Weekend Wrinkle: Speling – I Mean “Spelling” – Troubles

I’m lucky. I was trained to be a good speller since I was a child. I’d ask my mother how to spell something, and she’d direct me to a dictionary.

Reading – a lot – also helps. Words are symbol combinations. Spelling is primarily recognizing and using the correct symbol combinations.

We want to spell well to keep our writing clear. Creative spelling makes things difficult for the reader, something we always try to avoid, right?

Now, I still have problems spelling lots of words: truly and judgment among them. So what do we do to keep it correct?

Spell checkers help, especially with the old “typing so fast I transpose letters” problem. However, the big limit to these is synonyms. Spell checkers can’t catch words spelled correctly but used incorrectly.

I keep a dictionary nearby, which also helps. If something doesn’t look quite right, I look it up. One trick I learned recently is to write the correct spelling of my “demons” on a list nearby so I don’t have to look them up all the time. (There are just some words that, for whatever reason, I will never get right.)

If you have trouble spelling, it’s a good idea to have someone else look over your writing. Fresh eyes catch embarrassing mistakes.

How do you deal with your spelling struggles?


Pair Beauty with Substance


“Oh! You won’t believe our new website. It’s beautiful and so professionally done!”

The young woman, a member of a local nonprofit, was very enthusiastic about the organization’s new website, so I eagerly looked it up when I got home. She was partly right.

The site was visually stunning. The photos were superb, the colors were well used and balanced, and there was just enough animation to be interesting without being annoying. It was everything we like to see in a well designed web site.

Then I started to read.

There were serious (and I mean serious) word use and grammar errors. It’s not like they were buried deep in the content, either. Some were right there in flashing headlines.

It was like opening a beautifully wrapped present only to find a moldy, half-eaten PBJ inside.

On the other hand, you could have the best content in the world, but if it looks like garbage, it will be treated like, well, garbage. In that case, it is like wrapping a diamond in wrinkled newspaper that had already been used to wrap fish.

No matter how stellar the words are, we need to dress them up nicely to get people to look. (This can be a struggle. Take it from someone who has discovered that WYSIWYG isn’t always what you get.)

But getting people to look isn’t enough to make it “professional.” The content — the message — has to be clearly and cleanly written. After all, the purpose of a website is to show people what we can offer them. If we can’t explain it clearly (and without blatant errors), they won’t stick around long enough to discover the gems we offer.

This tension between content and design isn’t new to the Internet. It has been around as long as people have presented writing to a public. There has always been a need to balance beauty with substance.

The good news is that, in our electronic age, it’s a lot easier to fix.

Now all I have to do is try to figure out a gentle way to tell all those nice people that they need someone to copy edit their site…

The Power in ‘Once Upon a Time…’

Once uponThe house creaked as the winter wind howled outside. Although it retained some of its 1870s grandeur – the cherry moldings, the columned entryway to the living room, the kitchen’s wainscoting – the house had undergone many changes over the years.

“Trying to tell me your life story?” she thought as she snuggled deeper into her recliner. “And what stories you could tell…”

Stories – they are the most powerful way humans communicate. Every writer – sometimes deep, deep down – wants to write a great novel. (C’mon, you know you do!)

Why? Why do we “torture” high school students with 500-year-old Shakespeare plays? Why are Aesop’s Fables and fairly tales by the Brothers Grimm still being told or read to children? Why do we read works like The Lord of the Rings over and over again?

What gives a story its power? All stories offer some universal truths, but it is the way they put them before us that make them powerful.

I could tell you to forgive your kids for foolish choices even if they blow all their money and need to move back home. Or I could say that you may think you’re a nice person, but it is your actions that are the real test.

Who is going to remember that? But more than 2,000 years ago, Jesus told the parables of the Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan. Those stories were so powerful, their titles have become part of our everyday language.

Yet stories are not just for fiction. Businesses large and small know the value of telling their “story.” Every business or organization has an “About Us” page. A good story keeps the company in the customer’s mind.

So, how do we tap into this power? Well, we need the secret ingredients. (Okay, they’re not so secret, but we often forget them.) We need:

  • a protagonist (hero, heroine – whatever) with a problem
  • the conflict between the problem and arriving at the solution
  • the protagonist solving the problem
  • life with the problem solved

Simple, right? Hold on there! Not so simple. We need to be able to combine these in the right way to make it successful.

So here’s my attempt to tell you the story of John S. Pemberton.

It was 1886, and Atlanta, Georgia had just passed prohibition. This meant renowned local pharmacist and chemist John S. Pemberton could no longer sell Pemberton’s French Wine Coca there.

