by Barbara McNichol
What can editors tell writers and authors about improving their writing? Consider these five common writing mistakes even conscientious writers make:
Mistake #1: Being self-absorbed as a writer. With too much talk about the author’s experience of writing, you risk overlooking the reader’s experience. The fix? Use “you” more than “I” in your sentences and stay close to your core message.
Mistake #2: Addressing readers in plural rather than as a single person whose interest you want to capture. Remember, reading is a solitary pastime. The fix? Keep one person in your target audience in your mind’s eye as you write.
Mistake #3: Using a long noun phrase when an active verb will do. The fix? Whenever possible, get an active verb to do the “work” of the sentence. Instead of “the examination of the report was done by the director,” change the noun phrase to a verb and rewrite the sentence: “The director examined the report.” In this way, passive construction becomes active, reduces the word count, and delivers a more direct message.
Mistake #4: Having no clear order to the paragraphs. The fix? Once you’ve crafted a solid, compelling opening, think through how the organization and flow of your main points will best guide your reader logically to your desired conclusion. If possible, test the result with colleagues or actual readers who will give you honest feedback.
Mistake #5: Writing sentences that ramble (on and on and on and on). The fix? Limit your sentences to 15-21 words maximum. Be sure to vary sentence length to create interest.
Bonus mistake: Flat-out choosing the wrong word. Yes, in English, it’s easy to confuse common words such as “advice” instead of “advise” (among hundreds more). The fix? Use a comprehensive resource such as Word Trippers (print or ebook) to help you select the perfect word when it really matters. Want a free mini-version of Word Trippers (the ebook)? Go to http://www.WordTrippers.com
What common writing mistakes would you add to this list?
by Kathleen Watson
When I had boarded and settled in for a recent flight, I reached for the airline magazine in the back-of-the-seat pouch in front of me.
True to form for this ruthless editor, I selected articles for not only enjoyment but also for illumination, keeping my grammar radar on high alert. How do other writers use words and punctuation?
Two articles — one about Pioneertown, a two-hour drive east of Los Angeles, and one about Fishtown, a residential area not far from Philadelphia’s historic district — were packed with examples of well-crafted, rich descriptions of American burgs and the colorful locals who inhabit them.
Narrowing my focus, I became acutely aware of the number of compound modifiers used throughout. Because examples instruct so well, I’m listing several here.
Imagine these modifiers without the hyphen. Can you see how hyphens add clarity?
- a two-hour drive east of Los Angeles
- a cup of high-octane coffee
- a well-worn Formica counter
- a pair of steel-toed boots
- his working-class roots
- the top-floor music venue
- a whole-animal butchery
- the ever-present sound of the overhead train
- a tight-knit community
- a cash-only shot-and-beer joint
- a high-end Italian restaurant
- role-playing games
- long-term residents
- a down-to-earth approach
- largely blue-collar residential neighborhoods
- a settlement of fully functional Western-style buildings
Note in the last two examples that modifiers ending in ly don’t require a hyphen: largely blue-collar residents, fully functional buildings.
Whether you write fiction or nonfiction or for business or pleasure, reading well-written pieces by others can inspire and instruct. How often do you approach reading through that lens?
Kathy Watson has a love/hate relationship with grammar; she loves words and the punctuation that helps them make sense, yet she hates those pesky rules. A self-proclaimed ruthless editor, she prefers standard usage guidelines of The Associated Press Stylebook. Her easy-to-use Grammar for People Who Hate Rules helps people write and speak with authority and confidence.
Compound modifiers streamline the writing and reading experience. Share your own examples here. Request a one-word-or-two reference sheet by emailing email@example.com
by Barbara McNichol
Do you habitually start a sentence with the phrase “start to” or “begin to”? In a 5,000-word document I recently edited, those phrases appeared 14 times, while only five were deemed necessary to the meaning. That’s a lot of extra words!
To be more direct in your writing, skip the “start/begin” part and employ the phrase Nike made famous: Just do it!
These examples show how you can write a stronger statement by going straight to the action verb rather than “beginning” to go for it.
Example 1: Slowly begin to approach your teammate with your idea.
Better: Slowly approach your teammate with your idea.
Example 2: Start to make an agenda for the meeting.
Better: Make an agenda for the meeting.
Whenever you write “start to” or “begin to,” question it. Ask: Is “start” or “begin” essential to the meaning of the sentence? Chances are you can glide straight to the action verb without it!
Similarly, watch out for “decide to” in your writing. Which verb carries more weight in this example sentence, “decide” or “launch”?
Example: The president decided to launch the company’s implementation strategy next month.
Better: The president will launch the company’s implementation strategy next month.
