Where do I start?

Where do I start? This is a question I am most often asked by students and clients when faced with the task of writing a document. They know what they want to say, but where to start seems to elude them.

My advice is to start anywhere and see what happens.

This may seem counter-intuitive; after all, no-one wants to waste time writing something only to find they’ve veered off in the wrong direction and then need to spend hours rewriting it. That’s not what I’m suggesting. Getting words on the page can actually help you organise your thoughts, and it’s those thoughts that you are trying to communicate.

So, here’s my four-step process for writing anything:

Firstly, jot down all your ideas. Think of this first draft as a ‘mood board’ or ‘Pinterest’ of ideas. At this stage anything goes – ideas, key points, newspaper articles, pictures, reports – nothing is off-limits, and no idea is a bad one.

Once you’ve got everything you could possibly say on the page, start thinking about who your audience is and what they are likely to want from your document. Are your readers professionals in the field who will understand difficult concepts and are looking for new research data? Or are they members of the general public who are looking for advice and will need jargon explained? Knowing who you are writing for and what they hope to get from your document will help you to refine what you say and how you say it.

For example, if you are writing an annual report for an aged care facility, this will be completely different in tone and content from a promotional brochure for families looking for care for their loved one. The annual report’s purpose is to report on, or perhaps analyse, performance against objectives; whereas the brochure’s purpose is to persuade families that this facility will care for their relative in a professional and respectful way. This second stage of the process takes time and care as it’s where you start tailoring your document so it does what it’s supposed to.

The next stage is to go through the document to make sure that everything flows in a clear and logical manner. One technique I find useful here is to write a three-word summary of each paragraph in the margins. Once I’ve done that, I can see if I’m repeating information in a couple of places or have too many ideas too close together. Cut and paste is your friend here, but only if you go through the final stage as well.

The final step in the process is to put it aside, even for only an hour, and then come back to the document with fresh eyes. This is so you can correct grammar and punctuation problems or make the writing clearer. This is also a good time to ask others to read the document for accuracy and flow. Sometimes we get too close to a document to see the stylistic problems or odd word choices we may make. It’s easy to skip this step, but it is critical in terms of how your document is perceived.

So that’s my four-step process in a nutshell. I hope you find it useful.

Happy writing!


Grammar 101: ‘Lay’ or ‘lie’?

In my teaching, I often find students confusing the two words ‘lay’ and ‘lie’.

It seems to me, that as we’ve forgotten the difference between these two words, we use the one that sounds more polite (and doesn’t imply that someone is telling an untruth).

Hence, I regularly read manuscripts that read:

‘The doctor asked the patient to lay down on the examination table’


‘She was laying on the floor with her head in her hands when her mother found her.’

These are both incorrect uses of the word ‘lay’.

Now, I need to use some jargon here, but it’s not too complicated, I promise.

Firstly, the word lay is what we call a transitive verb. This means it ‘transfers’ the action to another person or thing.

So, you ‘lay a table‘ or ‘lay out a plan‘ or ‘lay a wreath‘.

For the grammar nerds among you, that means laytakes a direct object, as indicated above in bold.

In contrast, ‘lie’ is an intransitive verb. This means that the action is not transferred to someone or something else.

So, you ‘lie on the floor’ or ‘were lying in bed when you got the call’.

A simple way to remember which word to use, is to ask are they reclining, or are they putting something down? Consider:

Peter was laying/lying in bed when his father came to visit.

Was Peter putting something down? No, he was reclining in bed, so we use the verb ‘lie’:

Peter was lying in bed when his father came to visit.

Contrast this with the following:

Peter was laying/lying his clothes out on the bed when his father came to visit.

Was Peter putting something down? Yes, he was placing his clothes on the bed, so we use the verb ‘lay’:

Peter was laying his clothes out on the bed when his father came to visit.

So, there you have it.

Well, not quite. You see, the past tense of these two verbs complicate things a little further, because (deep breath, dear reader) the past tense of ‘lie’ is ‘lay’. English is a wonderful language, isn’t it?

So, if you are talking about a time in the past when you were reclining in bed, you’d say:

I lay in bed last night wondering if I’d ever understand the difference between the intransitive verb ‘lie’ and the transitive verb ‘lay’.

If you’ve stopped screaming and are still reading, I suspect you might like to take a note of these forms:

TRANSITIVE VERB: LIE (must take an object)

Present simple I lay out the facts
Past simple I laid out the facts
Future simple I will lay out the facts
Present continuous I am laying out the facts
Past continuous I was laying out the facts
Future continuous I will be laying out the facts
Present perfect I have laid out the facts
Past perfect I had laid out the facts
Future perfect I will have laid out the facts
Present perfect continuous I have been laying out the facts
Past perfect continuous I had been laying out the facts
Future perfect continuous I will have been laying out the facts


INTRANSITIVE VERB: LIE (doesn’t take an object)

Present simple I lie in bed
Past simple I lay in bed
Future simple I will lie in bed
Present continuous I am lying in bed
Past continuous I was lying in bed
Future continuous I will be lying in bed
Present perfect I have lain in bed
Past perfect I had lain in bed
Future perfect I will have lain in bed
Present perfect continuous I have been lying in bed
Past perfect continuous I had been lying in bed
Future perfect continuous I will have been lying in bed

That’s more than you bargained for, I’m sure, but if you print out this list, you’ll never go wrong.

