Year 2003 Writing/Communication Tips
by Lucy Paine Kezar

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Tip #26
January, 2003

The opening sentence

An effective opening sentence engages the reader's interest. 

Imagine that you work for a manufacturing company and have been asked to write a company-newsletter article on the increasing accident rate in manufacturing areas. 

How would you begin? Options include:

1. Announce the subject.
"The accident rate on our manufacturing floor increased 6 percent during the past year."

2. Open with a human-interest story.
"David's life changed in a single moment, on the day when [brief description of accident]... ."

3. Engage the reader personally.
"If you work on the manufacturing floor, what are the most dangerous moments of your day?"

You can presumably think of other openers that will motivate recipients to continue reading.

Happy New Year.

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Tip #27
February, 2003

Writing, sleep, and circadian rhythms

Since we live in our bodies, our physical condition affects our performance. In order to function at peak level we need, among other requirements, to be both rested and alert. 

Researchers tell us that Americans tend to be chronically sleep-deprived. Further, our capabilities vary during the day depending on where we are in our bodies' circadian rhythms. Here are two suggestions:

1. Try getting extra sleep during the night or nights before doing a challenging writing assignment. You may be surprised at how much easier the process becomes, and how readily new or innovative thoughts come to mind.

2. Write at your most alert time of day. This might mean writing at times of day that others consider odd. A "morning person" may write most effectively at 5:00 a.m.; a "night person," at 11:00 p.m.

Observing both sleep needs and the "body clock" can bring out the best in our writing.

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Tip #28
March, 2003

The hyphen and the dash

It's easy to confuse the hyphen with the dash. 

The HYPHEN(-), shorter than a dash, appears in compound words, such as off-season.
It divides words at ends of lines on a printed page. It appears in compound numbers; e.g., thirty-one, and in other word linkings. 

The DASH(--) is longer than the hyphen. 
When using a keyboard we usually create the dash using two hyphens, as shown here.

A single dash indicates an abrupt break in thought or an unfinished statement or question. 
For example:
"I'm going to--," he said, as he stopped abruptly.

Two dashes can set off a structurally separate, parenthetical-in-meaning, portion of a sentence
when we want to emphasize it. It breaks into the main sentence, as in:
She--Sally, I mean; not her dog--was lying by the fireplace. 

It's best not to overuse dashes. One reason for this is that frequent use of dashes can indicate 
that the writer is unsure about punctuation. The dash is effective, however, when used correctly and sparingly.

I wish you the best in this time of war and international distress.

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Tip #29
April, 2003

Parallel construction

When combining several items, either in a list or within a sentence, it's best to put all of them into the same grammatical form. Each item should be or begin with, for example, a noun, verb form, or phrase; that is, the items should be structurally alike. 

This is called parallel construction. Examples:

NOT parallel: "Tatiana enjoys hiking, sailing, and to ski." 

Parallel: "Tatiana enjoys hiking ,sailing, and skiing," OR 
"Tatiana likes to hike, sail, and ski."

Resumes offer opportunities for parallel construction. 
Here's an imaginary resume excerpt: 

Director of Marketing Division, X Corporation
 Managed twenty accounts...
 Supervised fifteen staff members...
 Developed new areas of....
 Coordinator of... .

As you see, the first three items are parallel, leading off with verbs (Managed, Supervised, Developed). However, the last one starts with a noun (Coordinator). We can make these four items parallel by starting the fourth with the verb "Coordinated." We could also write them all as nouns: "Manager of... / Supervisor of... . "

Parallel structure is correct, balanced, and easy to read.

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Tip #30
May, 2003

Words often confused

When we write, we intend that our sentences will flow in our reader's minds. 
We don't want a reader to pause and wonder, "Is this writer using that word correctly?"

Some pairs of words are, however, easily confused and thus often used incorrectly. 
Some of these word pairs sound alike or nearly alike; for example:
affect / effect,
complement / compliment.

Others, though not homonyms (words sounding alike), resemble each other; 
for example:
imply / infer,
uninterested / disinterested.

We don't need to remember all of these distinctions. We can look them up not only in dictionaries but also in the many writing handbooks that offer lists of words commonly confused.


