Tag Archives: strategies for writing

Red Ink Beer-Video Writing Instruction

In this episode of Red Ink Beer, David Bowman, owner of Precise Edit and author of 9 writing guides,

Writing skills are demonstrated with examples and instruction. For more information about David Bowman’s writing guides, please visit http://hostileediting.com.

What’s in this episode?

Part One, Reader’s Question: Do you put a comma between complicated items in a short list?

Part Two, Writing Strategy: Basic paragraph  structure using the 3 Cs, with a focus on establishing context.

Part Three, Writing Fail: A snotty Twitter user gets schooled in manners.

Video: 11 minutes.


Hi, I’m David Bowman, the owner and chief editor of Precise Edit and the author of now 9 writing guides, all available over at HostileEditing.com. In this episode of Red Ink Beer, we’ll do three things.
First, we will answer a question from one of my readers over at the Zen Comma blog (http://zencomma.wordpress.com). We will also take a look at a new writing strategy having to do with paragraphs. And finally, we’ll take a look at a major writing fail from my very favorite source of writing failures, #grammer on Twitter.

All right, well let’s take a look at the reader question.

Reader’s Question

The Question

Last week, a visitor over at the Zen Comma blog posted the following question for me.

Hi, Mr. Bowman. Is the placement of the comma correct for this sentence: “Monday’s reception will feature two types of sandwiches: pineapple and cream cheese, and marinated bell peppers and goat cheese.”

The question is concerning that comma after “cream cheese.” Let’s take a closer look at the sentence and answer this question

The Answer

We can solve this problem by looking at a similar sentence.

“Monday’s reception will feature two types of entertainment: clowns and a puppet show.”

Here, we see that there is no comma after the word “clowns,” and this is correct. This shows that there is not supposed to be a comma in that position. When we apply this to the original sentence and take out that comma, this is what we get.

“Monday’s reception will feature two types of sandwiches: pineapple and cream cheese and marinated bell peppers and goat cheese.”

The problem for the reader is that we have no idea what the ingredients are for each individual sandwich, but it is correct.

What makes this question really interesting is the fact that if we follow the comma rule and leave the comma out where it is not supposed to be, the sentence is less clear. Now, the main purpose of commas is to make a sentence more clear, not less. But the comma is not supposed to be here in this particular case, yet, if we take the comma out so that we follow the comma rules exactly, the sentence is less clear than when we break the rule and put it in.

Fortunately, we have some solutions to this. It’s going to take a bit more than just moving that comma, putting it in or taking it out. Instead, I think we need to take a look at different ways that we can reorganize or revise the sentence. Let’s take a look at some examples and see if we can come up with one that is going to make the sentence more clear and still allow us to use correct punctuation.

Solution 1

We have a few solutions we can use. First, we can simply number the sandwiches.

“Monday’s reception will feature two types of sandwiches: (1) pineapple and cream cheese and (2) marinated bell peppers and goat cheese.”

We tell the reader, this is what’s in the first one; this is what’s in the second one. It doesn’t look very pretty, but it does solve the problem.

Solution 2

Another option is to repeat the word “sandwich.”

“Monday’s reception will feature two types of sandwiches: pineapple and cream cheese sandwiches and marinated bell peppers and goat cheese sandwiches.”

This also isn’t very pretty because it makes the sentence too wordy and too redundant.

Solution 3

My favorite solution is this one.

“Monday’s reception will feature two types of sandwich:

  • pineapple and cream cheese and
  • marinated bell peppers and goat cheese.”

Let’s just make a little bulleted list. Now, the commas are correct, and the reader will know exactly sandwich has for its ingredients. This works great.

Additional thoughts

What have we learned from this? We have learned that it is, in fact, possible to follow the rules exactly and still produce clear, readable language—clear, readable sentences, which is what I have been saying all along.

When we have a problem like this, we really do have to think about not just a single element in the sentence, like a comma in this case, but also we need to look at the entire sentence structure, what it is that we are trying to communicate. That’s how we solved this problem. Instead of just adding or subtracting a comma, we had to look at the overall sentence, figure out what it is that we’re trying to communicate, and then structure the sentence in such a way that we can follow the rules and still make sense.

