Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Tips for writers

I have compiled a Top 10 list in this post of some writing tips I hope every junior high and high school teacher (and wannabe writers everywhere) will take to heart when they are teaching students the fundamentals of journalism. These tips were put together by my work colleagues and I after a brief gripe session. Take it for what it's worth. These are points I wish my high school journalism teacher would have told me when I was my daughter's age. It would have saved me from having to unlearn some really bad writing habits that formed over the years.

1. Exclamation! Points! Are! Rarely! Ever! Necessary!
If you want to see a real writer roll their eyes in utter disgust, go ahead and keep using them. Let your writing portray the emotion.

2. Never, ever, for the love of God and your own body, start a story with "The Websters definition of (enter your topic here)..."
Starting a story with this lede (or lead) is a sure way to earn a laugh in the world of journalism/writing.

3. Learn the difference between proper nouns and common nouns.
You wouldn't believe the press releases that come across my desk with words needlessly capitalized. It's fine to capitalize St. Louis Memorial Hospital, but the word hospital does not need to be capitalized when it is used on its own (even when the word is in second reference to the proper name of a hospital). I'm not picking on anyone from St. Louis, I'm just using something from the top of my head as an example.

4. Speaking of example: e.g. means for example and i.e. means therefore.

5. Use a comma when you have an dependent clause followed by an independent clause.

6. While I'm playing comma nazi, I will also add a reminder to use commas before a conjunction (and, or, but, for, yet, nor, so).

7. Avoid ending your sentence with prepositions. (A preposition is anywhere a rat can go --above, beyond, below, between -- plus the word of.)
Funny story. My coworkers gave me a birthday card with a picture of one high schooler asking, "So, where's your birthday party at?" The other friend responds by telling her not to end a sentence with a preposition. Inside the card, the question had been rephrased as: "Where's your birthday party at bitch?"
This isn't the best example of how not to end a sentence with a preposition, but it definitely makes a point.

8. Don't use general descriptions. What is old to one person may be young to another. Very is a four-letter waste of space, general does nothing to describe the public and brand doesn't describe new.

9. If you can replace the word "who" with the words him or her, you should have used the word "whom."

10. When attributing a quote to someone, the word you are looking for is "said." Unless you want to sound like a hack, quit overusing words like stated, exclaimed and replied.
My daughter was told by her English teacher she could only use the words "said" and "asked" once for attribution in her paper. English teachers of the world, this needs to stop. My daughter's paper ended up rife with, "he blamed," "she tried," and "he replied." Funny thing was he wasn't replying to anything, no blame was being cast and she wasn't trying anything. Read through your work out loud, and if something sounds out of place, try using "said," because 99 percent of the time, that's the word you mean.

I'm not saying I'm a perfect writer. I'm far from it. Every writer has made the above mistakes at least once, but my colleagues and I became a better writers after our peers pointed out these bad habits and we resolved to change them.

Happy writing!

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