Friday, October 31, 2008

Duke's Tips

From Paducah Sun Managing Editor Duke Conover, a list of words that make writing sluggish. You can add these to the "evil words" list.

and/or — It's either "and" or "or." If it is both, tell the reader why. Also, avoid using a forward slash (/).

by — passive and unnecessary: The congressman was defeated by the newcomer; The newcomer defeated the congressman

community — What is a community? If you are writing about people in a club, school, business, town, city, state, nation, then describe it to the reader, who almost always thirsts for more information but with a compact use of words. "Community" doesn't say anything when the reporter uses it other than "I don't know either."

country — Never use "country" to describe people. People make up a nation; boundaries form a country where a nation lives. Many dictionaries in second and third reference indicate that "nation" and "country" are interchangeable. But actually, they are not.

issue — tell the reader what this is: a concept, problem, matter for (insert name) to handle, etc.

myself — Never use "myself" unless "I" also is in the phrase.

process — Almost everything is a process: the process of opening a business, opening a business; the process of writing a grant proposal, applying for a grant.

there or here — Both words, in any usage, are absolute wastes of space. My recent favorite (from another newspaper): "There are items there that cannot be found here." I knew I had to be in some editor's nightmare. I pinched myself. It hurt. And I was sitting in front of a computer reading a newspaper online.

David here: I'm not absolutist about these rules, but in most cases these words will weaken your writing, and in most cases you can find a way to write it better.

Friday, October 24, 2008


You say you want to be a writer but you're waiting for the right inspiration? I hope you're comfortable; it could be a long wait.

Or maybe you could take a tip from published writer.

Orson Scott Card, author and columnist, writes:
"Everybody walks past a thousand story ideas every day. The good writers are the ones who see five or six of them. Most people don't see any."

Willa Cather:
"Most of the basic material a writer works with is acquired before the age of fifteen."

My sister's favorite western writer, Louis L'Amour wrote:
"If you're going to be a writer, the first essential is just to write. Do not wait for an idea. Start writing something and the ideas will come. You have to turn the faucet on before the water starts to flow."

Jack London:
"You can't wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club."

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

C.S. Lewis

C.S. Lewis:
"Don't use words too big for the subject. Don't say 'infinitely' when you mean 'very'; otherwise, you'll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite."

Point well taken. But I would amend it to say don't use "very" ever. Choose a precise modifier and a precise noun. "Very" seldom adds any meaning. What is the difference between "She is gorgeous" and "She is very gorgeous"? And, not to quibble, but can something be "really" infinite? Infinite is that which cannot be measured in degrees.

It goes without saying that my critiquing the writing of the 20th century's greatest author is the equivalent of the beer-swilling loudmouth behind home plate calling Albert Pujols a bum.

Here's a C.S. Lewis quote I have no quibble with whatsoever:
"Literature adds to reality, it does not simply describe it. It enriches the necessary competencies that daily life requires and provides; and in this respect, it irrigates the deserts that our lives have already become."

Tuesday, October 14, 2008


Four times the fun

Does "times as many as" mean the same thing as "times more than"?
In other words, is it the same to say "200 is four times as many as 50" and "200 is four times more than 50"?
Not in my book. The first one is correct. But 250, not 200, is four times more than 50.
Use the first construction to avoid confusion.

Maddeningly common mistake

People frequently say they want to be "far from the maddening crowd." They mean instead the "madding" crowd, but because they're unfamiliar with the term, they substitute.
"Madding" means "frenzied."
"Far from the Madding Crowd" is the title of an 1874 work by the English novelist Thomas Hardy.

But what is more maddening than Madden himself?
And here's another John Madden prize: "The road to Easy Street goes through the sewer."

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Local what?

A story on today includes a paragraph that begins: "Tattered and crumpled on the ground, the Mammoth Lakes local found what appears to be two FAA cards that listed the name Steve Fossett."

You've gotta admire the local who had the presence of mind to notice and identify the cards as he lay tattered and crumpled on the ground. But what I really want to know is what happened to the local that left him like that?

Apostrophes for plurals, an unnatural phenomenon

Our reporter Bill Bartleman provides another exception to the rule that apostrophes aren't used to show plural. In today's story on the Executive Inn, he includes this quote from hotel buyer Bill Parsons: "Everything is agreed to with Mr. Singh and the only work is for the attorneys to dot the i's and cross the t's." Writers should use apostrophes in plurals that would otherwise be confusing: "dot the is and cross the ts."

The sentence also illustrates an example of when it is not necessary to use a comma before a conjunction separating two independent clauses. Leaving it out does not alter the meaning. No one would read it to mean: "everything is agreed to with Mr. Singh, and everything is agreed to with the only work." I would still have included the comma, however, to prevent even a momentary bit of confusion, the sort that can slow a reader.

Apostrophe its

A letter writer, apparently aware that "it's" is the contraction for "it is" but also certain that a possessive calls for an apostrophe, just tagged one on the end in a construction like this: "The board made its' decision."

Remember, English is a language of exceptions. "Its" is an exception to the rule that a possessive requires an apostrophe.