Here's a short paragraph using some of the words mentioned above:

She implied, without saying so directly, that the jury-selection process was taking a long time. In this sensitive case both sides were inferring bias from many potential jurors' responses to questions. A single juror can critically affect outcome and jurors should, of course, be disinterested but not uninterested.

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Tip #31
Ju
ne, 2003

Brevity and style - 2.

"Brevity is the soul of wit," Polonius says in Act II of "Hamlet." 

Brevity with clarity is often a goal in our writing. One way of achieving brevity is to choose shorter words over longer ones, when the shorter words will do. 

Can we improve this sentence?

"In order to utilize our resources most effectively, we should first ascertain whether our staff members are working in areas in which they possess their maximal capabilities."

Consider:

"To best use our resources, we must first learn whether staff members are working in areas where they have the greatest skills."

Can you improve this sentence further?

Needlessly long words used often in business writing include:
commence
terminate
erroneous
modification
expeditious
aggregate

In many contexts we could replace these with:
begin
end, stop
wrong
change
fast
total

Have a pleasant July 4th weekend.

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Tip #32
July, 2003

What to look for in proofreading - 1.

Proofreading becomes easier when we know what to look for. As noted in Tip #7, proofreading our own writing is usually more difficult than proofreading others' work.  Further, if we proofread our own writing several hours after writing, or if possible the next day, we'll more easily see our own mistakes.

The July, August, and September WritingTips will offer ten proofreading suggestions.  Here are the first three.

Check for:

   1. A subject (main noun or pronoun) and a predicate (main verb) in every sentence.
   2.  Spelling errors, including:
             misspelled proper names
  homonyms (words having different meanings but sounding alike);
examples:  hear and here;  there, their, and they're.
(No help from the spell-check here!)
  misspelled plurals
   3.  Correct punctuation at the end of each sentence.
Here are two examples of MISTAKES:
              An omitted period is easy to miss   The reason is that a period is small.
  What a deplorable situation.  [A sentence beginning with "What a" is an exclamation and needs an exclamation point at the end.  In writing dialogue we may sometimes prefer to use a period in order to convey a speaker's mood.  Some writers do this, but the disadvantage here is that a percentage of our readers will see a "What a" sentence followed by a period as a error, regardless of context.]

As mentioned, further suggestions will appear in next month's Tip.

Hope you're having a great summer.

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Tip #33
August, 2003

What to look for in proofreading - 2.

As mentioned in last month's tip, proofreading becomes easier when we know what to look for.  In proofreading our own work we are more likely to notice mistakes if we allow time to elapse between writing and proofreading.

Here are three more tips, these related to "agreement" and consistency.

Check for:

   4.  Verbs agreeing in number with subjects.
             Example: "There are a car and a truck parked in my driveway."
In conversation we often begin such sentences with, "There is... ."
Here, however, we need the plural verb "are" because the grammatical subject of the sentence, "a car and a truck," is plural.
   5.  Pronouns agreeing in number with what they refer to, as in:
              "Everyone must wear his or her [not "their"] identification badge during the tour of the plant."  "Everyone" is a singular pronoun and thus needs to be followed by the singular "his" and/or "her."
   6.  Consistency in typefaces.
              This error has become more frequent in the computer age.  When using a word processor we may unintentionally include a word or phrase in a typeface different from that of the rest of the text.  When the two typefaces are similar it's easy to overlook this in proofreading.

This is the second of three WritingTips on proofreading.  Several more suggestions will appear in next month's Tip.

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Tip #34
September, 2003

What to look for in proofreading - 3.

As mentioned in tips of the past two months, proofreading becomes easier when we know what to look for.  In proofreading our own work we are more likely to notice mistakes if we
allow time to elapse between writing and proofreading.

Here are the remaining four suggestions in this series.

Check for:

   7.  "Initial caps," and avoidance of their overuse.
              We don't capitalize seasons (summer, fall).  We capitalize academic disciplines only when they are proper names (e.g., German), or part of a title (e.g., Department of Physics). A correct sentence:  "Her courses this term are calculus, economics, French, and sociology."
   8.  Correct verb forms and tenses.
              Inconsistent forms can appear, for example, when a writer has made quick revisions and has changed some verb tenses but not others.
   9.  Frequently confused words used in error, as in:
             "Did the bad weather negatively effect [should be "affect"] voter turnout?"
  10.  Finally, meaning.
             Does the document make sense?

