Simple, clear help for your writing problems

Archives for March, 2009

There is a syndicated radio show on which the host, the producers, the writers, and all their friends have writing problems. It’s disturbing. This show has been advertising itself for months with a commercial that includes the following lead:

All successful businesses start out as an idea or a dream. It’s unfathomable that an entire production crew can overlook such a blatant error.

One or Many: Get it Right

The commercial’s lead suffers from a common error: it begins by talking about many things as a group, but finishes by telling you what only one thing is doing. The phrase, All successful businesses establishes that we’re talking about a group of businesses. But the conclusion, start out as an idea or a dream tells us the businesses start as only one idea or one dream.

Here are alternative sentences the radio show should consider to use as leads in their advertisement:

  • Each successful business starts as an idea or a dream.
  • A successful business starts as an idea or a dream.
  • All successful businesses start as ideas or dreams.
  • Every successful business starts as an idea or a dream.

I prefer the second, though all four follow the rules of grammar: If a sentence is about individuals, then the action must be of an individual. If a sentence is about a group, then the action needs to be of a group.

What’s the Difference?

If this distinction is challenging, here are steps to help:

1. Figure out what thing the sentence is talking about. The original sentence talks about successful businesses.

2. Decide: is the sentence about individuals or a group? Successful businesses refers to a group—as opposed to a successful business which refers to an individual.

3. Make the rest of the sentence agree. Successful businesses must start out as ideas or dreams.

Many businesses: ideas or dreams. One business: an idea or a dream.

Run my fourth alternative sentence through these steps:

1. What thing is the sentence about? It’s about successful business.

2. Is the sentence about one thing or many things? This one is tricky. The phrase Every successful business refers to many businesses, but as individuals. How can you tell? Here’s one way: if you were writing a sentence, would the next word be is or are? As in, …every successful business is When the right word is is, the whole sentence must talk about one thing. When the correct word is are, the rest of the sentence must talk about many things.

3. The rest of alternative sentence #4 agrees: a business starts out as an idea or a dream.

Practice Reduces Writing Problems

Review the following sentences to help get a grip on this challenging problem. Identify the incorrect sentences, and come up with at least one viable alternative:

  1. All pastry chefs know how to make a napoleon.
  2. Each dog will scratch where they itch.
  3. Does every sentence here have a flaw in it?
  4. Bill was upset when he learned that every dessert had peanuts in them.

Here’s how I’d call these:

1. Wrong. I’d go with any of these alternatives:

  • All pastry chefs know how to make napoleons.
  • Every pastry chef knows how to make a napoleon.
  • Every pastry chef knows how to make napoleons.

2. Wrong. Try these:

  • Each dog will scratch where it itches.
  • A dog will scratch where it itches.
  • Every dog will scratch where it itches.
  • All dogs will scratch where they itch.

3. The sentence is acceptable.

4. Wrong. Here are some alternatives:

  • Bill was upset when he learned that every dessert had peanuts in it.
  • Bill was upset when he learned that all the desserts had peanuts in them.
  • Bill was upset when he learned that each dessert had peanuts in it.

 

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Be Clear About Who is Who

There’s a class of writing problems that are very subtle. They arise when you lose track of the person about whom you’re writing. Simple statements become, at best, silly, and at worst, gibberish when you make this type of writing error.

A classic example of these writing problems has been running in a television advertisement lately. The announcer says something like, Do you have a problem with intangible digiplasitosis? Talk to your doctor. I did. It’s pretty clear what the announcer meant, but what the announcer said is that she talked with my doctor: Talk to your doctor. I did.

Keep Track of Who’s Who

I hope the announcer never talked with my doctor. She could reassure me by suggesting: Talk to your doctor. I talked to mine. Her mistake was that she started talking about my doctor, then switched to talking about hers without telling me about that switch.

You’ve probably heard someone at least as confused expressing concern for you or others. People say such things as: As your boss, tell me what you need so I can get it for you, or the much more subtly incorrect, As your friend, let me help you with your writing problems.