Writing Strategy: Paragraph Context

Let’s turn our attention now to the writing tip for the evening. This strategy is going to come from one of my writing guides: Concise Guide to Technical and Academic Writing, available in print, obviously, but also available in PDF and Kindl on the HostileEditing.com website, where I have all of my books.

Tonight, what we’re going to look at is paragraphing. In particular, how do you start a good paragraph?

Major Elements of a Paragraph: Three Cs

Every paragraph has three major elements, which we call the “3 Cs.” The first is Context. The second is Content. And the third is Conclusion. Each paragraph describes and discusses one main idea—and only one idea, which means that what we do at the beginning of a paragraph is very important because we need to introduce to the reader what is the singular idea that is going to be discussed in this paragraph.

What Is the Context?

The context becomes very important. Not only are we telling the reader, “Here’s what we are going to talk about in this paragraph; here’s what this paragraph is about,” but we also need to make sure that the beginning of one paragraph links us to the ideas presented in the prior paragraphs. Also, and just as importantly, why this information, why this idea is going to be useful to the reader. All of this takes place in the first couple of sentences, which we call the context to the paragraph.

Let’s take a look at a sample paragraph here, find the context, and see if it does these three things:

  1. Introduce the main idea of the paragraph
  2. Connect it to the prior paragraph
  3. Inform the reader why this is important to you.

Sample Context

Here we are looking at the end of one paragraph and the beginning of a second paragraph. It’s this second paragraph that we’re going to study carefully.

…The family nurse should never try to treat patients in these types of cases if they do not have the skill, resources, or knowledge to provide appropriate care.

The Texas State Board of Nursing regulates the practice and licensures of nurse practitioners in the State of Texas. The Nurse Practitioner Practice Act in Texas defines the responsibilities and scope of practice of the nurse practitioners, and the board regulates the range of activities and services and the qualifications for practice. The Act is intended to protect…

The first sentence in the second paragraph is establishing the context. It tells the reader, “Here’s what this paragraph is going to be about. Here’s the main idea that we’ll be discussing, in this case the regulations and licensure for nurses.”

This does link to the prior information. “Nurse practitioner” connects to “nurse practitioner,” and “skill” from paragraph one connects to “practice” described in paragraph two. So, that’s a nice linkage there.

And, finally, it’s important to the reader because they are aspiring nurses in this case, so it’s important for them to know what regulates their practice.

Ok, that example was fairly simple, but hopefully it gives you an idea about how to start a really great paragraph.

Paragraphing: The Most Important Skill

If there were one thing I would like to teach people how to do with their writing, one thing that would make the most important and most significant improvement in their writing, it would be paragraphing. In fact, I’ve often said that of the hundreds of graduate-level students that we’ve worked with over the years on their dissertations and papers and so on, if there’s one thing that I wish they would understand, it’s paragraphing. They often have really great ideas and information, but it’s hard to find what those ideas are because they haven’t clearly defined them in their paragraphs.

How the Context Helps the Writer

If you get your paragraph started right with a good context, it does a couple of things. Not only does it inform the reader “Here’s what this is going to be about; here’s the idea I’m going to talk about,” but it also has a big advantage for the writer because it allows you to keep straight in your own mind, “This is the only thing I need to discuss at this point.”

If we find when we’re writing that we have information in the paragraph that doesn’t relate to the idea described in the context, we know it needs to be taken out of that paragraph and put somewhere else. Also, if we find that we’re pretty much done describing and discussing the idea that is introduced in the context, then we know it’s probably time to start another paragraph. This follows the basic rule that each paragraph is about one, and only one, idea. When you’re ready to start another idea, then it’s time to start another paragraph.

So, that’s tonight’s tip from one of the writing guides, all of which are available over at HostileEditing.com.

Writing Fail

Now, as I promised you, we’re going to take a look at a major writing fail from one of the greatest sources of writing goofs and gaffs that I’m aware of and that I use, Twitter.

Here’s the original tweet from Twitter:

“Why do people insist on talking loudly on the gone so ever1 can here them”

You see that this person misspelled the word “here.” But that’s not the writing fail that we’re going to be discussing.

