Thursday, June 30, 2011

Cheerio to the Oxford Comma

The Oxford comma, or serial comma, beloved of many editors and writers, and drummed into the heads of school children everywhere, has been axed by the very institution that gave it its name.

The University of Oxford has dropped the Oxford comma.

And it's about time. It's useful when it eliminates ambiguity and makes meaning clear; otherwise, it's clutter.

Saturday, March 05, 2011

Should a Good Writer Use the Passive Voice?

"Don't use the passive voice" has attained the status of divine commandment in the minds of some editors and writers. As with so many supposed rules of good grammar, however, "No passives" is too general and, followed strictly, can result in poor writing. The answer to the question, then, is yes: Good writers use the passive voice when it works.

What is the Passive Voice?

Put simply, a passive grammatical construction is one in which the subject has something done to it by the object. Where in the sentence "Jane eats an apple," the subject (Jane) does something to (eats) the object (an apple), in the sentence "An apple is eaten by Jane," the subject (an apple) has something done to it by (is eaten by) the object (Jane). "Jane eats an apple" is active, where "An apple is eaten by Jane" is passive.

As with an active construction, a passive construction doesn't always need an object. "Harry was hit" is passive; because it lacks an object, the sentence doesn't identify the agent (the thing or person doing the hitting).

Should You Use Passive Constructions in Writing?

Critics of the passive voice have suggested all sorts of reasons why the passive is bad. Active voice, we're told, is immediate and engaging for readers, while the passive voice is weak and lacking in precision. These statements, however, fall short as blanket rules for good writing. In many cases, the passive is more engaging and sounds more natural, and the active may sound very odd. For example, take these (made-up) headlines:
Springfield Man Killed in Collision

Collision Kills Springfield Man
Which has more impact? Which sounds more natural? Certainly the first, which is a passive construction. Try this:
President Kennedy Assassinated in Dallas, Texas

Oswald Assassinates President Kennedy in Dallas, Texas
Again, the first is passive and gets straight to the point. The second, in the active voice, confuses the reader from the start with an unfamiliar subject: Who is Oswald? Why is he so important? But at this stage in the game (imagining we're back in 1963), he's not important. The fact the headline wants to convey is that the President has been shot, not that a particular person is the culprit.

The linguist Geoffrey K Pullum, a brilliant and occasionally ferocious grammarian, provides this example:
For me to report that I paid my bill by saying "The bill was paid by me," with no stress on "me," would sound inane. ... But that is no argument against passives generally. "The bill was paid by an anonymous benefactor" sounds perfectly natural.
How to Know When to Use the Passive Voice

A good writer uses her ear rather than relying on grammatical prescriptions often invented with little regard for context. If in doubt, write it both ways -- active and passive -- and read them aloud. Go with what sounds natural, succinct and clear. The best construction is usually obvious.

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Words by Rattigan: Copywriting Services

I have launched a new web page specifically to advertise my copywriting services:
Words that turn cents into dollars.
Words that turn indifference into customer loyalty.
Words that get the job done.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

From Pen to PC, via the Blue Typewriter: A Writing History

When I was four, I knew how to write well enough to scribble "Popeye" under "This belongs to" in an old family Bible, earning myself a stern telling-off. I couldn't really read and write, however. When I started school in the UK, I had to play catch-up with the other children, who already had a year of learning to read and write behind them.

With help from Mrs Ball -- I think your first teacher always has number one place in your school memories, doesn't she? -- the quaint Janet and John book series, and a half-blank/half-lined exercise book for my jottings, I was quickly able not only to read but also to write, usually stories about meeting dragons and flying around in space rockets.

At the age of nine, perhaps, I wrote my first play. I had just seen the 1943 Claude Rains version of The Phantom of the Opera, and my parents, noticing my obsession, had bought me the double-LP album from the new West End show. The arrival of my own theatrical adaptation of the Gaston Leroux story was inevitable. I still have a very crumpled copy of the script, scrawled across four or five A4 pages. My classmates and I performed it in school assembly, and it was so successful I wrote an action-packed sequel and sprained my wrist rehearsing the climactic gunfight.

For the rest of my childhood, I hardly wrote anything except plays. I got up early in the morning and typed for hours. The plays were usually inspired by films I had seen and plays I wanted to see but couldn't. They were comedies, farces, thrillers, dramas and pantomimes.

