Why mistakes in writing matter

In this blog, I’ve often gone on about how to write well.

This month, I wanted to revisit why avoiding mistakes in your writing is so important.

Let’s leave to one side, for now, any thoughts about what we mean by good writing, or discussions about style. I’m focussing on just getting all the basics right – and avoiding errors in spelling, grammar or punctuation.

Does it really matter? Yes, for two reasons.

Firstly, it’s about credibility. Whatever you do in business, you need other people to have some level of confidence in you. But if you can’t be bothered to check your writing for errors, why should they trust you to do anything else properly?

Then, poor writing is distracting. Your reader is just getting interested in what you have to say, when the spell is broken by a clanger. You’ve lost them, and they may not come back.

Get the basics right first, then check and check again to make sure there are no howlers. Get someone else to read your work before posting or sending it, if at all possible.

You’ve got interesting things to say. But if your writing is full of errors, no one will listen.

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Always learning

How do you keep interested in your job, year after year?

For me, one of the most important motivators that gets me out of bed is knowing that I will learn something new, every day.

Being a freelance technology writer is an excellent way of making sure you never really get a chance to get stuck in your comfort zone, let alone bored.

But it’s not just the technology, and in fact the continuous quest for faster, newer iterations of the same kind of gadgets can become monotonous in its own way. To me, it’s the fact that every project is slightly different, and each one will inevitably throw up issues or questions that I’ve never handled before.

My point? I guess to remind you that if you’re constantly having to solve new problems, make sure you remember it’s a blessing, not a curse – even if it doesn’t feel like it at the time.

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Think about your online presence – all of it

Recently, I was researching a company I’d not previously heard of, so I started by just typing its name into Google.

Interestingly, one of the first results was its profile on Glassdoor.com, which primarily consists of anonymous reviews written by employees. This company’s profile was, shall we say, less than glowing, and the negative comments from its staff created a very different picture from that given by the firm’s own website.

There’s two things to learn from this.

Firstly, it’s a basic SEO principle: make sure you’re active online so your content can achieve good search results for your company name, and anything negative is balanced. Write things, get them posted on your own website and others, make noise on social media.

Secondly, remember that you can’t control everything that’s said about you online – and in particular on social media. If your customer service sucks, or you’re a horrible employer, the people you’ve annoyed will inevitably say so, publicly.

It comes back to authenticity: you can tell people what you’re like as a company or brand, but nowadays the truth (or at least some version of it) will out. And people finding the negative comments online have no way of verifying their accuracy, so may well just take them on face value and assume they’re true, even if they’re not.

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Over-excited, or not

Is it just me? Or does everyone feel a mild shiver of revulsion when they read how a company suit is ‘excited’ about some really dull news of a new widget?

I’m sure it’s not just me, actually. If you’re writing about something deathly boring, don’t try and over-sell it with words that would be more suitable to announcing the arrival of a new baby, rather than just an upgraded product. Readers are not stupid, and they’ll see straight through you.

It comes back to the principle of ‘show, don’t tell’. Don’t try and convince your readers that something is exciting when it’s not. Instead, get the facts in front of them – your new widget may not thrill the reader, but if it’s going to cut their costs by 10%, they’ll be interested enough to find out more.

And if your new product is both dull and pointless, maybe you shouldn’t be shouting about it in the first place.

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How to write good award entries

In most industries, winning an award can be great publicity, and a useful door-opener. But how do you write an award entry so the judges will sit up and take notice?

I’ve written successful award submissions for many clients, and if I could give you just one piece of advice it would be this: think about the poor judges! They’ll be overworked, and having to plough through the badly-written prose of countless ‘leading vendors’. In many cases, the award submissions will be confusing, and any nuggets of interest are buried under sentences of empty boasting.

Like in most writing, your award entry should be clear, concise, and free of waffle. Read the organisers’ notes to find out what the judges want, and make sure you get your key points up front and central.

Is the award for technical innovation? Then say why your product is innovative, why that matters to your customers, and why it does something no-one else can.

Are they looking for commercial success? Then make your first sentence lay out the facts of your case, with real numbers.

