R is for read aloud

R is for read aloud. Hearing the sound of your words from your lips is a simple trick to improve writing says Elen Lewis.

Here’s a simple trick that will immediately improve your writing. Read the words aloud to yourself. It’s the only way to be sure the rhythms of the sentences work well. I like the way crime writer PD James explains it. “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”

If you stumble as you read, the construction of the sentence is probably wrong. If you run out of breath, the sentence is too long. If it sounds too staccato, you may need longer phrases. If it doesn’t sound right to your ear, then something is wrong with the flow. You may need to mix up short and long sentences to get the rhythm right. If you trail off at the end of your sentences or start speeding up, you might be getting bored.

This is what you should do.

  1. Put the writing aside, leave it for as long as you can. A cup of tea, an afternoon, a day, a week…
  2. Read the words pretending you’ve never read them before. Don’t read from your computer screen. Print it out.
  3. Challenge every word. Is this the best word to use? Is the writing better without it?
  4. Cut until you can cut no more. Every word counts. This will spring the writing to life.
  5. Challenge every sentence. Does it have rhythm? Is there magic in it?
  6. Challenge every paragraph? Pretend it’s flatpack furniture. Did you assemble it correctly? What happens if you put the second sentence first?

Rigorous editing can craft the plainest words into something of beauty. Brilliant writers tend to be brilliant editors. Or they’re lucky enough to have one. David Ogilvy said, “I’m a lousy copywriter but I am a good editor. So I go to work editing my own draft. After four or five editings, it looks good enough to show to the client.”

Do you have a business writing conundrum you’d like Elen to address in her next column? Queries on question marks, questions of style, problems with punctuation? Let her know Elen.Lewis@gmail.com

E is for exclamation mark

In Chekhov’s short story The Exclamation Mark, a civil servant trying to get to grips with the rules of punctuation develops a paranoid fantasy, in which everyday objects transform themselves into malevolent exclamation marks.

I’m with F Scott Fitzgerald who wrote, “Cut out all those exclamation marks. An exclamation mark is like laughing at your own jokes.” Elmore Leonard wrote of exclamation marks: “You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.”

An exclamation mark is like shouting or whooping. It’s like screaming, ‘I REALLY MEAN THIS’, after you’ve spoken. And in business writing exclamation marks are not to be encouraged, aside from special occasions.

Too many emails use exclamation marks, and they’re especially irritating when used in groups of two or three. Admittedly, email has seen exclamation marks make something of a comeback. Before the 1970s, typewriters did not have anything akin to an exclamation mark on the keyboard, which may have been another reason for their rarity. It was a lot of effort to type a full stop, then back space, push the shift key and type an apostrophe.

So, when to use exclamation marks? Use them sparingly and then they will have the impact you need. They should be used to demonstrate surprise, anger or joy. That’s all.  And, if you’re not sure, use a full stop instead.

So is ‘Thanks!!!’ more grateful than thanks? I don’t think so.

I have found two places with exclamation marks, does this make them more joyful than other destinations? There’s Saint-Louis-du-Ha!Ha! in Quebec and Western Ho! In England.



A is for apostrophe

Unnecessary-apostrophes-a-0In the second of a monthly series, Elen Lewis, The Marketing Society’s editor offers some guidance on better business writing. This week, some rules on apostrophes.  These strokes of genius are woefully ignored and scorned by greengrocers trying to sell apple’s and banana’s and many more besides.

When Barack Obama visited Ireland on his way to the UK recently he made a joke about punctuation. “My name is Barack Obama, of the Moneygall Obamas and I’ve come home to find the apostrophe we lost somewhere along the way,” he said.

Marketing Society Fellow Gerry O’Donnell, director of Famous Grouse asked me to write this column. He’s sick of the way website registration pages scorn the apostrophe. ‘Is there any hope or do I have to change my surname back to Son of Donnell?’ he writes.

Apostrophes matter. Just ask John Richards, the chairman of The Apostrophe Protection Society. This is a father-and-son operation whose favourite occupation is to write to offending shops and restaurants with a letter that begins: ‘Dear Sir or Madam, Because there seems to be some doubt about the use of the apostrophe, we are taking the liberty of drawing your attention to an incorrect use.’

The apostrophe isn’t an arbitrary mark, but, like its use, in ‘it’s’ meaning ‘it is’, it marks a missing letter. In Anglosaxon, possession was expressed by the genetive case: “Godes engel” meant “God’s angel”. In time, the ‘e’ was dropped and the missing letter marked by the apostrophe.

