Category Archives: Tips

Simple solutions for stress-free writing

Writing is stressful. I think Hemingway nailed it when he said: “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”

I suppose we should be grateful we don’t have the added stress of using a typewriter (thank the Flying Spaghetti Monster for undo, cut/paste and autosave), but the writing process has many more sources of stress that are best to squash or avoid if we want to enjoy it.

Ok, so I’m probably not the best example of a stress-free writer – walk into my office at any random moment and there’s a chance you’ll find me staring out the window with two handfuls of hair. But it’s a small chance, because I’ve got a few stress busting moves to keep me breathing under the weight of a million words. Here they are, to keep us all calm during what’s left of Stress Awareness Month.

Get organized.

Deadlines. Oh, deadlines. I love them and I hate them. They hide in a dark corner silently for ages, then jump out and scare the monkeys out of me in the middle of the night. There are the ones that are far away, looking all tiny and harmless (but that get bigger and hairier until… aaaAARRRRGH!) and there are the ones that appear suddenly – other people’s giant deadlines, thrust onto my to do list. Individually they’re manageable and helpful, but in a pack they can become unwieldy and menacing.

Familiar? Then maybe it’s time to get organized. Having multiple clients, projects and deadlines can get really confusing, and the best way to keep on top of it all is with some kind of project management system or calendar. I use Asana and a simple spreadsheet, but there are lots of (free) options to choose from.

Asana holds all my main projects and sub-tasks, and my trusty spreadsheet has my daily to do list. At the end of each week I check in on the upcoming deadlines on Asana and make myself a list, broken down by day and deadline, so I can shift things around if I need to. (Because, you know, other people’s deadlines.) Of course, nothing is foolproof, but this way I know I won’t forget anything and I have a good idea of how much is on my plate before I take on more work.

Set yourself clear goals.

What’s worse than loads of deadlines? NO DEADLINES! Talk about the perfect way to make sure I get absolutely nothing done. My novel has no deadline, and that’s exactly why it’s languishing deep inside one of my computer’s sub-folders and not front and centre in all my favourite bookshops (I really should work on that…). Without deadlines I’m a flailing, flaky disaster.

That’s why I set myself deadlines! If a piece of work comes in without a clear deadline, I make sure I have my own, even if the client doesn’t know about or need it. This is particularly useful for bigger projects: if there’s a report or a book that’s stretching out over a number of weeks or even months, I make sure I set sub-deadlines. That way I avoid the cold sweats and silent screams in the middle of the night when I realize the big deadline is only a week away (flashback to my dissertation… ok, both of them).

Write something. Anything.

Then there’s the terror only a blank page can bring. Sure, it’s sometimes a blessing, but what if you’re completely out of inspiration, tired at the end of a busy week? You can almost feel the beads of blood gathering on your forehead, reluctant to drip onto the page.

What really helps me is to chew it up, one chunk at a time. I start by reading up on the topic and once I’ve gathered my thoughts, I draw (physically, with paper and a pencil) the skeleton of the story. What do I want to say where? I start with the big sections – the introduction, sub-headings and conclusion – and assign rough word counts to each part, based on the overall length of the piece.

Then I just get writing. I tap away, following my stream of consciousness, and eventually it starts to sound coherent. I don’t always start at the beginning, I often just pick whatever pops into my head first or whatever seems easiest to get on with. If it’s an article about bees, say, I might decide to start with a paragraph about what makes them the coolest insects in history – that’s easy stuff for me.

Fleshing out the skeleton this way is far less stressful than sitting down and attempting to ‘bleed’ thousands of words from scratch. Plus it means I’m not wasting time writing hundreds of (albeit inspired) words about one tiny aspect of the topic, only to slash them later. That’s always painful.

For #%@&’s sake, BLINK!

If I’m madly trying to make my fingers keep up with my brain while getting increasingly stressed out about the five other things I have to write that day, I can easily sit for hours without standing up, drinking, peeing or blinking. I mean, seriously, that’s just inviting stress to bubble up inside, ready to pop out at the tiniest thing. The same happens when I’m in a flow – I forget everything that’s going on around me, including the passage of time, only to emerge hours later with dry eyes and a full bladder.