Stick to the facts, don’t assume prior knowledge of all your jargon, don’t exaggerate – but don’t be afraid to state in clear terms why you’re the best.

And good luck!

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The FAQ on FAQs

This month, I was going to write a post on writing FAQs, and specifically writing FAQ pages for the web.

Then I did some research and found this page on FAQs from a copywriter called Susan Greene, and it seemed so comprehensive and useful I thought I’d just link to it. Great writing, Susan!

The only point I’d add is to make sure your questions in your FAQ are actually questions that are likely to be asked by real people, let alone asked frequently.

Would someone really ever ask that obscure, detailed question you’re trying to shoehorn onto the page? If not, then perhaps the information is best presented in another format.

Particularly online, writing has to be all about authenticity, or you’ll lose your readers’ attention.

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Should I use jargon in my writing?

If you’ve studied how to be a writer, you’ve read blogs like mine, or you’ve stopped to think about your writing for five minutes, you will inevitably think of jargon as a bad thing. At best, it’s a necessary evil. But we’re all taught to cut it out.

That’s normally good advice. But don’t be scared to use jargon where appropriate.

What does that mean?

For a start, make sure you know your audience. If they’re all going to be familiar with your industry, you can go right ahead and use all the standard jargon – it saves everyone’s time, and it avoids being patronising. And everyone knows exactly what each term means, which can be particularly useful if your readers don’t all have English as their first language.

Remember your writing isn’t always about conveying the meaning of the words. You may, instead, be wanting to create an emotional reaction in the reader – and jargon can make them feel that writer and reader are somehow on the same side of the same argument, or in the same team. This shared knowledge creates a bond that pulls your readers in, and makes them feel a commonality with the writer. That’s worth a lot.

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The Penna – a qwerkywriter alternative

I’m still looking for that elusive retro keyboard – affordable yet stylish. The qwerkywriter is out of my budget, so I’m hoping the Penna delivers on its promise to bring us quality at a reasonable price.

It gets a decent review on The Verge, but I’m still not convinced about buying a product like this as a pre-production crowd-funded deal – particular as The Verge points out the company behind the Penna has never shipped a product before. Maybe I need to go for the Lofree instead; there are just too many choices. Or, more realistically, I’m sitting tight and spending nothing.

Or maybe I should stop worrying about a keyboard, and just, you know, get on with writing.

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Is Moore’s Law dead?

Its death has frequently been predicted, but there was an interesting article in The Register recently pronouncing that Moore’s Law has finally turned up its toes.

Moore’s Law has seen us through five decades of rapid growth in computing power, but this article argues that the Meltdown and Spectre design flaws will put the nails in its coffin. As optimisation techniques can become security holes, goes the argument, we’ll need to take stock and slow down our rate of progress.

I’m not sure I buy the premise, but it’s thought-provoking. Doesn’t Moore’s Law say that the underlying power of computing chips keeps on growing, as they get more and more transistors? What the software engineers do with that power, and whether they can harness it usefully, is a different question. There’s plenty of other evidence that the rate of improvement of useful computing speeds is slowing down. For example, just to pick one random comparison, this comparison of iMac benchmarks shows only a 40% improvement over five years – way short of the Moore’s Law’s compound doubling.

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20 years of Bluetooth

I normally blog about writing or related technologies, but this month I wanted to pick up on the 20th anniversary of Bluetooth. There’s a great article by Neil Tyler in this week’s New Electronics, looking at the creation of Bluetooth in the 90s. It made me suitably nostalgic, as I helped organise the European press launch for Bluetooth in Stockholm (when Ericsson was a client), and I also worked with CSR soon afterwards.

Who would have thought that two decades later Bluetooth would be quite so ubiquitous? There’s a lesson here on how to have a winning technology: not to over-simplify, but it’s something along the lines of make it useful, make it cheap, and make it simple to understand.

It’s worth remembering also that the original use case of Bluetooth was simply as a cable replacement technology, because it’s cheaper and more convenient to connect a phone headset or peripheral wirelessly, and it’s one less thing to forget when you pack your briefcase. It’s gone a long way further than that.

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