Tag Archives: writing

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.

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!


How a year of living the dream has changed my life

One year ago today I sat at my shiny new green desk, sharpened my pencils and switched on my laptop. I was terrified. Not just nervous, but knee-tremblingly petrified of how my first day was going to go. I put a Dream Theater CD on (which has become one of my best work buddies this year) and opened my emails. I started to write, nervously, my heart beating fast with every keystroke.

I’ve written every day of my adult life (almost every day of my whole life, actually, since I was four) so I shouldn’t have been scared of what I was doing. So why was it having such an effect on me?

I had pretty high expectations of that day. Ever since I’d announced a few months earlier that I was planning to ditch the 9-5 and go solo, people had been applauding my bravery and telling me how they wished they had the courage to follow their dreams and do what they’re passionate about. If I hadn’t already been nervous, I definitely was after hundreds of people making me out to be some kind of career hero.

My view of taking the leap to freelancing was actually more pragmatic than it might seem. Sure, I love writing and, like millions of other people, had always dreamed of working from a remote cottage on a lake somewhere, with a pencil in one hand and a coffee in the other (think Colin Firth in Love Actually). But I’m a bit too sensible to do something just because I love it. I did my research, and it actually made better business sense than staying where I was.

I came home from work late one day and my husband was sitting waiting for me with a cup of tea. “I need to talk to you about something,” I said. The colour drained from his face. “No, no, it’s nothing like that, I’ve had a mad idea.” Now this was far from unusual – in the five years he’s known me, my mad ideas have included getting pet bees for the flat (I’m still working on this), running a half marathon five months after running my first ever 100 metres and turning our dining room into an indoor allotment (we got two cherry tomatoes). So when I told him I was thinking about quitting my job and going freelance, he agreed without hesitation and made me a spreadsheet showing how much I’d need to earn to survive.

My shiny green desk

My shiny green desk

That was my first lucky break: the most supportive husband in the world. This year, he’s cooked, cleaned, made me thousands of cups of tea, kept me awake, made me go to sleep and made me smile when I was ready to cry. There aren’t enough words in the world to thank him enough.

I leant on a lot of other people for advice before I resigned. I called mentors, friends, colleagues and family, especially people I knew would tell me not to be stupid. But nobody did. The clincher came when my good friend and long-time advisor Myc, who taught me everything I know about science PR (and wrote a brilliant book about it) said “I’ve been waiting for you to say this, it’s a brilliant idea. Say yes to everything in your first year.”

So I quit. I spent every available moment planning the next few months, making sure I’d have enough work to get me through the remainder of 2014, at least so I could enjoy Christmas, even if I ended up having to get a proper job in January again. My colleagues gave me a great send-off and I felt thoroughly loved, appreciated and sad to be going.

Two days later, there I was, green desk, pencil and laptop awaiting my input. The first few weeks were liberating and fun – I was still terrified, and learning how to pitch, quote and wrap up projects. It felt like I was running on adrenalin, and I was enjoying every minute of it. I had time to think, plan, clean and go for a run. I really was living the dream.

I suppose reality hit home the first time I worked through the night. In an office job, you can manage your work and say no without any financial implications. As a freelancer, I could manage my work around other people’s deadlines, and saying no would simply mean not getting the job and the money that comes with it. So, following Myc’s sage advice, I said yes to everything. Somewhere around March, I started to realise I had more work as a freelancer than I’d ever had as an employee – was I going to make it?

As spring turned to summer, I spent more and more nights tapping away at my keyboard, rather than sleeping. I missed parties, concerts, coffees and trips to the zoo, but I did all the work, and I’m proud of the results. It seemed the more I did, the more work came in – I was getting emails and calls from friends of colleagues of friends, with all sorts of assignments, from writing press releases about flower bulbs to sustainability website copy and feature articles on theoretical biology.

I was exhausted, but ecstatic.

People liked my writing. They enjoyed reading my articles, thanked me for helping them improve their websites and called to tell me how happy their professors/managers/editors were about the work I’d done for them. For the first time in my life, I felt in complete control of my professional success, and I knew it was going well. I was in The Zone, writing thousands of words every day on eclectic topics for various different channels. It was exhilarating.

But it was also eating into the rest of my life. I was missing my husband and the kids, even though I was sitting in the same room as them. My mind was on the next deadline, not the film everyone was laughing at on TV. I might have been happy professionally, but I was missing out personally.

