Tuesday, July 31, 2007

More on the Passive Voice: Making Your Article Active

I still struggle with eliminating passive sentences from my writing. I have had to revamp my writing style to eliminate them by looking for the various versions of “to be” and rewriting sentences when I see one.

Another way of judging sentences exists: check your subjects and verbs, ignoring the rest of the words. I ran across some tips on recognizing the passive voice that address this approach. In particular, I found the suggestion at the end to use only sentences without commas (meaning without dependent clauses like the one at the beginning of this sentence) until you are confident in your ability to write active sentences.

I have a difficult time imagining this in practice. I tend to create lengthy, inter-dependent sentences with clauses hanging off of them like Christmas tree ornaments. I adore modifiers. Gerunds creep into my sentences, giving them the illusion of activity and fooling me into thinking I have finished editing. I throw prepositional phrases around like tinsel. I spent 20 minutes writing and editing this paragraph to comply with that suggestion and it still has complexity!

I hereby suggest, to myself as well as to my readers, that you don’t worry about active versus passive sentences when you are composing. I lose my train of thought when I stop halfway through every sentence to reconsider my verb. That leads to frustration, to fragmentation, and ultimately to poor writing. In fact, I suggest that you free write your first draft. Let your thoughts out before you try to marshal them into some sort of exciting exhortation. Your passion will show and you may find that you do a better job of writing actively than you think.

Now, to edit yesterday’s sorry excuse for a post. If only I could remember what I intended to say.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Quickie Post: Free Writing Prompts

In my search for writing prompts to share, I discovered Joyce Fetteroll had posted a nice graphic today entitled The Only 12 1/2 Writing Rules You'll Ever Need that applies to all writers. Rule 5 struck me as something that many people forget. Writers describe people through stereotypes because it's easier than describing an individual as such and stopping to think about how inaccurate stereotypes really are. This reminded me to watch for them when I write.

Then I meandered over to Creativity Portal and found links to three pages of photographic prompts and a set of seasonal writing prompts. While the text of the photo prompts didn't particularly inspire me, some of the pictures did.

Using writing prompts expands your writing horizons and works your compositional muscles. That's why I keep harping on them. Sometime pushing your own envelope gets you past your insecurity about different writing styles or subjects. Doing research about topics that you uncover through writing prompts helps you discover tangents about which you can write using that same information. Staying within your comfortable, "write what you know" boundaries limits your abilities. From time to time you need to stretch your brain and loosen it up. Don't be scared. It's good for you.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Finding Inspiration for Article Topics

Patricia Fry has a good article about finding ideas for articles. I've read dozens of such articles, and the advice boils down to the same thing: look around.

Finding topics is easy. Pay attention to what happens around you. If you're curious about a subject, other people will be, too. Do the research to educate yourself and write an article (or a series of them) with the results. Talk to people. Read newspapers and magazines. Something will catch your fancy and inspire you. It's as easy as that.

Well, you can find inspiration that easily. The hard part is keeping track of those moments and keeping your passion for the topics. When you seek inspiration you may distract yourself from the last “a-ha” moment. There are so many things happening every day that you may be overwhelmed by how many there are to cover.

That's where keeping a notebook or digital file of story ideas helps you. If you find yourself without anything to say, page through your notes and see what speaks to you at that moment. You can rediscover your passion for a topic or find a new slant on something that you had previously disregarded as well-covered by others.

While you're writing an article, you may dream up tangents and other points of view that fall outside of the scope of your topic. Add those to your notes file if you don't have time to write a parallel article immediately. If the article doesn't work for your current client you can always find somewhere else to pitch it. Waste not, want not!

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Writing with Clarity and Direction

I ran across an enormous site called Lousy Writer.com that has a fairly comprehensive review of the parts of speech and the rules that apply thereto. They also have a good set of pages on common mistakes in grammar, including one on split infinitives.

Splitting your infinitives is common and has become accepted in casual speech and writing. It's easier to say, “Who are you talking to?” than “To whom are you speaking?” The second is grammatically correct but would sound stilted in settings other than formal business settings.

Unfortunately, the prevalence of the common usage makes people forget that it is, in fact, incorrect. People become accustomed to the way that they speak to each other without thinking about grammar. They forget the rules and, when they find themselves in a different setting, are either unsure of themselves or do not realize that they are making errors.

If grammatical mistakes are so common, why does it matter if people make them? First, because even the most intelligent person can sound like a twit if they say something like, “Bob and me adjusted the plasma chamber.” And second, because using words correctly helps you to communicate clearly.

It is far easier for people to understand your meaning, as a writer, if you use words properly. Your readers do not have body language and inflection to guide them to your intended destination; all they get is the words on the page or screen. Your job is to lead them from Point A to Point B and perhaps a few more points down the line. If they are confused by your language they won't be able to follow you.

