To apostrophise or not to apostrophise?

Most of the time, deciding whether to use a possessive apostrophe is pretty easy If the concept demonstrates some possession (ie, you can turn it around and include ‘of’ or ‘belonging to’), then a possessive apostrophe is needed Boys’ books The books belonging to the boys Easy But I often get asked how to decide whether something is an adjective that doesn’t need the possessive That decision isn’t always as clear And it can be particularly tricky if the word in question is a...

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The dangers of email

The dangers of email are familiar, yet under-appreciated Most of us live with those dangers every day and, for some of us, they’re achingly real: It’s easy to get the tone wrong, and come across as angry, judgemental, condescending or inconsiderate It’s easy to forget social niceties and send an unintended insult It’s easy to misunderstand or be misunderstood (meaning that future communication is based on misunderstanding) It’s easy to miss important points (usually from...

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Using graphs to distort facts

Is this graph deliberately designed to distort the facts It’s part of a direct mail letter I received recently, attempting to persuade me that I’m more likely to be a satisfied borrower if my money comes from a small bank A quick look at the graph suggests that borrowers linked to the Big 4 banks are very unhappy Or are they Perhaps the letter’s message is built around the assumption that most readers glance at the graph, without thinking about it too closely At a first glance, the...

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Softening the blow when you deliver bad news

All business owners need to deliver bad news You may need to give a reprimand, remind a staff member about policies and procedures, say ‘no’ to a prospective client, inform job applicants that they weren’t successful, or any number of potentially bad news messages Bad news is not an absolute: it’s interpreted differently by different people and at different times It’s the individual aspect of interpretation that’s most important: remember that the recipient is not inside your head...

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In sentences: put together ideas that belong together

Sentences with awkward or confusing structure – particularly sentences that separate ideas that should be kept together – create all sorts of problems for readers Sometimes they lead to misunderstandings that can undermine the purpose of their document Sometimes they cause the reader to trip – which slows reading, creates momentary confusion, and draws attention to the writing rather than its content Sometimes, they’re simply good for a giggle Here’s an example of an awkward...

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Long live the singular they

I’m currently enjoying Steven Pinker’s excellent 2014 book ‘The sense of style: The thinking person’s guide to writing in the 21st century’ But there’s something about Pinker’s writing style that’s a great irritation to my Australian sense of style In each chapter, Pinker alternates the gender of his imagined readers and writers Early in the book, Pinker provides this explanation: ‘To avoid the awkwardness of strings of he or she, I have borrowed a convention from...

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Why writing is like cooking

I love a good metaphor And in my new life as café-owning writer, I can’t help but see the metaphorical parallels between writing and cooking As a writer, I’m confident in my ability to turn out (reasonably) good copy, on time, every time My confidence comes from my understanding of my writing processes I know how I work and I have a set of techniques that I can apply to any writing task Because I understand the way I work, I know how to begin, how to work through each stage, and how to...

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Making messages that are understandable and noticeable

I’m fascinated by why it is that some people notice and understand messages and other people miss them Yesterday, a new customer walked into my shop and ordered a coffee and some breakfast After placing his order, he quietly offered me some feedback about our signage: ‘I’ve been working over the road for several weeks, and I’ve been wondering about what you do in here From your sign, I couldn’t work it out I didn’t know that I could just come in here and buy a coffee The sign...

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Text over faces = graffiti

Anyone who works in any aspect of communication knows that words and pictures work well together But working well together is not the same as working well on top of each other Why would the designer of the Brisbane Writers Festival program graffiti over the faces of the presenters The result is unrecognisable faces and illegible copy I'm left with a sense that the people in these images are somehow being silenced by their own words These people are authors who are coming to Brisbane to talk...

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