Tag Archives: Writing tips

Grammar Hammer: Justice is Served for Common “Word Crimes”

the Grammar Hammer

I would be remiss if I didn’t spotlight Weird Al Yankovic’s latest hit, “Word Crimes” as the star of this week’s Grammar Hammer. Off his newest album, “Mandatory Fun,” the viral sensation tackles the most egregious grammar errors of all time and proves once and for all that you can be a stunningly creative songwriter and still employ the rules of grammar to get your point across.

To my delight, I counted ten grammar topics mentioned in “Word Crimes” that I have also covered via Grammar Hammer:

  • Verb tense
  • Nouns and prepositions
  • Less vs. Fewer
  • I could care less
  • Oxford comma
  • Homophones
  • Who/Whom
  • Quotation Marks
  • Good vs. Well
  • Literally vs. Figuratively

I also gained a few more great suggestions for future posts, which shows that we have a lot of work left to do when it comes to fighting bad grammar. At PR Newswire, the Customer Content Services Team thoroughly reads each press release that crosses our wire and catches around 4,000 errors per month. It’s slightly embarrassing (but more delightful) to think about how often I engage in conversations about grammar with my team.

Tweet your favorite #wordcrimes to me @cathyspicer or drop me a line at catherine.spicer@prnewswire.com.

You might also want to check out Grammarly’s exclusive interview with Yankovic about the song and the challenges of proper grammar in songwriting.

Author Catherine Spicer is a manager of customer content services at PR Newswire.

13 Tips for Writing and Pitching Op-Ed Stories

New York Times writer, Jennifer Finney Boylan

Op-ed pieces are unique in their structure, length, voice in comparison to other non-fiction writing. Knowing how to merge your opinion with factual information is an important part of writing op-ed pieces and attracting readers to your story, is a skill that takes time and practice to finesse.  Jennifer Finney Boylan, author, speaker, and writer for New York Times Opinion joined our last #ConnectChat discussion, where she not only shared how she writes op-ed pieces and turn them into compelling stories, but also about how to pitch them to major publications. Here are 13 tips from Boylan all op-ed writers should remember:

Write a clear headline, but don’t expect it to make the final cut.
Writers almost never choose their own headlines. In fact, the editor won’t even consult you about the headline most of the time. This is an ancient writer/editor practice. Headlines are chosen based on space as much as anything else, and positioning. My recent piece in the NYT, “Home is Where the Horses Are” was originally titled “Why the Long Face.” Still, you need to have a headline on your piece when you submit it. That helps the editor know what you’re up to, especially if your piece is a “gimmick” piece.

Hook the reader in right away with an anecdote, humorous ones work best. Then try to “show” how the story connects to an issue in the news, or of note. Wrap up it up by circling back to the joke in a new way.

The ideal length for op-eds is 800 words; original pieces 1,200 words.The NYT prefers 800 words for a standard op-ed column, like the regulars: Brooks, Collins, Bruni, etc. If I’m pitching an original piece, I go as long as 1,200 words with a note to the editor saying, “This is long; I can cut.” Having a relationship with the editor is an advantage because I know she will read my work. Sunday columns are a bit longer as well because there is more space in the Sunday Review.

Tell a story that also advocates a “position” backed up by fact and research. Op-ed pieces differ from other nonfiction in that it really is about opinion -you can’t just tell the story and leave it at that. For example, acclaimed New York Times economist Paul Krugman discusses economic facts, but he makes those stats into a compelling, moving story. The story generally comes first, along with your own charming voice, then the research.

Be aware that your opinions become public, and will become associated with you. For instance, I’m the national co-chair of the board of directors of GLAAD, and I have to be careful. People will think that my opinions are GLAAD’s opinions if I write about LGBT issues. As a writer, I don’t draw lines — I want to write about everything! As a public figure, I have to be careful not to damage the brand of the organization. Bottom line is, I try to be very careful, and don’t write when I’ll jeopardize the organization.

