Top Five Writing Tips
Learning to write well can be the work of a lifetime. If you’ve been doing other things with your life until now, we’ll get you caught up as quickly as possible with six tips to improve your writing (adapted from The Elements of Style by Strunk and White, a classic guide to better writing).
1. Above all, get your message across.
Your ultimate goal should be to make your ideas understandable to the reader. It’s natural to want to sound intelligent or trendy or poetic, but if you confuse or mislead the audience in your attempts to do so, you’ve failed. A writer’s job is to share knowledge with readers, not to seek their admiration.
2. Omit needless words.
The title says it all! If you use only as many words as necessary to make your point—no more, no less—your thoughts will be clearer and easier to follow.
3. Use common words, not obscure ones.
Do you know—without looking it up—what “pollex” means? If so, congratulations, but you should still avoid such obscure words when writing for a general audience. Readers will more likely be annoyed or intimidated than impressed by rare words, so just say “thumb.” Another reason to use common words: Nothing kills your credibility faster than misusing a word, and your chances of doing so skyrocket with an unfamiliar one.
4. Be specific.
An important part of conveying meaning is being as specific and accurate as possible. In the following example, the second sentence conveys a much sharper picture with the same number of words:
We had a bad winter storm. A foot of snow fell overnight.
Think two or more times about the words you choose, and ask yourself how closely they match reality. The more precise your language is, the more memorable your writing will be.
No one gets everything right the first time. As a service to your readers, review every draft with a critical eye—preferably with some lag time after writing to help you take a fresh look—and fix errors, omit needless words, and rethink your word choices. If someone else is willing to read your draft and offer constructive criticism, even better. We can be amazingly blind to our own faults, so don’t rely on your eyes alone.
6. We can help.
If you’ve done all you can to improve your writing but still feel like it’s not hitting the mark, a second opinion could be invaluable. Our language gurus are happy to help, so give us a call today!
Top Five Grammar Tips
Did you learn just enough grammar to pass your English final and then forget it all? You’re not alone. Refresh your memory with our handy list of the top five tips for improving your grammar. (These tips are indebted to The Elements of Style by Strunk and White, a classic guide to better writing, and The Chicago Manual of Style, an essential resource for anyone who works with words.)
- A subject and verb must agree in number.
A singular subject takes a singular verb, and a plural subject takes a plural verb. Usually native English speakers have no trouble using the correct verb form.
He does his grocery shopping once a week.
We do our grocery shopping once a month.
However, some scenarios can be tricky—like compound subjects. When a compound subject is joined by “and,” it takes a plural verb, even if the last element is singular.
The members of the audience and the speaker were startled when the fire alarm went off.
When a compound subject is joined by “or,” the verb agrees with the last element of the subject.
The bridesmaids or the bride decides on the color of the bridesmaids’ dresses.
Another confusing situation is when a phrase follows the subject. The words in the phrase are irrelevant to subject-verb agreement; the verb should still agree with the subject.
One of the preschoolers is left-handed. [“One” is the subject; it takes the singular verb “is” in spite of the intervening plural noun “preschoolers.”]
- A pronoun or adjective and the word it refers back to—the antecedent—must agree in number.
A singular antecedent takes a singular pronoun or adjective. A plural antecedent takes a plural pronoun or adjective. Again, usually native English speakers have no trouble using the correct form.
Jenna took her chinchilla to the vet for an annual checkup.
Darby and I took our goat for a stroll in the garden.
The most frequent issue with this rule is when the gender of a singular antecedent is unknown. The singular pronoun is either masculine (he) or feminine (she), but it’s increasingly common, though technically incorrect, to refer to a singular antecedent of unknown gender with the plural pronoun (they). “He or she” is correct but can get clunky. Alternating “he” and “she” and using combined forms like “s/he” are also awkward. Agreement of a possessive adjective (his/her/their) can cause the same dilemma. If possible, rewrite to avoid the issue—using a different word and making the subject plural to match a plural pronoun or possessive adjective are common fixes. Here’s an example with a possessive adjective.
Incorrect, but common:
Someone left their hat in the kitchen.
Correct, but awkward:
Someone left his or her hat in the kitchen.
Someone left a hat in the kitchen.
- Enclose parenthetical expressions in commas—and be sure to use both opening and closing commas.
When a phrase (in this case, a book title) can be entirely removed from the sentence without affecting its meaning, it is parenthetical and takes commas:
Margaret Mitchell’s novel, Gone with the Wind, is one of the most popular of all time. [She wrote only one novel, so the title isn’t necessary.]
If removing the phrase makes the sentence ambiguous or ungrammatical, do not use commas:
Barbara Kingsolver’s novel The Bean Trees is the only book-club pick I’ve read all the way through. [She’s written many novels, so the title is necessary.]
In the following example, the presence or absence of the phrase changes the meaning of the sentence, so make sure you know what is intended—or ask if you don’t!
The audience members who filled out their evaluation forms hated the presentation. [Some audience members didn’t fill out evaluation forms, but those who did hated the presentation.]
The audience members, who filled out their evaluation forms, hated the presentation. [All audience members filled out evaluation forms and hated the presentation.]
- Keep related words together. If a phrase is too far from the word or phrase it refers to, confusion can result.
Corporations previously relied on law firms for all their legal needs, who supported them on every step of a legal matter. [The phrase after the comma describes “law firms,” not “needs.”]
For all their legal needs, corporations previously relied on law firms, who supported them on every step of a legal matter.
Also, an introductory phrase should refer to the grammatical subject. Otherwise, it could be misunderstood.
On arriving in Chicago, his friends met him at the airport. [As written, this sentence says his friends arrived in Chicago, but it’s inaccurate if he’s the visitor.]
When he arrived in Chicago, his friends met him at the airport.
- In parallel structures, if an introductory word applies to every element of the list, it should appear once, before the first element. If not, the equivalent should be repeated before each element, or the sentence might need to be rewritten to remove parallelism.
She volunteered at the library, the blood bank, and knitted blankets for preemies. [Two items are introduced by a verb, and one is not.]
She volunteered at the library and the blood bank and knitted blankets for preemies. [Parallel structure removed.]
I found dust bunnies in the closet, the corners of the room, and under the bed. [Two items are introduced by a preposition, and one is not.]
I found dust bunnies in the closet, the corners of the room, and the space under the bed. [“In” introduces all three places.]
I found dust bunnies in the closet, in the corners of the room, and under the bed. [One preposition doesn’t apply to all three places, so different prepositions introduce each place.]
Now you’re ready to conquer the five biggest grammar issues. But if you’re still in need of editing services, our language gurus would be happy to help—give us a call today!