Simple, clear help for your writing problems

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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