Consider the first example. We’ll assume the person talking is the boss, so saying As your boss, starts the sentence talking about the boss. But the phrase, …tell me what you need… isn’t about the boss; it’s about you. Putting the two phrases together, the sentence begins by establishing you as your own boss: As your boss, you tell me what you need…

The boss should have said, As your boss, I want to know what you need so I can get it for you. But don’t stop with fixing only writing problems. There’s also an ego problem in the boss’s statement. Simplify and add humility so it reads, Please tell me what you need so I can get it for you.

The second example unravels the same way. In that sentence, who is whose friend? The confusion is subtle, but at the word let, the speaker switches from talking about himself or herself to taking about you—without telling you about the switch. The error becomes clear if you change the sentence to read As your friend, you let me help you with your writing problems.

Any number of rewrites can fix the mistake:

  • As your friend I want to help you with your writing problems.
  • I’m your friend. Let me help you with your writing problems.
  • Let me help you with your writing problems.
  • Let me, as your friend, help you with your writing problems.

Fix These Writing Problems

Each rewrite makes it clear who the sentence is talking about at every moment. The only way to eliminate writing problems involving who’s who is to stay vigilant. Make sure it’s clear who you’re taking about so your readers don’t think you’ve been visiting with their doctors.

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Spelling Errors

Spelling is the most curable of all writing problems. Still, Internet content is full of spelling errors. Many of these are understandable—almost forgivable. But for most spelling errors that turn up on the Internet, there is simply no excuse.

Forcing readers to wade through a mess to find the message may stop them in their tracks.

Even if you believe you have a good excuse for your writing problems, many readers aren’t forgiving.  In this day of automated, automatic spell-checking, leaving misspelled words in your content makes you look careless and ignorant. Forcing readers to wade through a mess to find the message may stop them in their tracks. Readers don’t notice when your writing is error-free, but you lose readers when it isn’t.

Forgivable Spelling Errors?

Are there really forgivable spelling errors? No. In the first paragraph I suggested there are spelling errors that are almost forgivable. And, if one of these appears in a 200 word article, picky readers may shrug and let it pass. However, when several almost forgivable writing problems appear in a single article, the transgressions become unforgivable.

I offer a short list of the types of spelling errors that are marginally forgivable:

Typos—It’s almost forgivable when a typing error results in the wrong—but properly-spelled—word. Picky readers sometimes nod and smile forgivingly when they spot these in your writing.

Sound-alike words—It’s almost forgivable when you use a word that sounds exactly like another word—but has a different spelling (these are homonyms, but you don’t need to know that). For example, you might accidentally write the word yore when you mean your, or flue when you mean flew. These spelling errors are usually the result of absentmindedness: you know the correct word, and are astonished when you recognize your mistake. Make one of these errors in your writing, and it annoys a picky reader. Make several such errors, and the picky reader disparages your work; you simply should not have published it.

Unforgivable Writing Problems

If there are spelling errors that are nearly forgivable, there are others at the other extreme. You deserve to lose readers for these misspellings: never misspell a name. Having trouble with names is understandable because so many familiar names have unusual—or multiple—spellings. It’s challenging to get them right as you create content. But misspelling a name is insulting to that which you name, and fans or familiars are likely to take offense.

Readers don’t notice when your writing is error-free, but you lose readers when it isn’t.

Consider: If I mention Stephen King in an article, but I spell his name Steven King, his massive fan base may write me off as an idiot. Mr. King, also, is likely to write me off… I don’t curry favor by botching his name. I can lose all my readers in the state of Missouri by spelling it Misury. I might turn away car enthusiasts if I mention the classic Lincon Continental… and Civil War enthusiasts along with historians might also click away.

The biggest loser spelling error of all is misspelling the name of a customer or a prospective customer. When I receive a marketing letter personalized with my name—misspelled—not only won’t I read the letter, I’ll blacklist the source. If you don’t care enough to get my name right, you obviously don’t care about customer relations.

