Short and sweet // Writing trend: less is more

shortandsweet

As writers, we all wish that long-form writing ruled the day, however, this is not the case. Our writing must now compete with the next post on a feed, the next link on a blog, and the incoming texts.

Short, brief, to-the-point writing is king and we want to help you get there. The Grammarly blog recently posted What is Concise Writing, and Why Does it Matter?, which offers some great advice. Enjoy this excerpt:

Have you ever lost interest while reading something long-winded and rambling? You aren’t alone.

Concise writing means using the fewest words possible to convey an idea clearly. There’s a reason why writing concisely is recommended so often—it’s excellent advice.

Reading sprawling sentences can feel overwhelming, confusing, or boring. It can confuse readers by making it harder for them to quickly identify the main point of what you’re trying to communicate. After all, they have to sift through the extra verbiage and hunt for the key points of your message. Making readers do unnecessary work can make them grumpy, and grumpy readers are less receptive to what you have to say.

Whether you’re sending a text message, writing an email, or updating your resume, wordy writing dilutes the impact of your message. Concise writing, instead, helps grab and hold your reader’s attention. It’s also likely to be more memorable and make a lasting impact on your reader.

But brevity doesn’t come naturally to everyone, and concise writing takes effort. Here are some tips to help you identify the extra words weighing down your writing and tighten up unwieldy sentences.

Eliminate Redundant Words

Cutting redundant words like tautologies can help create stronger, more direct sentences. Tautologies are expressions or phrases that repeat the same information. They take up unnecessary space and can distract your reader. Getting rid of them simplifies sentences and gets your point across faster.

Wordy: In my opinion, I think that’s a problem.Concise: In my opinion, that’s a problem.

Wordy: The course had several necessary requirements.Concise: The course had several requirements.

Strengthen Weak Adjectives

Using strong, descriptive adjectives helps trim down sentence length. Look for places where you’ve used two words to describe something when one would do. Strengthening your vocabulary can help you ensure that you’re using the best word for the situation and that all of your words deserve to be in your sentence. Plus, strong adjectives make your writing more vibrant!

Wordy: Brunch was very good.Concise: Brunch was superb.

Wordy: She struggled to sit through his really boring speech.Concise: She struggled to sit through his tedious speech.

Remove Vague Nouns

Do all of your nouns actually move your point forward? If not, it may be time to say goodbye. Eliminating these unnecessary words will help make your writing more direct and clear.

Wordy: Career growth was an important factor in why I decided to join.Concise: I joined to advance my career.

Wordy: I’m interested in the areas of history and biology.Concise: I’m interested in history and biology.

Eliminate Filler Words

Filler words are words that add no meaning or value to a sentence and simply “fill” the space. They can be easily removed or replaced, but often inadvertently creep up in writing since we’re so used to using them in our speech.

Wordy: For all intents and purposes, this project will be outsourced.Concise: This project will be outsourced.

Wordy: Needless to say, I think we should get grilled cheese.Concise: We should get grilled cheese.

Construct Active Sentences

Some sentence structures tend to be wordier than others. Although the passive voice isn’t incorrect and is completely fine to use in moderation, it’s often a weaker type of sentence construction. If you find yourself trending towards using the passive voice because you think it sounds a bit fancier or softens something unpleasant, remember that active voice sets a stronger and more direct tone. Keep most of your sentences in active voice—you’ll find that they also tend to be more concise.

Wordy: If this was something caused on our end, it might be something to be aware of.Concise: We should be aware of this in case something on our end caused it.

Wordy: The error message was written by robots.Concise: Robots wrote the error message.

 

It’s easy to fill up sentences with extra words, especially when you’re excited about what you have to say. Concise writing takes effort and can be tricky, but every word needs to earn its place in your writing.

And the good news is that you don’t have to do it alone. Did you know that Grammarly offers checks to identify tautologies, enhance your vocabulary, eliminate unnecessary phrases, and flag passive voice?

Fix these 3 mistakes to instantly improve your writing

Have you ever really wanted to read a piece of writing, only to get so weary that you give up within the first few paragraphs? What causes that weariness in the reader? K.M. Weiland argues that “choppy prose” is to blame and we think she makes an excellent point in her article Most Common Writing Mistakes: Choppy Prose, which we have excerpted here:

A lean, lyrical style is an art form all its own. Just ask Ernest Hemingway and Cormac McCarthy. But authors need to be aware of the difference between lean prose and choppy prose—and learn to avoid the latter.

Reading choppy prose is like driving on a washboard road. It might be ever so slightly exciting at first, but it quickly becomes irritating and exhausting. The constant jarring of incomplete thoughts and abrupt punctuation prevents readers from sinking into a story. You may be striving for simplicity, but sometimes that very lack of sophistication in sentence structure can end up confusing readers.

Three Causes of Choppy Prose

The root of choppy prose is almost always poor sentence construction. At the root of these bad constructions, we often find three culprits:

1. Run-ons

A run-on sentence is one in which two or more independent clauses are joined without proper conjunction (“and,” “but,” “or,” etc.) or punctuation (semi-colon). The result is a sentence that runs on and on. This might seem like it would produce an effect opposite to choppiness, but, in fact, its breathlessness hurries readers along and mutilates what might otherwise be an effective construction.

