We’ve all seen those lists with two columns: the first one consists of dozens of million-dollar “fancy” words like ascertain, circumvent, and endeavor. The second column is a list of ten-dollar “everyday” words—find out, avoid, and try—that are replacements for the fancy ones in the first column. The idea behind this writing tip is that if you use too many fancy words, you’ll sound like a pedant or stuffed shirt. But you need to view and apply these lists with a little common sense. When writing a document, if your Writer’s Intuition tells you that ascertain is the exact right word to use, then use it.
“When we were young and fast and invincible, the Road Runner was our hero. Impervious to danger, the Road Runner ran without tiring, scooted without fear and beep-beeped coolly like a blue James Bond. But as I look down now from this creaking tower of years, I see it was the Coyote who deserved my admiration. That TV show was never about the Road Runner. It was always about the Coyote. The Coyote was determined. Determined is a word much misunderstood. Obstinate people are not determined. They merely suffer from too much pride. Stubborn people are not determined. Stubbornness is willful ignorance. Determination is an unblinking willingness to pay the price as often as it must be paid. Determination is never losing sight of your objective, no matter what comes along to distract you. Determination is endurance. How about you? If Failure appears without warning and throws you onto the rocks below, will you happily crawl out of that smoking crater and go back to work?” Roy H. Williams, author, The Wizard of Ads.
Now… go start that big writing project you’ve been putting off.
“The time to begin writing an article [or any document] is when you have finished it to your satisfaction. By that time you begin to clearly and logically perceive what it is that you really want to say.” This is Twain’s humorous way of saying “writing is rewriting”—a tip we all know, but is so very hard to put into practice, especially when writing under a deadline. However, the more we hear it and practice it, the better chance this tip will become part of our writing process.
Tip: Don’t overuse the to be verb (am, is, are, was, were, be, being, been) or the have verb (have, has, had) in your sentences. When you edit your work, look for any forms of these verbs and replace them with stronger ones. Choose verbs that have specific meanings, so readers aren’t left with vague descriptions. For example, revise “The CEO has a positive effect on our company” to eliminate the weak has verb and revise the sentence so that it describes what the “positive effect” actually is: “The CEO brings strong leadership to our company.” Also, use the present and past tenses of verbs—it keeps your writing more immediate and “in the present”—instead of the present- and past-progressive tenses. For example, replace “She is thinking” with “She thinks” or “He is working” with “He works.”
Mark Twain wrote by following rules. His own. Here is one we should all follow: “Substitute damn every time you’re inclined to write very. Your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.” This is a humorous way of saying, “Eliminate unnecessary words. Everything you write should be clear and concise.” Words we can all write by.
It’s National Proofreading Day on March 8th! As a gift from The Executive Writer, here is a list of proofreading tips that will ensure everything you write is clear, concise and error-free:
- Use a spell checker and grammar checker on the document as a first screening, but don’t depend on them.
- Then print out the document you need to proofread.
- Read it out loud once and then a second time silently.
- Read it backwards to focus on the spelling of words.
- As you read, use a screen (such as a blank sheet of paper) to cover the material not yet proofed.
- Point with your finger to read one word at a time.
- Don’t proof for every type of mistake at once—do one proof for spelling, another for missing/additional spaces, consistency of word usage, font sizes, etc.
- Keep a list of your most common errors and proof for those on separate “trips.”
- Ask yourself who, what, when, where, why, and how when proofreading for content. Does the text answer all the questions you think it should?
- Write at the end of the day; proofread first thing in the morning. (Usually, getting some sleep in between helps.)
- Listen to music or chew gum. Proofreading can be boring business. Anything that can relieve your mind of some of the pressure, while allowing you to still keep focused, is a benefit.
- Have others read proofread your document.
It’s National Grammar Day! But what, exactly, do we mean by the word, grammar? Most people define it very simply as “writing rules.” But grammar has a much more extensive and complex definition. What better day than today to take a closer look at the word:
Grammar is the study of words, how they are used in sentences, and how they change in different situations.The Ancient Greeks used to call it grammatikē tékhnē or “the craft of letters.” The word, however, can have any of these meanings:
- The study of a language: how it works, and everything about it. This is referred to as “background research on language.”
- The study of sentence structure. Rules and examples show how the language should be used. This is referred to as “correct usage grammar,” as in a textbook or writing guide.
- The system which people learn as they grow up. This is referred to as “native-speaker’s grammar.”
When we speak, we use the native person’s grammar, or as near as we can. When we write, we try to write with correct grammar. So, speaking and writing a language each have their own style.
When you expand your vocabulary, you expand your mind. So start expanding, by thumbing through a thesaurus and jotting down new favorite words to use in your everyday speech and writing.
There’s no better time to start than National Thesaurus Day, which just so happens to be January 18th! The first modern thesaurus, Roget’s Thesaurus, was compiled in 1805 by Peter Mark Roget. Since its publication, it has never been out of print.
The word thesaurus is derived from the Greek word thēsauros, which means “treasure.” A fitting name given that a thesaurus is a treasure chest of words!
According to Roget, the main purpose of his book is to enable users “to find the word, or words, by which [an] idea may be most fitly and aptly expressed.”
To help you get started, click on this link to thesaurus.com and start to expand, enlarge, inflate, stretch, dilate, distend, fatten, and tumefy your vocabulary!
“It is perfectly okay to write garbage—as long as you edit brilliantly.”
– C. J. Cherryh
Wordy, convoluted, unclear writing has been a problem for centuries in both the public and private sectors. But the federal government took a big step to address the issue by passing the Plain Writing Act of 2010. Simply put, the Act states that every document a federal employee writes that will be read by a taxpayer must be written in plain English. Here are some of the highlights of the Act:
- The purpose of this Act is to improve the effectiveness and accountability of Federal agencies to the public by promoting clear Government communication that the public can understand and use.
- The head of each agency shall designate one or more senior officials within the agency to oversee the agency implementation of this Act, communicate the requirements of this Act to the employees of the agency, and train employees of the agency in plain writing.
- Agencies will also create and maintain a plain writing section of the agency’s website that is accessible from the homepage of the agency’s website.
- Beginning not later than one year after the date of enactment of this Act, each agency shall use plain writing in every document the agency issues or substantially revises.