Skip to main content
All Posts By

Scott Keyser

Persuasive writing begins with the end

Brand Builders TV Scott Keyser Persuasive Writing

Would you agree there’s too much information about persuasive writing out there? That when it’s time to learn something that will build your brand, it takes longer to sift through bad information than it does to actually learn the skill — especially if it’s about improving your writing?

That’s why I’m thrilled to be part of Brand Builders TV, where an impressive array of professionals, experts and proven entrepreneurs from the Brand Builders Club come together to freely share what they’ve learnt over their careers.

In the episode Nail the Nasty Nine Writing Issues, you’ll not only learn the names of the nine writing problems that stop us connecting with our readers. You’ll also get an up-close look at the first three.

#1 is about ‘We-‘ing all over the reader, which the article ‘Write to Persuade and Convert’ expands on. The second, about non-existent planning, is explained in the article ‘Powerful Written Communication’. And finally, here we are at article #3 in the series, which will teach you why it’s important to know where your written content will end — before you even begin.

The other six writing issues will be forthcoming, but for now, why not go back and read those first two articles? Then you’ll be sure to miss nothing on your journey to bringing more and more customers and clients onboard.

If you’re more of a digital learner, you can view the entire recorded Brand Builders TV episode here:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MdLSJrXQ2fU

Your writing is about to get a lot more persuasive.

Persuasive writing knows where it’s going

As writers, when we’re not clear about where we’re going or what we’re trying to achieve, we run the risk of producing something that rambles and meanders. It’s going to drive the reader mad! It’s more effective and efficient to know where we’re going. We must identify our destination.

Brand Builders TV Scott Keyser Persuasive Writing

Persuasive Writing does not have a vague message or objective

The training I deliver to people around the world has little to do with pretty words or mellifluous, musical cadences (we get into that at mastery level).

What I’m talking about here is the sheer mechanics of great writing, and part of that is being really clear about our destination. It’s less about prettiness, more about behaviour change. We’re seeking, through the written word, to change the reader’s behaviour. That’s why this issue is one of the Nasty Nine.

Facts. Feelings. Actions.

What can we do about vague writing? Nail, define and articulate our purpose or objective. For this, I use a three-letter acronym: F.F.A. — Facts. Feelings. Action.

Imagine a three-column table. The first is Facts, or what you want your reader to know. The second is what you want them to feel. The last one is the action you want them to take as a result of reading your words.

For the first column, there are probably a lot of things you want your reader to know. Generally, provided you know your subject, this shouldn’t be a problem.

Now jump over to the right-hand column, Action. Typically, in any communication, there’s one thing you want your reader to do. To instruct you, give you a mandate, engage you or hire you, agree to meet with you, give you some information, send you a document…that’s usually pretty straightforward.

But where persuasive writing gets interesting is in the middle column, Feelings. What emotions do you want to evoke in your reader to drive the action? These emotions might include, but are not limited to:

Fear

You might want to scare them about something…like being laid off,  losing market share, missing out on an opportunity, their program failing, catching Covid, missing out on promotion.

Greed

What do they want more of? What are they greedy for? Money, time, information, power, control, influence, reputation, social media engagement.

Motivation

Use your words to motivate them to take action, energise them to pursue a particular course of action.

Anger

Get your reader angry about injustices in the world, to raise awareness and galvanise action.

Excitement

Get their pulse racing by describing attractive results, outcomes and benefits.

Brand Builders TV Scott Keyser Persuasive Writing

When you do F.F.A. properly, you break the back of your document. You’re cooking with gas. What do you want your reader to know? What do you want them to feel? And what action do you want them to take as a result of that knowledge and emotion?

Emotion matters in persuasive writing

What’s the role of emotion in persuasion? Why does emotion matter in persuasive writing? The answer lies 2,500 years ago, in the 4th century B.C., when Aristotle nailed the topic of rhetoric. He identified three persuasive ‘appeals’: Logos (logic); Ethos (credibility, character, reputation); Pathos (passion, emotion). He said all three were equally important, meaning that if we leave emotion out of our writing, we’re missing out. Logic makes people think, but emotion makes them act.

What’s your objective?

I hope you’re feeling more confident about your ability to improve your writing skills. What will you do with this new knowledge?

If persuasive writing for bids, tenders, sales pages, blogs, webpages and articles is something you’d like to learn more about, then subscribe to the Brand Builders TV YouTube channel for more episodes. Or, go straight to my second video, Nail The Nasty Nine Writing Issues, Part Two, which expands on issues 4 to 6.

My time in the Brand Builders Club has not only helped me to build my brand as The Writing Guy. It’s given me invaluable feedback, accountability and networking opportunities. Why not join us? Your registration comes with no commitment, and no risk — just growth.

Words of history prove that writing matters

words of history scott keyser

Today is the 15th of June. This morning, thinking about what I was going to do for today’s podcast, I was drawing a bit of a blank. Then I looked in my On This Day book, an almanac of world events and words of history. Of course, today is a very significant day in the history of the British Isles, particularly England and English history.

Let me give you a clue. I’m going to give you something to read in Latin. You can guess why on earth I’m giving you words of history in Latin, and then there will be a grand reveal.

