Tricks of the Trade: Diction–Finding the Best Words

The next trick of the trade is one that seems obvious, but it’s one that many new writers do not consciously practice when they write and revise: diction (also called word choice).

The key to effective diction is to search consciously for the best, most specific word. However, the best word isn’t necessarily mean the longest, fanciest word. (That’s an error my freshman students often make–they sacrifice their natural prose in attempts to sound “smart” or “intellectual.”) Oftentimes, the best word is a short but specific one. Choose nouns that include adjectives, and use verbs that include adverbs. Consider the following example:

to run swiftly = to sprint

Think about what the verb sprint means: it includes both the verb run and the adverb swiftly. Instead of using the vague verb run and then adding an adverb to it for more specific meaning, just begin with a more vivid, specific verb, like sprint.

Likewise, avoid vague nouns like thing, and avoid overusing do as your main action verb. Use specific language to paint a clear picture of your precise ideas in the mind of your reader. When discussing people, avoid overusing vague words like person and one. Unless you are discussing some universal type of person (a very rare occurrence), find a more specific type of person than the word person. (Note: I will share a list of frequently overused vague words in an upcoming diction article.)

Consider this example. Notice how dull the sentence is:

One should try to use the most specific diction to best transmit thoughts to another person.

Note the two vague people-nouns, marked in red:

One should try to use the most specific diction to best transmit thoughts to another person.

Now replace those vague nouns with specific nouns. This is what we are really trying to express:

The new writer should try to use the most specific diction to best transmit thoughts to the reader.

Now, let’s make it even more vivid by using even more descriptive nouns and verbs, and by adding adjectives where they are most effective:

The novice writer should strive to use the most specific diction to best transmit pinpointed, vivid thoughts to the reader. (Now we’re cooking!)

Don’t Overuse Adjectives and Adverbs

Now, while adjectives and adverbs can be very helpful, do not overuse such descriptors in an attempt to make your writing more descriptive or vivid. At times—perhaps simply as a matter of practice—challenge yourself not to use them at all. They will, of course, sneak in from time to time, but give it your best shot. The key is not to force them.

At this point, you are probably asking, “But why avoid descriptive words? Shouldn’t I be descriptive in my writing?”

It’s a good question, to be sure. Here’s the key: Adjectives and adverbs are not the only descriptive words we can use. Nouns and verbs are also descriptive. In fact, the best nouns and verbs are self-descriptive, and they are better at describing themselves than adjectives and adverbs. In other words, these nouns and verbs have built-in adjectives (for nouns) and adverbs (for verbs). The description is in the word itself.

You’ve probably had enough of the theory, so here is an example of a weak adjective-noun construction:

Bill realized at that moment that he could not drive in for the slam dunk because of the large man standing guard under the net. (adjective-noun construction marked in red)

The diction above is weak because the writer is using an adjective (large) to add flavor and detail to a vague, non-descriptive noun (man). Instead of trying to dress up a boring noun with outside description, why not just change the noun itself? For example, consider this improvement:

Bill realized at that moment that he could not drive in for the slam dunk because of the giant standing guard under the net. (giant = large + man)

And now we have even more choices. What are other words that can mean “large man” in this sentence? Here are a few:

colossus, monster, hulk, tower, beast, tower of a man, etc.

See how that works? Use vivid nouns that contain their own descriptions. Oh, and here’s one more point: Have fun with it!

Let’s go further down this rabbit hole by applying this same way of thinking to adverb-verb constructions. Here’s an example:

Seeing the futility of driving in for a dunk, Bill deceptively stepped back and then carefully took a shot from twenty feet away. (adverb-verb constructions marked in red)

Now, how about this:

Seeing the futility of driving in for a dunk, Bill popped a fade-away from twenty feet away. (Now we’re cooking!)

Now, from here we can add any additional adjectives and adverbs if we really need them. For example, I might use an adverb to show Bill’s intentions and way of thinking:

Seeing the futility of driving in for a dunk, Bill cleverly popped a fade-away from twenty feet away. (Now we’re cooking with fire!)

The key is that I did not add an adverb to a vague verb. I took an already vivid verb and qualified it even further. Likewise, always choose a descriptive, specific noun before adding any adjectives, and make sure that those adjectives are really necessary before you add them.

