More Words You're Using Wrong -- Grandpa Edition

Complicated is not the same as complex.

*Complicated* means something has a lot of parts, as in, "I broke open my grandfather's watch and now I see how complicated that thing is."

*Complex* means difficult to understand, as in, "Einstein's relativity is described by a simple equation, the sort of thing you learn to deal with in junior high math -- but the application of relativity is complex."

The distinction between complex and complicated is **simple**, eh? How ironic!!

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Avoiding the Talk Trap

When we write, we tend to focus on feelings and reactions. We list emotions and justify them. We look inside ourselves and we "mindread" others.

Stop that.

You're falling in the "talk trap."

Instead, observe and report. Describe what the reader would see, hear, taste, touch, and smell if he or she were there. Don't tell us what people "felt." You're not them. 

Instead, describe the environment so thoroughly that whatever someone in it is feeling... the reader might feel it, too.

When you see Charlie Brown walking with his head down, you know he's depressed. Would you rather read "Charlie Brown walked away hanging his head -- again," or "Charlie Brown looked depressed"? Which is more engaging?

To ask is to answer.

I call this the "talk trap." Avoid it. Don't draw conclusions on our behalf, give us facts that lead us to the conclusion ourselves. 

Writing like this is a foundational element of professional-caliber work.

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Two Words You're Using Wrong

“Continuous” means “without ceasing.” “Continual” means “stopping and starting” or “regularly.”

You’ve been breathing continuously since you were born. You’ve been complaining about your college loans continually since 2007.

 On a hot day in July, your air conditioner runs continuously, but the bill for the electricity arrives continually, and all summer long.

Politics provides continuous embarrassment. Political campaigns, mercifully, evoke such a feeling only continually.

Here’s how I remember the difference: “continuous” contains an “s,” which is the sound in the word “ceaseless.”

Will knowing this distinction make a big difference in your writing? Not much -- by itself. But as you accumulate this kind of thing, your writing will become more confident and precise, and therefore more persuasive.


The best reason to learn this stuff? It improves not just the...

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Writers Are Like Party Hosts

#quicktips Apr 19, 2021

A great writer is like the host of a great party. The host is primarily concerned that the guests are enjoying themselves and getting good things out of the experience.

A host avoids indulging him- or herself because a host's obligation lies elsewhere. By the way, that's not a bad thing. Attending a party yields one kind of enjoyment. Overseeing the party yields another.

When you write something, think of yourself as the host. It's not about you. It's about your guests.

(This splendid idea comes from Charles P. Curtis, Jr., a brilliant writer and thinker of the mid-20th century.)


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Be Clear, Not Clever

#editing #quicktips Mar 02, 2021

A lesson in straightforward writing from when I was a kid.

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Anything But a Yes... Is a No


We tend to say "yes" immediately but beat around the bush when it's no -- but that only telegraphs the rejection to come. Here's how to stop doing that.

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To State a Claim, Ask a Question


Here's a way to be more creative with your language when doing the never-ending tasking of framing up a topic for your audience.

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Do Your Readers Know What a Semi-colon Means? Probably Not...


When you're a communicator, you avoid words that are obscure to the reader. That applies to punctuation, too.


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Best or Worst, You Say? Compared to What?


"That's the best!" you say. "That's the worst!" you say.

That's among the weakest ways to express yourself. Here's why -- and how to fix it.

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Change the Way You Usually Start Writing.


We usually ask, "What's the topic?"

Stop that.

Instead, first ask what you want the reader to do after they’ve read it.


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