April 2016

If there’s anything writers love more than having written, it seems, it’s giving advice on how to write. It’s a nice way to feel helpful and useful and, for those who sell consultancy or editorial services, it’s a good way to build relationships with your future clients and be seen to be relevant.

But so much writing advice on the internet is facile nonsense. If I have a rule about reading writing advice, it’s that if the author lays out a set of rules without talking about exceptions to those rules, you may as well not bother reading on. The vast majority of writing advice is stylistic advice, and style, like everything else, is a tool and its proper use depends on context.

The latest piece to annoy me is “10 top writing tips and the psychology behind them”, by Josh Bernoff, which at first blush seems like a great list, but really isn’t. Now, I have to say up front that there’s no particular reason why I got cross about this list in particular. Maybe it’s just the straw that broke the camel’s back. I’m sure Bernoff is a lovely chap who’s very good at his job, but this list has really very little to commend it.

1 Write shorter.

The author here conflates several issues: length, concision and burying the lead.

If you’ve been commissioned to write 750 words, then the correct length for your piece is 750 words. Submitting 500 words because you’re “writing shorter” will not endear you to your editor. If you can’t make your piece fit 750 words either because there’s not enough to talk about or too much, then you need to go back and talk to your editor.

If you’re writing a blog post, or have no word limit, then your piece needs to be as long as it needs to be. That’s hard to judge when you’re a beginner, but this is where the concept of concision comes in. Is your writing economical? Do you make the best use of your words? Are there any extraneous details you could cut?

Sometimes, of course, you will choose not to be concise. You will choose to use repetition for effect, because it is a useful rhetorical device that can serve an important function. But it should always be a deliberate choice that you make, knowing why you’ve made it and how it will read.

In his advice on how to fix this problem — “Delete your ‘warming up’ text and start with the main point” — Bernoff is actually talking about burying the lead (or lede if you’re American). In news journalism especially, it’s important not to ‘back into’ your story. Start with the most important point that you want to make, and add detail as you go.

This is the basis of the ‘inverted pyramid’ structure, about which many books have already been written. The purpose of this structure is not just to get to the point rapidly, and to thus hook the reader, but also to ensure that all the important stuff is up top and the copy editor can cut sentences, or even paragraphs, from the bottom with impunity.

However, there are times when you don’t want to get to the point in the first paragraph. Certain styles of feature writing, for example, prize a long and intricate set-up before getting to a big reveal much later in the article. So whether you reveal or obscure your point depends entirely on what you’re writing and who you’re writing it for.

So don’t write short: Write to length. You should also write concisely, and don’t bury the lede, except when you consciously choose otherwise.

2 Shorten your sentences.

This should really read, “Shorten your sentences, except for when you need to use longer sentences.”

Sentence length is tool for controlling how readers react to your words. Short sentences are fast. Sharp. Active. But longer sentences slow readers down, giving them time to digest and reflect, and to perhaps tie two concepts together into something new and exciting.

Writing only in short sentences robs you of dynamic range, and leaves the reader feeling a bit stressed and breathless. Mixing long and short sentences gives you the opportunity to play with your pacing and to give the reader breathers, so use the sentence length that works for the effect that you are trying to create.

See also:

3 Rewrite passive voice.

There is a general loathing of the passive voice these days which is rather unwarranted. Bernoff says “Passive voice sentences conceal who is acting and create uneasiness”, without recognising that sometimes, that’s exactly what you want.

Again, the passive voice has a specific impact on the reader, and it’s your choice as a writer to use it where it is appropriate. Sometimes, you’re going to want to conceal the identity of an actor, perhaps because you don’t know it, or it’s not important, or to reveal it would be to put the emphasis on the wrong thing.

“The car was stolen” puts the emphasis on the car, not on the person who stole it. Perhaps who stole it is irrelevant to the wider story that you’re trying to tell. Perhaps it’s an unknowable fact, the car was stolen so long ago we can no longer find out who stole it. Perhaps you want to keep your powder dry and reveal who stole the car later on in a climactic scene.

Do not be afraid of the passive voice. Learn to recognise it, and use it when it is appropriate.

4 Eliminate weasel words.

“Words like ‘generally’ and ‘most’ make your writing sound weak and equivocal.”

This seems like a hard one to argue with, except I have a science background, and scientists hate absolutes, even if they have the evidence to back things up. Sometimes, so-called ‘weasel words’ are actually honest words that define the limitations of our knowledge. Bernoff says:

For example, this Wall Street Journal native ad piece includes the sentence “Most companies with traditional business models probably have a few radical developers on staff.” Rewrite as “Every company has a radical developer or two.”