Here is the opening clause of an important historical document (Hint! Hint!).

Johannes del gracia rex Anglie, dominus Hibernie, dux Normannie, Aquitannie et comes Andegavie, archiepiscopis, episcopis, abbatibus, comitibus, baronibus, justiciariis, forestariis, vicecomitibus, prepositis, ministris et omnibus ballivis et fidelibus suis salutem.

And here’s yet another clue, in the translation:

John, by the grace of God, King of England, Lord of Ireland and Duke of Normandy in Aquitaine, and count of Anjou, to the archbishops, bishops, abbots, earls, barons, justices, foresters, sheriffs, stewards, servants, and all his bailiffs and faithful subjects, greeting.

What do these words of history mean?

Any guesses to what this hugely significant document was?

It’s of course Magna Carta, signed on the banks of the River Thames near Windsor, in a meadow called Runnymede. It was there that King John I of England affixed his royal wax seal on 15 June, 1215. The document’s full name was Magna Carta Libertatum, mediaeval Latin for ‘Great Charter of Freedoms’. Stephen Langton, the Archbishop of Canterbury, drafted it.

words of history scott keyser the writing guyThe purpose of this document was to make peace between unpopular King John (often referred to as Wicked or Evil, Nasty King John) and a group of rebel barons. It promised the protection of church rights, to keep the church free. Barons were to be protected from illegal imprisonment. It would give them access to swift justice and put limitations on feudal payments to the Crown. Furthermore, it was to be implemented through a council of 25 barons. As history would later show, neither side actually stood behind their commitments. The charter was annulled by Pope Innocent III, leading to the First Barons War (1216-1217). It was reissued by his young son, Henry III, in 1216 (although I understand it got watered down).

At the end of the First Barons War in 1217, it formed part of the Lambeth peace treaty. But as the fledgling English parliament passed new laws, Magna Carta lost a lot of its practical significance. Interestingly (and rather amusingly), it was never about the Barons being altruistic and selfless, wanting to protect the common man. It was really about looking out for themselves with baronial self-protection. I don’t think they gave two figs about the common man in the street or the villain in the fields!

Magna Carta: still significant

Magna Carta was described by Lord Denning (famous English lawyer and judge) as, ‘the greatest constitutional document of all time…the foundation of the freedom of the individual against the arbitrary authority of the despot’. Some elevated, 21-gun-salute language from the great man, there!

There are four copies of Magna Carta in existence: two in the British Library, one at Lincoln Castle and one at Salisbury Cathedral. I was there (or near there) the other day when I visited Stonehenge, which I’ve spoken about.

What’s the relevance in words of history for writers?

We’re no longer writing in Latin, unless we’re drafting a very archaic kind of constitutional law. Nonetheless, Magna Carta shows that in order to create and preserve freedoms, things need to be written down. The written word is a much more permanent record of what was agreed between two disputing parties than the spoken word. Yet, despite that, history has shown even that wasn’t enough to hold both parties to their commitments. However, it did serve as a model and an inspiration to other fledgling democracies  — notably the United States’ founding fathers and authors of the American Declaration of Independence.

Where would we be without the written word?

It’s likely that we would still be running around as hunter-gatherers, eating each other, beating each other up and killing each other. For me, the written word is probably man’s greatest invention. It’s the invention that has most promoted modern civilization. It has given us words of history, to remember, to learn from and to preserve for all time.

I am Scott Keyser, The Writing Guy, and I’d like to thank you for joining me for yet another article about how to improve writing skills. If you’d like to take your writing to the next level of quality, impact and results, let’s jump on a call and have a chat. You can book your slot here: https://calendly.com/scottkeyser91/.

 

‘Jargon’ definition: where the word comes from

Jargon Definition Write for Results Scott Keyser

Rough and ready transcription of episode 148 of The Writing Guy podcast, all about ‘jargon’ definition, as well as the origin of the word.

Hi there and welcome to episode 148 of The Writing Guy podcast. I’m Scott Keyser, The Writing Guy, helping smart professionals to find their voice, write Human and change the world with their words.

The Writing Guy luxuriates in birdsong

On the weekend, as I mentioned on yesterday’s podcast 147, on Saturday, I had two or three delightful hours at Stonehenge. World Heritage Site, obviously, and a site of deep spiritual, historic and astrological significance. Very, very beautiful. It was a stunning day: if you were in the UK on the Saturday, 12th of June, it was beautiful…and very, very hot. It got so hot that I had to find the shade of a tree.

About 200 metres away from Stonehenge I just lay down in the grass in the shade of this tree, watching the clouds going by and listening to the birdsong. It was very, very beautiful and very relaxing. Not sure if this is giving you insight into how The Writing Guy spends his weekends! I certainly don’t do this every weekend. But even if I did, so what? It was just beautiful to have the time and leisure to be able to do that.

And so I lay there in the shade of this tree because it was really baking hot and I just became aware of this wonderful birdsong going on around me, which as I learned later is mainly skylarks. But there was a lot of activity: flies and bees buzzing around me, and particularly the bird song was, was very impressive and that got me thinking about the word ‘jargon’, because I read many years ago that ‘jargon’ is from Old French [in the podcast I mistakenly said ‘Old English’. Ed] meaning ‘birdsong’ (at least according to the jargon definition in the online etymology dictionary).

