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.
These two writing tips go hand-in-hand: “Start writing, no matter what. The water does not flow until the faucet is turned on.” — Louis L’Amour, and “You can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page.” ― Jodi Picoult. They are good reminders that when you have writer’s block, and we all do from time to time, you should write something, anything! to get the juices flowing.
1. “A sentence should never be cruel and unusual.” — William C. Burton, attorney
2. “I have made this letter longer that usual because I lack the time to make it shorter.” — Blaise Pascal, mathematician
3. “Clarity begins at home.” — Edie Schwager, speaker with the American Medical Writers Association
4. “The trouble with so many of us is that we underestimate the power of simplicity.” — Robert Stuberg, author and speaker
5. “I never write metropolis for seven cents when I can write city and get paid the same.” — Mark Twain, author
6. “When writing about science, don’t simplify the science; simplify the writing.” — Julie Ann Miller, former editor of Science News
7. “This report, by its very length, defends itself against the risk of being read.” — Winston Churchill, former British prime minister
8. “All good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. — Anne Lamott, author
9. “Good writing is clear thinking made visible.” — William Wheeler, journalist and author
10. “Easy reading is damn hard writing.” — Nathaniel Hawthorne, author
Plain writing (aka, plain language and plain English) is simply another term for clear and concise writing, something writing instructors have been trying to instill in their students for literally centuries. Plain Writing has a number of definitions. One good one is: “A communication is in plain writing if its wording, structure, and design are so clear that the intended readers can readily find what they need, understand it, and use it.” But Albert Einstein—a plain writing master long before the term was coined—made a keen observation that applies to writing and just about every other human endeavor: “Any fool can make things bigger and more complex, but it takes a touch of genius to go in the other direction.”