He had created the drink, based on a French formula, to aid digestion, give strength to muscles and the nervous system, and provide a boost of energy. It was all based on the “miraculous” properties of the coca plant, sacred to the Native South American. Since a main ingredient of the formula was wine, it was now banned from Atlanta.

Pemberton did what any industrious inventor would; he went back to the drawing board. He substituted sugar syrup for the wine and renamed the concoction Coca-Cola.

The rest is history.

This information was taken from the New Georgia Encyclopedia.

To Allude, or Not to Allude

Right now, I am reading Umberto Eco’s The Prague Cemetery. I like Mr. Eco’s writing, but he is a tough read because he throws in so many literary allusions and foreign language (and Latin) phrases. I have to read him with a dictionary and search engine at hand.Shakespeare allusion

I’m willing to put in the work because I like his stuff. The problem is, I don’t want to work this hard all the time, which brings me to the subject of literary and social allusions.

I’m pretty well read, especially in classic literature, but I’m often faced with obscure allusions when I’m reading something I don’t want to spend too much time on. Then there are modern societal references that I just don’t get because I’m not in the mainstream of pop culture. (I am totally mystified by the whole Kardashian thing.)

When it comes to pleasure reading, missed allusions aren’t so important. However, we must make sure it doesn’t become a problem when we write to communicate ideas for work or school. We must understand our audience and make sure our ideas are clear.

This isn’t always easy. Sometimes I forget how young some of my students are, and I’ll refer to something that I think is recent history – like “Read my lips: no new taxes.” When I look out over the class, I see blank stares. Then I have to reboot my mind and find something more recent that my students are familiar with and can connect to – “Change we can believe in.”

In business, writers too often assume everyone will understand everything they write. They forget people don’t start out with the same background or knowledge base. We need to avoid the pitfalls of allusion and jargon to clearly communicate our ideas. In business, we don’t have the luxury of authors like Mr. Eco.

The thing most business readers have in common is the need for quick clarity. Allusions sometimes are barriers to this.

“Clarity is the thing…”

Note: Crime novelist P.D. James, creator of Inspector Adam Dalgliesh, died yesterday at age 94. I am thankful for her wonderful books and characters.

4 Reasons to Invest in Your Writing

Sometimes I feel like a prophet crying in the wilderness, glumly proclaiming, “You need to know how to write well in your job!”

People look at me out of the corners of their eyes and hurry past me, pretending that I’m not there. I assert an uncomfortable truth: poor writing is bad for business.

I’m not the only one out there saying this. There are lots of people more successful than I who are concerned with the lack of adequate writing skills in the workplace.

“What’s the big deal?” you ask.

I can give you four good reasons. It’s a question of an investment in your future.

1) Your writing is a reflection of you and your business.

Especially in an age of pervasive electronic communication, writing is a direct reflection on the writer. Poorly organized content and multiple grammatical errors make the writer (and by association the business the writer is representing) look disorganized and sloppy. For those seeking employment, how well you write can be the difference between getting the job and not getting it.

Kyle Wiens, CEO of iFixit and founder of Dozuki, writes about his “zero tolerance approach” to grammar errors in I Won’t Hire People Who Use Poor Grammar. Here’s Why.” He says, “In blog posts, on Facebook statuses, in e-mails, and on company websites, your words are all you have. They are a projection of you in your physical absence. And, for better or worse, people judge you if you can’t tell the difference between their, there, and they’re.”

2) Poor writing wastes time and is unproductive.

When someone has to stop and take time to decipher an e-mail, a policy statement, or directions, she is not doing her work. That means lost productivity. Lost time means lost money in the business world.

Rick Suttle, in “Importance of Writing Skills in Business,” emphasizes this: “These written messages must be concise and self-explanatory, so workers can be productive and not waste time asking for further instructions.”

3) Being able to pay attention to details when writing is a skill that can be transferred to other tasks.

I’ve been called a fanatic and nitpicky when it comes to grammar. However, the ability to track and correct all the little things during writing and revision is a skill that can be used in other tasks.

Mr. Wiens explains that “programmers who pay attention to how they construct written language also tend to pay a lot more attention to how they code.” Good writers tend to make fewer mistakes when they are doing other things.

4) Companies are putting more stress on writing skills when hiring.

Businesses realize that poor writing skills can cost them money but are faced with job candidates who can’t write clearly or understandably. “As a result, jobs are going unfilled and companies are spending as much as $3 billion per year to bring employees’ writing to an acceptable level,” writes Mark James Miller in Shortage of Writing Skills in the Workplace.”

