Business writing – A is for Anglosaxon

Elen Lewis, editor of The Marketing Society says choose your words carefully.

There is an Anglosaxon word called ban-hus. It means bone-house and was used to describe the human body. It paints a beautiful picture and linguist David Crystal describes ‘bone-house’ as a word painting.

In Beowulf, the epic Anglosaxon poem, the sea is a whale-road, ligaments are bone-locks, the sun is a sky candle and icicles are water ropes.

Anglosaxon poets used coinages or kennings to vary their descriptions when they wrote long tales of battles and journeys. If only business writing used the Anglosaxon poetic impulse to vary descriptions.

Words can inspire revolution and laughter. They can change hearts and minds. They can influence, illuminate, challenge. They can strike fear and create delight.  Words are a powerful thing. I like what Coleridge said, “Poetry is the best words in the best order.”

Before you worry about getting flowery and sounding clever, pay some attention to the power of plain words. George Orwell said, “bad writers are haunted by the notion that Latin or Greek words are grander than Saxon ones.” So, don’t use a long word when a short word would do. English is better than Latin. You don’t exterminate, you kill. You don’t salivate, you drool. You don’t conflagrate, you burn.

Moses did not say to Pharaoh: “The consequence of non-release of one particular subject ethnic population could result ultimately in some kind of algal manifestation in the main river basin, with unforeseen outcomes for flora and fauna, not excluding consumer services.”

He said “the waters which are in the river … shall be turned to blood, and the fish that is in the river shall die, and the river shall stink.”

Choosing Anglosaxon words over French or Latin words will help your business writing become more powerful.

Winston Churchill’s speeches set the world alight. He liked to use simple Anglosaxon words, saying,  “Short words are best and old words when short are best of all.” He never used jargon.

Like the Anglosaxon poets, he understood the power of painting pictures with words. In his ‘Finest Hour’ speech he said, “If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be freed and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands.”

In the same speech he made his verbs work hard for him, using verbs like grieve, fall, rise, defend, fight, break, stand up to, fail, sink, brace, bear. He was precise and this meant he did not use one single lazy verb like drive, deliver, achieve.

So, in every sentence you write ask yourself five questions:

  • What am I trying to say?
  • What words will express it?
  • What image will make it clearer?
  • Could I put it more shortly?
  • Have I said something that is unavoidably ugly?

Poet Simon Armitage writes, “In choosing a word, you’re making a statement.” So choose carefully, choose well and remember your Anglosaxon roots.

Elen is director of The Business Writing Academy. Send your business writing thoughts and questions to

S is for storytelling

Don’t be afraid of stories, says Elen Lewis, stories are powerful business tools that can help you get your message across.

“Your tale, sir, would cure deafness.”

William Shakespeare, The Tempest

We’ve been telling each other stories for thousands of years. We tell stories for lots of different reasons – to entertain each other, to explain things to ourselves, and others, and to make sense of the world around us.

We all remember stories. We remember the brands that tell the big stories and the great storytellers in business. So how can you tap into storytelling and start making your messages more powerful?

1/ ‘When in doubt, have a man come through the door with a gun in his hand.’ Raymond Chandler

The most powerful stories have a threat in them, and business is full of conflict and dilemma. Use stories to dramatise the issues you face and how they can be resolved. Here are the questions you should ask about the conflict in your story: What is the core conflict? What will make your reader care about the outcome of this conflict? Does the conflict change over time? I like what John Le Carre says: ‘The cat sat on the mat is not a story. The cat sat on the dog’s mat is a story.’

2/ Consider the shape of your story.

Every tale needs a narrative arc. In its simplest form, it needs a beginning, middle and an end. Think in three acts and pretend it’s a Hollywood film. Act One is about the set up and new situation, outline a conflict. Act Two – progress, complications and higher stakes. Act Three – final push and the aftermath. Once you have these three sections, write one sentence to summarise the essence of your story.

3/ Borrow your big themes from myths and legends.

Stories are universal. Most of them are borrowed from myths, fairytales and classical literature. Some people say there are only seven stories in the world. Leo Tolstoy said all great literature is one of two stories; a man goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town. Some say there’s only one story that matters – the quest for the Holy Grail. Every story begins with its absence: something not quite right. And then everything must be subordinated to finding it. When it’s found, the story ends.  Try and sketch out your story using the template below.

Someone… (a character)

Wants… (a quest, a goal, a mission)

But… ( a challenge, an obstacle)

So… (a means of succeeding)

Don’t fret about trying to make up a new story. Stories tell timeless, universal truths and there will always be an old story for you to borrow and make your own.

Elen Lewis runs writing workshops.

F is for fiction

Borrow some tricks of the trade from novelists, says Elen Lewis, a dose of imagination and empathy will help your business writing fly.

Now the thing about fiction is that people choose to read it. So what can businesses learn from the art of novels to make their writing more engaging? All writers need to have empathy for their readers and they need to have imagination. And it matters just as much with business writing. For the trick to becoming a better writer at work is to become a better writer. That’s all.