But does he have evidence that every single company has a radical developer in their ranks? Really? The WSJ hedges their bets because they cannot claim to know the types of developers employed by every company, and neither can Bernoff. Instead, he has provided the reader with a sweeping generalisation that he cannot back up with data. Indeed, as an editor I’d reject such certainty without a solid reference to back it up.

When you find yourself using hedging words, and you will, ask yourself why. Such words and phrases can be used to cover up the insecurity of the writer, to moderate overconfident claims, or to indicate uncertainty in the data. If your data is uncertain, for example you have two data sources that give different figures, then say so. Sometimes, however, that just doesn’t work and it’s best to hedge, but at least explain why you’re hedging. It’s OK to be uncertain, as long as you explain why.

If you’re moderating an overconfident claim, then you should reconsider whether you want to make that claim at all. Find a different way to make your point which does not rely on making a sweeping generalisation that you can’t stand up.

If you’re trying to cover up your own insecurities, that’s when you need to eradicate hedging words. You do not serve yourself well by prefacing everything with “I think” or “generally” or “the tendency is.”

Again, sometimes hedging is necessary, but you should always be on the look out for equivocation and ask yourself whether it is performing a useful function, or whether it is just making you look insecure or weaselly.

5 Replace jargon with clarity.

Another favourite bug bear of pretty much every non-fiction writer is jargon. And yes, jargon can sometimes be meaningless drivel, but not always. One man’s jargon can be another man’s technical language, so before you toss out all the jargon, consider your audience: Will they understand technical language, or are you writing for a generalist audience? If the latter, does the jargon merely need to provide a clear definition before you go on to use it throughout the piece, or is it incomprehensible even with a definition?

Consider the word ‘murine’. It means ‘relating to or affecting mice or related rodents’, so when biologists talk about ‘the murine model’, they are talking about a biological model that uses mice and/or related rodents to stand in for humans. But you can’t just swap in the phrase ‘the mouse model’, because house rats are also used in the murine model. Using ‘the mouse and rat model’ is more accurate, but clunky. All you need to do as a writer is define ’murine’ and then away you go.

It’s also important to remember that converting jargon to non-jargon is often a lossy process; you might actually lose information if you’re not very careful. Take Bernoff’s example, where he replaces SAP’s

“As the digital transformation revolution reaches maturity, companies have the opportunity to shift business models within their industry disruptively to create new sources of defensible competitive advantage”


“New technology creates new ways to do business”.

Well, Bernoff’s might be shorter, and the originally might be a mess, but it contains information Bernoff misses out. “Digital transformation” is not just about technology per se, it’s not about robots or self-driving cars, it’s about digital information. “Maturity” is a key concept too, telling the reader either that they’re late taking the digital transformation seriously or that they can feel safe knowing that it’s not a fad, depending on their existing mindset. “Within their industry” is also important, as this is saying that it’s not about moving sectors but about getting one up on your existing competitors… and so on.

Now I’m not saying SAP’s quote could not have been worded better. It absolutely could have. But Bernoff’s version gains little and loses much.

To use or not use technical language is a choice that needs to be made every time you come across a technical term, and is entirely dependent on your audience and their existing level of knowledge. Indeed, dumbing down technical content for a technical audience will achieve nothing more than make you look inept and make them feel that you are talking down to them.

6 Cite numbers effectively. 

Probably the only bit of advice I can fully agree with. If you are going to use statistics, do it properly. And if you don’t understand statistics, either get some training or find someone who knows their numbers.

7 Use “I,” “we,” and “you.”

Again, a simplistic rule that’s not actually a hard and fast rule, but a decision that’s highly contextual. Whilst there is a move towards informality in business communications, it is not something to be assumed. Whether you use personal pronouns or not depends entirely on your client’s brand voice, what you’re writing, who your audience is, and all the other things you should be taking into account as a professional writer.

Again, Bernoff’s rewritten example loses information. “No bag or item larger than 16” x 16” x 8” will be permitted inside the Park” gives you the exact dimensions for the bag you’re allowed to carry with you, so you can make a judgement as to whether your bag is too big or not. Bernoff’s version, “Security staff won’t let you in the park if your bag is too big” not only omits that essential information, it also makes an impartial rule into a personal decision made by security staff against you.

Sometimes, omitting pronouns serves a purpose. In this case, it depersonalises a rule and defuses potentially confrontational situation by not bringing the security staff’s decision making process into the frame at all.

8 Move key insights up.

See 1, burying the lead.