If companies are willing to spend $3 billion a year to improve writing skills, how much money would they potentially lose if they didn’t? It’s mind boggling!

The good news is that anyone can improve her writing – with hard work and practice. In the long run, it will be time well spent if it gets you that job or that promotion.

10 Forbidden Phrases

John Bosco, the patron saint of editors, must hate me.

I have spent a lifetime twecut out wordinessaking others’ writing (professionally or compulsively), but grading composition papers at the junior college level is the toughest assignment yet.

Do you think I’m kidding? I spent ten years as a newspaper editor and even did a stint correcting the essays of state mandated K12 tests (during which time the gods of penmanship exacted their revenge). I know what I’m talking about here.

The main problem is my students’ tendency to use phrases and words that don’t do anything. They infuse their writing with trite clichés, repetition, and bloated phrases. Why? I can only attribute it to one thing: the dreaded word count.

My students are absorbed with meeting the minimum required words in assignments. I have seen some stop during tests to count each word on their paper to make sure they hit the requirement so they can stop writing. They seek quantity, not quality.

I tell them that, if they are adding enough detail and description, the words will come making the word count a non-issue. Some never believe me. So, in an attempt to save the lingering shreds of my sanity, I have come up with a list of banned phrases. These are things I never want to see in any of their writing:

  1. “In this day and age” or any of its versions – Use “now,” “today,” or, better yet, the present tense of the verb.
  2. “Nowadays” – See above. So many can’t even spell it correctly.
  3. “Due to the fact that” – What’s the matter with “because”?
  4. “The reason for this is because” – Basically, this is a six-word phrase that means nothing. Just make the statement.
  5. “We as humans” – What else would we be, giraffes?
  6. “In my humble opinion” – If you are writing it, it is your opinion. This is just a pompous waste of space.
  7. “What I think is” – A less pompous version of the previous phrase.
  8. “Being that” – Besides being poor writing, any sentence that starts this way is sure to present grammatical difficulties.
  9. “In the day” or “back in the day” – What day, exactly, was that? It’s like saying, “in days of yore.”
  10. “And also” – This one sets my teeth on edge. The two words mean the same thing. Why are people compelled to throw “also” in where it doesn’t belong? Would they write “Dear dear Bob Bob, I I love love you you”? No! So leave out the “also”!

There are so many more of these phrases out there that I just can’t think of right now. Maybe I have some sort of psychological block, but I know unneeded words when I see ’em.

What are some forbidden phrases on your list?

Save $s, Write Clearly

I always try to advocate clear writing, especially in business.money in toilet

Christina Desmarias, of Inc. magazine, does a fantastic job of giving useful suggestions in her post “7 Quick Tips for Better Business Writing.”

I especially like her tip for keeping e-mails to five sentences or less since many people are reading them on smart phones. That’s something I hadn’t thought of.

I urge you to read through the post and keep her tips in mind in your own writing. I know I will!

Editors Against Passive Voice

I’m prejudiced. Yes, I admit that I hate passive voice.Passive Voice Boot

Unfortunately, so many people out there just love passive voice. Leading the charge are academics and government workers. (I’m leaving out lawyers; that’s a totally hopeless verbal morass best ignored.)

Let me explain. Passive voice occurs when the thing or person a verb acts upon becomes the subject. We can usually tell it’s happening because a form of the verb to be with the past participle pops up:

The long, boring text in passive voice was read by the editor.

As an editor, I am obligated to try to convert writers to the active side. It’s a struggle. I tend to collapse in a heap after a long ordeal with passive voice, large clumps of my own hair peeking out through my clenched fingers, tears of frustration building in my eyes. (Is it possible for woman to end up looking like Perry White from the ’60s show Superman? I sure hope not!)

The problem is, we’re all programmed to think that writing in passive voice makes us sound “smart” since that is how all the mucky-mucks in academia write. If passive voice really were the “smart” way to write, we’d all read college textbooks for pleasure. (“The abnormal psychology book was read by me, and excitement was generated!”)

So many fall into the passive voice trap. One area is business writing where convoluted writing, along with jargon and trendy phrases (topics for another day and another tirade) can actually hurt the bottom line. No one in business has the time to decipher writing that seems to have stepped out of the 1700s where folks wrote in a form equivalent to a bad Latin translation.Time is money, and muddy, unclear writing causes confusion and mistakes.

Sure, sometimes we need to write in passive voice but only when the noun or pronoun taking the action is the important piece in the puzzle:

John F. Kennedy was shot in 1963.