When you're writing, use clear words and clean grammar. The occasional mistake will happen – no one is perfect. But remember to edit your work for clarity and sense. Yet again, coming back to something you've written after a few days will help you to follow your own path and ensure that it leads somewhere rather than wandering around a swamp of split infinitives and unnecessary commas.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Using Google for Writing Prompts

Here’s a tip for finding somewhat obscure writing prompts: ask Google for ideas. I clicked over to Google’s hot trends for today. At first, I was struck by how out of touch I am with the world of celebrity. Next, I was surprised that so many people managed to spell Beowulf correctly. Then an odd search phrase caught my eye. I clicked on it to see what the results looked like and a pair of story ideas sprang to life.

I wrote one of them and sketched out the contents of the second. In theory, they are SEO-friendly and well-written enough on this apparently oft-searched topic that I’ll get a stellar offer from AC. In practice, well, let’s just say that I’m not holding my breath. I know have enough story ideas floating around that I’m going to have to take some time away from exploring new avenues just to get them written.

If you are anti-Google, or if you just want another avenue, wander of to the Yahoo! buzz log. Their list is less interesting and almost exclusively celebrities, but there are one or two interesting additions for those of us who don’t know or care who Chrissy Popadics may be. For instance, apparently grilled salmon has taken a 799% jump in searches over last week.

There are also the Lycos50, AOL Hot Searches, and plenty of sites that purport to offer topic-specific popular keyword lists. I see no reason why any of these could not serve as an equally useful source of writing prompts, even if the keywords may not be as successful on Google. If you’re looking for a topic, sometimes the inspiration for a great article is worth more than climbing the search list.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Freelance Writing Jobs and Where to Look

Another article-writing opportunity has reared its lovely head. LookingForClues pays $10-$20 for articles a minimum of 600 words in length. They must be exclusive to the site and you must include personal experiences in the article. This is a reasonable way to establish your expertise but it does limit your topics.

The best part, for a beginning freelance writer, is that they edit your submission for style and return it to you for polishing before they publish it. Not only do you get paid but you get professional edits for your education. I intend to submit at least a few articles to take advantage of this service, as soon as I write something that I feel is strong enough for them to accept. I’d hate to abuse their generosity, but I’d hate even more to miss out on the opportunity. Read through the writers’ guidelines and let me know how it goes.

While I’m posting about jobs, I thought I’d mention Sun Oasis and their list of freelance writing jobs. I checked a few of the links and they appeared to be for valid, paying jobs. This is another conglomeration of links from other sites, but you never know when someone has sources that other listings have missed.

You can also check out Poe War, also known as the Writer’s Resource Center I have been in contact with several people who have found writing gigs through this site as well. I’ll have to add them to the job listings in my sidebar when I update it again. They have a wide range of listings, from one-off articles to contract and full-time jobs.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Little Bits: Squidoo, AC, MySpace, and Grammar for Dummies

After a bit of a publishing drought, I finally had my article on treating dry hair with homemade solutions go live at Associated Content. In honor of that I made a new lens at Squidoo about homemade body and hair care products. I am anxiously awaiting a page view update at AC to see if my lenses are having an impact on my readership.

I also fell into the pit of MySpace. After that exercise in frustration I may yet delete my profile. You can join groups and request friends immediately but you can’t post in any discussions for your first week. That means using their less-than-stellar search function to figure out how to do something creative. You also can’t introduce yourself to a group. I did, however, manage to put this feed and some links on my profile. So far it seems pointless, but I’ll take a few weeks to see if I can build a viable network. Of course, I’ll post about my experiences.

I found an interesting set of categories of English from the English Grammar for Dummies folks. I think that they missed a category, between conversational and formal grammar. This blog shows that mid-range – I do not observe all of the formal rules but I do pay attention to sentence structure, punctuation, and word usage. I try not to break the rules of grammar while writing about them, in other words.

I refer to this range as “Professional English”. You don’t want to sound stilted and pretentious but you wish to be seen as intelligent and, well, professional. It’s the language in which you communicate with clients, bosses, and – hopefully – corporate-level complaints. People take you seriously when they perceive you as literate and level-headed. A rant in professional English portrays frustration and anger without displaying the lack of control that expletives and exclamation points show.

The page does have links to quite a few valuable articles. The one about common suffixes is a useful resource. Spelling words with these endings can make even those with huge vocabularies pause. It’s good to review what the endings actually mean and how to use them.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

A Business Guide for Writers, and Why You Should Read

Beginning freelance writers often get stuck at the point of taking jobs. They (and I) worry about committing the sort of time that quality writing requires when they still have the same full plate they've been juggling for years. David Taylor makes you rethink those qualms. This section is a part of the larger business guide for writers that he has posted at writers-editors.com.

These guidelines cut right to the chase. They do not spend time patting the aspiring freelance writer or novelist on the head and assuring them that they can do it. Mr. Taylor has put together some cold facts and fantastic resources so that, after you've read them, you can still try. You'll have open eyes and a firm start, at least.

