05.09.2012 Me, Myself, and I0

Why are so many people using “myself” in ways they shouldn’t be? Some examples are, “Call either Marcy or myself if you need anything,” “Bring the document to myself or my secretary when you’re finished,” or “My family and myself will be coming with you.”

This unfortunate usage might be a result of the impulse to sound more impressive in writing. However, these writers end up coming across as trying too hard, as many readers will recognize that this usage is incorrect. If you’re guilty of this, you should feel deep, deep shame at your pomposity.

Just kidding. Still, you should stop doing this and join the fight for clear, direct writing. If you’re unsure of the proper pronoun to use, try this trick: remove everyone else in the sentence to test whether you need “me,” “my,” and so on. In the examples above, removing the other actors in the sentences makes it clear that they should read, “Call me if you need anything,” “Bring the document to me,” and “I will be coming with you.” Neat, huh?

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04.26.2012 Help with Introductions1

Why are introductions so difficult? Probably because they require you to gain the reader’s interest, present a concise synopsis of what your paper will discuss, and lay a road map for how you intend to proceed. This is a tall order.

The first thing to keep in mind is what NOT to do. At all costs, avoid the dreaded “dictionary definition” opener. You know this kind of intro; it says something like, “According to the Oxford English Dictionary, ‘bravery’ is defined as…” There is no need to define bravery or anything else as you open a paper. The only exception is if you are contesting a definition, or presenting a new or enhanced definition. Otherwise, stay away from this trite and oft-used method of beginning a paper.

The same is true for the “beginning of time” intro, which goes like this: “Since the beginning of time, man has been refining communication.” Variations include “Throughout human history,” “Since the dawn of man,” and the like. Maybe it’s true that man has always wondered about your topic, but this is another opener that professors have seen far too many times, and is likely to produce a sigh of exasperation.

Finally, avoid the “in society today” intro, for the same reason. It’s a yawner. Any formulation along the lines of “In today’s world…” is sure to bring out the red pen. Remember, you want to grab your reader, not put her to sleep.

Instead, consider starting out with a quotation that is relevant to your topic and presents it in an interesting way. You could do this as an epigraph just beneath your title. A well-chosen quotation sets the stage for the tone and subject matter of the paper for you. You can choose one that comes from your assigned reading, or better yet, choose one that may be new to your professor, and therefore unexpected.

You might also start with an interesting anecdote. Suppose you are writing a paper on recovery from a coma. Instead of defining coma, or saying, “People have been falling into comas since the beginning of time,” you might tell the brief and compelling story of someone who awoke from a coma after several years, then lead into your thesis. Remember not to make the story too long, though. It’s just to gain the reader’s attention and introduce him to your topic. No more than four or five sentences should do it, for a paper of five pages or so.

Statistics can be used to open a paper as well, but you need to be careful with them. Don’t barrage your reader with endless numbers. Choose only a few statistics that are particularly arresting and surprising. This will help your reader see that there may be more to your topic than meets the eye.

This very general information about intros will not necessarily make the actual writing any easier, but hopefully it gives you some fall-back techniques you can use in the future. One final tip: consider writing your introduction last, after you have completed the rest of the paper. That way, you know exactly what your main points are and how you developed them, info that can you can then paraphrase in your introduction.

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04.16.2012 Bad Spellers, Take Heart!0

We have always maintained that just because a person has difficulty with spelling, that doesn’t mean he or she is a poor reader, a poor writer, or otherwise intellectually deficient. If you’re a bad speller, so what? No reason to beat yourself up. Today we found this great New York Times article from 1893 to back us up. It’s an enjoyable read, and makes us want to drink a sarsaparilla while playing the pump organ.

If you’re still feeling bad about your spelling woes, take heart. Alfred Mosher Butts, the inventor of Scrabble, was a lousy speller, as were Jane Austen, Ernest Hemingway, and William Faulkner. So no worries. You should of course avail yourself of tools like the dictionary and Spellchecker when you proof your own work, and ask a qualified editor to look it over for good measure (hint, hint).

