by Barbara McNichol
Much of the spoken language slides into our writing, but at times the words we say aren’t the exact fit for what we mean. Check your intention every time!
Consider these sentences from a manuscript about education:
- How many principals do what they feel will win approval?
- The public feels certain people shouldn’t be teaching.
Given the context, is “feel” the correct word to express the author’s meaning? No, because the essence of the intended meaning doesn’t come from an emotional “feeling” source. Rather, it comes from a profound conviction based on experience—a place of belief.
Replace “feeling” with the word “believe,” which involves caring about something. It implies a deeper kind of thinking—a mental activity that doesn’t necessarily have a sense of conviction. Because of this distinction, the better word choices would be:
- How many principals do what they believe will win approval?
- The public believes certain people shouldn’t be teaching.
Your challenge: Question yourself when you select a commonly spoken word. Does it express the exact meaning based on its context? From now on, designate “feel” a red-flag word. Then replace it with “think” or “believe” or “hope” or another verb and reread your sentence. Is “feel” the most precise word to convey your intended meaning? If not, pause and find exactly the right one.
Unsure which of these verbs—feel, think, believe—to use in your own writing? For feedback on your sentence(s), request it here.
by Barbara McNichol
Contraction: Two words that have been contracted (pulled together) into one word. E.g., let’s (let us), he’d (he had), we’re (we are), etc.
My colleague Karen Saunders received this query from a subscriber to her ezine and asked for advice on this author’s contraction conundrum.
My latest (4th) book is coming out in September. I just got the edits back from my publisher. I got a lot of glowing remarks BUT the one thing they changed is this: They took out every contraction in the book. Literally, every “you’ll” and “let’s” and “she’s” was wiped from existence.
This is my first book with this particular publisher. None of the others I’ve worked with were this anal about contractions. My feeling is when I want to relate to my target audience of parents and be more conversational, I tend to use a contraction. When I’m giving advice or explaining a principle, it tends to be more formal. In my opinion, removing every contraction takes away some of the flow of a sentence.
Can you give me your thoughts on this issue?
I agree with you; it’s acceptable to use contractions in your writing. As you describe your book, it has a casual discourse and contractions should not distract the reader.
Patricia O’Connor states in Woe is I:
Isn ’t it time we admitted that the contraction has earned its place in the sun? It has all the qualities we admire in language: it’s handy, succinct, economical, and everybody knows what it means.” However, she does list “out of bounds” contractions that take away from narrative writing. Here are a few that make writing go “thud”: ain’t, could’ve, should’ve, would’ve, it’d, that’d, that’ll, there’ll, when’ll, why’d. And stay away from gonna, gotta, and wanna unless they’re in dialogue.
William Zinsser, in On Writing Well, advocates the use of contractions:
“Your style will be warmer and truer to your personality if you use contractions such as ‘I’ll’ and ‘won’t’ and ‘can’t’ when they fit comfortably into what you’re writing.” (See his quotations later in this ezine.)
June Casagrande writes in The best punctuation book, period:
“Contractions in news and book styles are common and acceptable. Judgment calls on whether or not to use them are usually based on the general tone of the publication and the writer’s voice.” For academic and science writing that is more formal, she suggests avoiding contractions. (Note: Always consult the publisher’s style guidelines.)
Helen Wilkie, speaker, author, workshop leader:
“I’m with you and the author of the book. Contractions help build a human contact with the reader. However, I must say I can’t deal with gonna and wanna. I don’t see these as contractions, but just mistakes. Or am I just old fashioned?”
In most nonfiction books, contractions actually aid readability because they move the reader’s eye faster than without them. They help set a casual rather than formal tone and add authenticity, particularly in dialogue. After all, when people speak, they use contractions most of the time.
Overall, contractions improve the flow of the sentence. As both a reader of nonfiction books and an editor, I prefer them!
What’s your preference and why? Share your thoughts here.
by Barbara McNichol
I appreciate the thought-provoking words of advice from blogging expert Jon Morrow in his blog post about Writing Tips.
Read it in full to get the sense of which of his six writer’s “hats” to wear when. Then send me your comments about this approach. Jon writes:
Frustrating, isn’t it? You read countless tips about writing but hardly see any results. Here’s why they’re not working:
Did you use Jon’s six-hat approach? What did you experience?
As a writer, I see metaphors everywhere, and one of the lenses through which I view the world is that of writing and words. So, it’s not a surprise that when I’m cooking a meal, my mind goes inevitably to writing… and tries to make connections.
(One definition of writing could be “finding connections between like or unlike things.”)
Here are some examples of how writing is like cooking, along with a few concrete tips.
Remember forgotten items. Looking for a utensil in the big mash-up drawer, I saw things I forgot we had, like corn-on-the-cob holders. Now they’re in my consciousness, and I’ll remember them next time we have corn-on-the-cob. Same thing with your content… take a gander through your content and remember what you have – so that you can repurpose, re-use, or reinfuse. Or go through your idea file and see which one is ready to bloom into something more.
Kitchen-to-writing tip: Make time to refresh yourself with what’s in your virtual writing drawers every now and then. Think of this as creative time and idea generation. It’s valid!