This might help me get through something on nervous energy, but the next day I’ll be a wreck. Working in little bursts helps me (or if I’m in a flow, setting myself reminders to ‘check in’ with myself). I often work in Pomodori – 25-minute stretches of intense focus, followed by little movement breaks. When the egg timer alarm beeps in my ear, I blink, breathe and check in with my body to see what it needs. Thirsty? I grab water. Peckish? A mandarin. Then I blink and breathe some more, before refreshing the timer and diving in again.

No, Facebook, just no.

I’m waxing lyrical about a brand new material that could end our dependency on fossil fuels when POP! my phone makes a little noise telling me something important has just happened somewhere in my social network. I glance across then ignore it, because distractions take 15 minutes (or 25, depending on the study) to overcome. It’s probably just a photo of someone’s cat. Or maybe someone with a few days off checking in at a bar in Berlin. But what if it’s someone asking a question on my Tell Lucy Facebook page? Or someone Tweeting me about a piece of work? Actually, it would be really unprofessional of me not to look.

I look. It’s a cat. Granted, it’s a cat in a jumper with an inspirational quote, but a cat, nonetheless. It takes me 15 minutes to get back on track. I’m 15 minutes more stressed about my deadline.

There’s a simple solution: switch it off. Turn of notifications, pop-ups, noises, vibrations. Or go one step further like I have and delete the app altogether. Yes, today it’s important to be connected online for business, but that doesn’t mean you have to be on emergency standby in case someone posts a photo you need to like, especially not if that’s sending your stress levels sky-high. Carving out a bit of time each day – maybe five minutes in the morning, after lunch and at the end of the day – to check social media means your apps can leave you in peace while you’re writing.

Overcome imposter syndrome.

There’s another reason those pesky notifications bother me: what if it’s someone saying they don’t like my article? What if it’s a troll on social media? As a writer, I have the common but debilitating fear that my writing isn’t good enough – especially if I’m writing something that’s meaningful to me (like a children’s book, which has been collecting dust for months).

If you’re a professional writer too, the chances are you’re just experiencing imposter syndrome – the irrational fear that you’ll be ‘found out’. There’s an easy way to deal with this. Find a proofreader (or several) and ask them for feedback. Proofreading is absolutely vital if you want to produce decent work, and by asking someone you know will give you an honest critique while they’re finding typos, you can stifle that stress. Here are my tips for finding the perfect proofreader.

What’s stressing you out?

Are you sitting and trying to bleed over your computer keyboard, Hemingway-style? Is it stressing you out? As with most things, the key to eliminating (or, more realistically, reducing) stress is to identify your own pain points and take steps to tackle each of them. Share your biggest stresses – or your best solutions – in the comments so we can all keep calm and carry on writing.

Now I’m off for my ultimate de-stresser: a good old cup of tea.

Five ways to stay awake when you’re burning the midnight oil

My six-month-old baby is fast asleep in the bedroom. So is my husband. I’m sitting here listening to their little sleep noises and looking at the clock: it’s 03:22. I’m working, and I won’t be stopping for some time.

sleepybabyOne of the questions I’m most often asked as a new mum is “does he sleep well?” Yes, yes he does. Infinitely better than I do, as it turns out. I’m not just a new mum; I’m also a (relatively) new business owner with an ever-growing amount of work. It’s a luxury problem, of course, and I relish the challenge. I also have the good fortune to be working with some fantastic freelance writers. But often I find myself sitting here burning the midnight oil because I’m in a flow or on a deadline.

As a result, I’ve mastered the art of staying awake and maintaining concentration – even in the absence of caffeine. Here are my top tips for staying focused if you’re facing an all-nighter.

