Category archive - Blog

Emails of complaint

Emails of complaint

1322466000_now_to_be_br-7In one of the writing courses, we’ve been dealing with email of complaint, a skill B2-level writers should be able to handle, but that we have to teach and grade at high-C1 for our teacher trainers as they learn the ropes of using grammars of politeness and how to complain in an English-speaking world.

Grammars of politeness and ways of softening a message include (not limited to)

– using modals,

– words like ‘possibly’ and ‘maybe’ when suggesting a solution

– modals with questions and -ing forms (‘could it be worth considering’),

– superlatives in the positives (‘a truly wonderful week’) and

– played-down phrases (‘could have been better’ instead of ‘were really/very bad’ and substituting ‘very’ and ‘really’ for ‘a bit’, ‘somewhat’, ‘something of a …’, ‘a trifle’ in the complaint section of the writing

Sandwiching is also very important — start every sentence positively and put the complaint in the latter part of the sentence, then suggested solutions either as a new sentence or as another clause in what would then be a very long compound-complex sentence. Without sandwiching, a complaint becomes a rant and is unlikely to get a positive response.

We don’t get them writing limited business-to-business stuff, but encourage them to use a bit more story with a range of sentence patterns, so they can meet C1 criteria. It is a fine line we tread, especially as many of the examples we’ve found in textbooks lack the complexity required of a higher-level writer, and companies rarely publish emails of complaint.

After receiving some fairly aggressively written emails of complaint, we tried to work out what we had done wrong in our teaching. And, actually, it turned out that the Austrian students simply don’t believe that English speakers complain like this and that we are as direct as they are. We’re don’t and we’re not (a brief piece about how to be polite and complain at the same time, and another in GQ). 

I decided to model an example — with 20 students, so it is somewhat clumsy at times — one that would make use of the grammars and expressions of politeness and push the students to use the idiomatic phrases expected of a C1 writer, but I am interested in your opinions, Internet world. Do you think this is an excessively polite piece of writing (bare in mind we HAVE to have some of the more convoluted sentence patterns in there to fulfil the grading criteria)?

What do you think needs to be added and removed to make it a shining example of an email of complaint?

Subject: Feedback on KCSS

Dear Sir or Madam,

For the last four weeks, I’ve had the time of my life at KCSS. After arriving in LA, with its amazing weather (so different from home), we were whisked to a truly welcoming welcome party where we met people who would turn out to be best friends forever.

As the summer got under way, getting to know each other better took place, often, at the sports field, with its vast range of equipment; I met Charlie, for example, as we rummaged through the tennis store looking for a racket, but it turned out that many of them could have been in better condition. We decided to play football instead, but it might be worth considering checking through the store a little more regularly to make sure the equipment is in good shape.

Exhausted from our exertions, we headed back to camp, eager to dive into the buffet awaiting us: a table groaning under the weight of burgers, fries, hot dogs, pizza and all manner of wonderfully American fare, fare which was possibly a little on the salty and fatty side for some of the other campers, who spent quite a bit of time running back and forth to the toilet. Maybe, when cooking for such a large group, some of whom have specific dietary needs, you might think about cutting back on the salt and fat a bit/ offer a little more variety of dishes, maybe a few more vegetarian options.

I really did have a superb trip and would love to come back next year with friends, so I would be very grateful if you could consider my suggestions for future years, and, possibly, think about some sort of remuneration/compensation, maybe in form of a discount or voucher for next year.

I look forward to hearing from you,

Kind regards/ Best wishes/ Best regards,

Ann Example


When Writing Is Your North, Your South, Your East, Your West

When Writing Is Your North, Your South, Your East, Your West

Recently I was asked why I write. For some reason it annoyed me! This is my slightly ranty response explaining why I write one Wednesday morning at 3 a.m. It starts with a very lazy poem.

Why do I write?

Why do I feed my children?

Why do I blink?

Why do I think?

Why do I dream?

Why do I live?

Why does my heart beat?

Why does one foot fall in front of the other?

Why do I breathe?

Why will I die? 

Why do I write?

…but it’s so cliche. I write because I do, because I want to, because I have to — just the same reason that anyone does anything they are passionate about. Passion is a part of us, and after a while, if we are lucky enough to really fit our passion into our world, the passion becomes our daily life and maybe slips into being everything and nothing. Our stress, our reward, our heaven and our hell — and our daily bread: it feeds our heads, our hearts, our banks and our passion.

