Simple, clear help for your writing problems

This blog is about writing problems. More specifically, it’s about helping people to fix their writing problems. To that end, it presents writing-related topics including:

  • Grammatical writing problems: recognize and fix grammatical errors
  • Stylistic writing problems: make your writing clear and effective
  • Word-use writing problems: cut down on confusing jargon, and stop using the wrong words
  • Punctuation problems: learn how to use punctuation correctly.
  • Social networking writing problems: resist the debilitating influences Web 2.0 has on writers

Grammar-related Writing Problems

No Grammar-Speak Allowed

Many of us learned grammar in school. We diagrammed sentences, identified types of words and phrases, learned about tenses and how to conjugate verbs, and we used such terms as transitive, intransitive, adjective, adverb, participle, gerund, possessive, plural, contraction, subjunctive, fragment, preposition, and infinitive. Grammarians need to use those words (I call it grammar-speak); writers don’t.

Grammar-speak is the jargon of writing elitists. Sure, you can learn grammar-speak and use it to explain the rules of grammar, but you don’t need to. It’s possible to write engaging, flawless prose without knowing a single word of grammar-speak.

One mission of Writing Problems Explained is to teach the rules of grammar without resorting to the jargon of grammarians. On this web site, we discuss writing problems in jargon-free English, and explore strategies you can use to overcome the problems.

Here’s a crazy notion: I believe that most people who create internet content have good grammar. Unfortunately, many do not use good grammar in their web content. If you feel challenged by the rules of grammar, you know what I mean: When you’re having a conversation, most of what you say out loud is grammatically correct. For some reason, when you write, grammatical errors arise. Writing Problems Explained will help you overcome this common difficulty.

Stylistic Writing Problems

Most people who create internet content recognize good writing style. In fact, they produce a lot of well-structured sentences every day. Unfortunately for some, those sentences come out only in conversation. When it’s time to record thoughts for a blog, a wiki entry, advertising copy, or other web content, the words come out wrong. Writing Problems Explained will help you develop a relaxed, conversational writing style.

Word-Use Writing Problems

Even the best writers stumble over words. Some challenges arise from the similarities between words. For example, does the sentence you’re writing require the word there, their, or they’re? Other word-use challenges arise from your environment: if you constantly hear people misuse or abuse words, you might accidentally make the same mistakes. Writing Problems Explained helps you learn to make good word choices.

Problems with Punctuation

When we speak, we punctuate without thought. But it can be challenging to translate spoken pauses into written punctuation—particularly when there may be more than one acceptable way to punctuate a sentence. Writing Problems Explained helps you punctuate for clarity.

Social Networking Writing Problems

Web 2.0 is a remarkable experiment. It intends to let internet users, through the process of social networking, identify and promote the best web sites and web content. The dynamics that create successful writers within social networks actually encourage bad writing. Writing Problems Explained highlights the ways social networking can degrade the quality of your writing and helps keep you off of the slippery slope.

Visit Often. Ask Questions

I want Writing Problems Explained to become one of the most useful web sites you visit. Please help: Let me know when my posts or articles are useful to you. Tell me when you don’t agree with what I’ve said. Ask questions. I’m looking forward to a long, and spirited conversation about writing problems.

Here are links to other articles with encouragement to fix your writing problems:

  • 225 Ways To Drive Traffic Away From Your Blog – Lately, I’ve been trying to improve my blog traffic and increase the number of subscribers to my RSS feed. I’ve done all sorts of things like networking over MyBlogLog, digging my own posts, and writing catchy headlines. …

  • finding the right words – cash advance. good copywriting requires knowing the right words. but what are the right words, and how do you find them? there are three main factors. know your audience, don’t use the same words repeatedly, and understand the feelings …

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Perhaps you’ve heard of Cooks Source Magazine? Apparently, for some time they have had severe writing problems. In fact, Cooks Source Magazine’s writing problems are simply not forgivable.

Monica Gaudio Goes Viral

In case you haven’t heard, Cooks Source Magazine published an article lifted from Monica Gaudio’s web site. They never contacted Monica to ask permission, they didn’t offer remuneration, they simply published the article.

Monica found out about it when a friend congratulated her for being published. She contacted the magazine to inquire about how this could happen, and she eventually received a condescending reply suggesting several crazy notions:

  1. Monica should be grateful to have been published
  2. Monica is in debt to Cooks Source Magazine for the fine editing services they provided.
  3. Everything on the Internet is free to use in any way that anyone pleases; it is all in the public domain.

