Monthly Archives: September 2011

Compliment or complement? Complimentary or complementary?

An old chestnut here, and one that a few people have been badgering me to write about – this one’s for you, though, Linda B, since you’ve asked me to do it several times (because it bothers you, not because you don’t know the difference yourself, I hasten to add)

I think this one’s particularly difficult to grasp and remember because it is so often wrong – I think I really do see these two used incorrectly more often than I see them used correctly, which of course means it’s difficult to remember the correct way when you’re being bombarded with incorrect examples. Well, “bombarded” might be overdoing it, but there are lots of examples out there.

A compliment is an expression of praise or admiration, and to compliment someone is to praise or congratulate someone: “She complimented me on my new hat and I collected more compliments as I walked through the park”, “‘I love your dress’ – ‘Oh, this old thing? It’s nothing’ – ‘can’t you take a compliment?'”

A complement is a thing that contributes beneficial features or adds to something, and to complement is to contribute those extra features to it: “My writing skills are complemented by her marketing know-how”, “The green of the shoes complements the brown of the dress”.

Now, here’s the one people do really mix up …

Complimentary means expressing praise or admiration, as you would expect, given the definition and examples above. “Everyone was very complimentary about my hat”. But it also means free, without charge: “Please help yourself to the complimentary nuts on the bar.” I think this is how things get mixed up, because it seems like free things should be differentiated from things that are nice, so people think they need to go for the other spelling. But you don’t. Complimentary means supplied or given free of charge. Think of it this way: compliments are free!

Complementary, just to round things off, means combining with something else to make  a complete whole or enhance each other. “Complementary colours” are those which look nice together in a design or outfit. It is used in the phrase “complementary medicine”, of course, too, which might make it easier to remember: complementary medicine complements or adds to conventional medicine to make a whole range of treatments you can choose from. So complementary medicine complements traditional medicine (it doesn’t tell it it looks great, it just supplements it and makes a better whole), and free things are complimentary.

You can find more troublesome pairs here, and here’s the index to them all!


Posted by on September 30, 2011 in Errors, Language use, Troublesome pairs, Writing


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Essay tips for new students

This time of year, rather than January, always seems like the start of a new year to me.  I suppose I was at University, then working at a University, then studying again, working in library supply where the renewal cycle was at this time of year, then back to working at a University.  I’ve also started at University twice (undergraduate and postgraduate), and my partner, Matthew, undertook a Master’s degree a few years ago.

So, I’m going to talk today about some hints and tips for new students on coping with those first essays.  I’d like to broaden this out, too – so if you have any questions on this topic that I don’t cover here, please either post a comment to this post, or contact me via email or via my contact form, and then I’ll write a follow-up post in a question and answer format.

Starting at University or College can be really daunting. You have to get to grips with a new environment, a new place to live, new people around you … and what’s likely to be a new way of doing academic work, too. I know some A-level courses encourage students to do some research in a bigger library, but I also know from running library tours at my part-time job, that many of you won’t have been in a big academic library before, and might need a few hints and tips. So, here we go!

Use all the resources you’re offered

Your library is the main place for this. At the beginning of term, you’ll have the opportunity to go on a library tour. Take that opportunity to familiarise yourself with the library, and with the staff and where to ask for help. You’ll find where the books are for your course, and how to operate the photocopier, self-issue machines and other bits and bobs of technology. If you miss the tour schedule, many libraries offer downloadable audio tours, or other ways to help you orientate yourself.  Library staff may offer training sessions and hands-on work with databases and other resources you may not have come across before.

Seek out the support and information that’s been put together to help you.  This may come from library or departmental staff.  At my university, study skills modules are available on the student portal part of the website. This is quite common and gives tried and tested advice, in far greater detail than I can go into here, on how to maximise your study skills and learn how to learn, and write those essays.

