What are your best writing tips?

markups

Do you recall your first attempts at professional writing? I’ll bet you cringe a bit, right? I know I do.

I recently found a rough draft of a story I wrote when I first started my job as a reporter. My editor had returned the draft back to me with so much red, you’d think he was creating art. Fact was that my prose was riddled with errors. While I am a perfectionist who loathes making errors, I realize that learning from our mistakes helps us grow. Fortunately, I had a good editor and group of reporters who helped me along.

The point is, any of us who write regularly, probably stumbled a lot in the beginning. To get better, you need to either get educated in the rules of writing or have someone edit your work. If you’re really lucky, you’ll have a combination of both education (in forms of either schooling or books) and an editor who can help you see your weaknesses.

While there are many great resources to improve your writing, such as Elements of Style and the Associated Press Style Guide, the newsroom bible, I’d like to tap into another asset – our knowledgeable readers. Please share your best writing tips in the comments below or by emailing us and we will post them later this month.

I will kick things off with a few tips concerning rules which I see violated most often on the web.

  • Spell out numbers which start sentences. If you must write the number as a figure, then restructure the sentence so the number is not first.
  • Spell out abbreviations and acronyms on first reference. You’ll note that I wrote Associated Press Style Guide above, but all other references call it the AP Style Guide. There are some instances when the acronym is so widely known that it is allowable to use it, such as YMCA.
  • Over or more than? Over and under should refer only to spatial descriptions. Rather than writing, It is over $500 write, it is more than $500. There is some debate on this, with some people insisting that the terms are interchangeable and there is no concrete grammatical rule, but I side with the traditionalists.
  • Capitalization. Writers oftentimes capitalize words which don’t need it. I can’t tell you how many press releases I’ve seen which abused the rules governing capitalization. In short, you should capitalize proper nouns and proper names. However, there are several other guidelines (too many to detail here) detailed in the AP Style Guide that all professional writers should make themselves familiar with.
  • You’re versus Your. You’re is a contraction of you and are, as in you’re a great writer, while your is a possessive pronoun such as this is your book.

Please leave your favorite tip(s) below.

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13 responses to What are your best writing tips?

  1. write a writing

    My first written work was a piece of research that I did on the perils and birth of paper money including Rothschild and all. The topic was really interesting and I revised and edited my stuff like nything… It took me 2 weeks to do that 500 word piece and it was after that, I realized that hey I can write 🙂

    write a writing’s last blog post..Learn Business Writing: A Few Commandments

  2. Susan Greene

    My personal pet peeve and the rule I see violated most often is a punctuation issue when quotes are used. Punctuation goes INSIDE the quotes, like this: He said, “I walked the dog this morning.” And, “Where is the sugar?” she asked.

  3. Kool Aid

    “You’re versus Your. You’re is a contraction of you and are, as in you’re a great writer, while your is a possessive pronoun such as this is your book.”

    I see this mistake ALL THE TIME (sorry about not following the capitalization rule 🙂 ) along with there, their and they’re. Drives me crazy when people can’t follow those simple grammar rules. I always want to correct them but sometimes I don’t because I worry it might come off in a wrong way.

    The best tip I can think of is to learn how to take and to give constructive criticisms. This I learned in art school, too, and I think it would apply to writing as well. It’s a difficult skill to learn because what you’re creating is often so personal, when someone is giving a critique, it’s very easy to take it personally. You have to learn to step back from your work and see it with an objective eye. Same goes with giving critiques – try and keep it as objective as possible.

    Kool Aid’s last blog post..First day of school

  4. David Cain

    Unnecessary capital letters drive me nuts too!

    A couple of tips:
    1. Look up a word if you have any doubt about what it means. (Type “def [word] into google)
    2. When you revise your word, always look for a better wording, for each sentence.
    3. Move emphatics to the end of the sentence.