Jargonising your writing (ugh!) won’t make your words sound like birdsong

The ‘jargon’ definition comes from the mid-14th century, meaning ‘unintelligible talk, gibberish, chattering or jabbering’, and it’s from the old French jargon. A chattering of birds. So you know, when you are using technical terms or kind of business jargon, you may think, ooh I’m being very artistic by using birdsong, but actually it’s more like unintelligible talk! Nonsense. Hot air.

And it was only from the 1650s that the word ‘jargon’ gained the additional meaning of words or language or phraseology peculiar to a sect, profession, discipline or subject, as in ‘technical jargon’, technical terms, ie ‘technical jargon’. And that’s fine as long as your reader is a member of that particular sect or profession and understands those terms (also known, by the way, as ‘terms of art’, ie a term that has a specialised meaning in a particular field or profession.

So if you’re a lawyer than the word ‘tort’ would count as a term of art. Or if you’re in financial services you might use the phrase ‘collateralized debt obligation’. That will have a particular meaning for people in that professional industry. The temptation or the risk if you like is if you overuse that kind of language, it’s just going to de-humanise it and make it hard even for a technical reader who’s familiar with that terminology to read.

And just going back to ‘jargon’, I also read in the dictionary that Middle English has it as a verb, jargounen, to chatter, which is originally from the French.

The bottom line of the jargon definition

So, yeah, what’s the bottom line from this? How did I get from listening to beautiful birdsong in Stonehenge to the origin of the ‘jargon’ definition? And what does that mean for us as writers?

I guess what that means is that if you are 100% sure that 100% of your readership belong to the same sect, discipline or specialised subject area, then you can safely use technical jargon. But in my experience that’s very rare to have 100% of your readership coming from the same industry, the same specialist industry. There may be occasions where there really is no substitute or no alternative to using a piece of technical jargon. But often, often there is. And I think we as writers need to — for the sake of the reader and readability — we need to strike that balance between using technical jargon and using what I would call plain English, which is simple, middle register, more conversational, more human sounding language.

There you go, that’s it for today. Hope that was useful and I will see you tomorrow for episode 149, Thanks for listening. Bye now.

Meaning of worship, inspired by Stonehenge

meaning of worship scott keyser

Yesterday I had a beautiful day, discovering the meaning of worship. After dropping my daughter off at Bristol, where she’s coming to the end of her Masters there in Economics, I swung via Stonehenge. If you can believe it, in all my 62 years on the planet, specifically in England, I’ve never been to Stonehenge. It was great. Rather than paying the [what I consider rather exorbitant] 25 quid to get in, I just walked along the public footpath that takes you within 100 metres of the stones. That was good enough for me.

It’s really a truly inspiring place (even apart from the weather yesterday, which was stunning). It wasn’t that crowded either, an added bonus. And you know, it’s an incredible monument and a World Heritage Site. It was built, they estimate, 4500 to 5000 years ago, in 2500 BC, as a site of deep spiritual, astrological and astronomical significance.

You probably know this, but the heel stone, main Portal and the altar are aligned on both the mid-winter and the mid-summer solstices. In fact, the mid-summer solstice is coming up in the next few days on the 21st of June. Can you imagine the sophistication, ingenuity and calculations required to get that alignment right, year in year out, for millennia? That’s pretty phenomenal. I was in awe.

As you might expect of The Writing Guy, it got me thinking about language connected with Stonehenge and sites of spiritual significance. So, what is the origin of words like worship, reverence, veneration and adoration? Where do they come from? 

Let’s start with the meaning of worship.

 

The Writing Guy looks at the meaning of ‘worship’

According to the etymology online website, the word worship comes from the Old English or West Saxon word weorðscipe. It means ‘the condition of being worthy’. It also means dignity, glory, distinction, honour or renown. The sense of paying reverence, or revering a supernatural divine being, is first recorded in about 1300, as is the first use of it also meaning an honourable person (as in the Worshipful Company of Glovers, the Worshipful Mayor of London, from around the 13th or 14th century).

So that’s worship. The condition of being worthy, or of having value.

 

The Writing Guy looks at ‘adore’

Next, I looked up adore, which I think I’m right in saying comes from aouren, meaning to worship, pay divine honors to, bow down before. It comes from Old French aorer and before that the Latin adorare, which is composed of two root words: the prefix, ad-, meaning to or towards, and orare, to speak formally to or pray.

So, that’s where we get the idea of adoration when we’re praying to somebody or something. You are praying or speaking to it, in order to be granted some kind of desire or wish.

The meaning ‘to honour very highly’ is attested as coming from the 1590s, whilst the additional meaning of ‘to be very fond of’ is a relatively recent addition from the 1880s.

 

The Writing Guy defines ‘venerate’

Finally, we have venerate. This word comes from Latin veneratus, the past participle of venerare, to revere or worship, which in turn comes from veneris, the genitive form of venusVenus means beauty, love or desire. You can see again, we venerate, we respect something that we love and we find beautiful.