Next Up:

Revising for Word Choice: A Working Method

“It looks easy enough,” you might be thinking. “But you just make diction look easy with those examples. What am I to do when I am sitting in front of my computer, trying to find the best words? What if they don’t come to me when I’m writing?”

Fret not, dear reader: the next article shares a step-by-step working method for improving diction in any piece of writing. Trust me: you’ll want to read this one!

  • Revision for Word Choice: A Working Method (I will post this article soon.)

Christopher Altman is passionate about bringing the art of effective writing to everyday Americans. In addition to writing this blog, Mr. Christopher AltmanAltman produces and hosts The Writer’s Toolbox Podcast, and he is currently developing a number of book projects that examine the role of language in popular media and everyday life. His book, Myths We Learned in Grade School English, explores how adult writers can overcome the false writing rules learned in childhood. When he is not writing or teaching, Mr. Altman enjoys grilling out and savoring the mild summers of Central New York, where he is a professor of English at Onondaga Community College (Syracuse, NY).

Beyond Commas: Replacing Commas with Dashes and Parentheses

If you find that a sentence seems overburdened with commas, try using other forms of punctuation that set things off (like parentheses, dashes, and colons—but only where appropriate).

Consider the first sentence of this article. What if I had expressed every pause with commas, as in the sentence below?

If you find that a sentence looks overburdened with commas, try using other forms of punctuation that set things off, like parentheses, dashes, and colons, but only where appropriate.

So many commas! Like mobs of traders scrambling over the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, these commas create an environment of clutter and confusion. Each comma performs its own task, but through doing so, these commas collide with one another and disrupt the clarity of the sentence—ruining the very effect that commas should evoke. This overabundance of overlapping commas can leave readers confused. In cases like the one above, I consider ways that I can use other forms of punctuation to make the various divisions clear and distinct. (See the first version of my sentence—much better, isn’t it?)

Punctuation Changes Tone

While dashes and parentheses are great techniques for preventing comma confusion, be careful to use the best form of punctuation for the tone you are trying to express. Choosing parentheses over commas is not an arbitrary decision—a random replacement in which you say, “Those parentheses look nice here. What the heck?—I’ll pop one in, just because.” Though very similar to commas when setting off tangential interrupting phrases, parentheses and dashes each serve their own distinct roles in writing.

Here is a brief breakdown of how these forms of punctuation serve unique roles in setting off interrupting or modifying phrases in sentences:

Parentheses: Set off the interrupting phrase in a subtle tone (as if the writer is whispering an inside scoop into the reader’s ear).

Dashes: Set off the interrupting phrase in a spontaneous, almost exclamatory tone—the opposite of parentheses.

If parentheses are subtle and quiet, while dashes are spontaneous and loud, you might think of commas as neutral. They emphasize the words and phrases they set off, but they do so in a calm yet firm tone. With the appearance of a comma there is often a slight drop in pitch, but the overall tone remains neutral.

Consider these forms of punctuation in terms of the scale below:

Punctuation                                      Volume                                    Mood

Dash: exclaimed (almost)                      Loud                                         Bold

Comma: spoken normally                  Neutral                                        Calm

Parentheses: whispered                       Quiet                                    Intimate

Through adding dashes and parentheses to your punctuation toolbox, you can write with a greater range of tones and moods. The writing will no longer have a monotone, “Ben Stein” sound to it. (If you don’t know who Ben Stein is, he is best known for his role as the dull, monotone teacher in the 80s cult classic, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. I can hear him now, calling for the absent Ferris: “Bueller . . . Bueller . . .  Bueller? . . .”) Most of us do not speak like Stein’s character—so why would we want to write like that? (I sure don’t!) Developing a diverse range of punctuation techniques is the key to avoiding that dull, flat monotone.

Next Up: An Analogy for Punctuation and Tone in Writing

In my time teaching, I have developed a visual-art analogy for creating a range of tones in writing. Want to learn more? (You know you do–and you also know that you’re hopelessly addicted to my blog.) Here’s the link to that article:

Christopher Altman is passionate about bringing the art of effective writing to everyday Americans. In addition to writing this blog, Mr. Altman Christopher Altmanproduces and hosts The Writer’s Toolbox Podcast, and he is currently developing a number of book projects that examine the role of language in popular media and everyday life. His book, Myths We Learned in Grade School English, explores how adult writers can overcome the false writing rules learned in childhood. When he is not writing or teaching, Mr. Altman enjoys grilling out and savoring the mild summers of Central New York, where he is a professor of English at Onondaga Community College (Syracuse, NY).


