Don’t wipe your feet: unforgettable social writing tips 

Since switching from writing for things that will be printed to things that will never leave the screen, every session in front of the computer now involves thinking about writing itself.

Yes, the rules have changed. A bit. But the best gems of writing advice I’ve ever heard – old and new – are still true across generations of word-arranging.

My favourites are below. Oh, and I’ve even included some of the bad habits mentioned. Intentionally (honest!).

– “Don’t fix…change” (source uncertain): Something wrong with the sentence or unsure about a word? Would you rather have an engine replacement or a new car? Press delete.

– “No one reads a long article except the writer and their mum” (source uncertain): Read the comments section below any article. Now guess how many people took the time to read the whole piece. As they say on Facebook: the results will AMAZE you.

– “Don’t wipe your feet on the way in” (Mick Fealty, Slugger O’Toole): Don’t mumble into a point by showing uncertainty. Make sure of your point, make yourself sure of your point or ditch it. 

– “Why wait?” (my partner): I make it no secret that my partner is my inspiration. Be around people who tell you to make an idea happen rather than tell you why it can’t be done.

– “Remember the rules of three and seven” (Darren Mawhinney, marketer and CloudMigrator365 Managing Director): Humans process information presented as three items really well. Think of a fairy tale and you’ll see what I mean. Psychology tells us to then stick to seven points.

– “Say the first thing first” (Darren Mawhinney): The head of a pint of Guinness is pretty much the only time the first should become the last. Or the last should become the first. Amen.

– “Put a hat on it and give a name”: A line used in the old Baseline Magazine from the noughties. For social, don’t hide your cards by inferring. Slam them on the table. Then sweep up all the chips and flounce off dramatically. Or something.

– “Keep the main thing the main thing” (source uncertain): A public apology to readers I’ve frustrated on Slugger O’Toole with my jumbled intros. Don’t leave me! I can change!

– “Get it on the screen” (Maurice O’Neill, former Editor, Ballymena Guardian): Make a start and you’re halfway there. Wait around and someone else will write your idea up for you (like it or not).

– “Let it soak” (source uncertain): If possible, a draft likes to mature overnight before you edit and have it proofed. Why? Because that is the way of things.

– “Every word has to earn itself” (Nevin Farrell, freelance journalist): True in 2016 more than ever. Eg, who on earth are the ‘general public’? Do we have a specific public? 

– “To get started, write one true sentence” (Ernest Hemingway): < What he said.

– “What’s in it for me?”: A basic writing technique and one of many great tips to be found in introductory books about copywriting. Secret: watch the start of Glengarry Glen Ross and you’ll get the idea.

– “Read great writing” (source uncertain): I usually have three writers beside our bed set aside from the normal reading pile. It will be Bill Bryson (for his incredible clarity and love of English), a Louise de Bernieres framed quote (a gift from my partner – for his mind-boggling expanse of expression) and Orwell (for the beauty and purity in how he tells his truth). 

– “Less is more” (everyone): Some writers communicate an entire new world in very few words. I recently reviewed <; a book by James Hannah and was transported within a few words. Wonderful. 

– “So what?” (Una McSorley, Marcomm Training): Read your sentence, ask yourself ‘so what?’, then improve it. Repeat in a spin cycle until my metaphor runs out.

– “It’s not about you” (source uncertain): The reader is king around these here parts. Talk to them, not at them. Know them, love them, listen to them. Talk their language and the language of the platform they’re using to read your work. Then talk to their friends, find out how they spend their time. Note – always follow the terms of your restraining order.

– “Have a sounding board” (me): There’s nothing better than someone who will call rubbish on low quality. My thanks to Kris Nixon for this one. Oh, and always always use a proofreader. Ps – Always.

– “There’s no graceful way to fall off a bike” (me): Be good at mistakes. A missed opportunity stings every time but your self-feedback will stay with you for good. 

– “Be the mentor you always wanted” (me): You never know when a kind word might beat a day of doubt for someone. People like Ian J Parsley, Yvette Shapiro, Kris Nixon, Linda Stewart, Geoff McGimpsey, David Marsland and many more took the time to encourage my switch to writing for social. It costs nothing, but means a lot.

– “Remember to include SEO in lists like this one” (me again): It is, though, a whole new subject.

– “Make your lists shorter than this one” (everyone): Always. There’s no excuse. My excuse? I don’t have one. Because there is no excuse.

– “Err…” (Private Eye magazine): Know when to stop. Which was about 16 points ago in this case. Hi mum!

* Article inspired by Gareth Fullerton’s blog about his switch from print to digital.

Why our shops are filling with Belfast pride 

A slick, viral video showing smiling people in celebratory mood at the launch of a brand new product in Belfast appeared on social media in February this year.

