Sunday, May 1, 2011

Writing Dos & Don'ts

by Vivian Zabel

            The following writing tips have become mine through study and usage, but they are based on techniques advocated by English textbooks, creative writing books, composition books, and various published authors and other experts in the field of writing.

            The list of tips is broken into two parts: Things that should be done, and the things that should not be done, many reinforcing the things to do.

DO the following

1. Do use first or third person when writing. Second person should be used only when writing directions or in dialogue.

Example of third person: "Roger grabbed his suitcase off the rack."
Example of second person: "You grabbed your suitcase off the rack."
Example of first person: "I grabbed my suitcase off the rack."

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2. Do experiment with a variety of sentence beginnings. The following list gives some different ways to begin a sentence:

 A. Subject followed by adjective
      Example: Curtains, lacy and white, ruffled in the breeze.

B. Adverb
    Example: Lazily, the toy duck floated in the tub.

C. Prepositional phrase
    Example: Behind the tree, the two boys giggled as they hid.

D. Subordinate adverbial clause
     Example: When she saw the knife in his hand, she screamed.

E. Adjective
    Example: Lively curls tumbled around her face.

F. Present participle
    Example: Laughing, the man felt more relaxed than he had in a long time.

G. Past participle
    Example: Frightened, the little girl started crying.

H. Infinitive
    Example: To find the truth, Margery vowed she would search wherever needed.

I. Absolute phrase
    Example: Her hands shaking from the cold, the woman dropped the valuable vase.

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3. Do remember and use the seven C’s of composition:

Clarity - the writing is clear, lucid

Coherence - parts of the writing "stick" together, are connected

Completeness - no parts are missing, has a beginning, middle, and end

Conciseness - condensed, brief, no extra, unneeded padding

Concreteness - solid, united

Continuity - continues in sequence or order

Correctness - rightness, rectification of errors, revised without errors

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4. Do use the writing process: brainstorm, organize, support; write rough draft, revise, rewrite until work is error-free and clearly communicates your ideas; do final write for publication, assignment, or posting.

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5. Do use correct sentence structure (avoiding run-on sentences and sentence fragments) and a good variety of sentence types (simple, compound, complex, compound-complex).

 Examples of run-on sentences;
          The boy ran into the house and he called for his mother. (A comma after house would correct this sentence.)
          The boy ran into the house, he called for his mother. (This run-on is also called a comma splice. To correct this error, a coordinating conjunction such as "and" must be added after the comma.) 

Examples of sentence fragment:
          Called for his mother.
          Since the phone rang.

Examples of sentence types:
Simple: The dog chased his tail but never caught it. (One set of subject and verb with a complete thought called an independent clause)
Compound: The dog chased his tail, and he caught it. (Two or more independent clauses, joined correctly)
Complex: With his hand held out in supplication, the man begged for help. {One independent clause - the man begged for help - and one or more dependent clauses [has subject and verb, but without a complete thought] - with his hand held out in supplication)
Compound-complex: With his hand held out in supplication, the man begged for help, but he never said a word. (Two or more independent clauses joined correctly and one or more dependent clauses)

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6. Do use correct spelling and a variety of correctly used words (increase your vocabulary). Use spell check, dictionary, Google (search engine at ) and a thesaurus. Check for words that sound the same but have different meanings so that the correct word is used. (Examples: it's and its; your and you're; their, there, and they're). Use synonyms for overused words, but be sure the synonym "fits" the way you use it in a sentence.

         Spell all right correctly.  All right is always two words, just as all wrong is two words.

         Distinguish between which and that:
A. Which is used with non-necessary clauses. Example: The book, which sits on the table, has a red cover.
B. That is used with necessary clauses. Example: The book that I need has been taken from the library.

         Distinguish between sit and set
A. Sit means to perch, to be situated, and it doesn't have a direct object.
B. Set means to place, and it has a direct object.

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7. Do use correct pronouns and correct pronoun references. Also avoid using a vague “it.” It as a pronoun should refer to a singular noun or indefinite pronoun (such as anything) used previously and closely to the pronoun.

           Example of incorrect pronoun usage: Does anyone have their paperwork completed? (Anyone is singular while their is plural.) To correct this sentence, we need to either use a plural antecedent or change their to his or her.

          Another example of incorrect pronoun usage: Mary gave gifts to John and I. (I is the object of the preposition to and must be the object form me.)

          Another example of incorrect usage of I: This idea is between you and I. (Should be you and me because between is a preposition, too.)

          Example of vague "it": It was a beautiful day. Rewriting avoids the vague "it": The sun shone brightly, creating a beautiful day. (The revision also avoids the use of a state-of-being verb and uses an action verb. It also tells the reader what "beautiful" means.)

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8. Do use correct punctuation and capitalization, even in poetry. 

