Questions in headlines? That’s a no

You may not know it by name, but you may be applying Betteridge’s Law without realising.

Put simply, it states that any headline that’s a yes/no question can in fact be answered ‘no’.

Do aliens cause cancer? Will Facebook buy IBM? Does eating apples give you superpowers?

It makes a lot of sense. If the story actually was correct, then the journalist or headline writer wouldn’t need a question mark – therefore, you can safely assume that whatever is being discussed is not actually true or accurate.

When you think about it, it seems almost a truism, but it’s a big time saver in scanning the news. And as a writer, make sure you don’t write a headline that readers will see as following Betteridge’s Law – because they’ll simply assume a ‘no’, and skip your article.

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How do you know when you’re finished writing?

It’s always difficult to judge exactly when a piece of writing is finished.

You’ll know when it’s reached that ‘just about good enough’ stage – all the right facts are in place, and it’s got the look of a coherent whole. But how do you know when you’ve done enough polishing, and when it’s not really going to improve however long you spend tinkering?

Of course, in the commercial world you don’t have unlimited time, and the client’s deadline may dictate when you need to down tools. Or you feel you really can’t justify any more time spent moving punctuation around.

To know when you’re done, I’m a fan of leaving it alone for a while. Go away and do something else for a few hours, then come back to your writing. When you read it afresh, you’ll be sure to find at least something that stands out as a little clunky, or not quite right.

Like in many things, experience will guide you, and you’ll just know when it’s right, and when more tampering will weaken the message.

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Noun and verb confusion

I’ve seen lots of blog posts and articles talking about commonly-confused nouns and verbs, and explaining the difference between, for example, ‘advice’ and ‘advise’.

But to me there’s another angle that’s just as important. As writers, we need to think about words that can function both as a noun and a verb, and the confusion that can cause for readers.

Take a simple word such as ‘hit’. You can have a hit, which might be a film or song, or you can hit something, or be hit by it.

In a short sentence this double function can make readers stumble if they guess wrong as to the writer’s intent. For example, if you write ‘Tom Cruise’s latest hits the screen’ you might be just missing out the word movie to save space, and hoping the word ‘hits’ is obviously interpreted as a verb. But if a reader sees ‘latest hits’ and reads it as a noun, they’re going to get confused.

If at all possible, just find another way to write what you need to say. Commas can be your friend, to make it clearer which words go together.

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Peak hipster? The Qwerkywriter

I’ve blogged before about the Freewrite, a too-expensive word processor. That seemed, at the time, to be a peak of a particular kind of fashion, removing functions from devices to recapture the mojo of olde worlde typewriters.

It’s now been surpassed by the Qwerkywriter, a mechanical, metal Bluetooth keyboard. Love the name, think I love the concept, not so sure about the $249 price and nearly 2kg weight.

Seriously, is this thing genius, or a sad comment on how we have more money than we know how to spend?

I’m conflicted. I kind of want one, while simultaneously seeing it as all that’s wrong in gadget world. Hopefully I can resolve my conflict without having to go out and buy one of them.


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The new rules for good writing?

There’s an interesting article by Sam Leith in today’s Guardian newspaper, grandly titled ‘The new rules for good writing in the 21st century’, with just a touch of hubris.

I don’t agree with everything in the article, but there’s plenty of solid advice there and it’s definitely worth reading. I now feel suitably educated, not least having never previously heard of a right-branching sentence.

Just to pick up one thing, do we need to be told never to start our emails to strangers at work with the greeting ‘Hi’? Not in my world.

I do like that ‘be clear’ is ranked above ‘be correct’, with the lovely instruction on clarity to put simplicity first, but that ‘splashes of colour stand out better on a plain background’.

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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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