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04.05.2012 What's an Eggcorn?0

Have you ever heard anyone say “For all intensive purposes,” when they really mean “For all intents and purposes”? Or “Chester drawers” for “chest of drawers”? How about “spear of influence” for “sphere of influence”? These amusing usage mishaps have come to be known as “eggcorns.” The term itself, eggcorn, comes from the linguists at Language Log, who in 2003 reported an instance of the confusion of “egg corn” for “acorn.” Since then, “spotting eggcorns in the wild,” as they call it, has taken on a life of its own, with readers and linguists contributing their findings to The Eggcorn Database. Join the fun!

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03.20.2012 Our Favorite Books on Writing0

There are a lot of books and manuals out there that offer tips on how to improve your writing—a quick internet search turns up over 200,000 titles. How to choose? As you continue to develop your writing skills, you will likely discover guides that reflect the voice, style, and level of formality you’re looking for in your own writing. To get started, you might want to check out any of the three titles below. These books advocate the kind of writing we like best: clear, direct, and accessible (which should not be mistaken for colorless, plain, and boring). If you would like more specific recommendations, such as manuals for academic, business, blog, screenplay, fiction, travel, or sports writing, drop us a line.

William Zinsser, On Writing Well
Jacques Barzun, Simple and Direct: A Rhetoric for Writers
John R. Trimble, Writing with Style: Conversations on the Art of Writing

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03.12.2012 Quick Resume Tips 1

We get a lot of inquiries from international clients who have questions about resumes. If you’re unfamiliar with the application process, or if English is not your native language, composing a resume and communicating with prospective employers can indeed be daunting. Here are a few very general tips to get you started.

Your resume should not be any longer than one page, especially if you are a new graduate or have less than ten years of work experience. Employers receive dozens (sometimes hundreds) of applications for one posting, and want to be able to see your relevant information at a glance. There are a few exceptions to this one-page rule, such as for academic or high-level executive jobs, but overall, one page is all you need.

Don’t cram a bunch of information onto that one page, either. It’s important to leave a lot of white space for readability. Employers are unlikely to wade through a resume packed with tiny text and unnecessary detail.

Don’t send the same basic resume with every application; tailor your resume to each specific job. Study the job requirements and qualifications listed in the job posting, and play up your relevant experience in your resume. This is especially true if you include an objective in your resume. A generic objective filled with buzzwords (“optimize,” “incentivize”) is sure to land your resume in the reject pile.

Stay away from fancy fonts and formatting, which do not hold up when you send your resume electronically. Keep it simple.

Include sections for relevant work experience, education, and special skills. Many applicants start off with a “qualifications summary,” which highlights the most relevant skills and experience that make you a good candidate for the job. If you include a qualifications summary, do not repeat the same information later in the resume.

Resumes used to include personal information, such as your age and whether you are married or have children. This isn’t done anymore. If you do want to include personal information, such as volunteer work or organizations you belong to, make sure it is relevant to the job.

Instead of using valuable space to list your references, include a line at the bottom saying “References available on request.” You should prepare a separate document listing your references’ names and contact info, and have it ready to immediately send if the employer asks.

Proofread your resume carefully. Having mistakes or typos in your resume is the fastest, surest way to have it end up in the reject pile.

You can find excellent resume tips at The Purdue University Online Writing Lab. Best of luck!

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03.02.2012 Writing an Effective Complaint Letter0

If you are unhappy with a service or product you’ve spent money on, writing a complaint letter or email can be an effective way to resolve the problem. When composing a complaint letter, keep the following tips in mind.

Make sure your tone is professional and reasonable. Even if you are quite angry, try to restrain your emotions. Think of your own reactions to people who are angry and insulting; you are probably less likely to want to help.

Be specific and get to the point. The person reading your letter is likely as busy as you are, and it will be helpful for you to make the problem immediately clear. Include the date of purchase or service, as well as a brief explanation of the problem. Enclose a copy of your receipt.

Suggest a resolution. Do you want your money back? Store credit? A replacement product? Let the reader know. Choose a time frame in which you expect to hear back with a solution (usually 1-2 weeks). Mention that you will contact a consumer protection agency if you do not receive a response.

Below is an example of an effective complaint letter. If you were sending an email instead, you would not include your address, the date, and the business address before the body of the text.

If you need any assistance in composing or editing your letter, let us know!

Gertie Gordon
123 Catnip Ln.
Anytown, TX, 12345

March 2, 2012

Earla Grey, Owner
Earla’s Tea Room and Café
456 Blossom Ave.
Anytown, TX, 12345

Dear Mrs. Grey:

I have had the pleasure of stopping at your lovely café several times over the last two years. I have always enjoyed the charming atmosphere, friendly service, and impressive selection of delicious teas. However, my most recent experience with your business was most unpleasant indeed.

