Today I ran across another post that can help me improve my writing. Mistakes That Make You Look Bad was on the WritingThoughts site and I think it is going to be a valuable addition to what I do here. You, too, might want to consider using the tips in your writing.
This is what I do on Sundays–spend time looking at what other writers are doing or have done. This is the first time I’ve seen WritingThoughts and I was impressed. Laura Spencer is a freelance writer from North Central Texas with over 19 years of professional business writing experience. I think we can all learn from her solid experience.
Mistakes That Make You Look Bad discusses twenty common grammar errors that are easily fixable. I won’t mention all 20 (some are spelling errors, including misspelling your own name!), but I will include these:
Misplacing a decibel (which project would you rather take–the job paying $10.00 or the one paying $1000?)
Using a double negative. Not only unnecessary, they actually make your writing unclear.
Run-on sentences. She says that connecting a bunch of independent sentences with the word “and” stringing them into one long sentence is wrong. It is.
Using text messaging abbreviations. Unless you’re absolutely certain that the recipient knows that TTYL means Talk To You Later, it’s best not to use the abbreviation.
Using too many big words. She says that filling your messages with all of the four- and five-syllable words that you know isn’t the best way to show them what you know.
I agree with her that using these and the other mistakes really do make you look bad. Go take a look at all 20 of them on her site. You will, I think, become more aware of what you are writing and how the recipients will respond to you.
Sorry about the lack of recent posts here. A back injury kept me away from the computer for too long, but it had one unexpected, and welcome, outcome: lots of time to think about posts to write, including this one on proofreading.
To my writer’s mind, proofreading ranks right up there in importance with crafting compelling leads or marketing savvy, whether for a 150-word filler or a major article or book. My philosophy about proofreading is this: get all the help you can, from a responsible person or other reliable source, and try to make your work as nearly perfect as possible.
Over the years I’ve picked up some especially helpful tips from Internet sources like LR Communications Systems, Inc.; DailyWritingTips.com; Writing Consistently across Media; the Writer’s Handbook of the University of Wisconsin-Madison UW-Madison; About.Com Desktop Publishing; the University Writing Center at the University of Arkansas Little Rock (UWC); and The Online Writing Lab (OWL) at Purdue University.
Here are some of those tips:
1. Put it on paper and read it out loud. People read differently on screen and on paper, so print out a copy of your writing. If you read aloud, your ear might catch errors that your eye may have missed. (dailywritingtips.com)
2. Read through the entire document once to get an overall feel for content before you proofread for errors. (desktoppub.about.com)
3. Place a ruler (or a piece of paper) under each line as you read it. This will give your eyes a manageable amount of text to read. (UWC)
4. Don’t try to find every mistake in one pass. Read through the material several times, looking for different problems each time such, such as:
Typos and misspellings
Easily confused words (“to” for “too,” “your” for “you’re,” e.g.)
Missing words (Writing Consistently Across Media)
5. Use the search function of the computer to find mistakes you’re likely to make. Search for “its” and “it’s,” for “-ing” if dangling modifiers are problem for us; for opening parentheses or quote marks if you tend to leave out the closing ones. (UW -Madison)
6. Proof backwards. Begin at the end and work back through the paper, paragraph by paragraph, or even line by line. This will force you to look at the surface elements rather than the meaning of the paper. (UWC)
7. Proofread once aloud. This will slow you down and you will hear the difference between what you meant to write and what you actually wrote. (UWC)
8. Use the spell-checker on your computer, but use it carefully, and also do your own spell-checking. Computer spell-checkers often make errors — they might suggest a word that isn’t what you want at all, and they don’t know the difference between there, their, and they’re, for example. (UWC)
9. Remember that the apostrophe is never used to form plurals. (dailywritingtips.com)
10. Call phone numbers to verify them. If addition, subtraction, or other math operations appear in text, double check the figures. (desktoppub.about.com)
11. Check the numbers. Stating the value of an acquisition was $10,000 instead of $100,000 is definitely not the same thing. What about the population of China, is it 1,2 million or 1,2 billion? Make sure your numbers are correct. (dailywritingtips.com)
12. Closely review page numbers and other footer/header material for accuracy and correct order. (LR Communication Systems)
13. Read down columns in a table, even if you’re supposed to read across the table to use the information. Columns may be easier to deal with than rows. (LR Communication Systems)
15. Double check names. Check spelling of all names and company names. (desktoppub.about.com)
16. And finally this from (UWC) : Remember that it isn’t just about errors.
You want to polish your sentences at this point, making them smooth, interesting and clear. Watch for long sentences, since they may be less clear than shorter, more direct sentences. Pay attention to the rhythm of your writing; try to use sentences of varying length and patterns. Look for unnecessary phrases, repetition, and awkward spots.
