Month: August 2013

You Should Dumb Down Ad Copy, But Not Too Much

So this issue arose in my office today: should you dumb down ad copy? As a writer who also believes America is slowly losing its vocabulary (or at least gaining a new one), my knee-jerk reaction is a resounding, “Heck no!”

Now I’m not advocating for writing copy that rivals Shakespeare or David Foster Wallace in its use of vernacular or word play, but why not give the public some credit?

open bookI believe in contextual reading as well. Don’t know a word? Most of us are pretty good at guessing its meaning based on context. You don’t need to have studied Latin or another language to recognize familiar prefixes, suffixes, and root words.

Keep it simple, would you?

But of course, the basis of good ad copy is simplicity. Keeping the message clear and easily understood at a glance. You shouldn’t be using that much copy anyway, so yes – you do need to choose your words wisely. But I also think, and I seem to be in the minority of this opinion online, that simplicity doesn’t necessarily mean “dumbed down” words or language.


Does it even matter? Why can’t you use a shorter synonym? 

Clients often ask me to just “pick another word that means the same thing.” But words all have different (though slight) meanings, and – more importantly for ad copy – words can make you feel a certain way or immediately visualize a tone or feeling. Such as the differences between the words: battle, assault, conflict, struggle, and encounter. Writers know that even the subtle difference in meaning can impact a reader, even if they don’t fully realize it.


Find a happy medium.

So okay, using elevated language, especially on adverts going out to the average Joe or Jane, is probably not the best method of converting sales. Someone is more likely to dismiss the ad (or worse, feel insulted by it) if they don’t recognize a word. But just as ads these days are testing the limits in other ways (e.g., using profanity, talking about sex, referencing pop culture) – why can’t we test the limits and try to also raise the level of discourse and vocabulary just a bit. I’ll even take a tiny bit. If we can push YOLO and twerk into common vocabulary, why can’t we learn words like pensive and fervor too?

What are your thoughts? Leave a comment below!

Writing Exercise: Write That Book!

I once again visited for this week’s writing exercise. And this specific exercise, Write That Book!, caught my eye:

So if you head over to Smith’s website, I happen to enjoy:


I’m going to do this writing exercise tonight. What about you? Head over to Tyler Adam Smith’s website, choose a book cover you like, and then write the first page… or first paragraph. Which one did you choose? Share your comments below!

Writing Update: Goodbye Summertime

This is going to be a brief writing update, as the summertime is almost over and I’m trying to balance work, writing, and life. Writing, unfortunately, has taken a back-burner too much these past two weeks, so I want to kick it into high gear again. A couple thoughts as I round the final corner of August and say, “Goodbye summertime!”


When in doubt, write first. I have a lot of notes that I need to go through. I have to go through them, even though I dread reading some of what people have said about my writing (even though it’s never as bad as I imagine it will be). The paranoia and nervousness can be paralyzing. It can scare you away from writing or freeze you up when you try to organize your thoughts. So I’ve been writing first. Writing what I want and not looking at notes until I’ve finished with a draft and am confident in what I have. Then I can slowly go through notes, because I’m in a better mental place and can more easily disregard what I might not have been able to ignore before.


– Not all reading has to be serious. After finishing a great non-fiction memoir/book, I was ready for a bit of a distraction. I’d much rather read than watch television, but sometimes I crave light-hearted or easy reading. Something quick and ‘fattening’ – with little literary panache. I had a phase where I refused to let myself read such writing, telling myself that everything I read had to be teaching me something. Or had to be literarily worthy. But now? Now I allow myself such light reading. Why not? Read what you want, when you want.


– When you’re stuck or feeling down, call up a (writer) friend. Writing can be a lonely calling, and easily shelved for another day/time/week/month – especially during those days where nothing seems to flow onto the page or cleaning the toilet (for the second time) seems more pressing than getting 1,000 words down on paper. That’s when you should “phone a friend.” Specifically, a writer. Sometimes you don’t even need encouraging words, but you just need to talk to someone who you know understands what you’re going through. You don’t even need to talk to this person about writing – as long as you know that your friend knows where you’re coming from and has gone through the same ups and downs you have – it helps you re-center and infuses some much-needed camaraderie and a sense of community into what it means to be a writer.

What about you? What have you learned or thought about this summer? Share your ideas in the comments section!

5 Favorite Summer Writing Tweets on Twitter

I love Twitter. I love scrolling through tweets and reading the comments people post, plus finding and sharing links and stories. I feel like it’s a wonderful virtual writer’s room, where people from all over can come together and chat, but chat on their own terms and at their own pace.

I retweet articles I find interesting or helpful, especially in regards to writing, reading, editing, or being a writer. Here are five of my favorite summer writing tweets.

5. Words of Wisdom

Long walks





4. Novel advice

Novel tips





3. Beautiful Covers

Book design





2. Tips for Bloggers

Lazy blogger





1. 50 Books to Read





What have been some of your favorite literary tweets this summer? Share in the comments section!

To The Point: Menu Writing and Capitalization

Often, I’m asked to proofread a menu. When this occurs, inevitably a few questions arise from the client, and they mainly regard capitalization.

