Write with Intention Every Time

by Barbara McNichol

Much of the spoken language slides into our writing, but at times the words we say aren’t the exact fit for what we mean. Check your intention every time!

Consider these sentences from a manuscript about education:

  • How many principals do what they feel will win approval?
  • The public feels certain people shouldn’t be teaching.

Given the context, is “feel” the correct word to express the author’s meaning? No, because the essence of the intended meaning doesn’t come from an emotional “feeling” source. Rather, it comes from a profound conviction based on experience—a place of belief.

Replace “feeling” with the word “believe,” which involves caring about something. It implies a deeper kind of thinking—a mental activity that doesn’t necessarily have a sense of conviction. Because of this distinction, the better word choices would be:

  • How many principals do what they believe will win approval?
  • The public believes certain people shouldn’t be teaching.

writing with intentYour challenge: Question yourself when you select a commonly spoken word. Does it express the exact meaning based on its context? From now on, designate “feel” a red-flag word. Then replace it with “think” or “believe” or “hope” or another verb and reread your sentence. Is “feel” the most precise word to convey your intended meaning? If not, pause and find exactly the right one.

Unsure which of these verbs—feel, think, believe—to use in your own writing? For feedback on your sentence(s), request it here.

Should It Be One Word or Two? Request My One-Two List

by Barbara McNichol

As I was finalizing a manuscript I edited for a nonfiction author, I hired a proofreader to give it a final check. (I knew I’d read it too many times myself.) What she found humbled me. I thought I had a good handle on which phrases are customarily two words versus one (backyard—not back yard—comes to mind) but several surprised me.

My proofreader corrected these (verified on dictionary.com). Look familiar?•    rooflines (not roof lines)
•    safe-deposit box (not safe deposit box)
•    old-timers (not old timers)
•    carsick (not car sick)
•    safekeeping (not safe keeping)
•    autopilot (not auto pilot)
•    pocketknife (not pocket-knife)

So I’ve put together a cheat sheet I call my One-Two List to answer the question: Should it be one word or two? Instead of guessing, it’s easy to refer to this list I’ve compiled.

Request PDF with “One-Two List” in subject line.

What one word or two questions do you have? Ask them here.

Use Planner to Put Authors and Editors on Same Page

by Barbara McNichol (full article here

Through a blog post, I recently asked what worries nonfiction authors about the editing process. The insights gained can be helpful to any editor as well as the authors they work with.

I received the following array of answers from 40 authors who responded. Specifically, they want:

  • more than a clean up; they want a major step up in clarity.
  • support in thinking through the book’s organization before nitty-gritty editing begins.
  • their book editor to be tuned in to their objectives for the book, keeping them top-of-mind throughout the process.
  • their points made more succinctly and artistically and their stories told well.

As one author said, “An unedited piece can make my point but in a less elegant way than one that’s been edited.”

How Book Editors Can Learn More About What Authors Want

From the first contact with a client, I open a dialog through what I call a Planner—a questionnaire that focuses on the long-term goals for the book itself. Questions not only address the mechanics of editing but emphasize the author’s big-picture dreams. A few are:

  1. What successful books would be good models for yours?
  2. After people in your target audience have read this book, what do you want them to say about it? How would you like a testimonial to read?
  3. What actions do you want readers to take as a result of reading your book—both for their own benefit and for yours?
  4. What changes do you want to create in your life/business as a result of putting this book out into the world?
  5. Which results do you seek most in working with an editor (followed by a list for ranking)?

Request Planner to Start the Dialogue

Delivering on an Author’s Desires!

Whether you’re an author or an editor, don’t short-change the editing process and its value to you. Use a tool like my Planner to articulate exactly what you want from your editor.

To see how Barbara’s Planner can help you, go here.

Whack Extraneous Phrases in Your Writing

In their classic book The Elements of Style, Strunk and White called word clutter “the leeches that infest the pond of prose, sucking the blood out of Whack wordinesswords.”

You can start by eliminating extraneous phrases that clutter your writing. But which phrases can be “whacked”?