Monica reported this idiocy in a LiveJournal blog post titled Copyright Infringement and Me. The response has been cataclysmic for Cooks Source Magazine.

The Price for Stealing

Cooks Source Magazine’s Facebook page has been under siege by angry netizens who have left comments ranging from scolding to flaming. For most of the day after the story broke, the Cooks Source website was unavailable and Google listings for Cooks Source ranked national news sources reporting the scandal higher than the actual Cooks Source website.

The editor of Cooks Source apologized, which may weigh in sentencing after her trial. It seems unlikely any amount of apologizing will smooth things over—turns out Cooks Source stole and published material from many sources, and there will undoubtedly be lawsuits that Cooks Source can’t possibly win.

Lesson of the Day

And my point? If you’re going to have problems with your writing, choose wisely. Sprinkle in some typos, make some silly spelling errors, use words that don’t mean what you think they do, mangle grammar, but please don’t steal material from others.

If you don’t know whether the material you’re thinking of copying is in the public domain; if you don’t know whether someone holds a copyright for it; assume that it’s not up for grabs! You can write about it. You can quote from it with attribution. And, perhaps best of all if you’re publishing online, you can embed a link to it so people can click through and read it for themselves.

Really, if you steal and publish other people’s articles, we shouldn’t be talking about writing problems. We should be talking about problems with your character and with your understanding of intellectual property law.

Please visit all or some of the following websites to read more about Cooks Source’s inexcusable transgression:

Lift a Blogger’s Post? But Honestly, Cook’s Source, You Can’t Do That

The Cooks Source Scandal: How a Magazine Profits on Theft

Cooks Source Magazine Oddly Not Media-Savvy

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Writing problems or speaking problems? It’s not always clear when you hear annoying errors or useless catch phrases repeated throughout a speech. My case in point: At this time. I heard the phrase at least a dozen times at a presentation I attended recently:

At this time, would everybody please stand?

At this time we honor our star…

At this time, would all students please be seated.

At this time, I would like to thank Bill for…

Bad writing? I don’t know. I hope the person who wrote the cue cards for the speaker didn’t start every sentence with At this time I’d like to attend a presentation where the writers wrote:

Please stand.

We honor our star…

Students, please sit down.

Bill, thank you for…

Just Do It

There’s a peeve I’ve had for decades and I would like to explain it now. I disdain the arbitrary use of the expression I would like to… Did you notice it in the first sentence of this paragraph? It serves no purpose. The paragraph would make as much sense if it began: There’s a peeve I’ve had for decades: I disdain the arbitrary use of the expression…

You hear this useless catch phrase whenever someone expresses thanks in public:

I would like to thank the Academy…

I would like to express my deepest appreciation for your kindness…

Interpreted literally, these phrases express desire, but fail to deliver a “thank you.” The speaker wants to express deepest appreciation, so… the speaker should JUST DO IT:

I thank the Academy…

I deeply appreciate your kindness…

When you write a speech, don’t fill it with meaningless phrases. If you work closely with whoever will deliver the speeches you write, point out the absence of these pointless phrases and encourage the speaker to stick to the script.

 

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Many people see vocabulary as one of their top writing problems. If you’re such a person, you may work with a thesaurus open, ready to dig out the perfect word to make a point or complete a description. Here’s a surprising truth: most vocabulary-related writing problems arise from over-inflated vocabularies rather than from light vocabularies.

For Whom are you Writing?

Most readers won’t notice when your writing contains only small, simple words. In fact, they’ll read quickly and understand you easily. However, when you toss in a lollapalooza (a very unusual word), many readers stumble. If knowing the meaning of that lollapalooza is necessary to understand the sentence, paragraph, or article, you could immediately lose readers who don’t know the word. Using many lollapaloozas in a single article could make the article unreadable.

Some disciplines, among them academia, medicine, and law, have come to equate big honking words with prestige. If you’re writing for people in these disciplines, you may need a big vocabulary to be taken seriously. But for most writing your goal should be to include and inform rather than to feed the egos of exclusive cliques. In other words: put away the thesaurus.

Simple is Better

I worked for several years as an editor at a magazine for computer enthusiasts. We saw our audience as middle and upper managers who relied heavily on desktop software. Still, we strove to produce articles that were no more sophisticated than what an eighth grader might produce.

That should be your goal: write well, but write simply. Don’t deliberately use big words because they seem authoritative or sophisticated. Don’t go in search of big words when you already know smaller ones that will do the job. When your readers have to work hard to understand your words, they may completely miss your message.