Getting the Ellipsis Right

How to Write an Ellipsis

In addition to the many ways people misuse and misname the ellipsis, there is also some confusion regarding how to write an ellipsis, since it is made up of three periods. It’s simple: there should be a space between each period, and there should also be spaces before and after the entire ellipsis.

With that in mind, think of an ellipsis as being written this way:

space-dot-space-dot-space-dot-space

_._._._

Notice the spacing in the sentence we examined in a previous article:

I would have . . . let me see . . . well, about two dollars. (Correct Spacing)

Do you see the space after the verb have and the space before the word let? Those are the beginning and ending spaces. Notice also the space between each period. That is how to write an ellipsis.

Here is how many people botch the spacing of the ellipsis:

I would have…let me see…well, about two dollars. (Incorrect Spacing)

The (So-Called) Four-Dot Ellipsis

Some people abuse the poor ellipsis in yet another way: they write extremely long series of dots in attempts to show longer pauses. This is unnecessary–and . . . well . . . wrong! Others, unsure how to write the ellipsis, write four or even five dots, thinking that it represents a normal ellipsis. And, most often, such writers are unaware of the spacing. (Perhaps if they would insert the spaces, their ellipsis would indeed be longer, and they would not feel the need to . . . well, to compensate . . . for a lack of length.) Here is an example:

I would have……let me see……about ten dollars if I had a penny for every time I’ve seen a super-long (and super-wrong) ellipsis written. (Incorrect: Too Many Periods)

Now, I should mention that there are also cases where you may see what appears to be a four-dot ellipsis. For example, you may have noticed in past articles that I often end with the expression, “Stay tuned” (as if my blog is a television show!). Sometimes, if I want to give the reader a sense of waiting, I will end the “stay tuned” line with an ellipsis, like this:

To learn more, stay tuned for the next article. . . .

What is going on here? Why does this ellipsis have four dots?

Actually, the ellipsis doesn’t have four dots. What you see there is a perfectly healthy three-dot ellipsis, accompanied by a period to show end punctuation. Notice that the final sentence is a complete statement. The ellipsis shows that there is more to come after that statement. There is an intentional trailing off at the end of the sentence. It is there to leave the reader hanging. It says to the reader, “I will speak more on this point later. Stay tuned. (And now, although I have finished writing, I want you to keep waiting, as if my blog is all that matters in your life).”

Notice as well that the space before the ellipsis appears to be missing. While many grammar gods explain the ellipsis-period combination as an ellipsis followed by a period, I prefer to think of it as a period followed by an ellipsis. That order accounts for the lack of spacing before the (so-called) four-dot ellipsis.

What do I mean, you ask? Here is the conventional view of the ellipsis-period ending, with underlined periods to show the separation of punctuation:

Stay tuned. . . . (ellipsis followed by period: the spacing is irregular.)

Here is how I think of it:

Stay tuned. . . . (period followed by ellipsis: the spacing makes sense now.)

So, to return to our original example, here is the sentence without that cliffhanger ellipsis. Notice where the period is:

To learn more, stay tuned for the next article.

Now, if we add an ellipsis after the period, we have this:

To learn more, stay tuned for the next article. . . .

Also, this period-then-ellipsis perspective makes sense in terms of the order in which I am expressing my content. My cliffhanger ellipsis—my end hesitation—occurs after I have stated the full sentence. I show that cliffhanger effect by inserting the ellipsis after the period. There is a sentence, then a period, and then finally a trailing off.

In spoken conversation, we might show this end-sentence cliffhanger by the tone in which we end a statement, accompanied by a lingering, ironic, or even stern look that we leave with our listeners. For example, when I conclude a class session, I will often look directly at two or three students after I make my last statement. That look says, “I want you to remember that idea—not just for the final exam, but for the rest of your life.” (All good teachers know that look, and they use it regularly.) In writing, that look is best represented by the ellipsis. That is the look I give my readers after the cliffhanger sentence above. It says, “Hold this thought until the next article.”

