Wednesday, March 23, 2011

I'd like to teach the world to write good

"Them that do nothing" = grammatically questionable.

Show me the greatest student work in the world, and I'll show you the teacher who doesn't want to mark it.

It's that time of year, when the pile of assignments waiting to be marked is higher than my blood pressure and the roller coaster of a school year flies off the tracks and leaves everyone needing Prozac, heavy drugs, and group hugs (thank you, Rent).

At Red River College, our students have just finished, or are working on, some of their heftiest assignments of the year - the PR proposal, the group magazine assignment, the Manitoba Travel Project, the Independent Professional Project proposal, the video montage, not to mention the harrowing shovel-snow-off-Kenton's-roof assignment.

In the history of civilization, no one has ever worked this hard. The Egyptians who built the Great Pyramid? Slackers! Ask a student, any student!

I recently finished marking the PR proposal; if the standard one-page assignment is a sprint, the PR proposal is a marathon - an unholy 20+ pages of promotional-plan badness, bound and gagged at Staples, wrapped with a black bow, and sealed with a kiss of betrayal.

It's a beast to write and mark - but it does accomplish its task of separating the men from the boys, the wheat from the chaff, and the cream from the cud (the rule of threes works, because you end with the hilarious one!).

Like the little girl with the little curl on her forehead, when the PR proposals are good, they're very, very good, and when they're bad, they're...not as very, very good.

What's the difference between good and otherwise? I thought you'd never ask!

How to write things goodly:

1. Read for typos

Pick a typo, any typo. Then correct it.

As any Great-West Life employee knows, the only way to proofread accurately is to read your work out loud while someone else follows along. It's painful, but it works. Going for drinks afterward helps.

If you don't know how to write, you need to find out quickly. Hire a tutor, ask the teacher, go online, and write, write, write all the time. Eventually, you'll figure it out.

2. Cut out unneeded words

As a writer, you should aim to make the greatest impact using the fewest words.

Here are the signs that you can edit your work a bit: you can remove these offending words and your sentence becomes more efficient without losing its meaning:
  • "Be able to" - "I will be able to promote my ads on Facebook."
  • "All" - "The people will all chase Frankenstein out of town."
  • "Both" - "I like both Heinz Ketchup and Relish." 
  • "Close proximity" - She works in close proximity of Charlie Sheen." 
  • "In between" - The ham is in between two pieces of bread.  

3. Avoid words that have no meaning
  • "Unique" - Do I need to go there again? I wrote all about it here. "Unique" is the word and work of the devil. 
  • "General public" - It's only the name of an 80s band. You have a target audience, market, or public that you aim to reach. If you're aiming for "the general public," you'll have no focus and you'll waste your client's money on a useless campaign.

4. Fix word usage

The correct word is in brackets:
  • The amount (number!) of Facebook followers
  • The people that (who!) work there
  • The poster images contain (include!) pictures of fudge. 
  • I'm walking towards (toward!) Safeways (Safeway!). 
  • Safeway treats their (its!) employees like crap.  
  • I like food as well as (and!) beverages. 
  • We will utilize (use!) Facebook to break up with our girlfriends.

5. Keep verb tense consistent

She has cook for me when I hangs the posters tomorrow!

When you write a sentence, ask yourself: Did your action happen in the past? Is it happening now? Will it happen in the future? Then use the handy chart to choose the correct tense!

6. Don't oversimplify how ads, new media, and PR work
  • Don't use lame verbs, like "offer" and "provide" if you actually want people to enjoy reading your ad and take action after they do. It wouldn't work on you, so don't insult your readers by using it on them.
  • In a rationale, avoid explaining the way ads, PR, and new media work like this: "People will see our Facebook page and hear our radio ad, and then they'll attend our event." If only it were so easy.

7. Avoid passive sentences

"Posters will be hung. Pamphlets will be printed. An event will be held. Facebook updates will be executed. Mistakes will be made."

To make these lines better, assign responsibility: "I will hang posters, print pamphlets, update my Facebook status, and make no mistakes."

And now: a drink will be consumed.


  1. A handy reference for us all. Thanks Kenton!

  2. The same rules apply in journalism.

    An instructor's biggest frustration: Having to repeat advice such as this.

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. Great post, Kenton! Wow, how quickly I forget about the little things that make writing (and reading) proposals easy and enjoyable. Bookmarked! Thanks.


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