Barbara McNichol and Word Trippers
In this era of mass communication and instant messaging, it's important to have your language and usage skills in place before you push the SEND button. As Barbara states in tip #9 of the article, "Set a Clear Objective" for your writing before you begin typing. Words are powerful, and using the correct ones at the correct time focuses your power in the right direction. Barbara's been compiling and sharing her list of "Word Trippers" on a weekly basis since 2001, and compiles the entire list -- currently over 300 -- into an ebook that's available on her website for FREE until January 14, 2009, when she'll begin selling it for an introductory price of $16.95. Here's a sample from our email archive from Jan 2002: At the beginning of an article or a talk, you may be tempted to list a string of questions to pique interest in your subject. In my opinion, that “string” should not exceed three questions. The reader or listener can’t easily track all the directions those questions may lead, so keep them to a minimum. Sympathy, empathy – “Sympathy” is having pity or compassion for another’s troubles without necessarily sharing their feelings; “empathy” is putting yourself in another’s place emotionally. “My sympathy goes out to those injured in the hurricane. I feel much empathy for those people I know personally.” Quite, quiet – “Quite” is an adverb meaning completely or very; “quiet” means be still, calm, silent. “The crowd became quite quiet after singing the national anthem.” Climactic, climatic – “Climactic” refers to a climax, which is an intense point or moment leading to an ending, while “climatic” refers to weather conditions. “The weather announcer predicted climactic results for people close to the center of the storm in his report on climatic changes.” ======= Visit www.BarbaraMcNichol.com and sign up to receive “The Best of Word Trippers” FREE ebook, along with her email newsletter “Word Tripper of the Week.” Give your vocabulary and usage a boost in the New Year!
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10 Top Techniques for Perfecting Your Prose So You Can Write Like a ProAs a writer with a message to share and a story to tell, you want to communicate clearly so your readers will do, think, or remember exactly what you want. By consistently applying the following ten techniques to your writing, you’ll add persuasion to your writing and quickly see your results improve.
Keep this list in front of you the next time you write an article or chapter, and refer to it as you craft your paragraphs.
#1. Match the Word to Its Precise Meaning
Do you write “further” when you mean “farther” or “accept” instead of “except”? Selecting the correct word from similar-but-different options saves confusion for the reader and embarrassment for you as the writer.
Jump into your dictionary to know whether to select “choose” vs. “chose” within the context of your paragraph. Better yet, keep a reference guide like Word Trippers (see sidebar) handy—one that clarifies a word so you select the perfect one when it matters most.
#2. Show, Don’t Tell
Do your best to describe what’s happening without using adverbs and adjectives. e.g., Don’t say, “She felt sad” when you can say “tears rolled down her cheek.”
Don’t say, “She was happy to get the compliment” when you can say “she skipped around in a circle, her mood lightened by the compliment she received.”
#3. Add Alliteration (and Other Figures of Speech)
Figures of speech add fun and persuasion to your writing. A few examples:
Alliteration: The first letter gets repeated. e.g., “It will dazzle and delight you.”
Simile: Makes a comparison using the word “like.” e.g., “It creeps up on you like a thick fog.” “Think like an editor.”
Metaphor: Says that something IS something else. e.g., “Keep the train of thought on track.” “Make hay while the sun shines.”
Chiamus: A sentence that mirrors itself. e.g., “Think not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country.” “Success in not the key to happiness; happiness is the key to success.”
#4. Ignite Sentences with Active Verbs
Ignite your sentences by using active verbs like achieve, adopt, align, boost, bridge, capture, clarify, connect, create, define, design, ensure, find, focus, gain, grasp, ignite, improve, inspire, learn, master, overcome, persuade, prevent, realize, reduce, scan, sharpen, simplify, stretch, unleash. A pet peeve: using the word “utilize” when its modest synonym “use” works just fine.
Active verbs overcome passive sentence construction. Active construction occurs when someone does something to someone else; passive is when an action is being done to someone. Which of these sentences is more effective?
Passive—“The piano was played by the student.”
Active—“The student played the piano with grace and dexterity.”
#5. Get Them to Agree
When you put a singular subject with the plural form of the verb, you weaken your writing, confuse your reader, and make grammarians groan. E.g., “A group of golfers were in town.” The subject of the sentence “group” is singular while the verb “were” belongs with a plural subject. Instead, write this: “A group of golfers was in town” or “Several golfers were in town.” Better yet, liven up the sentence with an active verb: “A group of golfers landed in town eager to play.”
#6. Nix Mixed Modifiers (aka Dangling Participles)
Check out this sentence: “When thinking about a good place to eat, many choices are available.” Are the “many choices” doing the thinking? I don't think so! This mixed modifier (aka dangling participle) gets in the way of crisp, intentional writing. Correct version: “When thinking about a good place to eat, the host had many choices.” Now who’s doing the thinking? The host.