9 Cite examples.

Well, yes, examples can make text “come alive”, but only use them if they are relevant and fit in with your brief. Don’t be cramming them in for the sake of it.

10 Give us some signposts. 

Bernoff recommends that “After you’ve stated your main thesis, write this: ‘Here’s how I’ll explain this.’ Then include a few short sentences or a numbered list. It’s that easy!”

If you’re writing a long piece, use an intro to set up your main thesis, and then use subheadings to break up the text into sensible sections. People can and do easily scan subheadings to see what they’re in for. It’s not hard.

A well structured article doesn’t need an index, which is what a numbered list is. And if you do find yourself creating an index, then you have to ask whether you’re writing an article or a report, and whether your article might benefit from being split out into a series of pieces instead.

What you really need to do

It’s always very tempting to look for shortcuts in the process of learning to write, especially if you want to get paid to write. But the best way to learn your craft is to do it, to work with a good editor who has more experience than you do, and to read extensively in whatever oeuvre or genre you’re writing in. When you stumble on lists of rules like this, the first thing you should do is ask when they don’t apply. Think about how you would decide whether or not you are going to apply a rule, and what would happen if you did the opposite.

Your job as a writer is not to slavishly adhere to random lists of rules on the internet, but to understand your commission or brief, to write clearly and elegantly, and to think for yourself.

{ Comments on this entry are closed }

The winter that will not die

by Suw on April 10, 2016

Technically, it is Spring. The Spring Equinox was Sunday 20 March, so there can be no doubt about it. But meteorologically, here in the Midwest, it’s definitely still winter. It snowed all day yesterday, and although the pavement (sidewalk) and road (pavement) were too warm for the snow to accumulate, the grass and the roofs and the bushes and the trees were not. It feels like November out there. It feels like Christmas is just around the corner.

I was warned. I really can’t say that I wasn’t warned. I was warned quite clearly, by a friend over dinner.

Years before Kevin and I moved here, we knew that we wanted to. Kevin had spent a long time away from his family, London housing prices were unreasonable, and city living was disagreeing with us both. We didn’t know when or where or how we would move back, but we were pretty sure that we would.

My friend had lived in the Midwest for some considerable time and, over an all too rare dinner, I broached the subject with him. Did he have any advice for me, were Kevin and I to move? Visit in the winter, he said. Makes sure you understand just how cold it gets. Because it gets really, really cold. I nodded. Probably made some sort of noise about, no really, I do understand. And, up to a point, I did.

I’ve felt cold. Not British cold, dank and bone-swelling and sullen. British cold is unpleasant. Spiteful. Niggardly. But there is worse.


I am in Boston for a business meeting, and to hang out for a while with my then boyfriend, a long-distance relationship carved out of joint nerdiness and IRC. I am spectacularly unprepared for the weather. I own only a light jacket and court shoes which, at that time of year — February or March — would have been fine in the UK, but not Boston. And not with a winter storm dumping three feet of snow on us overnight.

My then boyfriend & I stay with mutual friends, sleeping on a blow-up mattress in the lounge of a lovely Victorian house made of matchsticks and paper and spit. I don’t know what the temperature falls to, but the air in the mattress sucks all the heat out from under us. We have nothing but a sheet and a thin quilt (comforter) to keep us warm, and it is insufficient protection against the cascade of cold air tumbling down from the bay window to drive the warmth out from above. I remember getting up and piling all of the coats from the coat stand on top of us, and as many of my clothes from my suitcase as I can. It isn’t enough. Once back in bed, I don’t dare move, because the slightest shift means discovering a new bitterly cold patch, or worse, letting a frigid blast of freezing air under the quilt.

I am cold. I am so cold that I hurt. My joints ache. My muscles ache. I don’t sleep at all. I just lie there, freezing, miserable, and wondering how the hell anyone could live in a place where the cause of death might not even be “Went outside”, but “Slept on air mattress in front room”.

I think I understand cold.


Woodstock, Illinois. That’s where they filmed Groundhog Day, and that’s where Kevin and I are going to move to. We’ve been over a few times, fallen in love with the place, and decide to live there. Kev has a geographically independent job and so do I. There’s a train from Woodstock into Chicago, so good for work, and it’s very near Kev’s parents’ place. It hasn’t changed much at all since Bill Murray found himself repeatedly stepping in the same puddle. It has a timeless charm, plus a great crêpe place.

We visit around Groundhog Day, by chance. They have their own groundhog now — Woodstock Willie. He does his prognostications each year on 2 February. We miss the big day, sadly, as our flight back to London is that evening, but we find a lovely house and our estate agent (realtor) is on the Groundhog Day committee, so we go to one of the events. It is a lot of fun, and makes us even more keen to move there.

