Archive for June, 2011

Hemingway bets on six words. Wins.

Wednesday, June 29th, 2011

It all started with a bet. I like to imagine that Ernest Hemingway was drinking something murky and alcoholic with his ‘lost generation’ of American expatriates in a smoky 1920’s Parisian bar. The prize: Ten dollars. The challenge: To come up with a complete narrative in only six words.

Famously, Hemingway came up with this:

For sale: baby shoes, never worn.

It says it all – the whole story. Simple. Understated. Economical. Sometimes it’s what isn’t said that resonates most. In these six words, it’s the stuff that’s inferred that completes this story and gives it a beginning, middle and an end.

Hemingway’s exercise in the power of editing has inspired loads of well-known authors and other artistic types to put pen to paper and come up with their own six word stories. Here are a few good ones I found:

Corpse parts missing. Doctor buys yacht.
 (Margaret Atwood)

whorl. Help! I’m caught in a time  (Darren Aronofsky and Ari Handel)

Lovely spring weather bubonic plague raging.  (Evelyn Waugh)

“The Earth? We ate it yesterday.”
  (Yann Martel)

“Apple?” “No.” “Taste!” “ADAM?” Oh God.  (
David Lodge)

And here are some I came up with myself:

Servant girl loses slipper. Finds prince.

Missing: pet rabbit. Stew for dinner.

“Zombie!” “Get back!” “Ouch! . . . Ummm brains . . .”

So in the spirit of Hemingway, I’d like to place a bet with you. The challenge: To come up with your own complete story in only six words. The prize: your own personal pride.

The joy of texts

Wednesday, June 22nd, 2011

Any minute now, I’m off to South Africa.

Honest. I’m supposed to be heading to Terminal 5 at this very moment, to catch my plane to Jo-burg. But a stormcloud has erupted over Clerkenwell, and I’m reluctant to leave the office and expose my massive, definitely-not-waterproof suitcase (affectionately known as Big Red) to the elements right now.

So, in the meantime, I’m nursing a cup of tea and pondering one of the great joys of summer holidays: the holiday book.

I’m amazed at how, when I look back over my recent trips, I can remember exactly what I read by the pool / in the tent / on the sweltering replacement coach service. For me – and many others – the words you immerse yourself in when finally disconnected from your smartphone can be as captivating as the local cuisine and tourist attractions.

Here’s my recent history…

A week in Majorca with the girls: The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver. A book so good that all three of us read it before we got back home. It’s about a missionary family from Georgia, trying to build a home in a bewildering and dangerous Congo village. Even on the sun lounger it gave me the shivers.

A trip to Kerry, Ireland: The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein. A bit of a pretentious one, this. An investigation into the rise of ‘disaster capitalism’ and the dangers of the free market. I was on holiday with a new boyfriend, and I was probably trying to look intellectual. Turns out he’s a capitalist, so probably wasn’t very impressed.

A week in the Maldives (just a bit of destination-dropping for you, there. Don’t mention the carbon footprint): The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood. That’s more like it. Full of twists, turns, and the fascinating female relationships Mags is famous for. This one kept me glued to the day-bed for hours every afternoon.

And this year? Well, I’ve gone for Caitlin Moran’s How to be a Woman. Apparently, it’s ‘part memoir, part rant’ about what feminism means these days. Another one the boyfriend is sure to love.

So – what book will you be packing in your suitcase (or loading onto your Kindle) for summer 2011?

Learn the rules. And then bend them.

Wednesday, June 15th, 2011

There are some questions we Quietroomers get asked all the time. Where did the name Quietroom come from? Why is it never actually quiet? And haven’t we seen Vince on the telly? But right up there is the old chestnut: is it OK to start a sentence with the word ‘and’?

We came across it again this week, in a meeting with a prospective client. Here’s what she said: “I really have a problem starting a sentence with the word ‘and’. And ‘but’.”

The irony was not lost on any of us.

The whole ‘and’ thing is one of those writing rules that lots of people still stick to, even if they don’t quite know why. That’s because we like rules. They’re safe. They’re like big comfy jumpers that say, ‘don’t worry, we’ll make sure you don’t look like an idiot’. But, as with most creative things, communication isn’t about being prescriptive (as our client realised when she unwittingly broke her own rule). In fact, while knowing the rules is great, knowing when to bend them is what makes you special.

A good example of this is in one of my favourite ‘I-could-read-this-ten-times-and-not-get-bored’ books – Then We Came to the End, by Joshua Ferris, about a group of employees who are driven to distraction by their dreary office environment. For hundreds of pages there’s hardly any punctuation at all (which can be a bit disconcerting at first). But, because the prose isn’t ‘properly’ structured, it conveys perfectly the aimless and meandering corporate world the characters inhabit. And when the narrative changes, and the punctuation finally does appear, it creates a whole new world – sharp and crisply detailed, in stark contrast to everything that’s come before. I’m not telling you any more. But it’s a great effect.

That’s why, at Quietroom, we never say ‘don’t use really long sentences’. We never say, ‘don’t use the passive voice’. And we certainly don’t tell you not to start your sentences with certain words. We just tell you what it means for the reader when you do these things, so that you can create whatever effect you like. And that’s the only rule we’ve got.

The power of Gowers

Wednesday, June 8th, 2011

Happy Birthday Sir Ernest Gowers. You would have been 131 this month. For me, that’s a good enough reason to celebrate your extraordinary work.

Gowers took the civil service by storm in the fifties, with his handy pamphlets on why and how public servants should write plainly. Here are my top five favourites of his delightful observations:

On the reluctance of officials to write in plain English:

‘The purpose of this book is to help officials in their use of written English as a tool of their trade. I suspect that this project may be received by many of them without any marked enthusiasm or gratitude.’

On why they’re reluctant:

‘[One reason is] the instinct of self-preservation. It is sometimes dangerous to be precise. “Mistiness is the mother of safety”, said Newman. “Your safe man in the Church of England is he who steers his course between the Scylla of ‘Aye’ and the Charybdis of ‘No’ along the channel of ‘No meaning’.”

On the need for precision in official communication:

‘…in [officials, there is] an unwillingness to venture outside a small vocabulary of shapeless bundles of uncertain content – words like position, arise, involve, in connexion with, issue, consideration and factor – a disposition, for instance, to “admit with regret the position which has arisen in connexion with” rather than to make the effort to tell the reader specifically what is admitted with regret.’

Slagging off the modern tendency for jargon:

‘The basic fault of present-day writing is a tendency to say what one has to say in as complicated a way as possible. Instead of being simple, terse and direct, it is stilted, long-winded and circumlocutory; instead of choosing the simple word it prefers the unusual; instead of the plain phrase the cliche’.

Pointing out that children can write better than adults can:

‘Why do we write, when we are ten, “so that the mouth can be somewhere” and perhaps when we are thirty “in order to ensure that the mouth may be appropriately positioned environmentally”?’

There are plenty of people in large organisations today who could do with following Gowers’ advice.

For more of these joyful nuggets, you can borrow Plain Words – A Guide to the Use of English from our library.  Or buy his wisdom to keep, here.