  1. Drink cold water. It sounds simple but it really works. It does the trick in several ways: the cold literally wakes you up, it keeps you hydrated so your brain has enough water to work on, and it makes you take regular toilet breaks, which involve standing up and walking a bit (see point 3).
  1. Be uncomfortable. Within reason, of course. I often sit on an exercise ball, which requires continuous small movements to stay balanced. It’s better than slouching on the sofa (tried that, fell asleep with my finger on the kkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkk).
  1. Get up and move. I could fall asleep leaning against a wall if I stayed in one position for long enough, so moving regularly is really important for me. Every half hour I consciously move a bit – I stand up and get a fresh glass of water, bend over and touch my toes, shake my hands out (my fingers get sleepy when I’m typing a lot) or jog on the spot for a minute.
  1. Work in short bursts. I use the Pomodoro technique, which involves working full-throttle for 25 minutes, then taking a five-minute break and starting a new 25-minute burst on something else. It keeps me focused and interested and makes sure I have five minutes every half hour to move.
  1. Listen to music. Noise keeps me alert, as long as it’s disruptive. My choice of genre depends on the task at hand: for writing I prefer something without lyrics (I tend to sing – and write – along otherwise). Energising classical music works pretty well. For other, less concentrated tasks, such as admin or emails, I might go for some rock or metal. I rarely fall asleep listening to Metallica.

*Needless to say, my tips come with a few warnings and caveats. Firstly, we all know it’s bad to work through the night. It’s much better to be organised enough to get all your work done during the day. Don’t be like me. Secondly, be careful on the ball. I nearly fell off it when I started to drift off the other day. And lastly, sometimes I do fall asleep listening to Metallica.

Now go to bed. I’ve got work to do.

How reading stuff I wrote as a kid has helped me break bad writing habits

I’ve been writing everything from non-fiction essays to poems since I could string a sentence together. I was a prolific writer as a kid: little me would scribble notes and the beginnings of many (many) novels on scraps of paper, napkins… anything I could get words onto.

A few years ago I convinced my Mum to whittle down her enormous box of my ramblings and I took away a small folder of some of the best* things I’d written. Reading them was very revealing, and it highlighted some of the bad writing habits I’d managed to nurture and grow over the years.

Seeing my bad habits in black and white really helped me squash them.

*Read: funniest

Bad planning.

CaterpillarPlanning is a really important part of the writing process. Knowing where you’re going with an article, story, report, book or poem helps you structure it properly, providing the best possible support for elegant, well thought-out writing. Skip the planning process and you risk your work caving in on itself.

The little version of me didn’t know this. Take my caterpillar “poem” for example. (Come on, it’s not really a poem, is it?) I had one side of A4, minus some pretty generous margins, to work with. I knew this; I’d drawn and decorated the margins myself. What I should have done was draft the “poem” somewhere else first, then work out if it needed to be shortened.

I didn’t do that.

What I did was this: I saw a glorious blank page and started filling it with whatever spilled out of my head. It was going (relatively) well until I saw the end of the box and panicked, shutting the whole thing down abruptly (see the next bad habit).

Reading my caterpillar story made me laugh, but it also put a spotlight on my problem. Of course, I’m not restricted to pencils and paper these days, and typing makes it much easier to play with words on a page. But I really had to force myself to focus on planning.

Now when I start working on something, I begin with a skeleton structure: a word or two to represent what each paragraph or section would contain. Having a skeleton helps me organise notes – I can cut and paste them into the relevant section – and then all I need to do is add flesh to the bones. Planning in this way means I know how many words I have to play with in each part of a piece of writing, and it means I don’t have to cut the work from the bottom.

Abrupt endings.

At the end of the bridgeAs you can see from my amazing caterpillar masterpiece, I had a big problem with endings. This was partly because I would get really excited about every book I was writing, only for my excitement to dissipate by mid-way through chapter two (confession: this still happens, I have countless partly written novels floating around). One of my biggest issues was finishing everything I wrote far too abruptly.

The ending of a piece of writing is really important. Sure, not everyone will make it to the end of an article, but those who do will remember the last few sentences they read better than the rest.

Again, little me didn’t know that. Take “At the end of the bridge” for example. Even the title suggests that something brilliant is awaiting the protagonist at the other side of the bridge. But when she gets there she is “amazed”. I don’t go into detail, despite there being plenty of space in which to do so.

