Thursday, February 23, 2012

How to pump up the writing '12

Every year, I'm wont to write a manifesto on how to write good. Well. Gooder. Goodly. Whatever.

As a guy who reads and marks thousands of college papers a year, I get a rare glimpse into the places that grade- and high-school grammar classes are too scared to go: a world of complicated "rules" governing the way we write and speak. 

The trouble is that troubled teens don't listen to grammar lessons anymore, because they're too busy downloading porn, sexting, and - coming soon! - watching TV on the inside of their Google glasses. Can you blame them?

I'll let the Limousines explain the rest:

Eight ways to improve your writing right now:

1. Know the difference between active and passive sentences. 

Dick Cheney speaks in passive sentences, so you know they're evil.
  • Example: "Mistakes were made."
Passive sentences suck, because it means that no one is taking responsibility for the action. When clients read passive sentences, it makes them crazy, because they think that you're telling them to do the action.
  • Example: "Posters will be hung. Social media will be launched. Ice sculptures will be carved."
Active sentences are better. They tell you who is doing what and are much more interesting to read.
  • Example: "I made mistakes." "We will hang posters." "You will launch the social media." "I will carve the ice sculptures." 
If you don't know who is performing the action, figure it out, then rewrite the sentence.

2. Run a spell check, then manually check any word you're not sure about. 

This year's winners for most misspelled: Guerrilla and YouTube.

3. Follow CP Style for consistency. 

What's the difference between 11:00 AM 23rd February and 11 a.m. on Thursday, Feb. 22?

The first one is some dude's idea of "what looks good" and the second one is CP Style's rule.

The problem with choosing "what looks good" is that it's never consistent, and you end up getting into fights with your clients because they have their own ideas about "what looks good."

When you follow CP Style, you can tell your client, "That's not correct. Here is how CP Style says to do it." Done.

CP Style is also helpful for letting you know whether it's "toward" or "towards." (Hint: if you're OK with "towards," you should also be OK with grandma calling it "Safeway's.")

The one exception: never use Canadian spellings when you're writing for a non-Canadian audience. In the U.S., the word "colour" looks like witchcraft. 

4. Eliminate unnecessary fat.
  • Example: "Mike and Mary are both going to jump off a bridge." 
 Eliminate the word "both." Yep, the sentence still works.
  •  Example: "We will all go to church on Sunday." 
Eliminate the word "all." Same deal.
  • Example: "We like Twinkies, Ding Dongs, as well as Ho Hos." 
Change "as well as" to "and." Same deal.

Good writers say the most with the fewest number of words.

5. Care about design. 

Make your writing easy on your readers. Write in short paragraphs, avoid hyphenating words at the end of sentences, and don't end or begin a page in the middle of a thought.

6. Know the difference between "that" and "who." 
  • Example: "Those are the girls who beat up old people."
People are "who."
  • Example: "Those are the houses that fell down."
Inanimate objects are "that."

Don't mix and match.

7. Know when you're using a word that might be misunderstood.
  • Example: "Candace and Amy went to the Hamptons and met some random guys at a random bar, and it was, like, all so totally random!" 
The word "random" has other meanings in advertising, PR, and research: a scientifically selected sample from a larger subset of individuals.

A good article on our obsession with the word random.

Of course, "random" is but one of these words. Keep your eyes and ears peeled for the next one, and use it sparingly or not at all.

8. Avoid making big leaps in logic. 
  • Example: "We will hang posters, and people will come to see our event.", exactly does this work?

Writing is hard work; it sometimes means explaining something that's very hard to explain, like how posters work at attracting our attention, and what can be done to turn that attention into action.

Resist the urge from jumping from Point A to Point B, and your clients will love you more for your ability to explain things that other writers cannot. 


Reminds me of the time that this random person told me this random story about this random event that randomly unfolded at the International House of Random. But that's another story...


  1. Good advice, but:

    "When you follow CP Style, you can tell your client, "That's not correct. Here is how CP Style says to do it." Done."

    I would say the Sun Tsu's "Know your enemy and know yourself" rule has to supersede this one. I have told a client that something is incorrect, and cited specific passages in English Simplified and CP Stylebook which backed my argument. The argument ended with the client getting it their way. Because some clients are like that.

  2. Witchcraft?!?!?!

    No wonder I get so many blog hits from America...

  3. Thanks for this concise and entertaining grammar lesson, Kenton! Really, you should cut the "Nobody cares!" tagline from your blog profile because lots of people care - maybe moreso AFTER they've left your classroom and found your lessons invaluable in the real world. Cheers!

  4. My writing will be improved.

    (cue The Empire theme from Star Wars)

  5. "Good writers say the most with the fewest number of words."


  6. Thanks for the post, I was scrolling down to see if it was available in a downloadable Morgan Freeman voice-over version but then I read the whole thing!!


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