FOR EXAMPLE:

Ariel arrived at the train station only two minutes late, she ran down the platform, she screamed at the train to stop, she had to get on!

2. Fragments

A sentence fragment is the opposite of a run-on: an incomplete clause, lacking either subject (noun) or predicate (verb). The abruptness of the missing half creates a jerky style that can make the author look uneducated and create confusion for readers.

FOR EXAMPLE:

Ariel gave up and stopped short. Cried. So unfair. Now, what would happen to her? Doomed, of course. She sat down on her suitcase. Because she had no more strength left in her legs. Maybe the next train? Or when someone took pity on her.

3. Semi-colons

The semi-colon is one of the most elegant of all punctuation marks. But it’s also one of the easiest to misuse. Authors can unintentionally use semi-colons to chop their prose to bits. Most of the time, this happens when one of the clauses the semi-colon is dividing fails to be independent (in essence, becoming a fragment).

FOR EXAMPLE:

A kind man in a fedora stopped beside Ariel; to see if he could help. She sniffed; looked up. This was her lucky day after all; or maybe just miraculous.

How to Fix Your Choppy Prose

Once you’ve identified what’s hacking up your prose, the remedy is simple enough: ruthlessly excise the offenders! Separate your run-ons into correct clauses or sentences of their own, smooth out your fragments with proper punctuation, and either remove the semi-colons or build independent clauses on either side of them.

FOR EXAMPLE:

Ariel arrived at the train station only two minutes late. She ran down the platform and screamed at the train to stop. She had to get on! Finally, she gave up and stopped short. Tears welled. This was so unfair. Now, what would happen to her? She was doomed, of course. The strength melted out of her legs, and she sat down on her suitcase. Maybe the next train would leave soon? Or perhaps someone would take pity on her. A kind man in a fedora stopped beside her and asked if he could help. She sniffed and looked up. Maybe this was her lucky day after all—or maybe it was a miracle?

The prose here is still pretty lean, but now it also flows more intuitively and clarifies the scene for readers rather than confusing them with nebulous half sentences. Cleaning up your choppy prose is as easy as that!

If you find your manuscript rife with run-ons, fragments and semicolons, today would be a perfect time to implement these fixes in your own writing. However, if you find yourself in need of a professional editor, we invite you to contact Certa Publishing so that we can put our editing services to work for you.

Be the Boss of Your Punctuation

be the boss of your punctuation

 

As you write, you likely hear your English teacher’s voice in your head, constantly fussing at you. However, there are advantages of being out of grade school, including the freedom to play with punctuation.

Recently the Creative Penn blog posted an article titled Punctuation Without Tears: 4 Tips For Professional Punctuation, which we hope will liberate you a bit and help to turn down the volume on the bossy grammar lady in your ear.

All writers feel anxious about punctuation.

Here are my top tips for getting to grips with punctuation once and for all.

1. Forget the Old Rules

First up, forget the old rules. This might sound a bit radical, but it’s not really. Most of the old rules relate to a rather stilted, formal English, which is now long gone. Today’s English is far freer, and so is its punctuation.

Take the following example:

Vector loaded the Squid Launcher. He licked his lips with anticipation. He would show them. All of them. Tonight.

A school teacher thirty years ago would have had kittens, fulminating that the final two sentences are abominations. He or she would have scored them through with a red pencil, insisting that every sentence must have a subject and a verb.

But today — in all honesty — no one cares. There is no requirement to write in full sentences anymore, and it’s liberating. You can create great effects. Like this. Or this. Ha!

So, Tip #1 is to cleanse and declutter your mind of the old rules that once filled impenetrable grammar books. You need to know a few of the most basic principles, but the majority are now irrelevant and of historical interest only.

2. Be Creative with Your Punctuation

There are only three things you can put on a page: letters, punctuation, and spaces.

That’s not a lot, really, out of which to conjure up worlds of fiction and non-fiction.

In fact, this is such a limited group of tools that, as a writer, you need to give the same degree of creative thought to each of them. What do I mean? Well, read this:

All sorts of things get stuck in Wookie fur: duct tape, intergalactic dust, and small mammals.

And then this:

All

sorts

of things

get stuck

in Wookie fur —

duct tape

intergalactic dust

and small

mammals

The words are identical. The only difference is the punctuation and spacing, which have made the two texts radically different.

Tip #2 is to acknowledge the power of punctuation to impact the feel of your writing, and accordingly to welcome it into your creative toolkit.

Punctuation shouldn’t be an afterthought.

It’s not something to leave to a copyeditor. It’s a vital part of how you create the atmosphere in your piece.

Here’s a less extreme example. You might write ‘to be or not to be that is the question’ and leave it for an editor to sort out. He or she might then come back with:

To be or not to be: that is the question.

(Literary, but a bit cold)

To be or not to be? That is the question.

(A little more quizzical)

To be, or not to be — that is the question.

(More languid, and a touch reflective)

To be. Or not to be. That is the question.

