Tag Archives: Writing Tips

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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Collective Nouns and Pronouns the Right Way

One of the most frequent errors I see in newsletters, emails and even in the media is non-agreement of collective nouns and pronouns. Most people know that collective nouns take singular pronouns (that is, a company wins its award, not their award). When the collective noun in question is a company or team name, however, confusion reigns; all the more so if the proper name is plural. Two recent examples:

AgriLife is one of the country’s largest purveyors of products for a simpler lifestyle. They have been very successful providing cheese-making kits to their customers for the past two years.

Smith Brothers Food Markets wants to emphasize their growing line of cleaned and pre-cut vegetables for busy, active cooks.

Team: Is it singular or plural?

Team: Singular or plural pronoun?

In both sentences, all the pronouns should be singular (it, its, itself, not they, their, themselves). While generic collective nouns (such as army, crowd, team) can be singular or plural, depending on whether the group is acting in unison or as individual members, named businesses, schools and organizations are always singular.

This seems logical to me. Many individuals comprise a business, company, governmental unit. school, or team, but each organization operates as a single entity.

As noted above, however, when the members of an unnamed group act in unison, everyone doing essentially the same thing at the same time, then the collective noun is singular and requires singular pronouns for agreement. But when an organization’s members act as individuals, taking separate or different actions, then the collective noun is plural and requires plural pronouns for agreement. While grammatically correct, this generates awkward-sounding sentences:

At the rehearsal, the cast took their places so that each actor could see the spacing between them.

The council disagree whether they should overturn the mayor’s veto.

If deciding whether a particular collective noun should be considered singular or plural confuses you, there are ways to write around it.

  • Substitute a plural noun for the collective noun, allowing use of the more natural-sounding plural pronouns: The cast (actors) earned $500 each for their roles.
  • Add the word members after a collective noun. Members, serving as a plural antecedent, requires a more natural-sounding plural pronoun: When the curtain falls, the cast members take their bows. The council members voted to return the surplus money to the taxpayers.

Still having a hard time with this collective thing? There’s a smarter, more effective alternative: Give up and 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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Why “Adage” Stands Alone

The opening line of a newsletter caught my eye: “Failure to plan is planning to fail, the old adage goes.” 

Don’t burn bridges or mince words.

Not exactly. An adage is an old saying, a few words that express something considered to be a general truth or common observation. Since an expression must be around a long time in order to be considered an adage, labeling a phrase an “old adage” is redundundant.

 According to Wikipedia, an adage may be an interesting observation, practical or ethical guidelines, or a skeptical comment on life. As in the example cited above, they often involve a planning failure (as in don’t count your chickens before they hatch).

 But when is a phrase such as “don’t burn your bridges” something else? When an adage born of folk wisdom attempts to summarize a basic truth, it is known as a proverb or byword. An adage that describes a general rule of conduct is a maxim. A pithy expression that has not yet gained acceptance through long use, but is considered in particular good style is an aphorism, while one distinguished by wit or irony is an epigram.

 Don’t use a particular adage too often, however, because overuse can transform an adage into a cliché or truism. It’s sad to see an expression slide from “old saying” to “old saw.”

 In everything you write, it’s always important to find the right words, but it’s not always easy. A skilled editor can help get your points across effectively.


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How to Write Like Andy Rooney

Andy Rooney: A man of few words.

Following the Nov. 4 death of CBS 60 Minutes essayist Andy Rooney, Seattle Times editorial  praised his commentaries not only for their wit, but also for being a marvel of brevity.

“His ability to craft those commentaries was a special gift,” the editorial read.  “A classic newsroom excuse is ‘I didn’t have time to write short.’ Bright, tight and brilliant is not easy. Andy Rooney spoke volumes in a few dozen words.” 

Writing is hard. Writing short is even harder, and most people don’t have the time to do it right. That adage originates in a quote from Blaise Pascal (1623 – 1662), a French philosopher and mathematician who at age 18 invented the first calculating machine. In his Lettres Provinciales (1656, No. 16), a defence of Jansenist doctrine, Pascal wrote, “I have made this letter longer than usual, because I lack the time to make it short (Je n’ai fait celle-ci plus longue parceque je n’ai pas eu le loisir de la faire plus courte.”

