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6 Killer Writing Tips from a Great-Grandmother of a Copy Editor

This guest post is by Aman Basanti of Ageofmarketing.com.

Meet Ailsa Campbell. Ailsa is a great grandmother of an editor (pun intended): she’s been teaching English longer than many of us have been alive. Needless to say she knows a thing or two about writing well.

Here are Ailsa’s top tips for becoming a better writer.

1. Get your homophones right

“Homophone” sounds like an alien word, but you use homophones every day, and often incorrectly.

Homophones are words that sound the same (homo—same, phone—speech sound) but have different meanings. Here are some common homophones that bloggers get wrong.

  • compliment—to praise (e.g. when you tell your partner that he or she looks great)
  • complement—to balance, set off or add to (red wine complements Italian food)
  • right—correct
  • right—the opposite of left
  • rite—ritual or ceremony
  • write—putting pen to paper
  • effect—(most commonly a noun) end result or consequence (the breakup of the marriage had the effect of driving him to drink)
  • affect—(most commonly a verb) impact (the drought affected local farmers)
  • descent—plunge, fall or ancestry (humans trace their descent from apes)
  • dissent—disagreement, opposition or dispute (some people express their dissent to the idea that humans descended from apes … and are quite right—humans and apes are descended from a common ancestor)
  • dependent—reliant on (the answer to the second question was highly dependent on the answer to the first)
  • dependant—a person who depends on others (the poor guy has 13 dependants). Note that this term is mainly used in British English; American English accepts “dependent” for both spellings.

Ensure that you are using the right homophone.

2. Know when to use a “c” and when to use an “s”

Is it practice or a practise? Is it advice or advise? Is it licence or license?

Answer: “c” is for nouns and “s” is for verbs. Remember “c” for “ice” and “s” for “see”.

When you play tennis, you practise your swing. When you run a social media business, you run a social media practice. Again, this is mainly a British English differentiation. In the US, it’s standard to use to use the “c” spelling in both cases.

When you guide someone to do something, you are advising them. When you receive instructions from your client, you receive advice.

Licence is permission to do something. Giving that permission to someone is licensing them to do it. Although in America, both usages use the “s” spelling, license.

Use “c” for naming words and “s” for doing words.

3. Understand terse phrases

Terse phrases are short punchy sentences to give your writing a sense of urgency. For example:

Favreau was blown away. How did this guy pull off such a feat? Was there anything this man couldn’t do?

“Using them in groups of three,” explains Ailsa, “as in the example above, gives a great sense of build–up.

“If you listen to Barack Obama, who is one of the greatest orators of the day, you will notice he often uses groups of three. This is not chance. He has studied it and worked at it.

“The use of three terse phrases was an oratorical trick taught by the Ancient Greeks, to capture the audience’s attention and reinforce a point without making it tedious. Apply it to writing too.”

4. Know how to use contractions to bring your writing to life

In the publishing world, using informal abbreviations and contractions (weren’t, aren’t, can’t, etc.) signifies a very informal type of writing. Contractions are not acceptable in, for example, a serious article about current affairs. They sound sloppy.

Even in less formal writing, they are better avoided unless you are very specifically wanting to sound “chatty.”

Where contractions are useful, however, is in quotes and dialogue or when you are giving someone’s thoughts. The use of contractions in dialogue allows the character’s voice to come through, which is a great way to bring your writing to life.

Consider the sentence, “They couldn’t put a finger on it but there was something about Mike.” The shortened form is very good here, because you are giving their thoughts—less formal language is right.

5. Do not put an “a” in front of numeric values

Do not say, “a 127 people chose option b,” or that “the suit cost a $100.” Just say, “127 people chose option b,” or “the suit cost $100.”

Also be mindful when writing monetary values. Do not write “$100 dollars,” just keep it to “$100.” You have already said “dollars” by using the sign $.

6. Know how to use apostrophes

What is wrong with the sentences below?

  • He was selling chocolates to the participant’s.
  • The Lindt’s were a better choice.
  • Vast majority of Australian residents already had HD TV’s and little content to view on them.
  • They were a well-known group in the 1960’s.

Answer: The apostrophe is incorrectly used in place of a plural. It should be participants, Lindts, TVs, and 1960s.

There are two uses for the apostrophe—in shortened forms, indicating a verb (it’s, couldn’t) and in possessives (Age of Marketing is Basanti’s brainchild).

