Meet Ailsa Campbell. Ailsa is a great grandmother of an editor (pun intended): she’s been teaching English longer than many of us have been alive. Needless to say she knows a thing or two about writing well.
Here are Campbell’s top tips for becoming a better writer.
1. Get your homophones right.
“Homophone” sounds like an alien word, but you use homophones every day, and often incorrectly.
Homophones are words that sound the same (homo—same, phone—speech sound) but have different meanings. Here are some common homophones that bloggers get wrong.
- compliment—to praise (e.g., when you tell your partner that he or she looks great)
- complement—to balance, set off or add to: Red wine complements Italian food.
- right—the opposite of left
- rite—ritual or ceremony
- write—putting pen to paper
- effect—(most commonly a noun) end result or consequence: The breakup of the marriage had the effect of driving him to drink.
- affect—(most commonly a verb) impact: The drought affected local farmers.
- descent—plunge, fall or ancestry: Humans trace their descent from apes.
- dissent—disagreement, opposition or dispute: Some people express their dissent to the idea that humans descended from apes … and are quite right—humans and apes are descended from a common ancestor.
- dependent—reliant on: The answer to the second question was highly dependent on the answer to the first.
- dependant—a person who depends on others: The poor guy has 13 dependants. (Note that this term is mainly used in British English; American English accepts “dependent” for both spellings.)
Ensure that you are using the right homophone.
2. Understand terse phrases.
Terse phrases are short punchy sentences to give your writing a sense of urgency. For example:
Favreau was blown away. How did this guy pull off such a feat? Was there anything this man couldn’t do?
“Using them in groups of three,” explains Ailsa, “as in the example above, gives a great sense of build-up.
“If you listen to Barack Obama, who is one of the greatest orators of the day, you will notice he often uses groups of three. This is not chance. He has studied it and worked at it.
“The use of three terse phrases was an oratorical trick taught by the ancient Greeks, to capture the audience’s attention and reinforce a point without making it tedious. Apply it to writing, too.”
3. Know how to use contractions to bring your writing to life.
In the publishing world, using informal abbreviations and contractions (weren’t, aren’t, can’t, etc.) signifies a very informal type of writing. Contractions are not acceptable in, for example, a serious article about current affairs. They sound sloppy.
Even in less-formal writing, they are better avoided unless you specifically want to sound “chatty.”
Where contractions are useful, however, is in quotes and dialogue or when you are giving someone’s thoughts. The use of contractions in dialogue allows the character’s voice to come through, which is a great way to bring your writing to life.
Consider the sentence, “They couldn’t put a finger on it, but there was something about Mike.” The shortened form is very good here, because you are giving their thoughts—less formal language is right.
4. Do not put an “a” in front of numeric values.
Do not say, “a 127 people chose option b,” or that “the suit cost a $100.” Just say, “127 people chose option b,” or “the suit cost $100.”
Also be mindful when writing monetary values. Do not write “$100 dollars,” just keep it to “$100.” You have already said “dollars” by using the sign $.
5. Know how to use apostrophes.
What is wrong with the sentences below?
- He was selling chocolates to the participant’s.
- The Lindt’s were a better choice.
- Vast majority of Australian residents already had HD TV’s and little content to view on them.
- They were a well-known group in the 1960’s.
Answer: The apostrophe is incorrectly used in place of a plural. It should be participants, Lindts, TVs, and 1960s.
There are two uses for the apostrophe—in shortened forms, indicating a verb (it’s, couldn’t) and in possessives (Age of Marketing is Basanti’s brainchild).
What should we do when a possessive is also a plural?
The participants’ job was to choose between two options.
Here the participant is a plural and a possessive, so you place the apostrophe after the “s.” If the participant was singular, you would place it before the “s.”
Of all the mistakes, this one seems by far the most important to Ailsa, as is evidenced by her comment, “Dammit—if you don’t stop using apostrophes when you mean plurals, I shall murder you.” In her defense, I did get that wrong a lot.
It is these minor distinctions that, as Ailsa likes to say, “separate the sheep from the goats.” Get them right, and your writing will be more fluent and engaging. Get them wrong, and you will look silly, sloppy, and uneducated—not how you want your readers to see you.
Do you make any of these common mistakes in your writing?
Aman Basanti writes about the psychology of buying and teaches you how you can use the principles of consumer psychology to boost your sales. Visit Ageofmarketing.com to get his new ebook—Marketing to the Pre-Historic Mind: How the Hot New Science of Behavioural Economics Can Help You Boost Your Sales—for free.