Even further back in time we find the Proto Indo-European root, wen-, which means ‘to desire or strive for’. That’s where we get words like venereal (as in venereal disease) and venery, which is an old word for hunting. I guess if you’re pursuing the object of your affection, they’re you’re ‘quarry’, just as you might pursue a stag or deer. Venial, which I think means mercenary, says you’re in love with money. Venom comes from that as well. Winsome, somebody who’s attractive, and wish comes from wen- as well. It’s something that we desire. We wish for something. So it’s all related.

 

Musings on the meaning of worship

Those are my musings. I hope they’re of some interest—spurred, stimulated and inspired by my stunning afternoon yesterday at Stonehenge.

Thanks very much for joining me here, for the meaning of worship, roused by Stonehenge. I’m Scott Keyser, The Writing Guy, helping smart professionals to find their voice, write Human and change the world with their words. I invite you subscribe to this blog, as well as to The Writing Guy podcast.

 

How to double your readability score

readability scott keyser

The other day, I spoke about a webinar that I ran for a client. I had sent them a very short paragraph written in corporate gobbledygook, and their mission—should they have chosen to accept it—was to rewrite it in plain English. That meant using simple, jargon-free language. Using the readability stats in Word, everybody, without exception, managed to double their readability as measured by the Flesch reading ease score. In Kelly’s case, her results were simply stunning.

So what I’d like to do is share with you her original rewrite, along with its readability score. Then I’ll share her ultimate version, with amazing readability.

 

Kelly’s paragraph, with low readability

This was Kelly’s original rewrite:

‘We’re excited to create our new e-business strategy. And we’d like to get your ideas on how we can shape our new strategy.’ (So she changed the tone of voice a little bit, quite rightly trying to make it more inspirational and direct using ‘you’ and ‘your’, in second person singular. Then she goes on to write…) ‘To help inspire you, our objective is online innovation, supporting profitability, customer acquisition…and brand enhancement must continue to drive what we do. We must also set clear targets that are achievable, and demonstrate our capabilities’. I like the beginning of that, where she’s using a contraction. ‘We’re excited to create our new business strategy and we’d like to get your ideas’. So that’s nice and human and conversational, but then to my ear, at least, it sort of lapses into a kind of management-speak with ‘online innovation, customer acquisition and brand enhancement’. And then she talks about ‘demonstrating our capabilities’ which is not really plain English.

Now, when we score the readability on that, her average sentence length (ASL) was just within range at 19.6 words, but her average characters per word ran to 5.1 which is a little bit too high. That immediately indicates to me that she’s using needlessly formal, polysyllabic words. As a result, her readability score was only 36%.

So we worked on it together, just for a few minutes, proving that this stuff is so easy. You know, writing with impact, writing concisely, writing with personality and power is not rocket science. This is a learnable skill.

 

Doubled readability in Kelly’s revision

Here is Kelly’s revised version:

‘We’re excited about creating a new e-business strategy and we’d like your ideas to help shape it. To help you, our main goal is online innovation. That will help you to win new customers, build your brand and make more money. Hitting these targets will show that we have the right mix of skills.’

So I slightly changed just a couple of the words there but you get the idea. It’s shorter. It’s more concise. We’ve kept the the contractions, which renders it conversational and human. And in fact, that first line has got quite a nice rhythm to it. ‘We’re excited about creating our new e-business strategy and we’d like your ideas to help shape it.’ There’s a bit of a rhythm there. And then we’ve got a short sentence ‘To help you, our main goal is online innovation’. Okay, full stop. ‘We’d like you to focus…’ Because she used the word focus which is a S.O.W. (Severely Over-used Word), I just replaced that on the hoof. ‘That will help you to win new customers…’ here we have verbs, including ‘build’ and ‘make more money’.

So can you hear that? Hear the difference between ‘supporting profitability, customer acquisition and brand enhancement…’ in the first version? ‘To win new customers, build your brand and make more money’? You know, it’s plainer English. It’s simpler and more powerful. Much easier to read. 

We decided to launch the last sentence with a gerund, which is a verbal noun: ‘Hitting these targets will show…’, rather than ‘demonstrate’. ‘Show’ is one syllable, ‘demonstrate’ is three syllables. Use the simpler word: ‘Hitting these targets will show that we have the right mix of skills’, rather than ‘We must also set clear targets that are achievable and demonstrate our capabilities.’

 

The overwhelming readability preference

Don’t know about you, but I certainly know which style of writing I’d prefer to read. That later, ultimate version that Kelly created had an average sentence length of 14 words, which is brilliant. Average characters per word dropped from 5.1 to 4.5 because she started using simpler, shorter words and simpler language. As a result of that, we doubled her readability. It went from 36% to just under 72%, which is well within plain English.

Hats off to Kelly, who just showed how easy it was, with brilliant results. I would say we did that in a total elapsed time of 10 or 15 minutes. That’s how easy this stuff is! I really want to impress upon you that the ability to write with impact, power and personality is an eminently learnable skill that is within everybody’s gifts. So on that note—that hopefully inspiring note—I’m going to leave it there for now.

Thank you, Kelly, for being a brilliant delegate. 

This readability article has been taken directly from Episode 146 of The Writing Guy podcast. Please have a listen if you’d like.

