Do you want to be More Valuable to your company or your clients? Your writing qualifies you for hiring, for retaining, and for getting promoted. But writing is the gateway to rejection, too.
People judge your abilities by the quality of your writing.
It’s a harsh fact. In business, people who don’t write well to communicate—who don’t select the right words to express complex ideas—are perceived as lacking credibility … professionalism … accuracy in their work.
On the flip side, those who master the written word are remembered as influential … reputable … successful.
My name is Barbara McNichol, chief architect of Word Trippers Tips. After years of editing nonfiction manuscripts and proofreading hundreds of thousands of lines of copy, I realized that everyone makes mistakes … everyone mixes up similar words … and everyone loses credibility the moment readers recognize the errors.
I have turned those common errors into a program professionals use to improve their writing instantly: Word Trippers Tips. It includes a 38-minute WEBINAR on its own and/or 12 MONTHS Word Tripper of the Week plus bonuses.
How can you learn to be a better writer and make your career soar?
Go to www.WordTrippers.com and/or listen to this teleclass 5 Nuggets Successful People Know and Use on better writing.
Please share you comments and questions here.
by Kathleen Watson (used with permission)
Inaccurate placement of the modifier only continues to abound.
I’ve written about only before, and I’ve continued to save examples. Those with a misplaced only far outweigh those where only is in the right spot: closest to the word it modifies. Because the margin is so great, I’m climbing back onto my soapbox.
Why does the placement of only matter?
Only as an adjective or adverb means solely or exclusively, single or solitary, which is the case in most of my examples. It implies limits.
Consider these three examples from my book, Grammar for Those Who Hate Rules (p. 29), which show that placement of only changes the meaning of each. Then consider how the placement of only applies to the numbered examples that follow.
Only Danny sang at the party. (No one else sang.)
Danny only sang at the party. (He didn’t dance or play the piano.)
Danny sang only at the party. (He didn’t sing elsewhere.)
Now let’s jump into my collection. In these eight examples, only is correctly placed. Note that only follows a verb, clearly indicating what it modifies.
- Definitions of plain language that focused only on writing proved too narrow.
- For a plural ending in s, x, or z, add only an apostrophe to show possession.
- Praise the delivery to Norway of fighter planes that exist only in a video game.
- The other defendants were charged only with misdemeanors.
- Buckeye still has only about 60,000 people.
- He engineered a “smart gun” that could be fired only by an authorized user.
- If you get input only from your closest circle, you won’t get the whole picture.
- It’s not hard to detect when someone wants to hear only praise and support for their own ideas
In the next examples, only is placed incorrectly. Note how often it precedes the verb, when it is intended to modify what follows the verb (underlined). Mentally put it in its correct place.
- We only have one voice of reason in Alaska.
- That could discourage widespread acceptance, especially for a product that may only have limited use.
- VA Secretary McDonald has only fired three people for their involvement in the scandal.
- On Sunday, the Senate only voted on the two amendments McConnell set up,
- Reports from Reuters and Politico indicated that the president would only move to end the program after a six-month delay.
- We only have so many weekends.
- The U.S. Supreme Court has explicitly ruled that blood can only be drawn from drivers for probable cause and with a warrant.”
- The current bills would only apply to new employees.
- Starbucks announced plans to open stores that only accept mobile orders.
- Google is concerned about SSL certificates, which are supposedly only issued after Symantec takes extra steps to verify the identity of the holder.
- Do you still only write by hand?
- A favorite Rick Perry flub is his announcement that as president he was going to shutter three federal agencies — and then could only think of two.
- This doesn’t mean that you can only send a press release for information that would make the front page of the New York Times.
- The tour company will only collect tasting fees for one person for each winery.
- You only need 10,000 devoted readers to make a living.
- When they run a “find word” search of your work and “that” only appears a handful of times, you already have a leg up.
- Why does designer Vivienne Westwood only bathe once a week?
- The asteroid was only spotted seven hours before flying past earth
- You only have room for one blurb on the front and maybe two more on the back.
- He is anticipating opposition from some of his fellow Republicans to a bill that only gives dreamers legal status.
- The McDowell Sonoran Preserve could only be built if voters approve the proposed construction.
Look for other examples in articles you read and comment below.
Used with if — if only, as in this post’s headline — only can express a wish (If only writers used only right … ) or regret (If only I’d paid attention … ), or it can mean “if for no other reason” (She told him she’d already done it, if only to stop his reminders).
Pay attention to your onlys. Show that you’re an informed, skilled writer, and set a good example for others. Please share this with colleagues, friends, and family.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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 Barbara McNichol
Our society loves “3”; we remember things in “3s”; we’ve learned it from kindergarten when we were told to hop, skip, jump and stop, look, and listen.
Businesses gravitate toward “3” when they create marketing taglines. Look at these examples:
- Reduce, reuse, recycle (recycle guide)
- Buy it. Sell it. Love it. (eBay)
- Grace, space, pace. (Jaguar)
How can you improve your writing by tapping into the power of “3”? Consider this example from a newsletter. The rewrite flows better because of the three-part rhythm brought into play.