I rarely finished them, I admit. There was an exception: Frankenstein. (Yes, horror fascinated me.) I had received a blue child's typewriter as a Christmas gift from Mom and Dad, and I set myself up at the desk that sat in the alcove of our morning room. After months of switching between projects, I was proud to have finally written a full-length play. Unfortunately, though I still have a box of random pages from plays I wrote as a child, the one manuscript I completed no longer exists.

The blue typewriter was to serve me well for several years. Then Mom, a touch typist with responsibility for our Methodist church newsletter, got a very fancy electronic typewriter that showed each line on a tiny screen before typing it out. It became my toy, and the blue typewriter fell out of fashion.

I went through a succession of electronic gadgets after that. Except for brief periods, we never had computers in our household. The first time I had a PC to call my own was in the early 2000s, when life was going badly for me in BC and a close friend sent me an old laptop. It was very heavy, and the cost of shipping it probably exceeded its monetary value, but its true value was in getting me writing again. I later returned to England, and by then my mom had joined the digital age. The household had a PC and an internet connection; within a couple of years I had a new laptop and began writing as a career.

I forgot about the blue typewriter for a long time and only remembered about it recently. I've no idea what happened to it. Perhaps it was destroyed, or maybe it's now some other child's plaything. I wonder if he realizes there's a 33-year-old man who wouldn't be who he is today without that archaic word machine?

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Writing Is a Craft

My friend received an intemperate email yesterday from someone upset about the editorial policy of an online journal he edits. The writer was irked that the magazine, so he claimed, allowed editors to change an article without the author's permission. He took offence, declared the policy "barbarous" and announced that he would never submit his writing to the site, since he was one of those writers who regard themselves as "artists rather than stenographers."

The "But I'm an artist!" attitude is a disaster in the making for a writer. That's not to say there isn't an element of artistry in writing. There's also an element of talent. But as in any field, talent and creativity must be wedded to skill and discipline. Architecture can be great art, but without technical know-how and practical-mindedness, even the greatest imagination won't get far building a house you can actually live in.

Writing is a craft. I like the word "craft" because it evokes both skill and artistry. You need imagination to write, but you also need to be ruthless, even brutal in shaping the final product. Writers who are precious about their words end up publishing themselves because no reputable publisher will touch them; the result is poor writing that lacks focus and self-awareness. Family and friends love it, but no one else will buy it or read it.

In publishing, you have to let editors be ruthless with your writing. That doesn't mean blithely accepting everything they say, but it does mean steeling yourself to hear harsh truths. You can't get defensive when an editor says, "This paragraph makes no sense," "You need to revise this entire section" or "This part just doesn't flow." You need to be able to revisit the principles of good writing and work out where you went wrong and how you can put it right.

If you're worth your salt as a writer, you'll be as attentive when no editor is looking over your shoulder. Self-edit without mercy, chopping, rewording and rearranging until you have something that is clear, concise and effective. Resist the urge to hold on to every last word and idea; they're not going anywhere, and there'll be other opportunities.

Don't think I'm not sweating too. I'm very aware of the challenge I'm setting for myself. Discipline is not comfortable, especially for the naturally imaginative, but it's the only way to master a craft -- and writing is a craft.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Finding Freelance Writing Jobs and Avoiding Scams on Craigslist

Craigslist can turn up worthwhile job leads if you have your wits about you. If you're blind to the risks, however, you can easily be taken for a ride.

Last week, I saw a Craiglist ad placed by someone looking for well-researched web content. The poster didn't reveal a name or say anything about the subject. Payment was a bit higher than average, however, so I responded with my resume and said I'd happily provide relevant samples if I were given more information about what they were looking for.

A few days later, I received an email expressing interest in my application and requesting an original sample article of 250 to 500 words on a particular topic. It came from a Hotmail account whose owner I couldn't trace. The writer gave only her first name and didn't name the company, though she claimed to represent several successful websites. All this made me very wary. I replied with a second request for information.

I wasn't expecting another response, but it came surprisingly swiftly. The respondent still would not reveal her full name and said it was her policy not to disclose the company name, as she didn't want to be bombarded with phone calls about the ad. I immediately replied that I wasn't happy investing the time in an original sample without knowing the name of the company and having some verifiable contact details.

I don't know for certain it was a scam, but at the very least the procedure was highly unprofessional. On the other hand, I've had one or two jobs from Craigslist's freelance job listings; I found my first regular writing gig in Canada on the site. There's an awful lot of dross on the site, but you can find decent work if you observe a few tips for sorting out the cons from the legitimate writing opportunities.

