300 Days of Better Writing

April 17, 2014

People don’t share body parts.


Writers can create strange visual images if they forget this simple rule. Consider this sentence.

“When people get a good idea in their head, they should act on it.”

Here’s the problem. According to this sentence, multiple people are sharing one head. This is a number agreement problem: plural people, single head. Here’s another, slightly more complicated, example.

“When the audience members hold a candle in their hand, the entire room lights up.”

Again, we are writing about multiple people, who cannot share one hand, so we need “hands.” This gives us the following:

“When the audience members hold a candle in their hands, the entire room lights up.”

However, this may imply that each person is using two hands to hold the candle, which may not be true. Perhaps each person only uses one hand to hold the candle. By solving the agreement problem, we have changed the meaning. (This example also seems to imply that all the audience members together are holding only one candle, which is another number agreement problem.)

Here’s my recommendation. Either make the body parts plural, as in the first example, or revise the sentence to avoid the problem. The second example can be revised several ways, but two possibilities are as follows.


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March 7, 2014

Use HUPAs sparingly.


HUPA is an acronym for “Hey, You! Pay Attention.” HUPA is our term for any phrase, word, or strategy that is specifically intended to grab the reader’s attention.

HUPAs can be created in many ways. When you start a sentence with attention getting words such as now and thus, you are using a HUPA. Any kind of inflammatory word, i.e., a word used to provoke a strong reaction, is a HUPA. Strings of short sentences are often HUPAs. Most rhetorical devices are HUPAs. Whenever you think to yourself, “That will get their attention,” you have probably created a HUPA.

Now for the tip, in 5 parts

  1. HUPAs are fine—and sometimes necessary. However, if you find yourself using HUPAs frequently, revise. Using too many HUPAs has a negative effect on readers.
  2. If you are trying to make everything seem like the most important information, then nothing will be the most important. All the information will be equally important.
  3. Using too many HUPAs indicates that the information isn’t interesting by itself and requires some strategy to make it seem interesting.
  4. Using too many HUPAs makes reading the text a tiring activity. You are simply “hitting” the reader too many times, which creates subconscious mental stress on the reader.
  5. An astute reader will realize that you are using strategies to artificially elevate the importance of the contents. This makes you seem amateurish and shifts the reader’s attention from the content to you.

Use HUPAs only when absolutely necessary.


This is the strategy for day 127 in 300 Days of Better Writing, available at Hostile Editing in PDF, Kindle, and paperback formats.

For a sample of 300 Days of Better Writing and other books by Precise Edit, download the free ebook.

February 11, 2014

Write and rewrite until you communicate clearly.


Failure doesn’t mean you are a failure . . . it just means you haven’t succeeded yet.

(Robert Schuller)

When I write a new article for publication, for posting on our blogs, or for inclusion in our training manual, I have someone else read it. Here’s the typical scenario.

I give the article to my marketing specialist. She points to a particular paragraph and says, “This doesn’t make sense to me.” We talk about it, and I rewrite it. I give it to her again, and she says, “Ok, I get it now, but it’s still too complicated. Can you make it simpler?” So I do it again.

In the draft article, I am trying to communicate certain ideas, but I’m failing. The words are all there, and they make sense to me, but I am not communicating. I keep re-working the article until I can clearly communicate those ideas.

This back-and-forth process we use is a necessary part of the writing process. I could say, “Ok, I give up. I’m tired of re-working this piece. I can’t do it. Just publish it like it is.” Then, and only then, will I be a failure. But when I stay with the process, I will succeed with my goal: communication.


This is the strategy for day 140 in 300 Days of Better Writing, available at Hostile Editing in PDF, Kindle, and paperback formats.

For a sample of 300 Days of Better Writing and other books by Precise Edit, download the free ebook.

February 7, 2014

From Bad to Good-Technical and Academic Writing


Academic and technical writing are far different than literary writing, such as novels and poetry. The primary purpose of academic and technical writing is to provide information about a defined topic to a specific audience. Whether you write graduate papers, professional journal articles, dissertations, white papers, manuals, websites, reviews, or similar documents, you are writing academic or technical documents.

Academic and technical writing can be bad writing. They can be complicated, tedious, and confusing. They can be terribly boring. Unfortunately, bad academic and technical writing is common (which makes bad writers nearly indistinguishable from their crowd of peers).

Why do people write badly? Possibly, they think the writing is supposed to be dull and confusing, or perhaps they think it sounds more professional. Maybe they have read a lot of poor writing, so when they review their writing, it sounds “right.”

On the other hand, academic and technical writing can be good writing. They can be clear and straightforward, logical, persuasive, and useful. They can be wonderfully interesting. Unfortunately, good writing is uncommon (which makes good writers stand out from their peers).  (more…)

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