Simple, clear help for your writing problems

Archives for word choice category

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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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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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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Whether Or Not?

You can explain away so many writing problems as extensions of conversational English! But hearing the same incorrect expression day-after-day is no excuse for using that expression in your writing. You hear some expressions so often that they sound natural. Then you cough up the expressions without thought.

A case in point: so many writers and speakers heap abuse on the word whether. Stop, and you’ll improve the quality of your writing.

Writing Problems with Whether

You’ve heard the expression whether or not hundreds of times:

I don’t care whether it snows or not.

I’m not sure whether or not you care.

It doesn’t matter whether you let the wine breathe or not.

Don’t let hearing the expression cause it to turn up in your writing. Consider: you can omit or not from each sentence without changing its meaning. Without or not, the sentences become:

I don’t care whether it snows.

I’m not sure whether you care.

It doesn’t matter whether you let the wine breathe.

When you respect the word whether you decrease wordiness, and that’s good for your writing.

Should you ever use Or Not?

Whatever rules you know about writing, apply this rule above all others: try to make your readers comfortable. When you write a sentence using the word whether and it sounds awkward, you may need to add or not for your readers.

Consider: The statement I’m having dessert whether you have any doesn’t feel right. Recast it as I’m having dessert whether or not you have any and it sounds better.

Be judicious. As a rule, use whether alone in all its glory. When whether alone doesn’t cut it, reluctantly add or not.

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Ryan Seacrest said this at the end of an installment of American Idol: In the end there can only be one American Idol. Don’t count this mistake among your writing problems.

Mistake? You ask. This sentence could easily mean that the only thing left in creation at the end of the show is an American Idol. Consider: …there can only be one American Idol implies that nothing else at all can exist.

It seems likely Mr Seacrest was telling us that eventually there would be one American Idol. His statement would be clear if he simply omitted the word only so the sentence became In the end there can be one American Idol. By misplacing the word only in an attempt to add emphasis, he has, instead, made the statement unclear.

Put Only Where it Belongs

The statement, In the end there can be one American Idol is clear. Spoken emphasis on the word one achieves Seacrest’s intent. However, if you really need to use the word only, use it as follows: In the end there can be only one American Idol.

This minor rewrite of Seacrest’s sentence ties the words only and one together. It leaves the possibility that there can be other things besides that one American Idol.

Use Only Sparingly and Appropriately

Consider the title of this post: Today, Only Fix One of your Writing Problems. It suggests that the only thing you should do today is fix one of your writing problems. If it must include the word only, the title should be, Today, Fix Only One of your Writing Problems. With that change, it suggests you should fix one writing problem, but let the others go for today. It doesn’t forbid you from doing other things.

When you use only in a sentence, reread the sentence carefully and decide whether only is in the right place. Here are some examples to help you recognize how a misplaced only changes the meaning of your words:

The sentence: You should only move this box.

Means: You should do nothing except move this box.

In contrast:

The sentence: You should move only this box.

Means: This box is the only thing you should move… but there may be other things for you to do as well.

Here’s another:

The sentence: Are you only giving me a tomato?

Means: Are you doing nothing more than giving me a tomato?

In contrast:

The sentence: Are you giving me only a tomato?

Means: Are you giving me nothing more than a tomato? I understand that you may do other things as well.

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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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