How to Choose the Right Words

Using literary metaphors in your writing makes your writing seem smarter, as long as you use them correctly. If you muff it, however, it can have the opposite effect.

For instance, in explaining how President Obama forged a bipartisan agreement with Capitol Hill Republicans to avoid another federal government shutdown last fall, Washington Post columnist Zachary A. Goldfarb wrote, “Obama gave the flimsiest of fig leaves to the Republicans.” Only if he were trying to cover up his nudity, actually; olive branches would have been more appropriate here.

In another instance last year, The Post reported, “The sale of football tickets and fundraising will be the keys for Maryland as it digs itself out of a financial hole.” Perhaps, but climbing out of the hole would be a better strategy. Digging would likely get Maryland further into the hole.

Let’s hope that under the ownership of mogul Jeff Bezos The Post will remain at the forefront of American journalism over a range of media. Hiring more copy editors would provide a good initial boost.

If you’re not Jeff Bezos, you might still need to hire an editor before you turn an olive branch into a fig leaf.

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Author Elmore Leonard: Less Was Elmore



American crime novelist  Elmore Leonard,  who died Aug. 20, was known for hard-boiled characters and lean prose. In a Detroit News obit,  editor and close friend Otto Penzler said Leonard wrote every day in longhand on unlined legal pads, ordering a thousand a year.

“I’ve seen his manuscripts,” Penzler said. “I can see the amount of rewriting he did. He didn’t change words so much as sentence structure … to maintain the cadence. There was a cadence to his writing, frequently compared to jazz.”

Good writing flows. Bad writing stumbles. When your own words are not in rhythm, you may need an editor to make them sing.

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Post Purchase Promotes Prose CEO Jeff Bezos’ purchase of the Washington Post  may or may not turn out to be a good thing for journalism, but there are some encouraging signs.

Washington Post LogoIn an interview published in The Post, he called it “an important institution” and expressed optimism about its future. “I don’t want to imply that I have a worked-out plan,” he said. “This will be uncharted terrain, and it will require experimentation. There would be change with or without new ownership. But the key thing I hope people will take away from this is that the values of The Post do not need changing. The duty of the paper is to the readers, not the owners.”

Bezos also has demonstrated great respect for writing. He is known to be an avid reader and his wife is a novelist. This anecdote may help explain his interest in owning a venerable benchmark of the seemingly dying newspaper industry, as told by Post Company (soon to be renamed) Chairman Don Graham to columnist Ezra Klein: “When Jeff holds meetings are Amazon, he asks people not to use PowerPoints but to write an essay about their product or program or what the meeting is to be about. For the first 10 or 15 minutes, everyone sits and reads the essay. His point is that if you write at length, you have to think first, and he feels the quality of thought you have to do to write at length is greater than the quality of thought to put a PowerPoint together. “

Bezos understands that writing is important. Good writing is even more important, but for some it’s just hard to do. The ideas are there, but not the prose. That’s when it pays to hire an editor.


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Style Books Battle

2013 AP StylebookAfter ordering my own  copy of the recently issued 2013 Associated Press Stylebook, I was amused when an editor friend sent me this news item:
4 Copy Editors Killed In Ongoing AP Stylebook , Chicago Manual Gang Violence
NEW YORK—Law enforcement officials confirmed Friday that four more copy editors were killed this week amid ongoing violence between two rival gangs divided by their loyalties to the The Associated Press Stylebook and The Chicago Manual Of Style. “At this time we have reason to believe the killings were gang-related and carried out by adherents of both the AP and Chicago styles, part of a vicious, bloody feud to establish control over the grammar and usage guidelines governing American English,” said FBI spokesman Paul Holstein, showing reporters graffiti tags in which the word “anti-social” had been corrected to read “antisocial.” “The deadly territory dispute between these two organizations, as well as the notorious MLA Handbook gang, has claimed the lives of more than 63 publishing professionals this year alone.” Officials also stated that an innocent 35-year-old passerby who found himself caught up in a long-winded dispute over use of the serial, or Oxford, comma had died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
Relax before taking this TOO seriously. It came from the satiric Onion website.

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Advice from the Ocean

I saw this poster last summer at Meadowdale Beach Park, Snohomish County, Washington. It provides a great example of putting  a clever twist on words.

Advice from the Ocean Closeup

When your own words aren’t making waves, a good editor can throw you a life preserver.

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Getting to the Point

A real letter from The Washington Post:

Your Novel Treatments

She walked slowly over to the hard, cluttered breakfast table. Knowing there might be bad news, she sat down. Taking a sip of coffee, she read the first headline and started scanning the words below. One sentence, two sentences, three sentences. . .she was searching for the information. Where was it?


Getting frustrated that you can’t figure out the point of this letter? The Post should leave out its creative writing and just deliver the news.

It is agonizing to hunt for the who, what, when, where and why. I hope The Post  empathizes and will stop reporting the news through someone who is writing the Great American novel. Please.

–B.M. Hess, Bethesda, Md.

My sentiments exactly. And entirely too much first-person writing, too.

When writing, always know the purpose and the audience for your words and write within the parameters of the form you’re using (press release, news article, ad, letter). Don’t get fancy, just get to the point.

If you have difficulty wading through your own clutter of words to get there, an editor might be a big help.


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Spelling Errors Follow a Trail

Casey Stengel

Casey Stengel

My Google Reader steered me to the Syracuse University basketball blog, where the post I read included a link to another post in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinal.

When I clicked through to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel  site (that’s sentinel with two “e”s),  I came across this passage:

“The Hotchkiss School in Lakeville, Conn., is one of the most prestigious prep schools in America, founded in 1891 to prepare young men for Yale University. Its acceptance rate its 16%.” (Maybe “is” should be the verb in that second sentence.)

To paraphrase Casey Stengel, manager of the 1962 New York Mets, losers of a record 120 games: Can’t anybody here spell this game?

From coast to coast, even the most careful writers can always use another pair of eyes. If you don’t have at least four of your own, hire an editor to unearth and correct your errors.

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