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When I ran across a quote by Hilaire Belloc last night, it set me to thinking about what I write much of the time. Here’s the quote:
Writing itself is a bad enough trade, rightly held up to ridicule and contempt by the greater part of mankind, and especially by those who do real work, plowing, riding, sailing — or even walking about. It is a sound instinct in men to feel this distrust and contempt for writing; and as for writing about writing, why it is writing squared; it is writing to the second power, in which the original evil is concentrated… There is even, I am told, a third degree of horror. Writing about what other people have written about writing: “Lives of the Critics,” “Good English,” “Essays on Sainte Beuve” — things of that sort. Good Lord deliver us.”
While I hesitate to disagree with a writer of the stature of Hilaire Belloc (he has been described as “the man who wrote a library,” producing voluminous amounts poetry, books, essays, letters, pamphlets–filling over 150 volumes), nevertheless I do take an opposing view. I enjoy writing about what other people have written about writing, even if puts me into the third degree of horror category. I enjoy writing about what has been written before, even it’s not something newly written.
Here’s an example from The Basics of Writing for Magazines (published in November 1998 — proving that I never throw away good writing advice). In that publication, Jack Hart, a managing editor of the Oregonian and a nationally known writing coach, presented “25 Ways to Supercharge Your Manuscript.” Hart offered this advice about cutting the flab from your writing:
Paula LaRocque, writing coach at The Dallas Morning News, says anything that doesn’t add to a piece of writing takes away. Unnecessary words deflate impact by padding the active, precise vocabulary that carries core meaning.
Some flab invariably creeps into first drafts. So rewriting should focus on cutting anything superfluous. The simplest technique is still the best. Work your way through the draft, eliminating each word mentally. If you can remove a word in your imagination without doing great harm, remove it from the draft.”
Also consider the words of the late Paul Friggens, a former roving editor of Reader’s Digest who conducted seminars and workshops on writing at colleges around the country. Here he was writing about revisions and rewrites in The Complete Guide to Writing Non-Fiction:
Some, in fact, most serious writers go over their work with great care. They weigh every paragraph, every sentence, often every phrase with a view to improving their first, second, and subsequent drafts. Many would be surprised to learn that professionals revise and rewrite over and over to achieve the result they’re after. It’s easy when you’re just starting out to be so smitten with your precious prose that you’re blind to its abuse or misuse. And you’re so happy to have completed an article that little or no thought is given to such mundane matters as length and pace or even readability.”
Paying attention to advice like that may help me make my manuscripts more acceptable to editors. And if writing about it helps me, and other freelancers, profit from the advice and become more successful, it bothers me not a whit to be included in the third degree of horror category. It’s one reason this blog exists.
© 2008 by Laverne Daley
“If writing must be a precise form of communication, it should be treated like a precision instrument. It should be sharpened, and it should not be used carelessly.” Theodore M. Bernstein
In pursuit of precision, we offer here are a dozen word usages that sometimes trip us up. We often use them without realizing their precise meaning.
Demolish, destroy. You can’t partially destroy or demolish something. Demolish and destroy do away with completely. So there is no need to say something is totally destroyed.
Fliers, flyers. People who fly airplanes are fliers. Handbills are flyers.
Annual. It’s never the first annual anything. If something is happening for the first time, it can’t be annual yet. You can say you expect it to become an annual event. Use annual only for second and succeeding times.
Funeral service. The word service is redundant. A funeral is a service. (I know I was taught this in newswriting classes but I still have trouble remembering it, in writing and in speaking).
Imply, infer. A speaker implies. A hearer infers.
Over, more than. Over refers to spatial relationships (the plane flew over the city). Use more than with figures. More than 50,000 fans attended the game.
Reluctant, reticent. If we don’t want to do something, we’re reluctant to do it. If we don’t want to speak about it, we’re reticent to talk about it.
Temperatures. Temperatures may get higher or lower but they don’t get warmer or cooler. Temperatures may rise, but they don’t warm up. The day becomes warmer or the air becomes warmer as the temperature rises.
And while talking about temperatures, if you think you’re coming down with a cold and you feel warm, don’t say you’re running a temperature. You are not. You may be running a fever. Our bodies always have a temperature, usually around 98.6 degrees. If it’s above that number, you probably have a fever.
Unique. Unique means something is the only one of its kind. It can’t be very unique or more unique or most unique (all of which imply comparison with other objects). It’s either unique (one of a kind) or it’s not.
Drown. Don’t say someone was drowned unless another person held the victim’s head under water to accomplish the deed. Otherwise, just say someone drowned.
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The notion of grammar and humor first struck me when I was writing an earlier post (Precision in Writing – Is That Word Necessary?) in which I mentioned dangling participles.
Now I admit that grammar and humor are an unlikely pairing, but put a dangling participle into the mix and you might encounter a bit of humor — not enough for guffaws or chuckles, but maybe enough for a quiet smile when you recognize the humor that is there — although probably not intended by the writer.
In that earlier post, I included two dangling participles that Evan Marshall mentioned in his book, The Marshall Plan for Novel Writing (Leaving the village, the mountains glowed red in the sun) and (Opening the closet door, the cat sprang from the shadows), along with Marshall’s comment, “These statements give the mountains and the cat undue credit.”