I don’t like writing about writing. It aggravates me and makes me a cliche … a writer who loves writing. Quel surprise — no different from an accountant who loves accounting, or an architect who loves drafting, but because words are our skill we’re expected to wax lyrical about it.

A bit too negative? Maybe. But the poem and the cliche-hater is me: my ‘wholehearted, all-encompassed, inextricably-connected adoration of writing’ writer, and my ‘Wednesday afternoon, stressed about deadlines, frustrated by the endless monotony of it all’ writer. All writers count themselves exceedingly lucky to be paid to write: who wouldn’t feel lucky to do what they love?

The connection between my life and my writing is impossible to define – it’s in everything I do.

My point is not that I don’t like writing — very, very far from it — but that I don’t feel I should need to examine why I do my job, as most other professions don’t need to. My day-to-day writing work ISN’T wandering aimless as a cloud, it’s churning out webcopy about running, about scaffold towers, about cleaning and about website design — all of them paid for by clients whose voice I am. I switch from teacher in the morning to jobbing builder in an afternoon, and it’s not easy, and, in honesty, it’s not a lot of fun much of the time. I do it because they can’t.

I hope you can see a little better where I’m coming from. Never think I don’t love writing. I do, and I’m bound to it till death do us part.

Classroom Creative

Classroom Creative

Back in 2001, a wonderful website called TeachIt appeared. It pooled resources created by English teachers for teachers, so we didn’t all have to reinvent the wheel every time we had to teach something new (or old!). I started contributing in 2002 — and some of those early resources are still active, reaping in royalties every six months — enough to buy a new Moleskine, should I give in to temptation!

Over the years, I’ve uploaded a few resources (19 to be precise), but I’ve hardly been prolific simply because I’m no longer in the secondary-school classroom, so my finger isn’t really on the current curriculum pulse (is anyone’s?!), but some of the stuff I create for uni, I adapt and offer up for anyone who might like them. And it seems some do. Five people ‘love’ a piece I wrote about mobile phones, in which students need to correct  some pretty vile grammar crimes.

A few weeks ago, the resource lady at TeachIt asked if I’d be interested in putting together some ideas for the classroom. Why not? It would be nice to a. get a bit of cash coming in, and b. get my brain thinking GCSE again a bit. So it did. And what fun I had last week racking my brain for creative approaches to listening and speaking, and non-fiction and media writing.

Teaching a Listening and Speaking course at Salzburg Uni made coming up with ideas for the speaking and listening resource pretty easy, but trying to think of ways to get students writing in any other way but actually just writing was flipping difficult! It seems, though, that I did OK: “these are brilliant, I’ve passed round a few to the other editors and these have been the most highly praised” *blushes*

Paper to Digital — A Year On

Paper to Digital — A Year On

I’ve just got back from shopping for my son’s mountain of school things for the beginning of term. And one of those things was a school planner. I’m indoctrinating him early into the joys of the school planner, so got him a Moleskine 18-monther.

I love them. I love pulling the plastic off. I love the gentle breath of air the pages take in as I open the front cover. I love the feel of the pages. I love everything about them. Until last year, my favourite part of the year was buying my own, so who would I be to deny the next generation that thrill?

But now I have a Nexus and, technically, have no need of a written planner. All of my lessons, I can add in less than a minute, rather than having to write each one into a planner by hand, and I can easily co-ordinate my freelance work with no flicking of pages (wonderful creamy pages). My ColorNotes saves me from having to rewrite the parts of my to-do list that I haven’t to-doed into the next week. And all of my e-mail, plans and gadgetry are all there, at my fingertips — with a backlight, so I don’t have to faff around turning the light on and waking the house up when my brain floods me with ideas in the early hours.

Buying his Moleskine earlier this afternoon was emotional, though. It hurt. Watching him pulling the plastic off and flicking through the pages was bitter-sweet. How wonderful that he can share in that pleasure, but how long will it be until he realises how much easier digilife is? My heart was screaming at me to buy one too, to go back to my written planner, to treat myself. But my head far too sensibly told me that using the Nexus makes more sense, it’s easier to keep on top of things, and I can organise all my juggling so much better with it.

