by Barbara McNichol
How can you optimize your reading speed to achieve success? What kind of freedom and confidence can speed reading deliver?
When I asked these questions, a solution appeared in the form of a Rev It Up Reading course and an entertaining 60-second video to explain the course.
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by Barbara McNichol
Teaching a fitness class week after week could get repetitious. A good instructor motivates action while guiding people in their exercises. My instructor likes to interject colorful similes to keep us going. And I suspect it’s also her way of staying sharp and engaged, too.
In a recent class, while describing what not to do while on all fours, the instructor said, “Think of an overburdened mule in a spaghetti Western movie and don’t slump your back like that.” Later, while on our tummies, she told us to lift our arms “like you’re jumping out of an airplane.” Great visual!
Her imagery boosts our enjoyment and helps make the point of the exercise stick. And what’s good for fitness is also good for your writing. Sprinkle similes and other figures of speech into your prose so readers can visualize your point more easily.
Examples from a fitness class:
“Drop your head to your shoulder like it’s a 10-pound bowling ball.”
“Flatten your back like you could put a tray of food on it.”
For over 50s who remember typewriters: “Shift your ribs to the side like the carriage on a typewriter.”
Example from a book:
This excerpt is from Martha Beck’s Finding Your Own North Star. I recommend Martha’s books for the sheer delight of seeing how she applies similes, metaphors, and other figures of speech to her points and stories.
If you’re planning to wait for them [your family] to locate your true path, draw you a careful map, pack you a lunch, and drive you to your North Star, you might want to take up needlework. I hear it passes the time.
Similes lead to smiles. Please share examples of similes that captured your imagination below.
by Kathleen Watson (used with permission)
What’s wrong with this headline:
How to Setup a Marketing Campaign
to Capture More Leads
If you recognized setup as incorrect (it should be set up), good for you! You have a better sense of grammar than the person who wrote the headline.
When a verb such as set is used with a preposition such as up, it is called a phrasal verb: set up. Combining a verb with an adverb also creates a phrasal verb: cut back.
But when the elements of the phrasal verb are combined and expressed as one word, they create a noun: set up / setup | cut back / cutback | break down / breakdown.
Each of the following examples has two sentences. The first uses a phrasal verb (two words), and the second uses a noun — a single word created by a verb and a preposition. (Exception: cut in No. 4 is followed by the adverb back.)
Please arrive early to set up the room.
Setup should be done by 3 o’clock.
Guests must check out before 11 a.m.
Checkout is 11 a.m.
We had to clean up the pavilion after the picnic.
Cleanup didn’t begin until late afternoon.
We’re going to have to get more exercise and cut back on desserts.
If you want to lose weight, calorie cutback should be part of your plan.
Businesses that start up with too little capital often fail.
The startup required SBA financing.
You can sign up for the seminar in room 208.
Seminar signup ended last week.
I back up my computer daily.
Do you use the cloud for computer backup?
Please break down the price by material, labor and profit.
What kind of price breakdown did she provide?
He’s going to fall out of favor with his boss if he misses more work.
He got fired — the fallout of missing too much work.
If you can stand by for a later flight, you’ll get a free fare.
If you have a flexible schedule, flying standby can save you money.
When you take a shortcut and combine words, take care not to cut short the accuracy of your message.
Share these free Killer Tips with a friend or colleague who is striving to become a better writer and speaker.
Kathleen Watson is known as the ruthless editor who has just published an excellent grammar book that clears up questions that have been festering. Grammar for People Who Hate Rules: Killer Tips from The Ruthless Editor.
You can also request a One-Word-or-Two handout by emailing Barbara at editor@BarbaraMcNichol.com with One-Word-or-Two in subject line.
by Barbara McNichol
Let’s say you have to fill out a form online and you’re restricted to 100 words. You absolutely cannot add one more word. So you work it the best you can, but what can you search for in your quest to meet that magic number of words and whack wordiness at the same time?
Tag-ons and redundancies (.
A few examples of tag-ons:
- continue on
- ramble on
- refer back to
- open up
- cancel out
- follow on
- send out
- start out
- finish up
- grouped together
- add more
- still persist
- continue to remain
- plan ahead
- sum total (choose one)
With many redundancies (such as sum total), you’d use one or the other depending on the context, but not both.
Your challenge: Question every phrase you think may be redundant and test each of the words separately. Which works better in context?
Clutter is the disease of American writing. We are a society strangling in unnecessary words, circular constructions, pompous frills and meaningless jargon. – William Zinsser
For a reference list of redundant phrases, send an email request with Redundancies in the subject line.
What redundant phrases would you add? List them here.
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.
Editor’s Note: I came across this article about Mark Twain from http://grammar.about.com/od/advicefromthepros/a/TwainTips.htm. Based on what I see in my editing and teach in my WordShops, these principles still have merit more than a century after Twain lived.
by Richard Nordquist
Widely regarded as the greatest American writer of his time, Mark Twain (Samuel L. Clemens) was often asked for advice on the art and craft of writing. Sometimes the famous humorist would respond seriously and sometimes not.
Here, in remarks drawn from his letters, essays, novels, and speeches, are 10 of Twain’s most memorable observations on the writer’s craft.
- Get your facts first, and then you can distort them as much as you please.
- Use the right word, not its second cousin. (Ed. note: I call them Word Trippers.)
- As to the adjective: when in doubt, strike it out.
- You need not expect to get your book right the first time. Go to work and revamp or rewrite it. God only exhibits his thunder and lightning at intervals, and so they always command attention. These are God’s adjectives. You thunder and lightning too much; the reader ceases to get under the bed, by and by. (Ed. note: Pay attention to the spelling of lightning; it’s not lightening — a Word Tripper)
- Substitute damn every time you’re inclined to write very; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be. (Ed. note: I consider very to be the most overused word in our language. Be more descriptive! Give the reader more precise information!)
- Use good grammar. (Ed. note: And learn it correctly. With so much misuse these days, it’s hard to know what’s right for sure.)
- Damnation (if you will allow the expression), get up & take a turn around the block & let the sentiment blow off you.
- Use plain, simple language, short words and brief sentences. That is the way to write English–it is the modern way and the best way. Stick to it; don’t let fluff and flowers and verbosity creep in. (Ed. note: I call that whacking wordiness–an essential practice for good writing.)
- The time to begin writing an article is when you have finished it to your satisfaction. By that time you begin to clearly and logically perceive what it is that you really want to say.
- Write without pay until somebody offers pay. If nobody offers within three years, the candidate may look upon this circumstance with the most implicit confidence as the sign that sawing wood is what he was intended for. (Ed. note: It’s Twain’s way of saying to write better, write often.)
Which of Twain’s points resonate most with you? (I added a few of my own editorial comments!) Pick your top three and share them 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?
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.