Don’t fear your essay … or your library

Your university library might look big, and you may not have used a large, academic library before, or even have been inside one – but in reality, most of your books are going to be in just one or two locations in that big building.  You’ll need to get used to the classmarks on the spines of the books – usually made up of letters and numbers, like PR 1234.A6, these are simply a way of making sure books on the same subject are shelved together. Your library should have paper or online guides to where books at a particular range of classmarks are shelved, and once you’ve looked up a book, checked its classmark and found it, you’ll find other books on the same subject shelved alongside it.  Electronic resources are ever so easy: access them online whenever, and from wherever, you want to.

Regarding your essay … the tutors are not out to trick you. They want to see you succeed, not fail. Yes, they want to push you and help you learn, but the essence of University work is finding out, following your interests – it’s far more flexible and enjoyable than all the cramming of facts into your head that you did for your A-levels. If you get stuck, ask for help (see below). If the department offers more resources about writing essays, use them. If your tutor makes lots of comments on your work, don’t be downcast, but use them to learn for next time.

Plan, plan, plan

If you’ve just done your A-levels, you’ll be more used to doing coursework than I was when, fresh from batches of 3 hour exams, but no coursework, I suddenly had to learn how to plan an essay! It’s a cliché, but don’t leave it to the last minute. You will (believe me) remember the hell of pulling a 24 hour session on an essay on Middlemarch, but you won’t remember anything about the book or what you wrote, and you’ll go right off coffee for a bit. When you get each course outline, there’ll be a note of what coursework is due and when. Note all these down once you’ve chosen your courses, and then plan time to spend on each essay.

When you’re researching and writing your essay, write a plan. Just like you did in your exams (right?).  Now it’s all on Word, type in the headings – introduction, conclusion, the bits in between. Do some mind-mapping or write out a plan, however you like to do it. But plan the essay, even make a note of how many words you need for each section, and it’ll be all broken down into bite-sized chunks that are much, much easier to face.

For more information on essay-writing, by the way, you might want to look at this post, which is mainly for those writing dissertations and theses, but has some useful points, too.

Use some different resources

When you were at school, you probably used textbooks, the texts themselves if you were studying humanities subjects, the internet (Wikipedia? Don’t use Wikipedia now, please!).  Now you have a huge wealth of information at your fingertips: books, e-books, journals, e-journals, databases of articles … Make sure you use a range of materials. Your course reading lists will probably guide you here – they should have a mix of materials on them. I didn’t really get to grips with journal articles until my post-graduate course (but then again, in my day they were all indexed in big, fat books; online searching was only just coming in) but wish I’d learned about them earlier.

It shows initiative and differentiates you if you read around your topic and search out some interesting articles, etc. to quote in your essay. Most of the electronic databases and e-journals are really easy to search (the designers put a lot of work into making them user-friendly, and there are often tutorials within the source itself, or written by library staff and available on the library or departmental website).

If you get really stuck with a particular database, and think you’ll need to use it a lot, it’s worth finding out who your Subject Advisor, Library Tutor, Learning Support Staff – whoever it is who’s paid to help students find stuff – and booking a session with them to get some more detailed help.

Record your references

Now’s the time to start recording where you found the information you’re discussing and quoting in your essays.  Academic writing is quite a rigorous discipline, and the academic world frowns on plagiarism, which basically boils down to passing other people’s work off as your own. I’ve written a separate article about this here, so I won’t go in-depth about it again, but basically, make sure you note down where you got that idea or quotation from, and make sure you state that in your essay. You might use footnotes or you might just put a note in the text and put together a bibliography, but you’ll be expected to do this from the start.  Get in the habit, and it won’t be so bad when you come to do your undergraduate dissertation or extended essay, or if you go on to postgraduate study.

You don’t need to do anything fancy – a Word document or an Excel spreadsheet with the author’s name, article or book title, journal title and volume/issue if it’s an article, and date, and there you go.  Start doing it now, and it will become a useful habit that will help later on.

If you need help, ask for it, or accept it

If you’re feeling a bit stuck or panicky when confronted with your first tranche of essays, don’t fret. Help is at hand.

For a start, as I said above, your tutors are not trying to catch you out or trick you.  You should have a personal tutor, and there will be some sort of academic support, too. Go to them – they are there to help you. No one is going to think any worse of you for seeking help. After all, in the world of work later on, the bosses will prefer it if you ask what the big red button does rather than just pressing it! And, you’re paying fees, so the university needs to help you get the best out of your education. So, ask.

