Category Archives: Writing Tips

Don’t Get Hysterical Over Historic or Historical

Historic Road SignDriving south on I-5 from Vancouver, B.C., to Seattle recently, our car passed several signs for sites related to Puget Sound history, directing drivers to various historic districts or historical parks and museums. As our region’s duly appointed deputy of the Proofreader General of the United States (PGUS), I wondered which of these collaborations of local groups and state Department of Transportation sign-makers were grammatically accurate. Should it be historic or historical, or are the two similar words interchangeable?

According to the Associated Press Stylebook, “a historic event is an important occurrence, one that stands out in history. Any occurrence in the past is a historical event.” But should the same rule apply to buildings, neighborhoods or districts? Are these places merely old, or did something significant occur there? The Grammarist website notes, “Buildings, villages, districts and landmarks deemed historically important are often described as historic because they are historically significant in addition to being of or related to history. Societies dedicated to recognizing and preserving these things are called historical societies because they are concerned with history but not momentous in themselves.” So a historical society might be responsible for maintaining a historic site. Got it?

The best and most thorough discussion of proper usage of historic or historical that I’ve found is this one. Its author points out the other wrinkle in this conundrum: Is it correct to put “a” or “an” in front of historic or historical? (Unless your audience is British, there’s little debating “a” is the correct way to go.)

Historical MarkerSo what about those I-5 road signs? As the late columnist and linguist William Safire said, “Any past event is historical, but only the most memorable ones are historic.” So when it comes to the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park in Seattle, the Fairhaven Historic District in Bellingham and the “historic waterfront” of LaConner, we’ll let the tourists judge for themselves. If they can’t make up their minds, hire an editor.

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Never Assume Anything, I Presume

Man Scratching HeadI assume you are reading this because you presume my blog will be an accurate source of information about word usage. I can only assume that because I don’t know who you are nor why you are really reading this post. It’s just a guess. You, on the other hand, would presume my expertise, since I have identified myself as a professional editor. Until proven otherwise, a presumption carries more weight.

In everyday speech, “assume” and “presume” are often used interchangeably, but that’s incorrect. According to the website Grammarist, while both words can mean to take something for granted as true (among their other definitions), the difference is in the degree of certainty. A presumption is more authoritative; to presume is to make an informed guess based on evidence, while to assume is to guess with little or no evidence.

Take these examples:

Looking at the photo, I presumed the band had five members, but in concert it turned out to be a quartet.

I assumed the reporter had interviewed the band, although I did not know that he did.

In the first, presume is the better word to use, because the guess is based on irrefutable evidence. In the second, the guess is clearly a guess.

Got it? Whenever you’re having trouble finding the right words in your own documents, it’s time to hire an editor.

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Make Grammar Your Ally

In an advice column in the Washington Post Magazine, writer Bradley Demerich provides five pointers for success in online dating. Topping his list: grammar.

grammar“Good grammar and writing go a long way,” he writes. “Not only do they show that you have the cognitive ability to be a functioning adult, but they also give people fewer reasons to ignore your profile/messages.”

Demerich offers another piece of good advice on presentation: “When you’re finished writing something, proofread it. One young man put on his profile, ‘I am very good at showing of the making girls feel beauty.’ Not sure if he was typing quickly or if English is his second language; either way, it shows the importance of reading over (or asking someone to read over) your profile.”

That goes for online messages, LinkedIn pages and just about anything you have to write for or about yourself. Letters, emails, web page content, job applications, reports, white papers or anything else, written communication always requires and benefits from editing and proofreading.

So when you need another set of eyes and your mother or significant other won’t do, hire an editor. When readers are impressed, it will be worth it.

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How to Accentuate the Appositive

Commas can be  a writer’s best friend, but lately I’ve seen too many sentences  like this one:

Left-handed pitcher, Todd Jones, won 10 games for the Mariners last season.

Wyoming naturalist, John Smith, attended the reception.

