Posts tagged writing
Shit, tits and bastards

Dealing with ideas rather than events.
Extract (something).
A summary.

Last month, the NHS published an explainer about its adoption of simple – some might say childish – words to describe bodily functions. Pee, poo and sick now take the place of urine, faeces or stool and vomit in their web copy, in what some will argue is a race to the bottom (formerly rectum) in medical vernacular. It’s tempting to agree with them: hospitals are serious places, doctors are scientists and we shouldn’t trivialise illness or infantilise patients.

But this shift in language wasn’t taken lightly. Content designers reviewed common search terminology and survey data and weighed it against the comparatively small number of complaints they’ve received for similar changes in the past. Ultimately, the need to communicate clearly and effectively with as many people as possible (including those with learning difficulties and non-native speakers) won the day. Indeed, the squeamishness, pedantry and pomposity of the few shouldn’t be a barrier to anyone’s health and well-being.

Also, it turns out that doctors actually aren’t scientists, they’re jazz musicians – or so says the British Medical Journal. In any case, they’ll definitely treat you for Whiplash.

Another British institution became more inclusive this week, with a raft of updates to the Oxford English Dictionary. Heavily featured in the 650-word entry instalment are a range of Scottish words and phrases and gender-related terms that will be unfamiliar to many or most English speakers.

Among the Scottish entries (a lot of which just happen to be insults), highlights include:

  • roaster (n.) an obnoxious, annoying, or otherwise objectionable person; an idiot

  • sprag (n.) a person with an arrogant, swaggering manner; a boaster, a braggart

  • tube (n.) also in form choob a stupid or contemptible person; an idiot. Frequently as a disparaging form of address

Gender-neutral, gender inclusive and ungendered terms have been added, most notably the pronouns hir and zir, alongside Latin@, a term adopted by the Latin American trans community as an alternative to Latina, Latino, and Latinx. Where the latter refers to the community without referring to gender, Latin@ encapsulates those who identify as third gender, genderless and a combination of genders. Laypeople (and all of peoplekind, also added) may want/need to read more.

Less confusingly, the concept of misgendering (i.e. to mistake or misstate a person’s gender, or to refer to someone using language that ascribes a gender to which they don’t identify – often maliciously) has officially entered the lexicon.

Perhaps less pleasing is the knowledge that the first known use of the term comes courtesy of Vladimir Nabokov back in 1959 – an author whose prejudice against female writers was both well-known and self-declared. The inclusion of the Scots term tittie, meaning “a young woman, a girl, a lass”, will likely provide little consolation.

Finally, Damian Hinds, the government’s education secretary, has called on students to report users of so-called essay mills to their institutions’ academic malpractice boards. He also suggested universities should ask students to sign “honour codes” declaring that they will not cheat in their assignments and examinations.

Students who use essay-writing services pay enormous sums of money to unscrupulous companies who will write bespoke essays for them, evading plagiarism-detection software because the material, while authored by a third party, is ostensibly original.

As an academic proofreader, this issue is of great concern. Sometimes people mistake third-party proofreading for cheating (when in fact most universities now explicitly permit it), believing such assistance to be a nefarious attempt to get ahead of the curve. The reality is very different, however, and academic proofreaders are bound by institutional regulations that stipulate the type, level and frequency of intervention permitted.

Essay mills should be banned (as they are in many countries) and more should be done to prevent those operating outside of UK jurisdiction. Users of such services should be punished, but encouraging students to inform on one another like a particularly boring Stasi could further stigmatise the use of academic proofreaders, whose clients often speak English as an additional language or have language-based learning difficulties.

Calls for pledges are similarly tone deaf: students are already bound by terms that forbid all forms of plagiarism, and are warned against them regularly throughout their academic careers. The education secretary’s concerns are legitimate, but his response unfairly vilifies students – most of whom are of course honest and hardworking.

Twenty-five thousand people died in the course of four British/American air raids on Dresden over three days in February 1945.

Twenty-five thousand people died in the course of four British/American air raids on Dresden over three days in February 1945.

House bile is an occasional feature explaining a) what to do, (2) what not to do and iii. why that convention you've been following is dumb. This time, we look at semicolons.