What’s the Right Name? Is it Ellipsis and Ellipses?

You may have noticed that I have been using two terms in these ellipsis articles: ellipsis and ellipses. Which one is correct?

It depends. Ellipsis is the singular and ellipses is the plural. Also, each set of three dots counts as one ellipsis.

Check it out:

Chris hounds . . . I mean, challenges his students about their use of the ellipsis. (This sentence has one ellipsis.)

Wow, Chris, you are . . . for lack of a better word . . . a real nitpicker when it comes to people getting the ellipsis right. (This sentence has two ellipses.)

Here’s a related fun fact:

This –es versus –is ending is also true for the punctuation terms parentheses and parenthesis:

( ←This is a parenthesis (singular)

( ) ←These are parentheses (plural)

Well, that’s it for the ellipsis. Next up is another punctuation technique that is often misnamed: the hyphen. Stay tuned. . . .

Christopher Altman is passionate about bringing the art of effective writing to everyday Americans. In addition to writing this blog, Mr. Christopher AltmanAltman produces and hosts The Writer’s Toolbox Podcast, and he is currently developing a number of book projects that examine the role of language in popular media and everyday life. His book, Myths We Learned in Grade School English, explores how adult writers can overcome the false writing rules learned in childhood. When he is not writing or teaching, Mr. Altman enjoys grilling out and savoring the mild summers of Central New York, where he is a professor of English at Onondaga Community College (Syracuse, NY).

The Overworked and Misnamed Ellipsis: Two Functions

The ellipsis is one of the most misused punctuation tools. To make matters worse, it is also the most frequently misnamed punctuation symbol.

Imagine for a moment that you are the poor ellipsis. First, people force you to do a bunch of jobs that don’t even remotely fit your job description, then they proceed to call you by the wrong name, or they just forget your name altogether: “Thanks for cleaning out that clogged sewer line; it must have been hard, since you were wearing that tie. Anyway, I really appreciate it, and I look forward to you doing it again next month. Hey–what’s your name again? I can never remember it. How about this: I’ll just call you Sewer Guy in a Tie, since that’s what you look like.”

The poor ellipsis: it must endure this treatment every day. When I speak to friends or students about the ellipsis, I am met with a confused look. I make sure to clarify, and by now I’ve memorized the line:

“Oh, an ellipsis is the three dots or periods you see when someone shows a hesitation in writing. You know: the dot-dot-dot symbol.”

“Oh yeah—I see! I’ve just always called it three dots. Is that the name?–Eclipsis? . . .”

“No, it’s the ellipsis. There’s no k sound.”

If only I had a nickel for every time I’ve had this conversation. I would have . . . let me see . . . well, about two dollars. Still, that’s a good many nickels!

So, to begin with, let’s get the name right. It’s not eclipse. (And, please, dear reader, no Jacob-or-Edward jokes.) It’s not three periods. And it’s certainly not dot-dot-dot. It’s the ellipsis. Spread the word.

What the Ellipsis Does (Two Functions)

More important than knowing the name is knowing how to use the ellipsis. Many novice writers overuse this punctuation tool when they should use dashes, commas, parentheses, and even periods. They use it to show a sudden shift in thought (but that should be a dash). They use it to show a short pause (when they should use a comma). They even use it to show the completion of a statement–the very opposite of what an ellipsis represents! (And, for those who don’t know, we show the completion of a statement with the simplest punctuation symbol of them all: the period.)

So, what exactly does the ellipsis do? Essentially, the ellipsis serves two functions:

Ellipsis Function 1: The ellipsis shows a substantial pause of hesitation, one that allows a writer to mimic a hesitation in speech. This hesitation can show uncertainty, irony, humor, and other effects.

A good example is the sentence I wrote a bit earlier:

If only I had a nickel for every time I’ve had this conversation. I would have . . . let me see . . . well, about two dollars. Still, that’s a good many nickels!

The first ellipsis shows that I am rethinking my calculation. The second ellipsis shows that I am hesitating because I do not want to say that the total is (a mere) two dollars. Commas, while they do show pauses, would not show enough of a hesitation to express my uncertainty. Dashes—while they do show spontaneous shifts in thought—would be too sudden and assertive. I need a soft lingering, a moment to beat around the bush and to show embarrassment (even if it’s feigned). That’s the ellipsis!

