Writers must always keep the reader in mind when they are composing a piece of work, and one factor that should always inform how and what you write is the level of expertise that your audience will have. In this podcast episode, Lorrie and I talk about different issues to factor in when writing for beginners, lay people, novices or experts, including a detailed look at the language, structure and formatting to use.
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LH: Hello and welcome to Episode 44 of A Little Bird Told Me. My co-host Pippa and I are two freelance writers on a frankly heroic mission: we’re here to help you avoid the pitfalls that plague our profession and become the most wonderful wordsmiths you can be.
Freelancing is tough, and it can be a really lonely old world out there, so our hope is that this podcast will be a little ray of sunshine in a world where you can find yourself working from bed, eating cornflakes from the packet for lunch and not seeing another living soul for four years straight.
To make sure that you don’t miss this little sunbeam of writerly wisdom, we’ve made it easy to subscribe – you can tune in via iTunes, RSS feed, Stitcher smart radio or Podomatic. No matter how you want to listen, make sure you stop by our Podomatic homepage at alittlebirdtoldme.podomatic.com because there’s a whole range of links and resources on there to accompany the episodes. Blog posts, transcripts, funny videos and websites – they’re all there. You’ll also find links to both my and Pip’s social media profiles and websites so you can come and chat to us. I’m Lorrie Hartshorn….
PW And I’m Philippa Willitts. Today we’re going to be looking at the different ways you might finding yourself using language as a writer depending on whether your audience are beginners or experts. This can include the words and sentence structures you use, the layout and format of your writing, and the overall pitch and approach you take. It’s easy to make the assumption that writing for beginners involves using baby language and for experts you should use multi syllabic compounds at every opportunity, but that’s not how it works – it’s not a good or even an effective way to do it! In the first case you’ll come across as patronising, and in the latter as pretentious or like you’re trying too hard.
So, we’re going to start off by talking about, first of all, how you know who’s an expert and who’s a beginner.
LH: Yeah, we thought we’d get started straight away, but then we realised that it was a good idea to actually define who’s an expert and who isn’t. Now, if you have a look at any good dictionary, you’ll find that an expert can be defined simply as someone who has a comprehensive and authoritative knowledge of or skill in a particular area. So no surprises there.
A lay person is, quite simply, someone who isn’t an expert. We’re all laypersons to a large extent – there’s no way any of us can be real experts in more than a few things at most – so knowing how to write for a lay audience, as well as an expert audience, is hugely important because you’re targeting most readers out there.
PW Sometimes, the level of expertise of the audience you are writing for is obvious from your brief. If, as part of a content marketing plan, your soft furnishings client wants a series of blog posts or video scripts with titles like, ”How to choose the right curtains for a small room” or “What colour schemes are best for south-facing bedrooms” then you’re almost certainly writing for beginners – people who may know all sorts about all sorts, but who are seeking information about soft furnishings because they know very little about it.
Similarly, if you have a B2B client who sells to plumbers, then articles about how to change a washer will be entirely redundant – these readers are experts who want to know about the latest technologies, innovations and legal changes, not the basics they’ve been successfully doing all day every day for years.
LH: Yes, sometimes you can tell if you’re going to be writing for an expert of layperson depending on the kind of content you’re writing. There are trends, I would say, on which types of content go towards which reader but, at the same time, you can’t always say definitively “This is for an expert, and this is for a layperson.”
Now, the things that strike me as more appropriate for experts are: journals, academic reports, business reports, case studies, funding proposals. Now, lay person audiences (although not always) might be news stories for client websites – communicating news to a general audience – customer brochures, although B2C ones are more likely to be for lay audiences, press releases for non-specialist publications. So if a dairy farm client has some new technology and they want people to know about to because their production is going to go up, you could just send that to a newspaper and focus, maybe, on jobs being created.
PW: What’s interesting about press releases is that one piece of news might need to be re-written twice – you might need a press release for specialists and one for laypeople. So, as well as the “Yay, new jobs, more milk” press release, you could send one to Dairy Farmers’ Monthly, focusing on the implication for the market, litres per animal etc. Whatever dairy specialists want to know. So yes, one kind of writing can still need to be re-written depending on your audience and their expertise level.
LH: Very good point. And that’s why it’s so important to know the differences between writing for experts and laypersons – if you need to re-write something for a client and you don’t, you’re in a pickle.
