Tag Archives: basics

My Addiction to Alliteration

I used to be addicted to alliteration: the repetition of similar sounds near each other in a sentence, usually at the start of words. “Similar sounds” is an example of alliteration. An extreme example would be “Similar sounds starting successive words…”

Just as some people consider a pun as the highest form of humor, I elevate alliteration as a revered writing skill. I used to employ it often, too often, in fact.

Apparently alliteration has become passé. Some even say to avoid it, as alliteration distracts the reader. How sad. In discussing this with Chip MacGregor, he allowed that two or perhaps three sound repetitions are acceptable, while four or more are excessive.

Yikes! I’ve pulled off four and five alliterative sounds—and once proudly strung together six in a row. When in the depths of my addiction, I would replace an ideal word with an acceptable one just to satisfy my compulsion. Even now, with my craving in check, I’m especially pleased at this post’s title, with the beginning and ending of two words that showcase my skill.

My addiction to alliteration will never go away, but I am in recovery. (But, oh, how I miss it.)

Peter DeHaan is an author, publisher, and editor. He gives back to the writing community through this blog. Get insider info from his monthly newsletter. Sign up today!

3 Communication Styles for Writing

When we write an instructional article, post, or nonfiction book, we have three ways to address our audience. The method we select will affect how we connect with our audience, influencing if they receive – or even read – our words.

Let’s consider these three styles:

Inclusive: To include our audience when we write, we pepper our words with personal pronouns, such as “we,” “us,” and “our.” We treat our readers as equals, with our words applying to them as much as to us. By its nature, inclusive writing is usually accessible and conversational. The first three paragraphs of this post use inclusive writing.

Exclusive: In contrast is exclusive writing, where you separate yourself from your readers, often using the pronouns “you” and “your,” along with “I,” “me” and “my.” I’m adopting this style in explaining exclusive writing to you. Even though it’s not my intent, do you feel like I am talking down to you? Do I come across as lecturing? If I did this for the entire post, would you have trouble reading it? Of course you would; that’s why I must stop.

Detached: Formal writing maintains a distance between writer and reader, which usually renders the piece as inaccessible. A primary characteristic is using the abstract pronoun “one.” In this manner, one avoids emotional connection. Sentences become dry and lifeless. In adopting this style, the use of the aforementioned pronouns (we, us, our, you, your, I, me, and my) are prohibited. Proper uses of this form include formal research, academic papers, and dissertations. Using this style in other forms of writing may indicate one is unable to connect with one’s audience or is distancing oneself due to a lack of confidence. With careful wording, one can avoid the use of “one” and remain in this mode. Detached writing has a formal construct.

Wow, those last two paragraphs were tough! I need to stop, so we can revert to normal blogging. Let’s revisit the opening sentence of this post:

  • Inclusive Example: We have three ways to address our audience.
  • Exclusive Example: You have three ways to address your audience.
  • Detached Example: One has three ways to address one’s audience.

Although there are instances when each method is appropriate, we generally serve our audience best with the inclusive style.

Peter DeHaan is an author, publisher, and editor. He gives back to the writing community through this blog. Get insider info from his monthly newsletter. Sign up today!

How to Deal With Passive Sentences

How concerned should we be over passive sentences?

My response has included both extremes: ignore every one of them and kill each one. Right now, I’m somewhere in the middle.

Years ago spell check shocked me by showing all of the passive sentences I used when I wrote. Seemingly every sentence. It was so bad I turned off the option. That way my passive wording wouldn’t confront me. I justified this by claiming passive writing was my voice.

I was just being lazy.

Eventually I got serious about writing and turned the option back on. I now check for passive phrases and attempt to correct them.

Half the time it’s easy to do. The rest seem hard to fix, and sometimes the result is less clear and more wordy. When that happens I leave them as is. A few passive phrases aren’t bad. Really.

So every time spell check warns me of a passive sentence I scrutinize it. If I can correct it and make the sentence stronger, I will gladly do so. However, if removing the passive construct results in a sentence that is verbose, confusing, or longer, I’m better off leaving it as is.

Keeping a passive construct that’s concise seems preferable to forcing an active voice that’s ambiguous.

That’s how I deal with passive sentences.

What are your thoughts on passive sentences?