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9. Do have <b>correct subject/verb agreement.

          Example of incorrect subject/verb agreement: One of the children have forgotten the date. (One is the subject.)

          Example of correct subject/verb agreement: One of the children has forgotten the date.

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10. Do have unity, coherence, and organization in all writing.

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11. Do use correct sentence beginnings. Unless used in dialogue, certain words are not strong sentence starters. Coordinating conjunctions (such as and, nor, but, or), there, that, and this (unless used as adjectives before a subject) and well should be avoided.

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12. Do make all work believable and understandable to the audience (your readers). You need to know to whom you are writing, who will be reading your work.

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13. Do use active voice most of the time in writing. Passive voice is to be used seldom and only when it cannot be avoided, because passive voice many times destroys accountability and lacks interest.

          In active voice, the subject is doing the acting. "The boy hit the ball."

          In passive voice, the subject receives the action. "The ball was hit by the boy."

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14. Do use vivid action verbs with few state-of-being verbs.

          Example of state-of-being verb usage: Everyone is very happy about the birth of a baby.

          Example of action verb: The birth of a baby delights everyone.

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15. Do keep verb tenses consistent.

          Example of inconsistent verb tense: I wanted to go with him to town, but he wants me to stay home and wash dishes.

          Example of consistent verb tense: I wanted to to go with him to town, but he wanted me to stay home and wash dishes.

NOTE: In both sentences, "to wash" is understood.

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16. Do write numbers under 100 as words. For journalistic articles only, write numbers under 10 as words.

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17. Do reread final copy of material before posting or submitting. If any problems or errors exist, revise and correct.

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18. Do practice to improve proof reading skills: read slowly and read aloud; examine each line; be aware of usual errors; check dictionary; have a friend check your writing; read the material backwards to catch spelling errors and see things you might miss because you've read it often.

DON’T do the following

1. Don’t use second person unless giving directions or in dialogue.

          Example of incorrect use of second person: The crowd moved toward the doors of the auditorium. You could see the panic starting to build.

          Example of corrected sentences: The crowd moved toward the doors of the auditorium. Anyone watching could see the panic starting to build.

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2. Don’t write a rough draft expecting someone else to edit or revise it for you. If the writing is yours, then you edit, revise, proofread, and rewrite before allowing someone else to edit or proofread.

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3. Don’t switch verb tenses unless the time frame of your writing has changed.

          Example of switching tenses: The young man looked at the steaming food as his stomach growls.

          Correct tenses: The young man looked at the steaming food as his stomach growled.

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4. Don’t use incorrect sentence structure or use short, choppy sentences (The only exception for using short, choppy sentences is when using briefly for effect, such as showing a fast pace).

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5. Don’t misspell or misuse words. Use a thesaurus to find the "right" word to "fit" what you write. Avoid overusing words and phrases. Stay away from cliches.

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6. Don’t use pronouns incorrectly. Don’t use I for the object of a preposition such as between, for, to, with, or others.

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7. Don’t use very many state-of-being verbs rather than vivid action verbs. State-of-being verbs can be used as helping verbs, but as helping verbs their purpose in a sentence is different, and even then should be used effectively and sparingly.
          Examples of helping verb: Mary was helping with the children. With her arm in a cast, Janene is fighting the urge to scratch.

         However, better usage would be as follows: Mary helped with the children. With her arm in a cast, Janene fought the urge to scratch. Then verbs are strong action verbs.

          Example of being used as a state-of-being verb: Mary is with the children. (Correction: Mary cares for the children.)

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8. Don’t use passive voice often, only when necessary to achieve a desired effect.

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9. Don’t start a sentence with well (unless in conversation), there, this, or that (other than as an adjective before a subject or in conversation), or with a coordinating conjunction such as and, but, or, nor. Once a writer know the rules, he may occasionally break them for effect.

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10. Don’t use the word so as a conjunction (except in dialogue or informally). Check to see if so that or therefore is what is needed instead. In more informal writing, the word so is sometimes used as a conjunction for effect. "So as to" should also be avoided.

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11. Don’t continue to make the same mistakes time after time. Improve each and every time you write. Learn from your previous mistakes. Everyone can improve his writing IF he learns from his mistakes and from the mistakes of others. Writing is a skill that can be learned with work, practice, and improvement.

Vivian Zabel  
4RV Publishing  
4RV Catalog  


  1. Great information, and something I have kept on my desktop. It is always wise to have these at hand for that time when you are in doubt about the correct form. Thanks, Vivian *:)

  2. Terrific tips, Vivian. I'm saving this one!

  3. Dear Vivian,
    These are great examples. Thanks for helping us stay alert and aware of good writing strategies.
    Joan Y. Edwards

  4. Glad to help. I used this very list for my students when I taught English.


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