If you just can't write, none of this information is going to help you. If you are bored to tears reading something as short as the editorial columns in your local newspaper and can't be bothered to pick up a book and read it straight through, you'll probably never excel as a writer. The best way to learn something is to do it. The second best way is to see it done. Christopher Meeks makes this point with Reading as a Writer at efuse.com.

You can write until your keyboard explodes but if you don't read you will never improve your writing. This blog, of course, will help you (heh) but newspapers, quality magazines, and well-written books are all places to find properly-crafted writing. Being familiar with what works in writing will help you spot errors and inconsistencies in other pieces, including your own writing.

Study grammar, vocabulary, and writing styles to learn how to correct them. Then you can write pieces that will impress people enough to convince them to pay you. Isn't that half of the reason you were writing it in the first place? Having something to say is the other half. Following the advice from Mr. Meeks and Mr. Taylor will help you have the best of both worlds.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

More free courses and writing tips

Audrey Owen shares some of her writing tips at Writers Helper. My favorite is top #17 – read aloud to yourself. Reading your work out loud lets you hear awkward phrasing or transitions, especially if you do so after taking some time away from it.

Print your piece or chapter and put it in the drawer for a day or three. When it's no longer fresh in your mind, take it out and read through it aloud with a pen in your had to mark the rough spots. You will catch your typos and grammatical errors more easily after taking a break from your writing, as well.

Ms. Owen also offers a page on readability. This page goes beyond the basic “grade level” determination and discusses other criteria to use when you make sure your work is well-written. She also offers three free courses, including one on writing for the web. Check them out while you're there.

If you're feeling a little wealthier, try the Writers' Village University. They offer a three-month trial membership for $40 with, as far as I could tell, access to as many courses as you can cram into that time. Their list includes courses on everything from freelance writing to mysteries, screenplays, and poetry. I have not, however, taken any of the classes so I can't vouch for their quality.

They do have a free workshop on character building. No, not making you a better person – building characters in your writing. Even in non-fiction, readers need to relate to your characters to care about what happens to them. If your audience doesn't care what happens to your subject, why would they read and recommend your work?

Friday, July 20, 2007

Tools, Tag Clouds, and a Free Course

For those of you unsure of your editing abilities (i.e. all of us), check out Roger J Carlson and his site full of writing tech tips. There are tools to find your adverbs, passive verbs, and other strength-sapping parts of speech. The macros are zipped into MS Word documents, however.

Open Office Writer will read Word documents but I don’t know about other programs and I don’t know about using Word macros. I will download and try some of these this weekend and post the results. Also, I’ll do some digging and see if there are similar tools out there for various word processors. If you can open these, they will work for rich text format documents (.rtf) so you should be able to use them.

Then there’s the Word Painter software offered as a part of the “Get Me a Rewrite” course that’s free at NewsU. Chip Scanlan is the instructor for this course. It’s at the top of my “To Take” list.

If you’re a visual learner, or if you just love tag clouds, head over to TagCrowd and turn your article into a cloud. I ran one of my recent articles and was thrilled with the results. It was clear what words were the focus of the article and the key phrase was comprised of the three biggest tags. If only I was that focused all of the time!

Since the clouds organize your topics in a visual way, I wanted one for this blog rather than the topic listing in the sidebar. Now, phydeaux3 has granted my wish. I don’t know when he or she posted this step-by-step guide to configuring your tag cloud in Blogger, so it could be that my wish was granted before I even made it. Either way, I’ll be installing this toy over the next few days. I look forward to the results.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

New Breadcrumb Trail: Grammar Police and the Schoolmarm

I'm slightly giddy from the fact that the book review I posted to Wordsy yesterday is the first thing that pops up on their site today with an extremely nice comment. In honor of being in a great mood, I decided to post my travels along my breadcrumb trail today.

I ran across a few things today that made me feel less bizarre. It all stared with a simple search for “better grammar”. I took a detour to grammarpolice.net which doesn’t talk about grammar at all as far as I could tell. Not discouraged in the least, I backtracked to the first crumb and started again.

Out of curiosity I tried grammar police as a search term and ended up with the Wordpress tag page for those words. The fact that there is such a page, with more than one blog listed, made me smile. There I found Morning Glory and her lovely post entitled Neither Financier Seized Either Weird Species of Leisure.

After completely enjoying that post (and agreeing with it wholeheartedly), I wandered off-course to saving the Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus. Snickering still, I returned to my trail.

I ran across the Triangle Grammar Guide, Pam Nelson, and her post titled Going All Schoolmarmy on This One. It’s about reflexive pronouns (myself, himself, herself, etc.) and their use and abuse. Not only does she share a pet peeve with me but she also notified me that ginormous is now in the Merriam Webster dictionary. I'm her newest fan. I’ll have to get a new dictionary so that I can tell my kids to “look it up” when they ask me how big ginormous really is. I haven’t worked up my own definition yet, you see.

