Category Archives: Writing Tips

Writing Tip Wednesday: A Few Title Capitalization Rules

This month’s tip comes from something I learned at work when we were running a bulletin blurb for a new kids’ ministry coordinator.

Are you supposed to capitalize job titles? The church had been doing it for years, but I wasn’t so sure that was correct, so I pulled out my favorite book in the world, the 15th edition of the Chicago Manual of Style (okay, so it’s probably not my favorite book, but I do spend a lot of time with it), and learned a few things . . .

When a title (civil, military, religious, and professional) comes immediately before a person’s name (and is used as part of their name), it should be capitalized and usually replaces the person’s first name.

For example:
We really enjoyed Pastor Johnson’s sermon on Easter.
The family was disappointed with Judge Nelson’s decision.

When a person’s title follows their name or is used in place of their name, it is usually lowercased.

For example:
Joseph Andrews, the president of the company, called a mandatory meeting for all staff members.
Marcia Smith, the company’s communication director, disagreed with the graphic designer.

Sometimes, when titles are used in “formal contexts as opposed to running text,” they are capitalized.

For example:
(In the front of a book) I’d like to thank the following people:
Mike Jones, Developmental Editor at ABC Publishing
Rita Hanson, Fourth Grade Teacher at Washington Elementary
Megan Miller, Office Assistant at Apex Windows

If a title is used before a personal name as a “descriptive tag,” it should be lowercased.

For example:
He gave her a book by the poet Neruda.
Mary sent a letter to the Minnesota governor Mark Dayton.

This information was taken from The Chicago Manual of Style, 15th Edition (8.21–8.23).

Writing Tip Wednesday: An Announcement

I’ve been doing Writing Tip Wednesdays for several months now, with the intention of helping you, my readers, by posting little bits of writing advice that can help anyone, no matter what you’re working on.

But I also started it with the hope of taking the time to learn some new things myself.  Unfortunately that hasn’t been happening because I don’t have enough time in my week to work full time, spend time researching and learning, create three thoughtful blog posts, review books, and have a life. And I’m pretty sure I’ve blown through all the tips I can come up with off the top of my head without that extra time. Maybe it’s just because it’s summer and things are extra crazy. I don’t know. But I’ve made a decision . . .

I’m going to make Writing Tip Wednesday a monthly feature rather than a weekly feature.

I’ll plan to post a new writing tip on the last Wednesday of each month. Hopefully this change will help me learn new things so I can give you better writing advice. And maybe in the future it’ll become a weekly feature again, you never know. But for my own sanity and your benefit, this is how it needs to be for now.

I currently have a running list of writing tip post topics, but it’s pretty short. If you have anything you’d like me to post about, please leave a comment and let me know.

Since you probably came here expecting a Writing Tip, here’s some advice from Grammarly.com’s Facebook page:

Writing Tip Wednesday: Writer’s Block

Whether you call yourself a writer or not, you’ve probably experienced the dreaded writer’s block. It happens to all of us, and it happens for a lot of reasons—we’re too distracted, we don’t know where to start, we don’t have enough information. Apparently, even Charles Schulz had writer’s block.

Some people will tell you there’s no such thing as writer’s block, but that doesn’t really solve the problem, does it? Here are a few suggestions based on ideas in Write on Target, a book by Dennis E. Hensley (one of my college writing professors) and Holly G. Miller. The book includes several more ideas (and a lot of other great stuff for nonfiction writers), so check it out if you want to know more.

Overcoming Writer’s Block

  1. Give yourself a time limit. Plan to focus on your writing for a set amount of time before you take a break. Don’t look at Facebook, check your email, or wander into the kitchen to find a snack. Just write. You never know, you might get going and discover you don’t need that break.
  2. Free write. Even if you’re struggling, even if what you’re putting on paper is awful, write down everything you can about your subject. Don’t worry about structure—just get it out. You may end up discovering some of it is useable.
  3. Map it out. Create an outline or a mind map (or word web, depending on who you talk to). It’ll help you simplify everything in your head and find any holes in your information.
  4. Get a second opinion. If you’re stuck, find someone to talk through it with you. Tell them what you’re trying to write. They might have helpful suggestions, and talking about it will help you sort out your thoughts. If you can explain it to a friend in conversation, you can put it in writing. Trust me.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve used these tricks to get going on a writing project. And I probably shouldn’t admit it, but I used all of them around 4:00 a.m. the day I had a term paper due for Dr. Hensley’s class. I only got two hours of sleep that night, but I still got an A on the paper. Shh—don’t tell. I may miss college sometimes, but I certainly don’t miss all-nighters at Steak ‘n’ Shake (at one point, Jonathan and I spent so many late nights there, they asked what type of music we liked to listen to so they could share radio privileges).