(Modern, and mildly brutalist)

If you leave an editor to punctuate your text, you are handing over control of its mood. If, instead, you think of punctuation as a vital component of your vision, you’ll take a pride in it — in how you deploy it — and you’ll approach it with as much care as the words you choose.

3. Punctuation is your Rhythm Section

One of punctuation’s most important functions is to set the speed and feel of a piece of writing. If the text was a band, punctuation would be the rhythm section: it lays down the framework for everything, dictating the tempo and fluidity of the piece.

Look at these three sentences:

Santa Claus wanted just one thing for Christmas: revenge.

Santa Claus wanted just one thing for Christmas — revenge.

Santa Claus wanted just one thing for Christmas. Revenge.

They’re all fine. No one is going to snort or recoil at any of them. But they each feel different thanks to the punctuation mark before the final word.

So, before you start writing, think about your rhythm section.

What mood are you going for?

  • Light?
  • Airy?
  • Jazzy?
  • Solid?
  • Technical?
  • Four-to-the-floor?

You will use different punctuation for different types of writing. A book for toddlers about zombies versus Stormtroopers requires a different approach in punctuation than a step-by-step guide to DIY root canal surgery.

Each demands a distinct feel to fit convincingly into its genre.

For instance, in a simple story book you might decide to avoid brackets because they are annoying and break the flow of the tale. However, if you are writing a set of instructions for assembling furniture, they may be just the thing:

To assemble the guillotine, insert the upright case (Part A) into the long bench (Part B), then slot in the slanted blade (Part C). As always when working in your home workshop, watch your fingers. When completed, keep safely away from children and aristocrats.

Punctuation can give you all sorts of creative options for enhancing the feel of your writing. So, as well as getting stuck into the vocal and guitar melodies, think long and hard about the rhythm section. They work together, and ultimately it’s the interplay that creates the coherence of the whole.

4. Know the Horrors

So far I have recommended that you concentrate on the basics and forget a lot of the old rules, that you get creative, and that you embrace punctuation as the rhythmic foundation of your writing.

On one level I am saying you should relax and feel free to enjoy experimenting with how different punctuation can fundamentally affect and color your writing.

However, I am not suggesting you can do whatever you want. There are some fundamental principles that have to be observed.

  • Full stops (or periods) end sentences and indicate abbreviations.
  • Question marks are for direct questions.
  • Ellipses show that text is missing, a pause, or trailing off.

And so on. These are immutable functions, and you have to work with them.

Although being creative with punctuation is great, and being freed from old rules is refreshing, there are a couple of horrors that will kill a piece of writing stone dead. I’ll mention just two.

The greengrocer’s apostrophe is when someone tries to use an apostrophe to make a plural:

  • slimy cocktail’s
  • impenetrable FAQ’s

This is always, ALWAYS wrong. It looks horrific. Don’t ever do it. Language evolves and one day it might be okay. For now, however, it is absolutely not okay.

The other horror I’ll mention is the comma splice:

  • Goldilocks swung the nunchuk, she liked its weight.
  • The woodsman hated bunnies, he hated them with a Luciferian mania.

Both these examples are made of two complete sentences. Depending how adventurous you are feeling, you can separate them with a full stop (or period), a semicolon, a colon, or a dash.

But the one thing you absolutely cannot use is a comma. It’s wrong, looks wrong, and can quickly result in a manuscript going into the bin.

So, Tip #3 is to learn to spot the handful of truly painful howlers, and avoid them like the plague. We all know they can creep into writing as you are copying, pasting, deleting, and fiddling, but read over your work like a hawk. These errors make you vulnerable, and undermine the endless hours of sweat you have put into your work.

Conclusion

Now that you are firmly in the group that wants to follow modern principles and to use punctuation creatively, the final step in the programme is to learn to love punctuation as a personal and intimate part of your writing style.

Embrace it. Use it to let your personality come through, I don’t mean you should garnish every sentence with exclamation marks. You really shouldn’t. I mean you should feel free to get excited about how you use punctuation.

Try replacing commas with dashes. Try swapping out full stops (or periods) for semicolons. Get a feel for what works with each piece of your writing.

Find punctuation that reinforces the mood of what you (or one of your characters) is saying. Keep doing it. Watch how other people do it. Be inspired.

Before long, punctuation will be a source of pleasure rather than anxiety … and my work will be done.

Happy punctuating!?

Did you know that Certa offers a full editing service? If you need another set of eyes on your semicolons and em dashes, we would love to lend you our expertise. Contact us today.

How to write a book: Ten steps from a 5-time bestseller

how to write a book

Sometimes we make things harder than they are. We see a messy house, get overwhelmed and spend more time procrastinating than it actually takes to clean it. The same happens with bigger tasks like making a will, planning a family reunion or writing a sermon series. In his recent blog post, 10 Ridiculously Simple Steps for Writing a Book, five-time bestseller Jeff Goins explains how to break down the ultimate of big tasks—writing a book—into ten manageable steps.  Here is an excerpt:

As the bestselling author of five books, I can tell you without hesitation that the hardest part of a writer’s job is sitting down to do the work. Books don’t just write themselves, after all. You have to invest everything you are into creating an important piece of work.

For years, I dreamed of being a professional writer. I believed I had important things to say that the world needed to hear. But as I look back on what it really takes to become an author, I realize how different the process was from my expectations.

