5 essential websites for writers, plus 1 semi-evil one

Does the Farmer’s Almanac say the PANSTARRS comet will sizzle or fizzle? What was the weather like in Atlanta, Georgia on July 2, 1954? Is Pope Benedict XVI’s title emeritus or emeriti? Will an asyndeton offer a good way to hammer a point in your writing? Is there a better word for hammer?

Writers need answers. Quickly. Here are five sites that will get you what you need, plus one that is a sort of necessary evil.

1. Merriam-Webster Dictionary

dictionary

You never know how people will react to a small mistake, but you do know that no one will ever object to correct, accurate, proper English.

Need to confirm a definition, spelling or usage? Merriam-Webster.com. Handy. Reliable. Authoritative. And, it’s well beyond the scope of spelling and grammar checks embedded in certain software. Enough said.

2. Thesaurus

Yes, writers should have a large personal vocabulary but we needn’t pretend we know everything. One of my favorite English professors—a man who could work words like opuscule, ennui and non sequitur into a one-minute hallway conversation without even the slightest hint of bravado—kept a well-worn thesaurus by his side for all his serious writing.

He always said he owed it to his readers.

I think thesaurus.com, which calls itself “the largest and most trusted free online thesaurus,” is great; or should I say remarkable, comprehensive or impressive?

3. The Library of Congress

LOC

Need to know if Shakespeare really used the word honorificabilitudinitatibus? Or how frequently reports on Principal Federal Economic Indicators occur? Want to report on when and where to look for this year’s comets?

This is not your father’s Library of Congress. Today you can use the virtual reference shelf that includes the answers to all of the above, plus a myriad of digital collections, bibliographies and guides. Also, you can ask a real librarian a question in an online chat.

4. Bartleby

Perhaps more 20th century than 21st, this site gives free and complete access to encyclopedias and other reference books that can help writers. Among the most useful are Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, a searchable Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations and Gray’s Anatomy. No, not the popular TV drama, but the actual 1918 classic publication complete with 1,247 vibrant engravings. Admittedly, you could probably find all of this stuff on at the Library of Congress site, but this one is easier to navigate.

5. Grammar Girl

Inevitably, all writers—even those who merely write something as innocuous as a yearly budget report—come up against someone with Grammar Pedantry Syndrome. First identified by Dennis Baron, a professor of English and Linguistics at the University of Illinois, Grammar Pedantry Syndrome (GPS) is a form of Obsessive Compulsive/Oppositional Defiant Disorder in which sufferers need to correct every grammatical error, real or imagined.

Baron wrote in his June 2012 The Web of Language blog:

GPS goes a long way towards finding, explaining, and helping us deal with, their obsession with enforcing on the hapless public an idiosyncratic and often undertheorized idea of what’s right or wrong in speech and writing. If defining this kind of intrusive purism as a psychological syndrome helps us find a cure, then ultimately both society, and language itself, stands to benefit. Or is it that they stand to benefit?

Sadly, at least 10 highly followed Twitter accounts failed to penetrate the academic humor in the above, all of which I learned from reading Grammar Girl.

Mignon Fogarty is the host of Grammar Girl and founder of Quick and Dirty Tips. Prior to becoming the curator for a site devoted to grammar, she was a magazine and technical writer.

In case you ever thought you might be able to rely on your own knowledge of grammar to get by with your writing, the “GPS” business cited above should make the dangers in that exceedingly obvious. There’s a lot of misinformation out there and a lot of people who think they know a lot more than they do. You need a reliable reference.

I like Grammar Girl because it is funny and smart. There are others. But you need to have one very handy.

Wikipedia: the semi- evil one

I know Wikipedia isn’t the most accurate resource, but it can be a starting point. It’s a good place to get some basic background information to prep for interviews. For example, it can help you construct the right questions to bring your source’s information down to layman’s terms. It can also point you to good references.

A Final Word
Salient details enliven your writing, surprise your reader and make what you write worth sharing or remembering. In addition to that, being accurate and grammatically correct is in fact how you will be judged, no matter how great a writer you claim to be.

Lucky for us, all that can be just a click away.