At least I’ll get to use his daily when I check his homework and write notes to his teacher. Have to see the positives, eh!?

Back up and running!

Back up and running!

After months of not being able to login to my WordPress, it seems I’m back. How exciting! Now I can write all those blogs I’ve wanted to write for the last three months. Three months for goodness sake. Well that hiatus is now in the past. Over. Finished. Le Fin.

It’s been a busy few months. I got another distinction in my MA in Professional Writing, putting me at five for five, and I’ve just finished the research module and readied myself to write the Sentences book over the next few months.

I spent a week in Palestine to help me get a grip on life in the West Bank for the Sesame Street book. The dipped my toe into the world of publishing and book markets at the London Book Fair.

Now, it’s head down for the last six weeks of the teaching semester before a summer of writing. I really can’t wait for that. Proper writing time interrupted only by a week’s internship at Pearlfisher branding agency in London.

What I’ll do this time next year when Sentences and Sesame Street first drafts are finished. No MA and no proposals to write. Goodness, I’ll not know what to do with the time. If I’m lucky I’ll hang myself upside down in the burning oil that is teaching Advanced Grammar — something to look forward to!


Make Words Work

Make Words Work

Placing emphasis on the right idea and right word in a sentence is an art. In the UK this isn’t something we really played with as children, which I think is a crying shame. In the US it’s standard grade-school fare, as far as I understand it.

I don’t really ever toying with word order or fiddling around to get the perfect effect. Shame.

Below is an example of a process called sentence combining.

You get a cluster of ideas, which you use to play around with until you get the sentence that works best for your story.

Here’s a basic cluster:

The apartment was quiet

It was punctuated by ticking

The ticking was soft

The ticking was insistent

The ticking came from a clock

And here’s what I made out of that cluster. Some I like, some I don’t, but look at the difference in each of the sentences, achieved simply by moving the words and ideas around.

Sometimes I add a word to alter the meaning of the sentence, but, for the most part, the words stay the same. It’s just word order and use of punctuation that places the emphasis.

  1. The quiet in the apartment was punctuated by ticking. The soft, insistent ticking of the clock.
  2. It was the ticking clock, soft and insistent, that punctuated the quiet of the apartment.
  3. It was the quiet apartment punctuated by the soft, insistent ticking of the clock.
  4. It was the clock, ticking, soft and insistent, that punctuated the quiet of the apartment.
  5. What punctuated the quiet of the apartment was the ticking of the clock, insistent but soft.
  6. Soft and insistent, the ticking of the clock punctuated the quiet of the apartment.
  7. The apartment was quiet; only the ticking of the clock, soft and insistent, punctuated that quiet.
  8. There was a ticking, soft and insistent, that punctuated the apartment’s quiet.
  9. All that punctuated the quiet of the apartment was the ticking of the clock, soft but insistent.
  10. Only the ticking of the clock punctuated the quiet of the apartment.
  11. But, punctuated only by the soft, insistent ticking of the clock, the apartment was quiet.
  12. Punctuated only by ticking clock, soft and insistent, the apartment was quiet.

Which do you like most? Why?



Bibliography and Useful Resources for Sentences and Writing

Bibliography and Useful Resources for Sentences and Writing

Useful resources

Vince (2009) Advanced Language Practice  pp 54 – 91

Fish, S (2011) How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One. New York: HarperCollins

Longknife, A & Sullivan K.D. (2002) The Art of Styling Sentences. New York: Barron’s

Tufte, V (2006). Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style. Conneticut: Graphics Press LLC

University College London‘s Grammar pages: (accessed 27th December 2011)

Loads of writing advice from an OU lecturer and successful novelist

The World of Ghostwriting

The World of Ghostwriting

Ghostwriters are the illicit side of writing. Prostitutes of the written word, if you will. Authors don’t like to admit they’ve used a ghost — it’s a bit like admitting they can’t do it themselves.

But that’s drivel. Time and skill-set play a big part in why a celebrity, businessman, politician or Joe Public with a fascinating story might ask the help of a ghost.

We can’t all be good at everything, can we? I’ll admit that I find the ideas part of writing my biggest challenge, which is why being a ghost is my own personal heaven. I don’t need to bring the ideas, I need to bring knowledge, writing skills and the ability to draw the details of an idea out from my ‘author’.