Consider taking out these extra phrases whenever you can:

  • “is intended to, meant to, designed to” e.g., He gives a workshop that is designed to teach writing skills. Better: He gives a workshop that teaches writing skills.
  • “it is all about”; “the fact of the matter is”; “the fact that”; “it’s important to remember that” e.g., The fact of the matter is that it’s unwise to go out carousing. Better: It’s unwise to go out carousing.
  • “in regard to” e.g., Seek additional websites in regard to your industry. Better: Seek additional websites in your industry.
  • “is going to” e.g., He is going to be a key contributor. Better: He will be a key contributor.
  • “in order to” e.g., Add key words in order to describe the new position. Better: Add key words to describe the new position.
  • “there is” and “there will be” e.g., There will be many managers attending the meeting. Better: Many managers will attend the meeting.
  • “the reason why is that . . .” A simple “because” will suffice.
  • “at this time” . . . Now!

To reinforce this, take something you wrote and circle any of these extraneous phrases. Challenge yourself to rework or remove them altogether. You may choose to keep some in, but at least you’ve asked the question: “Do I really need this phrase?” (You don’t need “really” here.)

Keep this list handy. What would you add to it? Comment here.

Whack Wordiness: Teleclass Handout

By Barbara McNichol for Words Matter Week, NAIWE, March 3, 2010 

As you revise, proofread, and finalize what you’ve written, whack all the extra words you can to sharpen your message in compelling ways.

Watch for the following opportunities to take away the bumps so your writing moves forward smoothly like a car accelerating on a on freeway.

 Aim to eliminate extraneous phrases such as:

  • “there is” and “there will be”

e.g., There will be many candidates who are already planning to move. Better: Many candidates may be already planning to move.

  • “It is all about”; “the fact of the matter is”; “the fact that”

e.g., The fact of the matter is that it’s unwise to go out carousing. Better: It’s unwise to go out carousing.

  • “in regards to”

e.g., There may be additional sites you should seek out in regards to your industry. Better:  Seek additional sites related to your industry.

  • “is going to”

e.g., He is going to be a key asset. Better: He will be a key asset.

  • “in order to”

e.g., Add key words in order to describe the new position. Better: Add key words to describe the new position.

  • is intended to, meant to, designed to”

e.g., Prescreening is intended to focus on key aspects of the position. Better: Prescreening focuses on key aspects of the position.

  •  “the reason why is that  . . .” (a simple “because” will suffice)

 Strunk and White, in their classic guide The Elements of Style, call such clutter “the leeches that infest the pond of prose, sucking the blood of words.”

 Take out these wobbly words whenever you can:

  • some  “We rely on some long-standing methods.”much “Jobs posted on the internet reach a much larger audience.”very  “Get ready to do a very good job.”quite a few “It’s been quite a few days since we spoke.” Be specific; use a number.

that  “Find information that you can apply easily.”

 Note: The word that doesn’t substitute for who when referring to a human being. E.g., “. . .  a person that plays the piano” should be “a person who plays the piano.”

 Knock out redundancies such as:

    • end result
    • add more
    • tally up
    • future plan
    • absolute guarantee
    • actual experience
    • adhesive tape
    • alongside of
    • ask yourself
    • at the present time
    • spell out in detail
    • sum total
    • sworn affidavit
    • unexpected surprise
    • visible to the eye

Think of these extra words as layers of onion skin before you get to the usable part. Peel them from your writing. – Diana Booher, Booher’s Rules of Business Grammar

 Replace phrases with single words where appropriate:

    • “a great number of” with “many”
    • “ahead of schedule” with “early”
    • “during the time that” with “while”
    • “give consideration to” with “consider”
    • “in spite of the fact that” with “although” 
  • Change nouns to verbs:
    • “the examination of” becomes “examine”
    • “reach a decision” becomes “decide”
    • “the transformation of” becomes “transform”
    • “the reorganization of” becomes “reorganize” 
  • Revise long-winded sentences:
    • Chop a long sentence into two – and make sure they both sound correct!
    • Combine thoughts and ideas when you can.
    • Question every single word – especially every adverb and adjective.
    • Take out the ones that don’t add to the meaning.  
  • Route out words that are inadvertently used twice:
    • “Following a process for hiring, we followed his techniques.”            Better:  “Following a process for hiring, we adopted his techniques.”
    • “Hoping for warm weather, we hoped to book our vacation in the south.” Better: “Hoping for warm weather, we booked our vacation in the south.” 
  • Let absolutes be absolute:         

e.g., Ever heard someone say “his bucket is emptier (or more empty) than mine”? How can something be emptier than empty? The same holds true for all absolute words. Drop the “less” or “more” in front of these: 

    • perfect
    • unique
    • equal
    • final
    • first
    • last
  • Get rid of tag-ons to verbs: 
    • continue on
    • refer back to
    • grouped together
    • gathered together
    • open up
    • cancel out
    • first began
    • add together
    • link together

Stop Your Writing from Idling in Neutral

“I try to leave out the parts that people skip.” – Elmore Leonard

 Avoid Writing a Run-On Sentence

What is it? A sentence that contains too many subjects and predicates . . . like running two independent clauses together without the benefit of a comma, a conjunction, or another type of “glue” such as a punctuation mark or connecting word.