Peter DeHaan is an author, publisher, and editor. He gives back to the writing community through this blog. Get insider info from his monthly newsletter. Sign up today!

How to Improve as a Writer

I recently read a piece I wrote a short five months ago — an article I worked hard to perfect — and was shocked. It wasn’t that my writing was bad; it was that I’ve improved in the intervening time.

For most of my life writing has been something I did as part of my job; it was secondary. I never gave it much thought or tried to get better. I just wrote. Yes, I did gradually improve, but it was at the pace of a snail.

As writing becomes more of who I am and what I do, I’m taking it more seriously. The result is I’m improving. Here’s what makes the difference:

Write Everyday: I stopped writing when I had to or when I felt like it, but everyday – whether I wanted to or not. Sometimes we just need to push through.

Read Everyday: I’m not there yet, but the more I read and see how others write, the more fuel I give to my own work.

Study Writing: I read books about writing, follow blogs about writing, and take online classes about writing. The moment we decide we don’t need to work at becoming better is the moment our writing begins to wither.

Join a Critique Group: Receiving honest feedback on our work sharpens it and sharpens us. I’m currently in three such groups. Yeah, they’re that important.

There’s more, but this is a good start.

What are you doing to improve as a writer?

Peter DeHaan is an author, publisher, and editor. He gives back to the writing community through this blog. Get insider info from his monthly newsletter. Sign up today!

Why We Should Avoid Clichés

In past posts we talked about the importance of watching out for words that can mean opposite things, words with confusing meanings, and slang. Another consideration is clichés.

A cliché is any overused phrase or idea. Initially it may have been a colorful word combination, but with excessive use and abuse, it has become trite.

I heard about a college student dismissing Shakespeare because “He uses too many clichés.” What the student didn’t realize was Shakespeare originated those phrases; it was other people, who out of appreciation for his ingenious turn of a phrase (a cliché I slipped in for illustrative purposes), made them into clichés by repeating them ad nauseum.

I once received an article submission containing three clichés in the opening sentence, mixing metaphors (which is close to becoming cliché) in the process: “You need to get off the fence, step up to the plate, and go for the gold.”

Ick! Gag me with a spoon. (A cliché; also slang and dated pop-culture).

Unless you’re trying to make a point, as I am here, clichés should be avoided like the plague. (Isn’t this fun?)

Not only do you need to search and destroy all clichés, you are even well advised to avoid using phrases that are on their way to becoming clichés. Although using them would be passable today, their presence might relegate you to the status of a second rate hack by future generations.

But then, if like Shakespeare you are the originator of the cliché that would be the cat’s meow.

After all, it is what it is.

Now it’s your turn: How many clichés do you count in this post?

Peter DeHaan is an author, publisher, and editor. He gives back to the writing community through this blog. Get insider info from his monthly newsletter. Sign up today!

Be Careful With Slang

I’ve had several posts about word choices: Commonly Confused WordsSame Word – Opposite Meaning, and Confusing Words. Next up is slang.

We need to use caution when interjecting slang in our writing.

Slang can date our work: If our story is set in the sixties, a character might say “groovy.” However, anyone who wrote “groovy” in the sixties would have a dated piece today. As we write we need to guard against slang words or phrases that would later date our work — just sayin’.

Slang can confuse: Sometimes meanings can cause problems. The slang of “bad” means very good. If a character says, “Wow, that’s bad.” Is it unacceptable or good?

Slang can change: I once heard a mom nonchalantly talk about her young daughter “making love.” I was shocked, but the mom simply meant “kissing.” Or consider texting. Does “LOL” mean “laugh out load” or “lots of love?” The answer might vary depending on the age of who we ask.

Slang can offend: In another blog, I wrote about raccoons in the neighborhood. I wanted to use the slang for raccoon in my title, but didn’t because “coon” can also be a racial slur. My intent to be cute could have offended, so I avoided that slang expression.

In our writing, we need to exercise restraint with slang.

Peter DeHaan is an author, publisher, and editor. He gives back to the writing community through this blog. Get insider info from his monthly newsletter. Sign up today!

Confusing Words

Last week we talked about words that are confusing because they have opposite definitions. Today we will cover some words with often-misunderstood definitions. Consider:

Penultimate does not mean more than ultimate but means second to last.
Confusing usage: “It is the penultimate lap of the race.”
Is it the most exciting lap or simply the lap before the final one?

