Guide to 300 Days of Better Writing Blog
This blog contains content from our writing guide 300 Days of Better Writing. Each day contains a strategy to help you write correctly, purposefully, and clearly. Strategies are accompanied by 150 to 250 words of instruction and samples. A little learning every day leads to major improvements over time.
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This blog contains strategies on the following topics:
The content below consists of the first few lines of each post. Click on the post titles to read the entire post.
Strategies for concise writing
Remove what is/what are phrases
We already know that to be verbs weaken writing. Examples of to be verbs are is, am, was, and are. These words are also problematic when combined with what to make what is and what are phrases.
Joining sentences for clarity and brevity
Let’s say you have two short sentences or one average-length sentence with a short sentence that provides additional information. To prevent your document from sounding too choppy or repetitive, you can combine the two sentences into one. One way to do this is to create an introductory clause or phrase from the additional information. Consider these sentences.
- “Our grant writing consultant expressed his belief that the proposal will be funded.”
One word is better than many
Take a close look at your sentences and underline or circle the descriptive phrases. If you have 2 or more in a row, this tip is for you. Consider this sentence.
“An organization providing healthcare services to those patients unable to pay for services necessary to sustain an active lifestyle will encounter financial difficulties should the recipients increase in number.”
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Strategies for making an impact
Shift the source of questionable information to maintain credibility.
What do you do if you are not confident about your ideas? You may still want to write it, but you don’t want to be accused of misleading your reader if the idea is proven wrong.
End impact statements with a thump.
Some words have more emotional or cognitive impact than others. They make the reader stop and pause. They create a mental thump.
Use negative/positive restatement for emphasis.
Positive/negative restatement means describing what something is, then describing what it isn’t—or vice versa. When you do this, you strongly emphasize the final description. Let’s look at some examples.
The power of three
Our brains are funny. They tend to understand, organize, and remember groups of three. Groups of three, as a result, have an impact on the way we think. We can use this mental capacity to create impact in our writing. We do this by using a group of three items for statements that we want readers to focus on, think about, and act upon.
Avoiding non sequiturs
Non sequitur is a Latin term meaning does not follow. A non sequitur is a problem with logic; it is a conclusion that isn’t logical, based on previous statements.
Impact strategy with restating
Positive/negative restatement means describing what something is, then describing what it isn’t—or vice versa. When you do this, you strongly emphasize the final description.
Big Concepts to Spin Controversial Ideas
Words like freedom, honesty, truth, and support are great. They invoke positive feelings in readers. They are “big” terms, meaning they express many ideas. Different readers may interpret them differently. For example, honesty may have different connotations to different readers. Without explanation, they are empty of meaning. This makes them perfect for spinning controversial ideas.
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Guidelines for apologizing in a business letter.
You or your organization did something wrong. You overcharged a client. You missed a deadline. Something. And now you need to apologize.
Be prepared to work hard at your writing.
Easy reading is damned hard writing.
Reduce ambiguous “counting” phrases to single words.
An ambiguous “counting” phrase is a phrase that tells the reader that multiple things exist without giving the precise number. Ambiguous counting phrases include a number of, a few, more than a few, more than one, a large number of, and two or more.
One of my favorite expressions as a kid was, “Oh, yeah? Prove it.” (I was a precocious child.) Over-generalizing means making a general statement or reaching a conclusion from a very limited number of examples. When you over-generalize, you invite your reader to ask, “Oh, yeah? Prove it.”
6 Guidelines for e-mail ettiquette
Increasingly, e-mail is being used for personal and professional communications. How we present ourselves in our e-mail affects how we are perceived, much like in face-to-face communications. With this in mind, here are 6 guidelines for e-mail ettiquette.
Capitalizing “mom” and “dad”
Capitalization rules may seem inconsistent, but they are not. For example, sometimes you capitalize mom and sometimes you don’t. However, you already know the rule that you capitalize people’s names and other proper nouns.