The folks there have also added words like crunk and smackdown, which I like. Unfortunately, they felt the need to add “perfect storm” and viewshed. What is this world coming to when buzz words are in Merriam Webster? I shudder to think of it.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Similes, Collective Nouns, and Wordsy

Collective nouns can be a source of confusion. The rules for when you use a singular verb rather than a plural verb for the action of a group are pretty clear-cut for direct action but seem muddy when you are talking about emotions or thoughts. British and American usage rules are different, as well. I ran across a helpful page at an ESL site. It explains the guidelines for using collective nouns. There is also a list of links at the bottom to more sites.

There is also this lovely little page on similes. No, not smilies, similes – the ones that are as easily recognizable as Santa Claus. That was an obvious example, but the site gives some examples I would not have picked out. Pointing out that, “The weather was as wet as usual,” to paraphrase, technically counts as a simile. I had no idea.

Unfortunately, it only gives one example that does not contain the “as…as” construction. The definition given does explain the various ways of creating a simile but I think the page would have benefited from more concrete examples. They could have said, “She was deathly pale, like a well-bleached handkerchief.” Sentences using “like” instead of “as” tend to be wordier, more complicated comparisons but they still contain similes.

They also didn’t mention that the beginning “as” can be dropped. You could just as correctly say “She was quiet as a mouse” as “She was as quiet as a mouse.” One would also think that they would have linked to a page on metaphors. In fact, there is no page on metaphors at all. I suppose these are more quibbles than flaws in the site. After all, identifying similes (or metaphors) is not something you will be likely to do on a daily basis, nor is it critical to understanding the sentence. It’s just that I like to be thorough.

I was tipped to a new “Digg-like” link posting site called Wordsy that is specific to the written word rather than news. They are very open about basing their site on Digg’s model and customizing it to a different audience, namely readers. The site doesn’t look all that big yet, so it may be a place to get in on the ground floor to promote your fiction and your book-related articles and reviews. Their blog only goes back to March 23, 2007 but I didn't see any indication of how old the site itself is.

I have a few book reviews to which I would love to draw more attention. I was considering starting a Squidoo lens for them but I think I’ll submit them to Wordsy instead, just to see what happens. I read two or three books a week so if I can get some clicks through that site, I can write dozens more pretty quickly. And I can always start the lens anyway if I decide that it would help.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Article Writing and the Zombie Clinic

As something of a zombie-phile, I couldn't resist Erin Kissane’s article Attack of the Zombie Copy. Not only is it funny, but it contains practical advice for cleaning up your writing. There are also two concrete examples of how not to write.

I tend to fluff up my business writing. The temptation to incorporate buzz words and lingo can be overwhelming if you don’t have enough direction. Your customer (or boss) may be enamored of those words, as well, and expect you to use them. If you must include them, minimize their presence. Be sure to put substance throughout the article or press release and use the fluff only as garnish. Otherwise, no one is going to read your piece anyway.

Using these fluffy, do-nothing words gives the impression that the company doesn’t know where they are going or what they are talking about. You might have difficulty convincing a client that a clear, concise statement is better than 6 yards of fuzz, however. Try sending them to this article, as it makes a sharp point without sacrificing the humor.

There are 17 articles in the A List Apart writing section and many of them are useful. When you’re done being entertained and enlightened over there, you can head over to articlesaboutcomputers.com (I know, horrible name) and read Ivan Kelly’s tips for using an outline to craft your article. The ideas in the first six paragraphs are sound. The rest could use a trip to the zombie clinic.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Quickie Post: Blogging Jobs

Blog job alert: Pointless Banter Media is setting up a blog network that will pay you to blog. They’ll also provide training for SEO and promotion. There’s no word yet on what they expect to pay, but if you’re interested in the opportunity check out the link. You can either migrate your existing blog to their site or propose a topic for a new blog (assuming they’ll have you).

I applied a few weeks ago. I received an e-mail that they are searching for more blogs so that they can launch channels successfully, meaning that they would like to have enough content to promote immediately. Again, I don’t know what they will pay. The intent is to get strong content, organize it into channels so that readers can easily find related blogs, and then use the traffic to get higher advertising revenue. They’d like folks to start posting in August with a minimum of five posts per week, so that blogs are “populated” for the planned launch in September.

If that one doesn’t float your boat but you’re looking for other paid blogging opportunities, try Blogger Jobs which is entirely dedicated to the subject. There wasn’t much on there that I would be able to run a daily blog about but there were plenty of jobs posted. Or you could just go to the About.com page devoted to the subject. [snerk]

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Little Bits: Useful Tools and Toys

Many groups and all governments love to make their names into a short, easy-to-remember acronym. That's great, but if you want to write an article about them you'll need to spell it out at least once at the beginning. The acronym tool can help you figure out for what some of those meaningless jumbles of letters stand. The site states that there are 50,000 acronyms in their database.