How insidious is passive voice? When I was managing editor for a newspaper chain, I had one writer (who had a graduate degree, mind you) who consistently wrote in passive voice – for news stories! I constantly had to rewrite all that writer’s stories. Ticked me off big time!

“What’s the big deal?” you ask. “What’s so terribly wrong with sounding smart?”

It’s wrong because it’s selfish writing. People who are more concerned with sounding intelligent are full of themselves. We should write to clearly convey a message or a meaning. We write for the audience, not for ourselves. We should use passive voice only when necessary, not as the prevailing tone for all our writing.

Folks, use the active voice! It is so much more interesting and effective.

Flipping — Not Flipping Over — Grammar

flipping grammar

2day were gonna talk bout good grammer & how to teach it?

Go ahead and laugh. These types of writing mistakes are more typical of our graduating high school seniors than we may want to admit. Although it might be fine for text messages to friends, it is totally inappropriate in almost any business communication.

How do we make sure that our students in post secondary education go out into the business world equipped with proper grammar skills? How can we get in the proper practice without having to take up too much class time we’d prefer to spend honing organizational skills?

One thing I have been experimenting with the past couple of semesters in my composition course is flipping the grammar material. I assign students reading and review of a grammar rule or problem along with an exercise. Then I give a quiz at the beginning of the next class. The quizzes don’t count for a great deal, and students are allowed to collaborate on the answers. (My classes are small, so they can usually do it as a group. With larger groups, I try to pair off students.) There are also online practice quizzes and worksheets for additional practice. I have even been creating short videos to help the students learn the concepts. (They aren’t compelling, stellar productions, but they are designed to help students visualize proper grammar.)

The idea is to make students responsible for going over and practicing the grammar on their own. They are expected to be prepared when we go over the concepts quickly again in class. The process is designed to cut down the time spent drilling grammar rules and to concentrate in improving the clarity of and meaning in their writing.

As further reinforcement, I will have students correct mistakes in paragraphs. (Sometimes I call it “Grade the Instructor”; sometimes I even get an F.) They understand that they are responsible for recognizing and correcting grammar mistakes in their own writing.

So far, I’m having mixed results. I think the main problem is getting students to understand the importance of completing the assignments outside of class. Most people dislike grammar to begin with, and dealing with it on their “own time” is not a high priority.

Relevance is important in education. By stressing how proper grammar helps make writing clearer and connecting that idea with how marketable good writing skills are, I try to encourage my students to take the flipped grammar process seriously. In return, I will continue to try to find innovative ways to make grammar, if not fun, at least more palatable.

What kinds of things do you do to help make teaching grammar more effective?

Tweet Like a Songbird

Microblogging, with services like Twitter, is a great way to grab readers and direct them to more information (and to your website). But we need to make sure we still follow the paths of connection and clarity.

We first need to make a connection with readers, something they will immediately understand or, even better, emphasize with. People are more likely to respond to a common experience or a common idea.

Then we need to make sure what we write is clear to all the readers we want to reach. We need to avoid unfamiliar jargon or references. In Twitter, we also need to avoid using too many unfamiliar hashtags and links.

tweet 1

In this first tweet under “freelance writing,” the writer has included lots of links but doesn’t make the main idea clear. It seems like a foreign language to those of us who don’t follow the account. Notice that there are only four retweets and three favorites.


tweet w

This tweet, on the other hand, has two sentences that any freelance writer can emphasize with. Notice that it has 32 retweets and 67 favorites. Yet, there aren’t any links, other than the account’s profile, in the message. It makes the reader work to find out more.


nhra tweet

This tweet has a combination of a sentence any drag racing fan would understand followed by a variety of links. This tweet is different than the first because it gives clear information on the subject as well as provides links for finding more information.

rangers tweet

I really love this tweet (and it’s not just because I’m a Ranger fan). It compactly provides everything a reader needs to know about what’s going on and ways to easily find out more. A hashtag link is provided in the text. Even non-Ranger fans will understand what it refers to since it is under the Rangers’ account. It taps into a subject any sports fan can relate to – it’s game day. It also includes a neat photo that says it all for a Ranger follower: new, clean ice over the Ranger logo. Another season of hockey begins. The tweet even connects to the fans’ anticipation. It’s like waking up on Christmas morning.

This last tweet was written by a professional, but amateurs as well as writers new to the technology can learn from it and apply the principles to their own microblogging.

The text in microblogging may be brief, but we still need to remember to follow the paths of connection and clarity.