To begin with, you don’t just sit down to write a book. That’s not how writing works. You write a sentence, then a paragraph, then maybe if you’re lucky, an entire chapter. Writing happens in fits and starts, in bits and pieces. It’s a process.

The way you get the work done is not complicated. You take one step at a time, then another and another. As I look back on the books I’ve written, I can see how the way they were made was not as glamorous as I once thought.

How to really write a book

In this post, I’ll teach you the fundamental steps you need to write a book. I’ve worked hard to make this easy to digest and super practical, so you can start making progress.

But first, let’s look at the big picture. What does it take to write a book? It happens in three phases:

  • Beginning: You have to start writing. This sounds obvious, but it may be the most overlooked step in the process. You write a book by deciding first what you’re going to write and how you’re going to write it.
  • Staying motivated: Once you start writing, you will face self-doubt and overwhelm and a hundred other adversaries. Planning ahead for those obstacles ensures you won’t quit when they come.
  • Finishing: Nobody cares about the book that you almost wrote. We want to read the one you actually finished, which means no matter what, the thing that makes you a writer is your ability not to start a project, but to complete one.

Below are 10 ridiculously simple tips that fall under each of these three major phases. I hope they help you tackle and finish the book you dream of writing.

Phase 1: Getting started

We all have to start somewhere. With writing a book, the first phase is made up of four parts:

1. Decide what the book is about

Good writing is always about something. Write the argument of your book in a sentence, then stretch that out to a paragraph, and then to a one-page outline. After that, write a table of contents to help guide you as you write, then break each chapter into a few sections. Think of your book in terms of beginning, middle, and end. Anything more complicated will get you lost.

2. Set a daily word count goal

John Grisham began his writing career as a lawyer and new dad — in other words, he was really busy. Nonetheless, he got up an hour or two early every morning and wrote a page a day. After a couple of years, he had a novel. A page a day is only about 300 words. You don’t need to write a lot. You just need to write often. Setting a daily goal will give you something to aim for. Make it small and attainable so that you can hit your goal each day and start building momentum.

3. Set a time to work on your book every day

Consistency makes creativity easier. You need a daily deadline to do your work — that’s how you’ll finish writing a book. Feel free to take a day off, if you want, but schedule that ahead of time. Never let a deadline pass; don’t let yourself off the hook so easily. Setting a daily deadline and regular writing time will ensure that you don’t have to think about when you will write. When it’s time to write, it’s time to write.

4. Write in the same place every time

It doesn’t matter if it’s a desk or a restaurant or the kitchen table. It just needs to be different from where you do other activities. Make your writing location a special space, so that when you enter it, you’re ready to work. It should remind you of your commitment to finish this book. Again, the goal here is to not think and just start writing.

Phase 2: Doing the work

Now, it’s time to get down to business. Here, we are going to focus on the next three tips to help you get the book done:

5. Set a total word count

Begin with the end in mind. Once you’ve started writing, you need a total word count for your book. Think in terms of 10-thousand work increments and break each chapter into roughly equal lengths. Here are some general guiding principles:

  • 10,000 words = a pamphlet or business white paper. Read time = 30-60 minutes.
  • 20,000 words = short eBook or manifesto. The Communist Manifesto is an example of this, at about 18,000 words. Read time = 1-2 hours.
  • 40,000–60,000 words = standard nonfiction book / novella. The Great Gatsby is an example of this. Read time = three to four hours.
  • 60,000–80,000 words = long nonfiction book / standard-length novel. Most Malcolm Gladwell books fit in this range. Read time = four to six hours.
  • 80,000 words–100,000 words = very long nonfiction book / long novel. The Four-Hour Work Week falls in this range.
  • 100,000+ words = epic-length novel / academic book / biography. Read time = six to eight hours. The Steve Jobs biography would fit this category.

6. Give yourself weekly deadlines

You need a weekly goal. Make it a word count to keep things objective. Celebrate the progress you’ve made while still being honest about how much work is left to do. You need to have something to aim for and a way to measure yourself. This is the only way I ever get any work done: with a deadline.

7. Get early feedback

Nothing stings worse than writing a book and then having to rewrite it, because you didn’t let anyone look at it. Have a few trusted advisers to help you discern what’s worth writing. These can be friends, editors, family. Just try to find someone who will give you honest feedback early on to make sure you’re headed in the right direction.

Phase 3: Finishing

How do you know when you’re done? Short answer: you don’t. Not really. So here’s what you do to end this book-writing process well:

8. Commit to shipping

No matter what, finish the book. Set a deadline or have one set for you. Then release it to the world. Send it to the publisher, release it on Amazon, do whatever you need to do to get it in front of people. Just don’t put it in your drawer. The worst thing would be for you to quit once this thing is written. That won’t make you do your best work and it won’t allow you to share your ideas with the world.

9. Embrace failure

As you approach the end of this project, know that this will be hard and you will most certainly mess up. Just be okay with failing, and give yourself grace. That’s what will sustain you — the determination to continue, not your elusive standards of perfection.