“The girl that traveld [sic]” ends rather cryptically too: suddenly, in the final sentence, the girl can talk to the animals. Nothing like an unexplained revelation to end a story.

The girl that traveldOk, so I’m not that bad any more, but endings weren’t my strong point for years. Reading these stories, I was so disappointed when I reached the end that I realised how my readers must have felt in the past, albeit less obviously. I now include my endings in the planning process, making sure they reflect and build on the introductions, and leave the reader with something to think about.


JohnI love exclamation marks! Really, I’m pretty sure you can find one in just about everything I’ve written. I tend to over-use them – and superlatives – in emails to this day, but it’s only because I write the way I speak. And I speak enthusiastically.

In the lovely (untitled) story about John, little me got over-enthusiastic without getting creative, and emboldened the word “very” a couple of times. Over the years, my vocabulary improved, and with it my enthusiasm became more colourful. Things were “really brilliant”, “totally awesome” and “completely amazing”. Add a sprinkling of exclamation marks and you get an out-of-breath reader.

In my head I was just excited and optimistic; on paper, I looked like a lunatic. Reading John’s story reminded me how important it is to check the tone of what I write. These days I write however I feel like it at the time, then make a point of checking for tone when I run back through what I’ve written. If I seem a bit nutty, I cut adjectives and exclamation marks.

Not editing.

Cats 1Actually, my over-enthusiasm was part of a bigger problem in my writing: I wasn’t editing my own work properly. This was probably the toughest habit I had to break.

Check out my treatment on “Cat’s”: a little intro, a song, a poem and a couple of cartoons. Cat’s what? Cat’s disappointed that I used several grocer’s apostrophe’s (that one was on purpose). Even as a kid, I knew how to punctuate and spell properly. Reading this it was obvious to me: I was being lazy.

Editing a piece of writing is almost as important as doing the writing in the first place; it can make the difference between an ok article riddled with mistakes and a compelling article that’s polished and professional.

Of course I want the latter, so now I make sure I factor editing rounds into my writing process. If it’s possible within the deadline, I schedule time to sleep on a piece of writing (figuratively speaking) so I can attack it with fresh eyes the next day. It’s definitely improved my work, and I’m happy to say those painful apostrophes don’t litter my writing any more.


What terrible writing habits did you develop as a kid? How have you tackled them? Share your stories in the comments!


5 top tips for good #hashtag grammar

A hashtag isn’t a free pass for bad grammar.

We see hashtags everywhere these days – I even caught myself using one on a network that doesn’t support them yesterday (come on, WeWork, get with it). They’re useful, effective and funny. But they also make people careless. Here are my top 5 tips for how to use hashtags the right way, avoiding #LazyGrammar.

Designer Chris Messina is credited with the first use of a hashtag on Twitter – in 2007 he asked his followers: “how do you feel about using # (pound) for groups. As in #barcamp [msg]?”

Screen Shot 2015-04-11 at 10.23.52

(As an aside, what a shame that Messina didn’t put a couple more seconds into writing this Tweet. It’s been retweeted 815 times, and by now has reached potentially millions of people.)


Since then, hashtag use has exploded. Starting on Twitter, hashtags have become familiar features of messages on most social networks, including Facebook, Instagram, Google+, Pinterest, YouTube and even Kickstarter.

What is a hashtag?

A hashtag is a word or phrase preceded by a hash (or pound) sign, which is used in a social media message to identify a topic. By using # you can make a word or phrase (with no spaces or symbols) searchable on that network, identifying your message with a certain topic and enabling people to find other messages on that topic.

Thanks to its widespread use, the word hashtag was added to the Oxford English Dictionary in June 2014, and to The Official Scrabble Players Dictionary a couple of months later. (Incidentally, the word hashtag can only refer to the sign in the context of its use in a hashtag; the # is technically called an octothorpe.)

There’s a huge amount of advice out there about what to hashtag, how to sell something by encouraging hashtag use, and the etiquette of hashtagging. All great advice, of course, but one thing that’s missing from all this is hashtag grammar.


