Search and Replace Trite Phrases in Your Writing

Avoid using “it was,” “that was,” and “this was”—among other things

Search and Replace Trite Phrases in Your WritingI hired a developmental editor to give me big-picture feedback on my novel. Though her comments overall encouraged me, I have several things to work on and fix.

One was that I used the innocuous phrase “it was” too often. How often? It popped up 126 times, which was an average of once for every 365 words. Interestingly I discovered I used it in spurts, with the phrase being absent in some chapters and plentiful in others.

As I set about to fix the problem, I realized I could simply replace “it was” with “that was” or “this was,” but doing so solved one problem by creating another. I would need to find and replace those phrases, too. While “that was” occurred only twenty-one times, “this was” showed up fifty-six times, for a total of 203 instances for all three.

  • The ideal correction involved replacing these trite phrases with a more powerful verb.
  • If that solution alluded me, a secondary option was replacing “it,” “that,” or this” with the noun they referenced or a suitable alternative.
  • A few times I couldn’t find replacement wording that would convey the same meaning without ballooning the sentence in size or structure, so I left it as is.
  • Last was dialogue. I reasoned I could often retain these phrases in speech because that’s how people usually talk. Even so, I did clean up some of the conversations in my story, too.

While I could have slavishly reworked every occurrence of these offending phrases, I felt inclined to leave some in to maintain the flow or clarity of the story.

In the end I left “it was” in twelve times; “that was,” three times; and “this was,” four times. This reduced my total number of offenses from 203 down to only nineteen, a 94 percent reduction.

Now my next task is to develop a habit were I don’t use “it was,” “that was,” or “this was” in the first place. While I long ago put my writing on a “low-that” diet, I suspect this new skill will take a bit longer to develop.

Why Should You Pay Others to Help You Improve as a Writer?

When you want to advance as an author, the cost-effective solution is to hire outside help

Why Should You Pay Others to Help You Improve as a Writer?Tip #7 in my post “10 Tips to Improve as a Writer” is to not be afraid to pay for help. As a financially frugal person this was a hard lesson for me to learn. When I entered the publishing industry in 2001, by purchasing Connections Magazine from its founder, I approached my new business with entrepreneurial zeal and no publishing knowledge.

One of the first things I did was pay an established industry consultant to point me in the right direction. At $200 an hour, I had to make every minute count. Though expensive, his advice was golden, helping me to avoid costly errors and dodge common traps. It was one of the best investments I could have made.

To save money, though, I did all the editing myself. This was a mistake. Every issue had errors. In one column I lauded my designer as a “creative genesis” instead of a “creative genius.” Another time I contrasted a shotgun to a riffle, not a rifle. Readers who knew me would laugh at my errors. To ease my embarrassment I hired an editor to do proofreading and copyediting. Though I still do all the substantive edits (macro editing, as I call it), I defer the minutia of details to someone who is able to pick out typos and knows grammar and punctuation.

Though I’ve learned much in this area and now do my own proofreading for online content, I would never print something without the seasoned eye of a professional proofreader first reviewing each word and scrutinizing every sentence.

I have also paid people to provide an assessment of some of my books. Sometimes this is to point out weakness in the work or identify writing habits I need to correct. Other times the goal is simply to answer the question, “Is this work viable?” and if not, “What do I need to do to fix it?”

Most recently I hired a former college writing professor to provide feedback on my fiction work, starting with short stories. With ease and confidence he answers questions that have perplexed me and caused my writing peers to equivocate. He confirms what I do well and shows where I can improve. His tutelage is invaluable.

Whenever I hire someone to help me with my writing, I view it as designing my own, personal writing course, one to provide direct, tangible assistance in the area where I need it most. This saves me from trial-and-error discovery of what works and what doesn’t. This keeps me from wasting time and helps me to get better faster.

Yes, nothing can replace the lessons learned when we just sit down and write, but seeking professional help when we need it, makes our time spent writing less frustrating and so much more effective.

How to Submit an Article for Publication

Common sense tips, that most people skip, to increase the chances of having your writing submission accepted in magazines and websites

How to Submit an Article for PublicationAs a magazine, newsletter, and website publisher, I’ve received thousands of article submissions over the years. Some of the writers are easy to work with and others are more of a chore. If you hope to see your work published, don’t be a pain when you submit content.