Do you see how “decide” doesn’t add meaning while “launch” is vital to the message? When you catch yourself writing “decide,” ask: Is it needed?
Your goal is clearer, stronger writing so your readers clearly understand what you mean. Pay attention to these phrases and streamline them. It will make a big difference.
What similar verb phrases belong in this category? List them here. I will discuss them in future posts.
Barbara McNichol has created a Word Trippers Tips resource so you can quickly find the right word when it matters most. You’ll improve your writing through excellent weekly resources in your inbox including Word Trippers of the Week. Details at www.WordTrippers.com
By Kathleen Watson (used with permission)
News headlines draw us into a story. Report titles summarize what our readers can expect. Email subject lines should do both. That’s why these are the three worst places to make a grammar error.
Here are three headlines that don’t pass a grammar test and how they could be better:
- Bill Nye Only Needs 10 Seconds To Explain The Toughest Science Theories
The problem: misplaced modifier
Modifiers are words that add meaning or clarification. The emphasis of this headline is the minimal amount of time Science Guy Bill Nye needs to explain complex science theories.
Modifiers should be placed close to—preferably next to—the words they modify.
Bill Nye Needs Only 10 Seconds To Explain The Toughest Science Theories
- France’s Political Parties Are Banding Together To Stop Le Pen
The problem: redundancy
Not all sources agree but I consider banding together redundant.
My test for redundancy: Would the opposite descriptor—in this case banding apart instead of banding together—make sense? Do people ever band apart?
Of course not. So there’s no need to clarify that people—or political parties—band together.
As a verb, band is described this way: to unite in a troop; to come together in a group because of a common purpose or belief
Synonyms are to connect, to join, to unite, to merge.
France’s Political Parties Unite To Stop Le Pen
- Stabbing At Flint Airport Deemed Potential Act Of Terrorism By FBI
The problem: This wording could be interpreted as the FBI having committed a potential act of terrorism.
FBI Deems Flint Airport Stabbing Potential Act of Terrorism
FBI Deems Stabbing At Flint Airport Potential Act of Terrorism
News cycles rapidly, and writers are under pressure to publish stories in minimal time. Yet when I read these headlines, it took me just seconds to recognize better ways to compose them without a grammar error.
Whether you’re reporting the news, writing a title for a report, or crafting an email subject line, allow time to review what you’ve written. You’ll be more likely to catch these kinds of oversights that avoid detection when you write in haste.
If you see silly or questionable headlines, please note them here or send them to mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org
Kathleen calls herself the Ruthless Editor. She has created Grammar for People Who Hate Rules to help people write and speak with authority and confidence. Kathleen can be reached at email@example.com.
by Barbara McNichol
Business authors have great expertise to share with the world. Their most recent book often represents their seminal work.
That’s true for Robin Speculand’s Excellence in Execution. As part of Robin’s authorship team for more than 10 years, I’ve witnessed how he has brilliantly brought together myriad elements he’s developed to teach leaders how to implement strategies. Based on years of research and training, this new book delivers the H.O.W. (How Organizations Win) of strategy execution.
In nonfiction books especially, the value of clear, consistent writing comes through. With a little help from his editor, Robin has reinforced this in his current and previous award-winning books, his website, and throughout his Implementation Hub portal.
Across these platforms, two effective techniques can be adopted by all writers:
- Relying on bulleted lists to complement points made in prose
- Making sure all bulleted phrases follow a clear, consistent style
What’s a clear, consistent style? This bulleted list provides the answer:
- Use bullets often. People skim more than they read word for word.
- Keep the number of words to a minimum (i.e., take out unneeded adverbs and adjectives).
- List the shortest line first and the longest last whenever possible so the bulleted list looks attractive on the page.
- Start each bulleted phrase with the same part of speech (e.g., all nouns, all gerunds, all verbs, and so on, but never a mixture).
That last point is key. Consistently use the same part of speech to prevent the reader’s brain from flying in a variety of directions. In the following two lists from my WordShop, you’ll see how using the same part of speech makes the second one easier to follow than the first.
This first list—points for formatting a manuscript—has a mixed bag of bullet points:
- Single (not double) space between sentences
- Change any straight quotes to curly quotes
- Ending period goes inside a quotation mark (U.S. style)
- Subheads if appropriate
- Bullet points indented 5 spaces
This second list uses the same part of speech to start each bullet:
- Use a single (not double) space between sentences
- Change any straight quotes to curly quotes
- Put ending period inside a quotation mark (U.S. style)
- Add subheads if appropriate
- Indent bullet points 5 spaces
Challenge: Look at your own bulleted lists. If you haven’t started each point with a same part of speech, change them. When you do, your writing will gain clarity and consistency.