What happens next is really interesting because somebody else comes along and says, “Aha! He has a misspelling, and I’m going to fix it.” Here is the response:

“hear them” #grammer

When he tries to embarrass the first guy, he misspells the word “grammar” himself! So, that’s the major fail.

I think that what we learn from this is if you’re going to correct somebody’s spelling, grammar, or punctuation, you really need to make sure that yours is also correct.


That’s it for this episode of Red Ink Beer. I hope you will stop by and take a look at the writing guides, all available over at HostileEditing.com. We just finished number 9 [Common Sense Guide to Grammar and Punctuation], and it’s going out on Kindle pretty quickly. I’m sure that if you take a look, you’ll find one that’s just perfect for you.

That’s it for tonight. I’m David Bowman with Precise Edit. You can find my writing guides at HostileEditing.com. Best wishes to you. Thank you.

Editing Services: PreciseEdit.com

Writing Guides: HostileEditing.com

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Comma with “Including” Changes the Meaning

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Where you add or leave out a comma can change the meaning of a sentence.

Let’s look at a news story I read this morning to learn how a comma before “including” changes the meaning of the sentence. In this example, I think the writer left out a comma, thus communicating something that probably isn’t true.

“The Chicago Teachers Union has [sic] announced that it will send a bus to the 50th Anniversary March on Washington, a full week of events to be hosted by the four children of Martin Luther King, Jr. and several organizations including Al Sharpton’s National Action Network.” (http://news.yahoo.com/chicago-teachers-union-headed-washington-fight-trayvon-against-124604748.html)

Leaving out the Comma before “Including”

The central concept to remember here is that commas separate information. On the other hand, leaving out a comma connects the information.

In this example, the writer chose to leave out the comma before “including.” By doing so, the writer connects the phrase “including Al Sharpton’s National Action Network” to “several organizations.” This means the organizations include (are involved with, collaborate with, have as a partner) Al Sharpton’s National Action Network. Indeed, “Al Sharpton’s National Action Network” describes “organizations.”

To say it another way, the organizations hosting the march are those that are involved with Al Sharpton’s National Action Network. If this is true, then organizations that are not involved with Al Sharpton’s organization are not hosting the event.

This is a bit tricky to understand, I know, so let’s look at a simpler example that follows the same pattern, uses “including,” and leaves out a comma.

“I enjoy making desserts including chocolate pudding.”

In this short example, the desserts I enjoy making are those desserts that have chocolate pudding in them. I may enjoy making many types of desserts, but here I’m talking about the desserts that have chocolate pudding as an ingredient. Thus, “chocolate pudding” is part of the description of the desserts. In question and answer format, the sentence means this:

“What type of desserts do I enjoy making? Those desserts including chocolate pudding.”

Now let’s go back to the original example.

“What types of organizations are hosting the event? Those organizations including Al Sharpton’s National Action Network.”

I don’t think this is what the writer meant to say.

Adding the Comma before “Including”

If leaving out a comma indicates that “Al Sharpton’s National Action Network” describes “organizations,” then putting a comma in separates “organizations” from “Al Sharpton’s National Action Network.” With a comma, “Al Sharpton’s National Action Network” is no longer a description of “organizations.”

So what does the sentence mean if we put in the comma? Simply, Al Sharpton’s National Action Network is one of the organizations hosting the event. It doesn’t describe all the organizations but is, rather, one of them.

This, too, may be a bit tricky, so let’s look at a simpler example.

“I enjoy making deserts, including chocolate pudding.”

In this simple example, one type of dessert, among several, is “chocolate pudding.”

Now, back to the original example. “Al Sharpton’s National Action Network” is one of several organizations hosting the event. With the comma, the word “including” is similar to “for example” and “such as,” as follows.

“…a full week of events to be hosted by the four children of Martin Luther King, Jr. and several organizations, such as / for example Al Sharpton’s National Action Network.”

I think that this is what the writer meant. However, without the comma, this is not what the writer communicated. What the writer meant and what the writer actually said are different.

What’s the Point of This?

When you use commas correctly, you are more likely to communicate what you mean, and the reader is more likely to have the correct understanding of your intended message.

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The Comma Versus the Dash for Emphasis

Comma or Dash?