While I’m willing to work with a writer who tries hard, I’m much less willing to work with a writer who hardly tries. Follow these tips for your best chance of success.

  • Know the Publication or Website: Read their past content. As you do, envision if your idea is a good fit. If not, don’t force it. Seek another topic or a different outlet.
  • Look for Submission Guidelines: Find their submission criteria on their website. If they don’t have anything posted, they aren’t likely open to receive unsolicited submissions. If you can’t find their instructions, even after double-checking, look for articles from non-staff writers or guest posts. Contact those writers to see how they did it. Maybe they’ll make an introduction for you. As a last option, email the publication and ask if they’re open to receive submissions.
  • Do What They Ask: If they ask you to pitch your idea (sometimes called a query or an abstract for more academic outlets), then do that. Others (like me) ask for finished pieces only. Never ever send a draft and ask for feedback.
  • Write the Best Possible Article: You know the drill: write, re-write, edit, spellcheck, and proofread. You only get one chance with this article at this publication, so give it your best effort.
  • Follow their Requirements Carefully: Reread their submission guidelines and meet every requirement. Though most editors won’t disqualify you for making a tiny blunder, it could count against you, and too many will result in a rejection.
  • Be Patient: Most publications will acknowledge they received your submission. If you haven’t heard back in a week or so, ask – politely. If your piece is accepted, be patient. It can be a while for them to post it online and several months for print.
  • Promote It: Most print publications post their content online. When they do, promote your piece. Post the news and a link on social media, your blog, and in your newsletter. If you can drive enough traffic to the publication’s website for them to notice, they will be eager to consider more of your content.
  • Thank Them: Most writers skip this step; don’t be one of them. Once your piece has run, thank them – even if some aspect of it wasn’t to your satisfaction. It you have an idea for another piece or are open to receive an assignment, this is the ideal time to mention it.

Following these steps will not guarantee the publication of your work, but they will move you ahead of most writers. I wish you the best in your writing.

What are your experiences in submitting content for publication? What tips do you have to add? Please share your thoughts in the comment section below.

How Many Words Do You Write Per Hour?

How Many Words Do You Write Per Hour?Do you know how many words you typically write per hour? Do you know how long you can sustain that rate? This is a critical number to know when estimating how long a project will take. We need this for meeting deadlines and for quoting projects. Without having a firm grasp of our typical writing speed and sustainability we run the risk of not meeting deadlines or of under quoting projects. No one wants to turn in a project late or end up working for next to nothing.

But what we shouldn’t do is compare our writing speed with others. If we write more than most people, then we may feel pride or look down on them; if we write less than others, then we might feel discouraged, assume there is something wrong with us, or even try to change our writing process to write faster than we should. None of these are good outcomes.

Also, we need to realize that our writing speed is for our first draft, which will require additional work, such as re-writing, editing, and proofreading. Some people who can crank out high word counts on the first draft often spend much more time bringing their work to its final form. Conversely, other people with slower writing speeds often have much less work to do afterwards.

We need to know how fast we can write, how long we can keep up that pace, and how much more work is required to polish it to final form.

I’ve talked to writers who write about 100 words per hour. On the other end I have heard of writers pushing two thousand. But people seldom share with me how much time they spend later on to bring these words to their final form.

On most projects I write in the neighborhood of four to five hundred words an hour, though it occasionally goes higher, approaching one thousand; my record is 1,750, though I’m not sure how I pulled that off. I also know my second hour is often more productive than my first, which is an important reason to set aside a block of time to write. I also know I can keep up this pace all morning, providing I take periodic breaks.

My “first draft” is in decent shape and seldom requires re-writing, so I just need to polish and proof the results, which takes 15 to 25 percent additional time. (Remember that I mostly write nonfiction.)

Though I don’t like working on the same project for more than four or five hours, I often switch to something else in the afternoon, which seems to reset my mental focus and I’m off again. In the morning I can consistently produce two thousand words or more, assuming I don’t need to do too much research or fact-checking. When I write in the afternoon, it’s always smaller projects, such as articles or content marketing. In this way I can hit up to four thousand words a day (my personal record) if I need to, but that doesn’t leave much time for anything else.

Armed with this information, I’m now able to set realistic writing deadlines and hit them. I’m also able to give reasonable quotes for contract work. And it only took me about five years to get to this point and figure these things out.

