November 2009 Archives

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Olny srmat poelpe can raed this. I cdnuolt blveiee taht I cluod uesdnatnrd what I was rdanieg. The phaonmneal pweor of the hmuan mnid, aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, sates the olny iprmoatnt tihng is that the frist and lsat ltteer be in the rghit pclae. The rset can be a taotl mses and you can still raed it wouthit a porbelm. This is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the word as a wlohe. Amazanig, huh?

Because your brain is so amazing, you have to trick it into paying more attention when you proofread. This is tough because by the time you've written a draft or two, you're very familiar with your text, and it is easy to skip over errors. For example, last week I wrote sigh when I meant to write sign. Luckily, I spotted it the next day, and I was able to correct it. We all know how useless spell check is to this kind of error.

I know of countless examples of damage done to credibility and clarity from proofreading errors. My favorite one recently was told to me by the admissions officer at the University of Pennsylvania. Apparently, one of the applicants wrote he wanted to be accepted into the Wharton School of Bunnies (instead of the Wharton School of Business). I'm sure he's happy with his new long-eared colleagues.

Each week I sit with writers who are capable of correcting many of their own errors--if they only took the time to proofread and edit carefully. Here are five of the best techniques I know to accomplish a thorough review:

1. Step away from your document for at least an hour, preferably a day.
2. Read it aloud. SLOWLY. Listen for places you stumble.
3. Read the last word first, then the next, and all the way through.
4. Use spell checker but don't rely on it.
5. Have someone else proofread it too

The obvious goal of writing is to get people to read what you've written. Errors are distracting and create unclear meanings, to say nothing about what they do to your credibility. And by the way, given the Ocean Spray label above, do you think I should check my juice more carefully?

Let me know if you've found similar blunders in proofreading. I'd love to hear from you.
The family computer is in my kitchen. One day I was Gchating with my son, Nick, and I stepped away from the keyboard for a minute. My daughter, Emma, quickly sat down and responded to Nick pretending to be me. Immediately Nick responded, "Who is this? This isn't Mom!" Because Nick knows me well, he could tell it was someone else. He knows my style.

Has something like this ever happened to you? Do you wonder why you can recognize the "sound" of someone's expression without even hearing his/her actual voice? It's because style comes across in word choice, vocabulary, tone, punctuation, and sentence/paragraph construction. These important elements of communication are what make your writing unique; it's your style! And you should use your style to engage your audience.

Students in the sciences often think their writing should be devoid of any style. It is true that scientific writing requires a clear and precise style, and it generally avoids a lot of use of figurative language, but it still needs to have individuality in order to capture the reader's attention. Pulitzer Prize winner Carl Sagan's best-selling science book, Cosmos, was successful in part because of the exuberant and eloquent style of his prose. He was adept at explaining technical subjects in terms that were approachable and understood by a general audience. His word choice and vocabulary suited an educated audience. His tone was positive and energetic. And his paragraph and sentence construction were clear and sophisticated. He was a skilled scientist, writer, teacher, and communicator--and it was largely because his style was engaging, and he knew how to use it on an audience.

Sagan's clear and sophisticate prose is evident in this quotation from The Cosmic Connection (1973): "Even today, there are moments when what I do seems to me like an improbable, if unusually pleasant dream: to be involved in the exploration of Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn; to try to duplicate the steps that led to the origin of life on an Earth very different from the one we know; to land instruments on Mars to search there for life; and perhaps to be engaged in a serious effort to communicate with other intelligent beings, if such there be, out there in the dark of the night sky." Punctuation and parallel structure establish the rhythm or sound of this passage. (Note the use of semicolons as comma upgrades to separate his long phrases, and the use of commas to set off interrupters, along with a colon to add to the "reveal" aspect of the first phrase. Additionally, infinitive phrases provide the repeated grammatical structure that supports the cadence of this passage.)

