3 Tips for Careful Writers

By Mark Nichol

1. Know the Rules
This doesn’t mean to simply remember what you learned — or what you think you learned — five or fifty years ago. Careful writers continuously educate and reeducate themselves about grammar, syntax, usage, and style. In preparing to write my posts over the last few years, I have engaged in extensive research, consulting print and online authorities to confirm or correct my own understanding of what constitutes good writing. Confront your prejudices, and check your recall and understanding of the basics. Most important, don’t believe everything you think.

2. Be Open to New and Unusual Usage
Language changes, and writers must change with it. This doesn’t mean that you should abandon your high standards and accept colloquial language; some contexts simply do not allow for a relaxation of the rules. But most forms of writing are flexible, and you should be, too. Adapt the language to the content, but consider also adapting the content to the language.

3. Verify
When in doubt, look it up. When not in doubt, look it up. Don’t be content with spell-checking programs; check not only definitions of words, phrases and expressions but also their connotations. When discussing a person, place, or thing, don’t simply double-check the spelling and treatment of the term; reacquaint yourself with the person, place, or thing to confirm or correct your impression that the reference is appropriate for the content. (And check your facts.)

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7 Responses to “3 Tips for Careful Writers”

  • Michael W. Perry

    I’d add a fourth tip.

    4. When you edit a passage, read it over several times very careful, looking for any mistakes you may have added.

    I find that most of the mistakes that make or almost make it to the final version are in passages that I’ve edited. I fix one problem but introduce another.

    –Michael W. Perry, My Nights with Leukemia: Caring for Children with Cancer

  • Michael W. Perry

    See what I mean. I didn’t carefully re-read what I had tweaked. That “very careful” should be “very carefully.”

    –Mike

  • Chuck Hustmyre

    Excellent advice. These three tips, among others, are what separate professional writers from amateurs.

  • Iola

    I suspect too many authors haven’t read Stephen King’s advice on using a thesaurus, because I see a lot of almost-right words the author obviously hasn’t looked up (or if they did look them up, they only looked at one definition).

  • Dale A. Wood

    Sorry, Michael, but you have done it again:
    “I didn’t carefully re-read what I had tweaked.”
    The verb “reread” does not need or take a hyphen.
    If you don’t like my statement of it, then see this:
    http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/reread?s=t
    This is an online dictionary that draws from multiple sources.
    The prefix “re” does not generally take a hyphen, though the Associated Press continues to use “re-enter” and “re-entry”.
    However, aerospace engineers and NASA do not hyphenate these words.
    Supposedly, you should use “re-” before capitalized words, but I can’t think of any useful words because re-Romanize, re-Nazify, etc., are not words in the common dictionaries. You might find them in something like the OED, but I consider that one to be esoteric.
    The verb “re-sign” is necessary to distinguish it from “resign”.
    D.A.W.

  • ND Nwaigwe

    Nice tip.
    I live in Nigeria and I’m few months away from bagging a degree in English-Education. I have followed this website for over three years and I confess (regrettably, though) that, as a budding writer and teacher, I have gained more from dailywritingtips than I’ve gained from sitting through some lectures in the university. Keep it up!

  • Doug

    EDIT: This doesn’t mean that you should abandon your high standards and accept colloquial language. Some contexts do not allow for a relaxation of the rules; but most forms of writing are flexible, and you should be too.

    The word “simply” is unnecessary. Dropping it makes the last sentence stronger.

    The point of all this: No matter how many times we proofread and edit, there is no substitute for another set of eyes.

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