Numerous dangling participles turned up when I went searching for more. Some were on college web sites, in instructors’ classnotes advising students how to avoid the danglers, in Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, and on blogs and web sites pointing out how they can cause serious misunderstandings.
“Running through the neighborhood last Saturday afternoon, his nose detected the delectable aroma of barbecued steak on someone’s backyard grill.” (College of Siskiyous)
“Rushing to finish the paper, Bob’s printer broke.” (Guide to Grammar and Style, Jack Lynch).
“Driving home in yesterday’s storm, a tree fell on the back of my car.” (www.papersbyjoantaber.blogspot.com)
“Hanging by their tails from the branches, the children watched the monkeys.” (College of Siskiyous)
“I saw the trailer peeking through the window.” (Elements of Style)
“The man with the bushy mustache carrying a briefcase went into the police station.” (www.associatedcontent.com)
“Walking home last night, a banana fell on my head.” (ScribblesandWords.com)
It’s easy to see how dangling participles can distort your meaning and leave your reader wondering what you’re trying to say. Readers may not actually believe that somebody’s nose was running through the neighborhood or that a tree was driving a car during last night’s storm, but those thoughts will certainly divert them from what you really are trying to say.
Consider the words of Angela Harms, editor of “Don’t Dangle Your Participle.” (www.WritersResources.com)
Even when dangling participles don’t cause confusion, and they aren’t silly, these critters should be avoided. They are stumbling blocks. Your readers may understand well enough, but they will have to pause, if for only a fraction of a second, while their brains process the strange construction.”
Whatever humor we may find in the dangling participles of other writers, we certainly don’t want editors and readers to find them in our own work. To fix a dangling participle, move the offending participle so it follows what it actually describes (The children watched the monkeys hanging by their tails from the branches) (While peeking through the window, I saw the trailer).
Dangling participles happen because the first part of a sentence and the clause that follows don’t belong together and don’t make sense. When editing your work, watch for sentences containing —ing and especially watch for sentences beginning with When —ing. Then zap those dangling participles before they give readers and editors the giggles.
Writing with precision means more than using the right words and avoiding the nearly right words in a sentence. Sometimes it means taking out redundant words or phrases.
In his book, The Marshall Plan for Novel Writing, Evan Marshall drives home that point in a section called “How to Be Your Own Editor.” The book was intended for fiction writers, it’s true, but the principles he advocates hold true also for those of us who write nonfiction. For readers to understand our message, we have to use the exact words needed — with no extraneous words getting in the way.
He illustrates that point in one short section on “Simplicity and Economy” by focusing on several common phrases where we might cut out redundancies like these: (comments following the phrases are mine)
Past history (remember all history is in the past)
The sky above. (Where else would it be?)
Continued on. (Continued means to go on.)
The ceiling/roof overhead. (Where else?)
Join together. (We cannot join apart.)
A little baby. (Most babies are little.)
A brief glance. (Every glance is brief.)
Tall skyscrapers. (That’s why they’re called skyscrapers.)
The end result. (Results are usually found at the end.)
In editing our own work, Marshall said we must scrutinize our writing to find and eliminate redundancies like these, but it’s better to choose our words so carefully that we don’t use them in the first place.
He also cautioned:
“Watch for introductory participles that don’t modify the subject of the sentence — an error that slips past many editors. ‘Leaving the village, the mountains glowed red in the sun’ ‘Opening the closet door, the cat sprang from the shadows.’ These statements give the mountains and the cat undue credit.”
Whatever our writing emphasis, when editing our own work it would profit us to follow Marshall’s advice: “Cast as cold an eye as possible on what you’ve created, recognize its strengths and weaknesses, and revise and edit to bring the manuscript to it full potential.”
Excellent advice for all of us.
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Like many others, I’ve picked up some bad writing habits over the years. Overwriting is my worst habit, putting more words on the page than readers need in order to understand what I’m writing about.
The sentences above are a bad example of circumlocution (I had to look this one up — it means using many words to express an idea that could be expressed using few). I could have written, “My worst habit is overwriting,” and ended there. And using the word circumlocution shows that I fail to use simple words, another bad habit.
I don’t fight my bad writing habits during the first draft of any article — I just try to get the basic idea down no matter how many words it takes or how involved the words are. I don’t limit the writing in any way. But for second and succeeding drafts, I work hard to make the writing lean and clean. That means cutting the clutter.
Some years ago when I was a staff writer and general flunky with a business newspaper, I was asked to make deep cuts in a long article submitted by a freelancer. Just by taking out every unneeded word and phrase, I was able to whittle the piece down by over 500 words. The gist of the article remained the same and the writer’s style came across very well despite the cuts. With fewer words, it was a much better article.
That chore taught me the value of removing unneeded words, phrases and sentences (and sometimes whole paragraphs) from my own writing. I’m sure I don’t always succeed as much as I should, but the goal of cutting the clutter always remains the same.
Cutting the clutter means heeding the words of William Strunk, Jr., in The Elements of Style:
A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.”
Now that’s clutter-free writing.
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