  1. What are the capitalization rules on menus?
  2. Should you capitalize… [fill in the blank for a whole list of words: french fries, bloody mary, cheeses, meats, cocktails…]

So I have four guidelines* I use when writing or proofing menus. *I say guidelines because, as you are about to see, menu writing can get tricky.


Guideline #1 – Be Consistent

This is really the most important rule. Menus can defy ‘proper’ grammar and style rules, take on a personality of their own, or purposefully play with punctuation, spelling, and design – but whatever system you decide to use, whatever guidelines you do decide to follow – stick with them throughout the entire menu. Inconsistencies stand out like an overused cliché.


Guideline #2 – Capitalize the Bolded Dish Names

On a menu, a dish name can be thought of the equivalent of a header in a memo or document. You can capitalize the name of a dish, as long as you capitalize all the names consistently.


Guideline #3 – Use Regular Capitalization Rules, Unless You Don’t

Here’s where it gets tricky. Let’s start with the easy ones. With anything that doesn’t contain a proper noun, follow normal rules of capitalization. Even for cocktails. Examples: mimosa, mojito, grasshopper, taco, soup.

Capitalize food when it is derived from specific locations in the world or named after specific people. Okay, but wait. Let’s examine this closer. Cheese always comes up. I always capitalize cheese if it comes from a certain place. Such as Swiss, Brie, Munster, American. Simple, right? But then when it comes to meats, I don’t capitalize meats, because the name is now known as the name of the cut: frankfurt, hamburger, wiener.

So far, so good. But now comes the tricky part. Some cocktails have names originally derived from locations, but are now not what we call a “literal use of the proper noun.” This means that we don’t really associate them with the locations anymore. Examples: manhattan, daiquiri, irish coffee. Same rationale for margarita: even though Margarita is a name, we don’t capitalize the drink because it’s long since lost its association with the name. What about a bloody mary*? The AP Style Guide (which is my go-to guide) recommends not capitalizing it for the same reason.

From Zach Klein’s Flickr photostream

Still with me? This leads me to my favorite: french fries. The “french” here possibly refers to the type of cut, but almost definitely adheres to the “lost its original association” category – which is why I do not capitalize it. (Though some days it seems as if everyone else who writes the first drafts of the menus I see, does.)

*Okay, so on these same lines I would really like to not capitalize caesar salad if I had my way. (1) Because this salad is not, as many assume, named after the Roman emperor and (2) if poor Bloody Mary loses her capitalization privileges because of lost association**, I would hope this stands true here, since people don’t even recall the guy who this salad is named after! But alas, when I try to correct this, general outcry (far greater than you might imagine) occurs.


**Cocktails such as Tom Collins, Jim Beam, or Shirley Temple, still get capitalized. Perhaps there’s a statute of limitations on how long you have to be dead before you lose your capitalization privileges. But that’s another blog entirely.


Guideline #4 – Lowercase in the Food Descriptions

In food descriptions, I tend to lean towards keeping as much in lowercase as possible. Some exceptions to this would be if the food does use a proper noun as discussed in Rule #3 (Peking duck, Omaha beef) or it’s a brand (Nestle or Hershey) or it’s a special name your Chef has created (Bob’s Butter Shrimp).

While the rules for writing menus and writing food may be flexible and contentious, as long as you decide on what you are going to do and stick with that rule, you will be fine. Pick a style book you like and use that as your guide. If you want the least confusing, I suggest the Chicago Manual of Style, because it basically suggests lowercase for everything. I use the AP Style Guide because of my days in journalism. If you choose to use a dictionary, just remember David Foster Wallace’s great essay on such reference books: they might not be as objective as you think they are.

I leave you with that, as I believe we’ve spent quite enough time discussing menus. Have any comments? Leave them in the comments section!

10 Writing Jokes Writers Will Appreciate

I like good bad jokes, or perhaps bad good jokes, about writing and grammar. There are many floating around out there, but here are my favorites – the ones I keep in my pocket for a good audience groan.

1. Writing rule.
Remember, double negatives are a no, no.


2. Two guys in a bar.
Two guys meet in a bar. No 1 says to No. 2, “So what do you do for a living?”

“I’m a brain surgeon,” says No. 2. “What do you do?”

“I’m a writer,” says No. 1.

“Oh,” says the brain surgeon. “When I retire, I want to be a writer.”

“That’s interesting,” says the writer. “When I retire, I want to be a brain surgeon.”


3. What kind of word would you invite to a fancy tea party?
A proper noun.


4. Pick-up line.
I’d like to both compliment you and complement you. Aren’t you impressed I know the difference?


5. Why do bikes fall down?
Because they are two tired.


6. Bar joke.
The past, present, and future walk into a bar. It was tense.


7. Calvin’s Writer’s block.


8. Writing rule.
Only one writer in a million can use a hyperbole correctly.


9. Writing rule.
Avoid clichés like the plague.


10. What do you say to a semicolon that tries to pick a fight in a bar?
You’ll need more guts than that.


Still with me? If so, please share your own favorite jokes in the comment section!