Try something new. Do you have a ton of cookbooks you never open? I bet the minute you do open one up, you find all sorts of new recipes that excite and inspire you. I went through our Hot & Spicy cookbook and immediately marked a dozen dishes I want to try. With your writing, try new methods and writing styles. It builds your writing muscles as well as stretches you mentally.
Kitchen-to-writing tip: On your next blog post (a “safe” place to experiment) try a new way to open your blog (dialogue, a quotation, a story, short staccato phrases) – something you haven’t or rarely used before.
Use your fail-safe, trusted recipes. We all have that list of trusted recipes, our go-to meals when we need comfort food or just something familiar and easy. (Mine happens to be chili!) This idea translates to writing in that there are times that it’s absolutely appropriate to reuse something you’ve already written. Most of your tribe won’t remember that you published that article three years ago. Heck, some may not remember that it’s the same one you published three months ago.
Kitchen-to-writing tip: PLAN on reusing your content. If you know a busy time is coming, then re-use and re-publish older articles in your ezine. Make it part of your business systems.
Purchase that tool you always meant to get. My husband mentioned egg salad sandwiches, and I went looking for the cool egg slicing tool in the kitchen drawer. I couldn’t find it, as it must have been a loss in my divorce a few years earlier. I need to get it soon so that I actually have it (and don’t keep thinking I do). In the writing world, this could translate into getting a notebook or journal that’s perfect to take with you (or pull out at any time) when the urge to write comes upon you.
Kitchen-to-writing tip: ALWAYS have something with you to jot down notes. You never know when the great idea will come whizzing by!
Keep your shopping list up to date. Most of us usually have a shopping list going so that when finally make it to the grocery store, we can get out of there as quickly as possible (unless we actually like grocery shopping – I don’t!). With writing, have a list of questions, an outline, or a “Where to next” prompt so that when you pick up your current writing project, you can jump right in.
Kitchen-to-writing tip: When you end a writing session, end with a question or end your sentence prematurely or with a fill-in-the-blank. That way, you’re poised for a quick start next time.
Whether you’re cooking or writing, set yourself up for success so that you can ease right into the meal!
Dawn Goldberg Shuler has been working with writing and the writing process all her life, from teaching English to working with companies to improve their communications and marketing. As an online business manager, she creates systems, procedures, and, oh yes, lots of marketing material for her clients. In addition, she works with private clients in her coaching practice to help them create and maximize the content that is going to get them noticed and create connections with their communities.
Her soul purpose is to help entrepreneurs unleash their authentic selves into their businesses through their content. She created the Writing From Your Soul system to help business owners connect more powerfully, reach more people, and make a difference. To learn more about Writing From Your Soul, visit her website.
by Barbara McNichol
Are you looking at blogging to drive leads to your business? If so, how can you write your blog posts to achieve that?
Let me offer you three tips that won’t guarantee new clients knocking at your door, but they will help you put your ideas out there persuasively.
1. Write remarkable headlines that zero in on your prospects’ problem.
Often, the only thing a potential reader sees is that headline, so it must have its own magnet to attract readers. Styles of headlines can take the form of:
• A question or puzzle (How Well Do You Sleep at Night?)
• An active command (Make the Most of the Season Now)
• An urgent need to avoid something (Don’t Live with Pain Another Day)
Remember, when you share your post with others or through social media, your headline gets seen first. If it’s not compelling, your post won’t get opened.
2. Use bulleted lists to get your points across.
Why include bullet points in your post? Because they:
• make the information easy to scan quickly
• allow readers to quickly find a reference when they go back
• can be lightning-fast easy to understand when they’re simply written
Here are two suggestions for writing your bullets clearly and concisely:
• Use bold or italics to accentuate key words in your bulleted sentences.
• Start each bullet point with the same part of speech (always a verb or a noun, not mixed) or you risk setting up confusion.
3. End with a strong, clear call to action.
Everything you write in your post points to its purpose—what you want your readers to do, think, believe, or remember as a result of reading it. So after you’ve made your case, be sure to summarize it briefly at the end in a call to action.
I suggest crafting it by stating it as a command—e.g., Attend this meeting—and be sure to include a benefit—or you’ll miss out on airing your opinions about this critical issue.
One more thing: Make it your standard to request readers share the post with others and/or leave a comment. Engaging them by asking for their opinions makes reading fun—and meaningful—for all.
Please share your tips to writing client-attracting blog posts.
by Barbara McNichol
Ever wondered why some blog posts get read and others don’t?
Author/speaker and entrepreneur David Kerpen wrote a blog that sets out 5 ways to strengthen your blog post and get it read. His first point–write an amazing headline–showed up in his own headline. That’s exactly what attracted my attention.
How to Write More Successful Blog Posts
Yes, I want that for myself and for my readers who write!
I invite you read his entire post and share your thoughts with David and with me.
Would you add tactics to David’s list? If so, what would you add?
To David’s concluding comment about writing “simple, interesting content,” I’d add “expressing your ideas clearly, concisely, and logically with examples.” He modeled this beautifully!
