Rachael on the go

Quick writing tips and ideas, but some musings too

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Where are your manners?

I’ve decided Twitter and other social media are a form of verbal warfare. The current worldwide campaign against online sexual violence agrees: people are not prepared to tolerate the vile online abuse hurled at women.

While we enjoy online text that is informative, inspiring, funny, witty and even trivial, we are learning how it can also be aggressive and criminal.

Just to be clear, I’m not calling for a stop to online battles. All forms of text have been used for debate and argument, and I expect that. The written word has always been the mouthpiece of opinion—writing can be deliberate, thought-out, crafted. So it is ideal for planting the flag on an idea.

But we need some manners. We need boundaries for our writing, rather than the open slather that dominates now.

And these boundaries are needed for workplace writing too. So, what are the modern manners of a polite writer? I think we can probably start with the following 7 rules of etiquette:

1. Easily the most important rule: don’t be rude, offensive or untruthful. Ever.

You may write about hard truths, or your disappointment, resentment or anger. But stick to the facts (and maybe your feelings). Don’t slay anyone.

2. Don’t act like a 10 year old girl.

Don’t use kisses and emojis to make friends or soften a hard message. You are a grown person at work, and you should act like one.

3. Don’t text or email sad or serious news.

People deserve to hear upsetting news from you in person or by phone.

But a company can bend this rule in some situations. For a product recall, for example, a company may send letters to alert consumers, but they may also start a Twitter campaign. In this case, circulating the warning far and wide, and quickly, is more important than being polite.

4. Get back to people (or at least say when you’ll be free to chat)

Too often I send work emails or leave work voicemails that I may as well send to space: zip response! I politely follow up, and sometimes I’m ignored again. I understand time pressures and all that jazz. But I also know typing ‘Got it’ or ‘I’ll get back to you’ takes 10 seconds.

So please acknowledge people trying to communicate with you (and do it quickly, to show you recognise they are busy too).

5. Stop writing and start talking face to face.

People complain about the tone of messages in their email battles. Whoa! Email is not a weapon. If you have an issue, walk up to the person and bravely discuss it. Or, if you’re not in the same space, arrange a convenient video/call time.

6. Spell check and proofread.

Do you spell check every piece of your writing? It takes 5 minutes, but it’s worth brownie points with your reader. Typos make you look lazy, and your writing look hasty.

Better to run a quick spelling/grammar check. And even better to invest in some proper proofreading, which makes you look truly professional.

7. Don’t write when you’re meant to be listening.

Texting, replying to emails, updating your Facebook page, posting a tweet … but what are you NOT doing during all this writing? Put down your device and listen up. Who’s trying to talk to you? Your colleague, client, manager, supplier, lawyer?

These 7 rules for work writing are not hard. And they definitely keep us more conscious of our ‘rudeness footprint’.

For more about writing manners, check out the thoughts of business etiquette expert Jacqueline Whitmore in The Wall Street Journal last year.

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Testing English with native speakers

My family follows AFL footy, so the mention of swans immediately brings to mind the Sydney Swans footy team (and, of course, the feathered variety). But I recently read about a whole new use of the word for testing language: SWANS, meaning Sounds Wrong to A Native (see the Inkyfool blog post in ‘Out and about’). In other words, the best test for whether a word or expression is acceptable is whether it sounds okay to a native English speaker. Anything that sounds wrong probably is wrong. The idea is not to be hung up on grammar guides; rather, aim for natural sounding text.

A premise of this idea is that spoken English is an acceptable guide to sorting out good written English. And I mostly agree: I often ask my clients to say something aloud to check its tone and sense. This is a basically sound test, but we mustn’t rely on speech as our benchmark. Such reliance does not recognise the intrinsic differences between conversation and formal workplace writing. While our speech is taking on new words and phrases, and rapidly becoming less formal, our writing at work is more stagnant. We want clear, plain English, and we don’t want to bury our key messages, but we do want to set up our text as knowledgeable, trustworthy and true. So our text must show some hallmarks of established English grammar. And that is the point at which we return to SWANS: we want to use syntax and description that other people ‘hear’ as familiar and right.

But who are native speakers of English? In my other post dated 2 March 2014, I noted how different population groups can use English to circle the wagons, separating themselves from a mainstream. And many migrant groups and Indigenous Australians value a different syntax, and use pronouns and verbs quite differently from British English. Yet all these speakers, some native and some not, are entitled to contribute to the evolution of English. As our world grows in population but shrinks in accessibility, we may not be able to look to native English speakers to sign off on our language. So, for a workplace writer, perhaps a more reliable test than SWANS is SWMR: Sounds Wrong to My Readers. After all, your readers are whom you need to tap on the shoulder and say ‘hey, please listen to me’.


How many words to say hello?

I want to say hello but I don’t have time. I have to get onto explaining that this is a place for turning your writing into a tool for success at work. And everything I say has to use smart words because, like me, you won’t have time to waste. You may be reading this post on the way to work or as your last task of the day. Whatever you’re doing now, you’ll soon move on to something else. And that’s what your readers do too: they move on, and fast.

So, this blog is here to help you write faster, smarter and better. It is about you taking control of your writing to achieve things. I will focus on workplace writing (see my Training hub), but you can use many of my ideas for personal writing (even your own blog). Whatever your writing skills, and whatever your goals, I want you to take a step up. Start to think about how words are created, used and manipulated in our small world, and how you need to be part of that writing evolution from your own desk.

And now that’s done, I can say hello and welcome!