In the category of pointless terminology, consider this page on the virgule from the Armchair Grammarian. I had to read it, as I didn't know what a virgule was. It turns out that it's a forward slash in particular usages. It also turns out that it's the subject of yet another obscure grammatical controversy.

While you're considering little-known terms in grammar, take a gander at Wordsmyth. You can look them up and get definitions and examples. You can also do a broad search for matches or find other ways (or the correct way) to spell a word. If you don't have a Thesaurus and a robust spell checking dictionary in your word processor, this can be invaluable. Sometimes finding the right word is a matter of just seeing it on the screen somewhere else.

If you've got a question about a specific word or use, you can't do much better than Paul Brians' list of common English errors. It's arranged alphabetically and there are literally hundreds of pages linked here. They range from distinguishing between cite, site, and sight to correcting the oft-misquoted “You can't have you cake and eat it too.” and the right way to pronounce Nevada.

His style is irreverent and slightly superior, which makes his explanations a lot of fun to read. I spent a fair amount of time clicking on some of these just to see what he had to say. It's not only a useful tool but good entertainment. I continue to be surprised at the misunderstandings and confusions that people have about the English language.

If you're interested in becoming a proofreader, or if you've had something proofread and you don't understand the results, check the page on proofreader and editor marks at Inkwell Editorial. Of course, now I have to find out what a hair space is.

My last fun tool for today is the Idiom Site. It gives you the proper word or phrase and explains the history or reasoning behind it. You may be familiar with most of these, but knowing where they came from can help you use them properly every time. Nothing makes you sound sillier than using an idiom incorrectly. I enjoyed reading the histories out of curiosity as much as for understanding how to use them. If you don't agree with the information, you can e-mail your reasons and they may get posted on the site. You can also submit an idiom to be researched.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Writing Contests and Tips

For a quick set of suggestions, take a peek at the 11 writing tips at editorialservice.com. I particularly enjoyed Tip 9. Using “which” instead of “that” is a nasty habit that can be difficult to break. Their general guide is easy to remember while you're writing. The tips all give good pointers for everyday communication and some of them are particularly applicable to copy writing for business web sites.

While you're studying the web for opportunities, don't miss these writing contests and open submissions:

  • If you're a fiction writer, or if you've got a few short story attempts lying about gathering dust, try submitting them to Too Write, where there is an on-going competition. You can enter up to five stories, 1,500 words or less, and the prize is £1,000. Entries for the current round of competition are accepted through September 20, 2007. Authors retain copyrights to their stories.

  • While you're at it, try submitting them to the Writer's Digest short story contest. They offer prizes for the first 25 places. Their deadline is December 3, 2007.

  • If you'd rather submit for up-front payment, check out The Stickman Review. They pay for short stories, non-fiction literary essays, poetry, and art. The site also runs the occasional contest.

  • If you'd rather write to a non-fiction, personal theme, try the Funds for Writers annual contest. You can win up to $200. They may also pay you $35 if they choose to publish your submission. All this for only 750 words or fewer! Submission deadline for this round is October 31, 2007. While you're there, check out their job listings.

  • I'm sad to have missed out on the True Life Stories annual contest. The dates are a little wacky but the prizes are great. I will keep checking back and let you all know if they are open for the next round of submissions.

While you're writing for these contests, take a gander at the writing contest tip sheet at writers-editors.com. There are some good points for writing in general and for contest writing in particular. They also maintain a list of writing contests.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Rhetorically Speaking...

Not only am I a grammar geek, but I studied philosophy for my minor in college. That means that the Forest of Rhetoric holds particular allure for me. I can’t wait to delve into some of the trees and to study the flowers. I suspect that mine is a rare fascination but I thought I’d share the link.

What I read of the site hinted at great depths in the analysis of language. Try not to be turned off by the technical terms listed. You need not know what a technique is called in order to use it. Rhetoric is learning to use language more effectively. In a strictly informational piece, this may not be critical if you have a good grasp of grammar and spelling. In a persuasive article, knowing how logic and emotion work through language is crucial.

If a less technical overview of rhetoric, as well as some great advice for composing and editing your writing, appeals to you, check out the English Composition Manual at Arkansas State University’s web site. There is a lengthy, straight-forward discussion of why understanding rhetoric is important to writing well.

While you’re clicking on rhetorical links, check out the Colorado State Writing Lab’s site on setting the rhetorical context of your piece. This is actually intended to help teacher’s craft writing assignments, but it’s applicable to helping yourself write as well.

The Arkansas State and Colorado State sites give excellent writing tips. Both of them include ways to find topics through free writing as well as various rewriting and editing methods. I have been exploring a lot of writing and composition sites, both for this blog and for my own information. Both of these sites struck me as clearly and thoroughly written.