Ellipsis Function 2: The ellipsis shows an omission of words, usually within a quotation. It says, “There is more here in the original words I am quoting, but I am leaving those words out to save space or to cut to the chase on my point. If you want to see all the words used, please feel free to look at the original source (which, of course, I’ve documented for you in my ‘Works Cited’ section, since I want you to check out the good stuff I’ve been reading and quoting).”

You can also use an ellipsis to show the omission of items from a very long list when you do not need to name all the items in the list to get your point across. Just be careful not to manipulate your omissions so as to change the meaning of the original quote (a subtle linguistic deception we see often in advertising and in the news media). While efficiency and concision are important, stay true to the original writer’s message.

Logically enough, I call this function an ellipsis of omission. It is not a stylistic use of the ellipsis, but one that writers use to stay true to their original texts while saving time and space. Here’s an example of an ellipsis of omission:

First, here is the full text from the quote:

MLK, in his momentous “I Have a Dream” speech, proclaimed, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

And here is how a writer might omit elements to save space or to get to the point:

MLK, in his momentous “I Have a Dream” speech, proclaimed, “I have a dream that my four little children . . . will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

See how that works?

Next Up:

Avoiding Ellipsis Confusion: Placing the Ellipsis in Brackets

This article has discussed the two functions of the ellipsis:

Function 1: show a stylistic hesitation within writing (stylistic ellipsis)

Function 2: show an omission of language from a quotation (ellipsis of omission)

But what happens if these two functions collide? What happens if I am omitting language from a quotation that has preexisting stylistic ellipses? How can I show the reader that some of those ellipses are mine while others are the ellipses of the original writer I’m quoting? The next article explains precisely how to make that differentiation. Stay tuned!

Works Cited

King, Martin Luther. “I Have a Dream.” Lincoln Memorial, Washington, D.C. 28 Aug. 1963. American Rhetoric: Top 100 Speeches. 10 July. 2010 <http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/mlkihaveadream.htm&gt;

Christopher Altman is passionate about bringing the art of effective writing to everyday Americans. In addition to writing this blog, Mr. Christopher AltmanAltman produces and hosts The Writer’s Toolbox Podcast, and he is currently developing a number of book projects that examine the role of language in popular media and everyday life. His book, Myths We Learned in Grade School English, explores how adult writers can overcome the false writing rules learned in childhood. When he is not writing or teaching, Mr. Altman enjoys grilling out and savoring the mild summers of Central New York, where he is a professor of English at Onondaga Community College (Syracuse, NY).

Beyond Commas: Replacing Commas with Dashes and Parentheses

If you find that a sentence seems overburdened with commas, try using other forms of punctuation that set things off (like parentheses, dashes, and colons—but only where appropriate).

Consider the first sentence of this article. What if I had expressed every pause with commas, as in the sentence below?

If you find that a sentence looks overburdened with commas, try using other forms of punctuation that set things off, like parentheses, dashes, and colons, but only where appropriate.

So many commas! Like mobs of traders scrambling over the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, these commas create an environment of clutter and confusion. Each comma performs its own task, but through doing so, these commas collide with one another and disrupt the clarity of the sentence—ruining the very effect that commas should evoke. This overabundance of overlapping commas can leave readers confused. In cases like the one above, I consider ways that I can use other forms of punctuation to make the various divisions clear and distinct. (See the first version of my sentence—much better, isn’t it?)

Punctuation Changes Tone

While dashes and parentheses are great techniques for preventing comma confusion, be careful to use the best form of punctuation for the tone you are trying to express. Choosing parentheses over commas is not an arbitrary decision—a random replacement in which you say, “Those parentheses look nice here. What the heck?—I’ll pop one in, just because.” Though very similar to commas when setting off tangential interrupting phrases, parentheses and dashes each serve their own distinct roles in writing.

Here is a brief breakdown of how these forms of punctuation serve unique roles in setting off interrupting or modifying phrases in sentences:

Parentheses: Set off the interrupting phrase in a subtle tone (as if the writer is whispering an inside scoop into the reader’s ear).

Dashes: Set off the interrupting phrase in a spontaneous, almost exclamatory tone—the opposite of parentheses.