What should we do when a possessive is also a plural?

The participants’ job was to choose between two options.

Here the participant is a plural and a possessive, so you place the apostrophe after the “s.” If the participant was singular, you would place it before the “s.”

Of all the mistakes, this one seems by far the most important to Ailsa, as is evidenced by her comment, “Dammit—if you don’t stop using apostrophes when you mean plurals, I shall murder you.” In her defense, I did get that wrong a lot.

Conclusion

It is these minor distinctions that, as Ailsa likes to say, “separate the sheep from the goats.” Get them right and your writing will be more fluent and engaging. Get them wrong and you will look silly, sloppy, and uneducated—not how you want your readers to see you.

Do you make any of these common mistakes in your writing?

Aman Basanti writes about the psychology of buying and teaches you how you can use the principles of consumer psychology to boost your sales. Visit www.Ageofmarketing.com/free-ebook to get his new ebook—Marketing to the Pre-Historic Mind: How the Hot New Science of Behavioural Economics Can Help You Boost Your Sales—for FREE.

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Comments

  1. I like this. Fun reading. Thx.

  2. Kevin Cullis says:

    Thanks for the english lesson, we all need to brush up. There is never a time when you need to stop learning. Did not know about the “c” and “s” issue, that’s one thing I’ll put into my cap. Thanks.

    • Yeh the ‘c’ and ‘s’ can be a bit confusing. Glad I wasn’t the only who struggled with it ;) By the way, really liked your ‘Start Up failures, what really ARE the numbers’ post. Thanks for setting the record straight.

  3. Wow, these are all great tips that always been took for granted. Perfect language well can be a true characteristic of a great blogger.

  4. Terse phrases work in groups of three. That’s a great tip. I’ll try it.

    I appreciate your clarification on the use of “s” vs. “c” in some words. Being educated in the US, it had never been an issue until I started copywriting for international clients. It makes sense, but I’d never seen a formal explanation before. Thanks for the lesson.

    • Yep as if English wasn’t complicated enough, then there are the local standards to deal with. Being in Australia this creates problems when writing for an American audience – Color vs colour, flavor vs flavour. I feel your pain.

  5. Garry says:

    Beautifully written, of course!

    Examples of other errors that drive me crazy are, “Me and him are going…,” the use of “then” when it should be “than” and vice versa, and lose/loose, chose/choose.

  6. Thanks GG :)

    Most can use a little refresher in the grammar department.

    I like short and punchy. #3 resonates with me. Create a sense of urgency. Let your readers know, they become urgent.

    Many posts are winding, wordy treatises. The short and punch ones grab your attention and keep it.

    As writers, this is the goal, right?

    Thanks for sharing your insight GG.

    Ryan

  7. Marie Noelle says:

    This is a post I must bookmark! Thank you so much for the great tips! I’ll be using them for sure!

  8. Carlos says:

    Great article. Thank you Alisa.

  9. Thanks for sharing an educative and informative post!
    This is something indeed that all freelance writers must work to achieve and excel in to make their writing flawless.

  10. “affect—(noun) impact (the affect the drought had on the local farmers was unfathomable)”

    This one jumped out at me as odd, possibly wrong. I thought “effect” meant impact. I think the sentence makes more sense this way:
    The effect the drought had on the local farmers was unfathomable.

    • Diane,

      Thank you for pointing that out. As I said to Len I will let the editor know and we will get the mistake fixed.

      • Denise Krebs says:

        That’s good. I noticed that mistake too, on an otherwise great list.

        Most of the time, you’ll find you are right if you use “affect” as a verb and “effect” is a noun. There are a couple rare instances where this won’t work, but more often than not, you’ll be safe to follow that rule.

  11. My-Tien says:

    I never knew the rule between C and S before. Thank you for a fun lesson.

  12. Megan says:

    Something struck me as I was reading this post – my 9 year old daughter knows more of this than I do. Embarrassing, but true.

    Many of these rules i follow out of pure habit – because I have been writing for so long and because they were embedded in me at a very young age. However, I have no idea why or what the rules are and if asked I would say “because that is just the right way to do it”.

    However, when I walk home from school with my daughter we often talk about what she has learned at school and I am blown away by her knowledge of grammar rules. Admittedly she is a very bright girl (she is mine after all!) but she really understands how, when and why to use the rules. There is nothing accidental about it.