Anyway, next time you’re stuck, try these tricks. I find them most helpful in this order, but everyone is different, so do what works for you.

(I also used to put in my headphones and listen to Toby Mac and Owl City on LOUD while my roommate slept, completely unaware I was still awake. I may have even taken a few dancing breaks, but I’ll never tell.)

If you have any tips of your own for overcoming writer’s block, please share them in the comments.

Writing Tip Wednesday: Audience

Yes, I know it’s Thursday. But “Writing Tip Thursday” just doesn’t sound as good.

This week’s tip is about your audience—the people who are going to read what you’re working on. No matter what type of writing you’re doing, you have an audience. Maybe it’s middle age women, college professors, your mom, department colleagues, or yourself. There’s endless debate about whether you should write for your audience or for yourself, but the fact remains that you need to at least take your audience into consideration—it’ll help you determine the length, vocabulary, and even the examples you should use.

Here are a few key questions to ask about your audience and the reasons you need to ask them.

How much does my audience already know about the topic?
Giving your readers information they already have is a waste of their time and yours. If your audience is mostly sports enthusiasts, don’t spend half of your article explaining the rules of basketball. If your audience is engineers, don’t devote a whole paragraph to explaining basic algebraic theory. If your audience is public school teachers, don’t explain why ADD is a problem in the classroom (just tell them what to do about it!).

Once you figure out what they already know, figure out what they don’t know. Spend your time on that.

What’s the background/demographic of my audience?
Make sure you don’t alienate your readers by writing for a different audience. If you’re creating a brochure for an outreach ministry to Muslims, don’t fill it with churchy words they won’t understand. If you’re writing an article about maintaining friendships as a retiree, don’t spend a lot of time talking about Facebook. If you’re writing for someone who’s new to the English language, don’t tell them it’s a “toss-up” or that a financial mistake could cost them “an arm and a leg.” (Here’s a list of idioms that could keep you busy for quite awhile.)

And be careful about the connotations of your words. Using the word “thong” when you’re talking about children wearing flip-flops could cause a problem (true story!).

Why is my audience reading my piece? How will they use what they’re reading?
Are they looking for something to do? Are they hoping to be entertained? Do they want advice? Asking these questions will help you figure out what information to include and what to leave out. If you’re reviewing a restaurant for a foodie website, be sure to tell people what’s good on the menu. If you’re writing about animal rights for Animal Times Magazine, it’s probably not wise to crack a joke about PETA standing for “People Eating Tasty Animals.” Just a suggestion.

Do you have other questions to add to the list? Do you have a funny story? I’d love to hear them!

Writing Tip Wednesday: Get to the Point

Note: This week’s tip is an updated version of a post from last August.

For whatever reason, we often don’t write what we want to say. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read something and thought: “That’s a lot of words that don’t mean anything. I have no idea what I just read.”  Sometimes it happens because we think what we have to say is offensive. Sometimes we’re trying to hide bad news with pretty words. Sometimes we just don’t know what we want to say. No matter the reason, the result is always reader confusion and a lot of wasted words.

So whenever I edit this type of piece (at least in my world, it’s typically some kind of communication at work or a student paper or essay), I ask one simple question:

What are you trying to say?

Nearly every time I’ve asked someone this question, they’ve been able to give me a coherent answer that makes a lot of sense. I always respond with, “Write that.” And their writing always improves. Simple question, impressive results.

Last time I posted about this, someone commented that what the reader gets out of a piece is often very different from what the writer meant. Sometimes that’s okay—especially when your purpose is to make the reader think. But sometimes a writer needs to convey a specific point (maybe in an office-wide email explaining a new procedure or a flyer to promote an upcoming event). In those cases, it’s vital for the reader to understand your point. But regardless of the type of piece you’re working on . . .

What are you trying to say? Write that.

Writing Tip Wednesday: Read Well to Write Well

This week’s tip? Read. Read everything—books, magazines, blogs, instruction manuals. And don’t just read the stuff you normally read. Expand your horizons. If you’re like me and like historical fiction, try science fiction. If you only read the newspaper, try a fantasy novel. Reading expands your vocabulary, introduces you to different writing styles, and forces you to look at the world from a different perspective.

Two of my favorite things in the world: books and the beach. One more reason to go to Australia!

And if you want some books about writing, these are my favorites:

On Writing Well by William Zinsser
This is a great book full of practical advice for every type of writing.

On Writing by Stephen King
Confession: I’m too squeamish to read Stephen King. Watching Harry Potter is enough to give me nightmares some days. But this is not like his novels. It’s full of great advice (and a few swear words).