Keep adjectives as adjectives
In most cases, we want verbs to remain as verbs. We find nouns that come from verbs (i.e., nominalized verbs) and change them back in to verbs. We also want adjectives to remain as adjectives. We find nouns that come from adjectives (i.e., nominalized adjectives) and change them back into adjectives.
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“Each person must write their own autobiography.”
Do you see the problem here? “Each” refers to one person, but “their” refers to more than one person.
Plural subjects avoid gender bias
Subjects and pronouns must match in number. This means using a singular pronoun with a singular subject, or a plural pronoun with a plural subject. Consider this sentence.
“The driver turned off his meter.”
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Use an apostrophe to replace missing letters in a contraction.
We like to say that apostrophes are PC. We don’t mean that they’re politically correct. Rather, we mean that they’re used for possessives and contractions.
Use a hyphen to clarify a prefix.
When we add a prefix to a verb, the resulting word may look like a very different word with a very different meaning than intended.
Only use one exclamation mark, if any.
Exclamation marks generally do not have a place in formal business writing, though they may have a use in advertising text and narrative texts. However, if you do decide to use an exclamation mark, only use one at a time.
Commas with independent clauses
The term independent clause refers to a complete sentence, whether it stands alone or is part of a longer sentence. It has a grammatical subject and a main verb, at a minimum. Consider this sentence:
“Tom loves Julie, and Julie loves Frank.”
No comma needed here
A correlative pair is a pair of words or phrases that connects the meaning of two parts of the sentence. They must always be used in these pairs, i.e., you can’t use just the first part of the pair. Here are some examples of correlative pairs.”
Commas with introductory phrases
An introductory adverbial phrase is a phrase at the beginning of the sentence (introductory) that tells something about the main verb (adverbial), such as when it occurred, how, or to what degree. Consider this sentence.
“After reading the newspaper, John felt relaxed.”
Subjects, predicates, and commas, pt. 1
Every complete sentence has a subject and predicate. We have used the term subject many times, but you may not be familiar with the term predicate. Basically, the predicate is the main verb in the sentence and everything that modifies or extends it.
Subjects, predicates, and commas, pt. 2
In yesterday’s tip, we explained that a comma should not be placed between a subject and predicate, and this is true. However, if the subject ends with an appositive, interjection, or other type of phrase that is set off with commas, you will have a comma in that place.
Punctuation inside quotation marks
When providing a direct quotation or when using quotation marks to indicate that you are writing about a word or phrase, the comma or period that ends the phrase or sentence should be placed inside the final quotation mark.
How Many Apostrophes Do You Need?
Most people are familiar with using an apostrophe-S to show possession. Where this gets tricky, however, is when you have multiple owners of multiple things.
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The topic index helps you find the answers you seek.
Achieving your purpose
Express yourself confidently.
Another way to say this is “Don’t hedge.” Phrases such as “I think that,” “I assume,” “I believe,” and “It’s possible that” tell the reader that you are not confident in what you are saying.
Use big, positive conceptual terms to spin controversial ideas.
Words like freedom,honesty, truth, and supportare great. They invoke positive feelings in readers. They are “big” terms, meaning they express many ideas.
Change preaching language to persuasive language.
On day 165, we discussed the problem of preaching to your readers. To write persuasively and avoid angering your readers, revise your preaching sentences to objective sentences that connect an outcome to an action.
Indentify your cental idea.
Before you actually put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard, you engage in a variety of activities collectively called pre-writing. This is a misnomer because these activities are part of the writing process.
Your primary audience
Many people may read what you write. These are your audience. Your primary audience is the person or group of people who will directly receive, or buy what you write.
Writing for your audience
Once you have identified your ideas and organized them, the next step is to identify your primary audience. Whom do you expect will read what you write? The answer will affect everything you do when you write.
Make Your Point Obvious
If you have an important point to make, don’t try to be subtle or clever. Use a pile driver. Hit the point once. Then come back and hit it again. Then hit it a third time—a tremendous whack. (Winston Churchill)
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Maintain one voice in a sentence.