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The Granddaughter’s Guide to Getting Good Feedback

My grandmother was the kind of woman who had her hair done once week. For which appointment, she wore low healed pumps, a dress and a string of pearls. She had a lady who did her laundry. Another who made custom drapes to match her custom upholstery.

She liked everything just so. As a result, she was nearly always looking for ways to improve upon whatever was around her. Which further resulted in a tendency to be quite analytical. She made me a writer.

Each winter she’d disappear to either Florida or Arizona to escape our Michigan tundra. Back in the 1970s that meant good granddaughters were expected to write letters. Once a week, if they were really good.

My mother made sure I was really good.

Most weeks that meant I’d be writing a letter on Sunday night. My Grandmother died over two decades ago. And I still sometimes feel the urge to pull out some stationary and pen a letter come Sunday night.

On the one hand, my Grandmother was the happy recipient of what ever I managed to get down on paper. She was never one to point out misspellings, bad grammar, run-on sentences, fragments, missing words, extra words, wrong names, missing punctuation, or even missing salutations. I believe she reasoned that I had teachers who could deal with any of that.

What she cared about was the big picture: the content and my ability to convey real meaning. She could be ruthlessly honest when it came to critiquing the meaning and content. Yet, she could be ridiculously generous when something delighted her. She was the first to say: “You should do something with writing.”

She didn’t know it, but she provided the perfect feedback model: be honest about significant matters, overlook minutiae and encourage.

It is hard to find useful feedback like that.

In any good training program for public speaking, you will be required to videotape yourself giving a presentation.

Unless you are some kind of Ted X rock star, watching such a recording of yourself can be one of the most uncomfortable, excruciatingly embarrassing experiences imaginable. But, if you can stomach it, there is truly nothing better for learning the naked truth about how you appear.

It’s the feedback equivalent of my Grandmother if she took her gloves off and gave it to you adult-like.

Unfortunately, there is no similar exercise you can do on yourself to really see your writing the way others see it.

Sure you could read what you’ve written. But, that doesn’t pack much of a punch. You’ve been doing that all along in the writing process anyway.

To get good feedback, you need to enlist the help of others. And because most people aren’t as invested in your development as my Grandmother was in mine, you’ll need to provide some guidelines and questions.

Ask things like: What is your overall impression of XYZ topic after reading this? What did you learn from reading it? What was your favorite line? At any point, did you start to get bored or struggle to keep reading? If so, do you remember about where that started? And so on.

One of the best places to find this type of feedback is through a writer’s group. I belong to one that meets once a month. We each bring something we’ve written and we read it out loud at the meeting. As far as feeling exposed, it is not unlike watching yourself give a speech on videotape.

You can also cultivate trusted colleagues, sometimes a boss, certain family members, and etc.

More on this at a later date.

What’s your best source of useful feedback?

Proofreading 101

It may only be August, but the past two weeks have gone into high gear on our campus. The looming arrival of another academic year means a corresponding onslaught of communication needs. We find ourselves proofreading our own and other’s content like we were bailing out a leaky rowboat in the middle of Lake Michigan with nothing but a spoon.

Mistakes happen even when we are not under pressure. And, if they slip out into the public it’s embarrassing at best. So I’ve developed a bag of tricks for proofreading. This seemed like a good time to share my favorites.

1. Stop editing for content.

This is my number one rule for proofreading. You cannot effectively proofread if you are still revising. Skip proofing until you are satisfied with what you’ve got. Or you’ve run out of time, whichever comes first

2. Speak it.

I think reading out loud is the only effective way to catch missing words. Otherwise, you will just fill in whatever is missing from your own mind as you go along.

Alternately, print out the content and read it upside down. This forces you to think about each word.

3. Take it line by line.

Carefully examine one line at a time, word for word, without reading for meaning. Take it slow, so you are not jumping from one obvious mistake to the next, missing more subtle errors in between.

In my opinion, this is the way to catch misspelled words and other common blunders lurking within tricky linguistics, homophones and the like.

Reading word by word backwards is another great way to catch misspellings.