What a dull and colorless world we'd live in if we didn't incorporate our own style into our writing. One of the easiest ways to get started on developing your own style is to consciously examine the styles of your favorite authors. Read, study, and then imitate the style. Add those "pieces of flair" (reference to Office Space--didn't you wonder about the relevance of the image?) to show your individuality through your word choice, vocabulary, tone, punctuation, and sentence/paragraph construction!

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Twenty-three years ago, I was a single mom, working by day as an economist and a synchronized trapeze performer for Cirque Du Soleil at night. The other day I found myself reminiscing about my former career in Las Vegas as I took an acorn squash out of the oven. It's hard to know when an acorn squash is cooked without taking it out of the oven and poking it. I like to use a very large fork to do the poking, but my kitchen drawers are always a mess, so I usually have to poke the squash with a knife. I spent a lot of time poking objects when I was a kid living in Utah with my grandparents. My grandfather was American and my grandmother was Cuban, and they met in New York and later settled in England.

Have you ever met someone who communicates like this? Do you find yourself wishing he/she would just GET TO THE POINT? One of the most important writing principles is getting to the point as quickly as possible--conciseness matters. Your reader doesn't have a lot of time, and he/she is more likely to stay with you if you master this key writing principle. Here are nine strategies to help you unload the freeloader words.

1. Avoid unnecessary repetition.
Knowing the purpose of the piece and having good organization are useful towards accomplishing brevity. Technical writing is used to communicate essential information. It differs from creative writing because there is no need to set a mood or develop characters. In other words, technical writing is supposed to be direct and purposeful. Include only necessary information. Avoid excessive detail, yet be complete. Employing effective organization helps avoid unnecessary repetition too. If you find yourself writing, "as I mentioned previously," stop. Go back and collect your related ideas. Grouping similar ideas helps with brevity.

2. Omit needless words. This is a bit of an art, but it can be mastered with practice. Consider these:  


Instead of


the reason for

for the reason that

due to the fact that

because, since

it is crucial that

it is necessary that

must, should

at this point in time


3. Think of words that are often paired but only one is needed. 

Completely finish          past memories                  each individual                  tiny little

Important essentials      future plans                       unexpected surprise      free gift

4. Also, there are many specific words that imply their general categories. Usually it is possible to drop the more general word.

Large in size        heavy in weight       of a bright color             of a strange type

5. Watch for verbs smothered in nouns.
Word endings such as ion, sion, tion, ing, ance, ency, ant, meant, and ent hide a verb by changing it into a noun or an adjective--which requires you to add another verb to complete your sentence.

Examples:         The researcher undertook implementation of the new guidelines

                              The researcher implemented the new guidelines


                              The committee made the decision to cancel the contract.

                              The committee decided to cancel the contract.

6. Use the active rather than the passive voice.

Example:             The experiment was conducted by the research group.

                                The research group conducted the experiment.

7. Don't state the obvious. For example, many students come to me to review their cover letters, and frequently the first sentence begins: I am writing to you because I am interested in the position you advertised. If the reader is holding your document, it is obvious you wrote something. Cut to the chase, and state your point. Your writing will be more lively and engaging if you do.

Similarly, I believe, I think, I feel, in my opinion are also rarely needed. They are the words of a timid writer, and they are assumed because YOU are the writer.

8. Get rid of meaningless modifiers. Kind of, sort of, somewhat, personally, generally, actually, are all usually unnecessary and add little or nothing to the meaning.

9. Remove There is/There are as the start of a sentence. Notice when you cut there is or there are from the beginning of a sentence a shorter more vibrant sentence emerges.

These nine strategies are just a few of the many you can use to achieve conciseness. The most important first step is to concentrate on how each word works to contribute to the meaning of the sentence, and how each sentence contributes to the effectiveness of the paragraph, and finally, how each paragraph contributes to the overall purpose. As you proofread, try to reduce your draft; a good rule used by many writers is this equation: 2nd draft = 1st draft - 10%. William Faulkner supposedly said that in order to be an effective writer you must kill your darlings. Kurt Vonnegut said that you must have the guts to cut. I implore you to begin slaying and cutting today.    

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