This specifically refers to the use of active and passive voice. In brief, this tip means use either the active or the passive voice in a sentence, not both. Consider this sentence.
Create transitions to the next paragraph.
The final sentences of a paragraph have two functions. First, they need to provide a conclusion, impact statement, or action statement relevant to the single idea of the paragraph.
Match gerunds with nouns, not with verbs.
A gerund is verb form, usually ending in –ing, that is the name of an action. For example, in the two sentences below, the first sentence uses “running” as a gerund naming an action, and the second uses “running” as verb describing an action.
Move adverbial phrases to vary sentence structure.
Based on many previous tips, you know that using the Subject–Verb–Object sentence structure helps you write clearly. However, you don’t want all your sentences to “feel” the same to the reader. Readers need variety, or they will quickly become disinterested in your content.
Using intro phrases for focus on the main idea
The most important information in the sentence should be placed at the end of the sentence. (See Day 5 for more about this.) However, some information requires additional explanation, which you may choose to place in the sentence, as opposed to providing it in the next sentence. This can create weak sentences.
How to write a sloppy sentence
You may think that writing a sloppy, weak, confusing sentence is difficult, but it is not. To do so, use these strategies. If you can use them all in one sentence, you will have a very sloppy sentence.
Writing that goes bump bump bump
Imagine running your fingers down a washboard, the type with the ridged surface that people once used to wash clothes. Your fingers are going to go bump-bump-bump-bump-bump. Now imagine you are reading a series of sentences that all start with the subject as the first word. Your brain will quickly realize the pattern of subject-content-subject-content-subject-content. And so on. Each subject makes a mental “bump.”
Metadiscourse is writing about what you are writing or will write. Direct, active writing will avoid or, at a minimum, reduce metadiscourse. It is generally unnecessary.
8 Tips to vary sentence length
The quality of a sentence is not determined by its length, long or short. Its appropriateness may be. A series of short sentences makes the writing seem choppy. A series of long sentences makes the writing tedious and boring. Writing a series of similar length sentences will be monotonous. Vary them. Here are 8 guidelines.
Parallelism in Series
Items in a series may be single words, phrases, clauses, or, even, entire sentences. These need to be written with a parallel, or same, grammatical structure. For example, all the items need to be adjectives, or all the items need to start with a present tense verb. This is important for two reasons.
There is a Bad Subject
The word there is often used as a subject. In nearly every case, this makes the writing wordy and loose.
Creating Transitions with Sentences
In the same way that paragraphs need transitions to help the reader understand their relevance, sentences need transitions. Actually, every sentence is a transition from the previous sentence to the next. This means that a sentence will refer to the information in the previous sentence and provide clues about what the next sentence will address.
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Document and content structure
Use topic chains to create cohesive paragraphs.
If you write a long paragraph (more than 4 or 5 sentences), how do you keep focused on the topic? How do you keep the reader aware of the main idea being discussed?
You are here: Signposts
Signposts are words that help the reader (and the writer) organize information. They are especially useful when you are providing a lot of information or information that is complicated. They tell the reader three things: here’s where we were, here’s where we are, and here’s where we are going.
Typical paragraph length
A paragraph discusses only one idea and has three basic components:
- context (why the paragraph is relevant and what it’s about),
- content (the discussion of the idea), and
- conclusion (impact/action and transition).
How many sentences in a paragraph?
How many sentences should a paragraph contain? Previously, we discussed one-sentence paragraphs and the 3 essential components in paragraphs (i.e., context, content, and conclusion). Other than the one-sentence paragraph, a paragraph generally contains 3 to 7 sentences. But this is only a general rule of thumb.
Framing paragraphs for cohesion
Framing means connecting the content at the beginning and end of a paragraph or section. This may be done by using similar (or same) words at the end as you used at the beginning. You may also frame paragraphs and sections more subtly by referring to the same concepts and ideas.