But the launch was different from many launches seen until now. Different because it used the rapidly-rising popularity, even the heart and soul, of Belfast as a central marketing hook.

Held among the rich sights and smells of the Linen Hall Library, the event was held to welcome a new brand of locally-made Belfast gin to be sold by independent outlets in the city and beyond.

Even the name Jawbox Gin, stamped onto the side of stoneware mugs at the launch beneath posters with the slogan “True Character”, links a tactile sense of timeless Belfast to the historic setting.

And the urbane, folksy tone of the video also hints at something very new: a sense of modern, outgoing Belfast pride creating demand for products celebrating everything the city has become in the present day and remembering the best of Belfast’s past.

The drink is joined on the shelves by other products including the Ashton Watch Company’s new Belfast-branded goods, by the relaunched Dunville’s Belfast whiskey, by RubyBlue vodka and by the likes of the Ardour gym wear company’s ‘BLFST’ range. Meanwhile, artists like Deborah Toner have filled the award-winning St George’s Market with pieces proudly celebrating our city.

The arrival of the Belfast-branded products has come about through the growing confidence of those who live and work in the modern capital, in turn encouraged by the city hosting successful international events and enjoying praise from guidebooks and travel writers in recent years for its lively, welcoming nightlife.

Gerry White, creator of Jawbox Gin, explained: “There’s a vibrancy about Belfast today and that’s why we have more investment in places like great restaurants. It has meant a change for people here in how they think about Belfast: there’s more enthusiasm, helped by Belfast pulling off impressive events better than many larger cities could have managed.”

Belfast writer Alan Meban was asked if he has seen our shop-shelves begin to change. He recalled how moves by Belfast City Council almost ten years ago could well have sparked a drive to turn Belfast pride into local products: “In the summer of 2008, Belfast City Council re-branded the city with a stylised heart-shaped B. It kick-started a movement to make the city most associated with conflict into a softer, fluffier, feel-good place. Today, the name Belfast is at the heart of the designs of merchandise from independent creatives.

“We certainly export this new Belfast to visitors and tourists: it’s the image we want to project. The centenary of the 1912 sinking of the Titanic was an opportunity to celebrate ship-building and tall ships, cycling races and continental markets have all brought people together”.

Alan warned, though, that an ongoing struggle with the more visceral symbols of identity – “flags, bonfires, parading, murals and housing” – can still threaten our own, united sense of a new Belfast.

That sense of common self-regard, he argues, is key to turning Belfast pride into Belfast pounds.

We can all drink to that.


* Dedicated to my beloved Elle who helped me see Belfast through new eyes – and also loves to help explore our city and its changes for these blog posts.

Ten things hotel staff secretly think about you 

George Orwell was right about hotels: they are often a role-play allowing customers to act slightly posher than they are in return for paying five times over the odds for really bad fizzy wine. 

Pick whichever hotel you like, but behind the scenes you’ll find the same staff, drinking gallons of water and caffeine to stay on their feet longer for more tips, doing the same things except in different scratchy outfits to match the price list and brand of pretence.

Most of all, you’ll probably find the same staff thinking the same things about the customer.

A sample from one (now thankfully demolished) hotel in Scotland where I heard much of what was said behind the ‘staff only’ door…

– Afternoon tea: This involves, essentially, spending what would be a day’s pay for your waiter on some sandwiches, a few wee cakes and a lot of flapping about. They aren’t special sandwiches and you aren’t a special customer. Your waiter will be wondering why there’s nothing in the big bad world you’d rather be doing than throwing your money at an am-dram version of Greggs.

– The posh language: One hotel recently had a fire alarm. They told “ladies and gentlemen” they had to “perform an evacuation”, which sounds like something the Concierge could arrange for business travellers. You’ll also find – shudder – wedding ‘fayres’ held in something old-fashioned sounding like the Fetherington-Summerdale Suite despite the hotel overlooking an industrial estate and being built last year. The secret? When hotel staff use ridiculous Downton Abbey patter it is because they think you are the type of customer who’ll be impressed by a Disney version of a hotel. It really isn’t a compliment. 

– Prosecco: The staff all know it is a tax on the gullible and vain. They are almost embarrassed, but they’ll play along just for you.

– Tasting the wine: Just don’t. It is a nonsense. And if you have ever said wine with some cork in it is ‘corked’, the staff will all be laughing at you. All of them.

– Making a show of sending the food back: You’ve just told everyone in the kitchen that you really need a hug. Bless.

– The traditional music: Reflects what the management think customers will like. So what does a Long Way To Tipperary – performed on panpipes – say about their view of you and your thoughts on what’s ‘traditional’? As it happens, the last person I met from Tipperary still listens to happy hardcore. But there you have it.

