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Monday, November 29, 2004
Any fool can learn to write for an audience. Or, at least, anybody can learn the techniques of analysing a brief or sampling the tone of past publications to make a new piece of writing match the readers' requirements.

We were once involved in creating a style guide for 40,000 BT managers, which we called Right for Your Reader.

Great title, we thought, feeling proud of having declined the obvious pun.

But, of course, once we had launched the idea of writing what was right for your reader, there didn't seem all that much more to say. The single main, transforming thought was already sitting there, right on the front cover.

And though we worked hard to pack the rest of the book with lively and interesting stuff, the main propaganda job was already done. (We did, however, nick George Bernard Shaw's little joke about spelling "fish" as "ghoti" — "gh" as in "enough", "o" as in "women", "ti" as in "nation" — and commission some superb Bill Tidy cartoons.)

We went through all the routine sections about abbreviations and greengrocers' plurals and checking your place names properly (Middlesbrough and Edinburgh, Newcastle upon Tyne but Kingston-upon-Thames, Land's End but St Helens and Earls Court — full marks and a polygraph test to all those who claim to have got all seven right without hesitation).

We also covered many of the trickier grammatical and usage issues that form the meat of today's e-editor Web site, so the book became a useful desktop aid for writers to refer back to.

But we soon realised that however lax the BT managers were in slapping their prose together, the in-house editors could usually sort it out.

The managers didn't really need to know these details — as long as they had the grace to accept that their rough-hewn work would need to be cleaned up by professionals who did know the ins and outs of good business English.

All they needed to do was look at our book, without opening it, and then go ahead and write for their readers.

Some did. Some cottoned on fast and started producing direct, unselfconscious writing that echoed the energy and enthusiasm they brought to their subjects when they stood up and talked about them.

Others didn't. They wrote us plaintive e-mails beginning "I'm afraid I have to disagree with your views on split infinitives. When I was at school, we were told..." and stuffed full of misspellings and grammatical howlers.

The members of the second group, of course, were so distracted by the half-understood minutiae of form that they completely lost sight of content.

But they made us realise that producing business text to suit a particular audience is a thoroughly misunderstood process.

Getting the content right for the reader is the responsibility of the author. And in 99 cases out of 100, that is exactly where the limits of the author's responsibility should be set.

Presenting that content to the reader in its most accessible and striking form — honouring every nuance, but striking out every windy cliché and cavalier contradiction — is the other half of the exercise.

That depends on editorial skill and judgement, and on the editor having the humility and stamina to check all those names, facts, details and dates the author couldn't be bothered to question.

But that's the only way to get things right. That's how you avoid references to China's population of 2 billion people, or mentions of the Balkans in pieces about the countries around the Baltic Sea. That's how sows' ears are turned into silk purses.

Doing this is a noble and honourable calling. After all, in most companies producing research reports, market analyses, brokers' comments or industry updates, a single top-class editor can make more difference than a whole squad of new analysts and commentators.

It's all about leverage.

Assuming your authors or analysts aren't chained to their keyboards seven hours a day, you'll usually find that one talented e-editor can handle the output of six to ten writers.

That means a whole heap of better material hitting the Web site or appearing in print for the cost of just one extra name on the payroll. Recruiting one more hotshot analyst is not going to do that for you.

It's true that many of your readers won't consciously notice an improvement in editorial quality.

But try it the other way round. Ask them if they've noticed the "deliberate mistakes" in your documents and you'll almost always find they've picked up errors that have slipped through your net.

That's not good for your reputation and authority. And if your air of unimpeachable authority starts to slip, that's a decline that can be hard to reverse.

Wherever credibility counts with customers, accuracy and clarity mean money in the bank.

Because getting it right for your reader isn't just a style issue. It's also very good for business.

Sunday, November 07, 2004
We keep being asked by well-wishers exactly who this blog is for. In fact, though, it seems to be a characteristic of the way it works that everyone who reads it feels like an eavesdropper.

In a sense, it's for no-one — yet.

It's like overhearing provocative fragments of conversation on a train, when you haven't the gall to peer round the corner and see who the participants are.

In any sort of business context, of course, that would be a disaster. We need to know who we're targeting, don't we? We all want a brief that spells out who we're writing for, ideally with a bit of background on demographics and lifestyles as well.

But here it doesn't matter. No-one's selling anybody anything. And that makes a difference.

We don't need to gently flatter and coax an audience. We don't have to mind our Ps and Qs, except in the interests of sustaining our reputation for wit and literacy and fending off the attentions of our fellow-pedants. (Yes, "to gently flatter" was a split infinitive. And it was a good decision to split it, too. Do you really think "gently to flatter" or "to flatter gently" would have worked better in context? Get out of here.)

Because nobody's bothered to pay much attention before to the people we call e-editors.

No-one seems to have recognised that there's a large — if fragmented — community of wordworkers of one sort or another that's ill served by the artificial demarcation lines between marketing, PR, internal comms, copywriting, Web content production, technical authoring and journalism.

Yet it doesn't take more than a few sums on the back of an envelope to work out that there are thousands of these jobs that depend, at least in part, on applying traditionally journalistic skills, techniques and disciplines to the production of printed or online material.

The IPR (Institute of Public Relations), the IPA (Institute of Practitioners in Advertising), the CiB (British Association of Communicators in Business), the CIM (Chartered Institute of Marketing) and the dear old NUJ all cater for some of these areas. But many of us could quite easily slot into three or four of these worthy bodies — and probably, in practice, have contact with none of them.

Despite the mythology of Fleet Street, people who work with words can be an unclubbable lot, and we're not expecting to be running e-editor eisteddfods (or eisteddfodau, for the purists) any time soon. But there must be some merit in bringing together these separated tribes of wordsmiths and building a forum for their different views and perspectives.

We do know we've got readers out there in the construction industry, in a couple of national charities, in software companies, mail-order catalogue houses and a few legal firms. But the direct feedback that comes in to us is so sparse that we can hardly begin to put a coherent picture together.

We certainly don't know enough about our UK readers to start pandering to their prejudices, or indeed focusing on their particular interests. And we can guess even less about the overseas half of our audience, which seems, according to our traffic logs, to be an unexpected mixture of Americans and Eastern Europeans.

So if you feel inclined to drop us a line at any time, with comments, criticisms or suggestions, don't hold back. After the jolting disruptions that have slowed our posting rate to a crawl over the last couple of months, we're back on track now and expecting to publish at least once every week or two. It would be good to know our droppings were not falling on deaf eaves.
The live blog for everybody who lives and dies by the word. The UK's top guide to editing better and getting more respect for it is at www.e-editor.co.uk.

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