    We could all do with a refresher course. If only to keep up with our kids!

    • Thanks for sharing that story. It put a smile on my face. Your daughter is really switched on – man I’ve been reading writing English all my life and only recently (since starting my blog) have I really started to look at the rules behind the way I write.

    • James Greg says:

      So true. I write all my things due to habit. I personally still don’t quite understand active voice and passive voice but I can make sentences without knowing what really is the mechanism behind all this.

  13. RG says:

    Hey Aman … go tell Ms Campbell that she finally taught me how to remember the practise/practice conundrum. That’s been bugging me for decades. I’m good with grammar, but: She blew my socks off! How did she know that? Where do I get her wisdom?

    I am going to be using practice/practise in all of my postings now.

  14. Nice and succinct, the perfect summary of basic grammar!

  15. Glad you enjoyed it. I had fun writing it ;)

  16. Len Fischer says:

    I enjoyed this post. It covers some of the most common mistakes people make in their writing. I also especially liked the tip about using terse sentences in groups of three. I look forward to experimenting with that suggestion to add punch to my own prose.

    That said, I have to echo the comment Diane made earlier about the use of “effect” vs. “affect.” The explanation and usage provided in this post are incorrect. Just to be sure, I took a spin over to Dictionary.com, and it confirmed my own quick-and-dirty method for distinguishing between the two. “Effect” is most often used only as a noun, while “affect” is most often used as a verb. There are some specific cases where the opposite is true, but this rule will apply in the majority of cases. The noun “effect” often refers to the result of an action, such as its impact. The verb “affect” is interchangeable with words or phrases that mean “to influence.”

    Here are some examples of common usage of “effect” as a noun:

    - Massive losses in the Asian markets had a ripple effect on those in the United States and Europe.
    - The injury to the team’s quarterback didn’t have an effect on the outcome of the game.
    - The movie’s closing scene featured a single – but spectacular – special effect.

    Here some common uses of “affect” as a verb:

    - Steven’s failure to read the homework assignment affected his score on the pop quiz.
    - Air transportation was affected coast to coast by the unexpected storm.
    - The injury to the team’s quarterback did not affect the outcome of the game.

    As I mentioned above, there are some cases where “effect” and “affect” are used differently. Here are some examples:

    - LIz affected an over-dramatic tone when she described what happened. (Here “affect” is still used a verb, but the meaning implies acting in a way that is out of character.)

    - The psychiatrist concluded Steven’s melancholy affect was a symptom of his chronic depression. (In this case, “affect” is used as a noun. Psychiatrists and mental health-care workers use “affect” to describe a feeling or emotion.)

    - The Obama administration hoped to effect key changes that would bring universal health-care coverage to all Americans. (In this case “effect” is used in an infinitive verb form that means to accomplish or to bring about. However, I find this usage awkward because the sentence could be written more succinctly to say: The Obama administration hoped to make key changes that would bring universal health-care coverage…)

    I hope these examples help clarify how to use “effect” and “affect” correctly. To find out more, I recommend checking out this post from the folks at GrammarGirl.com (http://grammar.quickanddirtytips.com/affect-versus-effect.aspx). I also hope the post above will be updated so readers can get the correct information without having to refer to the comments and to avoid confusion about which is correct – the post or the comments.

    Kudos once again for producing a post about the importance of good writing and editing. The Web certainly can use more post like this considering how many errors I note in my Internet reading every day. Happy writing!

    • Carolyn says:

      As I read the primary article, I had exactly the same thoughts as you (and I keep the same basic rule in mind as to noun vs. verb) and was going to write a comment. Thanks for doing a more complete job than what I was going to do off the top of my head — effect vs. affect is a problem for many!

      • Len Fischer says:

        My pleasure. The embarrassment of confusing effect and affect one too many times early in my career has inspired me to help others avoid this common mistake. Thank you for your kind words. They’re appreciated. Cheers!

    • Len,
      Thanks for the constructive criticism. I appreciate you taking the time to correct that. I will let Georgina know so she can correct the mistake. Thanks again for bringing it to my attention.

      • Len Fischer says:

        I’m glad I was able to set the record straight. Thank you for updating and correcting the usage of affect in the example in the main post. Rather, thank Georgina. I’m not sure who she is or why she had to fix the error, but I’m glad she did.