10. Write another book

Most authors are embarrassed by their first book. I certainly was. But without that first book, you will never learn the lessons you might otherwise miss out on. So, put your work out there, fail early, and try again. This is the only way you get better. You have to practice, which means you have to keep writing.

Every writer started somewhere, and most of them started by squeezing their writing into the cracks of their daily lives. That’s how I began, and it may be where you begin, as well. The ones who make it are the ones who show up day after day. You can do the same.

Did you notice his emphasis on deadlines and a steady work schedule? One of the best ways to implement these is through partner publishing with a company like Certa. We can come alongside you to develop a workable timeline and provide the accountability needed to accomplish this important endeavor. Contact us today!

Just get to the point

justgetto the point

Recently we wrote about readability. Did you run your writing through the Flesch-Kincaid test to find out the reading grade level of your work? If so, it’s likely that you found out that you were inadvertently writing above the head of the average reader. This causes readers to tune out too soon or not fully grasp your content.

So what’s the fix? Make all the longer words shorter? Of course, it’s more complex than that, but completely doable. Here are 3 readability trouble spots and how to course correct:

1. Short story long

The problem: We all have one friend, family member, or co-worker, who starts to tell a story and you think, oh boy, here we go. They can make a 2-minute story into a 20-minute rambling, bunny-trail-filled narrative that leaves the listener both bored and befuddled. Well, friend, writers can fall into the same trap. See, we don’t have the benefit of watching the reader in real-time as they trudge their way through our overly verbose writing. We can’t see them sigh, get distracted, or give up altogether. Yet we must keep this common temptation at the forefront of our mind.

The fix: In her recent post, Be Specific! How to Get to the Point in Everything You Write, Grammarly writer Joanna Cutrara offers these tips:

Use appropriate sentence length – Resist the urge to jam too many ideas or details into the same sentence. If your sentence is so long that its meaning isn’t clear or you’ve switched topics partway through, consider breaking it into two new sentences.

Avoid filler words – Cutting out filler words can make your sentences shorter and easier to understand. If your sentence works without it, you just don’t need this word.

Be precise with your words – Make your writing strong and vivid by using specific phrases, instead of ambiguous words like: thing, stuff, good, bad, pretty, and ugly. Also, avoid redundant phrases such as “unexpected surprise” or “very unique.”

2. Leave a little to the imagination

The problem: We want to be completely in control of the story, or more importantly, how the story is perceived by the reader. This leads us to write down every single thought and concept we’ve collected on our subject. It’s the equivalent of handing our toddler a coloring page that we’ve completely colored in. Yes, it may be beautiful, but we’ve robbed the child of the opportunity to participate in the project.

The fix: As writers, we must not forget that the beauty of reading is not in the words themselves, but in the place they take us in our minds. Be respectful of your readers’ imaginations by giving them a starting off point, not a boxed-in, completely detailed narrative.

A recent Freelance Writing post offered this insight:

The critical aim of writing for your readers is not to inform exhaustively, but to suggest; not to thrust upon the reader’s own vision of truth and beauty in detailed completeness, but to awaken the reader’s spirit to help him see a vision of his own. To this end we must stand steadfastly, ready to omit, to compress, to sacrifice.

3. Who are you trying to impress?

The problem: Sure, those flowery sentences or academic terms may impress your writing peers or colleagues, but your average reader may be put off by them. Unless you are writing for a highly-educated niche audience, we suggest that you tone down the professor-speak and switch to a more conversational tone.

The fix: Find someone who is a complete non-expert in the subject you write about. Ask them to read a portion of your manuscript and then summarize it for you. Were they able to truly grasp the concepts, or does it seem that most went over their head? If the latter is true, then you are writing to impress, instead of writing to inform.

In each of these scenarios, there is one person who would be an invaluable asset: an editor. At Certa we offer professional editing services. Our editors are chosen for their experience and professional standards. Their attention to detail ensures that errors are not overlooked, and adds a final polish to your book without changing your unique writing style. An editor will look through your manuscript upon submission and prepare a manuscript evaluation. They will provide you with a suggested editing level, and the rationale for the suggested level. The manuscript evaluation will also list the strengths and weaknesses of the manuscript with any comments the editor has regarding it. This evaluation is free of obligation for our authors! Contact us today to take advantage of this offer.

 

From Bland to Breathtaking: How to spice up your writing

 

FROM BLAND

Are you ready to take your writing to the next level? Enjoy this excerpt of 9 Easy Tips that Will Improve Your Writing by Karen Hertzberg of the Grammarly blog:

Just like food, your writing needs spice. Keep these tips in your cupboard to take your writing from bland to scrumptious.

About a year ago, I got interested in cooking. For most of my adult life, I’d been making things like spaghetti with sauce from a jar, macaroni and cheese complete with powdered “cheese,” and the occasional boxed meal (just add ground beef!). Sometimes, I went a little wild and threw some canned tuna into the mac and cheese, or added real frozen broccoli to the boxed meal. My family ate it. They didn’t know any better.