PW: So we’re going to look first at writing for beginners, and as we’ve said, everyone is a beginner in a lot of areas. You’ll have your own expertise in areas you do or enjoy, but you’ll be a layperson in a lot of areas. So it’s quite easy to relate to what beginners can need. But there are some really good guidelines and advice that come from various sources that we’re going to talk about that will help you pitch it just right.
LH: Yes, one of my favourite sources for information on writing for experts and beginners is the Mayfield Handbook of Technical and Scientific Writing (sounds like the kind of thing you’d get at Hogwarts!), published by the famous Massachusetts Institute of Technology (AKA. MIT!), has some really handy information on how to write for laypersons and experts, as you would expect. Now, most of the focus of a lot of the content is for scientific and technical writing, as it says in the title, but you can apply what’s in there more generally.
Now, a lot of what we’ll be advising here is quite similar to what’s suggested in there, so I’d recommend going and having a read of the handbook if you feel like you want to become a bit more of an expert, so to speak! You can find PDF copies all over the place or your can get hold of a copy on Amazon.
PW: And we’ll link to it in the show notes.
LH: The first thing to bear in mind when writing for a lay audience is that the audience may have absolutely no prior knowledge of the topic you’re presenting to them.
As a writer, it’s your job to provide your audience with something they can read without having to open a dictionary or dive on Google in order to understand. But, at the same time, you have to be careful, as Pip’s pointed out, not to patronise your readers. It’s a tough balancing act sometimes.
PW: When I write for beginners, a big part of my job is diving about on Google and doing research so other people don’t have to.
LH: Yes, they always do say that the best way to learn a subject is to teach it, or in this case, teach something via writing.
PW: Yes, if I can read 10 websites about something complicated and condense that into 500 words that people who’ve never come across the subject before can understand, then I’ve done a good job.
One trick that is quite easy to fall into is that when you have become something of an expert in an industry, because you’ve been writing about it for a while, is to forget that others don’t know what certain acronyms or buzz words mean. The same thing can happen with references to good practice guides, governing bodies or laws. When you first start writing about a particular industry you will be fine, because what is unfamiliar to the lay person will also be unfamiliar to you. As you progress, and start to understand it all, don’t lose sight of how confusing the jargon was to you at first.
LH: Absolutely. The example that always springs to mind for me is the website for the UK tax body, HMRC. It’s a total nightmare. You’ll look up one thing on there and you’ll end up having to look up 10 more things just to understand what you’re being told. And the pages they have explaining complicated terms on there, but I end up more confused. It’s a really bad example of writing for beginners.
PW: And the worst thing about it is that it thinks it’s user-friendly, and it really isn’t. As Lorrie says, an explanation of one word involves looking up one word.
LH: Yes, and it’s even worse because their TV ads are so friendly and informative. They use news readers who were on TV when we were young, and you think, “Oh, I trusted that person for years! It’s all going to be OK!” and it never is!
LH: So yeah. Your laypersons might be absolute beginners, or what the Mayfield Handbook of Technical and Scientific Writing terms it, “novices” – “persons who do not yet possess technical expertise in a field but are in the process of acquiring it.” But, because we’re not limiting this to specifically technical or scientific writing, you might well be dealing with a mixture of both, in which case, you have to cater for the beginners without sending the novices on a one-way trip to Yawnsville.
PW: So as well as looking at the level of specialism that your readers have, whether it’s absolute beginners with no previous knowledge or novices with a little bit of information, the other thing to consider is why your readers are reading the content.
LH: When it comes to informative content, laypersons tend to read in order to expand their general knowledge, inform their decisions – say, researching products before buying them, reading up on current affairs and politics, to learn how to use a device or perform a procedure (hello microwave oven instruction manual and DIY build-your-own-bookcase manual!), or simply to help them in becoming an expert.
PW: Yes, the joy of the net is that so much information is at the tip of your fingers. You might wonder how something got its name and within 10 seconds, you’re on Wikipedia. You can find yourself getting a lot of basic information on a lot of topics, so you need to make sure you tailor your text to those people as well as others, who want to become experts in the subject you’re writing about and are using your text as a starting point.
LH: Absolutely. When writing for laypersons, it’s best to introduce your topic in a wider context. Give your reader thorough background information, either in your introduction – if you’re writing a formally structured piece of work like an essay or report – or at appropriate points throughout the text.