Announcing Escapea

Watch out, world.

Then something changed: I got pregnant. It was planned, of course, but we didn’t expect it to happen quite so quickly. I’d decided long before that I would just carry on as normal until it was time to push – after all, writing isn’t exactly strenuous. But the baby had other ideas. The baby made me very sick. So sick, in fact, that I could hardly look at my computer screen without having to run to the bathroom. A tiny embryo had effortlessly fixed my dilemma: no more all-nighters, no more forgetting lunch, and no more staring at the screen for 14 hours at a time.

For six weeks I took my foot off the throttle and did only what was necessary. I still worked my A game, just for fewer hours every day. I even took the odd day off at the weekend. That was a few months ago now – little Escapea is 5 months and counting – but I’ve learnt a lesson. I can only enjoy my work if it’s part of an enjoyable life, and for that to happen I need balance.

It’s been a year, and today I’ve taken stock of what I’ve done. Since 1 November 2014, I’ve written more than 140 articles (check some of them out on my website), completed 123 projects (with 17 more currently underway) and given six training sessions. I’ve taken a 10-day holiday, and had a day off for our first wedding anniversary, but have worked the other 354 days of the year. I’ve generated almost 10GB of files (which is quite a lot for someone who’s not a designer) and edited three books. I can’t even begin to work out how any words I’ve written, but I’d say a (very) conservative estimate would be 200,000.

So what’s next?

I’m excited about year two. It’s like year one, but without the terror. I’ll have the added challenge of a baby, but I can tell little Escapea likes writing (judging by the kicking I’m getting right now) so we’ll have some fun.

A few weeks ago I was lucky enough to be treated to a tour of the rare books library at Teyler’s Museum (thanks to my wonderful husband), which has given me some ideas. I want to carry on bookbinding and actually get good at it. My lovely family gave me a quill as a first anniversary gift this morning, so I intend to use it.

Teyler's Museum

In awe of the Teyler’s Museum library.

I’m already having a fantastic time writing for The Canary, an awesome new media company that’s free, fair and fearless, and I’m carving out some time to get stuck into my bee book again (I swear I’ll finish it one day).

I don’t intend to work less hard, or get less done in year two. In fact, I think I can improve my productivity and efficiency and probably get more done in less time. But after a year of saying yes, I’m now giving myself permission to say no to not sleeping, not seeing my family and missing the fun stuff.

I don’t think my decision to go freelance was brave. And, looking back, I don’t think it was as mad as I’d expected. It has shown me what I’m capable of, and where my limits are. It’s given me the confidence to try new things and write about what I love, and it’s taken the breaks off of my ideas (which may or may not be good for me).

Last night, after a week of 16-hour days, my Mum asked me: “Are you still enjoying it?”

“I’m living the dream, Mum,” I said. And I am. I do what I love every day (and get paid for it), I’m in charge of my own professional joy and now I’m giving myself permission to say yes to the things I love and pass on the things I don’t. And because I’ve spent the last year building myself a solid base, I have the freedom to put some balance back into my life. For starters, I’m switching off my laptop and enjoying the rest of Sunday.


Word invention challenge: Week three

It’s been almost three months now since I started full-time with Tell Lucy, and I’m getting used to the freelance life. Correction: I’m loving the freelance life. I work from home almost exclusively, give or take a meeting here or a coffee there. Aside from the (sometimes relentless) preowing of my content cats, it’s quiet in my home office, so I can hear the schwip of my pencil as I draft articles and make notes. It’s brilluous.

So when my husband suggested I look at WeWork – a shared office space for entrepreneurs and freelancers – I was slightly hesitant. Do I want to give up my lovely quiet private office? I ignored my concerns and hopped on my bike to visit the office space. It was freezing cold outside, so by the time I got there I had an unrelenting icitch and numb fingers. The WeWork sales rep – a bit of a shumpsky – asked me all sorts of questions, and was surprised at my quickcess when I told him I was in my third month of freelancing.

I cycled home via the gym, my selfivation being too strong to skip another day of training. As I spun away on the bike, I realized I had forgotten to eat all day (one of the downsides of freelancing alone at home) and suddenly felt starving. My mind wandered to thoughts of pizza, burgers and giant kapsalons… I took a big gulp of water and shook it off.

