One Weird Trick for Better Writing

A trebuchet before a castle. Illustration of the weird trick for better writing

Okay, I promise it’s not that weird; it’s just fun to appropriate click-bait headlines. And I won’t make you sit through a 25-minute video or scroll through pages of text before I share this trick with you.

As I’ve noted before, writing is easy, but good writing is hard. However, there are a few simple things that you can do to improve your writing, including many of the tips that are on this blog.

One of my favorite tips is something simple but really effective at making your writing clearer and easier to follow. Let’s see if you can figure out what this trick is by seeing it in action.

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On Being Original

dictionary entries for original and originality

For centuries old was better. Old meant tried-and-true, reliable, dependable.

This was especially true in the ancient world. The Romans gave a pass to Jewish religious observances because they were ancient and venerable; the Christians, on the other hand, were some kind of crazy newfangled cult that needed to be suppressed.

But today, no one wants to be a rehash of what has long been; everyone wants to be an original, to say something new and fresh. Now, part of that is because manufacturers and advertisers figured out that they could get more money from you by hyping the “new and improved” version of the thing that worked just fine as it was.

But another part of that is the understandable desire to leave a mark, to make a unique difference—to say I was here. And for that, unoriginality won’t do.

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Acknowledging the Land

Map showing the locations of American Indian tribes in the Upper Hudson River Valley

With this post, I’m taking a break from our regular posts with grammar, writing, and language tips. Today, I’m reflecting on the wonderful locations where Schaefer Wordsmithing has a physical presence—Troy, New York, and Washington, DC—and on the peoples who made this land a home long ago.

Both Troy and Washington are located on historic tidal estuary rivers—the Hudson and Potomac, respectively—and are parts of regions with a long and storied history. There is much to celebrate today in each region, and Schaefer Wordsmithing is lucky to call those regions “home.”

But as November is Native American Heritage Month, I thought it appropriate to take a break from the usual writing tips to reflect on the native peoples who used to call these homes their homes.

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The Hardest Part of Writing: Starting

Man with his head in his hands, looking at a blank notebook

So, it’s National Novel Writing Month, and you’ve decided that you’re going to give it a shot.

There are a lot of difficult things about writing, from character development to story continuity to plot development to research, not to mention making sure that your writing is any good! (Psst, that’s what editors are for.)

But it doesn’t take long to discover the hardest part of writing: starting.

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The Sequence of Tenses in Reported Speech

strips of paper with the names of different English verb tenses written on them

In every language, there is a grammatical rule that is so embedded into the language that its native speakers are barely aware of it, even as non-native students of the language struggle to master it.

When I studied abroad in the Soviet Union,1Younger readers, ask your parents; it was a country more or less where Russia is now. I remember having a conversation with some Russian friends about the challenges of learning each other’s languages. “What’s the hardest thing about Russian grammar?” one of my friends asked me. “Oh, that’s easy,” I answered. “Verbs of motion.” (I even said this in Russian.)

“Verbs of what?” came my friend’s confused reply. He had never even heard of this category of verb—a category that bedevils students of Russian to this day. I explained what I was talking about, but it was clear that he was still mystified.

“Your turn,” I said. “What’s the hardest thing about English?”

“Sequence of tenses,” he said. In English.

“Sequence of what?” I replied.

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Write That Novel! But About What?

person holding white ceramci be happy painted mug

November is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo, for short). Every year, aspiring writers commit to writing 50,000 words of a novel in November. As the organizers at put it, the project is a “fun, seat-of-your-pants approach to creative writing.”

So, that novel you’ve always wanted to write—November is your chance. You can make a commitment to trying to get your 50,000 words on the page by the end of the month.

But what should you write about? Ah, there’s the rub.

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On the Use of Euphemisms

Letter blocks arranged to spell the word Euphemism

There are plenty of topics that make people uncomfortable. To get around this discomfort, speakers and writers have been employing euphemisms for centuries.

A euphemism is “the substitution of an agreeable or inoffensive expression for one that may offend or suggest something unpleasant.”1“euphemism,” Dictionary, Accessed 10/10/2022.. The word itself comes from the Greek εὐφημισμος euphēmismós, from the noun εὐφημια euphēmía meaning “good speech” (an antonym of βλᾰσφημιᾱ blasphēmia “deceitful speech”).

Euphemisms are often used to avoid subjects that are usually considered impolite or taboo:

Deathdemisedpassed onis no moreceased to beexpiredgone to meet one’s makerlatebereft of liferests in peacepushing up the daisiesshuffled off this mortal coilrun down the curtain, and joined the choir invisible2From Monty Python’s famous Dead Parrot Sketchkicked the bucket, gone to one’s great reward, crossed over, bought the farm, departed, deceased, lost, no longer with us, gave up the ghost, in a better place, gone home, transitioned, and of course the most common of all: passed away

Losing a Job: let go, between jobs, downsized, taking early retirement, pursuing other opportunities, considering options

Sex: making love, doing it, sleeping with, fooling around, going all the way, hooking up

Bodily functions: powder your nose, break wind, visit the ladies’ room, indisposed, number one, number two, time of the month

It’s easy to see why people use euphemisms; who wants to discuss unpleasant or offensive matters directly? But should a writer employ them in their writing?

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Hyphens, En Dashes, and Em Dashes: What’s the Difference Between -, –, and —?

Keyboard of manual Smith-Corona typewriter

Hyphens, En Dashes, and Em Dashes have been around for quite some time, but contemporary writers are not always sure how they should be used or what the difference is between them.

Are These Really That Different?

They are! Despite their having been around for a long time, many people today are not familiar with their use for one main reason: the typewriter.

Space limitations on the typewriter meant that not every character could be represented. Some characters had to do double duty:

  • The numeral l was provided by the lowercase l
  • The exclamation point ! was provided by the . and then backspacing to type ‘
  • The en and em dashes were made by typing the hyphen – twice (- -) and three times (- – -)1I once knew someone who wanted to call her band “Em Dash and the Triple Proxy Hyphens”
The hyphen key on a Smith-Corona manual typewriter

But because there was only one – key on the keyboard, the differences in the usages of hyphens, en dashes, and em dashes were lost. Our modern computer keyboards still lack these symbols as separate characters, and although there are some workarounds (such as typing two hyphens in rapid succession to produce an em dash or using ALT codes), our general familiarity with these symbols and their use remains lacking.

Fortunately, we’re here to help.

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Three Common Mistakes Aspiring Writers Make

crop woman using laptop on sofa at home

Writing is easy; good writing is hard. Good writing requires more than a command of grammar, punctuation, and vocabulary, and good writers need to avoid some very common mistakes.

woman in white long sleeved shirt holding a pen writing on a paper - illustration for common mistakes aspiring writers make
Photo by on

We’re going to look at three mistakes in particular. These mistakes are not over misuse of the serial comma or dangling participles or anything like that. Instead, these mistakes concern the style of writing and the way that style can affect the overall quality of the written text.

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How Are We Supposed to Use Semicolons?

Close-up of computer keyboard with the semicolon key in the center

Some punctuation marks are pretty straightforward—the period, the comma, the exclamation point (unless you’re Elaine Benes). And there are those marks that few know how to distinguish (the hyphen, en-dash, em-dash). But then there are those that are used all the time, but many people are unsure how they’re supposed to be used, like the semicolon. So, how are we supposed to use semicolons?

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