Writing is hard, and writing short is even harder. Not only does it take time, but it also forces you to be critical of your own initial efforts. You may well save yourself time and also get a better finished product if you have someone else polish your words. If you just take enough time to write a first draft, or even a list of major points, an editor can organize and rework your thoughts into a consistent, more persuasive document. It may not end up as witty as an Andy Rooney monolog, but it will look professional and get your points across effectively. Look here for some examples.

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The KISS Method: Keep It Short, Stupid


USA Today Founder and Columnist Al Neuharth

When Gannett began publishing USA Today in 1982, journalism pundits roundly ridiculed the five-day-a-week paper for its “McJournalism” style: short, punchy articles as lean as editors could make them. Today, in the Internet Age, that style almost seems long-winded, at least compared to 140-character-or-less tweets.

USA Today founder Al Neuharth’s Plain Talk of March 25, 2011, discussed how he writes his weekly column, which is never more than 300 words.

“When I do the first draft,” Neuharth wrote, “it sometimes runs 500 words or more. That’s easy. Trimming it down is difficult. That sometimes takes me two or three hours.

“Getting things short and to the point us the most important thing we should keep in mind in our personal or professional lives. In writing or speaking. From grade school to high school to college to our job.

“Long-winded stuff loses the attention of listeners., readers, viewers, friends, even family. That’s true in one-on-one discussions, group gatherings or the mass media.”

That’s great advice. But when you don’t have the time to polish   writing yourself, find yourself a good editor.

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What an Editor Does, for the Most Part

To edit a document, whether it’s a single-page letter or a lengthy article, I try to read it, beginning to end. If  I can keep reading all the way to the end without stopping, then the writer has done a pretty good job. If I can’t get through the first paragraph, well, the writer may need some help.Regardless, I skim to the end of the document. Then I go back to the beginning and start playing with the words.

Pen in HandTo begin, I must first know the purpose of the document, its desired length and its intended audience. Those three variables determine the language and style that will be utilized.

When I edit the writing, I am not  necessarily looking to cut. I edit the writing to:

  • Omit needless words.
  • Aid clarity. 
  • Vary language, so specific words are not used too often, such as twice in one sentence or paragraph, or in related headlines.
  • Vary sentence length and punctuation to establish a conversational rhythm and flow to the writing, or vary the rhythm for effect.
  • Ensure adequate transition from sentence to sentence, paragraph to paragraph, section to section.
  • Capture and keep a reader’s attention.
  • End on a definitive note.

Good editing should not change the original voice of the writing, just make it communicate better and more efficiently.

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Finding the Right Words: An Editor Can Make a Difference

When this is the first e-mail I read in the morning, I know I still have a place in this world.

“Can you take a look at this and make sure our grammer and messages flow correctly?”

If the clients can’t spell grammar, can they possibly have a clue how to use it properly?

Tools of the trade.

In a world that wants to communicate in 140-character snippets, perhaps only snooty English teachers and persnickety editors still care about grammar and spelling. Certainly not a day goes by that I don’t see examples of bad grammar, misspellings and incorrect choice of words in published articles or ads in print and on the Internet. Only the perpetrators know whether the mistakes can be blamed on ignorance or carelessness.

From the Tacoma News-Tribune Mariners Insider Blog: “The Seattle Mariners had a fine season, though a few ex-patriots are having better ones – and unless the Minnesota Twins win the World Series, some former Mariner is going home with a ring.” (As far as I know, all ex-Patriots played in the National Football League. Expatriates would be the correct word here.)

From the Magnolia-Queen Anne News: “When he’s not hanging out with his wife, and daughter, Beaudoin can be found in his office in Fremont and sometimes tapping his next tomb at the Magnolia Tullys.” First, ditch the unnecessary comma between wife and daughter. Then the problem with spell check surfaces: It’s probably just a typo, but “tomb” is spelled correctly nonetheless. Unless this author is chiseling his own tombstone while sipping his latte, “tome” would be a more likely candidate.

Changing rolls in the Mariners bullpen?

A Seattle Times sports section headline: “League, Kelley fill Lowe’s roll.” What kind of filling did the two relief pitchers provide–grand salami and high cheese, perhaps? (At least the first paragraph under the headline used the word role correctly.)

