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The right rites of writing

October 4, 2009

Many writers have problems when writing. For some, it is overuse of adverbs (“when in doubt, strike it out” as Mark Twain opined). For others, the constant battle against the passive voice consumes them.

My personal bête noires are homophones and double consonants. Do I eat dessert in the desert? Am I writing with stationery whilst sitting down stationary? Does my doctor practise medicine in his medical practice?

The “simple” homophones – there/their/they’re, to/too/two, its/it’s – generally do not cause me any problems. It is the more unusual homophones like those listed above that make me break out in a cold sweat. Whilst writing this, I had to check that I had used them each correctly – and for dessert/desert and practise/practice I had got it wrong originally! Artistic licence does not give me license to dispense with the rules…

There are countless tricks and mnemonics to help you to remember the correct usage (and why am I able to spell mnemonic correctly, but have to check whether accidentally takes a single or a double ‘l’?) – but I simply don’t remember them.

This is where a dictionary, thesaurus and style guide to English usage become essential tools of the trade. Whether hardcopy books or online reference sites, these are indispensable editions to the armoury of the writer. Here are the references I turn to most frequently.

Ask Oxford is a free online version of the Oxford English Dictionary, and is my dictionary of first choice, but increasingly I have begun to turn to two specialised dictionaries. One Look Dictionary Search has a powerful range of search modifiers to help you beyond simple definitions and spelling, to search deep within language. The One Look Reverse Dictionary is particularly useful for finding a particular word when you know it’s meaning, or you are looking for synonyms.

Of course, if you are looking for synonyms then a thesaurus is a wonderful guide, the most famous being Roget’s Thesaurus. Sadly I no longer have a copy, but is just as useful.

Finally for style guides I resort to my rather battered and worn copy of Graham King’s Times Writer’s Guide – battered and worn not through age I might add (it was only published in 2001) but from constant thumbing!

Beware of relying solely on the built in spell-checkers of modern word processing software. They are helpful when it comes to spotting egregious errors, but often fail to spot homophones, as these words are only incorrect in context, and context is something that Word et al do not do well.

What elements of writing fill you with dread, and how do you cope with them?

NaNoWriMo is once again upon us. If you are participating, feel free to add me as a buddy by clicking here. And for all you Winnie the Pooh fans, Return to the Hundred Acre Wood is released October 5.
  1. October 4, 2009 4:46 am

    Thanks for posting this Paul. I suck at most grammar. Its embarrassing to admit that I trained as an English Teacher when I struggle at times with apostrophes and their placement.

    I’ll certainly be bookmarking this post and refer to your suggestions.

    And anyone venturing into NaNo – can find me here –

  2. October 4, 2009 7:23 am

    Mine is its and it’s. I am forever stopping and asking myself whether I need to apostrophe or not. Not matter how many times I think I’ve got it (through hammering it in, repetition, or silly little limericks) it seems to slip slide away.

    Then there’s descriptive narrative- but we don’t need to go there today!

  3. October 4, 2009 9:23 am

    I have to make a comment on your layout..I LOVE IT 😀

  4. October 4, 2009 10:32 am

    This past year I’ve worked hard to not only relearn all the grammar rules that I slept through as a kid (I really hated school), as well as teaching the rules to my son. We homeschool. Its amazing how everything is coming back to me and the confusing set of spelling laws.
    “‘I’ after ‘e’ except after ‘c’, except in certain cases’..blah
    Great post

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