Don’t launch into the complex stuff. As I said, start off with a wider context where possible and visualise yourself zooming in, bit by bit.
A widely published press release for a technical client, for example, should start off with a few lines summarising the overall story, because that’s what press releases start with, before leading into general information about the subject at hand. Once you’re, say, half or two thirds of the way down the page if your text is about a page long, you can start delving into the details of the technological development or government legislation you’re discussing. You’re baby-stepping your reader into it without making a baby of them.
PW: Absolutely. Absolutely.
LH: When deciding exactly which technical information to include, it’ll depend very much on your client and their sector, but consider your audience and ask yourself what they need to know. Say you’re discussing recycling technologies – what will your reader be interested in? Probably the basics – how much the complicated doo-dah costs. How big it is. How much waste material it can process in a day. Why are you writing a press release on it. What makes it ground-breaking or note-worthy. Cover topics such as these briefly but don’t go too far unless your piece is a strictly informative one, teaching people about said gadget.
PW: Yes, if it’s a “How are new gadget works…” that’s very different from “Hey, we have a new gadget!”
Now, as we’ve said, it’s important to look at why your reader is reading what you write. If they need to buy a new, say, washing machine, there’s a fairly good chance that they only want the information they absolutely need to make their decision. You need to be able to make them understand why they have to care about litres per wash or energy ratings, even if they only need to care for the 45 minutes it will take them to choose what to buy. Your job is pretty clear: work out what the consumer wants and needs to know; you also need to work out what your client wants them to know and that can be things like…if 10 different e-commerce sites are selling the same washing machine, it might be that your client offers next day delivery or particularly good customer service. Your jobs is to present that information in a way that is pitched correctly, informative, clear, and neither unnecessarily detailed nor patronisingly lacking in substance.
PW: Hey, I said your job was clear, not that it was easy!
LH: No, it’s certainly not easy. And, you know, it’s a bit off-topic but it’s relevant as we’re freelance writers. Clients may want you to include information that they think their audience needs to know but that you feel shouldn’t be included.
PW: Yes, you’re a step away from your client’s business and can sometimes see that something they feel passionately about isn’t of real importance to consumers. It can be hard to handle. If they want to highlight that they *only* charge £200 to deliver your washing machine, you may have to do what they want or you may be able to raise the issue with them. And that’s something to look at on a case-by-case basis.
LH: Absolutely, and you have to be really careful. On a really mercenary level, if you do something your client wants but that you don’t think is right, your client might get bad results, then turn round and say, “Your writing didn’t work.” But there’s nothing to prove that it was their preference and not your writing that was the problem.
PW: Something I’ve been known to do is to say to the client, “I understand why you would want that but I’d recommend against it.” I’ve then sent two versions of the work over: one with their suggestion and one without. I suggest that they use my version, but it’s up to them. Now, obviously I wouldn’t do this if I was being paid strictly for one piece of work only, but if it’s just something like the same email with two different subject lines, or a slight change in the opening paragraph, then it’s OK.
LH: Really good solution. Because then you can prove that the issue isn’t your writing. Unless you’re working on a strict payment term, or the difference is very big, very good solution.
Now, going back to the topic, hopefully this next point should be obvious, but when using technical terms, make sure you explain them the first time you use them. Now, it can be tricky to remember it if you’ve been writing about that subject for a long time, and it can also be easy to miss these things if you end up rejigging the article after you’ve written it.
PW: Haha, yes! You end up clarifying it the third time you mention it!
LH: So yeah, same goes for acronyms – a common one I use is “WEEE”, which everyone finds super amusing, but that stands for waste electrical and electronic equipment. I always write it in full first, placing “WEEE” in brackets afterwards. From then on, I just write ‘WEEE’.
PW: That’s best practice, I think – write it in full first time, then just use the letters. And that’s got me thinking, sometimes when you write for a client regularly and you find yourself clarifying an acronym for the fifteenth time, you can start to wonder whether you need to. Say, in blog posts. But, you have to bear in mind that people rarely start at the beginning of a blog and read through, so it’s good practice to do it every time.
LH: And another point is that you can make use of the terms for SEO purposes – you can link them internally and externally. And just going back to what you said about best practice, I’ve seen some people writing the acronym, then putting the full term in brackets afterwards. I wouldn’t do that – I would do it the other way round, with the full term first, then the acronym in brackets.