If you have a particular issue, whether English isn’t your native language, you are dyslexic or need to use voice-activated software, support should be in place at your University. You might need to contact the Overseas Students office, in the first example, or Disability Services / Accessibility in the second, but there will be something in place – as far as Accessibility is concerned, there are laws to make sure that’s the case.

If you feel happier getting some private support, using an academic coach or proofreader, be very careful indeed. There are a lot of companies out there who prey on students who need their services. Obviously I’m decent and ethical, and if you feel you need some support with your essay writing, do get in touch – I can always recommend another person or company with whom I have personal experience and contact. But beware companies who charge a high fee and then just run your essay through a spell-checker (it happens). You shouldn’t pay more than about £8.00 per 1000 words for proofreading, and try to find a company or coaching service that will tell you the person’s name who you’re dealing with, and has references on their website.


OK, so these are a few general hints and tips. As I said, I’m more than happy to answer questions – ask me via email or via my contact form or just pop a comment on this post, and I’ll post up the answers in a week or so.  Good luck, enjoy your course and your University life, and if you like this article, please share it using the buttons below!


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(Co)Working our way around town Part 3 – Costa Coffee, Kings Heath

Welcome to our third cafe-with-wifi review – hopefully building up into a little guide for other people who work from home as to where they can go to get out of the house but work in comfort.

I was talking about this with Laura the other day, and we reckon there’s a graph or Venn diagram to be produced with our requirements, which are: plenty of plug sockets; comfortable and utilitarian seating; decent food at a decent price (Laura) / skimmed milk (me); decent, non-flaky wifi.  Not a huge list – but we haven’t found anything with all that yet (apart from My House, which doesn’t seem right). Anyway:

I’ve spoken to someone who lives in Kings Heath and claimed he worked in the new Costa and it was nice and comfy and a good place to work.  So, even though we’re more Independent Café type people, we thought we’d do an extra trip and take up a table at a corporate.

So, Laura and I arrived at the same time – all well and good.  A comfy sofa came free and I popped to get the tea. Immediate brownie points – they have skimmed milk.  There’s a range of food and biscuits but nothing I can have (so I’d still choose Starbucks if I wanted a chain and a bun) and all seemed good. Then I asked for information on the wireless.

There isn’t any.

So, we’re in a big new shiny café in the heart of Kings Heath, which surely must have a high proportion of freelancers and home-workers. There are power points all over the place – by far the most we’ve found.  And there’s no wireless network.

So while we came in here not exactly wanting to promote this café above the fantastic independent cafes and quirky chains but open to seeing what it was like and having another option when the lack of plug sockets and noisy stuff in other cafes got too much … but we can’t really recommend somewhere where we can only work offline, or with one of those fancy little boxes that, you know, cost money to run.

Other minuses – the seating arrangements were a little odd. You could sit on a squashy sofa, but then you had to rest your laptop on your knee, as the tables are very high. If you try to put the laptop on the table, well, organgrinders and monkeys come to mind …

“What if I found a rat in my tea?” shouted Laura suddenly. She was doing her PR thing and trying to get hold of Costa’s PR office to try and find out what their policy was on wifi in the cafes (it seems is is available in some). And she ran into all sorts of obstacles – which I’ll leave her to describe in her post  …

My verdict: Skimmed milk does not a co-working space make!

Read Laura’s post here and see what she thought of our co-working experience!

For all our cafe reviews so far, click here.

1 Comment

Posted by on September 28, 2011 in Reviews


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Conserve or preserve

Conserve and preserve, our pair for today, are an interesting twosome. And yes, I’m working my way through the massive list presented to me by that other interesting twosome, Gill and John. Thanks for all the inspiration!  Anyway, you’d think that these would have specific meanings when applied to, for example, rare documents, precious items that need protecting, or ancient monuments. But in fact their specific meanings in these contexts are already encapsulated neatly into their basic, general definitions.