But then, spurred on by a retired chef I befriended, I decided to give cooking a try. Real cooking. I bought fresh veggies and meats. I practiced until I had the knife skills to slice, dice, and julienne. I learned that stovetop burners aren’t meant to be set to high heat unless you’re trying to boil something. (Who knew?) I learned that basic salt and pepper make everything delicious. Throw in some well-chosen herbs and spices, and I can elevate the taste of my food to a whole new level. The kind that makes another friend kiss the backs of his fingertips like a French chef in an old movie and declare my meals delectable.

Writing is a lot like cooking. You can string together bland, canned phrases and hope that readers who don’t know any better won’t mind, or you can pull some spicy new tricks off the shelf and make your content truly delish.

The Basics

Before you can improve your cooking skills, you’ve got to learn a few basics. It’s the same with writing. Keep your text lean, use flavorful language, and express yourself confidently.

1. Begin with lean writing.

Flabby writing is unpalatable. Trim excess adverbs and use strong verbs or adjectives instead. (The comedian wasn’t very funny, she was hilarious.) Learn what a preposition is and how to streamline prepositional phrases. (The car didn’t come over the top of the hill, it crested the hill.) Slash extraneous words and phrases.

2. But don’t make it too lean.

Just as a cut of meat can be so lean that it’s dry and lacking flavor, writing that’s overly sanitized can sound sterile. Using an occasional adverb as a conscious style choice can make your writing sound more natural and conversational. Just don’t overdo it. Every adverb you use should have to justify its existence. If you can’t explain why you think it enhances your text, then out it goes.

3. Write with confidence.

Timid knife skills are dangerous when cooking. Timid language is a danger to writing.

Are you hedging your bets, using language that sounds unsure and wishy-washy? Eliminate phrases like you may want toit’s possible that, and they can try, and weasel words like probably and sometimes.

You don’t have to give your readers an out clause unless you’re truly sure that what you’re suggesting might not work. And, in that case, ask yourself why you’re suggesting it in the first place.

4. Use powerful words and imagery . . .

If you use a lot of “to be” verbs (be, am, is, are, was, were, been, being) or other linking verbs (appear, feel, look, seem, remain, sound), search for opportunities to spice up your writing with livelier verb choices.

Weak Verb

Alex felt anxious when it was time to give his speech.

Rather than telling the reader that Alex felt anxious, paint a word picture. Help the reader see Alex and recognize the feelings Alex is experiencing. The example below uses strong verbs and the time-honored advice given to writers: show, don’t tell.

Strong Verb

Alex’s hand trembled as he adjusted the microphone. His heart hammered in his chest.

5 . . . but keep your language simple.

Yes, use colorful, expressive language. But no, don’t hunt through your thesaurus in search of exotic words no one’s going to recognize. Don’t use fancy words just for the sake of it.

Keep your audience in mind. I had a colleague years back who regularly used SAT words that sent even those of us with stellar vocabularies scrambling for our dictionaries. We wrote for the video game industry. The average gamer is plenty intelligent, but most don’t flock to read articles full of words like cynosureexcogitate, and perspicacious. What a sesquipedalian that guy was!

Once you’ve mastered these basics, it’s time to find your writing style. Tune in next time as we share the remainder of Ms. Hertzberg’s article.

At Certa Publishing, we love partnering with authors who are passionately pursuing quality writing. How can we help you? Contact us today!

3 Steps to Better Sentences

You know your writing needs to improve, but you’re not sure where to start. Enroll in a pricey writing course? Check out every writing book in the library? Consume all the writing blogs you can find? It may not be as complicated as you think.

Stefanie Flaxman, writer for Copyblogger, suggests a simple editing technique in her post 3 Advanced Ways to Craft Better Sentences, which we have excerpted here:

While the goal of “improving your content writing” may seem complex, it’s not necessarily more complicated than improving each sentence you write.

Better sentences add up to better content.

So, let’s break down content writing into sentence writing.

I’m not about to show you how to write a “perfect” sentence. Instead, these three tips will help you remember that every sentence you write is an opportunity to practice.

And during your writing practice, you can implement smart changes that keep your reader focused on your message.

1. No sentence is an island

Even if you’re examining just one individual sentence, it’s helpful to review the sentences that surround it.

There are two main reasons why:

  1. You may have overused a word. Sometimes you’ll intentionally repeat a word for emphasis or because it fits the rhythm of your writing. But we often overuse words without meaning to. When you review your writing, vary your word choice to create a more stimulating reading experience.
  2. You may have belabored a point. Give each sentence you write a specific purpose. If you communicate the exact same idea in two different sentences, it’s probably wise to delete one.

When you look at the broader context of your writing while aiming to improve one sentence, you kick off a sort of domino effect. Noticing one weakness helps you correct other weaker sections.

2. Writing skin needs exfoliation

The most “advanced” skill you can learn is to examine your own writing with a critical eye.

A critical eye doesn’t mean you’re so hard on yourself that you get discouraged. It just lets you swiftly identify areas of your sentences that either hinder comprehension or lack the details that magnetically hold attention.

I like the comparison to skin exfoliation because rough drafts, like dry skin, are … rough.

For example, you’re probably already familiar with the benefits of using active verbs instead of passive verbs.

Changing a sentence from “Joplin was devastated by the twister” to “The twister devastated Joplin” exfoliates the sentence to make it smoother.