E.g., “We received the package yesterday it arrived in the mail.”

E.g., “Now Hiring New Chicken Livers” (actually seen on a billboard!)

E.g., (You’ll find sentences that go on and on all around you.)

When is it time to start a new sentence so you don’t have a run-on collision?

Here’s a suggestion: Use your breath. Yes, that’s right. Allow one inhalation and one exhalation for sentence as you read it, either aloud or silently. If you run out of breath before the end, consider this sentence too long!

Shorten Lengthy Sentences

Does wordiness imply writing only short sentences? No. The length of your sentence depends on what you want to say, and naturally some ideas take more words to express than others.

Still, head in the direction of “concise” rather than “verbose.” Just like you don’t want to spend much time with people who are verbose—they talk on and on and on—your readers don’t want to hang out with verbosity in your writing. 

Why? Too-long sentences tend to drag readers into complacency. They also demand a good memory. Readers have to hold onto the concept in the first part of the sentence. Then they have to wade through all the fluff to finally reach the connecting point at the end of the sentence. 

Rule of Thumb: No sentence should be longer 21 words and shorter if possible. It’s just difficult to keep track of the sentence’s core idea if it’s longer than that. Note: the longest sentence in the paragraph above is 21 words. Whew! 

Whack Wordiness Example: Editing this 44-word sentence (#1) brought it down to 21 words (#2) – that’s 50 percent! 

#1 – The subsequent chapters then will focus in great detail on each of the steps to make sure you know how to accomplish each step before proceeding to the next step and how to measure whether or not you are ready to move to the next step. (46 words) 

#2 – The subsequent chapters detail all 13 steps and show how to accomplish each one while measuring whether you are ready to move on. (23 words)


Dig out a page or two of your own writing and pick the longest paragraph. Count the number of words in that paragraph and rewrite it completely. As you do, look for ways to:

  • Eliminate extraneous phrases
  • Take out wobbly words
  • Knock out redundancies
  • Replace phrases with single words
  • Change nouns to verbs
  • Revise long-winded sentences
  • Route out repeated words
  • Let absolutes be absolute
  • Get rid of tag-ons to verbs 

You want your writing to move forward in drive, not idle in neutral, meander off course, or ramble. So don’t stop until you’ve ruthlessly reduced the number of words in your sentence. Aim for paring it down by 33 percent or more. Be succinct!   

How to Stop Rambling

“Make every word work like a galley slave.” – William Zinsser

 Rambling often stems from muddy thinking—that is, not having a clear idea of what you want to say. When analyzing a piece of your writing that rambles on, ask, “Exactly what was I trying to say?” 

Challenge yourself to state its purpose in one simple sentence. Then once you have your intended point in mind, ask:

  • Did I put in unnecessary facts on the road to making my point?
  • Did I add any phrases that were irrelevant to this point?
  • Did I keep in mind what readers might be asking as I make my point?
  • Do my sentences seem to jar like riding on a bumpy road?
  • Did I take a straight line to make my point or did I take unnecessary detours?  

Consider using this formula* to help keep your writing concise. Use no more than:

  • 5 paragraphs per page
  • 10 sentences per paragraph
  • 15 words per sentence
  • 3 syllables per word  

*Recommended in Don’t Let Your Participles Dangle in Public!


Step 1: Take one page of your writing, 300-400 words, and count the number of paragraphs. Fewer than 5?

 Step 2: In an average paragraph, count the number of sentences you have.

Fewer than 10?

 Step 3: Choose one paragraph and count the number of words in each sentence. What’s the average? Fewer than 15?

 Step 4: Now circle all the words on the page that have 4 syllables or more.

 Following these four steps, you now have lots of clues where to smooth out the potholes on the road.