To conserve something is to protect it from harm or destruction or prevent it being wastefully overused.  So we conserve water when we put a brick in our toilet cistern, and when we conserve a book or a building, we take steps to protect it – usually reversible steps nowadays, where someone coming along later can see what’s been done and reverse the process if they need to.  This is the concept behind those glass link sections you see when an old house has a new extension added to it, or when pages of a rare manuscript are patched with a carefully inert material.

However to preserve something is to maintain in its original or existing state.  No additions, however reversible. No patching. A crumbling book might be digitally photographed then kept in the dark in an acid-free box or maintained on view but in a case containing an inert gas. A house must stay the same, without patching or repairs (although sometimes like-for-like repairing is permitted, using the same materials and techniques as were originally used).  Of course, it’s often difficult to know what something’s original stage actually was, whether it’s a palimpsest or a house that’s been updated over the ages – which is why “existing state” is included in the definition.

You can find more troublesome pairs here.


Posted by on September 26, 2011 in Errors, Language use, Troublesome pairs, Writing


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Ensure, insure or assure?

It’s Troublesome Pairs time again, and this is a trio, of course. But they’re linked together and I have seen all three of them inextricably mixed up and confused. So, here goes …

To insure is to arrange for compensation in the event of damage to or loss of something.  So our classic car or house insurance offers compensation if something happens to that car or house – within certain parameters and constraints of the contract.  Interestingly (special bonus definition, here!) assurance is insurance under whose terms a payment is guaranteed.  So a bit more assured than plain insurance.

To ensure is to make certain that something will  happen.  So you don’t insure that you’ll bring the steam-cleaner to someone’s house at a certain time, you ensure you’ll do it.

And to assure is to tell someone something positively, and to make certain it will happen. To me, assuring has the connotation of expressing that you will make sure something happens, where ensuring just means you do it. I suppose this means that if you reassure someone, you have to have talked about the thing you’re reassuring them about already!

“I can assure you that I will ensure delivery of the steam-cleaner to your house on Tuesday. If you break it, don’t worry – it’s insured.”

You can find more troublesome pairs here.


Posted by on September 23, 2011 in Errors, Language use, Troublesome pairs, Writing


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Why running a business is like running a marathon

I’m gearing up for running the Birmingham Half Marathon for the fourth time this October, as well as working my way towards doing Libro full-time, and it’s struck me that my two parallel endeavours do have, well, a number of parallels.

Oh, and yes, I know a half-marathon isn’t a marathon (although many people don’t seem to realise). A half-marathon, and a part-time job and a part-time business, are all I’m managing to fit in at the moment. Once I’m full-time with Libro, I intend to look at training for a full marathon.

So, why is running a business like running a (half) marathon?

You need to prepare first

With both running and business, there are certain things you should do before you even set foot on road / fingers on keyboard. With running, it’s a question of maybe checking with your doctor first, then getting a sports bra (for the ladies) and some decent trainers.  When you’re setting up a business, you need the basics (a computer, the right software, a phone, initial stock), registration with the relevant tax office (the HMRC in the UK) and perhaps a short course (I recommend the HMRC “Becoming Self-Employed” one).

You have to build up gradually

People are often amazed when I say I’ve been out for a 10-mile training run at the weekend. But I didn’t start off doing that: I started off, years ago, on a walk-run programme – walking for 2 minutes and running for 1 minute, for 15 minutes. Gradually I built up until I was running continuously for 15 minutes, then a few more, another mile … and there I was, able to trot along for 10 miles (or more) at a time.  Similarly, with the business, especially in my line of work, once you’re set up it’s a question of doing some work, getting some recommendations, doing some more work …

Don’t go mad buying stuff

When you start running, you don’t need ALL the kit. Bra and shoes, yes; something reflective if you’re going out in the dark, but you can go out in tracksuit bottoms and a t-shirt at first. Once you’re up and running and you know you’re going to stick with it, then is the time to get the wick-away tops and the fancy socks.  When setting up a business, you don’t need to buy a new desk, even complicated invoicing software – stick to the basics and buy more when you’ve really had time to assess what you need.