 4. Sweat the small stuff.

Double-check little words like of, or, in, which can easily get interchanged. Pay special attention to headings, captions, and subject lines. Also double-check all the boilerplate text. It’s too easy for this material to get overlooked.

5. Know your weak spots.

In my case, it is spelling people’s names wrong and any number. I also stumble over when to use “i.e.” or “e.g.”  No matter how many times I look it up, it never sticks with me. I keep a running list of the types of mistakes I am prone to. Then I know what I’m looking for in a final read through.

Final Thoughts

For some people, excellent proofreading seems to come naturally. But most of us have to practice. Games make it more fun. Check out Portland Proof’s Proof It! game to test your skills against the clock. In it, you’ll be challenged to find the error in ten sentences. If you are really good, you could get the top score of the day.

I’ve shared the best from my bag of tricks. What works for you?

Perfection and Other Fantasies

One of the most agonizing parts of producing any kind of print communication is the part where your work is out there for everyone to see. And critique. Unfortunately, the overwhelming majority of writers and editors are pretty darn self-critical already.

Consider the rather famous comments—well, rather famous among editors of University publications anyway—of Jeff Hagan, editor of Oberlin Alumni Magazine in a Umagazinology blog last spring.  He responded to the question “what part of your magazine never quite satisfies you, despite everybody’s best effort?”

The magazine part. The part that isn’t even in mailboxes when I start hearing about errors or omissions. The part that you realize only later could have been better illustrated or better written. The part you have to look at long after you’ve lost interest or grown openly hostile to it. The part where you get criticized for something and know they’re right. When the press run is done and I hear it’s on its way to the post office, I feel no sense of relief. I just think, “Now comes hell.”

Not every moment, but there are moments when “hell” sounds about right to me. I think that resonates to some degree with all communicators. But it really hits a tender spot for those of us still in print. How I envy the online engagement and web teams in my department with their luxury of correcting mistakes with a few taps on a keyboard! When something is in print, it’s forever. Typos, errors and missteps included.

In my unit, we have several hawk-eyed proofreaders. But we also—like nearly every communications unit I have ever heard about—have a vetting process whereby major communications get approved by various executives and contributors.

Making any semblance of a deadline while still ensuring some degree of timeliness to the content leads to a certain blending of the proofing process with the vetting process. And, that leads to last minute changes, additions and swaps. All of which leads to a great big potential for errors.

One thing all communicators learn. You can’t effectively proofread your own stuff. And no editorial team can effectively proofread stuff they’ve already seen too many times. Eyes cross, vision blurs, mistakes happen.

Considering all this, can large scale print publications ever be perfect? I doubt it.

Here’s where we landed in my shop. At least one eagle-eyed proofreader-type on word files plus the principles in leadership, then at least two different eagle-eyed proofreader-types on the designed version, plus all principles again.

If only, that were all it took.

Throughout, the editor works at 200 miles an hour interpreting, negotiating like mad, sorting out conflicting input, dancing with the equally hardworking design, proofing and photography teams; all while attempting to use good communication judgment and trying to prevent the whole thing from becoming a depersonalized institutional mouthpiece. By about round six of the so-called “final” layout—which sometimes goes back in front of some principles—everyone starts to feel the strain of juggling too many details.

Finally, one fine editorial type—and in a perfect rainbows, butterflies and bunnies world, this would NEVER fall to the now fairly beleaguered editor—goes over all one final time. Regardless, it always falls to the editor to call it: “good to go” which firmly puts him or her right on the front line.

Now, I suppose some places—like those with double and triple our staff—can spread the duties around a lot more. Yet, does any of this sound familiar?

I wish I could say our process works perfectly. I suspect it is fairly easy to see the pitfalls. But, as our fearless leader has often pointed out: the amount of resources to get us 95 to 99 percent of the way there is what we’ve got. The amount of resources it would require to get us to 100 percent is not reality.

So bring on the hell. It’s all part of the job. Perfection is not. We strive for it and we may even come close, but this is not a rainbow, butterflies and bunnies world. At the end of the day, I have to admit, it is still a pretty good ride and a great deal of fun.