For some of my clients, I am their online voice, the voice that talks to customers, and quite often the whisper that puts down the words to push Google rankings up!

For other clients, I am a muse, a tutor. We talk and mull over how a piece of writing could work, what is missing and what the author needs to focus on to find their voice. And then, when they’ve done the writing I bring my invisible pen and chivvy, neaten and tighten in a process that can even take months until we find the exact voice, the exact tone and the exact narrative structures.

The fun of being a ghost is the worlds that you find yourself in. I live my writing world up scaffold towers, cleaning houses and offices, building loft extensions and as a journalist in Palestine — I never know where my next piece will take me. Each client is different, and my role as ghost, or writer, or editor, or whatever you want to call it, differs dramatically.

While I do a lot of writing for other people, I consider myself a writer rather than a ghost at the moment. But over the next couple of months, my study and research will focus on what it means to be a ghost and what legal, practical and ethical challenges there are to overcome deep in the business, with an eye on moving more in that direction within my own writing career.

In the spirit of sharing, of informing (and of getting my MA) I’m just off to buy a domain name where I’ll stick all my research, interviews and hand-me-down advice about the world of ghostwriting. It’s a secret world, and understandably so, but won’t it be lovely to just peek in through the keyhole?!

While you’re waiting for me to get my finger out, there are two eye-opening novels about how a writer’s day-to-day life can be turned upside-down by being a ghost: The Ghost by Robert Harris and Ghosting by Jennie Erdal.



Reclaiming Sentences

Reclaiming Sentences

For the last few weeks, I’ve been working on an idea. Initially it was something that came out of teaching Grammar and Writing at University of Salzburg, when I realised how little of our language native speakers knew, and how damaging our lack of grammatical knowledge was to Britain’s ability to write effectively.

Sure, we have produced amazing published writers and fantastic journalists throughout history, but what about Joe Bloggs? The man on the street? In fact, what about the armies of kids, parents, teachers and professionals who really have no clue firstly how easy sentences are to understand, and how powerful writing can become with just a little bit more knowledge.

Lynne Truss exposed a gaping hole in the market when she had run-away success with Eats Shoots and Leaves, and myriad books have appeared on the bookshelves since then trying to make grammar understandable. But you know what? It doesn’t seem to matter how many books I look at, I still see a woeful lack of some of the most powerful information I’ve learnt in twenty years of studying and teaching English: sentence types and sentence problems.

The MA Non-fiction module I’m due to submit my portfolio for next week contains the 80%-complete material for submission to publishers. Just a bit more work and my mission to reclaim sentences and return writing power to the people will be under way.

It just doesn’t seem wholly right that non-natives and only a handful of native speakers should even be aware of these nine keys to writing effectively. So I’ve set my mission — a sub-edit for the International Press Institute and the completion of my MA portfolio are the only things that stand in the way. Next week, it’s ‘go’ time.


Book Jacket: How Would You Judge This One?

Book Jacket: How Would You Judge This One?

Coming to the end of my non-fiction unit at University College Falmouth, I’m getting a good idea of where I’m taking my book about sentences: the Holy Grail of writing.

HOW on earth we aren’t taught the basic sentence types and sentence problems is beyond me. Learn them and all other aspects of writing come together. I’m excited about writing this book and look forward to getting the writing underway when I have a publisher sorted out. I feel like a sentence crusader with the one, true message! The 9 commandments of sentence writing: stick to them and you’ll never go wrong. Hmm… Maybe I’ve just found an alternative direction.

Anyway, this week’s MA assignment is to create a concept for Sentences’ jacket. I’ve attached what I produced in Word — my little netbook can’t cope with InDesign. What do you think of the jacket? Honesty appreciated. 🙂

I wanted something that showed personality and fun, but rooted in the idea of feeling trapped when thinking about sentences (both at the Her Majesty’s pleasure and the ones you battle at school!), so I used the lines of words in black as a watermark to suggest bars. The lack of bars on the back jackets suggests that by finishing the book the bars will no longer be there.