I came in on February 16, 2012 and purchased your Deluxe Tea Starter gift box for my mother’s birthday, which ordinarily would have been an ideal present. I am sorry to report that when my mother opened the box, dozens of large roaches crawled out. This naturally was not the birthday surprise I had envisioned.

When I called your store to complain, the manager I spoke with, Vivian Thomas, told me that unless I had photographs of the roaches in the box, there was nothing she could do. Unfortunately, I made no further headway with Ms. Thomas.

Thus, I am writing directly to you to request reimbursement for the cost of the gift box. I understand that the roaches likely originated from your supplier and not your store; nevertheless, I did not intend for my $134.99 to be spent on a box of filthy insects.

Please find a copy of my receipt enclosed. I hope to receive a satisfactory response from you by March 12, 2012, or I will be compelled to contact the Better Business Bureau. I appreciate your attention to this issue.

Very sincerely,

Gertie Gordon

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02.23.2012 In Further Defense of Clear, Direct Prose0

"Good writing is like a windowpane," says George Orwell, and we agree heartily. He means that good writing is clear and unadorned, so the meaning is easily accessible to the reader. Sure, a little decorative drapery is always a nice touch, but there is no need for heavy Victorian curtains, tassels, flower boxes, bird feeders, and wind chimes all hanging out at the same window. Best to let the writing speak for itself instead of barraging the reader with loads of distracting flourishes.

Orwell is best known for Animal Farm and 1984, but you can see many other examples of his clear, direct writing style in his other works as well. Check out "Shooting an Elephant," for example, an essay that brings significant emotional impact to the reader precisely because of its directness.

For examples of terrible, overwrought, jargon-laden writing, see The Postmodernism Generator. This is a hilarious site that uses a computer program to generate text that may sound smart but is actually completely meaningless. Enjoy!

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02.20.2012 Concise Business Writing0

Business writing has a variety of purposes: to deliver information to colleagues and customers, to persuade investors to get on board, and to generate brand awareness and sales. In all cases, the writing should be clear and concise, not overblown and self-important. Unfortunately, business documents tend to be filled with bloated phrases and confusing jargon. For example, consider the sentence, “ was incepted in order to facilitate the client’s optimization of textual efficacy through the utilization of contextually relevant production and enhancement.” Yuck.

Such a sentence serves only to stroke the writer’s ego and alienate the reader, who ends up lost in a sea of abstractions, attempting to translate the sentence into plain English to understand its intended meaning. Most readers just aren’t going to bother, though; would you? An employee is likely to take a stab at it before filing it away largely unread, and a customer is likely to leave your site and find one that makes plain sense. The goal of all writing should be clear communication of ideas. That’s why, instead of that garbled mess above, we prefer to write, “ is here to help you create and edit effective business, academic, and personal documents.”

Perhaps you are concerned that simple writing doesn’t make you sound smart or impressive enough. However, clients and co-workers don’t want to be awed by your massive vocabulary, forced to track down the message hidden inside cloudy sentences that don’t mean anything concrete. Your colleagues are busy people. Your customers have numerous companies competing for their time and attention. Tell them what they need to know, simply and directly, and everybody wins.

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02.16.2012 How Can I Become A Better Writer?0

The way to becoming a better writer is exactly the same as the way to becoming a better anything. If you wanted to excel at basketball, you would practice, right? And learn the ins and outs of the game, and read up on strategy, and so on.

If you want to be a better writer, the best thing to do is read more, and read actively. Reading actively allows you to notice the rhythms of language, as well as get a feel for the way punctuation works. The reading material doesn’t need to be anything complicated, either. If you already subscribe to your favorite magazine, for example, start reading it more closely, and notice sentence structure variety, organization, how the intro leads into the body, and so on. You might be surprised at how much you pick up about writing just by paying careful attention to the words themselves.

In conjunction with active reading, you will need to practice writing in order to improve. There are all kinds of writing prompts available on the web, from creative writing to journal writing and more. Choose one that interests you and start writing. You will notice that, over time, the combination of close reading and regular writing practice will indeed improve your skills.

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