You are free to choose, create and live the life you want if you are willing to investigate, make changes, update your protective strategies, be honest with yourself, and invest in what it takes to continue growing. (37 words)
You are free to choose, create, and live the life you want. (12 words)
That works if you are willing to investigate, update your strategies with honesty, and invest in continuing to grow. (20 words)
Also notice how the long-winded sentence was broken into two shorter sentences with breathing space between. Ah, much easier for readers to follow.
How can you tap into the power of “3” in your writing? Share your examples.
by Barbara McNichol
Are you choosing the wrong word for your intended meaning?
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 writing intention every time!
- 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.
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.
Question yourself when you select a commonly spoken word. Does it express the exact meaning based on its context or is it the wrong word?
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.
For years, I’ve been on a crusade to help people boost their productivity by strengthening their writing so they can avoid the problems that come with sending unclear messages.
As part of this crusade, I offer a WordShop to organizations and individuals, including:
- Business professionals
- Administration assistants
- Marketing copywriters
- Grant proposal writers
- Journalists, bloggers, authors
My next public WordShop called STRENGTHEN Everything You Write comes up on Oct. 25th at Tucson College. This 3.5-hour hands-on session helps you improve everything you write—from business emails to proposals, reports, blog posts, articles, book chapters, and more. All attendees will received the 2nd edition of Word Trippers, my word choice guide.
At the end of this WordShop, you’ll be able to:
- Get results you want with clearer, more concise writing.
- Save readers’ time by reducing wordiness and repetition.
- Plan your ideas before you write for maximum effect.
- Select the right tone to fit your audience, purpose, and topic.
- Eliminate errors that create confusion and mar your reputation.
Saturday, October 25, 2014
9:30 am – 1 pm
Tucson College – 5151 East Broadway Blvd. at Rosemont, Tucson AZ
“Great new tools, great tune-up of existing knowledge!”
– Mark F., career consultant
by Barbara McNichol
In the flood of today’s electronic communications, your email’s subject line—like all kinds of business writing—should be crafted with precision and purpose. But some would argue that the price you pay for NOT writing a strong subject line is high—i.e., when the subject line is dull, muddled, or full of hyperbole, you risk having your message ignored altogether, even spammed.
My colleague Beth Terry passionately “beats the drum” about writing better subject lines, especially with those she coaches. She sees how they limit their business success simply because critical emails never get read!
Beth shares the following technique to get us thinking strategically about subject line writing.
As you prepare to scan your email inbox over a cup of coffee, draw a line down the middle of a notepad. On one side write: “Got my attention.” On the other side write: “Boring.” Then jot down subject line examples under the appropriate column.
You might add a second page titled “Clues that it’s junk mail” and note giveaway elements (e.g., euphemistic or overwrought terms, lousy spelling, over-capitalization or punctuation, or no subject line at all)
In particular, notice:
- What grabbed your attention? One possibility: subject lines that address a current need/concern/worry/struggle—something important to you
- What didn’t grab you? Why not?
- What did you trash without a second thought? Why?
- Finally, what tells you it’s junk mail:ALLCAPS? Misspelled words? Weird or poor grammar? Unfamiliar or suspicious sender?
By the time you finish that coffee, you’ll be well on your way to creating attractive and/or intriguing subject lines—enticing your recipients to read your message.
The lesson: Make that subject line as important as your carefully crafted email. If you’re unsure, send a copy to a trusted friend (or competent editor) for a “second opinion.”
It also doesn’t hurt to let an important email linger in “Draft” for a day or two. Then you’ll come back to it with fresh eyes and a focused, intentional mindset.
What have you found makes your subject lines more effective? Share your “victories” on this blog.
by Barbara McNichol
What’s the single most important change you can make in your writing? Learn to use active construction to add clarity and action to your message.
Watch out for “is” words and their various cousins.
Stay alert to phrases like “is happening” or “was being good”;
change them to “happens” or “behaved.” Search out every
weak “is” form in your manuscript and find a strong
Avoid “Start” and “Begin”–“Just” too
Don’t overuse the words “start to” and “begin.” What
can you do differently? “Start to rub your hands together”
becomes “rub your hands together”; “allow your energy
fields to begin merg ing” becomes “allow your energy fields
to merge.” Are you guilty of overusing these two weak words?
In fact, I’d put the word “just” in the same “weak” category.
I love what one of my subscribers wrote: “I don’t have a
Begin or Start habit. I do, though, have a Just habit. I just
can’t kick it. It just seems appropriate when you just do
something . . . like I just read your newsletter. Without the
just, I could have read it anytime.”
Lazy Linking Phrases
Add to that a few lazy linking phrases like “there are” and
“there will be.” Rewrite them! For example, “There will be
many representatives elected” becomes “voters will elect
many representatives.” (Better yet, instead of many, use a
Why do I call these phrases lazy? Because they often lead
into long passive sentences that stem the flow and slow
readers down. When your readers have to swim upstream to
follow what you write, they tend to give up. Better to ease
them along with crisp, sharp prose—especially active verbs!
Yes, I do keep beating this drum about active verbs because
they will make your writing better. Change passive to active
and you’ll see how they improve the flow, enhance the clarity,
and add muscle to the meaning.
Challenge: Rewrite these sentences using active construction:
- Passive: This policy is being implemented in an effort to streamline our process.
- Passive: Improvement will be noted in most cases (or instances).
- Passive: The procedure was changed in order to reduce the necessary steps.