One of my own pet peeves has been the choice between “over” and “more than.” In American newspapers, where I learned my grammar, the Associated Press Stylebook said that “over” denotes a spatial relationship (I hold my hand over the desk), while “more than” and “fewer than” (or “less than,” but that’s another topic altogether) are used in a numerical relationship (his salary increased more than 12 percent).

In the world at large, however, the choice is not so clear. While the Associated Press Stylebook states, “More than is preferred with numerals,” The Chicago Manual of Style says “As an equivalent of more than, [over] is perfectly good idiomatic English.” Three grammar blogs (Grammar Girl, Business Writing and The Writer’s Bag) have three different opinions. The long and short of it: Go with common sense and what sounds right.

Look at this recent article from The New York Times. The headline: “Over 14 Years, an American Inmate and Peru Itself Found Ways to Transform.” The article begins, “When Lori Berenson was jailed in Peru on terrorism charges over 14 years ago, she was a fiery young leftist from New York.” Clearly, “over” is the right word in the headline. But in the first sentence of the article, the choice is not as cut and dried. “More than” to me sounds clearer, more dignified. It fits the sentence and the publication better. “Over” isn’t wrong, just not as good.

In your own writing, choosing the right words in each particular situation can make a difference in how your message is perceived. Making those decisions may require the expertise and feel of an experienced editor.

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Learn to Write: To Write Well, Start with a Plan

Writing shouldn’t be hard. All you need is a plan.

So whether you’re writing a letter, a resume, a memo, a report, a news release, a feature article, an ad, or even a book, consider two things before you start:

   • What do I want this document to accomplish?

   • Who is its audience?

Your answers will determine the content, style, length, tone and language of your document. Now comes the hard part: the writing.

Good writing accomplishes what it sets out to do and communicates effectively with its audience.

How does that happen?

  1. Write like you talk. Keep sentences short, varying sentence length for rhythm and effect. Use punctuation to control the flow of your words.
  2. Make an outline, or at least a list of the points you want to make. Prioritize it.
  3. Always be grammatically correct, and don’t send people scurrying for their dictionaries (they won’t bother, so they really won’t know exactly what you mean).
  4. Get to the point–fast. Readers value conciseness above all. They have other things to do.
  5. Be authoritative. Avoid passive voice (it’s longer and less direct). Sound like you mean it.

If you start by answering the first two questions above and follow through on the last five points, your writing will mark you as a professional and get the results you need.
When you don’t have the time–or patience–to write well yourself, a skilled editor can help you communicate effectively and get the job done. Please contact me.

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How to Be Your Own Editor

Sometimes I (jokingly) tell my business clients that they don’t really need to hire a professional editor. And they wouldn’t–as long as they did these six things:

  1. Declare a Designated Proofreader and Grand Poobah of Writing for your office. It can be you, but it’s even more effective if it’s someone else–especially if that someone is careful and likes to read. Make that person your document QA (quality assurance) specialist.
  2. Get a dictionary. I’d recommend Webster’s New World College Dictionary (Fourth Edition), the accepted standard throughout journalism. Get a discounted price on Amazon.com by buying the accompanying Roget’s A-Z Thesaurus at the same time.
  3. Get an Associated Press Stylebook. It provides logical, easy-to-look up rules for capitalization, abbreviation and more. It’s now available online and on phone applications, but keeping a printed copy in the office bookcase is a good idea.
  4. Get The Elements of Style by Strunk and White. This thin, breezily written volume resolves 99 percent of the grammar issues you’ll ever come across, plus the best advice on writing I’ve ever gotten: Omit needless words.
  5. Develop a style guide of your own. Just open a Word document and make entries when you think of it regarding how you want to spell and punctuate terms at your company. Be sure to list them alphabetically so they can be retrieved easily, and your company style guide will gradually evolve. Circulate it periodically, so everybody in the organization knows the rules.
  6. Don’t just guess–look it up! Use these tools whenever you prepare a document, and your writing will communicate better and look sharper. And don’t ever trust a computer program to perform an accurate spelling or grammar check.

Realize, of course, that while everybody in your organization may know that rules on grammar and style exist, only the Designated Proofreader and Grand Poobah of Writing will actually try to follow them and care when others do not. That’s why this person is so essential to your company’s internal and external communications.

If you don’t have one–or the time to do it right yourself–well, maybe you need an editor after all. Here’s one who can help you.

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