    Not to be a grammar snob but here’s another common mistake:

    “Spell out numbers which start sentences.”

    http://www.writersblock.ca/tips/monthtip/tipsep95.htm

    David Cain’s last blog post..Moments Can’t Be Captured

  5. janice

    Nice post, Dave. Here are a few practical tips to add to the collection.

    ~Remember that blogging calls for a different kind of immediacy so you need to have great instincts for register. A complete refusal to ever use exclamation marks or abbreviations can end up making your online voice sound cold or stilted. There are times when people want to hear a written simulation of your ‘real’ voice. It all boils down to knowing what your purpose is before you write a single word.
    ~Look out for your own verbal ticks and deal with them before they become invisible to you. We all have them, but other people’s overused expressions, restricted lexical groups and repetitive grammatical patterns and sentence structures start to bug us before our own do.
    ~ Make friends with the semi colon. It’s a great way to indulge a love of short sentences with an awareness of cohesion in a longer piece of discourse.
    ~Double check that every pronoun links back clearly to the word or phrase it represents. Just because it makes sense to you, doesn’t mean that others will immediately get what you’re referring back to.

    This is what I left as a response to the same request for tips over at Write to Done a few days ago:

    To write well, we have to live well. We have to be open, curious, present and engaged and fill our lives with as much passion and purpose as we can. We have to be bold, vulnerable and authentic, and write – and read – like we’re consuming soul food. Deep down, we have to believe that what the world needs from us is our passion, the thing that makes us feel truly alive, the way we filter the world, love the learning and pass it on. There is a holy triangle between reader, writer and the thing that’s written; write as if connecting with that one person who’s blessing you with their rapt attention is all that exists in that moment. People connect through spirit. It doesn’t matter what you write or how you write; connection and co-creating sensation are crucial.

    janice’s last blog post..How to Breathe Life Into Your Writing

    • Marc

      I’m certain I read somewhere that the American style was to leave the punctuation on the outside and the British on the inside.

      • j.ann

        The reverse is actually true! We put our periods inside quotes in America, and full stops outside. Well. Sometimes, depending on if it’s a fragment or not. Lynne Truss’ Eats, Shoots & Leaves has a much better (and funnier) explanation of the British rules.

  6. Marc

    Nice tips Dave. When it comes to copywriting however, your first one goes right out the window. Strange huh? I mean we are psychologically more inclined to “buy” when sentences start with numbers in their digit form. Yet we’ve come up with a grammatical rule guiding us to do the opposite.

    Something which is plaguing my mind these days is the so called Oxford comma.

    I was taught to always omit the final comma before a grammatical conjunction. How about you two? What are your thoughts?

    Oh, by the way, Janice is an excellent teacher when it comes to commas 🙂

  7. Tumblemoose

    Sorry to arrive at the conversation so late. I love tips!

    Ok, so here we go:

    1. A grammar goof or two is ok, but it really detracts from the reading experience. I’m pretty mellow about this stuff but when I see things like “Your a looser” I’m apt to give you very little consideration as a serious writer. Figure it out or have someone with a clue proof your work.

    2. Get on with it, already. Pertaining to blog posts and such, please make your point and try to be succinct. Even if it’s interesting to me, at about 1100 words – I’m done and will move on.

    3. I have to echo your acronym point. Nothing is more frustrating to the reader than not understanding terminology that you feel is ubiquitous.

    My two cents!

    George

    Tumblemoose’s last blog post..Vintage Typewriters and Deviled Ham

  8. Davina

    I just finished proofreading a book that was full of unnecessary capitalization — I second this one. Keeping things consistent is one thing I focus on. For example: Avoid using both “percent” and the % symbol; use one or the other. And, when giving a direct example use “such as” as opposed to “like”. And don’t forget about it’s vs its. I always catch myself making that one.

    Putting the punctuation outside of the quotes is sometimes correct depending on the sentence. But according the Associated Press, the comma and the period ALWAYS go inside of quotes.

    This is going to be a helpful resource Sean.

    Davina’s last blog post..Roaming with the Metaphor

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