Keep Your Writing Motor Running

“Writings are useless unless they are read, and they cannot be read unless they are readable.” – Theodore Roosevelt

One Thought, One Sentence

Unless you’re a novelist like William Faulkner, it’s best to express one thought in one sentence and end it. Spend another sentence on the next thought, and so on to keep your prose moving forward. 

When a sentence has too many ideas and runs on too long, it is called a run-on sentence. Actually, a run-on sentence really has TWO sentences (or thoughts) that have been INCORRECTLY combined into one. You can combine two sentences into one, but you must follow some rules to do it correctly. 

e.g., Mary loved traveling in Norway she thought it was cold. 

To correct this, use a punctuation mark, a bridge word, or separate the two thoughts completely.      

Mary loved traveling in Norway; she thought it was cold.

Mary loved traveling in Norway, but she thought it was cold.

Mary loved traveling in Norway. She thought it was cold.

Steer on the Sunny Side

It’s hard for readers to track what’s being written when it’s stated in a negative way. And most of the time, negative statements require a lot more words to make a point. Avoid using “no” and “not” except when you strongly want to emphasize or contrast something. 

Example #1

Negative: The answer doesn’t lie in not having enough people to do the job.

Better: The answer lies in hiring enough people to do the job.

 Example #2

Negative: We can’t incorporate all the design features we want without increasing the unit size.

Better: To provide all the design features we want, we increase the unit size.

 Build Bridges to Guide Your Reader

Since your goal is to whack wordiness, you may consider bridge words and phrases extraneous. Yet, the transitions from one sentence to another do keep your motor running and should be kept in high gear. Why? They create logical links that smooth the road like a well-maintained highway. 

Examples of bridge words that . . . 

  • connect two ideas of the same kind:   and, plus, as well as 
  • add another thought:    besides, also, then, again, secondly, etc. 
  • compare or contrast ideas:   but, still, however, yet, nevertheless,  
  • reinforce an idea:  indeed, in fact, of course, by all means    
  • show results:   as a result, consequently, thus, hence

Place Strongest Words at End

Whenever possible, place your most prominent words at the end of your sentence. Doing so provides emphasis and helps advance your writing from one new idea to the next.


Which ending phrase is more targeted and memorable? (The clue is in the italics.)

Statement #1

You’ll drive smoothly toward your destination of delivering a compelling message with your new ability to whack wordiness.

 Statement #2

With your new ability to whack wordiness, you’ll drive smoothly toward your destination of delivering a compelling message.

 Check out the Resources that follow.


 Booher, Dianna. Booher’s Rules of Business Grammar: 101 Fast and Easy Ways to Correct the Most Common Errors. McGraw Hill. 2009. 

DuPont, M. Kay. Don’t Let Your Participles Dangle in Public! Jedco Press. 3rd Edition. 2006. 

Fryxell, David A. Structure & Flow. Writer’s Digest Books. 1996. 

O’Connor, Patricia T. Woe Is I. Riverhead Books, 1996. 

Reddick, Karen L. Grammar Done Right! Hub House Publishing, 2009. 

Strunk, William Jr. and White, E.B. The Elements of Style. 3rd Edition. McMillan Publishing 1979. 

Ezine – Add Power to Your Pen

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Blog – Nonfiction Book Editor: Editing angles to improve your writing

You’ll find a wealth of tips, techniques, and resources for writing your nonfiction books and articles. Sign up for RSS feed. www.nonfictionbookediting.com

 Word Choice Guide

Want a word choice guide that makes your writing easier? You can access 350+ pairs of confusing words (e.g., further vs. farther, advice vs. advise) in Word Trippers: The Ultimate Source for Choosing the Perfect Word When it Really Matters. Available as an ebook at www.wordtrippers.com for only $16.95.

Word Play: Using Fun Figures of Speech

Welcome to Barbara McNichol’s NAIWE blog. I just completed an interview with Janice Campbell on Word Trippers and 10 Top Techniques to Improve Your Writing.

One of these Top 10 was using Figures of Speech (I’ve been featuring them in my ezine, Word Tripper of the Week – sign up at www.BarbaraMcNichol.com). My thanks to Karen Reddick www.GrammarDoneRight.com who did most of the leg work compiling these.

Feel free to add your personal favorites in the Comments section.

What’s a figure of speech? Words taken out of their literal meaning to create a vivid or dramatic picture. Play with them in your writing!