Be true to your personal writing style. Each writer has his or her own style, of course. It might be cliché, but your best bet is to be yourself. People can tell if you’re faking it. I bet you could read a “typical” column by one of the Times’ dozen or so regulars and know within a graph who wrote it.

Target your pitch to the most relevant publications that will connect with that story. If your story has a strong connection to a place, go to the paper in that town. You can also build a portfolio of clips starting small and going more national. My first published column was for the Middletown Press, in Connecticut about graduating from that town’s Wesleyan University. If it’s your first story, it’s good way to establish your credentials.

Pitch stories tied to seasonal events a month ahead of time.
Timing is everything in pitching as is a hook. Editors aren’t interested in your random genius. So know that, the Monday before Father’s Day, editors will be flooded with pieces about daddies. So if you’re going to write a Father’s Day piece, write it in May and send it in early.

Prioritize breaking news stories. Finding a good hook is an art, but sometimes you have to wait for the news cycle to give you your lede as well. For example, I had a piece ready to go for the Times this spring when I heard the news about the new SAT on the radio. I sent a note to my editor saying, “Hold the other piece, I’m writing an SAT thing,” and sent it in next morning, which was published the day after. If I’d waited two days later, the editor would have been swamped in SAT pieces.

Take advantage of Summer writing opportunities. Regular NYT columnists take vacations in the summer, so they’re always looking for people to fill. That’s how I became a regular after the “postcard” series — I became a designated summer filler — columnist “substitute teacher.” For up and comers and freelancers, this is an ideal opportunity.

Format your email pitch appropriately. In addition to attaching your piece as an email to the editor, paste it in as text as well. That way the editor doesn’t have to open your word document to read the piece; It’s right there and your lede is already grabbing their attention. Also, seriously: use 18 point type in the email paste. Make it big. Editors are not in their 20s. Have pity. Also, even though this is very particular, use a serif font, palatino or, say, times. Never use sans-serif font.

Be considerate to your editor and continue to build upon your relationship. Be respectful. Don’t be too annoying. If they encourage you, keep conversing. Be pleasant on email, but brief; keep in mind that editors are usually overworked. If they say no, accept that no means no. But if they pass on your story in a nice way, send them something else, although not right away.

Don’t give up hope – opportunities arise when you least expect them. How I went from a one-shot column to a regular political “postcard” series in the New York Times is a good story. I’d had a really great lunch with the editor in NY. Later, I saw the Times building and thought it would be a good idea to stop in and say hello. Next thing I know, he and others were sitting around a table asking me, “What do you got?” Suddenly I realized they thought I was there to pitch.

Thinking quickly, I pitched a half-baked idea about two general stores in my hometown– one Republican, one Democratic. They sent me on my way, and I didn’t hear anything back. Three months later, I receive a call from the editor saying, “That thing about the general stores? Write it. Need it by tomorrow.” In my case, another columnist’s work wasn’t any good, so they needed a filler and remembered my story.  I scrambled and wrote it in a day and that’s how I landed the gig.  The moral of the story is: you never know when the publication of your dreams will need you, so don’t lose heart.

polina opelbaumAuthor  Polina Opelbaum is the editor of ProfNet, a service that helps journalists connect with expert sources. To read more from Polina, check out her blog on ProfNet Connect.

 

Grammar Hammer: Whiling Away the Hours

the Grammar Hammer

While away the hours

While means to “pass the time, especially in some leisurely or pleasant manner”

I often see “wile away the hours” used interchangeably with “while away the hours,” so which is correct?

Technically, they both are, but there are some subtle differences one should consider.

“To while away the hours” means to “pass time idly” or to “pass time, especially in some leisurely or pleasant manner.” For example, “I spent hours whiling away on the beach last Sunday.”

“Wile” is generally used as a noun, meaning “trickery” or “cunning” (who could forget Wile E. Coyote?); “a disarming or seductive manner;” or “a trick intended to deceive.” It can also be used as a verb to mean “influence by wile.” In that context, wiling away the hours on a lazy Sunday afternoon could take on an entirely new meaning.