Do you know enough about your writing to set realistic goals? What things affect your speed and productivity? Please share your thoughts in the comment section below.

Don’t Be Possessive About Writing Rules

When I was in grade school I learned that to make a word possessive you simply added ’s to the end of it. That was easy. Oh, and there was one exception. If the word already ended in s, you simply added the apostrophe. Okay, I got it.

Then, when my kids were in high school, they corrected me. The rule had changed. The new convention was to add ’s anytime you wanted to show possession, regardless if the word ended in s or not. I struggled for years to retrain myself; it just looked so wrong.

Later, I worked on a book that needed to follow the requirements found in A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations by Kate L. Turabian, sometimes called Turabian for short. While maintaining the rule to add ’s anytime you wanted to show possession, including words ending in s, Turabian gave two exceptions: Jesus and Moses. This means it was correct to write “Jesus’ disciples.” Not only did this look cleaner, but I liked the idea of giving Jesus special consideration.

Now, I learn that according to The Chicago Manual of Style, 16th Edition, the exception for Jesus and Moses no longer applies. This means that “Jesus’s disciples” is now correct.

Of course there are still other special cases relating to making a word possessive. It’s enough to make my head spin. But then, grammar always did have that effect on me.

From this, we can learn three things:

Not Everyone Agrees: Not all “experts” agree on the rules of writing. If they all did, there would only be one style guide to follow. Instead we have many. To further complicate things, many publishers have their own peculiar deviations from the various style guides. For myself, I attempt to follow The Chicago Manual of Style, as it works in most situations, most of the time. I think it may be the closest we have to having a standard writing guide.

Rules Change: Over time writing rules, expectations, and standards change. Some of the things we learned in grade school, high school, and college no longer apply. And the greater the distance we have from our formal education, the increased likelihood some of the rules we once learned are now wrong.

We Need to Change, Too: As the rules change, we need to change how we write. To resist these changes keeps us mired in the past, fixated on the old ways of doing things. Others will view us as out of touch writers, and they will dismiss our writing as antiquated. Ignorance is no excuse.

As writers, we always need to be learning, and we need to be ready to change. The acceptance of our work depends on it.

What changes do you struggle with? What steps do you take to be aware of changes? Please share your thoughts in the comment section below.

Don’t Expect an Editor to Do Your Job

As a magazine publisher, I edit every submission I receive. Yes, every single one. (And then a proofreader fixes everything I miss.) Though some submissions are in much better shape than others, each one receives some changes. In fifteen years, I’ve never ever accepted a submission without making at least a few edits.

I may need to shorten a piece to meet space requirements. Or I may need to fix issues with the writing itself, such as using complete sentences, ensuring a consistent tense or perspective, fixing punctuation, and so forth. I may need to remove self-promotion, something that is unprofessional and that we prohibit. Other times I need to correct sections that readers will likely misunderstand. Occasionally, I need to remove something that will offend our audience.

Whatever the reason for the edits, I keep two things in mind: I don’t want to embarrass the writer, and I don’t want to change his or her voice. Most editors have a similar perspective: they have the writer’s best interest in mind.

Given that, some writers may wonder: If it’s going to be edited anyway, why should I submit my best work?

Submitting your best writing results in less work for the editor and earns you their respect. Your future submissions will be anticipated, more likely to be accepted, and may even be published sooner.

Submitting sloppy work has the opposite effect. The editor groans when your email arrives, puts off reading it, and is more likely to reject it. Don’t earn that reputation. This applies to both article and book submissions.

I have several writers who submit content on a regular basis. For some, each piece is well written and professional. For others, I see their quality slide over time, often degrading to a point where I think I’m reading their first draft; they didn’t even bother to proofread it. Maybe they’ve become complacent or perhaps they figure that since it’s going to be edited anyway, why bother?

Don’t be that writer.

Proof then Publish

Another blogging tip is to proof and then publish. That is, once written, review with care and post without delay. It’s that simple.

Some beginning bloggers are afraid to share what they write. They fear it’s not good enough or people will criticize their words. They talk themselves into waiting until it’s better. They search for a title with pizzazz or a conclusion with punch. They worry about formatting, search engine optimization, and finding the right picture. And if the post is controversial, they dread the firestorm that could erupt – or that no one will react. Will anyone even read it? Given all that, the safest thing is to never post.