– Gloopy carveries: Staff will assume your taste-buds have murdered by years of excess or that you have been forced there against your will. Secret: they aren’t eating that stuff in the staff room.

– The beer: The staff know there’s no hope of a decent beer as the keg store is a mile away behind the skips in the car park. They’ll be secretly nodding their approval if you drink bottled beer. And especially if you are in the bar of an upstairs function room. Feel free to try a pint from that dusty tap in the corner of the Pennine Suite, you’ll never have to prove your courage again.

– Weddings: The ‘special room rate’ is far from special (supply and demand folks, think about it). And what do the staff think of the weddings? Guess. They work 12 hour shifts for tips; you had a life-changing sun of money and spent it on a stage show and bargain warehouse-grade wine with a five star mark-up instead.

– Bar staff: Are most of them young enough to still be in school? Then the hotel owner is laughing in his/ her office. Surrounded by boxes of really nasty wine. Behind the sleight-of-hand fancy decor you, my friend, have just been taken for a ride. 

Should we – sometimes – take a break from language-policing?

Firstly, for those who only read the first and last few lines of a piece, a big caveat to the headline above: we’ve achieved so much by improving equality in language and should continue to do so.

There should, without a doubt, be absolutely no hiding place for violent and hateful language.  

The single argument here is that, beyond this point, contributing to a debate by policing the language of another – such as implying discrimination or discriminatory thinking by the writer – can sometimes be counterproductive or worse.

The question is whether such language-policing should now, at times, be used with more caution and empathy.

Why? An increasing trend in the social media age of a person parachuting into a debate to condemn the choice of word or phrase by another (while contributing nothing else to the discussion) can often be uninvited, assumptive, distracting, alienating, involve ‘friendly fire’ against someone sharing the same views and be – ironically – discriminatory.

Many examples seen are little more than poor communication, a refusal to actually debate a subject and mask a flimsy grasp of an issue by those who wish to see themselves, or be seen, to be part of a cause in the easiest possible way.

To break these down:-

– Guardian-readers sword-fight: Policing language or a phrase used by a person in 2016 very often seems to involve ‘friendly fire’ between those who support the same causes. It is hard to see what this achieves in support of the shared issue at hand. ‘I care more than you’ is a strange approach. Why push others, including newcomers to a cause, away from the very issue you are both there to support?

– Assumption: Correcting someone for using, say, a recently out-dated term often goes on to assume the writer’s meaning behind the term as well as assume a great deal about the writer themselves and their views. Perhaps even their (unseen) contribution to the cause supported by the accuser. That’s a lot of assumption based on a few words. We should be debating the point at hand, not pulling straw-man points from assumptions. The former educates, the latter less so.

– Insulting: Implying discriminatory thinking by a person based on a few words means letting loose with what could be an extremely insulting accusation based on very little evidence.

– Counter-productive: It is also a near-certain way to close down debate with the writer.

– Uninvited: There are those who chose to pour over words with one another and decide that a term is now no longer fit for use. However, not every writer has signed-up to be part of that debate and will respond better to discussing the issues at hand.

– Exclusion: Those not across the very latest thinking and those perhaps clumsy in their choice of words, or less comfortable with writing, can be among those targeted by language-policing. Should we not debate the point they are making rather than the thoughts we think they are thinking?

– Distraction and contribution: A language-policing contribution can distract debate from the point at hand. What does it contribute to the understanding of the subject, compared to engaging in the debate, if it is roundly ignored?

– Authority: Just as we know very little about someone based on a short response in a debate, we know little about the authority of the language-policing poster, their actual knowledge or even contribution to their chosen cause. ‘Calling out’ someone making a reasoned argument to challenge a single word proves little about either.

In short, examples of modern language-policing seen have, at times, been little more than trolling with the fancy suit of good intentions. In these cases, it isn’t about the sharing of ideas, it builds no empathy or connection between the writer and the commenter, causes a tangent and is potentially exclusionary.

The removal of unacceptable language from our screens and conversations has achieved great things. And long may it continue. But is it now a weapon to be used with more care?

Finally, for those who only read the first and last few lines of a piece, a big caveat to the headline above: we’ve achieved so much by improving equality in language and should continue to do so.

There should, without a doubt, be absolutely no hiding place for violent and hateful language.  

The single argument here is that, beyond this point, contributing to a debate by policing the language of another – such as implying discrimination or discriminatory thinking by the writer – can sometimes be counterproductive. The question is whether it should now, at times, be used with more caution and empathy.

We’ve come a long way. Let’s listen more and assume less in 2016.