 

I’m Scott Keyser, The Writing Guy, helping smart professionals to find their voice, write Human and get the results they want from the words they write. Interested in transforming your writing? Then please get in touch for a relaxed, no-obligation chat with Scott. Simply send an email to scott@writeforresults.com.

A quick cure for wordiness and wind

wordiness scott keyser write for results

Last week I ran a webinar for a longstanding client. We had eight people on the call and were using the Readability Stats in Word to track improvements in their readability score for each successive version of a re-writing exercise I’d set them. The exercise was to ‘translate’ a piece of corporate gobbledygook, riddled with wordiness, into good, old fashioned, mid-register plain English.

The Readability Stats in Word are really useful. They give you a percentage score (called the ‘Flesch Reading Ease’) based on the work of a psychologist called Dr. Rudolph Flesch, a clever man. A Viennese Jew who fled Nazism in the 1930s, Flesch settled in Manhattan and spent the rest of his life there studying readability and writing some really good books about it. This is how Readability Stats look:

wordiness scott keyser

 

How to Diagnose Wordiness

Within 90 minutes, everybody on the call had raised their FRE from mid- to late-20% — which is pretty poor — to 60% and beyond. All the delegates saw their readability double and, in a few cases, triple. According to the Stats, plain English — which most B2B writers should be writing, but don’t — starts at an FRE of 60%. It’s rare for business writers to hit the heights of plain English, believe me.

In the readability stats, you need to be aware of four numbers or ‘ratios’. Well, five, if you include word count, but I’m sure you already know how to do that. The four numbers to look out for are:

1. average words per sentence (ASL), which should be 15–20 words
2. Flesch Reading Ease, which is a percentage, with plain English kicking in at 60%
3. the proportion of your sentences in the passive voice, which should be as close as possible to 0%
4. average characters per word (circled in red in the Stats below)

I want to focus on the fourth one.

 

Wordiness: A Closer Look

What I noticed during last week’s webinar (and for many years before that) is that almost all the delegates were using business-speak, buzzwords and ‘MBA-itis’. Besides being honking great clichés that make readers’ eyes glaze over, these words are long and push the average number of characters per word up to 5.0 and beyond.

But even without reading the text, merely by looking at that fourth number, I knew what the problem was. They were being needlessly wordy, formal and verbose. Despite paying lip-service to the concept of plain English, they weren’t using it.

Instead they were writing stuff like ‘We are committed to focusing on this strategic priority…bla-bla-bla.’ This isn’t just wordiness, it’s as far away from plain English as Z is from A.

In some cases I think the number was more like 5.7 or even 6.0 . And even though that may not sound like a lot, the moment your average characters per word goes above 5.0, you’re in trouble. That flatulent troll (‘Windy’) has grabbed you by the ankles and is dragging you — and your readability — down.

 

An Equation to Combat Wordiness

As I was thinking about this all-too-common problem with business writing, I was reminded of an important equation we’d all do well to remember:

The value to the reader of your content should always be greater than the energy they need to expend to get that content:

Value of content to reader > energy needed to get the content

Another way of putting it: the value to the reader of your content should be a multiple of the brain calories they expend to get it. The less readable your writing, the harder you make it for your reader. And the likelier you are to lose them. They may never revisit your writing again, which would be a sorry state of affairs. Don’t let it get to that…or Windy may crush you underfoot.

wordiness scott keyser

Thank you for joining me in this jaunt through wordiness and its remedies. Should you have questions regarding plain English, winning bids, nailing pitches…anything related to writing…please contact me and we’ll chat. I also invite you to connect with me on Facebook and LinkedIn

Scott Keyser is The Writing Guy, helping smart professionals find their voice, write Human and change the world with their words. He issues a daily podcast, The Writing Guy

Spelling magick

spelling scott keyser

A couple of days ago, on Sunday, I spoke in my podcast about the lovely, serendipitous stay that my wife and I had in a gorgeous part of Somerset called Barrington. In the bookshop in Barrington Court (a stunning National Trust estate worth a visit), I picked up a secondhand copy of a book called Spellbound, The improbable story of English spelling, by one James Essinger. And if you clocked that particular episode of the podcast, I’d come out without any money. But the farmer whose land we were staying on — who happened to be behind me in the queue — kindly lent me the money to buy it. So I’ve been reading this wonderful book, Spellbound (an apt description of its effect on me) and it’s fascinating.

For me, it’s cemented the link between spelling and magic.

Let me say that again.

I believe that spelling and magic are linked. And I will — if you’ll excuse the pun — try and spell that out for you.

 

Tidings of great joy

We all know that spelling means writing a word with the letters in the right order. And obviously if you do that, you’ve spelled (spelt?) it correctly. And if you don’t, you’ve misspelled (misspelt?) it. Now the derivation, the origin, of ‘spell’ is the ancient Germanic word, spell, meaning ‘recital’ or ‘tale’. And when it entered Old English or Anglo-Saxon in about 500 AD, not surprisingly it gained the meaning of a narrated, spoken, oral story. Picture a bunch of bearded Saxons huddled around a fire deep in Epping Forest telling tales (some of them tall).

And this is the root of the word ‘gospel’, the teachings of Christ. Originally gōdspell in Anglo-Saxon, it meant ‘good story’ or ‘good news’. Obviously if you’re a Christian, you’d see the story of Christ as good news. But whatever your religion, you’re likely to agree that the Gospel (the first four Books of the New Testament) is the story of a good man who did good works.