        While we’re on the topic of accuracy and correcting errors, I am curious to hear from the community here at Problogger about how you handle errors and corrections on sites or blogs you run or manage. How often do readers flag errors on your blogs? Do you have a formal corrections policy or best practices in place to fix errors? Do your correct some errors and ignore others? What type of error requires a formal correction? Do you correct errors in the original post or does your comments area serve as the forum for corrections? How quickly are errors corrected? How do you verify what a reader tells you is the correct information? Do you note that the original post was updated to correct an error? If you have a policy or best practices in place, where did they originate or what steps did you use to create them? Please chime in if you have some useful tips and ideas that others might benefit from.

        • Len,

          Georgina is the editor here at ProBlogger.

          As for the error handling policy, I’m not sure about ProBlogger, but at my blog, AgeofMarketing.com, I simply update the target post everytime a reader points out an error. I haven’t thought much about creating an official policy. I’m still in the early stages and seem to be getting away without having one.

  17. James Greg says:

    Great to read it and I now learn’t the difference between advise and advice, this one always confused me. Great post although we all think we know it, but reading it once again made it all come back.

  18. Hollywood get apostrophes wrong all the time e.g. Bridget Jones’s Diary should be Bridget Jones’ Diary; a pet hate of mine.

    • haha thanks for adding that example

    • Manjusha says:

      Is that so? There is nothing grammatically wrong with Bridget Jones’s Diary. In older English, they just added an apostrophe to a singular noun ending in -s, but these days expressions with ‘s are more common.

      Tess’s family
      Dickens’s novels

      These are all quite acceptable and correct too.

      • Susan says:

        Just what I was going to say Manjusha :)

      • Unfortunately, it’s true that these have become “acceptable,” but I would have to disagree with your statement that they are correct. Acceptance does not always imply accuracy. For example, I accept the fact that you disagree with me on this topic, but that doesn’t make you correct. :)

  19. Thanks, Aman. These are really great tips. The only caveat that I have to this is that when you have learned all of the rules of grammar, don’t forget to toss them out every once in a while. Sometimes being grammatically incorrect can help you make your point.

    Regardless, this is fantastic advice!

  20. Aman – Excellent information!

    “Affect” and “effect” always cause me to run to the dictionary.

    And after reading about apostrophes, I think I’m guilty of a few unnecessarily.

    Great lesson – Theresa

  21. As a new blogger, this is a great refresher writing course, it never hurts to brush-up. Thanks!

  22. Glynis Jolly says:

    I’ve been using the contractions purposely to ‘sound’ more informal in my blog but after reading this, I think I would be smart to do some editing of previous posts. Thank you, Alisa.

    • Hehe, I did the same. I had to go back and edit some, then I realised it was too much effort and have left the old ones as is – but am making sure that all future posts don’t contain too many contractions.

  23. Jane says:

    I love Ms. Campbell.

  24. @Know when to use a “c” and when to use an “s”
    “wow” whata tip I never thought about this fact,

  25. Tom Ewer says:

    You’ve touched on too many pet hates of mine – I’m not sure I can take it! ;-)

  26. Great article. Need to bookmark for my children too! An interesting point about contractions and love the 3 short sentences. My other pet hate is seeing the words “a lot” written as one word.

  27. Susie says:

    Hey Aman,

    Great English lessons here. I have always had problems figuring out how to use advise and advice. Now I know advise is a verb while advice is used as a noun. The other things you’ve mentioned here like contractions, and the proper use of apostrophes seem to be a common problem in almost every single blog post I’ve come across.

    • I agree with you Susie.

      While the ability to self-publish has given power to the people, it has also reduced the quality of the writing on the net significantly. With no editor to polish your work, it is harder to maintain quality. Even harder when you don’t even know what you are doing wrong. That is why I wrote this post. These are things I have struggled with and wanted to share with others.

  28. I’d have to commend you for this timely share. A lot of people are slowly forgetting the values of providing quality content as they work on filling the online scene with keyword targeted content. A once in a while wake up call is really appreciated. Great job.

  29. Thanks for the tip, Great Grandmother! Our blogging should be about quality and not words (yes, often incorrect) filling up space.

  30. Bailey says:

    Excellent advice. I get so frustrated about the decade thing.

    I noticed on the pilot episode of Mad Men they even wrote it incorrectly, saying something like “in the 1960′s”. ARGH!