PW: yes, I’ve seen the same and I agree with you!
LH: That’s always gratifying! Now, a handy way of explaining technical information if it contains too many tricky words or concepts is to use metaphors, similes and analogies. That might sound a bit abstract and complex, and I’m kind of tempted to explain what all those things are, but if you’re a write, you should really know.
PW: Yes, I’ve been watching a TV series called Numb3rs recently on Netflix. It’s a show about the FBI and a maths geek, and whenever something really mathematically complicated needs to be explained, the maths geek creates an elaborate story to explain it. While I have to admit that he comes across as quite smug and annoying when he does this, it does genuinely help to make it clear what on earth he’s talking about. It makes these complex things quite accessible to someone like me, who hasn’t studied maths since they were 16.
LH: Yes, if you can come up with a useful analogy or metaphor, then all the better for it.
In informative posts, where the key is to get the reader to understand a certain concept, the analogy might be clearly highlighted, introduced by a phrase like, “Imagine that you’re…”, helping to guide the reader through the unfamiliar concept. In other informative posts, such as press releases, it might be a little more discrete. A couple of examples I’ve found on the ‘net: “Glycogen acts as a kind of energy bank in the body…” or “An unreleased movie is like a commodity, whose value goes up and down depending on circumstances.”
PW: Absolutely. Now when you’re considering the expertise of your audience, another thing to consider is the structure of what you’re writing. Things like carefully placed headings, the size of your paragraphs can all make a difference to how easy to understand – or in-depth – a piece of writing is.
If you’re writing for beginners, then regular paragraph headings and small-ish paragraphs can be helpful. They provide information in bitesize chunks and make it clear about what you’re talking about right now. They’re easier to digest. On the other hand, if you’re writing in an academic journal and each paragraph has two sentences, people wouldn’t like that. And they might not want a heading for every paragraph – they might want one for every third page. They’re obviously extreme ends of the spectrum, but it’s worth considering: structure plays an important part in how comprehensible writing is.
LH: Absolutely, and the same goes for bullet points as well. They’re brilliant, and if you’re writing something particularly long, bullet points are a good way to sum up and drive home to your reader what’s gone on.
And to go back to headings for a second, the type of heading you use for beginners and experts will vary. When writing for experts, you can have infrequent, quite dense headings. When writing for beginners, headings can summarise or somehow explain what’s to follow so the reader knows what to expect.
PW: Yes, so if you’ve got an article on how to choose a lampshade, then you might have headings for colour, size, position in the room, for example.
Another thing you can make use of if you’re doing a very informative post is a numbered list. I think people often find it easier to follow instructions if there’s a number 1, 2, 3. It can be more accessible even than just bullet points on their own.
LH: Absolutely, and it won’t suit for every kind of writing. We’re just trying to give tips for loads of types of writing; be discerning when choosing which to follow!
PW: Yes, absolutely. We’ve looked quite a lot at how to write for beginners, laypeople, novices etc. So what we’re going to look at now is the different kinds of experts you might find yourself writing for and what kind of context this might be in.
LH: Now, experts often have different reasons for reading content than lay people. These reasons might include: to maintain and expand their own general expertise – to build on what they know and keep their level of learning quite high, to obtain specific answers to their own research and writing – so they might be writing a dissertation or report or theses, or even – and this is quite different to beginners – to evaluate a document’s technical or scientific content. And that sends shivers down my spine!
PW: Yes, it’s like peer reviews, isn’t it? And even if it’s not formal, a lot of experts can’t help themselves!
PW: There are other reasons that experts might read your content. One of these is that a lot of specialist fields are always developing. There might be new technology, new research, or new laws and best practice to keep on top of. Somebody who is already an expert in their own niche or industry will still need up to date information so they stay on top of industry standards or keep abreast of the competition.
LH: The handbook that we mentioned earlier helpfully splits experts into two camps and this can help you decide how you’re going to write for experts. Firstly, there are General Experts, who the book says “possess extensive knowledge about a field in general, but might be unfamiliar with particular technical terms, specific equipment, or recent advances in your document’s subject matter.” So basically, they’re experts but not in that particular niche.