The last rule on this infographic from Social Times is “Use proper spelling”. Always good advice, especially when using searchable hashtags. But I think the language aspect of hashtagging goes deeper than this; hashtags seem to be distracting people from what they’re writing, leading to some real howlers.

Here are my top tips for good hashtag grammar

1. #Followtherules. You can’t use spaces or symbols, but other than that it’s wide open. When you type the #, anything you type that’s attached to it will become a searchable link, until you type a symbol or space. So read carefully before you post, to make sure you’ve hashtagged what you intended to.

Bad: #I love cheese
Good: #Ilovecheese

2. #Dontpunctuate. If you want a phrase to be linked, take out the punctuation. Sure, this is painful at first, but hashtags have their own special rules.

Bad: I’m crying because #it’smyparty
Good: I’m crying because #itsmyparty

#badgrammar3. #Pluralshavenoapostrophe! Hashtags can be used within a sentence as a #wordorphrase. But, like with any normal word or phrase, you have to use them in the right context. If you want to make a hashtag plural, the linked hashtag itself will become plural. One common workaround is to use an apostrophe… DON’T DO IT! Reshuffle the sentence instead.

Bad: Discovering people on #FollowFriday’s
Good: Discovering people every #FollowFriday

4. #UseCamelCase. Capital letters can help the reader identify what you’re saying more easily, or avoid ambiguity in hashtag phrases.

Bad: Join our #Susanalbumparty
Good: Join our #SusanAlbumParty

5. #Proofbeforeyoupost. Posting online is digital publishing, so it’s a good idea to make sure you’re happy with what you’ve written before you show it to the world. Proofread before you post – check your spelling (a misspelt hashtag is useless) and if you’ve used a phrase, check that it makes sense in the context – imagine it’s there without the #.

Bad: The importance of #proofreadnig
Good: The importance of #proofreading

Now let’s laugh at the whole thing.

A New Year’s resolution that will make a difference

Four easy ways to improve your writing and reap the benefits

It’s that time of year again – wrapping up 2014 and planning 2015. We’re thinking about priorities and coming up with new paths to the land of success, whether that’s a place with more clients, new customers or stronger relationships. Whatever your objectives, there’s one simple resolution you can make this year that will give you a better chance of reaching success in 2015:

Improve your writing.

Simple, right? And yet so many people and companies are failing to put in the effort year after year. Good writing and high quality copy is falling victim to our perpetual state of panic and lack of time – we’re just too busy. Too busy to notice, let alone invest in improving.

photoHere’s the problem: other people notice. They care. If your text is sloppy, your customers will assume that your service is sloppy. If there’s a mistake on your product, it looks lower quality. If your annual report is littered with typos, your funders will start to doubt their investment. And if your website is grammatically disastrous, your potential clients will go elsewhere.

So how can you avoid all this and make sure your text is top quality, even though you’ve got no time? Firstly, there’s no magic wand to make your copy flawless with no effort at all.* Let’s get real: you’ll have to work at this. It won’t take you hours, but you will need to invest a little bit of your time. That’s why now is the perfect moment to make a resolution: you’re making plans and setting goals for 2015, why not make this a priority?

There are a few simple tricks that will help improve your text, even if you don’t have that magic wand.

  1. Spell check

Aren’t those red squiggly lines annoying? NO I DIDN’T MEAN TO USE A ‘Z’! I’m right with you. But they’re extremely helpful, especially if you’re in a hurry. Sure, spell check often misses typos that are still words, but it’s really handy for a quick check, especially if you’re short of time. (And did you know you can switch it on in emails too? That could really help protect your professional reputation.)

  1. Get a text buddy

We never see our own mistakes. When you’ve written something, you’ve probably seen it dozens of times and can no longer see the wood for the trees. That’s totally normal, and it’s why every writer has an editor. If you don’t have that resource, why not get yourself a text buddy? Check out my tips on how to choose your buddy.

  1. Sleep on it

Everything looks different in the cold light of day. You might even see that mistake you overlooked last night. Sleep refreshes everything, and gives you the distance you need to be more objective about the quality of your work.