Why commas in those sentences? In my opinion, inserting those two mental pauses disrupts the flow of the sentence. When that happens, the reader may stop.

commaThe commas are not necessary. Both sentences seem to treat the proper names “Todd Jones” and “John Smith” as appositives, not as the subjects of the sentences. An appositive is a noun or noun phrase that immediately follows and renames another noun or noun phrase. “Todd Jones” and “John Smith” qualify, I suppose, but as the Associated Press Stylebook notes, “A decision on whether to put commas around a word, phrase or clause used in apposition depends on whether it is essential to the meaning of the sentence (no commas) or not essential (use commas).”

In the sentences above, surely the names of the pitcher and senator are essential. So dump those commas. To keep these sentences grammatical and improve their flow, they could be rewritten in one of two ways:

Todd Jones, a left-handed pitcher, won 10 games for the Mariners last season.

John Smith, a Wyoming naturalist, attended the reception.

This is a more traditional use of the appositive, adding more specific description to the proper noun that precedes it. While the nonessential phrase “left-handed pitcher” and “Wyoming senator” could be dropped without destroying the sentences, the reader’s pause for the comma is shorter, less pronounced. The reader is willing to put up with the pause because the words and pause seem natural, like everyday speech.

However, my editing preference would be the leaner versions below, which eliminates the need for commas:

Left-handed pitcher Todd Jones won 10 games for the Mariners last season.

Wyoming naturalist John Smith attended the reception.

Putting the adjective phrase before the noun is terser, quicker to the point. Writing is all about establishing rhythm and flow, making the words easy to follow. When your ideas are strong, editing can make them stronger. See what a good editor can do for your writing.

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Word Sick? How to Find Relief

pen_and_paper“I hate writing. I love having written.” This adage is variously attributed to such well-known authors as Dorothy Parker, Mark Twain, Eudora Welty, Neil Simon, Gloria Steinem, Joan Didion, Ernest Hemingway and William Zinsser, but it applies to less-accomplished writers as well. Anytime an average person has to write a letter to an insurance company, a cover letter for an important application, or a complicated legal disposition, for example, putting his or her thoughts down on paper or into a word-processing file can be daunting. If you’re not confident in your own way with words, an experienced editor can provide a map and a push in the right direction. “Being a good writer mostly means being a good observer and a good thinker,” editor and author Gene Weingarten notes in his introduction to his essay collection The Fiddler on the Subway. “With work, it’s possible to triumph over a lack of innate writing skill.”

That’s good to know, because Weingarten’s introduction also acknowledges that writing can be hard work and full of frustration. “A real writer is someone for whom writing is a terrible ordeal,” the Washington Post columnist writes. “That is because he knows, deep down, with an awful clarity, that there are limitless ways to fill a page with words, and that he will never, ever, do it perfectly. On some level, that knowledge haunts him all the time. He will always be juggling words in his head, trying to get them closer to a tantalizing, unreachable ideal.”

Aggravated by your own attempts to reach that ideal? Here’s a prescription for quick relief: Take two ibuprofen and call an editor in the morning.

 

 

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Improve Your Interviewing Skills

Among my many aggravations, none is more constantly inview than bad interviewing. Not interviewing for a job, but interviewing in an information-gathering, journalistic sense. Bad examples appear every day on TV, radio and the Internet.  Most of these talking heads don’t know how to conduct an interview. They make me want to holler.

In my dual roles as newspaper editor and professor of news writing, I taught and coached many inexperienced and aspiring journalists in how to conduct interviews. Not so they would become “gotcha” interviewers like Mike Wallace, but to help them come away from each interview with useful information and catchy quotes for their articles.  But interviewing people is hard, and it’s a hard skill to develop. An interviewer own confidence and personality are part of it, but there are also mechanics involved.