PW: Yes, it might be someone who’s a general scientist, but someone who doesn’t know details about microbiology, for example.
LH: Yes. And then, there are the “Specific Experts”, who have either “equal or superior knowledge to you on a particular subject”. Now, if your audience includes general experts, the advice is to provide sufficient your readers with a bit of background information – an intelligent overview of your topic – and then to define any technical terms, acronyms and such like that they might be unfamiliar with. When writing just for specific experts, on the other hand (and it’s important to note that ‘just’) you’re as well omitting extensive background details, and you won’t usually need to define key technical terms or acronyms.
PW: No. And the thing about writing for experts is that they can tell when you don’t know what you’re talking about. And just as we said earlier than baby language is inappropriate when writing for beginners, using long, complex words for the sake of it when writing for experts is equally inappropriate.
PW: And there are times when you might be an expert in something yourself. Lorrie and I both have languages degrees, for instance, so can write pretty well on languages. And there are times when you can learn enough to write well on a subject, but there are also times when you have to admit that a subject is not just out of your comfort zone but really out of your capability.
LH: As we mentioned earlier, you can’t be an expert in more than a few fields. I had this discussion with someone recently – he’s a client with whom I’m quite friendly – and he was saying that writers could maybe price their work on three levels: super easy stuff, medium stuff and really complicated stuff.
I had to tell him, of course, that it doesn’t work like that. Writing for beginners can be just as tough as writing complex stuff for experts.
LH: Plus, as I said to him with no shame, I wouldn’t be able to write something in-depth on finance, tax, law, astrophysics. Sometimes, you can’t learn enough to do a decent job, and it’s your duty as a freelance writer to say that, “I’m sorry, this isn’t within my capabilities.”
PW: Yes, you have an absolute responsibility to do that. A couple of months ago, an agency approached me to ask if I could write about computer viruses, so I replied very honestly to say, “I can write about consumer and business protection against computer viruses. I can’t write about the anatomy of a computer virus, or how to build a computer virus.” As it was, they needed something about consumer protection, so they hired me. But it would have been entirely irresponsible of me to say, “Yeah, sure!” and be allocated an in-depth, 4,000 long-form article about how to build the ultimate, self-replicating computer virus. I’d have done an awful job and while it feels wrong to turn down work, but there are times when you should for both your sake and the client’s sake.
LH: Absolutely. A lot of scientific writers actually have the scientific background.
PW: Yes, a lot of medical writers are qualified doctors or nurses. And it’s one of the reasons why specialising can be good – you can do more expert technical stuff.
So, it’s important when writing a piece of work to consider who your audience is. And one of the things to consider is their degree of expertise. That includes your client’s goals and targets for the writing, as well as your reader’s aims and goals in reading it. Now, writing isn’t all clearly delineated by either “expert” or “beginner writing”, so there are many things that you’ll need to do the same regardless of your reader’s level of expertise.
LH: Absolutely. To start with, both experts and lay people need engaging, well-written content that is easy to read, and as clear as possible. And it harks back to what Pip was just saying about not baby talking or slotting in as many big words as possible. Keep things on a level and target the reader.
PW: And there’s a belief, often, that writing for experts can be dull. But they’re just as human as anyone else. It might not need to jump out of the page, but an expert still doesn’t want to be bored.
LH: Yes. Complex writing will be denser, but it can still be engaging.
PW: Obviously the differences are the technicalities, the approach, the details of how you write. But like Lorrie says, keeping in mind your goals, and your client’s goals and target audience, are the same no matter whether you are writing for academicians or outright beginners.
LH: Yes, no matter who your audience is, you need it to fulfil its aims – whether that’s to inform, persuade, entertain or – as is often the case – a mixture.
PW: So, now it’s time for the Little Bird Told Me Recommendations of the Week, in which Lorrie and I share something we’ve enjoyed and think you might enjoy too. So, Lorrie, what’s your recommendation this week?
LH: I’m being frivolous again this week, so my recommendation is a cute and crafty one – it’s an article from Buzzfeed, which I love…
PW: Oh, we’re all loving Buzzfeed! I saw the CEO talk at the Content Marketing Show and they’re just genius. Even if you don’t like the site, you have to be impressed.
LH: If you don’t like the site, you have no soul. Not that I’m judging. I’m on it EVERY day!
