Simple, clear help for your writing problems

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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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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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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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You can get a lot of writing problems under control simply by reading your own articles before you commit them to the web.

That sentence is an article in itself, but I’m expanding on it to help drive home the point. Careful, conscientious writers make mistakes. Sometimes, the very habits that make your writing good introduce errors that are easy to overlook. When you read your own article, these types of errors often jump out. You might even chuckle, realizing exactly how the errors got into your prose in the first place.

Some Writing Problems You’ll Catch While Reading

Here are a few of the writing problems you’re likely to spot when you read your own articles:

Writing problems with leftover words

If you’re conscientious, you edit your work before you expose the public to it. Often while editing, you change the order of words in a sentence, or you move phrases and sentences around in your prose. Occasionally, you leave words behind. When you read your article, those spurious words stand out.

example: This method produces bug-free produce and it also results in better tasting vegetables as well.

Writing problems with stuck-together words

When you cut and paste a phrase, a sentence, or a paragraph of your article, it’s easy to leave behind a space character. This can accidentally stick two words together. You’ll notice such an accident when you read your article.

example: I found waterpooled on leaves of three rhubarb plants.

Writing problems with when things happen

Especially when you’re working quickly, it’s easy to flip from talking about what’s happening now to talking about what already happened. These awkward moments tend to arise most when you’re writing narratives. You’ll spot them when you read your article.

example: Bill ran to the mailbox and dropped in the letter. Then he looks over his shoulder, and is astonished by what he sees.

Writing problems with quantities

While writing a sentence, it’s common to question your word choices and make changes till the words sound right to your ears. Some awkward sentences arise when you start talking about groups of people or things, but end up talking about only one person or thing. These can be harder to spot than other writing problems, but reading your article gives you your best chance of catching them. (If you don’t see a problem with the sentence in this example—or with the preceding example—please subscribe to my RSS feed or visit often; I’ll explain these common writing problems in an upcoming post.)

example: There was a time when professional writers mailed their manuscript to an editor.

Writing problems with flow

As you write, ideas pop into your mind. Sometimes they’re compelling enough that you incorporate them into your article. Other times you realize your article will be clearer if you move a topic ahead of another one you’ve already covered. When you read your article, you’ll notice misplaced sentences, paragraphs, sections, and subheads.

Writing problems with words that sound alike

When you’re racing to finish a project, capturing the words may take priority over spelling them correctly. Unfortunately, you appear ignorant when you use so instead of sew or way instead of weigh. Your spell-checking software won’t notice these errors, but you will when you read your article.

Writing problems with unlikely words

This happens to all of us: we write a sentence using the word an, but later change the sentence so that an is inappropriate. Consider: This is an awesome performance. might become This is an sublime performance. Being rushed is another cause of unlikely words arising: we accidentally write longer—or shorter—words than we intend to. For example, you’re thinking the word an but your fingers tickle out the word and, or while typing them your fingers omit the m and create the. Again, spell-checkers don’t see these as problems, but the errors are obvious when you read your article.

Read your Articles Before you Post

The writing problems I’ve highlighted are common and forgivable… as long as they don’t appear in your published articles. Every writer makes at least some of these mistakes with nearly every article they write. What distinguishes good writers is that they read their articles, spot the errors, and fix them.

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Control Your Writing Problems

When I worked as a magazine editor, most of my freelance authors had writing problems. In fact, I dealt extensively with writers who would much rather have been assembling computer programs than prose. (Most of them should have stuck with computer programming.) From about forty article submissions I received each month, there were two or three that presented clever, useful, and new ideas I wanted to publish for the magazine’s readers. Sadly, I’d see only one well-written freelance submission in about a three-month time span.

Still, I published a lot of articles submitted by freelancers, and by the time those articles appeared in the magazine, they were well-written. The point of this blog post is what happened to an article after I received it from the writer and before it went to press in the magazine. Please note that the steps I describe here are representative of a professional publishing operation; details vary from one company to the next.

The Writing Problems Relief Team

The publishing industry has given rise to an editorial process in use at nearly every magazine and book publisher in the country. It goes like this:

  1. An acquisitions editor selects only the most interesting and well-written stories.
  2. An editor fixes a story’s writing problems: structure, grammar, spelling, punctuation, sequence, logic, clarity. In some cases, the editor points out the problems to the author and expects the author to make changes.
  3. The editor submits the story to a managing editor who approves it or sends it back for further editing.
  4. Eventually, the managing editor approves the story and distributes it to a copyeditor, the art director, and the chief editor. A copy of the story also goes to a fact-checker and/or a technical reviewer, depending on the type of publication.
  5. The copyeditor pounds out grammar errors, spelling errors, structural problems… in fact, the copyeditor may make all the same types of changes the original editor might have made. Those changes go back to the editor who is responsible for the story’s final draft.
  6. The fact-checker researches information presented in the article: job titles of people mentioned, addresses, phone numbers, spelling of people’s names, dates cited, and so on.

    The technical reviewer tests the accuracy of procedures laid out in the article: if readers do what the article tells them to, will they get the intended results?

  7. The editor incorporates the suggestions from the managing editor, the copyeditor, the fact-checker, and the technical reviewer. Oh, but that’s not all. The editor may also need to consider comments from the chief editor.
  8. The final draft goes to the managing editor who hands it off to the art director. The art department lays out the article, and may request changes in length or the number of illustrations to fill available space.
  9. The editor modifies the article to suit the art director’s needs.
  10. A proof goes to the managing editor, a proofreader, and the original editor. When they agree everything is perfect, the production manager sends a master to the print shop. Historically, the print shop would send back “bluelines” or “blues” which were photographic prints of the negatives prepared by the print shop. Digital print shops today may return proofs on regular paper.
  11. The editor, art director, and managing editor review the proofs, looking for lingering typos and ink splotches or broken text that can result from inaccurate imaging done by the printers.
  12. The article comes out perfectly. Of course, I jest. Despite this through review process, we’d publish a stinker from time-to-time. We were always dismayed when a typo, a technical error, or a fact that wasn’t a fact made it into print. How could such a thorough process miss something so obvious?

How do you Catch Your Writing Problems?

If it takes this many people to get an article right most of the time, you’re putting an enormous burden on yourself when you try to do the job yourself. You are writer, editor, copyeditor, fact-checker, technical reviewer, art director, proofreader, and, of course, managing and chief editor rolled into one person. What’s more, if you’re blogging or cramming articles into article directories, you may be producing an entire magazine’s content each month.

Sure, computers make it easy to produce a lot. But without the checks and balances built into the traditional publishing model, computers make it easy to produce a lot of bad stuff.

Don’t be one of the offenders. Here’s how to reduce the writing problems in your web content:

  • As the writer, slow down and write well.
  • As the editor, be hyper-critical.
  • As the copyeditor, stamp out spelling, grammatical, stylistic, and other writing problems.
  • As the fact-checker, don’t accept what you wrote because you know what you’re talking about; look stuff up! If you have the least doubt about a fact, don’t write the fact into a sentence until you’ve double-checked your own knowledge.
  • As the technical reviewer, read your article as if you’re an ignorant newbie and make sure you can accomplish the tasks the article describes without stumbling. Don’t just read; follow the article’s instructions step-by-step!
  • As the art director, choose fonts that are easy on the eye. Keep layouts simple. Provide engaging illustrations that clarify your topic. Use detailed figure captions (some readers read only the figure captions).
  • As the managing editor, distribute your work to people who will provide healthy criticism and who will point out your spelling, grammar, and other writing problems… before you publish your work.

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