Seek the company and advice of others

I love running on my own – I can cogitate, relax, go into a meditative state, enjoy music that you might not expect of a sedate lady runner … but I have also benefitted hugely from the companionship – often online – of other runners. You can swap tales, encourage each other, get tips and hints, and help other people (see below).  In business, carefully-selected forums and networking groups can help you learn about best practice and different ways to do things, as well as helping you sell your services. And if you want to get out there with real, live people, then you can join a running club or a networking group and really profit from getting together with other people.


As well as running, I go to the gym to work out with weights, cross-train and take spin classes.  When I’m running, I do different sessions – speedwork, tempo runs, long slow runs. All of this has improved my all-round fitness and my running in general. I know this, because I just achieved my second-best half marathon time ever … on a training run. With my business, I started off concentrating on a few key tasks, but increased the range of what I offered as I went along, and have ended up with a diverse group of customers and an interesting set of jobs.

Make time (and an effort) for others

I think this one is really important. As a runner who is perhaps not a “natural” and has reached achievable goals, I have tried to encourage other people to follow in my footsteps. I’ve encouraged a few other people to start running, and make time to answer their questions and support them in their goals. It was wonderful to run the Birmingham Half last year with Anna, who I’d taught to run over the year – in fact she beat me by a good way, and I was so proud of her.  In business, I try to give something back by helping other people, helping out at the Social Media Surgery, etc.  Maybe you can offer someone work experience, take on an apprentice or become a mentor.

Be ethical and a good example

This one is tied in to the point above, really.  I try to be a good ambassador for running. I don’t spit in the street and I try not to barge into people. I’m visible to traffic, cyclists and other pedestrians, and I always say thank you when someone moves out of the way for me. In the same way, I work ethically, don’t take short cuts and try to be courteous and helpful to everyone I come across in the business context.

Be in it for the long run

As I said above, you don’t just launch out running 10 miles in one go. Running is something I would like to stay with for a long time. I want to be one of those little old ladies gamely doing the marathon aged 80. I build up slowly, plan my running and make sure it’s sustainable. Similarly, with Libro I plan ahead for the next stage and try to make sure it’s sustainable, with a good mix of regular clients and one-offs.

Look after yourself

Run or train every day, miss your sleep, and fail to keep an eye on your nutrition, and you’ll soon find your running goes to pot. Work every hour there is, ignore your family and eat rubbish at your desk, and you’re likely to find yourself a bit lonely and possibly unwell. Balance is key in both areas (actually, I use the running to keep the balance in the rest of my life, so the two are inextricably entwined for me).

Enjoy it!

Lastly: if you’ve chosen a sport to take part in or you run your own business, you should be enjoying it, at least most of the time! These are things you’ve chosen to do. If you’re not enjoying it, stop, have a little think, work out why you’re not enjoying it, and take steps to change that.

I hope this has been useful. Can anyone add any more similarities?

Libro offers copyediting, copy writing, proofreading, transcription, typing and localisation services to other small businesses, individuals and corporations. Click on the links to find out more!


Posted by on September 21, 2011 in Business, Jobs, Organisation


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Older or elder

Welcome to a new troublesome pair. I wonder when I’ll run out of these! I’ve had a load of suggestions to work through recently, but if you have a favourite you’d like me to write about, and it’s not already in the index, do let me know!

Older and elder are a pair of words that are quite similar, but, like other pairs, I have a preference for using particular ones in particular contexts, and I’ll share those!

Older means, oddly enough, of a greater age than something else.  “John, at 34, is older than Matthew, who’s 32”.

Elder is slightly different – it means of a greater age than a set of people it’s being contrasted with. So “John is the elder sibling”. I prefer this usage, although of course you could use “older”.

As has been pointed out, I need to mention that elder/eldest refers to “of two” and “of more than two” respectively; the same with older/oldest.  “John is the oldest sibling, but the older of my 2 boys”.

So, no huge distinction, but one can be found and enjoyed!

You can find more troublesome pairs here.


