Simple, clear help for your writing problems

Archives for January, 2009

Nonsense Expressions

Here’s a quick look at some silly writing problems. There are many phrases that people abuse in both conversation and in writing. Maybe you use these phrases in your writing. If you do, stop! When you use them, you sound stupid to some readers, you lose credibility, and you may drive people away. When you don’t use these phrases, no one misses them.

Gather Together

Do you say gather together? For example:Gather everyone together in conference room B.” Sounds familiar, no? I defy you to explain: how can you gather anything other than together? The statement Gather everyone in conference room B is clear. Get everyone together is also clear. Gather everyone together is redundant. Stop saying it.

Connect Together

Because it’s so similar to gather together, You’ve probably already seen the silliness in this expression: Use the striped cable to connect the devices together. You can’t connect the devices apart… so don’t waste the word together. Say Use the striped cable to connect the devices.

Close Proximity

This phrase must have arisen one day when someone wanted to sound authoritative: We have determined that the perpetrator lives in close proximity to the shopping district. The word proximity means closeness, so that authoritative genius actually said, We have determined that the perpetrator lives in close closeness to the shopping district. The sentence is silly and it’s needlessly stuffy; I’d rewrite it to say The perpetrator lives near the shopping district. If you never again use the word proximity, your writing will be better for it. But if you must use proximity, never use it in the phrase close proximity.

Successfully Complete

Consider the meaning of this statement: Larry Ainge successfully completed the tasks we assigned him. If Larry completed the tasks, then he must have been successful. Can you claim that Larry unsuccessfully completed a task? Logically, if he was unsuccessful, he didn’t complete it. Simplify your writing. Larry completed the tasks we assigned him. Or, Larry succeeded with the tasks we assigned him.

Could Care Less

Please eliminate this expression from your writing and your speech. If you mean that you don’t care even a little bit, then you couldn’t care less. The statement I could care less clearly means that you care—and it provides little sense of how much. When you say I could care less, you sound ignorant—as though you don’t know how meaningless the expression is; people might assume the ignorance extends to other topics besides how much you care.

Have You Done This Before?

When you ask someone, Have you seen this movie before? you’re encouraging them to wonder: When else could I have seen the movie? If you saw the movie, you saw it before. Toss before from sentences that already say it: Have you seen this movie? or I’ve never been here.

Compare with Each Other

Here’s a sentence that sounds innocent—and it’s even forgivable: Compare the two financial plans with each other. Were you to say Compare the two financial plans, nearly every reader would understand they should compare the plans to each other. The statement introduces risk that a rare individual might wonder: Compare the plans with what? That’s a risk you should take to improve your writing.

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I rank confusion with the words I and me among the most inexcusable writing problems. Do you have this problem? Are you aware whether you have it? Even very unskilled writers recognize misuse of these words, and you lose credibility quickly (or at least you annoy your readers) when you pick the wrong words.

I’ve never met someone who chooses incorrectly when speaking about only one person. For example, no one accidentally says—or writes—Me am going to the zoo or Please give that to I. However, many writers get confused when two or more people creep into the conversation.

You and Me Can Fix our Writing Problems

That subhead refers to two people: You and Me. Its flaw is obvious. It should read, You and I can fix our writing problems. It’s obvious because you can easily chop off the phrase You and and read the rest of the sentence as if it referred only to you: Me can fix my writing problems. Gibberish.

The example reveals a simple strategy: When you refer to yourself along with one or more other people, cut the other people out of the sentence and decide whether it sounds right. If you can’t make it sound right with I, substitute me and vice-versa. When you find the correct word, put the other person or people back into the sentence. Here are some more examples:

Me and the programmers…

Me and the programmers design all the interfaces for our software systems.

Remove and the programmers from the sentence and you get:

Me design all the interfaces for our software systems.

It’s nonsense; the correct word choice is I as in the following sentence:

I and the programmers design all the interfaces for our software systems.

Janet and I…

He ripped seven pages out of a book that belongs to Janet and I.

Remove Janet from the sentence and it reads:

He ripped seven pages out of a book that belongs to I.

The correct word is me; the sentence should read:

He ripped seven pages out of a book that belongs to Janet and me.

Practice to Reduce your Writing Problems

Here are some sentences for you to evaluate. I’ve used underlines in place of the key words. You decide: should each blank contain the word I or me?