The Writing Life by Annie Dillard
I. Love. Annie. Dillard. Sometimes I have no idea what she’s talking about, but she writes so well. I want to write like Annie Dillard when I grow up. Need proof that she’s as fantastic as I say she is? Here’s just one sentence from The Writing Life:

Why are we reading if not in hope that the writer will magnify and dramatize our days, will illuminate and inspire us with wisdom, courage, and the possibility of meaningfulness, and will press upon our minds the deepest mysteries, so we may feel again their majesty and power?

 

Writing Tip Wednesday: ‘Til or Till?

First of all (and this has nothing to do with my writing tip), I love coming to Starbucks every Wednesday morning before work to write. There’s always something interesting going on. A few weeks ago, it was an old man who sat down and told me his life story. Last week it was a grouch who yelled across the entire room to tell someone to “quiet down” (ironic, huh?). And today it’s a little boy who’s here by himself, toting a few books, stuffing his face with a pastry, and singing softly to himself. Based on where we live and the fact that the song wasn’t in English, I’m guessing he’s preparing for his Bar Mitzvah (which makes me feel a little guilty for eating a ham and egg breakfast sandwich with cheddar). Can I just say I haven’t heard anything sweeter than a little boy’s pure little voice singing in quite awhile? Highlight of my day.

Anyway . . .

This week’s writing tip was prompted by a friend’s question. She asked if the correct spelling is ’til or till. I realized I had no idea. I always used ’til (although I usually don’t use the apostrophe), so I did some research. Here’s what I found (isn’t the Internet fantastic?):

Till has Scottish origins. It means to.

Until comes from till. It also has Scottish origins and means to.

‘Til is a fairly recent addition to the language and is a shortened version of until. So it also means to.

So how do you know which one to use?

Use until in any kind of professional or academic writing. Use till or ’til in less formal writing. But be careful—depending on which you choose, you might spark controversy!

Want more info? My sources said a few conflicting things, but here’s where my information comes from:
Grammar Girl
Dictionary.com (till)
Dictionary.com (until)
Dictionary.com (’til)
Merriam-Webster (till)
Merriam-Webster (until)
Glendale News-Press

Writing Tip Wednesday: Repetition (and Fear of Hypocrisy)

I’m not going to lie—posting writing advice always makes me nervous. Inevitably, I’ll do exactly what I’m telling people NOT to do. If you catch me in the midst of my hypocrisy, feel free to let me know (please be nice) and (to quote my dad), do as I say, not as I do.

An example of hypocrisy.

On to this week’s writing tip . . .

Repetition can be a useful tool, but don’t use it unless it makes your writing easier to follow or you’re trying to make a point. Here are a few tips to help you avoid the kind that can hurt your writing.

Don’t start all of your sentences (or paragraphs) with the same word unless you have a good reason. For example, every item in this list starts with a “don’t” because I want them to be memorable, I want it to be obvious they go together, and it makes the list easier to follow.

Don’t use the same word every time when there are other words that mean the same thing. But be careful—sometimes words have connotations that might give your reader ideas you weren’t trying to convey.

Don’t be redundant. If you already said something, don’t say it again using different words. (Bonus: this helps you cut unnecessary words.)

Sometimes there’s only one word or phrase you can use to describe what you’re writing about. If that’s the case, get creative to avoid overusing it. Pronouns can be your friend (though you shouldn’t overuse them, either). And changing your sentence structure can help too.

Writing Tip Wednesday: Shoulda Coulda Woulda

At the request of a dear friend, this week’s tip is about a common spelling misconception.

It is not:
should of
could of
would of
must of

It is:
should have/should’ve
could have/could’ve
would have/would’ve
must have/must’ve

That’s it. If you have anything you want me to write about on a Writing Tip Wednesday, let me know!

Writing Tip Wednesday: Be Your Own Siri

I don’t know about you, but when I’ve been working on something long enough, I can’t tell if it’s good or not. I get tired of looking at it and I begin to see it as the best thing I’ve ever written simply because I just want to. be. done.

So I read it out loud. And that’s my advice for you, too. Read your writing out loud and listen for the awkward places—words, phrases, sentences that just don’t seem right. If it sounds awkward when you hear it, there’s a good chance it’ll sound awkward to your reader. Reading out loud forces you to slow down and think about each word. It’ll help you catch misspellings, misuses of punctuation, run-on sentences, repetition, and redundancies. No matter what you’re working on—emails, term papers, articles, novels—this simple trick will help you self-edit.

And yes, reading something out loud can be weird when you have an unsuspecting audience. I sit in a cubicle at work, and I do most of my blogging at Starbucks, so I understand. Print it out and take a walk, or whisper it to yourself. Sometimes just mouthing the words is enough to show you where your writing needs improvement.

Okay, so I don’t have an iPhone and I don’t really know what Siri does, but I suspect “she” can read things to you. If not, hopefully you still get my point. And if she can, maybe she can even read  your writing for you.

Obviously I’m a writer, not a techie : )