Here’s the question: You want to add an emphatic statement to the end of a sentence, something that will catch the readers’ attention. To create reader focus, you want to create a brief pause prior to the emphatic statement. But do you use a comma or a dash?

Bad Example and Explanation

Here’s an example of the wrong way to do it:

It’s reality, and the subject of a jury-prize-winning film in the GE Focus Forward Film Competition. (http://news.yahoo.com/chemist-hopes-artificial-leaf-power-civilization-using-photosynthesis-173654018–abc-news-tech.html)

See that comma? The writer is using the comma to set off the final information and to create impact, i.e., emphasis. That comma is a problem.

One of the most common uses for commas is to signal the end of a complete sentence, a.k.a. independent clause, that the writer is linking to another complete sentence with a conjunction (e.g., and, but). The sample sentence begins with the independent clause “It’s reality” and the conjunction “and.” The comma suggests that the information following “and” will be another complete sentence, which is not true.

In fact, the entire descriptive phrase “the subject of a jury-prize-winning film…” is linked to the verb “is” found in the contraction “it’s.” As evidence of this, the writer could have written “It’s reality, and it’s the subject of a . . . .” Unfortunately, the writer didn’t do this. By using the comma to create an emphatic pause, the writer separated “it” from its description.

Still not convinced that the comma is wrong? Try this: Separate the subject from its first description and see if it looks right. “It’s, reality” is incorrect because it separates the subject “it” from its description, “reality.” The subject and the first description need to be together, not separated by a comma. The subject and second description also need to be together, but the comma separates them.

In brief, the comma needs to go.

Solution: Use a Dash

How, then, could the writer have created the pause needed to create emphasis? Answer: use an em dash, which is the long dash.

Em dashes have several uses, but the primary use is to create a pause before a final statement that is joined by a conjunction and would otherwise seems like part of the grammatical structure of the sentence. The long pause will cause the reader to focus on the final statement.

Examples of commas versus dashes for emphasis:

1. He is a veteran, a hero. (This doesn’t need a dash because “a hero” isn’t joined by a conjunction and because leaving out the comma would make an ungrammatical sentence.)

2. He is a veteran–and a great father. (This uses an em dash to separate and emphasize “a great father,” which the conjunction “and” would otherwise join to the first part of the sentence.)

If the writer of the bad example wanted to create emphasis on “the subject of a jury-prize-winning film . . . ,” the writer should have used an em dash.

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The Confusion of And vs. To

English can be a difficult language to learn, not because English grammar is tricky (though it can be) but because the language can be vague. Word choice, in particular, can be very confusing, particularly when more than one word is possible. 

Here’s a question I received recently about the nuances of the English language.

Question: Which of the following is correct:
a. I would like to send Peter an email AND give him my regards.
b. I would like to send Peter an email TO give him my regards.

As in so many cases, the answer is . . . both, depending on your intended meaning. Let’s look at these two statements to figure out which one to use.


“I would like to send Peter an email AND give him my regards.”

This statement has two potential meanings.

First, this sentence could mean that I want to do two separate actions: (1) send Peter an email, and (2) give Peter my regards. These actions might happen at the same time, or they might not. This sentence isn’t clear. To understand how this sentence describes two actions, we can compare it to a similar sentence with the same structure: “I want to make a million dollars AND take a trip to the Bahamas.” They are separate actions.  Continue reading

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How Many Chaplains?

Our friend, the English teacher in Iran, asked another good question. Unlike his questions about the singular or plural use of “any,” this one has a straightforward answer. (Fortunately!) Here’s his question.

The Question

I have just bought a novel, Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. 

There is a page about Jonathan Swift’s life. There, I found a sentence which I cannot analyze grammatically, no matter how much I am scratching my head to come up with an answer. The sentence is: 

“At the age of thirty-one, Swift returned to Ireland as chaplain to a lord justice.” 

To me, this sentence is 100% wrong grammatically. It should be: 

“At the age of thirty-one, Swift returned to Ireland as A chaplain to a lord justice.” 

Here is my reason: “chaplain” cannot be used without an “A” in front of it because it is in singular and an “A” is needed in front of it.

What do you think? Do you agree with me?  Continue reading


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No Problems

Our new friend, an English teacher from Iran, poses another complicated question about the use of “any.”

Which choice is correct? Please explain your reasons.