  1. My husband and ___ were very upset by the condition of the flowers.
  2. The condition of the flowers really upset my husband and ___.
  3. ___ and my dog are going for a walk.
  4. The presentation was just perfect for the commissioner and ___.
  5. The commissioner and ___ felt that the presentation was perfect!

If these gave you trouble, review and practice. Whenever you use I or me in a sentence, do this:

  • Break the sentence down so it’s talking about you and you alone.
  • Decide whether I or me works in the reduced sentence.
  • Rebuild the sentence to include whoever else is supposed to be in it.

Here are the correct words for the blanks in the practice sentences above:

  1. I
  2. me
  3. I
  4. me
  5. I

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Is verbosity among your writing problems? It may be, and you don’t even know it. Why? Because conversation is usually loaded with unnecessary words… and writers typically create “conversational” prose. (If your prose doesn’t sound conversational, visit Writing Problems Explained often; we’ll keep working on it.)

Verbosity means wordiness. Wordy writing is bad writing. A reader faced with too many words may give up. The Internet reinforces this: if the point you’re making doesn’t fit on one screen, you may lose your reader; scrolling is too much trouble.

Edit for Brevity

Good writers and even very bad editors focus on brevity. One goal of a magazine or newspaper editor is to cut as much from an article as possible without losing the story’s meaning or the author’s voice. A succinct writer decreases the editor’s workload and sees fewer changes from final draft to published copy.

When you create web content, cut your own words. Be brutal: chop the chaff from every sentence. Chuck sentences—and even paragraphs—that don’t contribute to your main point. Here are some strategies to help:

Don’t Be Chatty

Unless you’ve written fiction or a journal entry, get to the point. Comments about your dog or your niece add character, but inject too many of them and you’ll distract your readers to annoyance.

Don’t Try to Sound Authoritative

Most people trying to sound authoritative sound stiff; they say too much and they load what they say with big words. Consider the spokesperson for a police investigation:

“We have absolutely no information at this time, but we’ll make a formal announcement the moment there’s a change in the situation.”

Without the swagger, the spokesperson might have said:

“We don’t know, but we’ll tell you when we do.”

Sound authoritative by being authoritative, but don’t try to sound authoritative.

Scrutinize Your Wording

As you write a sentence, ask yourself: “Can I say this more efficiently?” Here are examples of changes I made as I wrote this article:

I wrote: A goal of a magazine or newspaper editor reworking an article is to cut out as much text as possible without losing the meaning of the story or the voice of the author.

And edited to: One goal of a magazine or newspaper editor is to cut as much from an article as possible without losing the story’s meaning or the author’s voice.

I wrote: Of course, when you create web content, if falls to you to cut your own words.

And edited to: When you create web content, cut your own words.

I wrote: You add character by throwing in comments about your dog or your niece, but…

And edited to: Comments about your dog or your niece add character, but…

I wrote: Here are examples of changes I made on-the-fly as I wrote sentences in earlier paragraphs of this article:

And edited to: Here are examples of changes I made as I wrote this article:

Do your readers the favor of editing your work before you make it public on the web.

Eliminate Common Verbosity

There may be hundreds of popular turns-of-phrase that employ unnecessary words. You probably use them in conversation and in your writing. Here are examples:

Allows you tonever say this. Replace it with Lets you.

Now and Currently—very overused words. In the opening of the movie It’s a Wonderful Life, you can see the folly of the word now on a sign that reads You are now in Bedford Falls. A sign reading, You are in Bedford Falls would be just as clear, and would cost less to make. A meteorologist who announces that the temperature is currently 72 degrees, wastes three syllables. You’d understand perfectly the announcement, The temperature is 72 degrees.

Absolutely certain—unnecessary overstatement. If you’re certain, then your knowledge is absolute; you can’t be more certain than certain.

At this time or At this point or the nauseating At this point in timestop using these phrases! Instead, use the word now. It’s a good word.

Practice to Reduce Writing Problems

Here are several verbose phrases that I lifted from various blogs. Rewrite them using fewer words. My rewrites follow the list:

  1. Take into consideration that…
  2. If you think that having bluebirds in your yard is a near-impossible idea…
  3. If you want to save on time…
  4. This is over and above other ideas you might consider…
  5. You may want to put a gasket…
  6. As it stands right now…
  7. Overall, the ultimate goal of Jack Plunket’s art is to show the world from the point of view that Plunket’s dog saw it.