Here are some simple apostrophe rules for you.

  1. Apostrophes are used to denote a missing letter or letters. For example:

    I can’t instead of I can not,
    I don’t instead of I do not,
    It’s instead of it is
    You’re instead of you are.

  2. They are used to denote possession. For example:

    The dog’s bone,
    The company’s logo
    If there are two or more dogs, or two or more companies, the apostrophe comes after the S.
    The dogs’ bones
    The companies’ logos

  3. Apostrophes must never be used to denote plurals.

    Remember the worst greengrocer signs – apple’s and banana’s

But, as this is English, there’s a rag-bag of awkwardness. The words in some set expressions have become so tied together that there’s no apostrophe. So we have “Brussels sprouts” where you might expect “Brussel’s sprouts” and “Achilles tendon” but “Achilles’ heel”. Names can be similarly wayward. On the London underground there’s “St James’s Park” but “Earls Court”.

A few years ago, Radio 4 broadcast a trio of short stories ‘The Greengrocer’s Apostrophe’ about an obsession with punctuation. One character explained that what she cherished about the apostrophe was how, “that little flying comma gentles life along”. To say, “I cannot” or “I do not” sounds so bossy, she said, whereas saying, “I can’t” or “I don’t” is “wistful, apologetic almost”.

B is for beginnings

Better business writing is simpler than you think, says Elen Lewis, editor of The Marketing Society. Craft your beginning and the rest will take care of itself.

The greatest short story ever written is just six words long by Earnest Hemingway. “Baby shoes. For sale. Never worn.” The power of six words.

Opening lines are so important in business writing. Whether it’s the subject line in an email or the first sentence in a presentation, these words will grab or lose your reader’s attention in a moment.

One of my favourite examples of punchy headlines comes from Sir Harold Evans who wrote a book called, ‘Essential English for journalists, editors and writers’.

He wrote, “If I choose to head an article ‘An Inquiry into the Conditions of Mycean Civilisation in the Heroic Epoch, with Special Reference to the Economic and Domestic Functions of Women Before and After the Conjectural Date of the Argive Expedition against Troy’, – if I say, I choose for my article some snappy little title like that, I really have no right to complain if (when I send it to the Chicago Daily Scoop) they alter it to ‘How Helen Did the Housekeeping’. Or even better ‘How Helen Kept House’.

Consider some of the best opening lines in novels. From LP Hartley’s ‘The Go-Between’, “The past is another country, they do things differently there.” Or Tolstoy’s ‘Anna Karenina’, “All happy families are alike, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” I’m taken by the power of the starting point in Ford Madox Ford’s ‘The Good Soldier’, “This is the saddest story I have ever heard.”

One of the reasons these opening lines are powerful is because they’re telling us something new. It sticks. So how can we use these lessons in literature and apply them to writing in business? Here are five things that will help.

  1. Write your headline (your email subject line) last. This helps reduce writers’ block.
  2. Spend as much time on the beginning as you do writing the rest of your text. Craft the words carefully in the way Hemingway crafted his perfectly formed six word short story.
  3. Start writing wherever you feel most comfortable. Just get the words down. Start in the middle if you need to. Nothing can be done with a blank page.
  4. Put the most important information first and then provide the context.
  5. Avoid beginning with clichés like, ‘ as you know’, ‘I hope you are well’. Make it specific and relevant, include the details.

Put the most important information first.

Put the most important information first.

Always ask “what do I want my reader to do/know/think?”. The answer gives you your first line.

18. Never open with “As you know”. Lead with the news and then provide the context.

Spend as much time on your headline as you do on the rest of your text.

Earnest Hemingway said


Writing a subject line – this is all about headlines. How do you grab attention so it’s not binned before it’s read?

Opening lines are so important.

“The past is another country, they do things differently there.” The Go-Between, LP Hartley.

“All happy families are alike’ each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Anna Karenina, Tolstoy

This is the saddest story I have ever heard, The Good Soldier, Ford Madox Ford

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen

It was a bright, cold day in April and the clocks were striking 13. 1984, George Orwell

“April is the cruellest month, breeding/Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing”

The Wasteland, TS Eliot

  • Six word short stories – every word matters.

Ernest Hemingway. “For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.”

Have a break. Have a kitkat.

Go to work on an egg.

What’s the exercise? Write a six-word short story based on picture postcard? – Find some


  • © 2014 Elen Lewis