Take advantage of the tools that are out there to strengthen your skills. It can help you not only compose better articles but to persuade people to hire you to write them in the first place. A well-crafted resume and query letter will go far toward convincing people that you know what you’re doing and are worth the investment.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Writing Styles: The Passive Voice

At Grammar Online there is a section devoted to a subject with which I struggle, the passive voice. I have trouble distinguishing clearly between active and passive voices in common article language.

Articles are more engaging when written in the active voice. I know that, but I find myself slipping into passive voice and unable to reword my articles effectively. I look for passive verb constructions but somehow even the edited words never seem to “pop” as much as I know they could. In part, my difficulty stems from the fact that I do formal minutes for several committees and they are all written exclusively in the passive voice, even the most heated exchanges. Writing that way thus seems more formal to me and better suited for more intellectual articles. I’m coming to realize how wrong that is.

It is so much easier to edit other people’s writing. The examples given, for instance, at the University of North Carolina’s Writing Center in their handout on the passive voice, were easy to spot. At least, the first few were obvious. As the explanation continued, however, I had to learn what to check. Part of the difficulty lies in dismissing dependant clauses. If the actor in the independent part of the sentence is clear to me, I consider it to be active. I did until recently, anyway.

Another part of the problem with editing your own writing is that implications are clear to you. You know what you meant and about what you were writing. Sentences don’t seem to be passive because you understand the implied actor in a given clause. There is one more reason to put your writing away for a day or two and attack it when it is no longer fresh in your mind. Portions of the writing that were crystal clear to you at the time may look much fuzzier with a little perspective between you and when you wrote it.

Once you’ve set aside your fresh interest in the matter, re-read your piece and look for sentences that leave you with questions like, “Who or what did?” Those sentences are often in the passive voice and are unclear. They will distract your reader unless you add the answer. Filling your article with people or objects who are doing things, rather than having things done to them, will engage readers much more easily.

The trick is not to worry about rules like this when you are writing the first draft. I spent a lot of time today stopping mid-sentence, trying to decide if I was using the passive voice. That’s no way to write well. For the first draft, focus on making your points. Editing for voice, grammar, and punctuation can wait until you’ve actually written something worth the effort.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Balance in My Writing Life

I have a trio of recent articles that I haven’t mentioned. The latest was another journey on my hobby horse: How Urban Sprawl Ruins Roads at Associated Content. I got my highest offer ever for this one – I finally broke the elusive $6 mark.

The other two are at Helium. One is about a favorite anime series of mine, Trigun, and the other takes a swipe at explaining why “reduce” and “reuse” are as important as “recycle”. I will be reworking that one to submit to AC, too.

Being without internet access for the weekend really forced me to get some work done, even if I couldn’t post it right away. I did things that I had put on the back burner because I had so much networking and promotion to do. (Networking and promotion means checking through Technorati, BlogCatalog, mybloglog, blogflux, and the other half a dozen places where I try to be active and find places to pop in links or mention how wonderful I am. I am uncomfortable doing this so it’s actually work for me.)

The fact that I had so many articles sitting around partially written (there are still two waiting to be edited) and that I finally made time to fix the header for this blog opened my eyes to the fact that, once again, my efforts were out of balance. I should spend my writing time writing; everything else is ancillary. I need the practice, and the little bit of cash is handy, too. Squidoo lenses, as much fun as they are to set up, aren’t nearly as useful to me as new articles.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Grammar and Editing Tools

There is an interesting set of exercises, tips, and grammar rules at the Kansas University’s School of Journalism site on editing. Most of these are specific to editing news stories but there are some excellent pages there for such subjects as when to use “because of” rather than “due to” or “that” instead of “which”.

The section that really entertained me was the one on knowing what word you want. It underscores the importance of knowing the meanings of the words you use. Nothing makes you look more foolish than malapropisms like these. If you’re going to use an unusual word, make sure you know exactly what it means.

Actually, if you are unsure your readers likely will be, too. It may be better to use a more common word than to confuse your audience. For instance, if I wasn’t positive that malapropism was the word that applied to the mistakes cited, I would have just said, “Nothing makes you look more foolish than using the wrong word when you’re trying to look smart.” If I were publishing this in a newspaper, I would definitely choose the second sentence. It’s a lot more accessible.

Using flowery adjectives is generally frowned upon in the more professional publications. They are generally a waste of words, when you could be adding more detail. Instead of “lashing winds” you could be writing “wind gusts up to 45 m.p.h.” Which one sounds more like someone who knows what they’re talking about?

Trying to find those impressive-sounding words is often what gets writers into linguistic difficulty. Write your story as sparely as possible and then add only what is necessary to keep it from being dry and boring. Keep in mind that you are writing articles to inform people, not to entertain yourself. This is something that I need to work on, as well. I tend to be focused on the “hook” as much as on the “meat”.