 

The second meaning of ‘spell’

Of course ‘spell’ has another meaning, that of a magic spell, first recorded in 1579. A spell is a special set of words, formulae or verse possessing magical powers — usually found in a book called a ‘grimoire’ (think Hogwarts library) — able to confer magical powers on somebody or something. Once again, we’re back to spelling: if you mis-order the words of a spell, your magic may not work. Your wand will be just another old stick of hazel or willow. So spelling out your spell correctly matters.

But where might that come from, that second magical meaning?

Back to Christ, or to be precise, His birth.

I’m speculating here, but the Oxford English Dictionary suggests that one source of the word ‘magic’ is magus, specifically a member of the Persian priestly class of the 6th century BC, and, generally, priests or wise men.

And the three wise men (magi, plural of magus) who visited the infant Jesus at his birth were either priests or astrologers, hence they were able to navigate their way to Bethlehem by the stars (and then able to go home by a different route to avoid King Herod). After all, you wouldn’t invite any Tom, Dick or Harry to such an auspicious event, would you?

 

Picture the scene: you’re a Sumerian slave

Imagine being an illiterate worker in Sumeria or Babylon or the Holy Land, and a man in a long,  purple robe who can write, spell and speak well tells you that in precisely four days he will make the moon blot out the sun (an eclipse). You pooh-pooh it, but when it happens, you fall to your knees in awe at this ‘magician’. He’s just a clever man who knows his astrology. So the jump from wisdom to magic is a tiny one.

Leaving aside the astrological aspect, thousands of years ago the sheer ability to write and spell properly, to record important events, like the birth of a royal heir, to make people do things through the written word, would have wowed the average person. He or she (they) would have regarded them as possessing special, supernatural, quasi-divine powers; I know I would have.
There are stories in the Middle Ages of people pouring water on the illuminated manuscript of a Bible and drinking the inky liquid to (literally) imbibe the word of God.

Picture that. The scribe would not have been pleased!

 

The next link: spelling, magic and song

As James Essinger says in his book Spellbound, when we have a spell cast on us, we are charmed — as in a snake charmer; we are fascinated. We are thrown into a trance, entranced, which links to the idea of enchantment, from chanting (French, chanter, to sing). Chanting is rhythmic, incantatory sound that can charm and spellbind us. Likewise, when we’re in the presence of a charismatic person, we can be captivated, deprived of our free will or volition. Charmed into submission (or seduction).

And that brings us to another aspect of spelling: the concept of rhythm. Poetic or musical rhythm relies on the words or the sounds being in the right order, as in spelling a word correctly. It’s the precise order that creates the harmony and conjures an effect upon us. Mess up the order of the spell, the song or the poem, and it doesn’t work.

Can you see how spelling, story, news, magic, rhythm and order all seem to be connected?

 

So, what does spelling mean for us as writers?

If the people we’re trying to influence with our words don’t know us personally — as in a bid, blog or brochure — we need to spell words correctly. There’s no excuse for spelling words wrong, especially when we have spell-check to hand. (Having said that, Shakespeare spelt his own name six different ways, so you may want to use that in your defence.)

The other thing I’d say about spelling — and I use that to mean placing things in the right order — is the idea of rhythm and arrangement. We need to be aware that, even when we’re writing prose, our writing can be rhythmic; it can flow, rise and fall. And one of the great ways, maybe the only way, of sussing out our rhythm is to read our writing out loud. (I devote a whole chapter to this in my book, rhetorica®).

Whatever you do, please read your writing out loud before you publish, share or send it.

As for arrangement, that’s about the structure of your document, ie what order you put the content in. But that’s another story, for another day.

Let’s leave spelling there for now. At first you may have thought that spelling was a relatively small aspect of writing. But I hope I’ve shown that, viewed differently, it’s a skylight on a much larger world. You might even call it magick.

spelling scott keyser the writing guy

~~~

Scott Keyser is The Writing Guy, helping smart professionals to find their voice, write Human and change the world with their words. He issues a daily podcast, ‘The Writing Guy’, on https://anchor.fm/scott-keyser/.

In the era of fake news, punctuation matters

punctuation scott keyser
Today, on the BBC website, in an article on the US-Mexico border wall, an important punctuation mark has gone AWOL. A sentence reads ‘A government watchdog is also reviewing compulsory purchases being made along the US-Mexico border with property owners resisting the Trump administration’s efforts to build on private land.’
 
The missing comma between border and with introduces ambiguity. A busy reader scanning the text could interpret it as meaning ‘the watchdog was reviewing compulsory purchases together with/alongside property owners’. This is in contrast to the intended meaning: ‘against a backdrop of property owners resisting the Trump administration’. Omitting the comma changes the meaning completely. 
It might be hard to believe that one little comma could change the core message of an entire sentence, but it can.
Take this comma for instance:  ‘It’s time to eat, Grandpa’. You’re obviously calling Grandpa to dinner. Remove the comma and you have ‘It’s time to eat Grandpa’.
Grandpa might not fare so well in the second example.

Remedying this punctuation dilemma 

In the BBC news sentence, inserting a comma after border would signal to the reader that additional information is coming. It would tell us that private property owners are resisting the Administration building on their land. This is crucial, particularly when the world is getting its news from this reputable source. 
 
The primary purpose of punctuation is to clarify meaning. And when it comes to navigating the minefield of ‘fake news’, clarity is all. 
Confused about the rights and wrongs of punctuation? Worried about mis-punctuation? Even the most confident writer can make punctuation mistakes that compromise their message. Let’s connect, to establish a better understanding of punctuation, spelling, word history, plain English and so much more! You can find me on LinkedInFacebook and The Writing Guy podcast.

WordWayv: The Wave/Particle Theory of Rhythmic Writing

Write for Results

© Scott Keyser 2019

WordWayvTM is a new way of representing the natural rhythms of the written and spoken word in English. The purpose of this blog is to introduce the concept of rhythmic writing and establish my IP/copyright in WordWayvTM.

