Friday, December 28, 2012

Pay attention to plural marriages

Experienced wordsmiths know that, in a sentence, a singular subject requires the singular version of the verb. Or do they? Even professional writers sometimes trip on this rule. For example, here’s the lead from a news item published on the Des Moines Register website:
To Tom and Irene Frantzen, the mountain of corn cobs sitting in their hoop building are a valuable commodity.
Here, the subject is “the mountain of corn cobs,” and because only one “mountain” is mentioned, the subject is singular. Ignoring the misspelling of "corncob," the sentence should read:
To Tom and Irene Frantzen, the mountain of corn cobs sitting in their hoop building is a valuable commodity.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Thoughts on Thought Leaders

Today I’m going to talk about the marketing bandwagon called “thought leadership marketing.”

A thought leader is a preferred information resource, the top-of-mind authority on a particular topic. Think IMDb (for movies), Trip Advisor (for travel advice) and Wikipedia (for almost everything else). 

When you are a thought leader, near-term success is measured by Google search results and long-term success is measured by increased sales, growing margins and customer satisfaction.

How to become a thought leader

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The perfect gift for copy nerds

If you care about great writing on the Internet, you ought to support it -- with your money. Subscribe to an online newspaper like The New York Times. Or put a few bucks in the tip jar to reward someone who entertains you on a daily basis.

Or, for that special copy nerd who rocks your world: a subscription to the AP Style Book Online. A subscription costs $25 a year, but discounts are available.

Monday, May 28, 2012

How many spaces can dance on the end of a sentence?

One of typography's most-often violated rules is this: Type one space between sentences. Surprised? 

Check out Space Invaders at

Thursday, May 24, 2012

The four-letter word that undermines your writing

One of the easiest ways to improve the power of your communication is to search for (and eliminate) the word “very” in everything you write. Very is a crutch that lets you believe you are writing with precision when, in most cases, you are simply playing it safe:

The new Miss U.S.A. is very pretty.

I’m sure the comely lass is easy on the eyes, but adding “very” doesn’t improve on “pretty,” which is a fine word, though bland. There are much more specific (and thus powerful) words for expressing her attractiveness:

cute | winsome | adorable | lovely | gorgeous | exquisite | glamorous | dazzling | luscious | voluptuous | sexy | hot |

Now you have a range of precision adjectives for describing Miss U.S.A., each of which paints a slightly different picture in the reader’s mind.

Here are a few more examples of how “very” can be overcome:

Thursday, May 3, 2012

7 Ways to Get Better Proofreading

Recently, one of my proofreading clients asked me, “What can editors and writers do to improve the work of freelance proofreaders (except offer more money and time)?”

Here are seven suggestions I offered:

1. For each assignment, include a detailed, up-to-date style guide specific to the publication or company. If any of the guidelines have changed or are not enforced, tell the proofer.

2. Describe the level of proofreading you need. You might offer more leeway for changes at first page proof stage and much more limited proofing of bluelines.

3. Organize multiple-page jobs into the correct order, and note any pages that are missing or copy that is not final.

Monday, April 30, 2012

What’s the SECOND worst way to start? -- (Part 2)

If you’re like me, you are always looking for better ways to entice readers into your copy.

Look at the sentence above and you’ll see the second worst way to begin any written communication: with the word “if.” (For the worst beginning, check out this earlier post.)

Why is the if-lead so weak?

One basic human need is the desire to feel special or unique. When you begin a conversation with your readers with “If you are like …” you are taking away that sense of specialness. This blunder is compounded by one of the most common types of if-leads:
“If you’re like millions of Americans, you’ve never considered owning a ferret.”
Now your reader is not only less than unique, he or she is a member of some huge, random collection of people. Though the desire for membership is also a human need, we all want to believe that we are part of a special group, not one of millions.