John McPhee

John McPhee

I recently noticed many of the points I had stressed in my classes and training sessions were reiterated in a 2014 New Yorker article by Pulitzer Prize-winning author John McPhee, who regularly contributes essays about writing to that magazine. A few of the interviewing tips we have in common (with McPhee’s words in quotes) are:

  • “Use a tape recorder, yes, but maybe not as a first choice — more like a relief pitcher.”
  • “Don’t rely on memory.” Regardless of how you’ve accumulated notes or recordings from an interview, transcribe them and flesh them out as soon as possible afterwards.
  • “Make clear what you are doing and who will publish what you write.” In other words, don’t take notes surreptitiously, when you think no one is looking.  Do it openly, and be up front about who you are and why you are asking these questions.
  • “Display your notebook as if it were a fishing license.  While the interview continues, the notebook may serve other purposes, surpassing the talents of a tape recorder. As you scribble away, the interviewee is, of course, watching you. Now, unaccountably, you slow down, and even stop writing, while the interviewee goes on talking. The interviewee becomes nervous, tries harder, and spills out the secrets of a secret life, or maybe just a clearer and more quotable version of what was said before. Conversely, if the interviewee is saying nothing of interest, you can pretend to be writing, just to keep the enterprise moving forward.”
  • “If doing nothing can produce a useful reaction, so can the appearance of being dumb.”

I’ve got a few a few more suggestions about interviewing.

  • An interviewer’s  most valuable questions are follow-ups  to the previous question that elicit further response: For example, “why?” “how?” “what did you mean?” or “could you please repeat that?”
  • Keep questions short while encouraging longer responses by asking the followup questions above.
  • Never suggest an answer with your question. For example, the question “How huge was that decision?” leads the responder to the prescribed answer. Questions should let the interviewee supply the descriptions, not merely agree with or refute the questioner’s.
  • Make an interview as conversational as possible. Look at the interviewee. Don’t let note-taking bog it down.
  • Before the interview, find out as much as you can about the person you’re interviewing.
  • Have at least a short list of questions ready when you start, and always be ready with the next question. Don’t allow dead air.
  • If you have questions that might irritate the interviewee, save them for last.
  • Don’t ask stupid questions.

McPhee also agrees with my personal philosophy on editing quotes to enhance their conciseness and communication without altering their content or meaning. “Once captured, words have to be dealt with,” he writes. “You have to trim and strengthen them to make them transliterate from the fuzziness of speech to the clarity of print. Speech and print are not the same, and a slavish presentation of recorded speech may not be as representative of a speaker as dialogue that has been trimmed and straightened. Please understand:  you trim and straighten, but you do not make it up.”

To bring that kind of editing sense and sensibility to your own documents, you probably need a professional. Hire an editor.

 

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Important Lessons About Writing

Editor CartoonOne of the writers I follow and greatly admire is Washington Post humor columnist Gene Weingarten, who was previously a reporter, editor and feature writer at the Post and other newspapers. In his current weekly column, always under 750 words, Weingarten epitomizes the value of economy in writing. And that’s just one of many valuable lessons that writers can get from his work.

In the introduction to a 2010 compilation of longer articles, two of which won Pulitzer Prizes for feature writing  (The Fiddler on the Subway), Weingarten writes that as a young reporter in Detroit he learned two truths about writing in one night while struggling with a story.  “The first is that without passion, you have nothing,” he writes. “The second is that the most important words in your story are the ones you don’t write. They’re the ones you imply—the ones that cause you to pop into the reader’s mind and get her to think ‘Aha!’ That’s how you transform her from a passive observer into an ally. And that’s when you win.”

Later in that introduction, Weingarten discusses the importance of rhythm  as part of that winning formula. “For a long narrative to have power, it can’t just be delivering information—it needs to create a textured experience, the way a movie does,” he explains. “A writer hasn’t the advantage of a mood-setting soundtrack, or actors who can communicate emotion with an expression or a gesture, but he has something of potentially greater impact: the descriptive power of words. Use them with care: arrange them shrewdly. Remember that sentences have cadence and meter and melody—don’t let them become a one-note lullaby. Interrupt the long with the short, the simple with the complex, and use them all to build a vivid narrative, a theater of the mind that each reader then edits and personalizes for himself. It’s a collaboration, this process. Don’t take your new ally for granted. Don’t bore her, even for an instant.”

Winning with words isn’t easy, but a skilled editor can help develop and fine-tune your game plan. Contact me for a free assessment of your own writing project.

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