Inflammable does not mean the opposite of flammable, but some people think so. Both words have the same meaning (though some claim subtle distinctions).
Confusing usage: “The liquid is inflammable.”
Should I be careful or not?

Niggardly means stingy, but some wrongly assume it’s a racial slur.
Confusing usage: “Don’t be niggardly.”
Is the reference to misers (correct) or minorities (incorrect)?

We need to make sure we use words correctly – and to consider if our readers will understand them correctly.

Peter DeHaan is an author, publisher, and editor. He gives back to the writing community through this blog. Get insider info from his monthly newsletter. Sign up today!

Same Word – Opposite Meaning

In “Check Your Writing” I noted that, as writers, we only need to scrutinize two things: our facts and our words. Sometimes words can have opposite meanings and we need to use them with grave caution – or avoid them altogether. Consider:

Oversight: 1) An unintentional mistake; 2) watchful care.
Confusing usage: “His oversight of the situation was mentioned.”
Is he in trouble or about to be commended?

Cleave: 1) to split; 2) to cling.
Confusing usage: “The couple’s only solution was to cleave.”
Will they break up or steadfastly remain together?

Decimate: 1) to kill one of every ten (original meaning); 2) to kill a large part of.
Confusing usage: “The army was decimated.”
Are they now at 90% or a small fraction of what they started with?

Literally: 1) Really; actually, 2) Used as an intensive before a figurative expression.
Confusing usage: “I literally fell on the floor laughing.”
Did this actually happen or was something just really funny, sans rolling around on the ground?

These are just four words that can trip us up because of their conflicting meanings.

Worthy writers wield words wisely.

Peter DeHaan is an author, publisher, and editor. He gives back to the writing community through this blog. Get insider info from his monthly newsletter. Sign up today!

Beware of Commonly Confused Words

In last week’s post, Check Your Writing, I mentioned the need to watch out for commonly confused words. Spell checkers point out some of the most typical –such as its versus it’s – but I suspect all writers have certain words that trip them up. Knowing what these words are is the first step to avoiding them when we write.

Some of my commonly confused words are:

  • advice or advise
  • choose or chose
  • complement and compliment
  • conscious versus conscience
  • council, counsel, console, and consul

This, of course, is not a complete list, but merely the ones I have bothered to document so far. Although some of these pairs are pronounced differently, my diction doesn’t always distinguish between them. These are words that can cause my writing to stumble, so I carefully scrutinize their every appearance.

What words tend to cause you confusion?

Peter DeHaan is an author, publisher, and editor. He gives back to the writing community through this blog. Get insider info from his monthly newsletter. Sign up today!

We Only Need to Check Two Things in Our Writing

I heard there are only two things we need to check in our writing. Can you believe that? Only two things. How exciting!

I thought there would be an unlimited number of considerations, but I can handle two. Even a short checklist might overwhelm, but a pair of items seems doable.

When I learned this, I was filled with anticipation, wondering what the duo might be. What are the two things I need to check?

Though they are simple, alas, they are not easy. The only two things we need to check in our writing is our facts and the words we use. Ugh, that means we need to check everything!

Check Your Facts: Our memories can mislead us. We recall things with imprecision, or we may be in complete error, either because we wrongly remember or because we were wrongly informed. The easiest, but often misleading fact-checking source is the Internet. I shouldn’t need to say it, but don’t believe everything you read online. Scrutinize the source; question its integrity; look for independent confirmation. Books are a better source, but they are not without error – and increasingly so as books nowadays are given less review and editing before being printed. We can also ask others; just remember their memory may be as fallible as ours.

Check Your Words: I think this is primarily about ensuring the meaning of each word is correct for the context in which we placed it. But this also means removing superfluous words and inserting missing ones. It means spell-checking everything, and it means being watchful of commonly confused words. Last is the order of the words we use, editing out confusion and correcting transposed words.

Once we verify our facts and words, our writing will be well-checked. The only remaining task is to make sure the result is interesting and worth reading.

Peter DeHaan is an author, publisher, and editor. He gives back to the writing community through this blog. Get insider info from his monthly newsletter. Sign up today!