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.

November 21, 2013

Don’t place a comma between the subject and predicate, part 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. Consider this sentence.

“The man with the broken nose stumbled on the broken flagstone.”

The simple subject is “man,” and the entire subject of the sentence is “The man with the broken nose.” The main verb is “stumbled,” and the predicate is “stumbled on the broken flagstone.”

According to this tip, you should not place a comma between the subject and predicate. While this seems pretty obvious with the simple sentence above, I see many clients put a comma there when the subject is complicated. Consider this sentence.

“When the following morning finally arrived, the president of the bank that collapsed when the stock market tumbled was found dead.”

Here, the subject ends with “stock market tumbled,” and the predicate is “was found dead.” Due to the complexity of the subject, with its multiple phrases and clauses, some writers will put a comma after “tumbled.” Regardless of the sentence’s complexity, however, no comma is needed there.

This is the strategy for day 210 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.

November 4, 2013

Major Writing Process—Editing

Let me give you three quotes that are particularly appropriate here (one of which you have already seen).

1.       It is perfectly okay to write garbage—as long as you edit brilliantly. (C. J. Cherryh)

2.       Rewriting is the essence of writing well: it’s where the game is won or lost. (William Zinsser)

3.       Rewriting is called revision in the literary and publishing trade because it springs from re-viewing, that is to say, looking at your copy again—and again and again. (Jacques Barzun)

After you write, put away your document. Leave it long enough so that you may see it without preconceptions and without remembering what you were thinking at the time. Then look at it again. Does it satisfy your purpose? Have you communicated clearly? Can you make it more concise without losing essential content? Are the ideas logically presented? Keep criticizing it, refining it, until it is as good as it can be. Then give it to others (perhaps your editor) to evaluate.

Here’s the primary point: Your first draft will need editing. The editing process is what will make your document an effective communication tool, regardless of the genre.

Here’s the secondary point: If others recommend (or make) changes, don’t be offended. First drafts will always need improvements.

This is the strategy for day 103 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.

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