If parentheses are subtle and quiet, while dashes are spontaneous and loud, you might think of commas as neutral. They emphasize the words and phrases they set off, but they do so in a calm yet firm tone. With the appearance of a comma there is often a slight drop in pitch, but the overall tone remains neutral.

Consider these forms of punctuation in terms of the scale below:

Punctuation                                      Volume                                    Mood

Dash: exclaimed (almost)                      Loud                                         Bold

Comma: spoken normally                  Neutral                                        Calm

Parentheses: whispered                       Quiet                                    Intimate

Through adding dashes and parentheses to your punctuation toolbox, you can write with a greater range of tones and moods. The writing will no longer have a monotone, “Ben Stein” sound to it. (If you don’t know who Ben Stein is, he is best known for his role as the dull, monotone teacher in the 80s cult classic, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. I can hear him now, calling for the absent Ferris: “Bueller . . . Bueller . . .  Bueller? . . .”) Most of us do not speak like Stein’s character—so why would we want to write like that? (I sure don’t!) Developing a diverse range of punctuation techniques is the key to avoiding that dull, flat monotone.

Next Up: An Analogy for Punctuation and Tone in Writing

In my time teaching, I have developed a visual-art analogy for creating a range of tones in writing. Want to learn more? (You know you do–and you also know that you’re hopelessly addicted to my blog.) Here’s the link to that article:

Christopher Altman is passionate about bringing the art of effective writing to everyday Americans. In addition to writing this blog, Mr. Altman Christopher Altmanproduces and hosts The Writer’s Toolbox Podcast, and he is currently developing a number of book projects that examine the role of language in popular media and everyday life. His book, Myths We Learned in Grade School English, explores how adult writers can overcome the false writing rules learned in childhood. When he is not writing or teaching, Mr. Altman enjoys grilling out and savoring the mild summers of Central New York, where he is a professor of English at Onondaga Community College (Syracuse, NY).


The Writer’s Toolbox: Introduction

Welcome to The Writer’s Toolbox!

I share these blogs on writing in hopes that they will prove helpful to anyone who might be curious about the nitty-gritty details of writing. I write for those who are unsure of themselves as writers and for who view writing as a chore—a necessary evil of surviving in this Information Age, where we are so often required to take up our pens (or keyboards) to compose memos, essays, e-mails, and letters.

But effective writing goes far beyond the ability to engage in necessary, mundane correspondences. Writing is the stuff democracies are made of. And it’s much more than that: it’s one of the qualities that make us human. The more we develop our writing, the more we develop as people. This knowledge should not be limited to colleges and universities. It’s for everyone. With that thought in mind, I feel that my mission as an English educator extends beyond the four walls of my classroom, where I will reach about twenty-five people per section. My responsibility is to share with anyone who is interested in learning more about the art of writing.

So read, write—and enjoy.

Why Learn the Rules?

Writing is a lot like chess.

Like novice chess players, inexperienced writers do not know for certain that the decisions they make are the right ones. Unsure how to proceed, they simply guess. A writer, for example, who is unsure whether to use a semicolon or a comma to combine two sentences must end up taking a blind stab at it. It becomes a fifty-fifty guess, a leap of faith, one that will make the writer look either skilled and knowledgeable, or clumsy and ignorant. In the same way that the novice chess player sighs, “Well . . . I guess I’ll move my rook forward and just hope it works out,” so too does the novice writer resign himself to the fickle hand of fate.

Other novices take a different approach to the chess game of writing. They play it safe. This cautious, play-it-safe writer—although she would like to combine the two closely related sentences—is unsure how to do it. So, instead of taking that chance on writing the best sentence, she backs down and sticks with what she knows: she separates the two sentences with a period. The writer is not happy with it, but she knows that it’s “grammatically correct.” The play-it-safe writer settles for less than her best, while the unfortunate reader is left with disconnected, choppy prose.

The experienced writer, though, knows how and when to make even the most complex moves. She knows how to combine sentences—and she does so with full confidence. (In fact, she knows about five or six ways to combine any given set of sentences—and all of these possibilities are at her disposal.) Through mastering the real rules of writing, the experienced writer liberates herself from the chains of those pseudo-rules that are so often forced upon students in grade school English.