Posted by on September 19, 2011 in Errors, Language use, Troublesome pairs, Writing


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Saturday freelance chat – Nathan Littleton

Our chat this week is with Nathan Littleton of Future Visions, a web design and email marketing company.  I’ve  been working with Nathan since late last year, both writing content for websites he’s designed and working with him on his own downloadable content and newsletters.  The amazing thing about Nathan is that he’s been running his business for 8 years … and he’s still only 21! Actually, the most impressive thing I find about Nathan is his generosity in recommending me to his contacts and friends.  I was introduced to him via another client and he’s passed my details on to several people who have become regular Libro clients.  He is also great at retweeting on Twitter and posting reviews on various sites whenever he’s asked to – thanks Nathan!
Anyway, let’s find out what life’s like when you set up your own business aged 13 …
What’s your business called? When did you set it up?
My business is called Future Visions; we specialise in creating websites and email marketing campaigns that bring business owners a measurable return on investment. I set the business up in 2003, aged 13.
What made you decide to set up your own business?
Having practised web design as a hobby for a couple of years, I did it because I really enjoyed it and recognised the opportunity to earn a bit more money than my friends who had paper rounds or corner shop jobs.
What made you decide to go into this particular business area?
Being quite young, it was the only thing I really could do!
Had you run your own business before?
No – I’d only just started high school, so I pretty much started from scratch. I didn’t know what was expected of me when I walked into a meeting with a new prospective client, so I just did what I thought was right. There were a few slightly raised eyebrows, but looking back, I respect the clients I worked with back then for taking the plunge and choosing to work with me (some are still clients today).
How did you do it? Did you launch full-time, start off with a part-time or full-time job to keep you going … ?
It was a juggling act to maintain the business and keep up with school work, so at any given point I’d find myself giving a greater focus to one or the other until I managed to strike a balance. When I finished high school and went into sixth form college, I got a part-time job to support me through times where projects were thin on the ground. I still see that as a good decision because I’d naively forgone the planning of my business in the early stages, so it gave me chance to step back out of the business and plot where I was going.
What do you wish someone had told you before you started?
I wish someone would have told me how much I was really worth! Perhaps it came with age, experience and maybe confidence, but I priced myself quite low compared to the rest of the market. On the other hand, I was running the business from my bedroom, so anything I earned went straight into my pocket, and this may have given me a competitive advantage while I got my feet under the table.
What would you go back and tell your newly entrepreneurial self?
To start with the end in mind. I never really looked at what my goals were, so I never had any targets to meet. I wouldn’t change much about my fledgling teen career, but I’d love to look back on what I wanted to achieve back then.
What do you wish you’d done differently?
If I’d have known the benefits of systemising a business early on, I’d have done it much sooner.
What are you glad you did?
When I finished sixth form, I had a dilemma: take my business full-time and achieve as much as I possibly can, or take the same path as many of my school friends and study at university. I opted for the former and never  looked back, and I couldn’t be happier with that decision. If I’d gone to university, I’d have had to give up the business, and I didn’t want to wonder what I might have achieved had I carried on in business. Many of my friends have now graduated  and are struggling to find jobs, so I consider myself fortunate to be in a growing business. I have every intention of going to university, but I’ll study something I’m passionate about, rather than what I believe will give me the best job prospects; and hopefully, without the burden of student debt.
What’s your top business tip?
I’ll copy a tip many of the business greats have shared, and it’s to be a marketer of ‘your thing,’ not a doer of ‘your thing’. When freelancers (by definition) take on new work, they’re selling time for money. Without increasing their rates, there’s a limit to what they can earn. By outsourcing delivery or employing people to work on new projects, they can grow more quickly and start to see how lucrative running a business can be. I’m about half way there now, and I know that’s the best way for me to grow my business.
How has it gone since you started? Have you grown, diversified or stayed the same?
Growth was slow while I studied at school, but we’ve grown a lot since then. Since 2003, sales volume and profit has risen, sometimes doubled, year on year. We now work with a freelance network all over the world and even have some international clients dotted around.
Where do you see yourself and your business in a year’s time?
On a sunny beach, preferably. The goals for the next year are big ones, and we’re looking to work with more and more freelance designers who are passionate about what they do and are hungry for more business. With that, the business will be completely systemised to improve client delivery and turnaround times.
Catch up with how Nathan was doing a year on… was he on that sunny beach?
Nathan’s website is You can call the office on 0121 288 3688 and they’ll be happy to help.
Thanks for your interview, and I’ll look forward to hearing from you when you’re sitting on that sandy beach (still sending me work!) next year!
If you’ve enjoyed this interview, please click here for more freelancer chat, or here for information on how you can have your business featured.

