5 more finer points of writing

20 08 2010

In my last post, I shared five fantastic writing tips I found on Copyblogger.com, which is one of the finest blogs dedicated to the craft.

In the interest of being more than a cheerleader for blogs I admire, I figured I should offer some pointers of my own. Having been an editor at daily newspapers for several years, I became very familiar with a handful of mistakes that pop up over and over again, even with professional writers. Many of these distinctions might seem a bit picky, but being picky about words is really what writing is all about.

So here are five common mistakes to avoid, whether you are writing a cover letter for your dream job or an email to a friend:

1. Very spectacular: There are some adjectives that by their very nature are extreme. Brilliant. Enormous. Spectacular. Putting an adverb such as very or fairly in front of these “extreme adjectives” not only isn’t necessary, it doesn’t make sense. Telling a friend that the meal you had at the corner restaurant was very disgusting is redundant. All you have to do is tell them that the meal was disgusting, and they will get the point that it was more than just bad.

2. Unique: Many people use the word unique when they are referring to something that is unusual. But in order for something to be truly unique, it has to be one of a kind. A four-leave clover is unusual, but it’s not unique. Though hard to find, there are other four-leave clovers out there. As the only one-armed pitcher in the major leagues, Jim Abbott was unique.

3. Whether or not: This one is pretty simple, but writers get it wrong quite often. Consider the following sentence: “We are trying to decide whether or not to invite Tracy to the movies.” In that sentence, the “or not” shouldn’t be there. It should read, “We are trying to decide whether to invite Tracy to the movies.”

4. Dates back: If a modern geologist is writing a textbook, and she writes about a tool that “dates back to the 17th century,” she is being redundant. If we are talking about an item from the 17th century, we already know it dates back. All she has to say is that “the tool dates to the 17th century.” Keep in mind, if that same geologist is writing about a tool that “dates back 400 years,” the word “back” is necessary. That one is easy to remember because if you take the word “back” out, it’s obvious that it doesn’t make sense.

5. Different from vs. different than: In all cases, different from is correct. Different is not a comparative word, but rather one of contrast. So you would say apples are different from brocoli because they have completely different flavors. You want to indicate that they are unlike one another, so it’s “different from.” The word “than” should only follow comparative words. One runner is faster than another. They both are fast, but to different degrees. They are comparable. If that explanation seems too technical, just remember, it’s always “different from.”

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2 responses

29 08 2010
Jan Marino

great post – thanks for the reminders

31 08 2010
Alex Mitchell

Thanks Jan! If you ever have any specific questions, feel free to contact me.

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