Back at the office, after relieving my hunger pangs with something far less greasy than I’d wanted, I sat back with my pencil, and listened to the schwip as I pymed. Do I want to give this up? I still don’t know.

  1. Schwip (n.) – the sound a pencil makes when it sweeps across the paper; the sound of writing with a pencil
  2. Pyme (v.) – to force a rhyme to make a poem work
  3. Quickcess (n.) – the speedy accomplishment of goals
  4. Kapsalon (n.) – a Dutch dish of fries, kebab meat and lettuce, topped with cheese and toasted
  5. Brilluous (adj.) – so splendid or magnificent that it’s difficult to believe
  6. Icitch (n.) – an itch brought on by extreme cold
  7. Selfivation (n.) – motivation brought on by a wish to take an attractive selfie
  8. Shumpsky (n.) – a laid back person; an over-familiar person

This week’s list is dedicated to my lovely office companion Zeus, who is a total shumpsky.

So are any of these brilluous? Which one’s the best?

Word invention challenge: Week one

My favourite week of the whole year is the week between Christmas and New Year. Seven days of excitement, of rushing around apily, tying up loose ends and sketching out plans for the year ahead. It’s the time I get tough with my to do list, ditching all those permending items in favour of more realistic, achievable objectives. It’s a week full of hope; a week fueled by reinvention and excitement.

HappyNewYear“Pop!” The champagne bursts free and we clink and embrace – here’s to 2015! I tell my husband that one of my (many, as always) New Year’s resolutions is to make up a new word. Actually, you know what? I’ll make up a new one every day in January. How hard can it be? He kwinks at me lovingly. Knowingly. Another mad idea.

We sit and sip our champagne, watching the fireworks and letting the grunkles melt away from our faces – it’s as if the evening’s celebrations are wiping out all of 2014’s negativity. It’s technically 2015 already, but the new start will come when we wake up. (Which gives us free reign to carry on enjoying the bubbles and snacks, one last time.)

After an unusually lazy lie-in, we are woken by the sound of two needy cats scratching the bedroom door. Even more unusually, we let them in and they leap onto the bed, bunting and preowing away, enjoying the cuddly attention (and giving me some wordspiration). Their pawing tickles, giving me a movitch that won’t sit still, so I jump up, ready to face the day. The year.

Like many people, I intend to be super fit and healthy in 2015. It’s nothing new, of course – I’ve been on a pretty intense training schedule for over a year now – but January adds something of a shine to the regime. I’ll be doing a lot more chegging and scoffing far less chocolate this month. I boil the kettle and put a couple of eggs in a pan, with a big grin on my not-so-grumpled face.

Hello, 2015. It’s nice to meet you.

Words of week one

  1. Preow (v.) – to purr and meow simultaneously
    Also (n.) – the noise made by purring and meowing simultaneously
  1. Permending (adj.) – permanently awaiting decision or settlement; permanently pending
  2. Kwink (v.) – to wink and air kiss simultaneously, usually directed at a person
  3. Movitch (n.) – an itch that starts in one place and moves when scratched, evading relief
  4. Chegg (v.) – the practice of eating mostly chicken and eggs. Common in bodybuilding and strength training
  5. Apily (adv.) – like a bee; to do something in a bee-like manner
  6. Grunkle (n.) – a small furrow or ridge on a smooth surface, usually a face, caused by grumpiness

Bonus (made in the writing of this article): Wordspiration (n.) – a word-inspiring influence; something that inspires the creation or use of words.

What do you think? How am I doing? What’s the best word so far? This is more fun than I could have imagined.

In praise of the pencil

Pencil1As we accelerate towards 2015, with its promise of smaller computers, bigger phones and hover boards, it’s easy to overlook some of life’s simple – but wonderful – technologies. Like the humble pencil.

I love pencils. Seriously, I have a whole drawer of them. I want you to love pencils too. Here are five wonderful things you can do with a pencil that you can’t do with something electronic.

