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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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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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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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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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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!

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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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