PW: Hahaha! Every fourth link I click is a Buzzfeed link. Their content is amazing and if you want to know how to do catchy headlines, they’re a real help.
LH: So my recommendation is 30 Easy Ways to Organize Your Workspace. Now some of the suggestions are completely daft and seem to be more trouble than they’re worth – there seems to be a lot of stacking of plastic cups and covering things in wallpaper, for example – and I think they’ll only appeal to crafters – but others actually look really handy. Using a dish-rack as a desk-top filing system, for instance, is a fab idea, as is the idea of using tags from your bread to label cables so you can identify them in a tangle.
But, useful or not, one thing that all these little hacks have in common is that they’re intended to make life a little bit easier, a bit more handy and, in many cases, a bit more easy on the eye. And I just think that’s lovely. There doesn’t always have to be a serious point to something – sometimes, we all just need a bit of pretty in our lives.
I was reading an article by Kevin Ashton this week, entitled, Creative People Say No, and he makes an interesting point, which is that if you “Wipe away the magic and myth of creating and all that remains is work” And I agree. While the article is about freeing up your time so you have room to be creative, I really do agree with the point that you shouldn’t lose all the myth and magic from life. If you want to stack cups and put pencils in them, or you want to cover something in wallpaper, do it.
PW: Yeah, absolutely! You don’t want everything just to be functional, do you?
LH: No, completely. What’s the point of being a freelancer if you get no enjoyment from it? Don’t think that, just because you have a business and clients that you can’t be a bit silly and fun. When I logged into the Google Drive file that Pip and I were using to plan this podcast, I noticed that someone, who shall remain nameless, had pasted the lyrics to “High on a hill lives a lonely goatherd” into it. Now, that may or may not have been Pip, and I still have no idea quite why that happened, or what was going through Pip’s mind at the time, but it made me laugh.
PW: That was the whole point. And yes, I don’t quite know what I was thinking either. I had that song in my head and I thought, “I need to share this!” It was the obvious thing to do! Lorrie and I are very silly much of the time. If you heard the out-takes for this recording, you’d be shocked at best. And we also play tricks on one another, sneaking things into the other person’s text, sending each other daft pictures on our phones – and all because things shouldn’t be grey tedium. It doesn’t have any negative impact on our work because we’re totally serious when we need to be. It’s all good.
LH: Yes, it’s really important. Little bits of loveliness everywhere – from your work space to your Google Drive – are part of what make life worth living, I think. It’s why I take singing lessons, it’s why I do creative writing, it’s just – for no other reason – a way to nurture your creativity.
PW: Yes, we did an episode on what to do if you’re out of inspiration and we suggested going out and getting inspired.
LH: Yes, having a laugh, having fun, it’s all perfect.
PW: Brilliant recommendation – I’ll definitely take a look at those life hacks, because making life a bit nicer will help you through the day. Now, my recommendation this week is something I think will apply to 100% of the listeners of this podcast, and anyone with an interest in language and words. It’s a post at the Mental Floss website, which is often very good, and it’s called 12 Old Words That Survived By Getting Fossilised In Idioms. There’s a paragraph on 12 words, explaining the words and what they means, before looking at the single idiom that’s probably the only reason you know them. So, things like roughshod, sleight, dint. I get really sad about lost language and the words we stop using.
LH: There was a sad article I read a couple of years back, about the fact that there’s only one person left in Wales who only speaks Welsh. It’s tragic!
PW: When I lived in France, I used to know a man who was Swedish, had studied French and Spanish in Wales, and studied endangered languages as a hobby!
LH: Aww, I like him!
PW: I know, I did too. So yes, if you want to know more about ‘eke’ as in ‘eking out a living’ or leaving someone in the lurch, go to our show notes at alittlebirdtoldme.podomatic.com and the links will be there.
LH: Brilliant recommendation! And so that just about wraps up episode 44! We’re getting old now! Can you imagine when we get to episode 100?
PW: It’s amazing. We both love that people are listening. Our download stats are impressive, so thanks for supporting us. We love the comments, likes, reviews, so do keep it up. Come and say hello, recommend us, send us reviews, embed the podcast in your blog…
LH: And tell your friends!
PW: All of them!
LH: and send us chocolate! So that wraps this up! I’ve been Lorrie Hartshorn
PW: And I’ve been Philippa Willitts, and we’ll see you next week.