Therefore, “while away the hours” is the preferred expression. “Wile” exists as a means of poetic license to convey a particular mood or theme. For context, “Wile E. Coyote wiles away his time trying to catch that pesky Road Runner.”

Have a grammar rule you’d like me to explore? Drop me a line at catherine.spicer@prnewswire.com.

Author Catherine Spicer is a manager of customer content services at PR Newswire.

Grammar Hammer: Then vs. Than

the Grammar HammerThen Vs. ThanI have a tendency to over think certain grammar rules. Then vs. than is one of those grammar rules that I think I’ve nailed down, but always end up double checking after over thinking it for ten minutes. To save you time and confusion, here are a few ways to remember the correct usage:

“Then” is used to describe an element of time and is used mostly as an adverb.

  • Subsequently or afterwards. Example:  “We worked in the yard for a few hours and then went to the movies.”
  • As a consequence or in that case. Example: “If you don’t clean your room, then you can’t go to the movies.”
  • At that time or that time. Example: “We can first take care of mulching the flower beds then we can go to the movies.”

Then is always used in the construction “if … then.” For example, “If he had just listened to me in the first place, then he wouldn’t have tried using that cheap paint on the walls.”

“Than” conveys a comparison and is often used with comparative words and phrases like more, less, and fewer.

Example #1: “He paid more money for his shoes than she did for hers.”

Example #2: “The sunsets in Hawaii are better than sunsets anywhere else in the world.”

Quick tip:

Than = A = Comparison

Then = E = Time

As with any rule, there are exceptions. For example, “I usually need to go to sleep no later than 10 p.m.” I offer this quick tip with its requisite grain of salt.

For other great resources on this grammar rule, I direct you to CM Punk’s Grammar Slam on then vs. than, or my other favorite grammar poster from The Oatmeal, “Ten Words You Need to Stop Misspelling.”

Have a grammar rule you’d like me to explore? Drop me a line at catherine.spicer@prnewswire.com.

Author Catherine Spicer is a manager of customer content services at PR Newswire.

Grammar Hammer: Punctuation Saves Lives, Part II

Punctuation infographic

via EducatorsTechnology.com

Part-one of our “Punctuation Saves Lives” series covered the heavy hitters of periods, commas, question marks, exclamation points, colons, semicolons, dashes, and hyphens. Wrapping part-two are brackets, parentheses, braces, ellipses, quotation marks, and apostrophes.

Groups – brackets, parentheses, braces

Use parentheses ( ) to contain additional thoughts or qualifying remarks (I consider these to be my “verbal asides”).

Brackets [ ] are most often seen in technical notations or explanations.

Examples:

“Dogs are better then [sic] cats,” said Shannon.   

Eva took [her colleague] Caitlin out to lunch.

Braces { } are used to contain two or more lines of text to show they are part of a unit. You don’t often see braces in writing, but you will see it used in computer programming.

And finally, ones that aren’t related to each other at all – ellipses, quotation marks, apostrophes

Ellipses ( … ) are used to indicate an omission of unnecessary words (for more on this topic, see my previous post “And the Winner Is…”).

Quotation marks ( “ “ ) are used in pairs and mark the beginning and end of a quotation. They can also be used to indicate a “dubious” status of a word. A single quotation mark pair ( ‘ ‘ ) is to be used for quotes within a quote.

Apostrophes ( ‘ ) indicate possession (“That toy is Pip’s favorite.”) or the omission of some letters from a word (“Austin Powers is also known as the int’l man of mystery”).

Almost all of the source material I read in preparation for this series consistently state that there are fourteen different punctuation marks. Where does that leave the simple underscore (_) or the various directions of the slash ( / or \ )? Are they relegated to web code and email addresses? What are your thoughts?

Have a grammar rule you’d like me to explore? Drop me a line at catherine.spicer@prnewswire.com.

Author Catherine Spicer is a manager of customer content services at PR Newswire.