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Tip #35
October, 2003

"I can't write!"

How often do you hear someone say, "I can't..."? In speaking of a particular skill a person might say, "I can't draw," or "I can't sing," or "I can't write." Do you ever say this?

Many of us hold in our minds some kind of "I can't" concept. Often the idea has originated in childhood. For example, a person whose kindergarten teacher once made negative remarks about his or her drawing may have decided, "I can't draw."

If you think, "I can't write," consider the absurdity of this proposition. Virtually everybody writes. When we write someone a note, on paper or on-line, we are writing. Some illiterate people "write"; that is, some who have been denied the privilege of learning to read and write have nevertheless produced books and articles by dictating them. The nineteenth-century abolitionist Sojourner Truth (birth name: Isabella) was an example. As a former slave she learned writing relatively late, and wrote books with the help of a scribe.

In writing classes and training programs that I teach I tell participants, "We are all already writers." I add that writing is a skill like any other, and that we can all learn to do it more
effectively.

Let's drop the "I can't" statements from our thinking. You can, I can, and we all can!

Happy Halloween,
Lucy

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Tip #36
November, 2003

"Writing in holiday letters - 2"

It's the time of year when many of us send handwritten and/or computer-printed greetings to friends, family, and business associates. When composing a holiday letter, especially one for multiple distribution, we aim for accuracy not because friends will hold writing errors against us--if they're friends, they won't!--but rather because errors distract readers. Even a small mistake can draw a reader's attention away from the content.

In my holiday-letter WritingTip of December 6, 2002 (previous tips appear on the website), I briefly described three commonly-seen grammatical errors. For this holiday season here are two more suggestions, one on proofreading and the other on spell-checking.

1. It's notoriously difficult to proofread one's own writing. In any sentence or paragraph that we've written and reread, our eyes easily skim over mistakes. Solution: if writing a holiday letter for multiple recipients, simply ask a friend to proofread it.

2. The "spell-checker" is a boon to all of us, but it has limitations. The following short poem (from an unknown source), which a participant named Debbie B. contributed during one of my business-writing training sessions a few years ago, illustrates this:

Eye have a spelling chequer.
It came with my pea sea.
It plainly marques four my revue
Mist steaks I kin knot sea.

Remember, though, that the most important aspect of letters to friends and family is the fact that we've sent them. Here, relationships transcend writing style.

Happy Thanksgiving,
Lucy

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Tip #35
October, 2003

"I can't write!"

How often do you hear someone say, "I can't..."? In speaking of a particular skill a person might say, "I can't draw," or "I can't sing," or "I can't write." Do you ever say this?

Many of us hold in our minds some kind of "I can't" concept. Often the idea has originated in childhood. For example, a person whose kindergarten teacher once made negative remarks about his or her drawing may have decided, "I can't draw."

If you think, "I can't write," consider the absurdity of this proposition. Virtually everybody writes. When we write someone a note, on paper or on-line, we are writing. Some illiterate people "write"; that is, some who have been denied the privilege of learning to read and write have nevertheless produced books and articles by dictating them. The nineteenth-century abolitionist Sojourner Truth (birth name: Isabella) was an example. As a former slave she learned writing relatively late, and wrote books with the help of a scribe.

In writing classes and training programs that I teach I tell participants, "We are all already writers." I add that writing is a skill like any other, and that we can all learn to do it more
effectively.

Let's drop the "I can't" statements from our thinking. You can, I can, and we all can!

Happy Halloween,
Lucy

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Tip #37
December, 2003

"Why write?"

To celebrate the end of 2003 and the beginning of 2004, let's think for a moment about why we write.

Why do we put experiences, thoughts, instructions and other messages into words, and why do we care about the quality of our writing?

The South African writer and Nobel Laureate Nadine Gordimer has an answer:

"Writing is making sense of life."

Happy New Year,
Lucy

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