~~~

Everything is energy.

The air you breathe, the water you drink, the ground you walk on, the chair you’re sitting on, the shoes you’re in. That chair may feel solid to you, but in reality it’s a universe of electrons whizzing around nuclei so fast that it feels solid. But if you could peer into one of those plastic, leather or wood molecules in your chair, you’d see largely empty space.

There is no such thing as matter.

Isaac Newton posited the theory of stable, unchanging ‘building blocks’ of matter, that create unending chain reactions of cause and effect. But quantum mechanics and sub-atomic physics tell us he was wrong. There’s only energy.

And energy — eg radiation (the electro-magnetic spectrum, including visible and ultra-violet light), sound, wind, electricity, water — has two properties: it consists of particles and it travels in waves.

In terms of particles, think photons (light), air molecules (sound, wind), electrons (electricity), water molecules (water).

If everything is energy and energy comprises particles and moves in waves, it follows that language shares the same properties. It, too, must consist of particles and move in waves.

The particles are the individual letters and words (interestingly, grammarians refer to monosyllabic words like prepositions, pronouns, articles and conjunctions as ‘particles’). They make up the words we speak and write.

And when they combine in sentences or stanzas, they move in waves. That’s rhythmic writing.

 

Rhythmic writing…as spoken words

We hear rhythmic writing most easily in speech, in the rise and fall of stressed and unstressed syllables. (A syllable is a unit of sound within a word.) A stressed syllable is one we emphasise, and an unstressed syllable is one we don’t.

Take the words continue, discuss, reduce, betray, catholic and perform. Here are the stressed syllables CAPITALISED:

conTINue

diSCUSS

reDUCE

beTRAY

CATHolic

perFORM

This tendency of English to vary the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables is known as ‘accentuation’, ie when we speak, we give our words a particular weight, push, emphasis or accent. It’s why English is known as a ‘stress-timed’ language. This gives it its familiar rise and fall, its unmistakable rhythm.

But not all languages are the same. In the Chinese languages and in Thai, for example, all the words are of one syllable (‘monosyllabic’) and variety in speech is achieved by varying pitch, ie the speaker’s voice goes up or down in timbre.

Here are two sentences, with the stressed syllables capitalised:

EVery TIME we TALK, we STRING toGETHer a SERies of STRESSED and UNstressed SYLLables withOUT even THINKing aBOUT it. THIS gives our LANGuage its RHYthm.

Do you see how the particles — the smaller words, like we, a, of, and, even, our, its — are typically unstressed? The stress falls on the words, and the parts of the words, that carry the most meaning. So sound and stress collaborate to convey meaning.

When you say those two sentences out loud, you can hear how the alternation of stressed and unstressed syllables makes the sound rise and fall, like a wave. This is the wave-like rhythm of our spoken language.

The same goes for our written language. Speech and writing are intimately connected: humans spoke (and sang) before they wrote; speech gave birth to writing. And the most obvious type of rhythmic writing is poetry.

 

Rhythmic writing in poetry

The following satirical ditty — written in the 18thcentury by Samuel Johnson — uses a simple, regular pattern of stressed/unstressed syllables:

I put my hat upon my head,
And walked into the Strand,
And there I met another man
Whose hat was in his hand.

Here are the stressed syllables capitalised:

I PUT my HAT upON my HEAD,
And WALKED inTO the STRAND,
And THERE I MET anOTHer MAN
Whose HAT was IN his HAND.

(If you’re unsure, try saying it out loud. But this time, stress the lower case, unstressed syllables; it sounds absurd and unnatural.)

When we learn ‘prosody’ (the study of poetic meter and versification) at school, we’re taught that ditties like this are in ‘iambic trimeter’ and ‘tetrameter’, that lines 1 and 3 have four ‘metrical feet’, while lines 2 and 4 have three.

How off-putting is that lingo? The technical jargon of prosody makes it sound complicated, difficult and dull. But it’s profoundly simple, because we naturally use these rhythms; they’re in our DNA.

So, we can hear the rise and fall of this poem’s basic rhythm — especially when we say it out loud or hear someone else reciting it. But what if we could see it, graphically, as a picture?

Now we can, using WordWayvTM, my wave/particle theory of rhythmic writing.

