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In 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,
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.
There are five good reasons for using the passive, aside from those, using the active is by far the more preferable way of writing. There are some, though, who can’t seem to break the habit of overusing it. Surely, there has to be an element of changing the way you think, but there are practical things you can do until that change happens.
Happily, the practicalities of removing passive in your writing is pretty simple using functions in Word — maybe when you see where you use the passive, your thinking will start to change naturally.
How to find your passives
On your document, use CTRL+F to launch a ‘find’ facility. Type ‘by’ into the search area (why ‘by’? See here: grades are received by students, results are understood by reading the research thoroughly), which will help you find unnecessary passives that have the subject in the object position (everything after the ‘by’).
When you find that subject in the object position, you can easily restructure the sentence to put the subject in the active position (usually at the beginning of the sentence) and make the whole sentence active (e.g. students receive grades, reading the research helps us to understand the results).
You could also use the CTRL+F function to search for conjugations of ‘to be’ (is, are, should be, have been etc.), again, helping you to identify where you have used the passive forms and changing them to active.
And there you have it. Passives will be a thing of your past, unless you use them for a particular purpose.