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I read an article recently about Justin Timberlake’s golf course. The article explained that Mr Timberlake had played the first round at a golf course he had bought and rennovated. The article went on to say: The Memphis native got the idea to buy the course from his dad in 2007.

Do you see any problems with the statement?

The Problem: Did Mr Timberlake buy the course from his dad? Or, did Mr Timberlake get the idea from his dad? The statement allows either interpretation. Most readers will figure this out, but you should never ask them to work that hard.

The Fix: Rearrange the sentence and it becomes:

The Memphis native got the idea from his dad to buy the course in 2007.

Alternatively, the sentence could read:

The Memphis native got the idea from his dad in 2007 to buy the course.

Can you avoid such writing problems?

There’s no easy trick for eliminating these types of writing problems. Perhaps the simplest defense against them is to read your work carefully… twice… out loud. If there is any ambiguity in meaning, rewrite the sentence to remove the ambiguity.

This sentence fails because it introduces Justin doing two things: getting the idea, and buying the golf course. It identifies only one party with whom Justin might have been involved. That should get you asking: which of Justin’s actions actually involved his dad? If it’s not difficult to interpret the sentence either way, assume that there is something wrong and rewrite to fix it.

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Here’s a sentence written by someone with writing problems. I found it in a report about broadband connectivity. Can you see a problem?

Our employees pop an AT&T card into their laptop computers, and they have instant connectivity.

The Problem There are two problems, though one is minor; I wouldn’t fix it.

Problem #1 The sentence is careless about quantity. It talks about many: Our employees getting instant connectivity with their computers. However, all those employees have only one AT&T card.

Solution #1 Employees need cards, not a card. The sentence should read as follows:

Our employees pop AT&T cards into their laptop computers…

Problem #2 By its end, the sentence is talking about employees and laptops. So, the statement they have instant connectivity is unclear. Do the employees or the laptops have connectivity?

Fortunately, it would be acceptable to say that the employees had instant connectivity or that the laptops had it… so it’s OK to let the ambiguity stand.

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Bad Writing: To Lean More

Here’s a sentence written by someone who has writing problems. I read it recently in an advertisement. Do you see anything wrong with it?

To learn more about the program, we’ve set up a web site at www.website.com.

The problem: The sentence tells you that the advertiser learned more about a program by setting up a web site. It seems likely that the advertiser intended for readers to learn more. The sentence should either mention that readers can learn more from the web site, or it should explain the real reason the advertiser built the web site.

The solution: Here are some alternative statements that deliver on the advertiser’s intent:

To learn more about the program, visit our website at www.website.com.

To provide more information about the program, we’ve set up a web site at www.website.com.

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Writing Problems Heard Lately

I’ve attended a few programs lately where people have delivered prepared speeches. Sadly, several of those speeches have suffered from distracting writing problems. People asked to speak extemporaneously often stammer incomprehensible nonsense, but that’s easy to forgive: it’s hard to think on your feet in front of a crowd. On the other hand, when you deliver a speech that you wrote in advance, there is no excuse for being incoherent. Don’t let your writing problems ruin your speeches.

In Addition…

In one program I attended, a speaker was describing accomplishments of an honoree. After listing two or three accomplishments, the speaker used the following transition: In addition, he also performs in…

The statement contains redundant words. The speaker should have said, In addition, he performs… or, He also performs in…

Are You Married to Your Spouse?

How often have you heard a declaration similar to this? I’m Susie and I’m married to my husband Jim. Oh! My! Goodness! I’m Susie, and my husband’s name is Jim. How hard was that? If you don’t like it, try, I’m Susie, and I’m married to Jim. Please trust you listeners to figure out that you’re married to your husband! Last time I checked, that was part of the definition of being married… or of being a husband.

 

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I’m convinced that the greatest of all writing problems is laziness. People simply don’t listen to the words they write, and they publish nonsense. Worse, people hear bad writing, and indiscriminately repeat it in their own projects. This exposes more people to the bad writing, and some of them repeat it, and so on. Eventually, the writing problems of the original hack writer become writing problems of us all.

If You Want to know More

I’ve heard this awkward announcement hundreds of times: More information is available by calling this toll-free number…

Radio newscasters often end public service announcements with such a sentence. They shouldn’t. The sentence is nonsense. It begins by telling us More information is available by calling… This is weird. Who or what is calling? The information certainly isn’t calling. Information can be available from a source, at a source, through a source… but not by an action.