#7. Talk Directly to Your Readers
Speaking directly to your readers is accomplished, in most cases, with a “you” orientation (not “I” or “we”). Using the second person “you” directs your communication to one individual and allows you to use commands that cut to the quick. E.g., Stop. Look. Listen. (Because reading is solitary, never say “many of you.”). Note: At times, using a “we” orientation feels more inclusive and perhaps less bossy. You might use a generally accepted statement that calls for “we,” e.g., “We’re subject to the vagaries of the weather.” But as a rule, don’t mix “you” and “we” in the same paragraph. You abruptly shift the point of view and require your reader to skip around. Instead, start a new paragraph to signal a shift in the point of view.
#8. Pursue a Parallel Path
Don’t let a mixed bag of parts of speech wiggle into your writing. Here’s what I mean: “His attitude makes a difference in changing, succeeding, and when he wants to move on.” Throwing in a non-parallel phrase at the end forces the reader’s mind to shift gears unnecessarily. Why? Because it breaks an expected pattern. Instead, strengthen the sentence by saying this: “His attitude makes a difference in changing, succeeding, and moving on.” Note: This rule of good writing taps into the power of three, which adds a rhythm and cadence that just feels right. E.g., Earth, wind, and fire. Winken, Blinken, and Nod.
#9. Set a Clear Objective
You might think writing requires just letting words flow like water out of a faucet. Not so. Sentences are more likely to dribble and spurt from your mind than overflow like a fountain. So use this planning technique to set the objective for your piece clearly in your mind. Answer these questions before you write the first line:
Target Audience —Who will read this? What do you know about them?
Purpose —What succinct, clear message do you want to send?
Benefits —What’s in it for the readers to read this and take action?
Call to Action —What do you want the reader to do, think, or remember as a result of reading your message? E.g. Attend this important meeting. Contact me.
Logistics —What logistics need to be spelled out? E.g., June 22 at 3 pm Eastern.
#10. Whack Wordiness
As you write, proofread, rewrite, and finalize what you’ve written, whack all the extra words you can to sharpen your message.
Take out these five wobbly words as often as you can:
• some “We rely on some long-standing methods.”
• much “Jobs on the internet reach a much larger audience than ever before.”
• very “Get ready to do a very good job.”
• that “Find information that you can apply easily.”
• really “Take out words that you really don’t need.
Note: The word “that” doesn’t substitute for “who” when referring to a human being. It’s not “a person that plays the piano” but “a person who plays the piano.”
Aim to eliminate extra phrases such as these:
• “there is” and “there will be” e.g., There will be many candidates who are already planning to move. Better: Many candidates may be already planning to move.
• “It is all about”; “the fact of the matter is.”
• “in regards to” e.g., There may be additional sites you should search out in regards to your industry. Better: Seek out additional sites related to your industry.
• “is going to” e.g., he is going to be a key asset. Better: he will be a key asset.
• “in order to” e.g., add key words in order to describe the position Better: add key words to describe the position
• “is intended to, meant to, designed to” e.g., The prescreen is intended to focus on key aspects. Better: The prescreen focuses on key aspects.
Get rid of redundancies such as:
• end result
• add more
• tally up
• future planning
Eliminate repeated words:
e.g., “Following a process for hiring, we followed the techniques in this book.” Better: “Following a process for hiring, we adopted the techniques in this book.”
Avoid writing long-winded sentences of more than 20 words by doing this:
• Chop a long sentence into two
• Change nouns to verbs (e.g., “the examination of” to “examine”)
• Question every single word, especially adverbs and adjectives, then take out the ones you really don’t need.
Example of editing a 44-word sentence (1.) down to a 21-word sentence (2.):
1. The subsequent chapters then will focus in great detail on each of the steps to make sure you know how to accomplish each step before proceeding to the next step and how to measure whether or not you are ready to move to the next step.
2. The subsequent chapters detail all 13 steps and show how to accomplish each one while measuring whether you are ready to move on.
Apply these top ten techniques and see your writing soar to a higher level of perfection than ever before!
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(Ed. note: here's a copy of the list to tape next to your computer monitor)
10 Top Techniques for Perfecting Your Prose
1. Match the Word to Its Precise Meaning
2. Show, Don’t Tell
3. Add Alliteration (and Other Figures of Speech)
4. Ignite Sentences with Active Verbs
5. Get Them to Agree
6. Nix Mixed Modifiers (aka Dangling Participles)
7. Talk Directly to Your Readers
8. Pursue a Parallel Path
9. Set a Clear Objective
10. Whack Wordiness
Copyright © 2009 Barbara McNichol
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Barbara McNichol writes and edits articles, books, and book proposals for authors, speakers, and entrepreneurs. She can be reached at 520-615-7910 or 887-696-4899 or online at email@example.com and www.BarbaraMcNichol.com.