  1. You can hand-write something. Isn’t that lovely? It must be so easy to go for months without hand writing – we don’t even need to sign stuff these days, what with PINs and e-signatures. It’s like going back to the Dark Ages – we’ll all be signing with a shaky cross before long. Use it or lose it!
  2. You can emphasise and whisper. The graphite in your pencil responds to the force of your fingers. Want to make a point? Underline hard! [Ed – I realise the bold and underline functions in Word help with this too, but doing it with a pencil is so much more natural – it’s a direct extension of your feeling, coming out through the force of movement. And it feels way better than hitting ‘ctrl-b’.]
  3. You can enjoy the music of the sweep of your pencil across the page. Every pencil sounds different – this one sings in a high, husky voice. [Ed – I wrote this with a pencil, in case that’s not clear.] It’s such a peaceful sound, and one you don’t get with a pen.
  4. You can erase your mistakes. Isn’t that great? When did we give up and decide it’s acceptable to cross through our messy scrawl in pen? Our teachers would be ashamed! [Ed – actually you can do this with a computer, but it’s not as fun and it doesn’t leave behind a slightly visible legacy of previous ideas. You can’t do it with a pen though. Not unless you have one of those pens with an eraser pen on the other end, which only work for about five seconds.]
  5. You can sharpen a pencil, and that feeling you get when you write with a freshly-sharpened pencil cannot be beaten. Sharpening pencils is also wonderfully relaxing – if I need a break to unwind and de-stress, I sometimes sit back with a cuppa and a sharpener and attack my pencil drawer. (I know, I know.)

So there you have it. Pencils are great. There are loads of other reasons they’re better than computers and pens. Perhaps one of my favourites is that my pencil collection holds some great memories – I buy a pencil at every museum I visit. Sadly I couldn’t find one at a place I visited last week.

What do you think is the best thing about writing with a pencil? Let’s remember their value and protect them from extinction (in the writing world at least)!

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.

Why I don’t like red pen

My first assignment during my Master’s degree was an essay on the origin of science. As an academic subject, history isn’t as black and white as science, and, having come straight from a degree in genetics, I wasn’t used to that. When my essay came back from my tutor I could barely see my proudly (but naively) typed words beneath his red corrections. Like he’d bled all over the pages.

I want to be clear here: my first essay was a disaster. I deserved the comments, edits, questions. I deserved the lines and circles and slashes. It wasn’t a good essay. But I’ll always remember the effect that red writing had on me. My heart rate increased, my palms became sweaty, my vision blurred slightly. I was terrified.

Since then I’ve had cause to edit hundreds of pieces of other people’s work. My first tough experience has stayed with me; I always imaging how the other person feels when I comment on their work and make changes. It may be old fashioned, but I edit on paper when I have the chance. And I use this:


It’s pink. Pink reminds me of roses and sweets. Not of blood and hell. It makes my heart feel lighter, puts a spring in my step. (Ok, so I’m exaggerating slightly, but you get the idea.) I assume that other people have similar feelings to me, so this is my favourite editing pen. I also have green, purple and turquoise, which have a similar effect.

Red’s so harsh, so mean, so old-fashioned. Editing is a creative process, and I think the colour of the edits should be inspiring – it should induce ideas, not tears.

Starting with split infinitives

Ten years ago, I met someone who changed my life. It was my supervisor at university. I thought I would learn from him all sorts of things about the innermost workings of tiny creatures. I did, of course, but far more importantly he taught me to be a writer. Or at least to think about being a writer.

Let’s be honest here – I’m a terrible scientist. Really. I was treated for acid in the eye more than once, and spent some time cleaning herpes off the pages of my lab book. Bad scientist. Because of this, my very understanding supervisor allowed me to do an entirely text-based dissertation, on the origin of life on earth and early bacterial evolution. I enjoyed writing it enormously, and he gave me very positive feedback. Except for one point (which he really hammered home): don’t split infinitives.

I nodded, with a blank expression on my face, the first time he said that. I didn’t have a clue what it meant. It turned out I’d been splitting infinitives left, right and centre. It was completely normal for me – thoughts ran from my head directly onto the page, and never got checked or refined. I wrote how I spoke. With split infinitives.

Strange things have happened since that day. I’ve learnt to hate split infinitives. Of course, I know it’s ridiculous (‘to go boldly’ doesn’t have quite the same kick as ‘to boldly go’), old-fashioned and stuffy. But I can’t help it. Sometimes I consciously override my natural instincts, sometimes I just let them be.

This sort of illustrates the reason I’ve started this blog. The split infinitive should be discussed. It should be debated. We should all have an opinion, or at least understand it enough to decide not to have an opinion. Sadly, I feel this kind of care for the English language is disappearing. It’s time to save the apostrophe.