Here are four lessons to improve your writing from emails to reports and presentations.

1/ Read fiction

Last year, the Harvard Business Review reported that business leaders need to read more fiction to develop empathy. As Henry James said, ‘a novel is a direct impression of life.’ Academic researchers have gathered data to show that reading fiction activates pathways in the brain that improve our understanding of human emotion.

2/ Solve a problem by writing it down.

I like what novelist EM Forster said, ‘How do I know what I think till I see what I say.’ Writer’s block is a pain. It happens to us all. Whether I’m scaling the mountain of a 100,000 word novel or writing a difficult email, automatic writing helps. Before you start writing a thing, take a pen and paper and write without stopping for five minutes using a prompt. ‘If I ruled the world…’ or ‘I’ve never told anybody this before but…’

3/ Give your characters a voice

As a marketer you may already be thinking like a novelist. Establishing brand values or beliefs uses similar techniques. As brand language expert, John Simmons says, ‘The truth of any brand always emerges from the mouths of its own people. In many ways, it’s not unlike creating a character in a novel. You listen and observe, you find a natural way for the character to speak.’  If your brand was a character what would he or she sound like?

4/ If you get stuck, make a pie…

And finally, here’s some helpful advice by historical prizewinning novelist Hilary Mantel:

If you get stuck, get away from your desk. Take a walk, take a bath, go to sleep, make a pie, draw, listen to ­music, meditate, exercise; whatever you do, don’t just stick there scowling at the problem. But don’t make telephone calls or go to a party; if you do, other people’s words will pour in where your lost words should be. Open a gap for them, create a space. Be patient.

Elen Lewis runs writing workshops.

D is for dialogue and daemons

Remember that writing is like talking, says Elen Lewis, because if you’re not writing for someone else, then why will they want to read it?

I was lucky enough to sit next to Philip Pullman, one of my favourite novelists two years ago at dinner in Merton College, Oxford. Philip wrote His Dark Materials trilogy, Northern Lights, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass, widely regarded as the thinking reader’s Harry Potter. These books zing with magic and storytelling and they’re also beautifully written.

Philip was talking about the creative breakthrough he had while first writing Northern Lights. His young heroine, Lyra was prowling around an Oxford college but he couldn’t seem to the move the story on. Then he realized it was because she needed a companion, she needed someone to speak to.

Philip writes from a garden shed and he was outside, willing inspiration when the idea of the daemons came to him in a flash: these animal spirits change shape when you are young and settle into a constant form as an adult. They are the single most brilliant idea of the books.

The first four words of ‘His Dark Materials’, “Lyra and her daemon…”, are the four most important in the trilogy. Everything follows from that. The rest fell into place. And it’s a lesson that Philip has never forgotten. His next book after that was called The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ. The splitting is the thing.

So how can you inject a sense of dialogue and conversation into your business writing? Here are five things you can do.

  1. Crime writer PD James said, ‘If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.’
  2. Think carefully about how you want your reader to feel.  Use short sentences to increase the pace, think about the level of detail to include.
  3. Write in the active voice rather than the passive.
  4. Use questions instead of sub-headings to split up longer text.
  5. Pretend you’re writing to someone you know well. With your customers and clients you shouldn’t have to pretend too hard.

Elen Lewis runs business writing workshops at The Business Writing Academy.


C is for constraints

Elen Lewis, editor of The Marketing Society says using constraints can inject magic and creativity into your business writing.

Constraints have a creative effect on language. Douglas R Hofstader said, ‘I suspect the welcoming of constraints is, at bottom, the deepest secret of creativity.’ And it’s true. They help you produce better writing and ensure you enjoy the process of choosing words. Constraints can come in many different forms. One French novelist Georges Perec wrote a novel ‘La Disparation’ without using a single ‘e’.

As part of a writer’s organisation, 26, I have contributed to a project called 26 Treasures. I was paired with two treasures, one from the V&A, and one from the National Library of Wales and asked to write a 62-word poem, coined a ‘sestude’. In the latest project, my poem will be exhibited next to Princess Leia at the Museum of Childhood. I get to write about Star Wars.

So what was the point of 62 words? Most importantly, it made it easier. Here was a framework to work from, a starting point. Every word counted. I started picking the language apart. How could I make every word work harder? A first draft using the phrase ‘darkness covers’ became ‘darkness cloaks’.

The Oxford English Dictionary estimates that there are 750,000 different words in the English language. Yet, the number of words that an average person uses ranges from a few thousand to tens of thousands.

Another useful constraint that helps hone choice of words is by working through the alphabet from A-Z, beginning each sentence with the next letter in the alphabet. It’s not as hard as it sounds:

All I want to say is believe. Craft those words, dare. Everyone is liberated by constraints, finally.

Your turn. Take the opening paragraph of a presentation and rewrite the sentences using this constraint. You’ll be forced to think precisely about the words you use.  See where it takes you.

Elen Lewis is the founding director of The Business Writing Academy.

  • © 2014 Elen Lewis