Contrary to popular perceptions, those who know the rules of grammar and mechanics are not the ones who are bound by them. The ones who are bound are those who do not know the rules. They are bound by their uncertainty and by the many false rules that they learned about writing at an early age. Perhaps recalling bad experiences in past English courses, these people have been scared, quite literally, out of their wits. I am writing this blog to free such writers so that they can compose the sentences that reflect the dreams, ideas, and assertions that they want—and need—to express.

The first step to liberating your writing is to develop what I call a writer’s toolbox—a set of essential writing techniques that the writer can call upon at any time. In the same way that a carpenter works with many more tools than a hammer and a saw, so too should the writer work with more tools than the period and the question mark. With every technique you add to your toolbox, both your confidence and your eloquence will increase. You will write a memo to your boss with confidence. You will be certain that you used commas in all the right places. You will know when you make your readers laugh. In short, you will know that your writing is effective: that it will achieve your goals. At that point, writing will no longer be a chore; it will be a pleasure—or, at least, an invigorating challenge.

Up to this point, I have been discussing the rules of writing, but really I prefer to talk about practices instead of rules. To find out more about the practices of writing, read on by clicking the link below:

Effective Writing Practices: More Important Than Rules

If you are interested in skipping to subject-specific article series, feel free to visit these links to begin reading. (Note: These articles will be added over time. The links may not be available today. Stay tuned.)


Christopher Altman is passionate about bringing the art of effective writing to Christopher Altmaneveryday Americans. In addition to writing this blog, Mr. Altman produces and hosts The Writer’s Toolbox Podcast, and he is currently developing a number of book projects that examine the role of language in popular media and everyday life. His book, Myths We Learned in Grade School English, explores how adult writers can overcome the false writing rules learned in childhood. When he is not writing or teaching, Mr. Altman enjoys grilling out and savoring the mild summers of Central New York, where he is a professor of English at Onondaga Community College (Syracuse, NY).

 

Welcome (Back) to The Writer’s Toolbox!

Hello friends,

You may remember my old blog, Writer’s Toolbox, which later became known as Words on Words. The blog began when a friend who found value in my ramblings had given me space on his site to begin posting my blogs.

And post I did! I posted on a variety of writing topics, from comma use to effective word choices. My target audience was the everyday non-academic simply looking to improve written communication skills, but who might also be looking to see matters like grammar and punctuation demystified and made applicable. Writer’s Toolbox did just that. Friends were reading–and learning.

But things soon changed for me . . . and for Writer’s Toolbox. A few months after beginning Writer’s Toolbox, I found myself teaching at a new college, living in a new city, and embracing many new patterns in my life, all of which made me very busy. I put Writer’s Toolbox on the shelf, for a time.

That time is over. As I have continued to teach, I have continued to develop more material for the blog. I have decided to step out on my own by creating my own WordPress account so that I can have full control over the blog, the format, the postings, and such other technical matters.

I want to emphasize that I am not stepping out on my own due to any hard feelings. In fact, I want to thank my friend, Will Nesbitt, who gave me my start–and who encouraged me to begin posting this blog in the first place. Will, your encouragement and kindness have made all the difference. Thank you.

To express further gratitude, I would like to share a word (or two) about my friend. Mr. Nesbitt is a realtor in the Northern Virginia area. He owns Nesbitt Realty, LLC, and he has had a hand (or two) in many other successful projects, from real estate to publishing.

Click the link below to learn more about Mr. Nesbitt and his many endeavors.

http://condo-alexandria.com/about/will-nesbitt/

Welcome to The Writer’s Toolbox! Topics covered include comma use, advanced punctuation techniques, writing strategy, word choices, and others still. Stay tuned!

Best,

Chris

Christopher Altman is passionate about bringing the art of effective writing to Christopher Altmaneveryday Americans. In addition to writing this blog, Mr. Altman produces and hosts The Writer’s Toolbox Podcast, and he is currently developing a number of book projects that examine the role of language in popular media and everyday life. His book, Myths We Learned in Grade School English, explores how adult writers can overcome the false writing rules learned in childhood. When he is not writing or teaching, Mr. Altman enjoys grilling out and savoring the mild summers of Central New York, where he is a professor of English at Onondaga Community College (Syracuse, NY).