Fix these Writing Problems

Whatever writing problems you have, you must stop making spelling errors! These are so easy to eliminate:

  • Always write in a robust word processor that has spell-checking capabilities.
  • Use the spell-checker; fix the errors it identifies.
  • When you use a name—whether a person’s name, the name of a team, the name of a place, or even the name of a horse, by gosh, make sure you spell it correctly. Look it up on line if you have even the slightest doubt.
  • Read your work. Read it out loud. Have you used a word that sounds like another word but has a different spelling? Make certain you’ve used the correct word. If you don’t know, look it up! My favorite on-line resource for this is yourdictionary.com, but even just typing the word in Google might save you some embarrassment.
  • Create a cheat sheet. All writers use words that won’t stick in their heads. For example, without assistance, I would misspell embarrassment… even though I’ve been aware of this problem for more than 30 years! If you constantly misuse your, you’re, and yore, add them to your cheat sheet, and stick it to your monitor so you never again make the mistake.
  • If you can’t correct your own spelling, despite the awesome technology at your disposal, get someone to read your work before you publish it. Please!

Please help reduce writing problems on the internet by bookmarking this article.

Here are links to other articles about writing problems. Please have a look:

  • Comment on Grammar, Spelling and Punctuation ARE Important When … – It seems most people are not careful about the language of blogging. They feel that blogging can be profusely done with a lot of mistakes. I would like to point all users to one or two blog posts that teach you simple mistakes people …

  • Am I The Only One Affected By The Effects Of Grammar? » Literal … – A colleague was drafting a memo to send out company-wide today and forwarded it to me for review. The copy was mostly good, although he referenced several “servers that will be effected by ongoing work” or somesuch. …

  • how homonyms can hurt your writing – you’ve seen it before. you’re reading a perfectly good blog or book and there it is – right in the middle of the page, glaring at you like a neon sign. of course, writer that you are, your focus on whatever it is that you were reading …

 

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If you tell your readers how they’re going to feel about information your article or story presents, you have serious writing problems. Telling people how they’ll feel—or how they should feel—is a common writing device. You see it most often in marketing copy: You’re going to love this offer, or You’ll be amazed when you read this.

Sadly, writers of every color seem compelled to tell you how to feel. Never do it. It seriously weakens the effectiveness of your message.

How do I Feel?

For at least some people, the natural reaction to being told how they think, act, or feel, is to take exception. Consider the clichéd reaction of characters in so many emotional scenes when a consoling friend remarks, “I know just how you feel.” “No one knows how I feel,” comes the angry reply. A little bit of that angry reply lurks in many readers. Stir it up, and you turn them off.

One of the greatest transgressions of this fundamental rule is when you tell someone in advance how funny your story or joke is going to be. Making such a claim is throwing down a challenge. Your joke had better be funny, because your audience may want to prove you wrong.

The magazine Reader’s Digest did this for many months: On one page in each issue, they ran three jokes, the first labeled Funny, the next labeled Funnier, and the last labeled Funniest as if they thought readers were too stupid to recognize when a joke was funny. Of course, not one of the jokes Reader’s Digest ran in that section was funny; EVER. When you tell readers how they’re going to feel about something, you need to deliver information that’s significantly more emotionally charged than you would if you simply presented the information.

Let the Facts Amaze

With the first article I wrote as a magazine editor, I learned this important lesson from my boss: let the reader decide. I had written a lead that included a statement such as, Here’s a clever way to solve that problem.

My boss suggested that if the solution is clever, the reader will see that it is. Stating that the solution is clever sounds boastful… and if the reader thinks it’s stupid, then maybe you’re a stupid writer. Why read the words of an idiot?

If you want readers to be amazed, write something amazing. If you want readers to laugh, write something funny. If you want readers to think you’re clever, be clever. But don’t tell readers that they’re going to be amazed or amused or impressed… you have no control over their reactions and at least some will resist your claim; you’ll lose them before you even tell them what you want them to know.

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