I once fell into that trap. Fortunately I escaped quickly. If no one reads our words, they mean nothing. We must publish.

The other extreme is to gush a flurry of words, and toss them to the world without a worry. Who cares about typos, word choices, fact checking, or excellence? Just spew forth our stream-of-consciousness and call it good. Disregard the craft of writing; seek quantity over quality.

I understand that mindset, too. In my early days as a blogger, circa 2008, I sought to write quickly and post even quicker. I hoped one scan of my draft would catch all errors. My objective was a twenty-minute post. And though I sometimes hit my goal, the results fell short. Typos overshadowed my prose; sloppy writing detracted from my ideas. I needed to turn off the timer and to take more time. Though perfect posting is an illusion, we need to be close; errors should be the exception and not the norm.

Successful blogging requires a rhythm: we sit down and write; we proof our words and then publish the results. No more, no less.

Have you struggled with deliberating too long or posting too quickly? How did you overcome it?

Why You Should Avoid Being Relective

I was reading one of those college textbooks that sends you to the dictionary every other paragraph. Progress was tedious. Most of the words I needed help with weren’t in the dictionaries I consulted, so I’d google the word, hoping to figure it out through context. Sometimes I’d stumble upon a cogent explanation, but often I would need to refer to multiple uses in order to theorize a plausible understanding.

So it began when I encountered the word “relective.” Unable to locate it in printed or online dictionaries, Google presented me with 29,000 matches to consider. Drilling down, I entered “define relective,” which narrowed the results to 1,520 occurrences.

Many of the sites were scientific and highly detailed. After ten minutes of effort, I was no closer to an answer. Eventually, a working theory emerged. It seemed that many of the entries addressed light and reflection. I wondered if relective could correspond to reflective, such as its opposite or perhaps a countervailing phenomenon.

Eventually, I realized most of the occurrences made sense if I substituted reflective for relective. That seemed to follow for my book as well. I emailed my professor, asking if it might be a typo. His concise reply was, “I sure hope so!”

So much for proofreading, not only did my textbook spell reflective wrong, but so did 29,000 websites.

You shouldn’t believe everything you read – and you should carefully proofread everything you write.

Has a typo ever made it into anything you published?

Perfect Proofing Practices

It’s hard for most people to proof their own writing. I’m no exception. For my magazines, I hire a proofreader to check my work and the other submissions that will appear in each issue. For my books, I pay a copy editor to catch my errors. For blogs, I rely on my wife and friends to offer correction, albeit only after I post it.

Sometimes my mistakes are significant errors, such as the wrong word spelled correctly or stating something in the negative when I intended the positive. Other errors are not so weighty, but merely embarrassing, such as incorrect word usage, a missing word, or an extra word.

When someone tells me of an error, I quickly correct the offense. Those who read my posts via email miss the corrections, but those who use a reader or bookmark my blog have a good chance of seeing the revised version.

For a while, every post seemed to contain errors. Then I tried reading my work aloud before I published my post. This greatly reduced my mistakes but not all of them. More recently, I’ve been using text-to-speech software (TextAloud), where Crystal and Mike take turns reading my work to me. Hearing my words through someone else’s voice helps me catch most of the errors I make.

I hope it worked this time.

What methods do you use to proof your work?

Six Tips for Proofing Your Work

Proofing your own work is hard for most people. After all, you know what you intended to say, so that is what you tend to see when you proofread your writing. Proofing is a huge challenge for me, as you have likely seen in past posts.

I am much more likely to catch errors when I let my work sit for a day or two. With the distance of time, I am less likely to see what I intended to say and actually see what I really wrote. But this is not a guaranteed solution either. Plus, waiting is a luxury not afforded when blogging.

Another proofing technique is to read your work aloud. Yes, it is a bit strange at first, but reading it aloud does help you catch errors. A side benefit is this also aids in catching awkward sentence structure and poorly crafted wording.

A third method is to read it backwards. Yeah, I don’t get it either, but some people swear by this technique.

Also, I tend to proof better from a printout versus working directly on my computer. (Interestingly, when proofing on my computer, it makes a difference if I adjust the font type or size. I guess the change of perspective helps.)

But the best way is to have someone else proofread my work!

Regardless of how skilled or lacking you are at proofreading, be sure to spell check your final version. I am shocked at how often I receive submissions with errors that spell check would have caught. That is inexcusable.