A few more questions to consider: What was your most successful blog post? Which of David’s tactics do you think is most/least important?
Thanks for engaging!
by Barbara McNichol
In my workshops and ezines, I constantly encourage writers to improve their writing by tightening their paragraphs. But what does that mean?
It means finding ways to get your point across using words that each “work like a galley slave” in the sentence or paragraph. Maximum effect using a minimum number of words. Whack wordiness!
Let me throw out a challenge–that is, tigthen the paragraph below by rewriting it. Your assignment? Convey the essence of this paragraph using a maximum of 21 words. Ready, go!
The subsequent chapters then will focus in great detail on each of the steps to make sure you know how to accomplish each step before proceeding to the next step and how to measure whether or not you are ready to move to the next step.
Your next (even more meaningful) assignment?
Dig out a page or two of your own writing and pick the longest paragraph you’ve written. Count the number of words in that paragraph and then rewrite it completely, reducing that number by a third, even half. Ensure you keep the meaning intact while making each word “work like a galley slave.”
Show me the results of either assignment or both (email the before/after writings or post them in this blog) and I’ll reward you with my Word Trippers ebook.
Give it a whack!
by Bob Kelly (used by permission)
Do you know how readable your writing is? You should. In fact, with all the tools available to you these days, there’s no excuse not to know. I assure you that your target audiences know – instinctively. Once they start reading what you’ve written, they’ll keep going – or quit – depending on how easy or hard it is you’ve made it for them.
The good news is that you, as the writer, don’t have to depend on instinct. Take anything you’ve written and you can quickly determine how readable it is by calculating the average grade level needed to understand it.
I produce a quarterly newsletter for a client, who requires that each of the dozen or so articles I write and/or edit per issue have an average grade level of 12 (high school graduate) or less.
Used to Be a Tedious Task
Calculating readability used to be a tedious task. One way was to take a sample of 100-200 words, count the number of words, then the number of sentences, then the percentage of words with three or more syllables. Take the average sentence length plus the average of the longer words, add them together and multiply the sum by a factor of 0.4. The result: the average grade level needed for comprehension.
I did that for years. But now, as we used to say in Noo Yawk, fuhgedaboudit! I simply highlight the writing sample, go to www.readability-score.com and paste in the sample and instantly see the average grade level, also known as the Fog Index.
Readability Doesn’t Equal Comprehension
A word of caution: finding that level is just the first step. Comprehension and readability are not the same thing. According to The Wall Street Journal, “People prefer to read well below their education level, and at a fog index of 13-college freshman-even a PhD’s eyes may start to glaze a bit. At 17 virtually the whole audience has fled.”
Most business magazines are written at the 9-10 level. I once read that TV Guide is at 6, and Reader’s Digest at 8. So, unless you’re writing a doctoral thesis or a legal brief, I strongly recommend you aim for a level of 10, or below. Once you start doing it, you’ll find it comes naturally. (I just checked; this article is at 7.)
If your writing is higher than 10, and you’re struggling with how to lower it, send along a sample and let’s see if I can help – with no strings attached.
Bob Kelly founded WordCrafters, Inc. in 1979, providing complete writing and editing services for authors, speakers, businesses and professional men and women, ministries and other nonprofit organizations. A former newspaper editor and publisher, he’s an award-winning author/co-author of 20 books, and has edited or ghostwritten more than a dozen others. His unique and extensive collection of quotations numbers 480 volumes and 1.7 million quotes. He’s also the author and publisher of a popular free monthly ezine: The KellyGram: Wisdom and Wit about the Wonderful and Often Wacky World of Words. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Jerry Brown, APR (used by permission)
Good editing is a blessing, bad editing a curse. Unfortunately, there are more bad editors than good ones.
The reason for this unfortunate situation is that too many of us don’t know when to quit editing other people’s copy and when to keep editing our own.
Be ruthless when editing your own copy. Get out your axe and chop away. But be gentle when editing someone else’s. Put away your axe and use a scalpel.
In fact, one of the true marks of a really good editor is that s/he knows when to leave things alone. We all have our own unique way of saying things. Your job when editing someone else’s copy isn’t to turn their words into yours. Your job is to help them say what they have to say clearly and accurately.
If you’re editing someone else’s copy and find a typo or grammatical error, fix it. If you find something that isn’t clear, make it clearer. Better yet, tell the writer why it isn’t clear to you and encourage her/him to clarify what s/he has to say. If there are extra words that don’t add anything worthwhile, take them out. If you find a mistake, fix it. If you find something you suspect could be a mistake, check it out — or suggest the writer check it out.
What’s written is accurate and clear but you’d say it differently? Leave it alone. You’re not the writer. Your job is to help the writer, not replace the writer’s voice with your own.
It’s a different story when it comes to editing your own copy. Then it’s time to be ruthless.
Jerry Brown specializes in Media Training, Media Relationships, and Message Development at www.pr-impact.com. Do you agree with Jerry’s point of view? When you pay for an editor, what are your expectations–gentle or ruthless? Share your thoughts below.