  1. Read it out loud

This is my favourite. So many long, grammatically incorrect sentences would be avoided if only people would read things out to themselves. It’s simple: literally read out the text with your voice. If there’s a mistake, you’ll hear it before you see it.

Now’s your chance to resolve to improve your writing – and your image – in 2015. Here’s to a beautifully written new year!

* Unless you wave one at an editor:

First impressions last

Have you ever rolled your eyes when an email popped in? Assumed something is junk mail on the basis of the poor English in the subject line? Or made a judgment about a person or a company because of the first impression they made with their email?

Email subject lines are important. They are easy to get right. And they are so often messed up.

This isn’t a blog post about how to write effective email subject lines – there’s plenty of that on the internet. This is about how to avoid five common mistakes that affect the first impression you make electronically.

Full of typos

When you’re firing off a million emails a day, it’s easy to make spelling errors. It’s also easy to identify them, thanks to the lovely red squiggly lines we all appreciate deeply. Unfortunately, subject lines of emails don’t afford us that luxury.

‘Check out this new atricle about scniece’

One way to eliminate these errors is to write the subject line in the email body or in Word first to check it. However, this won’t pick up the best typos: when the mistakes create actual words – like ‘best’ to ‘bets’. My favourite ever email subject line went something like this:

‘New research has impact on pubic policy’


Tip: check carefully for typos – especially the invisible kind.

Badly punctuated

There is no excuse to omit an apostrophe in an email subject line. It baffles me how often people fail to punctuate their subject lines properly. And simply because they are short and not covered by the standard spell check service as the main body of the email. That’s laziness.

‘Biziorek, Wed like to welcome you back to Kaiser Permanente’

In this example, provided by Travis Biziorek, the company Kaiser has missed the apostrophe in we’d. The result is jarring, unprofessional and annoying.

Another thing with noting about this is the capital letter of ‘Wed’. Presumably this is the result of the recipient’s surname being automatically entered into the subject line, and the person responsible for the text probably thought it looked more acceptable starting with ‘W’ in the absence of the name.

Tip: check your subject line carefully for correct punctuation.

Too complicated (and wrong)

People notice when your grammar is wrong. Some people will tell you: Matt Korostoff is a man I can relate to. On this forum, he politely informs Bibucket that the subject line of one of their automated emails is grammatically incorrect, because ‘I thought you would like to know.’ Thumbs up to Matt, and thumbs up to Zach Davis from Bitbucket, who responds ‘Thanks Matt… this will definitely be changing (to the “You have been granted…” form, if you’re curious)…’

The subject line of the original email was: ‘You have hereby been granted write access to organization-name/repo-name.’

When I read this the word ‘hereby’ jumps out at me. Why? It’s unnecessary. It’s old-fashioned. It’s almost certainly grander than it needs to be.

Tip: treat your subject line like any other sentence. Read it aloud. If it sounds wrong it probably is wrong.


These days we don’t all boot up a desktop computer to read our emails. Between smartphones, tablets and pop-up notifications, email subject lines get squeezed and distorted in all sorts of ways. You really have to think about this when writing them, as pointed out by Bill Lampton, PhD on this Business Know-How blog:

‘When I received my copy of the New York Times online, the title of one article was supposed to read: “No one sure what will happen to Ken Lay’s assets.” Because the title was too long to fit the allotted space, the ETS got cut from ASSETS.’

Tip: cut your subject line in different places to make sure it makes sense, makes an impact and doesn’t make anyone giggle.


Groupon’s got this one in the bag:

‘Father’s Day deals for the man who gave birth to you’

Tip: it’s always best not to say something completely stupid in your subject line. If you’re unsure about what you’re saying, ask a colleague/friend/sanity checker to read it before you hit send.

It’s pretty simple – just pay attention and pause before you send. Read the subject line. If it’s bad, it will make you look bad. And if it’s the start of a long exchange of emails, it could wind up making you look bad repeatedly.

From now on, if I receive an email with a subject line that falls under one of the categories I’ve listed here, I’ll correct it. Will you?