“English is not my mother tongue language. But I don’t have any ………… when I speak with native speakers of English. I can understand them very well.”

a) problems
b) problem

Short answer

This is a good question, but one without a clear answer. The short answer is that “any problems” is the more common way to say this. (Another common way to say this is “I don’t have a problem.”)

See here for a comparison of usage: http://bit.ly/WnAsbR

But this is sneaky. Let’s look at the long answer.

Long answer

If I say, “I don’t have any problems,” then I admit the possibility that I may have one problem. If someone asks me, “Do you have any problems,” I can correctly answer “no” if I have a single problem. I don’t have problems, but I do have a problem. Then, when the problem occurs, a person may say, “Hey, you said you didn’t have problems,” and I can answer, “That’s right. I don’t have more than one problem, but I do have one problem.” As I said, this is a sneaky way to answer.

On the other hand, if I say, “I don’t have any problem,” then I allow the possibility that I have more than one problem. If someone asks me, “Do you have any problem,” I can correctly answer “no” if I have several problems. I don’t have just one problem, but I have several problems. Then, when problems occur, the person can say, “Hey, you said you didn’t have a problem,” and I can answer “That’s right. I don’t have a single problem, but I do have more than one problem.” This, too, is a sneaky way to answer.

The answers are sneaky because the literal meanings may conflict with the implied meanings. I say one thing, and the listener thinks I mean something else. I answer that I don’t have one problem, or don’t have multiple problems, but the listener will assume I mean zero problems.

To get back to the original question, you have two options.

1. Most common way to say this: “any problems.”

2. Literal answer: Choose “I don’t have any problem” to indicate you don’t have a single problem or choose “I don’t have any problems” to indicate you don’t have multiple problems.

My recommendation: use “any problems.” If you have one problem, you are likely to have other problems, too. If you use “any problems,” the message you send is that not even one problem will occur, thus covering all possibilities.

Perhaps our friend will ask a question about “that” and “which.” By comparison, the answer is much simpler.

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Any Question From Iran

Have you ever been asked a question and thought, “Oh, that’s an easy question! It’s simple.” Questions like that might make me feel smart, but they aren’t very interesting. They don’t make me think and scratch my head. I don’t learn anything from them.

Our friend from afar sent a real poser of a question. Not easy to answer, but much more interesting.

The Question

I have a question. Which choice is correct? Please explain your reasons.

“Mr. Johnson is a very knowledgeable English teacher. He can answer any ………….. about grammar.”

a) question
b) questions

My Answer 

Another tricky question. This question isn’t about grammar; it’s about context. A and B are both possible solutions, but the most likely correct answer is B, “questions.”

“Any” can indicate one or more than one. For example, “Go get any book” means the same as “Go get any one book” and “Go get a book.” However, “Go get any books” means the same as “Go get some books.” In your question below, as with many issues regarding grammar and word choice, we have to look not only at the specific problem but also at the message being conveyed. We have to understand the context in which the problem occurs.

Now, why is B the most likely correct answer?

The answer is in the context. If Mr. Johnson is a very knowledgeable English teacher, he can answer more than one question, which means he can answer questions.

Let’s think about the message being conveyed here. If you think of any (one) question about grammar, Mr. Johnson can answer it. However, if you think of a different question, Mr. Johnson can answer that question, too. Thus, Mr. Johnson has the ability to answer more than one question. Again, this means Mr. Johnson can answer questions.

“Mr. Johnson can answer any question about grammar” is most appropriate in one particular instance. Let’s say that Mr. Johnson has just given a presentation and that people have questions about grammar. Although he has the knowledge to answer all their questions (any questions), he only has time to answer one question. Knowing this, someone says, “Mr. Johnson can answer any question,” meaning Mr. Johnson, because of his time constraints, is only able at this time to answer one.

Let’s look at similar case.

If a teacher asks students “Do you have any question?” then the teacher expects the students to have one question. This is the same as asking “Do you have a question?” (In this situation, “a” is more common than “any.”) On the other hand, if the teacher asks students “Do you have any questions?” then the teacher understands that the students may have more than one question. In this case, as with Mr. Johnson, “any questions” is more appropriate because it allows the possibility for more than one.

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