5 Discreet Office Exercises You Can (and Should) Do

I sit at a computer all day and I see my coworkers sitting at computers all day, which makes me cringe at the thought of all the impending health risks we face. Added onto the walking you do to and from the lunch room and your coworkers’ offices, here are 5 office exercises you can easily (and discreetly) do if you’re feeling too sedentary.

1. Sit Up Straight

Your mother was right when she told you, “Good posture is important.” Not only does good posture strengthen your core and give your lower back a break (especially for slouchers), it’s easy to do and won’t draw raised eyebrows from your neighbors. Pay attention to keeping your back straight and stomach taut. Some tips are:

  • Always sit with both feet firmly on the ground in front of you. This is a tough one for me because I love to cross one leg over another, but that gets uncomfortable, fast.
  • Put your shoulders back and raise your chin as much as you can (granted this might mean tipping your screen up more)
  • Adjust your keyboard and chair if needed. Remember not to slouch!

2. Move Your Feet

When you’re not firmly planted on the ground, work out your ankles and toes so they don’t get sore. I find this especially helpful when I wear tight dress shoes. A few times a day, extend your legs out under your desk and alternate pointing and flexing your feet. Do 5-10 ankle circles per foot, and then 5-10 toe “scrunches” too. Of course, it also helps to stand up and move around.

3. Arm Stretches

While you might be constantly using your fingers, what about your shoulders and arms? No one wants carpal tunnel. A simple shoulder and arm exercise that I use for tennis can be used in your office. Sit up straight and plant your feet firmly on the floor, or stand while doing this stretch. Bring your right arm across your chest, stretching your fingers out to the left. Bring your left arm under and across your right arm and hug your right arm towards your chest. Your left arm should be pointing up towards the ceiling. Hold for a count of 10 seconds and then switch sides. When you’re done, relax your arms and let them hang loosely at your sides for 10 seconds.

8-7-2013 4-37-22 PM



4. Shoulder & Neck Rolls

This is simply but can really help your shoulders. Slowly roll both your shoulders (at the same time) backwards 10 times. You can do this sitting or standing. Then slowly roll both your shoulders forward 10 times. Then move your neck in a circle to the right 5 times (slowly, as you might get a bit dizzy), and then to the left 5 times. You can also try to touch your ear to your shoulder on both sides – this stretches the side of your neck as well.

exercise ball at desk

5. Exercise Ball, Anyone?

To work your core and abs, you might want to consider replacing your office chair with an exercise ball. The ball will force you to use your abs to hold yourself in position all day. It improves your balance and tones your center, and also releases tension from your lower back. It also prevents you from slouching. Of course, you need to choose a ball that fits your height, and I would also highly recommend either practicing at home or not throwing out your old chair immediately. You might need to work up to sitting on an exercise ball all day in the office.

These are five discreet exercises you can do in your office that will help you alleviate stress on your back and body. What are your favorites?

Writing Update: Past the Halfway Mark

It’s August, which means we’ve successfully passed the halfway mark for the year and head squarely into fall. I’ve been talking with several friends and other writers who have had some issues with late summer procrastination and/or writer’s block. Personally, I’ve been distracted by trying to fit in last-minute summer activities and new story and project ideas. I’ve been reading some good nonfiction such as David Foster Wallace’s essays or Chuck Klosterman’s story about death, and now I want to write a new essay! Do I allow myself this digression? I have been for a week or so, but now my focus returns to my novel.

Have you been procrastinating lately? What has caused you to lose focus or turn to another project? Share your thoughts in the comment section below!

To the Point: Lazy Writing

It’s come time to write the blog about lazy writing, and it comes after a day of having to rewrite two other writers’ projects after they finished projects unacceptable for print. The projects felt like the writers were just “phoning it in” and there were obvious typos and issues. So I wanted to put down a few reminders for business / freelance writers working on projects that always help me:

  • If you have questions, ask. When you’re working on a project for a client, it can sometimes be intimidating to ask questions, especially if you haven’t worked with the client much before and you want to seem knowledgeable and professional. But if you are unsure of what the client wants, ask. It’s always better to settle all questions about tone, audience, style, and objectives at the beginning. Even if you’re embarrassed, it’s much better to ask earlier than start work on a project and realize later that you’re headed the wrong direction.

  • Write to the guidelines. When deadlines are tight and you’re working on a large project or on a quick turnaround, always remember your guidelines. If there’s a word count limit, a page limit, or a certain style of writing, stick to it as you write. Don’t forget – your clients definitely won’t. You don’t want to have to redo your work, or lose a client based on an inability to adhere to client guidelines.

  • Proof your work! After you finish a project, always remember to proof your own work. Yes, you might have just spent hours working on it, but you are still the writer and your client expects you to turn in error-free writing. Even if you need to take a break and come back to it, always proof your work. If it helps, you can print out the project and proof it by hand. Using proofer tricks can help you catch typos, discover missing words, and notice convoluted writing. Nothing ruins a client’s opinion of you quicker than an obvious typo left in an important project.

These are three quick suggestions to help prevent lazy writing by freelance writers in the business world. What are your suggestions? Leave them in the comments section below!

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