 

WordWayvTM  to map rhythmic writing

First, let’s map the stressed and unstressed syllables in the above poem, using graph paper, so the syllables are evenly spaced. As you can see in the image below, each syllable on each line gets its own mini-box, with a dot placed above the stressed syllables and a dot beneath the unstressed ones, reflecting the capitalised syllables in the version of the poem above.

rhythmic writing scott keyser

 

Next, if we join the dots on each line, we see the wave shape, the rise and fall, of the iambic rhythm emerging:

 

 

rhythmic writing scott keyser

Of course, representing it like this doesn’t do justice to the fluidity of the poetry; the graphic style is linear and angular. Nonetheless, the regularity of the rhythm/wave is clear to see: lines 1 and 3 and 2 and 4 are rhythmically identical.

When we turn it into a WordWayvTM, though, we get something more fluid:

rhythmic writing scott keyser

 

You can see (I hope!) that the stressed syllables sit in the crest of the wave, and the unstressed ones in the trough or dip. The particles (the individual words) constitute the wave; the wave unites the particles. And the rhythm — or flow — gives it energy.

This poetic meter or rhythm is technically known as ‘iambic trimeter/tetrameter’, but I prefer to call it the ‘3- and 4-crested wave’. I’m sure most school children would prefer that, too!

 

Rhythmic writing, bastardised

Now, let’s see what happens to the rhythm when we effectively bastardise it by changing a few words:

I put my fedora upon my head,
And walked into the Strand,
And there I encountered another man
Whose hat was in his suitcase.

And now with the stressed syllables capitalised:

I PUT my feDORa upon my HEAD,
And WALKED inTO the STRAND,
And THERE I enCOUNTered aNOTHer MAN
Whose HAT was IN his SUITcase.

The loss of rhythm is clear to the ear, but how about to the eye? When we join the dots and show it graphically, how does it look?

rhythmic writing scott keyser

 

The extra syllables in the words fedora and encountered have spoilt the rhythm of lines 1 and 3; they now sound almost ridiculous. And losing the alliteration of the ‘h’ of hat and hand in line 4, the loss of the rhyme of Strand with hand, and with the poem ending on the falling note of the unstressed syllable case — all of this has destroyed the rhythm.

It’s arrhythmic. And now we can both hear and see it.

 

More rhythmic writing to come

In my next blog, I’ll use WordWayvTM to examine more complex poetry and prose, and show you how establishing rhythm in any form of writing gives it clarity, conciseness and power.

Till then, “Style is a very simple matter; it is all about rhythm. Once you get that, you can’t use the wrong words…”
Virginia Woolf

I invite you to join me, The Writing Guy, in learning more about the rhythm of the English language. Visit the Write for Results website and the Write for Results Facebook page today.

 

Dancing with words: a sign of intelligence

sign of intelligence scott keyser

As human readers and writers, we’re always looking for a sign of intelligence in making decisions. Whom to read, whom to hire, whom to contract…the list goes on. How do we do that? What are the criteria and are we even aware of them?

Yesterday I had a NeuroKinetic Therapy™ (NKT) session with a therapist called Sue (for a sports-related knee injury). NKT addresses musculo-skeletal problems by getting the whole body working and moving in balance and harmony.

I always come out of Sue’s sessions feeling and moving better than when I went in; I literally skip home. That got me thinking about fluidity, fluency and flow, both physical and mental. When we see somebody walking, running or dancing — activities demanding physical co-ordination — we can see at a glance whether they’re moving well, with grace, elegance and ease, or whether they’re moving badly or with difficulty.

It’s the same with writing.

Within a few moments we know if we’re in the hands of an artist or an amateur. If it’s well written, our eyes flow across the lines and down the page, assimilating the meaning of the well-chosen words and merging with the rhythm set by the writer. Fluency and flow make it easier to decode and process the words. Our perception of the message and the messenger are positively influenced. We find the sign of intelligence we were searching for.

On the other hand, if the writing is clunky, clumsy and hard to process — all too common in B2B writing — the reader won’t hang around for long. Most business readers are unforgiving, abandoning this type of writing sooner than you can say ‘plain English’. Losing your reader = communications failure.

Sign of intelligence:  a study

The search for a sign of intelligence isn’t just about the language.

A 2005 study conducted by Daniel Oppenheimer among Stanford University graduates found that visual disfluency caused by poor choice of font or typographic style lowered their perception of the author’s intelligence. So the content of your writing is just one of a kaleidoscope of elements — including font, point size, leading (line spacing), page grid, line length and graphics — that need to function in concert to move the reader both intellectually and emotionally.

This doesn’t happen by chance. Though writing well is neither an innate gift nor a Ninja-style black art, but a learnable skill…it still has to be learnt. The craft has to be mastered.

As I skipped home from my therapy session thinking about the connection between writing and movement, I recalled the words of one of the greatest writers ever to grace the English language:

“True ease in writing comes from art, not chance,
As those move easiest who have learn’d to dance.”

Alexander Pope, An Essay on Criticism

Are your business communications answering the call for a sign of intelligence? Or are they missing the mark? Find out by learning about plain English, writing human and much more as I walk you through how to win bids and tenders, nail your pitch and transform your writing. It’s all on my website, writeforresults.com.