Posted by on September 17, 2011 in Business, New skills, Small Business Chat


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Prescribe or proscribe?

Another interesting one, with one common usage and one not-so-common, but still the ability to be confused. And they actually have fairly opposite meanings, so you don’t want to be going around confusing them!

To prescribe is, of course, firstly to issue a medical prescription – “the doctor prescribed me a new sleeping pill to reduce my nightmares about grammar mistakes”, but the definition that causes confusion is the one that means “recommend with authority”.  I think it’s a bit stronger than that, actually.  For example, in my English Language studies, we often talked about reference books being descriptive (describing what language was doing, including changes, including those that people might not like – new uses or coinings, the dreaded text-speak, etc.*) or prescriptive (describing what language SHOULD be doing and laying down the law about it (like I do in these posts … but more so). So that implies a slightly stronger meaning than simply recommending with authority.

Having gone on about prescribing, the other one is fairly simple. To proscribe is to condemn or forbid. So your Mum might proscribe the wearing of mini-skirts, or a company might proscribe inter-colleague relationships.

One letter, opposite meanings!

* of course, the dreaded text-speak didn’t actually exist yet back in the Dark Ages when I was a student. But you get the idea. It was probably L33T Speak** that people were getting upset about)

** ask a techie who’s around 40.

You can find more troublesome pairs here.


Posted by on September 16, 2011 in Errors, Language use, Troublesome pairs, Writing


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Academic and creative writing

It’s time for another guest post, and I was pleased to receive this one from Laura Stevens.  I met Laura years ago, via BookCrossing, watched with interest as she took an Archive Studies postgraduate course and enjoyed proofreading the resulting dissertation.  Laura’s also very much into her creative writing, and so she’s well-placed to offer this interesting discussion about the similarities between academic and creative writing. Oh, and I didn’t ask her to put the bit in about spelling and grammar – honest!

I was very pleased to be invited by Liz to write a guest post for her blog. At first, I was not sure what insights I could offer. Currently I am a recovering academic, after handing in my Master’s dissertation last September. In recent years I have returned to a childhood love of creative writing. This lead to becoming a moderator at a writing website called Write in for Writing’s Sake. As I began to think about what I could write about for my blog post, it struck me that academic writing shares a lot of characteristics with its creative cousin.

Let’s take a look at academic writing first. When I was planning this blog post, I jotted down what came to my mind when I thought of  ‘academic writing’:

•    Requires the use of disciple based vocabulary or, to use the vernacular, jargon.
•    Formal style is preferred: using an informal style can be a risk.
•    A set structure is required. For example, you would not put an abstract at the end of a journal article.
•    Lots and lots of research is required before you put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard).

Looking over this list, I began to realise that a lot of these ideas could be applied to creative writing. Requires the use of jargon or specific vocabulary – check. Choosing the correct style – check. Following a set structure – check. Carrying out research to help your writing – check.

Making this list made me realise that the worlds of academic and creative writing are not so far apart. I began to recognise that I had been applying similar principles in both areas of writing.

1)    Engage your audience: choose the first sentence wisely

The first sentence will either draw your reader in or send them wandering off to seek other material. Academic writing does have a certain advantage in this area. Individuals are going to seek out your writing, especially if you’re looking at a specific topic. Creative writing has to work a little bit harder to draw people in. The first line has to plant a question in the reader’s mind. Let’s use an example from a personal favourite of mine, We Need To Talk About Kevin (Shriver, 2003). The book opens with “I’m unsure why one trifling incident this afternoon has moved me to write to you”. Already questions are being raised. Why is the writer so formal? What happened that made the writer sit down and write a letter, in this age of email and social networking tools? Who are they writing to?