Grammar Hammer: Punctuation Saves Lives, Part I

Punctuation Saves LivesIn English grammar, there are fourteen different punctuation marks that I think of as the “primary” punctuation marks – the period, comma, question mark, exclamation point, colon, semicolon, dash, hyphen, parentheses, brackets, braces, ellipses, quotation marks, and apostrophes. These are the marks that help us with sentence structure, help us clarify meaning and distinguish between different sets of ideas.

Putting all of these into smaller groups, we can look at them like this:

The Full Stop – the period, the question mark, the exclamation mark

All three of these punctuation marks indicate the end of the sentence. Periods end declarative sentences. Do I really need to explain when to use a question mark? Exclamation points should be self-explanatory!

The Pause – comma, the semi-colon, the colon

The comma was rated as the punctuation mark you were most grateful for according to Grammarly back in 2012. I covered a few common mistakes people make with commas in this post “A Comment About Commas” and later in this post “Comma Drama.”

My favorite examples:

  • Let’s eat Grandma!
  • Cathy finds inspiration in cooking her family and her cats.

The semicolon continues to be the punctuation mark that befuddles people the most. To put it simply, semicolons separate independent clauses that are related to each other, but could stand on their own if you wanted them to.

You use colons before a list or an explanation. Look forward to a more in depth explanation on colons in a future post.

Connections and breaks – dashes and hyphens

Dashes come in two forms: the endash (-) and the emdash (–). Endashes are used to connect numbers or connect elements of a compound adjective (Abraham Lincoln was president of the United States from 1861-1865). An emdash (so-called because the size of the dash is about the size of the letter M) can be used to separate clauses, introduce a phrase for added emphasis, or what I’m most guilty of – indicate a break in thought or sentence structure.

Hyphens create compound words, particularly modifiers (“She was a well-known cook.”). Hyphens are also used in prefixes (“I wonder if they had any kind of pre-nuptial agreement?”).

Next week, we’ll conclude with a quick overview of brackets, parentheses, braces, ellipses, quotation marks, and apostrophes.

Have a grammar rule you’d like me to explore? Drop me a line at catherine.spicer@prnewswire.com.

Author Catherine Spicer is a manager of customer content services at PR Newswire and has never been inspired to cook her family or her cats.

Grammar Hammer: Stationery or Stationary?

the Grammar Hammer

via PigsPaperclip.wordpress.com

via PigsPaperclip.wordpress.com

It is funny to me how one little letter can change the meaning of a word. “Stationary” and “stationery” have completely different meanings and uses, but I think these words are often used incorrectly.

Stationary (with an “a”) is an adjective that means not moving or incapable of being moved.

Stationery (with an “e”) is a noun that refers to writing paper and envelopes. Of course, these days, I think it’s safe to include those e-mail stationeries that you use in your work life.

Quick test:

  • “Choose your writing instrument and card or stationary carefully.”
    Answer: Something on which to write? Wrong, it should be stationery.
  • “…has a small, lightweight design and may be used as a stationary unit.”
    Answer: Something that isn’t going to move? Right. It’s stationary.
  • “Users have the ability to select from a wide range of products – co-branded open house flyers, rate sheets, corporate flyers, advertisements, tri-fold brochures, email signatures, business cards, stationery, and much more.”
    Answer: Right.

An easy way to remember the two is to think about this:

  • Stationery (with an “e”) is the stuff you write on. Write (ends with an “e”) = writing on stationery.
  • Stationary (with an “a”) is something  that’s standing still. Stand (with an “a”) = stationary (with an “a”).

By the way, if you haven’t seen this, Grammarly has a fun thing going on Mondays. Search Twitter for #MontoyaMonday. “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” It’s a fun way to kill a few minutes if you need a break.

Have a grammar rule you’d like me to explore? Drop me a line at catherine.spicer@prnewswire.com.

Author Catherine Spicer is a manager of customer content services at PR Newswire and has a lovely collection of stationery.