  • Alliteration
    Matching or repetition of consonants or repeating of the same letter (or sound) at the beginning of words. Examples:
     Papa’s potatoes and poultry were a big hit at the potluck.
     Dewdrops danced on the Day Lilies’ tongue.   

A sentence that reads forward and backward like a mirror, often used in speeches in an artistic, persuasive way.

Examples of chiasmuses:
 Ask not what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country. (John F. Kennedy)
 People in cars cause accidents and accidents in cars cause people. (Garrison Keillor)
 Gossip is the art of saying nothing in a way that leaves practically nothing unsaid. (Walter Winchell)

Colloquialisms are informal expressions (slang) that play a role in how we communicate, but shouldn’t be used in formal speech or writing (unless it’s dialogue). Examples:
 Gonna and wanna
 There ain’t nothin’ to it.
 He done good.

These are words that are spelled the same but differ in pronunciation. Examples:
 Close – (CLOZE) to shut; (CLOHSS) nearby
 Lead – (LEED) to guide; (LED) a metallic element
 Tear – (TARE) to rip; (TEER) a drop of the clear liquid emitted by the eye

Homonyms and Homophones
Homonyms are spelled the same but differ in meaning while homophones are pronounced the same but differ in meaning, origin, and sometimes spelling.

Examples of homonyms:
 Bank (a place to deposit money) and bank (a river’s edge)
 Fair (county fair), fair (reasonable), fair (in appearance as fair-skinned)

Examples of homophones:
 Cite (to quote as an authority or example), sight (to see), site (location or place)
 Sea (body of water) and see (vision)
This figure of speech adds exaggeration to your writing. Hyperbole (hy-PER-buh-lee) statements are not literally true but are used for emphasis.

Examples of hyperbole:
 Her feet were as big as skis.
 I’m so hungry I could eat a horse.
 I’ve heard that joke a thousand times.

Named after Richard Sheridan’s character Mrs. Malaprop in The Rivals, malapropisms are a comic misuse of language (akin to Word Trippers but not the same).

Examples of malapropisms:
 He had to use a fire distinguisher.
 Dad says the monster is just a pigment of my imagination
 My sister has extra-century perception.

A metaphor lets us use one image to conjure up another. Overused metaphors are considered clichés.

Examples of metaphors:
 You are my sunshine.
 All the world’s a stage.
 The thick blanket of snow covered the frozen field.

These three metaphors about life were recently featured in one of my all-time favorite ezines, Dr. Mardy’s Quotes of the Week.

“Life is a moderately good play with a badly written third act.”
 – Truman Capote

“Life is a great big canvas, and you should throw all the paint on it you can.”
– Danny Kaye

“Life is the art of drawing without an eraser.”
 – John W. Gardner

An oxymoron takes two incongruous or contradictory terms and puts them together to express two contrasting qualities in one concept. 

Examples of oxymora:
 Old news
 Dull roar
 Open secret
 Random order

A word, phrase, verse, or sentence that reads the same backward or forward. 

Examples of palindromes:
 Straw – warts
 Do geese see God?
 Never odd or even

A pangram uses all 26 letters of the alphabet. 

Examples of pangrams:
 The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.
 Watch Jeopardy! Alex Trebek’s fun TV quiz game.

A figure of speech that gives “human” characteristics (emotion, honesty, volition, etc.) to an animal, object, or idea.

Examples of personification:
The haughty peacock strutted around his mate.
Fate frowned on her success.
My car was happy to be washed.

Pleonasm consists of two concepts (usually two words) that are redundant.

Examples of pleonasms:
 boiling hot
 cash money
 dark night
 empty hole
 little baby
 pair of twins

Makes a comparison using “as” or “like” to show how two things that are not alike in most ways are similar in another way.

Examples of similes:
 Busy as a beaver.
 Mad as a wet hen.
 The snow was as thick as a down blanket.

Words or phrases in which letters or syllables get swapped.

Examples of spoonerisms:
I’m driving in the right lane, for I’m driving in a light rain.
Tease my ears, for Ease my tears.
Wave the sails, for Save the whales.

Most of these figures of speech came from Karen Reddick’s Grammar Done Right, a highly recommended book that explains grammar simply and clearly. www.grammardoneright.com

For more tips for writers, check out my blog at www.nonfictionbookeditor.com