Removing extra words is another form of exfoliation.

Here’s an example from my recent article on finding more loyal readers. I’ve bolded the extra words in the draft of this paragraph.

Edith likes Frank’s article idea, but she needs to consult with him andeducate him on the type of content that is the right fit for Cosmopolitan. She’ll give him their writer guidelines so he can use them to match the tone and style of his article to the publication’s specifications.

Here’s the published version of that paragraph.

Edith likes Frank’s article idea, but she needs to educate him on the type of content that is the right fit for Cosmopolitan. She’ll give him their writer guidelines so he can match the tone and style of his article to the publication’s specifications.

To give you one more example, in the draft of this article I wrote, “Here’s the final version of the paragraph that we published.” As you can see above, that sentence turned into, “Here’s the published version of that paragraph.”

Developing an eye for excess will sharpen your writing.

3. “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

When I edit, I always have a browser tab with a Google search bar open.

Why?

Because I’m constantly looking up the meanings of words or idioms that I don’t consider straightforward — anything that sticks out and makes me question whether or not it is correct.

Even if I’m 95 percent certain, it’s always beneficial to verify that it’s the most appropriate word or phrase.

My Google search browser tab is also helpful for double-checking the spellings of proper names, places, products, and companies.

The bottom line here is valuing professional editorial standards that help guarantee accuracy. Take the time to ensure your readers effortlessly understand your content and aren’t distracted by a misspelling, or the incorrect use of a word or idiom.

At Certa Publishing, we are passionate about the editing process. How can we help you?

From Sermon to Book: Four keys to make it work

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if you could simply transcribe all of your sermons or teachings into a book and send it to be published? But of course, it’s not that simple.

Have you ever read the transcription of an interview instead of watching the video? More than likely you didn’t make it to the end. This proves that an interesting conversation or teaching doesn’t necessarily translate into an interesting read.

Converting your sermons into a book will take some skill. But it can certainly be done. So how can you make your book different than an anthology of sermons? Here are four ways.

Break it up

More than likely, your sermons are given in one sitting. The audience sits and listens until the end. However, a book is not (usually) consumed at once. Your reader needs to feel the freedom to come and go from the text. Obviously, this is accomplished with chapters, but also with subheadings, sections, and inserts. These breaks allow the reader to breathe and offers them a sense of accomplishment, without completing the book. Also, shorter sentences are best. Remember that words don’t have the benefit of your voice inflection, so long sentences become cumbersome.

Appreciate the value of a dynamic cover

Your message is incredible. Everyone who hears it remarks on its power and suggests you should make this into a book! But the average consumer scrolling through Amazon doesn’t know that yet. To them, your book is just one of hundreds, if not thousands of books in the same category. Like it or not, you must have a dynamic cover to draw their attention.

A recent study by a graphic design firm found that books with redesigned covers achieved an “improvement in click-through rate [which] ranged from 6% on the low end, to 122% on the high end.”

You may be surprised at how much is involved in an effective cover design. There is so much more to it than fonts and appealing images. In a recent article on Kobo Writing Life, JD Smith wrote on Cover Design Essentials. Smith states that a successful cover design will take into consideration the following:

  • The taste of your target market
  • The right balance of text, colors and images
  • Complementary colors that stand out but don’t clash
  • Proper composition of the text, including title, author and subtitles
  • Branding considerations (if this book becomes the first in a series, can the design be replicated in the future?)

Given all of these factors, it’s clear that the investment in a professionally-designed cover will be well worth the cost.

Add personality to your writing

Have you noticed that your audience often perks up as soon as you begin to tell a story or give a personal example during your sermon or teaching? Why is this? Because we all love a good story and we enjoy getting to know the person we are listening to.

A book is no different. No matter the depths of your theology or the heights of your insights, there is likely another book with similar content. What sets yours apart is how this theology and insight has transformed your life and those around you. Tell those stories. Offer that personal application. This is what keeps your reader coming back for more.

Expand and expound

Often a great sermon has more content trimmed out than left in. Editing all that research down to a 20-30 minute teaching can be agonizing. Writing a book offers you the chance to pick up those discarded nuggets and use them to expound on your subject. Now is the time to dig into the etymology, historical context, and geographical details. What do the experts say? What do the detractors say? Add in those rich insights.

If someone has taken the time to purchase and read your book, chances are they are looking for more information than is typically found in a Sunday morning talk. They want to dig deeper and really study the subject. By expanding and expounding, your book can offer them the knowledge they are looking for.

Great sermons can become great books. By implementing the techniques of text breaks, cover design, an infusion of your personality, and expanded content, you can offer the reader a rich and beneficial read that allows your sermons to continue blessing people and furthering the Kingdom of God.

At Certa Publishing, we specialize in helping pastors and teachers through this exact process. We offer expert assistance every step of the way, from concept to editing to cover design. We believe that the message God put inside of you needs to be told! Contact us today so we can begin this journey with you.

The Potter’s Tools: The Divine Work of Writing

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Imagine a half-finished sculpture on the artist’s table. Strewn about are various chisels, brushes and tools. Chunks of clay lie discarded on the floor. The master leans intently over the object, pressing it here and there with his hands, refining… cutting… scraping. Yet look at the delight in his eyes. Look at how his fingers dance to an unheard song, molding and shaping, with a sense of what will be.