Early February in northern Illinois can get chilly. And it does. Down to -18C. My breath freezes in my nose, a tickly, crackly sensation. Breathing deeply is a mistake, frigid air brutalising my lungs. But I have better shoes and a better coat this time, and we sleep in a proper bed in a proper house made of matchsticks, paper, spit and actual insulation.

I now know a lot more about cold.


Kevin has been here in Sheboygan for a month when, in March 2014, I visit to look for a house. He’s done all the heavy lifting; I just have to pick one of the final three and give it my seal of approval. It’s easy. The house we now live in stands head and shoulders above the others.

I have ten days to look around, find something out about the place I am about to call home. It’s white and snowy, huge piles of the stuff in every carpark, walls of it along the side of every road. Kevin introduces me to the Duke of Devon pub, an English eatery run by a chap from Bideford and crammed with British memorabilia and incredibly expensive British chocolate.

We decide to drive out to Plymouth, to look at an antique shop. More of a flea market by British standards, but we don’t know that and by the time we figure it out, I don’t care. We park a bit of a ways up the high street from the shop we’re aiming for, but that’s ok because we’re not scared of walking. It’s -16C. Even with my nice thick coat and my boots, by the time we get to the shop I am ready to go inside, no matter how much tat it sells. We have a look round. Twice. Slowly. Warming. Up.

Eventually, we go back out into the bitter wind and trudge back to the car. Should have taken cousin Leonie’s advice: Go where you want to go, and then find a place to park.

The thing about cold is that you forget.


Thanksgiving, 2014. I’m living here now. We have a house. It’s made of matchsticks and paper and spit and although I know it has some insulation in the roof, there are so many gaps around the windows that they might as well have not bothered. We have had a wonderful evening with friends in Milwaukee, and we’ve got home to find the house suspiciously cold. It’s -13C outside. Our heating, which uses the infernal Fahrenheit system, is set at 72F (22C). I do not believe that the thermostat tells the truth about the temperature but that is a discussion for another day.

Whatever biases the thermostat has, it says that it’s 68F/20C. I turn it up, try to get the heating to kick in, but nothing happens. Kevin goes downstairs to check the furnace. We don’t have boilers here, we have furnaces. Great big beasts with giant flues that sounds like small jet engines when they start up. This one was silent as the grave. No small jet engines here.

It’s 11.30pm on Thanksgiving evening, and there’s no way we’re about to call someone out. It’ll be fine, I say. We have our sofabed, and a working fireplace. Kevin gets in the last of the wood. We only use the fireplace when it’s warmer than -2C, because otherwise you loose more heat up the chimney than the fire can produce. But we have no real choice. I make up the bed with two duvets, two blankets, and I make sure we have hats and wooly socks and long-johns. Kevin lights a fire. The temperature continues to drop.

The cats are unhappy. They don’t really understand why it’s so damn cold inside and try to scrunch themselves up into tiny little balls to conserve heat. Mewton discovers that it’s warmer under the duvet, and I welcome him in. Every little bit of extra heat helps. But Grabbity is a jealous goddess and, after sulking for a while at the end of the bed, she pounces on top of the Mewton-shaped mound, firing him out from under the duvet like a pea squeezed out of its pod. He is disgruntled. I am very disgruntled, as his rapid departure has allowed a gust of cold air in under the duvets and the blankets. It feels like Boston all over again. I daren’t turn over.

We wake at 2am, Kevin puts the last log on the fire. We sleep fitfully until around 6.30am. It is 48F/8C. Inside. The temperature is still falling, and will fall faster now that we have run out of wood to burn. Kevin rings an engineer as soon as he can, and we sit on the sofa, wrapped in coats and blankets and duvets and hats and scarfs until the engineer arrives at 11am. We get a temporary fix; the proper fix comes later and costs us $400. The house takes 12 hours to warm back up to something approaching sensible.

The winter of 14/15 is not as cold as the previous winter had been. That one had been legendary, even amongst the townsfolk of Sheboygan. It had been phenomenally bitter. Ridiculously cold. Brutal. Lake Michigan was solid with ice, and blue ice at that. Baby glaciers, covering 93% of the lake.

Don’t get me wrong; 14/15 is cold. Very cold, with impressive ice jetties sticking out into the lake along the North Point shoreline, but only 90% of the lake is frozen and it isn’t brutally cold. It has only gone down to -27C.


Here’s how temperature works, now, for me:

0 to -10C: This is not too bad at all. The cold here is a dry cold, so it doesn’t get into your bones the way it does in the UK. It doesn’t really feel that cold.