Monday, July 9, 2007

Realistic Freelance Writing Career Advice

I apologize for taking the weekend off. Once again, I was internet-free for two days. I actually accomplished a fair amount, writing two articles that had been languishing in my “To Do” file and reworking the header image for this blog. Unfortunately, I couldn’t e-mail them to the place where I have access so it will have to wait until I get a CD on which to burn them or we figure out what’s going on with our connection.

I discovered a blog entry at Writing World about building your freelance portfolio while visiting their freelance job listings. The point that really caught my interest was submitting unpublished samples of your work. I hadn’t thought of doing so. If the employer’s concern is that you know the subject and can craft an article then why wouldn’t you submit something that shows these things to be true? A published piece has more cachet, yes, but you have to make do with what you have.

For those of us who have full-time jobs and busy family lives, taking on an internship or an unpaid writing job in not feasible. Writing for the web can provide a decent starting place to showcase your work. It gives somewhere public to point prospective employers and to ask other writers for feedback. You won’t get rich (or close to it) publishing articles at Helium or Associated Content but at least you can get them out there.

Articles bring in more money at places like constantcontent but only if someone is willing to pay for them. It’s a good entrĂ©e to the market, however, as the folks buying articles there don’t seem to be specifically looking for experienced freelance writers. The market there seems to be more concerned with subject, skill, and SEO than with prior experience.

Then again, you might want to take a read through their bubble-bursting article about starting your freelance career. It’s a good reminder that the Cinderella stories of people getting steady, well-paying work from a job or two on sites like elance and guru.com are the exception rather than the rule.

This post also helps you remember that being a good writing isn’t enough to guarantee you’ll get paid to do it, witness American Idol and other try-out shows on television these days. I wonder if they’d do a reality show for freelance writer tryouts. Can’t you picture it? The exciting premier, where hundreds of people are pounding away at keyboards while the judges read completed 500-word submissions aloud…zzzz. Sorry, I dozed off for a moment just thinking about it.

Friday, July 6, 2007

Exceedingly Useful Tool Alert

Roy Peter Clark may be my new hero. He has a list at the Poynter Institute web site of 50 great tools to help writers improve. These are not the oft-repeated “Know and Love Your Semicolon” type of tips (useful though they may be) but actual concrete examples of ways to improve your writing and how you edit yourself.

He started in April of 2004 and spent most of a year compiling the list, posting a new tool each week. The first post was a real eye-opener and my “learn something new” thing for today. I’d never hear of right-branching sentences but I’ll definitely remember to use them to improve my writing now that I have. I have a long backlist of articles and posts that will benefit from some editing attention.

In fact, the whole writing site is a terrific resource for free information. See Chip Scanlan’s post about the science of using active verbs. The entire point of the Poynter Institute is to help journalists do their jobs better, but not with dry and somewhat superior direction. The various writers show healthy senses of humor and doses of creativity.

While I’m blathering on about news, I thought I’d mention a new Digg-like site with a twist, Thoof. The theory is that not only do you add sites and click on the sites others have submitted but that the home page will tailor itself to your interests by showing you articles similar to those on which you have clicked. The site launched a week ago, so there does not appear to be enough of a database to judge their system in practice just yet. I may join anyway, just to see if getting a few articles in on the ground floor gets them added attention.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Trust and Evaluating Online Sources

I was pointed to a thorough (and thoroughly useful) link to Georgetown University’s page about evaluating information on the Internet. This is a useful resource for folks writing articles. It offers suggestions about how to decide whether a source is trustworthy and accurate, as well as reminding you to check for bias when researching.

This led me to do some evaluating of my own. I discovered the free Internet Detective tutorial. This addresses not only how to research online but includes search tips and a section about plagiarism, copyrights, and proper citation of sources. Again, it’s directed towards writing school papers, but the points are applicable to any research.

Then I wandered across Cornell University’s site for evaluating web sites. This one has links to the likes of UC Berkeley and Johns Hopkins as well as its own information. Yet again, something I’d never thought to look into proves to have some heavy-hitting support.

Part of the reason this information is so useful is that it gives you tools for evaluating your own writing. Consider your articles with some of these criteria in mind. Do you appear to be informed and unbiased? Can people verify your information and identity? Can they contact you or the people running the web site on which your article is posted?

Being a reliable source of information is a critical part of branding your identity as a writer. Being technically skilled and on time will only get you so far if the pieces you produce don’t contain usable information.

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Grammar and Promotion: Ponderings

I've been reading blogs that cover somewhat obscure grammatical points, of late. One that got me thinking was AnnaLisa Michalski's post The Creeping Overuse of Up at Be Your Own Editor.

The reason it caught my eye was that I'm re-reading the Harry Potter books and I immediately thought of Ms. Rowling when I read the piece. “Washing up” does seems to have become a common activity, even if it doesn't involve any “upping”. While she can tell a ripping yarn, at times her grammar is, well, lacking in technical perfection.