By the same token, you can get information by carrying out an action: by reading, by listening, by asking, by making a phone call…

Write a Real Sentence

Here are four grammatically correct expressions that convey the desired message:

Get more information by calling this toll-free number…

To get more information, dial this toll-free number…

More information is available. Get it by calling this toll-free number…

Call this toll-free number to get more information…

As easy as it was to think of these, it awes me that so many people so often spew the nonsensical More information is available by calling… Don’t be one of those people.

 

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Axe Your Rhyming Verse

One of the most embarrassing writing problems afflicting the Internet is that of rhyming verse. Most skilled content-creators are bad at writing verse that rhymes, and too many of them seem to want to prove it to the world.

Please, people: We don’t need another poem following the rhyme and meter of The Night Before Christmas or Casey At The Bat. These truly great poems have achieved legendary status. Any story you clothe in their garments is going to leave a stain. Your story won’t become a classic just because you labor to make it resemble one.

How Good is Your Verse? Really?

Judging the quality of your own rhyming verse may be as challenging as it is to judge the quality of your own singing. Watch early auditions for the TV show American Idol to understand what I’m saying: Even when judged poorly, contestants of American Idol vow that their singing talents will take them to the top.

Very few people write good verse, and of those who write verse at all, most don’t seem to realize they do it badly. When you publish your own rhyming verse on the Internet, you’re probably suffering from the same delusion.

How to Rhyme Badly

When you write with rhyme and meter, you impose harsh rules. It can be very challenging to make rhyming words fall at the ends of lines. Equally challenging is to write lines that say what you want using exactly the right number of beats.

Good rhyming verse achieves both objectives without apparent effort. When you read great verse, every line is conversationally natural, and you relax comfortably into the rhythm. Here’s what makes most rhyming verse bad:

Inverted Syntax

Syntax seems not to matter to a hack writer wanting to make a rhyme. Rather than write a line as a normal human would say it, the hack writer twists things around so a specific rhyming word falls at the end of the line:

Poems about horses,
In books they abound,
If this were a song,
It could be a round.

Did you spot the problem? In 1,000 hours of TV talk show interviews, you’ll never hear someone say, In books they abound (unless someone reads this stanza out loud). As soon as you invert the syntax of just one line of your verse to make a rhyme, you’ve achieved bad. Share it with friends and family, if you like, but please don’t publish it on the Internet.

Uncommon Words

A writer desperate to make a rhyme may resort to using an uncommon word. The preceding example highlights such an error: How often do you hear the word abound in conversation?

Rhyming dictionaries help find perfect words to rhyme with lines you’ve already written. But before you commit to a word, consider how often you hear it in conversation. Is abound a good choice? Come on!

Filler Words

Rhyming isn’t the only challenge in creating verse; meter also throws the hack poet. One crisis of meter arises when you’ve devised a nearly perfect stanza, but just one line is off by half a beat. What do you do? You add filler:

Sally Anne Wilcox’s aunt felt the same,
When she spotted the sheep so green she became.

Yes, the verse contains more, painfully-inverted syntax. It also contains the phrase, so green she became. The author meant, she became jealous. To accommodate the verse’s meter, the author wrote, she became so jealous, which may imply greater jealousy than Sally Anne Wilcox actually felt.

This example seems like a minor transgression, but such verse-filling devices are prevalent. Use them, and you associate your poem with all the other bad verse on the Internet. Here’s another example:

Squirrels and bears come running to our car,
For yummy snacks, they’ll travel very far,

Half of the second line of this stanza is filler; the point is that squirrels and bears come to the car for yummy snacks. Mentioning how far they travel serves only to make a rhyme; it’s awkward and a bit silly.

Forcing the Rhythm

Sometimes a sentence you have in mind won’t fit into the meter you’ve selected for your rhyming verse. Still, with a little tweaking, you manage to make it work. Never mind that the line has six more syllables than any other line in the stanza. When you read it, it sounds right.

What you don’t realize is that someone else reading the poem will stumble over those syllables. They’ll read the line once awkwardly and then reread it, adjusting where they place emphasis until they discover why you thought the line belonged in the stanza:

Poems about horses,
In books they abound,
If this were a song,
You might just sing it as a round.

Can You Fix Such Writing Problems?

Most rhymed verse is bad because people who write it get lazy. It’s a lot of work to stick to a rhyme scheme and meter without giving in to temptations that result in lousy verse. The reason some rhymed verse achieves legendary status is because its authors edited and re-edited and edited again until each stanza flowed naturally. If you’re not willing to do that much work, stick to prose. Don’t inflict bad verse on the Internet.

Here’s a ditty I knocked together to make the point:

Rhymed verse, he knew, to write he shouldn’t,
Because producing good rhymed verse he knew he probably wouldn’t.

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