The origin of management speak; no books borrowed for 12 months at Cumbrian library; George R R Martin and his writer’s block; creatives mourn master world-builder Stan Lee. It’s just another Week In Book News.

Masterclass: how to write good sentences

On the last day of MCM Comic Con London, we attended a Guardian masterclass that we had committed to ages ago. We were gutted to miss out on a Sandman Universe event that happened at the same time but we had booked the class in advance.

The masterclass was about writing good sentences.

Professor Joe Moran, our tutor, joked that he didn’t know if people would be interested in a class on writing good sentences. Well, we weren’t sure if missing out on Neil Gaiman’s Sandman Universe for this masterclass was a good idea, too. But it was a full house. The lecture was great. The questions by the “students” (who looked like masterclass tutors themselves) were brilliant.

Professor Joe Moran has written several books on cultural history, the latest one being Shrinking Violets: A Field Guide to Shyness. Pic: Abe Books

Not a grammar class

Moran reminded us that our writing class was not a grammar class. He’s not a linguist or a grammarian; he is a Literature professor. Well, yes, good storytellers are not necessarily good sub-editors – and vice versa. But we think a linguist is more open to grammatical trespasses than a sub-editor. “Correctness”, said Moran, is a form etiquette, “a convention that makes it easy for words to unpack… Grammar makes a sentence easier and pleasurable to read”.

He said a great sentence is a matter of taste. His idea of a great one might be different from yours.

Go easy on long nouns

Out of the many techniques covered, the construction of long nouns grabbed our attention. This is a technique most commonly used in our line of work – and the most abused, too. It is employed in corporate communications. Moran cited three examples:

1. Nominalisation

Nouns from verbs and adjectives. Examples: “digitality”, “governance”, “normality”. It’s meant to pack a punch in a simple sentence. But use too many of these in a sentence and the meaning becomes abstract. It slows down the reading process. There’s too much information.

2. Noun string

Pseudo adjectives used to describe a noun. Example: “distributed ledger technology (DLT) payment system”. One adjective and three nouns are used to describe the last noun. Why?

3. Long noun phrase

“The journey on Piccadilly line is delayed because of signal failure”. This is often deployed in passive sentence. It carries too many points in a sentence.

Historically, complex political hierarchy came with the Romans (who spoke Latin) and later, the Normans (who used Latinate words). Long, Latinate words are the words of government and governance – or bureaucracy.

Management speak

Moran said that the type of sentence construction above is designed to be “almost beyond critique”. His observation invited comments from students who felt that managerial communication talks about “processes rather than people”. A gentleman commented: “It’s the language you used when you’re kidding people. You use phrases such as ‘going forward’.”

It is the word construction used to “dissociate oneself from action”. It is “anonymised language”.

A Latin origin

Moran then pointed out that the long nouns such as “normativity” are Latinate words – they have their origins in Latin. Core English nouns and verbs like “eat”, “sleep” or “milk” are short and straight to the point.

Historically, complex political hierarchy – in the European context – came with the Romans (who spoke Latin) and later, the Normans (who used Latinate words). Long, Latinate words are the words of government and governance – or bureaucracy.

Bureaucrats adopt passive, non-engaging communication to maintain ‘neutrality’. During the time of Henry II, bureaucracy was introduced to keep administration going whilst the king was away for long periods. The government continued ‘as usual’ whilst wars took place and heads of state changed. Pic: The Development of Language Technology, Newcastle University.

But this type of sentence construction is not exclusive to government. It is used in academia to avoid plagiarism and unsubstantiated claims. It is also used widely in news reporting to avoid misquotes or libel. When we were a tech journalist, we were instructed to write in passive sentence because:

  • The publication couldn’t afford to send journalists to locations to check out facts.
  • Journalists had no other means of verifying sources except by phones or emails.
  • Journalists had to quote press releases for news source.

If you write copies in corporate speak all the time, it would take some work to not sound like a corporate middle manager in your fiction.


A killer of mojo

It is common to hear writers complaining that academic or corporate writing kills creativity, especially in fiction. If you do sports, you’d understand that certain muscles, when used regularly, become strong. Those rarely used become weak. So if you write copies in corporate speak all the time, it would take some work to not sound like a corporate middle manager in your fiction.

The Guardian writing masterclass was excellent. We were still gutted to have missed the Sandman Universe event, but we didn’t regret attending this session. Moran and his audience reminded us that elegance lies in simplicity. That is true for design as it is for writing.

More on Professor Joe Moran


No books borrowed from Cumbrian library in 12 months

Cumbrian newspaper The Mail reported that no books were borrowed from a pop-up library at Barrow Island, Cumbria, UK, in the 12-month period of 2017 to 2018.

The self-service machine installed at Barry Island Primary School recorded 18 loans. However, these were not actual book loans. They were tests by the IT team who wanted to make sure that the machine works.

The councillors are now planning to ramp up engagements with the local community to encourage the use of library service.

More on the news


George R R Martin talks about his writer’s block


It happens to the best of us.

George R R Martin told The Guardian that he found it hard to finish the sixth book of A Song Of Fire And Ice series because of high expectations.

Martin said he was aware that fans expected something great out of the final book. So now he is focussed on developing the prequels for the series instead.

A Song Of Fire And Ice is his story, so he will finish it in his own time.

More on the news


Excelsior, Stan Lee, master of the “universe”

This evening we learned of the death of Stan Lee, co-founder and creative director of Marvel Comics. Tributes are flooding in at the time of writing, not least from Reddit, where thousands of his fans hang out to discuss the Marvel Comics Universe (MCU) and speculate on the fate of Thanos.

Pic: Wikipedia

Lee’s vision was supported by Jack Kirby, the illustrator behind most of the superheroes that we came to be familiar with: Thor, X-Men, The Avengers and so on. After Kirby left Marvel Comics in 1979 to do animation, Lee moved to California to found Marvel Studios.

One of his many legacies is the world-building concept of a “universe”, a standard practice by comics and graphic novel creatives that is adopted by writers, film-makers and more recently, games developers.

Lee was 95. He was survived by his daughter, Joan Celia Lee.