Six tools for better writing

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I understand that offices are less formal than they were 15 years ago and that organizations now assign writing tasks to staff that were hired for other talents (I’m looking at you, scientists and MBA grads). But good writing still matters. I believe that sentences should be properly capitalized and that verbs should agree with nouns. From smart authors (especially from smart authors), we should expect smart writing. When our colleagues stumble, our job as communicators is to politely yet firmly direct them toward the light.

There are countless writers that are more prolific than I am and likely more qualified to give advice. But I can’t help myself. So below are some simple tools I keep handy and three books that every writer should read (and keep and read again). They not only help as I write, but they provide great “backup” when I have to defend my edits with my clients.

The New York Times“After Deadline” grammar blog is one of my nerdy guilty pleasures. Perhaps I read it to see if I can spot the errors before the editor points them out. I’ll never tell. For someone in the communication business, reading about writing is a healthy habit and one I’m proud to keep. And it makes me feel good to know that even the Times makes mistakes.

A dictionary. No joke. I use online dictionaries to confirm spelling. But to confirm that I am using a word correctly, nothing beats a paper dictionary. Why? Mostly it’s because I hate buzz words like optimize, convergence and tweet – words that dictionary editors know are manufactured fluff but include in new editions out of fear of appearing stuffy and old. I prefer to use words that have existed for more than 10 years (Stephen Colbert’s “truthiness” is a worthy exception). With online dictionaries, I can’t tell if a word was invented yesterday. I’m working on a post focused entirely on annoying work words. But for now, sticking to dictionary words is a good rule.

A thesaurus. I prefer to use an actual book, but an online version, if used often, can be a good substitute. When I was a kid, I’d use a thesaurus to find fancy words so I’d look smarter than I was. At work, we tend to use words that are more complicated than necessary (utilize instead of use, for example). These days, a thesaurus often helps me find the simpler, not the more complex.

The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White. Known informally as “Strunk and White,” it’s the best book on writing I’ve ever read. There’s a good chance you’ve already read it. Read it again. Reviewing the authors’ simplicity and focus would be a good annual habit.

On Writing Well by William Zinsser. Equally heralded by those that have read it but less famous than “Strunk and White,” On Writing Well is, in many cases, even more instructive and helpful for workplace writers. It’s another good annual read.

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King. Part biography (you learn how King came up with the storyline for Carrie…creepy) and part writer’s workshop, On Writing provides a peek into the habits and opinions of one of America’s most prolific fiction writers. No animals come back from the dead, and it’s a much shorter read than almost anything else King has written. But you’ll gain a real appreciation for words.

Any other suggestions? I’m always looking for new tools. So if you have a favorite writing book or blog, let me know.

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Hello, again.

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Reviving a dormant blog forces you to make decisions, especially when the reason you stopped publishing was lack of focus. This blog went quiet a while back because I committed (and recommitted) the same sin that I complain about from others: post after post of what some guy knows and thinks you should know, too.

So in addition to committing to new posts, I’m committing to a strong focus on topics that: (1) are worth your time and (2) I’m passionate about.

First, after 20 years in the communication business — with firms, politicians, corporations and causes — I’ve learned some things that I think could help people that communicate for a living: messaging, writing, storytelling as a communication tool, presenting, and examples of good and bad communication. Everyone can get better, and I think I can help some folks. And I’m hoping for comments and feedback that will make me better, too.

Second, focus is easier when you really, really love the topics you choose. So in addition to cherry-picking communication topics, I also plan to write on some issues that consume a great deal of my work-day thinking. Technology is one example. So many of a communicator’s tools are technology-centric. As my job shifted from a corporation to an independent office, I’ve tried and tested many tech products and services that make my work and home life easier. And it doesn’t hurt that I’m a gadget addict.

Non-profits (or causes) is another example. A lot of my work is for such clients, and I see things (and have opinions about things) that aren’t just communication issues. General commentary about the media is another. You get the idea.

Finally, I plan to use a mixture of traditional (longer) posts and shorter microposts. I’ve become a big fan of John Gruber’s technology site Daring Fireball. His entries are simple and thoughtful. I like them, even if I disagree with some of them. There are scores of good stories and sites I’d like to point out to readers but that do not necessarily warrant tons of commentary from me.

So, that’s the plan. The first “real” new post is coming soon, so let me know what you think. It’s not too late to adjust!

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