Then I click Schedule, before reviewing how the post will look to you the reader. I might further refine the post and then follow the same process.

Then I’m done! For a post that runs smoothly, it’s 15 to 20 minutes from start to finish. For a longer post or one that doesn’t flow as it might, it could be an hour. But that’s not an onerous responsibility for 3 times a week, at least in my view.

I’ve decided that writing a book is hard, really hard.

I’ve been working on one for a good while. For a couple of months when I didn’t have too many commitments I made some excellent progress and got at least half of it done. Then I took on more work and also significantly expanded my portfolio of voluntary activities and the book started to gather the electronic equivalent of dust.

It’s not a question of discipline or commitment. I take a disciplined approach to my blogging, but it comes easy because I write about what I see and a lot of it is stream of consciousness. I’m committed to almost everything I do, otherwise there seems little point doing it. With a book, though, you need a plan and you need to write to that plan, and that takes more time. Time to research, time to create.

Time is what I don’t have. Certainly, I could spend less time with the family, I could do without some of the 8 hours sleep I know my body needs on a regular basis, or I could drop some of the other things I’m doing. But I don’t want to do that, because I’m naturally drawn to the portfolio career and a diversity of activities.

Writing a book is essentially a selfish, specialist activity in order to get it done. You need to put yourself first, and sacrifice things that are important to other people, things that they’re relying on you to help with. Generalists find this tough.

That’s why writing is book is hard, really hard.

The word content is everywhere. It’s the buzz word for marketing, especially digital marketing, sales and the online world. You’re nowhere and no-one without content.

Content hasn’t really changed its meaning from the original. It’s still the stuff inside that’s important.

My 2 brothers and I are in 3 completely different industries. I’m in sales and marketing consulting, brother 1 is in natural history broadcasting and publishing, brother 2 is in English language teaching literature.We all create content for a living, which is perhaps what you might expect of 3 siblings with conjoined DNA.

We’re all involved in content, but we wouldn’t call it that. We would call ourselves writers (among other things, polite and otherwise).

Don’t get hung up on the word content. It’s not a new piece of jargon to be afraid of. It’s still about writing engaging stories that your audience can identify with and derive something from.

You could argue that the subject of this post could be a motto for life, not just for business writing. After all, it’s better to effect things than be affected by them. It gives you more control over your destiny, more flexibility in your choices.

In business writing, it’s also better to be active than passive, especially if you are writing ‘persuasive’ documents like business cases or sales proposals. As an example, look at the previous paragraph. The active ‘voice’ is more powerful at effecting something, whereas the passive voice governs being affected by something.

Try and avoid phrases like ‘the ROI calculation can be found below.’ It sounds stuffy and conservative, but also weak and, well, passive. You’re writing this document, you’re in charge of it, so take control. Better to say ‘The ROI calculation below shows the value of our service to your business.’

The active voice is to do with action, and when it comes to your business writing, it’s action you want your reader to take, otherwise why take the time to write at all?

“Two countries separated by a common language.” This well-known phrase, attributed to quite a few people, is not really an issue, at least to this writer, who has spent a few years writing business content for the UK and US markets.

A few key points will serve you well when it comes to writing for other markets who speak a version of English. Firstly, you should decide whether you are going to maintain two discrete versions of your content: two different websites, two youtube channels, two versions of collateral for each piece of content, and so on. I’ve worked for some companies that kept two versions, and other companies who simply decided which was their main market and wrote one version of everything which favoured that market. A third way is to settle on a ‘MidAtlantic’ version which takes from both, as long as it does so consistently. It depends on the relative importance of the markets and how ‘precious’ your audiences are about content which they feel is commoditised and does not put them first.

Secondly, formats. As is often the case with formats and measurements, the US and UK have gone down different directions with their formats. UK A4 is 297mm by 210mm, whereas US Letter is 11 inches by 8 1/2 inches. This makes US letter a bit shorter and fatter than its UK counterpart. I didn’t realise this until I was doing my MBA in the US and printed off copies of my resume for the MBA office files and they wouldn’t fit properly in the filing cabinets. This is also true of digital versions of all your content. So if you live by downloadable pdf documents, then you need to make a call on format size, or else incur the ire of those people who try and print them, only to find they don’t fit so good.

Thirdly, and perhaps most obviously, spelling and vocabulary vary between the two tongues. I won’t go into exhaustive detail here, but I’m sure you’re aware that in the US the ‘favoured’ from the second paragraph of this post would be minus the ‘u’. Also, the US tend to go in for a lot of ‘ization’, so the realization should set in early that you need to watch this area too. Then there are the much more nuanced differences. For example, one would tend to write ‘despatch’ in the UK, but ‘dispatch’ in the US, ‘programme’ in the UK and ‘program’ in the US. Vocabulary is more standardised for business, with us following the US lead, but common or garden situations can still trip you up, with hood vs bonnet, trunk vs boot, retainer vs braces, suspenders vs braces and garter vs suspenders, to use some examples from cars – Americans, read automobiles! – and personal appearance.

Fourthly, phrasing. This is the area that can catch you out if even if you have good familiarity with what I’ve included so far. This is the kind of knowledge you pick up over time, by making mistakes, or by osmosis, or by sensibly looking for feedback from your US colleagues on your drafts – and even we in the UK write drafts over draughts these days. In the US, one would probably say ‘when are you going to write me?’, eschewing the preposition beloved of the folks across the water. Furthermore, if you wrote ‘our software has built-in intelligence’ in the UK, a US audience would expect to write and read ‘our software has in-built intelligence.’ Finally on this, the US audience has a slightly more relaxed acquaintance with adverbs, so at the end of paragraph three a UK person would write ‘so well’ over ‘so good’, wheres a US person might consider themselves ‘real smart’ rather than ‘really smart’.

You can’t really do justice to a subject so vast in one post, especially since I’ve not even mentioned writing styles and we’ve barely scratched the surface of the other areas, so perhaps we’ll return to this another time.

That’s my view, period, I mean full stop, oh never mind…