Tips for Finding Freelance Writing Jobs on Craigslist

First, go to, and find your region, if your browser doesn't automatically take you to the regional site. Find the Jobs category, then Writing/Editing. Craigslist has RSS feeds, so you can subscribe to the freelance writing category in your area through a blog reader such as Google Reader (my preference).

Here's what to look for in a listing:

1. Look for signs of a scam. Poor grammar and spelling don't bode well. Don't trust exaggerated guarantees of money-making. When mention of payment is conspicuously absent , but enthusiastic promises of "exposure" or "getting published" abound, expect the worst. (They want you to work for free.)

2. Research the company or individual who placed the ad. Follow the links provided or type names into Google to see what you can find out. You might immediately find evidence of a bad reputation, or it might be clear straight away you're dealing with a legitimate client. Either is useful to you.

3. Ask for more information. If the ad is vague and it's hard to identify the name of the client, ask directly for a company name and contact information.

4. Check the email address once you are in contact with the client. Legitimate companies tend to avoid free services such as Yahoo! and Hotmail. GMail is a rare exception, as it tends to be favoured by younger, web-savvy professionals. Don't trust email addresses with a username that uses slang or looks like spam, eg, zara999. If you're suspicious, type the email address into a search engine and see what comes up.

5. Politely decline at any point if, assuming the ad was worthy of a response in the first place, the client asks you to do something you're not comfortable with, such as a request for an original sample or an unpaid trial period.

6. Flag the post (top right) if a listing is wrongly categorized, in violation of the rules, or a scam. An unpaid opportunity advertised in the jobs section is always a case of miscategorization.

Contests and Opportunities for Fiction, Nonfiction Writers

A heads-up: Write Jobs is an excellent source of information on contests, job openings and freelance gigs for writers. It's updated daily with opportunities from around the web, including dozens of small markets for writers looking for a chance to break into a niche.

Friday, February 04, 2011

Writing about Yourself

I've written a lot about myself, but often -- and my writing probably doesn't betray this -- I've felt self-conscious about it. No one writes about himself unless he's famous or accomplished, or he's done something no one else has done, surely?

The answer to this conflict should have been obvious to me all along, for one of the most exciting and fulfilling things about sharing my experiences has been the response from people who've been through the same thing. A common reader response to my writings about Christian fundamentalism, for example, is appreciation for putting into words what others have lived through but can't express.

I've often considered writing a book about my religious journey, but the thought that my story isn't unique has held me back. Lots of people have left born-again Christianity; many have been to Bible college, tried pastoral ministry and then turned away from evangelical faith; plenty have struggled with the conflict between sexuality and faith. So what makes me so different?

Frankly, nothing makes me different. My story is the story of thousands of others. But that's the point: Those others might not know how to put their stories into words, but I do.

Whether you should write about yourself is not down to how unique you are or how special your experience is but whether you can tell a story. Everyone's lived through her own story, but not everyone can write her story in a way that makes people say, "Yes. That's what I wanted to say but couldn't."

Having a story to share is your first step: Having the skills to tell the story makes the difference.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Formal v Informal Style in Writing: Know the Difference

Never end a sentence with a preposition. Don't begin a sentence with "And" or "But." You shouldn't split infinitives.

All the above are common pronouncements from amateur grammarians, but none of them reflects English grammar or good writing. At best, grammar myths like these simply confuse formal English with standard English, assuming that because a grammatical construction is informal, it isn't standard English and is therefore "incorrect."At worst, they're flat-out wrong.

Writers would do well to remember the distinction between formal and informal language, and their relationship to standard English. Put simply, standard English can be both formal and informal. Here's how Huddleston and Pullum put it in (the highly recommended) A Student's Introduction to English Grammar:
Informal style is by no means restricted to speech. Informal style is now quite common in newspapers and magazines. They generally use a mixture of styles: a little more informal for some topics, a little more formal for others. And informal style is also becoming more common in printed books on academic subjects. We've chosen to write this book in a fairly informal style. If we hadn't, we wouldn' t be using we 've or hadn't, we'd be using we have and had not.
In most writing contexts, strictly formal English sounds very odd. Failing to observe a rule of formal writing is not a failure to write standard English. More often than not, it's just good writing.