My rewrites:

  1. Consider that…
  2. If you think you can’t have bluebirds in your yard…
  3. To save time… (Also: Save time by…)
  4. Also consider…
  5. Put a gasket…
  6. As it stands…
  7. Jack Plunket’s art shows the world from his dog’s point of view.

Keep practicing. Be vigilant. Verbosity should not be one of your writing problems.

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Every web content creator has writing problems. What separates good content from mediocre content is the writer who catches and fixes errors before committing the content to the web. In my last post, I explained a myriad of writing problems you can eliminate simply by reading an article before you post it. This post suggests five strategies you can employ to reduce the number of writing problems that plague your writing in the first place.

1: Use a Real Word Processor

So many on-line services provide text-entry capabilities through which you enter material: blog posts, articles, even comments about others’ posts. Don’t write web content in these web-based text-entry facilities; use a full-featured word processor.

Why? A word processor is chock full of cool features to help you produce top-notch material. Microsoft Word, for example, automatically identifies every word it doesn’t recognize. Usually, these are words you’ve misspelled. If you right-click on a highlighted word, the software suggests replacements. Most times, the list includes the word you meant to type, but spelled correctly.

Here are a few other reasons to write your web content in a word processor:

  • Many on-line posting systems lack the ability to save your work-in-progress; you must commit your work to the web to save it—a real pain if you get interrupted and want to finish a project later.
  • Sometimes you lose your internet connection. If this happens when you’re creating a post through a web-based editor, you may lose the entire entry.
  • On-line editors rarely (if ever) have grammar-checking capabilities. Robust word processors do. Again, Microsoft Word flags grammatical problems with your writing and suggests fixes when you right-click on highlighted phrases.
  • Full-featured word processors may have auto-correction and auto-completion features. These recognize common writing problems and fix them as you type. It’s pretty cool to see transposed characters jump into their correct places, and commonly misspelled words suddenly appear where a typo landed moments earlier.

So, use a real word processor, exploit its error-correcting capabilities and save often to your local hard drive. Copy your article to the web all-at-once only after you’ve written it, edited it, and read it!

2. Don’t trust grammar-checking software.

Often, a grammar-checker highlights things that may be problems… but the software doesn’t really know! Consider: If you use the word lets in a sentence, Microsoft Word’s grammar-checker will tell you that the correct word could be let’s—even when lets is, in fact, correct. So, consider what your grammar-checker tells you, but don’t get hung up on it; often you’re right and it’s only guessing.

3. Fact-check as you write.

Sure, you know your subject matter, but do you really know every fact you’re citing to make your point? Depending on my topic, I average two facts per article that I confirm through on-line research. It takes longer to write the article, but every factual error I publish diminishes my authority; I deserve to lose readers if I continually publish untruths… so I check things even when I’m confident they’re correct.

4. Reread your article after you make changes to it.

The whole point of reading your own article is to find and eliminate your writing problems. The very act of fixing a problem can introduce new problems. So, always read your article again after you make changes to it.

5. Here’s a killer: Reread your article after you publish it on the internet.

I’m not kidding. Usually, when moving an article from my word processor to my publishing platform on the web, I make some changes. I might add words to fill out lines, toss in some HTML for emphasis, or rearrange sections to accommodate illustrations or other elements. Even if I do none of these things, I reread my freshly-published articles. Writing problems I didn’t notice in the original copy sometimes jump out at me when I see an article on line. Go figure!

Here are some other articles to encourage you to read your work before you publish it:

  • Fear the publish button – I obviously want each and everyone of you to be better bloggers by reading this blog and for that I want you to think twice before pressing that evil publish button. Too many bloggers just press the publish button without even reading …

  • Ads That Suck » Even the big guys forget to proofread – Updated whenever it tickles my fancy to do so. I see typos in ads quite often, but they’re usually the little mom-and-pop, I-got-my-nephew-to-do-it sort of ads in the back of one of the many free daily newspapers in the city. But, every once in a while, even a major agency with a major client can make a stupid mistake.

  • Five Proofreading Tips That You Can Use Right Now By Yourself – Five Proofreading Tips That You Can Use Right Now By Yourself. February 23rd, 2007 · 14 Comments. I always chuckle to myself when I see the blog posts and forum posts to freelance writers recommending that they have someone else …

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