Good luck!


Latter or last?

We are all familiar with the idea of something being good, something else being better, and a third thing being the best.

Good is the positive form of the adjective, better is the comparative form and best is the superlative form.

So what’s this got to do with the difference between ‘latter’ and ‘last’?

Well, when we are faced with choosing between the ‘latter’ or ‘last’, we are deciding between using the comparative and the superlative forms of the word late (the thing just mentioned).

Just as we use better when comparing two things, we use latter in the same situation.

For example:

  • Of the two books I read this month, I prefer the latter.
  • The second book I read was better than the first.
  • Of the two candidates, Helene is the better qualified.
  • The latter of the two candidates was the better qualified.

We also know that best is used when three or more things are being compared  so we use also last when we are comparing three or more things.

  • Of the six books I read this month, I prefer the last.
  • The last book of the six I read was the best.
  • Of the six candidates, Helene is the best qualified.
  • The last of the six candidates was the best qualified.

One way to remember is to note that ‘better’ and ‘latter’ have the same ‘er‘ ending and that ‘best’ and ‘last’ also share and ending – ‘st‘.

And if it all gets too hard, just remember the saying:

  • The lesser of two evils

All the very best!



Grammar 101 ‘Fewer’ or ‘Less

This is another of those conundrums we all face when we are working with words. Do I say ‘fewer vases’ or ‘less vases’? The answer is simple: if you can count the items you are talking about, you use ‘fewer’ and if you can’t count them, you use ‘less’.

So, some examples:

I have fewer / less stationery now than I had at the start of the year.

Can you count ‘stationery’? Try it: One stationery, two stationery, three … Sounds a bit silly, doesn’t it? So, the correct way to say this is:

I have LESS stationery now than I had at the start of the year.

But you can count pens, can’t you? So let’s try the same sentence, substituting ‘pens’ for ‘stationery’.

I have fewer / less pens now than I had at the start of the year.

The same question applies: can you count pens? One pen, two pens, three pens. Yep, pens are ‘countable’ nouns, so you can use ‘fewer’.

I have FEWER pens now than I had at the start of the year.

One way to tell if you use fewer or less is to decide if the noun you are describing is singular (there is just one item or category of items being discussed) or plural (you’re talking about multiple units of the item). If it’s singular, you use ‘less’ and if it’s plural, you use ‘fewer’.

Another way to work out which word to use, is to remember that those aisles at the supermarket which have ’15 items or less’ are GRAMMATICALLY INCORRECT. Of course, we use ‘less’ in this context, as we’re all used to this expression. We’d never change these signs; they’d look odd with ’15 items of fewer’, wouldn’t they? But they are grammatically incorrect. So, if you can remember that, you can remember which word to use in other examples.

Of course, English being the complex language that it is, there are exceptions to this rule when the quantity mentioned is considered a single entity. This is why we can say ‘Entries must be 50 words or less’ and ‘Stopping distance must be 10 metres or less’.

When in doubt, rewrite the sentence so that the problem disappears. ‘I don’t have as many pens now as I had at the start of the year’ completely removes the problem. And will probably result in fewer headaches for all concerned.



Looking forwards, not backwards

At this time of year it’s tempting to look back at the past twelve months and lament all the things we haven’t managed to complete – that 10 Kilometre fun run, that veggie patch, those circus trapeze lessons. Or to set yourself unrealistic goals for the new year.

We feel we should have completed our novel, professional development course or that Twitter marketing program and that this year we will knuckle down and do it all, for sure!

Neither of these thought patterns is useful.

Instead, I’d suggest you consider all the things you did complete in your writing life.

You may have joined a critique group or attended a conference. Or perhaps you went for long walks and thought about your characters’ motivations. Maybe you spent time with a sick parent or child and could only do the cryptic crossword to keep your brain thinking about words.

No matter what small or seemingly insignificant effort you’ve been able to manage, be grateful that you’ve had that time and that you’ve persisted with your writing.

A good friend of mine, who is also a great writer, once told me that when life gets in the way of your writing, the tiny scraps you do get done are worth celebrating.

These tiny efforts mean you haven’t given up, you’ve had a go, that you scraped together fifteen minutes of writing that you wouldn’t have managed otherwise.
Even if no physical document comes out of the process, you’ve started training yourself to grab every minute you have available, so that when you do have more time, you won’t waste it.

It’s great advice, no matter if you are looking after small children or elderly parents, or in a job that doesn’t allow thinking time, or you’re working every possible hour to pay the rent. If you really want to do this writing thing, hang in there. All those fifteen minutes may not amount to much, but you won’t have forgotten how to write when you suddenly find yourself with a whole day to devote to your text.

So my advice is to be realistic, be kind to yourself, and keep plugging away at it.
Good luck!