To compare, I have chosen a first sentence from an academic article from Archival Science (Wallace, 1994): “Archivists normatively position themselves as impartial and honest brokering custodians of the past, immune from the pressures and persuasions that conflict the rest of contemporary society”. Impartiality is a consistent hot topic within this professional field which guarantees the author an audience for his article. Questions are raised by his use of ‘normatively’. Is he suggesting that archivists can no longer consider themselves impartial? What about being honest? What does this article have to offer the professional archivist?

By asking questions of your audience, you engage them through the written word. Once you have planted little questions in the reader’s mind, you have them hooked. This brings me onto the next similarity.

2)    Bring a topic or subject you are interested in to life

Any writing project I embark upon always begins with the phrase “I’d like to find out more about that”. If you are bored, then it will show in your writing. The one piece of advice I always give when discussing a writing project is “Choose a topic you will enjoy working on”. Researching and writing a dissertation can take up at least four months of your life. I have been told by professional writers that it takes a minimum of six months to research, write and edit a novel (NaNoWriMo doesn’t count!). It would be awful to spend all that time on a topic you had little interest in.

It’s fine to change your mind halfway through the research process. That’s one of the beauties of academic and creative writing. Sometimes a great idea comes from an article just published in a journal or a tiny marginal note scribbled on an archival document. However it is not a great idea to change your mind during the writing process. Creative writers can have the advantage here. If they change their mind, and don’t have a looming deadline, they can down tools and head off in another direction. I once heard a bestselling author at a lecture say that they have pressed Delete on 50, 000 words of a novel. Gasps of horror echoed around the room as she announced this. The author looked puzzled and said, “There’s no point continuing if I think my writing is rubbish. If I know it’s rubbish, then my reader will know that too”.

So, you’ve chosen your topic, got some of the research done, made sure you’re enjoying the topic and you’re at the stage of writing. The next point is extremely important.

3)    Good use of spelling and grammar

Words are the tools of your trade. Your reader is unlikely to meet you in person; your writing has to do the job of introducing you and your work. Careless spelling and grammar are like turning up to a job interview in dirty jeans and a ripped t-shirt.

I hold my hand up here: I am not the world’s greatest speller or grammar geek. So I have other tools to help me in this area. Liz’s blog posts are a great grammar bulletin and I do refer back to her posts if I’m unsure about the correct use of a word. has also helped me out of a sticky word conundrum. At university, I lived off style guides produced by academic institutions. Most of them are written in a no-nonsense manner and accessible to even the most reluctant writer. Promoting good grammar skills is part of a university’s business card so you can guarantee the quality of the style guides they produce.

Marking schemes for academic work can include points off for bad grammar. The same goes for creative writing. Bad grammar can be a message to the reader that you stopped caring about your work. The dissertation became more about typing than thinking and writing. It was getting close to the closing date of that short story competition. On a personal note, it drives me mad to see long sentences without a comma. Punctuation helps the reader to breathe and digest your viewpoints. Most markers or editors are not going to read your work more than twice to understand your agenda. Inaccurate grammar can be a barrier for your reader. A well proofread manuscript can make all the difference between a first class award or being thrown onto the slush pile.

This has been a bit of a whistle stop tour through academic and creative writing! I have thoroughly enjoyed writing this blog post. Thank you, Liz, for the invitation to be a guest blogger. And thank you, reader, for taking the time to read this post.


Shriver, Lionel (2003) We Need to Talk About Kevin. London: Serpent’s Tail. p.1

Wallace, David A. (2011) Introduction: memory ethics – or the presence of the past in the present. Archival Science (11: 1-2) pp.1-12.

If you want to read more by Laura, she’s got a blog of her own at Woman With An Opinion (which includes cafe reviews!), and Write In For Writing’s Sake can be found here.

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Posted by on September 14, 2011 in Blogging, Guest posts, Writing


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