Kurt Vonnegut famously wrote:

Here is a lesson in creative writing. The first rule: do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.

Here’s another lesson: Kurt Vonnegut was a de facto apologist for antisemitism whose patriarchal wisdom and puerile cartoons have distracted generations of nerdy only-child devotees from his (mostly innocuous, but unmistakable) misogyny.

Vonnegut also claimed to self-edit every sentence in real time: writing and rewriting until perfect, before moving onto the next. This is a terrible approach that will frustrate your development as a writer the same way his take on the semicolon might permit you to think that not learning how to do something might somehow make you better at it than everyone else. (And I’m a fan.)

Here’s my lesson: write lots. Write often. Write well and rewrite worse. Write badly and throw it away. Write middlingly and store it on a cloud drive you’ll lose access to through unwitting non-compliance with Orwellulaneous updates to the privacy policy. Write and write and write and write, and eventually you’ll get to something that looks like the truth – even if that truth is that you weren’t meant to be a writer, which is something that is both okay and fine.

Know that semicolons are for complex lists and the separation of independent, but related clauses, and Google examples of their application every time you’re tempted to use one – just to check! – like everyone else.

Needless to say

House bile is an occasional feature explaining a) what to do, (2) what not to do and iii. why that convention you've been following is dumb. This time, we look at the expression needless to say.

If something needs to be said, say it. Don’t tell me it doesn’t need to be said. It’s confusing and unnecessary. Seriously, just what are you trying to do here? Sneak some crucial, always-read-the-small-print detail past without my noticing?

Hm. No. That’s not it. You’re making fun. You’re trying to patronise me in some way I haven’t yet figured out. You want me to know that something is obvious that it doesn’t need to be pointed out, except to me.

Yeah, that’s it! You’ve figured out that when I see ‘needless to say’, I deduce ‘needless to read’. Then I skip ahead a couple of percentage points on the progress bar; I’ve got a Grisham lined up next. He’s turning out two a year these days – more than double my reading rate since I reactivated Netflix for Can’t Pay? We’ll Take it Away.

Review: The Editing Podcast

A new weekly podcast explores the intricacies of the editing process from a range of perspectives.

Luminaries from the SfEP, Denise Cowle (non-fiction) and Louise Harnby (fiction), launched The Editing Podcast at the start of 2019. Their experience, friendly and direct presenting style and insight make them the perfect double act for a show that promises to be of interest to writers and editors alike.

Cowle and Harnby are meticulousness personified, and their conversation walks the (often slippery) line between carefully scripted and charmingly ad lib. In addition to their own professional wisdom, the pair take time each week to share a selection of editing ‘bites’: links to valuable services, courses and articles that expand upon that episode’s discussion, which is itself transcribed and posted online for good measure.

A recent episode about sample edits – short extracts from larger texts edited in advance of a contract being signed – embodied the podcast’s collaborative ethos perfectly: “both [authors and editors] use them and both…benefit from them,” notes Harnby. Indeed, sample edits allow authors and publishers to see the kind of work the editor might do for them, while editors get to see exactly what’s required.

Editing is a two-way street, after all, and with future episodes due to focus on topics like choosing an editor and the crucial issues of time and money management, Harnby and Cowle will be bringing that message home for a long time to come.

The Editing Podcast is available wherever you get your podcasts.


House bile is an occasional feature explaining a) what to do, (2) what not to do and iii. why that convention you've been following is dumb. This time, we look at the term Kafkaesque.

Unless you're describing actually turning into a dung beetle or literally never finishing a novel, you are using this incorrectly. Your struggles at the DMV, issues downloading the correct assembly instructions for the IKEA Trysil wardrobe or bafflement at the range of available cat litters are merely Kafka-ish, and you should adjust yourself accordingly.

See also: Orwellian. Very few things in your life are similar to anything you can find in the works of Eric Arthur Blair. However, if you've ever found yourself despondently pumping lead into the hide of a deranged Indian elephant, under the cosh of a porcine overclass or trying to get laid without having your face eaten by rats, you get a pass. Otherwise, prefer Orwellular.