-10C to -15C: It’s starting to get a bit uncomfortable if you’ve got the wrong coat on, or if there’s a breeze. My knees suffer the most.

-15C to -20C: Your breath freezes in your nose, your lungs hurt if you take a deep breath, and the dryness is evil. Everything becomes static. You can’t touch the cats because you’ll zap them. Your skin starts to dry out and itch.

-20C to -27C and beyond: Dear fucking god get me out of this hellhole. When I said everything becomes static before, I didn’t really mean it. Now, everything, every single thing is static. My silk scarfs stick to the walls. I fear that if I stroke the cats they’ll float upwards and stick to the ceiling. I can’t kiss my husband without getting zapped. I can’t do anything without getting zapped. My skin is starting to fall off, and it’s only great self-restraint that stops me carving it off in chunks because it itches so fucking much. This is miserable fucking cold. Do not go out without a thick coat, scarf, hat and gloves. In fact, just do not go out in this shit. Exposed flesh will begin to freeze within 10 minutes. Do not get yourself locked out. Do not let your car break down. Do not take a walk. You will die.

When Kevin and I started talking about moving to the States, I said that I had conditions: I would not move anywhere where the cause of death might be tornado, hurricane, earthquake, volcano, or ‘went outside’. I failed on that last point.

That’s not my joke, btw, I read it on the internet somewhere, though I now have no idea where. But it’s also not actually a joke.

My understanding of cold is now far deeper and broader than it has ever been before.


This winter, I work hard to try to plug up all those pesky gaps around the windows. Last winter, we frequently had sheets of ice covering the secondary glazing (storm windows), especially in the bathroom. It was quite beautiful, really. Jack Frost visited often, drawing his fern leaves in frozen water. Trouble is, that moisture is precious. I want that moisture. I want it in the air. I want it in my skin. So I cover the windows in tertiary glazing, that plastic you stick to the window frame with double-sided tape and shrink with the hairdryer. I can’t do all of the windows, but I do the most important ones. The shitty, cheap double-glazed windows in the dining room get done twice, as in two layers of film, because ice is forming on the room-side of the film.

We buy ‘caulking cord’,which turns out to be long strips of plasticine. We buy foam strips to go under the sashes, where they meet the windowsill. We buy insulating curtains, and we finally put up the red Thai silk curtains that we bought from Restoration Hardware’s outlet store at 90% off. It helps. A bit.

In the depths of winter, we have a humidifier running 24/7. The noise of it drives me crazy, but it helps. A bit. We pump litres and litres and litres of water in to the atmosphere, but this house gets so dry, you’d need two or three of the things to really make a difference, and I’m not sure my psyche could cope with the incessant drone.

This winter is, though, not as cold as last. We’ve been down to -22C once, but mostly we’ve been in the minus single digits, which isn’t bad at all for round here. Ironically, these warmer temperatures lead to more snow. More days of snow fall, and more snow actually falling. But we also enjoy more warm periods, which has meant more snow melting in between the more snow falling. It’s been a bouncy kind of a winter.


It’s mid-March, and I’m packing up to leave my parents’ house in Dorset and return back to Sheboygan.

“Oh, well,” my mum begins. “It’ll be spring by the time you get home!”

I tell my mum that it’s unlikely, and that we had snow in March last year. We did. One flurry after I got back from my apparently-now-yearly March trip home. It’ll snow again, I’m sure, I tell my Mum, and she looks doubtful, but acquiesces.

It has snowed more since I got back than it did in December. It’s April now. It snowed all day yesterday. It snowed the day before. It might snow again tomorrow. There is snow on the ground, right now, as I type. We’ve had ‘lake effect’ snow when we weren’t supposed to get any snow at all, and we’ve seen snow go north of us, and snow go south of us. We’ve been in the snow firing line, and we’ve dodged snow bullets.

I find it fascinating, the snow. It falls, and I watch it, and I have to tear myself away and get back to work, but then I glance up and there it is, mesmerising, spellbinding, hypnotising. As I gaze out of the window, the world is obscured by white static. And yet.. And yet… It’s April. I am ready for the snow to go away. The daffodils are ready for the snow to go away too. And the lilies. The grass. The trees. We’re all ready now for the snow to retreat. It’s been Winter for five months, since the temperature first fell below freezing on 7 November. It has to be time for it to be Spring now.


The cold is not what makes Midwestern winters hard.

What makes them hard is that they don’t seem to stop.


“Winter weather advisory. Snow possible at 4:30am.”

{ Comments on this entry are closed }