Pull yourself together – the abuse of reflexives

If you’ve ever worked in an office or business environment, you have invariably heard any number of abuses of the English language (see this hilarious article from Forbes on business speak).

But the thing that really makes me burn – the mistake that’s more bafflingly annoying than all the rest – is the flagrant misuse of reflexives.

Does this ring a bell?
‘We received the price list from yourselves on Monday.’

How about this?
‘It’s a product sold by ourselves.’

Oh dear. Here’s what Partridge has to say about the matter:

Myself, yourself, herself, himself, itself, ourselves, yourselves, themselves. There is a tendency to employ these pronouns where the simple I (or me), you, she (or her), he (or him), it, we (or us), you, they (or them) are sufficient. The self forms are either reflexives, as in ‘I hurt myself’ or emphatic additions, as in ‘He himself did not know’.

(Usage and Abusage, p.199.)

One of the examples of misuse Partridge provides is heard all too often in today’s offices: ‘He sent the inquiry to yourself.’

It should be: ‘He sent the inquiry to you.’ (Or, even better, ‘he sent you the inquiry.’)

Fowler considers this use of reflexive pronouns ‘questionable’ and ‘beyond reproach’. (Fowler’s Modern English Usage, p.510.) Yes, reflexives have an air of officialdom about them. Shoving them into otherwise simple sentence makes the speaker sound, well, more official. Only that’s not the case at all – it makes the speaker sound like they don’t know what they’re talking about. It makes them sound like they’re glossing. The misuse of ‘ourselves’ and ‘yourselves’ is an attempt to over-decorate language, and it doesn’t work.

In technical terms, words like ‘myself’ are used if the object of the sentence: ‘I hurt myself.’ (Someone (subject) hurt something (object).)

If you want to refer to ‘us’ or ‘you’ or ‘me’, try using those simpler words before you resort to ‘ourselves’ or ‘yourselves’ or ‘myself’. Does it sound right? Then it is right.

Fortunately, this practice hasn’t yet crept too far into written communications. So we still have time to pull ourselves together (yes, that’s ok) before it’s too late.

Enable or allow? Why you need to get it right.

There are some important things to say about enable and allow – two words involved in one of the most common mistakes made in business communication. For starters:

They are different words with different meanings.

This might seem simple enough, but it is being disregarded left, right and centre in the world of business. How many times have you seen an advert that promises ‘this new thing allows you to be happier/richer/taller than ever before’? Allows? No.

Allow is another way of saying permit. Your parents allow you to stay up late at the weekend. Your boss allows you to leave the office early.

Enable is defined as providing with the means or opportunity. A mobile phone enables you to talk on the move. A blog enables you to rant about bad grammar.

Quite different. The problem is that they get mixed up all the time. A new product doesn’t give you permission to do something. It might help you do something, or facilitate that action (i.e. enable) but it doesn’t give you permission (i.e. allow). I’ll say it again:

They are different words with different meanings.

But if it’s truly too difficult to select the appropriate word, there is an alternative – a word that is a synonym for enable and allow: let. Let means permit and facilitate – and it’s nice and simple.

So if you can’t decide whether to use enable or allow, use let instead. Maybe we should all use it anyway, it’s far more straightforward.

Top tips inspired by Robbie Williams

Today I’ve been listening to music from the 90s. Why? Because of the public battle (if you can call it that) between Robbie Williams – who was in a band I loved – and Brett Anderson – who was also in a band I loved. What a great excuse to journey back to my youth.

The spat was over Anderson’s comment to The Sun: “There has always been cr*p pop music.” He went on to explain his opinion that record companies didn’t have the financial freedom to gamble on non-manufactured music.

Fair enough. It’s an opinion. Also fair that Williams didn’t agree, responding in his blog that all the rock music produced in the 90s, including by Suede, was rubbish.

I don’t have a problem with either of these chaps having an opinion. I don’t agree with either of them, but that’s just how it goes. What I do not appreciate is a public figure very publicly communicating in a sub-standard way. So far, Williams’s blog post has had 2,200 likes on Facebook, 404 Tweets and 168 comments. That’s a lot of exposure for a piece of writing with quite some mistakes, likely to have been read by many impressionable people.

