Semicolons: hero or zero?

It’s time for a showdown on the semicolon.

In the blue corner, we have those who see semicolons as the devil’s work: indecisive and pretentious, according to Guy Bergstrom.

In the red corner, many others hail them as the shining star of punctuation. Bristol University describes a situation that only the ‘mighty semicolon’ can unravel, and says it allows you to express yourself with ‘more subtlety and precision than ever before.’

Where do I stand?

Checking, back I realise this is the 61st post I’ve written for this blog, and the grand total of semicolons I’ve used so far has reached the heady total of… none at all. Zero. Nada.

That says it all. Semicolons look fancy, but if even a few readers are going to get confused by them, then you should find a way to write your sentence without resorting to their use. That holds double if any of your readers don’t have English as their first language.

I’ve got nothing against semicolons in principle, but almost always I’d argue against using them on grounds of clarity.

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One thought per paragraph

It’s a writing tip I’ve alluded to in this blog before, but I realise I’ve never actually covered it properly: a great way to structure your writing is to stick to one idea per paragraph.

Make a statement or a claim, and then expand on it. Provide some evidence, or more detail, or a quote that illustrates your point. Then move on.

This can work particularly well for online writing, and text expected to be read on a screen, such as an email newsletter. Here, you’re likely to want shorter paragraphs anyway, as the number of words per line is typically smaller than a printed document.

It’s also a really useful rule to bear in mind if you’re editing someone else’s text. If you’re struggling with long, complicated sentences, break them down into short paragraphs each making a single point.

Give it a go, and you won’t look back.

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The e-ink laptop

I’m writing this post outside in the sunshine. Lovely environment to work in, except I can hardly see the screen.

But e-ink displays, such as on Amazon’s Kindle, are far easier to read in bright light. They’ve been around for years, so why hasn’t anyone made an e-ink laptop?

There have been dedicated e-ink monitors, but it seems it’s only now that someone is brave enough to launch an e-ink laptop. As covered in Lilliputing, eBook maker Onyx is launching a 9.7 inch screen laptop called the Boox Typewriter.

There’s minimal information around yet, but The Digital Reader has a video from Charbax, and it seems to be an Android Netbook convertible. Note the comments comparing it to the Freewrite.

I’m sold already. With an e-ink screen this should have good battery life, and it just needs a basic word processor. Sign me up for the first batch.

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Revisiting the Freewrite

A few years ago, I blogged about the Astrohaus Freewrite (formerly the Hemingwrite). It’s a bare-bones, distraction-free word processor – great concept, but how is it in practice?

I’ve kept an eye on this and finally seen a real review, on Armchair Arcade. The reviewer is positive overall, but to me they simply highlight the limitations. Too expensive, too limited in what you can do, and too heavy.

I’m sticking with my Mac for now, and the distraction-free modes offered by Word, but if I really wanted a dedicated writing device I could just throw in my bag, I’d pick up a decent Chromebook for £200 or less. Job done.

I’m morbidly curious how many people have actually bought a Freewrite though – surely not many?

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Write as you speak

It’s a well-known piece of advice: write as though you were talking to someone you know, in the pub (or informal setting of your choice).

But how can you actually do this?

I was recently helping someone create a presentation, as she was struggling to write her thoughts as clearly as she could speak them. The ideas were there, but the words weren’t flowing.

In the end, we simply recorded me asking her a few pre-arranged questions. She spoke her answers without preparation, then transcribed the audio. The result: a clear, well-expressed piece of text, which with minimal editing could be used for her presentation. Job done.

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Predicting the future

This week, I’ve coincidentally had several different conversations about the future of machine translation.

Google Translate is already amazing – check out its real-time audio translation, or how it uses augmented reality to replace words in a menu or road sign.

What’s next? In each conversation, we decided we could look a few years ahead. A working Babel fish (in-ear translator). Improved quality. More fluent, conversational audio.

But we were all stumped as to what would be further away. Where would we be in 10 years? Or 20? It proved surprisingly difficult to make any guesses at all, let alone plausible ones. I felt like we were like the worst of 60s sci-fi predictions: plenty of jet packs and shiny silver clothing, but no internet or mobile phones.

I think this simply shows that foretelling the future is difficult – hopefully, it’s not just me. Perhaps the lesson is to be wary of any predictions, however confidently they are expressed. If someone says they know what’s going to happen, they’re almost certainly wrong. Be careful who you believe.

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Can B2B writers get personal?

In blogging and newspaper writing, describing your own experiences has become a standard technique. It can be narcissistic, annoying, or just plain dull, but the world and dog feel a need to share their life with us.

But can this work in B2B writing?

Maybe not to the same extent, but it’s got a role. Business writing can easily get really boring, and talking about personal experiences makes a connection for the reader, and gives them a story to respond to.

Remember that your reader is always a person, not a company, and that purchasing decisions are made by real people. If you talk to your audience about your own experiences, they may just care that little bit more.

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How to write faster

I’ve seen various posts and lists online about how to write quickly. They all offer different sets of advice – some excellent, some perhaps less valuable.

To me, the number one tip would be to ensure you understand what you’re trying to say, before you start writing. If you’re muddled or not quite sure where you’re headed, you’ll go back and forth over your text and have to edit it into shape.

That’s not to say you need to have all the details clear in your mind. But if you have the overall theme set, and can summarise what your article or web page is going to say in one paragraph, you’ll be able to write faster, more clearly, and with less need for revision.

It’s worth investing the time to think everything through carefully, before you start typing – and then everything else will follow.

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It’s all about attention

If you’re interested in the future of media, it’s worth reading this new article by Martin Belam, who is social & new formats editor for the Guardian.

He makes plenty of good points, and clearly knows the sector very well, but the most telling argument for me is at the end of the article: that because everyone has a phone in their pocket, they could choose to do almost anything instead of paying attention to what you have published.

I think the same point is valid for marketers, PRs and content creators – why should your target read or watch what you’ve put in front of them, instead of doing something more interesting on their phone? How can you maintain their attention, when they could be checking their email, messaging a colleague, or doing just about anything else?

Here’s some answers: be interesting, be relevant, keep your content short, and offer something that your audience really care about.

It’s good to be reminded that we don’t have the right to expect attention – it always needs to be earned, to be nurtured, and to be rewarded.

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Sport metaphors and why to avoid them

I usually write for an international audience, particularly as I work in technology marketing and we’re mostly targeting niche, global markets. As a result, I’m always conscious of avoiding local colloquialisms or country-specific words, as well as writing clearly for people who don’t have English as their first language.

That’s a huge topic that I’ll come back to on other blog posts, but one easy way to make your writing more readable is to avoid sports metaphors. Really, all of them. You may want to put in something about ‘hitting it out of the park’ or ‘breaking a duck’, but readers with no knowledge of baseball or cricket will struggle to make any sense of this.

There’s a good article, although old, in USA Today which has plenty of examples, and some helpful translations of baseball terms (the page at USA Today is very slow to load for some reason… do bear with it).

But my advice is simple: no sports metaphors, ever.

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