We are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand.  Isaiah 64:8

You see, the Lord did not lay down His creative skills on the sixth day. He is still at work, forming and fashioning us into new creations. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works (Ephesians 2:10).  You can be confident that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus (Philippians 1:6).

Have you considered that the Lord may be using your role as a writer as one of his potter’s “tools?” But this work is uncomfortable. If you’ve been writing long enough, you’ve surely experienced the sting of rejection. Perhaps an editor has returned your work with more red ink than you thought possible. Maybe your manuscript has not been received with the praise you expected, or has even been panned or criticized by your friends, family or the public.

Scrape. Push. Cut. Do you feel the potter’s tools?

As believers, we have a choice in our response to the pain of His reshaping. Resist or submit. And James reminds that He responds accordingly. God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble (James 4:6).

What if we viewed writing as a new opportunity to submit to the potter’s work? Could we receive the editor’s remarks as a chance to grow and stretch? Can we hold our words with an open hand, allowing the Lord to refine them and infuse them with His voice? When we feel ready to quit, can we ask Him to help us run with endurance the race that is set before us (Hebrews 12:1)? What if we approached our mentors with a humble heart, asking for their constructive criticism, and appreciating their input?

Jeff Goins, bestselling author and blogger, suggests,

A good writer is humble. Regardless of skill, she is committed to seeing the writing process through to completion. No matter how grueling or hard, she will write. And she will get better…

This all begins with humility. Which really means a willingness to listen and change. To do the work and become a professional.

If you do this, if you take the time to make your work great by never settling for good enough, it will make all the difference. So start persevering today.

Let’s view our writing as more than work, more than a pastime, but as a divine process, a tool in the hand of the Master. Is there really any better place to be than on the table of the Potter?

Is This What You Really Meant to Say?

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In our last post, we told you to embrace the ugliness of the first draft. Whether this exercise was fun or grueling, we hope it propelled you further down your writing path. But don’t assume that the next step is to simply edit your way from a first draft to a final draft. No. Now it’s time to find your voice. Your tone. Your message. It’s time to answer the question, Is this what you really meant to say?

If today you emailed your first draft to 10 different writers to finish, do you think you would receive back 10 very similar works? Absolutely not. In fact, they might be almost unrecognizable from the original. Why? Because those writers will have applied their voice to the text, crafting it into something unique and exclusive to them.

So that’s the next step. But maybe you’re asking what is my voice? What makes it unique?  That’s where we turn for advice to national bestselling author Jeff Goins, and his article Ten Steps to Finding Your Voice. Goins writes,

Spending some time deliberating over voice is worth your attention and focus. Whether you blog for fun, write novels, craft poems, pencil melodies, or inspire people with your prose, it’s essential that you find your unique writing style.

If you struggle with getting people to read your writing or with staying consistent in your craft, you need to stop chasing numbers and productivity and reboot. It’s time to start finding and developing that voice of yours.

An Exercise for Finding Your Voice

Not sure where to start? No problem. Most of us need help understanding our voice. Here’s a short exercise that can help you — just follow these 10 steps:

  1. Describe yourself in three adjectives. Example: snarky, fun, and [ambitious] 
  2. Ask (and answer) the question: “Is this how I talk?”
  3. Imagine your ideal reader. Describe him in detail. Then, write to him, and only him. Example: My ideal reader is smart. He has a sense of humor, a short attention span, and is pretty savvy when it comes to technology and pop culture. He’s sarcastic and fun, but doesn’t like to waste time. And he loves pizza.
  4. Jot down at least five books, articles, or blogs you like to read. Spend some time examining them. How are they alike? How are they different? What about how they’re written intrigues you? Often what we admire is what we aspire to be. Example: Copyblogger, Chris Brogan, Seth Godin, Ernest Hemingway, and C.S. Lewis. I like these writers, because their writing is intelligent, pithy, and poignant.
  5. List your favorite artistic and cultural influences. Are you using these as references in your writing, or avoiding them, because you don’t think people would understand them. Example: I use some of my favorite bands’ music in my writing to teach deeper lessons.
  6. Ask other people: “What’s my voice? What do I sound like?” Take notes of the answers you get.
  7. Free-write. Just go nuts. Write in a way that’s most comfortable to you, without editing. Then go back and read it, asking yourself, “Do I publish stuff that sounds like this?”
  8. Read something you’ve recently written, and honestly ask yourself, “Is this something I would read?” If not, you must change your voice.
  9. Ask yourself: “Do I enjoy what I’m writing as I’m writing it?” If it feels like work, you may not be writing like yourself. (Caveat: Not every writer loves the act of writing, but it’s at least worth asking.)
  10. Pay attention to how you’re feeling. How do you feel before publishing? Afraid? Nervous? Worried? Good. You’re on the right track. If you’re completely calm, then you probably aren’t being vulnerable. Try writing something dangerous, something a little more you. Fear can be good. It motivates you to make your writing matter.

So we encourage you to take that ugly first draft and decide how to craft it into what you really meant to say. Your future readers are waiting!