There you'll also find Lisa's post about her adverbial pet peeve. While the site is directed toward fiction writers, many of the editing tips apply to non-fiction as well. A well-constructed sentence is useful (and admirable) whatever the context!

I've had a disgustingly productive writing week, with a total of four Squidoo lenses, four Helium articles, and a new one submitted to Associated Content. I've concentrated so much on posting here and on networking that it feels great to write something that doesn't have “I” or “me” in every other sentence.

I am curious to see if the articles I've posted on my lenses enjoy an increase in traffic. Several of the Helium articles listed on Squidoo have earned a penny or two overnight. If only there were a way to tell from where that traffic was coming. Of course, I am at the mercy of Associated Content to update page views whenever they get around to it. Who knows where any of those clicks come from, either. At least the stats I can view for my blog tell me how people got here!

It is difficult to promote when you don't know what method works. That's why stats are useful, even if it is too easy to obsess over them at the expense of your content. It's better to focus on what works than to waste your time trying to get attention in the wrong places. You won't find readers who will continue to visit by pasting yourself all over the wrong places. Stats at places like mybloglog and blogflux an help you figure out which ones those are.

Monday, July 2, 2007

My Top Five Most-Read Posts

I thought about doing a "My Five Favorite Posts" list but decided that people might find what other readers chose more useful. It turns out, it isn't as easy as it sounds to make a list of your 5 most-read posts. There isn't anyplace that has stats on my blog from the first day I posted (at least, not that I can find). The results from the 5 or 6 other places I have stats vary depending on when I posted their little codes into my template.

Blogflux is probably the most useful site for stats because they are exceeding generous with them. The only problem is that I didn't sign up with them until a couple of days into June. That means that I have no stats for May! Then again, I had a lot fewer readers then, too.

Here are the top-five most read posts from this blog as best I could determine. They are in no particular order.

Article Writing and Freelance Tips about the 10-Second Rule, formatting, and Sharon Hurley Hall. This one also has the second highest number of comments.

A Bit of Encouragement and Ethics about the Well-Fed Writer.

Resources: Promote Your Blog, Blog for Someone Else about blog listings and job listings (and Deborah Ng).

Freelance Jobs Galore for which the title is pretty self-explanatory. The post has a couple of wacky comments on it. I'm debating whether to leave those, so if anyone can shed light on whether they're as spammy as they seem I'd appreciate a note or a comment to that effect.

To me, the strangest result is that the post that came up in three places as my most-read, most-searched-for topic is Does the World Need Megaglobe? It's one of two sponsored posts I've done. I can't help but wonder if it was the company searching for buzz or others hired to write about them searching for other posts. I suppose it could be people searching for the site because they've heard the buzz. It just seems strange to me that that is the one that tops the list. Perhaps I'm writing about the wrong things after all?! Nah. I like what I'm doing. I hope you do, too.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Writing Prompts and a Small Rant

First, let me say that this is my 49th post. I intend to do a "Top 5" for tomorrow, my big 50th. Whoopee!

Sheesh, I have been looking for free writing prompts high and low to share with you people and no one told me about The Imagination Prompt Generator. I clicked through a few, and then one stopped me cold. It was, “I generalize about _____ because...” Wow, what a great topic to get your writing muscles pumping. I imagine it will call for a lot of introspection and delving. What a bargain from a free tool.

You may be asking yourself why I care about writing prompts. I could go off about how they are akin to a workout for your writing ability. But instead, I found corroboration at Buzzle.com where Deanna Mascle points to her list of 10 reasons you should use writing prompts over at word-craft. I know some people use prompts as blog entries, but for me most of the topics suggested are usually too personal to just post, willy-nilly, for public consumption. I don't know you that well!

I don't generally post from her site because, well, it's so “hard sell”. I end up feeling like I've just read the script for an infomercial. Too much bold type, too much capitalization, and too many quips like, “NO hours of slogging over a keyboard. NO waiting for quarterly commission checks. NO deadlines.” Bleh. I prefer the hard work end of the stick. At least then I can be proud of what I write, even if I don't make a six-figure income..

All of that came out rather more snotty and high-horsed than I had intended. I'm sure Ms. Mascle worked very hard on her site, writing all of that copy and trying to convince everyone to buy products. I don't know anything about her writing ability outside of a few samples. But for me, putting up a site that purports to be about helping you write better should either tell you up-front that you will have to pay for the assistance or be free.

I am not far enough along on my freelance journey to believe that someone would pay me to help them writer better. If it got to a point where people were asking I can see why it would be useful to start charging something. Time is money, after all. But it would be my time, not “courses” from other people for which I'm taking $40.00 from you to pass along a download.

Sorry, I'm ranting this week. Use writing prompts. Explore your head. Write. See you tomorrow.