I rather like the lady peeping over the title and would maybe like to have more people peeping around the title box as they mirror the audience’s curiosity.
The post-it note is a head-nod to the ‘scrapbooking’ trend that is doing the rounds at the moment, but also encourages the idea that this is an interactive book, one that you should be happy to scribble in and keep notes in — which is also the inspiration for having a couple of sections with freehand font.
I loved the idea of tempting readers into a specific page of the book, which apparently works very well in YA literature. I hope it’ll work here as well!
Using red and black on white seemed to be the most attention-grabbing. Several of these types of books (grammar, syntax) are yellow or blue, so I wanted to try an alternative. The starkness of the white suggests that it’s actually black and white as a subject, rather than gray or wishy-washy.
Anyway, I’m no designer, but I had a lot of fun doing this, but the real test: would you pick this book up in a shop?

Note: Michael O’Mara is in no way connected to this book. My MA assignment was to make the cover look as authentic as possible. That said, Michael O’Mara books will be in my sights when the time comes 🙂

Writing Update

Writing Update

And pause for a moment…

The last few weeks have been hectic, writing the book proposal and example chapter with Daoud Kuttab, so he can meet with agents in New York this week. All rather excitingly he’s there now, so I have my fingers crossed for him and just hope my writing stands up to the test.

I’ll be honest, writing proposals hasn’t really fallen into my ‘favourite things to do’ category just yet, but I suspect that’s simply because it’s my first time. With feedback from the agents in New York, and some more practice, I may find that I’ll warm to it; after all it’s the things I struggle and battle with in my teaching and writing that end up closest to my heart.

What I enjoyed most about the last few weeks was working on the example chapter and watching it evolve from eight pages of notes to 25 pages of rather compelling prose (even if I say so myself!). Talking with Daoud on Skype and reading about the Palestine–Israel conflict, I sometimes surprise myself when I look up and realise I’m actually still in Austria. I’m as immersed in this as I can be from another country, and it won’t be long till I have tickets for a 10-day visit to Palestine in real life as well.

That Palestine has applied for statehood last week makes Daoud’s book about taking Sesame Street to Palestine even more timely and relevant than we thought it would be when we started work on it; the International Press Institute’s World Congress in Taipei marks our first year working together because we met at the World Congress in Vienna after I’d written his biography for the IPI’s 60th anniversary commemorative book about its 60 press freedom heroes (Daoud is one of them).

The writing of the last few months has broadened my knowledge and understanding of ‘the craft’ even more, so Writing Genre: Creative Writing students at University of Salzburg will benefit in the coming weeks. I’ve had fun writing this semester’s course, but it’s such a challenge to decide what can be left out — it’s only 12 weeks after all!


Deadlines and Proposals

Deadlines and Proposals

With Palestine’s application for statehood to be heard by the UN on 24th September, we are working great guns to get a proposal in order, so our ‘taking Sesame Street to Palestine’ pitch hits agents’ and publishers’ desks as the world’s eyes turn towards Palestine and Israel.

I’ll not lie: this is the first time I’ve written a non-fiction proposal and I’m nervous. I want it to be all it *can* be. I want it to be perfect because I believe in this book utterly. But I’m intimidated for a number of reasons, that I shan’t laden you with, but when I read Jurgen Wolff’s comment in Your Writing Coach, I felt a touch better:

‘Once you realize that pitching is really just another version of what you love to do–telling stories–it loses its power to intimidate.’

Well. Here’s hoping!

The process of taking Sesame Street to Palestine sets the brain tripping: there’s so much that could sell the book, but what it’s about and who it’s by is reason enough! From personal tragedies to political conflict, waiting at checkpooints to Palestinians laughing in an Israeli studio.

Seeing the wood for the trees is still somewhat challenging, but, by working through the most comprehensive version of a proposal template — suggested by a particularly splendid chap, Andrew Wille — I’ve managed to put together a reasonable first draft. But it needs a lot of work, so I’ll go back daily to make changes until I’m happy with it.

How to write a non-fiction proposal feels pretty complicated as well, with all sorts of market research involved. Despite my 6-page proposal draft, I’m trying to work out what exactly needs to be sent to an agent. A one-page information sheet that gives an agent the basic idea of the proposed book? Or a wad of papers that covers USP, content, competition and market?

When I know, I’ll let you know. But doing as many versions as I can is proving enormously helpful in organising the story.

