Category Archives: writing

The write way

Film star Helen Twelvetrees, ca. 1936-7 / photograph by Sam Hood

Film star Helen Twelvetrees, ca. 1936-7. Photographer Sam Hood. State Library of New South Wales. (Flickr Commons).

Reflecting on posts by Dan Slee and Phil Jewitt for week 2 of the Weekly Blog Club made me think about what I have done in the past and to see it in a slightly different way. Janet Harkin’s post also connected in with some memories.

Dan’s post is about his perceptions of a country, its people, landscape and cultures: India. I connected with some of the things he said. One of my first memories of an image of Sikhs was a photograph taken by my grandfather around 1930 when he was in India with the RAF. His inscription underneath his photograph of fiercesome Sikh warriors, armed to the teeth, assures us that they were friendly. Many years later, I was taught to drive by a lovely Sikh driving instructor, and always regretted not taking up his invitation to join his family and friends at a Hindu wedding. I was just too shy at the time to cope with the prospect of a large group of strangers.

I learned to drive in London where I started my first proper job after graduating. Unemployment was a big problem then, and it took me nine months from finishing my degree to starting work, even though graduates were much rarer in those days. Janet Harkin’s post reminded me of the hard work of seeking and applying for jobs in those days. I visited some employment agencies (who generally just offered telephone sales jobs, or temporary typing or reception work) and visited the library regularly to go through all the job advertisements in newspapers and relevant magazines. I applied to at least a hundred employers in about six months, and each application was handwritten or typed on a manual typewriter, with no spelling or grammar checker except myself (and sometimes one of my family or friends). Far too many employers still have job application forms into which few people’s skills and experience seem to fit. I still dread writing job applications and CVs more than anything else.

I have been on the other side of the job application process quite a few times. We have had to discard instantly some applications that were written on torn pieces of shopping list notepaper. I have always tried to be more flexible about spelling and punctuation, however. I have known some highly talented, intelligent people who have been the best people for a job and able to express themselves clearly despite being dyslexic or having been taught badly at school.

Sometimes it is really obvious people have been taught badly at school. I have felt so angry at times that some schools or teachers have failed pupils in the past to the extent that as adults they still feel embarrassed and lack confidence in expressing themselves in writing.

The 7-and-a-half-year-old me still remembers the humiliating embarrassment of being unable to decipher what the supply teacher (in a school to which I had just moved) had written on the blackboard. I had only been taught printed letters in my previous school and she wrote in ‘double handwriting.’ I also remember being very unsure of how to use punctuation. So, I have tried to do the little I can to help others to have the tools of literacy and to feel more confident in expressing themselves as part of my work.

Phil Jewitt’s first post for the Weekly Blog Club interested me because it revealed a cautiousness in using blogs ( I also enjoyed his garden analogy). This seems to be quite common amongst public sector people. Most of us fear putting our thoughts and ideas out into the open where anyone can criticise. It is more difficult for some to do, however, because their jobs restrict the open expression of ideas and opinions upon certain topics.

Phil’s blog made me reflect upon how writing has always been an essential part of my work, and how I have written in different ways according to context. My first experience of seeing something I had written in print was when I was 9 years old (it was a poem that would probably make me cringe now). It made me realise how something one has written becomes something else when published where anyone can read it. Writing as someone in a specific role, representing a public sector employer, is also very different to expressing oneself as an individual. One has to think how the public perceive the organisation, at the same time as trying to convey accurate information.

My first proper job included drafting formal Scheduled Monument Consent advice letters to the relevant Secretary of State. The content of these letters was the core content for the Scheduled Monument Consents granted by the Secretary of State. We had to ensure that the advice was clear to a non-expert as well as within the requirements of the appropriate legislation.

I also had to communicate directly with members of the public, owners of ancient monuments, planning officers, special interest groups, schoolchildren and others. I had found that the style of some previous staff had been stuffed with meaningless and unnecessarily complicated phrases designed to obfuscate and distance the writers from the readers of the letters. I considered it important to try to get a balance between being ‘the official’ and being a real person when writing to individuals. There was also the writing for groups or a general audience where one needed to be the anonymous but knowledgeable author of informative, fact-filled but fluent, readable prose.

A few have criticised me for ‘dumbing down’ in the past, and being “not academic.” It can be hard work to express complex ideas, or even simply to synthesise and present clearly information from many different sources, in plain English. Personally, I love reading or listening to scientists and philosophers who can do this. I think that the world should be a better place if we share the excitement of research and discovery of new information and ideas with everyone.

Despite having written quite fluently in private correspondence since I was a small child, and having written in a work context for publication, I still find it scary to write and publish under my own name, without the armour of a recognised role that has a formal job description. I have been thinking of writing a novel since I was a teenager, have even written dozens of pages to start one now and then, but I become very nervous and self-conscious about the prospect of revealing myself in fiction. I worry that people will consider my literary style poor and my narrative simply dull.

Blogging is a good medium for trying to get through such barriers. I still click the ‘Publish’ button with a sense of trepidation, and remain surprised if anyone reads my posts. A few people have said that they enjoyed or learned something by reading a particular one, so I keep writing. For years, I have perceived my own formal writing as somewhat worthy but dull. Blogs can be less formal so enable one to find one’s own ‘voice,’ a style that is not ‘official report,’ ‘legally-enforceable communication,’ ‘educational material,’ nor academic paper.

Many people who work in cultural institutions communicate well with the public, partly because they are always enthusiastic about their subject and know that they are communicating interesting information and stories to the public. I have been suggesting at unconferences for a while that it is worth looking at how some culture organisations blog, tweet and use Facebook.

Dan Slee is one of the public sector bloggers whose writing style I have admired since I first started reading his posts. He gets his points across clearly in a lively, fresh style that is enjoyable to read. Dan’s personality comes through, whilst retaining a mindfulness of his work role. I certainly get the impression that he has found his ‘voice’ and is confident in using it.

Reading other people’s posts for the Weekly Blog Club and their comments has reminded me that I have seen how people gain so much confidence through being supported and given positive encouragement to write in the right way: that is, to write clearly in a style that still reflects who they are.

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