Only one idea per paragraph
The paragraph is the basic unit for expressing an idea, and each paragraph should only express one idea. This has two implications for effective writing. First, it helps you determine what to write. Second, it helps you keep your writing focused, cohesive, and concise.
Identify your central idea
The first part of the writing process is identifying the central idea, i.e., the one idea, one theme, one concept, that you wish to communicate. Your document will contain many ideas, but every idea should help the reader understand the central idea.
Linking sentences for smooth writing
Each sentence provides new information to readers. How do you connect the information, and how do you make the sentences seem logical and smooth? You use sentence transitions.
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Remove unnecessary that is/are and who is/are phrases.
Concise writing promotes reader understanding. It also helps keep the reader interested in what you are writing. Many of these tips discuss strategies for writing concisely and removing unnecessary words. This tip provides another strategy for concise writing.
Thus and therefore statements should follow logically from the previous statements.
The topic here is non sequiturs. Non sequitur is a Latin term meaning does not follow. A non sequitur is a problem with logic; it is a conclusion that isn’t logical, based on previous statements.
Change clichés for impact and engagement.
Here are two premises:
- Clichés are bad. People will notice them and think you don’t have any new thoughts. This is bad impact.
- Original language is good. People will notice it and think you have a new perspective on the topic. This is good impact.
That vs. which
Mistakes using that and which are probably the most common grammar problems we fix. These words communicate different meanings, so this grammar problem is really a communication problem.
You is the wrong word
Writers often use you to express a general observation, but it results in incorrect information. Recently, I edited a graduate-level paper that repeatedly used you inappropriately. One sentence said, “When you are in a meeting with your boss, you need to respect his right to express his opinions.” My response was “But I am the boss!”
I.E, e.g., like, such as
A quickie guide on on i.e. vs. e.g. and like vs. such as
Because vs. as
Many words in the English language have more than one meaning and more than one use. As is one such word. The primary use of as is to show that two or more actions are happening simultaneously.
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Quote books in the present tense and writers in the past tense.
When you take a quote from a book, you have to decide whether you are attributing the quoted material to the author or the book.
Use the passive voice here
The active voice is preferable to the passive voice in nearly every case. In the active voice, the sentence structure is as follows: Grammatical/rhetorical subject + main/rhetorical action + object of the action, i.e., the power structure. This is good writing. The passive voice will use the object as the grammatical subject, which generally produces weak writing.
Replacing weak verbs with action verbs
First, let’s define our terms. An action verb represents an action that can be viewed or performed. A weak verb is, simply, the opposite of an action verb. Examples of action verbs include perform, hold, state, create, and represent. Examples of weak verbs include can, seem, exist, and feel [the emotional activity]. All to be verbs are weak verbs, especially when followed by an –ing verb.
Replacing adverbs with action verbs
Adverbs describing actions are often overused, particularly those adverbs that end in -ly. A writer will use one of these adverbs to explain how an action is performed. A reader, however, will form a mental image of the action, and then must revise that image based on the adverbs.
Rhetorical action vs. main verb
The main action in a sentence is called the rhetorical action. The rhetorical action is the action that the sentence is about. The main verb and the rhetorical action might not be the same. (Generally, when we are trying to identify the rhetorical subject, we first have to identify the rhetorical action.)
Keep verbs as verbs
Words like eradication, utilization, usage, and transference sound very fancy. These words are nouns that come from the verbs eradicate, utilize, use, and transfer, respectively. The process of changing a verb into a noun is called “nominalization.” Nominalizations create weak, cumbersome, and pretentious writing.
Use active verbs to replace verb phrases
A verb phrase is a string of words that describe a single action. Concise writing is usually better than wordy writing, so whenever possible, we try to replace verb phrases with single action verbs.
Books are present–Authors are past
Quote books in the present tense. Quote authors in the past tense. When you take a quote from a book, you have to decide whether you are attributing the quoted material to the author or the book.
Are you convinced yet?
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