The key, it seems, is not to overwrite … which seems fairly sensible advice to live by, really.

One little gem I *have* picked up from most of the books and sites I’m using for research is that non-fiction books are easier to pitch, and are more likely to be taken on.

Interestingly, my two writing projects converge here a bit: I asked a number of parents what kinds of books they read for pleasure and 95% of them said popular non-fiction.

I’ll be honest: that makes me pretty happy, because writing non-fiction is definitely my favourite type of writing 🙂


Riot Rebuild Volunteer

Riot Rebuild Volunteer

Watching the riots spread across Britain this month was truly vile. I wanted to be part of the Broom Army, pulling together to show the rioters that what they did was unacceptable and ‘we’d’ fight back.

But I’m in Austria, so there wasn’t much cleaning up for me to do. In solidarity, I followed the clean-up on RiotCleanup, then spotted RiotRebuild a day later.

As part of my day job I write for Lakeside-Hire, an at-height equipment hire company in … go figure … Lakeside. For the last year I’ve updated their Facebook fanpage daily with news about the construction industry around London, so I’ve become pretty on the ball with what’s happening in the world of building stuff. And it’s fascinating. I may have become just a teeny bit geeky about it, truth be told.

When RiotRebuild put a call out for writers, I jumped at the chance — finally a way to help out 🙂 I could use my knowledge of the London construction industry AND sate my need to help my fellow countrymen…women…people.

So, to cut a fairly dull story, shortish, my first article — about getting free legal advice to the victims of the riots — is now live. Hoorah.

Sneaky peek

Sneaky peek

A teeny glimpse into the world I’m researching and learning about: Palestine’s Sesame Street

Plotting a book

Plotting a book

A combined mission this week: to gather ideas for Daoud’s book and to work out how to plot both books. In my hunt for ways to structure a book (part of MA homework!), I found this cracking video explaining how to use storyboards to organise plot.

I also thought it may be useful to add the approaches I’ve found and thought to come at all the stories you might want to tell in your fiction or creative nonfiction.

If you think of any more, please let me know.

Approaches to novel structure

1. Purely chronological: follow the story chronologically with no deviances
2. Chronological with flashbacks/flashforwards to build story/character
3. Follow individual characters/themes and converge them at the end of the book
4. Stream of consciousness, with little apparent planning, just letting the pen flow
5. Thematically led
6. Writing as diary entries, or using formats that aren’t typical for your genre
7. Flicking between viewpoints/plots of a number of characters
8. Retrospective: build the plot from the end and start at the beginning
9. Campbell’s 12-stage universal story structure (Hero’s Journey/monomyth)
10. As a ‘diamond’

Think of the “shape” of your book as a simple diamond. The question that
your book answers is at the top point; the support for the answer is in the
wide part in the middle; and the answer is the bottom point.

Think of each chapter in the same way–and then, each subchapter.

Start with the question. Add the questions that need to be answered to
answer the bigger question. Then conclude with the answer. Do this at each

11. From A – Z
12. As a collections of unconnected essays
13. Gustav Freytag considered plot a narrative structure that divided a story into five parts, like the five acts of a play. These parts are: exposition (of the situation); rising action (through conflict); climax (or turning point); falling action; and resolution.
14. Using a three-act, five part ‘W’ storyboard
15. Foster-Harris, said that plot is the working-out of an emotional problem caused by two conflicting emotions being felt by the same person (the main character. The basic elements of plot (Story) can be understood quite simply as Character, Conflict, Complication, Crisis-Climax, and Resolution. Change is an important element but it is inherent the actions proper.
16. Following a real-world structure (birthday to birthday, event to event, the running of an event/sports/theatre season, seasons of the year,
17. A pincer movement as past and future events move to converge at the climax.
18. Each chapter ends on a question that needs to be answered in the next chapter.

19. Circle: opening and closing a chapter with the same event and fill the middle of the chapter with emotional development from a range of experiences/thoughts.
20. A discussion between two periods of time/characters about  a theme
21. The ‘fairytale format cited by Jurgen Wolff go to pdf p 104, and actual page 95

Approaches to writing/planning
Lessons on structure/plotting
Sign method:
Closet-cleaning approach
The Snowflake Method
Plot blog
Table of contents