So here are a few top tips inspired by his blog, with examples.

  • Capital letters look like shouting – writing an entire blog in capitals makes it pretty difficult to read
  • When you quote the name of a publication it should be in italics – i.e. The Sun
  • A sentence should be finished with a full stop, question mark or exclamation mark
  • If you want to use an ellipsis, make sure it has three dots. Anything else is just a strange number of full stops
  • Talking of ellipses, their overuse gives the impression of a stream of consciousness, which isn’t easy to follow
  • Commas are your friends. If you pause when speaking, consider using a comma when writing (i.e. instead of using paragraph breaks with no punctuation)
  • You do not need to use an apostrophe when writing a decade, e.g. 90s

And here’s a brilliant song from the 90s – Me and You Vs The World by Space.

Become a presentation pedant

*By popular demand, my edit of the example slide is below. See if you agree!*

We all broadcast messages every day: on the phone, by email and on social media. But one place people all too often neglect to check their grammar is in presentations. One of the most blatant broadcasts you can make.

Some may argue that you shouldn’t be using text in a presentation at all. While I tend to agree (it’s distracting and forces people to listen to you less intently), the reality is that text-based presentations are alive and well. Well, alive.

Consistency is key when it comes to presentations. A misplaced full stop, double space or odd font can look very unprofessional, and can draw attention away from what you’re saying. They will also reduce your credibility.

So here are my eight top tips for editing your presentation slides.


  1. Write your text using a word processing programme, like Microsoft Word. Check your spelling before transferring to your presentation template. Show paragraph marks and remove any double spacing.
  2. Ask someone else to edit your slides for you. You’ll never see all the mistakes yourself, and it’s always best to get a fresh pair of eyes on your words before you share them with the world.
  3. Cast your eye over the presentation. Does anything look strange? If it does, it usually is.
  4. Check text size, font and colour. A subtle difference on the screen will be amplified by a projector.
  5. Check your punctuation. Just because it’s a presentation, that doesn’t mean you can get away with missing apostrophes and commas.
  6. Check your bulletpoints. Do you use a full stop at the end of a bulletpoint? Then make sure all the bulletpoints in your presentation have a full stop. Don’t use full stops on one slide, then semicolons on the next. It looks like you can’t make a small decision.
  7. Check your use of capital letters. Have some respect for capital letters – don’t drag them out just because you want to make something look more important than it is. Capital letters should only be used at the start of a sentence, and for proper nouns. If you use them in slide headers (I wouldn’t recommend this), then use them consistently.
  8. Perform a sanity check. Do a test run with someone, and ask them to point out errors.

Of course, if you’re using a bright yellow background and white text all this won’t help you. There are plenty of books you can read with tips on how to make a good presentation. But whatever you do with the layout, colours and animation (gulp), make sure your text is top notch.

Here’s my edit of the slide.



  • Get your grammar right – ‘you’re’ is a contraction of ‘you are’. It should be ‘your’
  • If you’re planning to capitalize titles (which I wouldn’t recommend, but more on that another time), make sure they are fully capitalized

Point 1

  • This is in English, not German, so ‘presentation’ doesn’t need a capital letter
  • In this example, we’re using semicolons at the end of each bulletpoint, so the full stop should be replaced by a semicolon

Point 2

  • Well done. (Although you could contract ‘does’ and ‘not’ to ‘doesn’t’, depending on the overall tone of your presentation)

Point 3

  • There are spaces before the first word, making it look uneven. Delete the spaces
  • ‘when’ should have a lowercase ‘w’ and the additional space in front of the word should be deleted. Only one space between two words is required

Point 4

  • As per the rules for this example, add a semicolon at the end of the line

Point 5

  • This is a different size. If you want to make an impact, make it obvious – orange, bold, centred – like this it just looks like a mistake
  • The full stop at the end of this line is correct. In a bulletpoint list with semicolons at the end of each point, the final point should have a full stop