General Writing

Eliminating cliches through careful observation

Cliches typically result from a lack of attention or from a certain amount of indifference. They’re readymade and easy to grab at as you write. But while they save you effort, they cost you in other ways. If you use too many cliches, your writing becomes less memorable. Your voice seems more dull, your thoughts less worthy of attention and distinction.

One of the ways to limit cliches in your writing is to carefully attend to the world. Specific details and concrete examples can deepen your writing. Observations of texture, shape, and color can enrich the text and give it more flavor.

Sightlines by Kathleen Jamie

I recently read Sightlines, a collection of nonfiction pieces by Kathleen Jamie. Her book inspired this post, because of how present she is in the world of each piece. From “The Gannetry,” on a colony of gannets in Scotland:

The cliffs were south-facing, full in the sun, and five hundred foot high. They formed promontories and bowls, so we walked out onto the broadest promontory and from there looked back into the cauldron the birds had commandeered for themselves.

Or, from “Moon,” an observation of an eclipse:

The moon does us a great service, metaphorically and literally, and this is part of it – occasionally she allows us to appreciate the shadow cast by our own planet. She shows us that the earth, for all the cacophony of life on its surface, is firstly an object, bigger than we are, magisterial enough to cast a shadow thousands and thousands of miles into space.

In this piece, she describes the moon ripening like fruit, even as the Earth becomes more strikingly rock-like. Although people have compared the moon to food before, she constructs the imagery with delicacy and care, and in a way that’s unique to her. She doesn’t make a lazy comparison. It’s borne of observation and imagination.

Before describing someone as having nerves of steel or being weak as a kitten, study them. Reflect on who they are in a specific moment. Do you want to say something about emotions or economics or how beautiful your backyard looks at dawn? Don’t lean too hard on the readymade phrases. What are you really trying to say? What does it mean?

Reading good writing can help remind you to observe the world more carefully. So can being present in the moment as you write or edit your work. Think about what you’re trying to write and how to write it precisely and memorably.

– Hila

Forty-One False Starts and the Choice of Introductions

Introductions are difficult to write in part because of the possibilities. Do you begin with an anecdote, a question, a quote, or a startling fact? If you do choose an anecdote, which one works best?

One reason I enjoyed reading Janet Malcolm’s essay, “Forty-One False Starts,” is its structure as a series of strong introductions.

Malcolm had interviewed an artist, David Salle, multiple times in his New York City studio. The essay discusses him, his art and reputation, and avant-garde art more generally. Each “false start” is a wonderful way she could have started the piece about him.

That this essay is a series of introductions also resonates with the subject matter. Malcolm plays with the structure of the essay, and she plays off of her subject, Salle, who never stops to revise. Once he starts something a certain way, he pushes forward. As Malcolm writes in Intro #4:

During one of my visits to the studio of the artist David Salle, he told me that he never revises. Every brushstroke is irrevocable. He doesn’t correct or repaint, ever. He works under the dire conditions of performance. Everything counts, nothing may be taken back, everything must always go relentlessly forward, and a mistake may be fatal. One day, he showed me a sort of murdered painting. He had worked on it a little too long, taken a misstep, killed it.

In contrast, Malcolm has stopped and revised. She’s started over and over. (Or is each introduction is a ‘murdered essay’ that she abandoned? Is her whole essay a graveyard of murdered essays?)

“Forty-One False Starts” shows different facets of Salle and the NYC art scene. It’s also interesting to consider what a writer could do with each of the introductions (or ledes). If you were to choose one over the other, how would the tone of the piece change? What would be different about the details you focus on or the flow of the story?

Reasoning skills for writers and everyone else

At the University of Washington in Seattle, a new course is available: “Calling Bullshit: Data Reasoning for the Digital Age.” Check out the syllabus, which includes links to readings. Even if you aren’t a student at the university, you can read the articles and case studies and hopefully sharpen your reasoning skills.

It’s great that this kind of class is available. I also wish that ‘data reasoning,’ critical thinking, and statistical literacy were taught more widely and at younger ages. (The material could be adapted for kids.) Will the class shape mental habits that help people deal with all the misinformation they come across online?

I’m reminded of an assignment I got in a college developmental psych class. The professor asked us to find a newspaper article reporting a research finding in psych. Our assignment was to analyze both the news article and the original research paper it covered. What were the limitations of the original study? What did the newspaper article exaggerate or omit? It was an effective lesson, and it changed how I read science journalism.

Any written piece – whether for a blog, an academic journal, or a newspaper – needs to meet a certain standard of integrity. If you want to publish something, do what you can to avoid major distortions, poor research, and blatant lies. If you set this standard for yourself as an individual or as a business, you’re fighting for a more honest and civilized discourse. You may even stand out favorably, your reputation enhanced.

All the courses in the world on “calling bullshit” mean little if the lessons don’t get applied. And reasoning skills will hopefully become a habit, not a one-time lesson. – Hila

Six Amazing Research Resources Online

The Internet is an immense swamp, a terrain of bots, trolls, and magnificent treasures. People are apt to get lost in it and lean on unreliable guides for navigation.


There’s a massive mess of information (and misinformation) online. Sources frequently aren’t reputable or easily traceable. Even when it’s accurate, the information often isn’t relevant for a specific research purpose. Picking your way through it requires some internet savvy and critical thinking, along with strong organizational skills.

Fortunately, there are robust sources of information available, and tools to help people stay focused and organized when conducting research. What research resources can you turn to online? They range from enormous databases to tutorials for writing academic articles and citing sources. The following are six resources to look into:

1) Digital Tools for Researchers

Geared primarily towards scientists, it’s a huge list of tools for gathering, organizing, analyzing, sharing, and writing about different kinds of data.

2) EasyBib: Finding Sources

The link leads to only one section of a massive guide on writing research articles. Under “Finding Sources,” EasyBib lists a variety of places to look up scholarly papers and statistics.

3) International Writing Centers Association: Writing Centers Online

Many on this mega-list are university writing centers that include tutorials about research papers and instructions on formatting citations. The Online Writing Lab (OWL) from Purdue University is one that I’ve relied on to doublecheck AP style guidelines.

4) The DiRT Directory of Digital Research Tools

DiRT categorizes these digital tools based on what you need, anything from visualizing data to converting files to annotating text.

5) Educational Technology and Mobile Learning: 10 Great Tools for Academic Research

Among their recommendations are Evernote, Zotero, and Mendeley. One of the items on their list is an additional list of tools for generating bibliographies.

6) Lib Web

Links to thousands of academic, public, and government libraries around the world.

(I’ll also throw in a link to WorldCat, which will help you find books, DVDs, and other materials in libraries near your home.)

Important to keep in mind…

Using these resources won’t necessarily steer you away from misleading information. There are plenty of scientific papers, for example, based on poor methodology and yielding doubtful results.

A while ago I wrote a post on evaluating the credibility of Internet sources. It may help you make sense of what you find in the swamp. Also, don’t hesitate to reach out to me for assistance with research, writing, and editing, as I have extensive experience with all three.

– Hila

(Image source: Wikimedia Commons.)

When to lose ‘loose’ and use ‘lose’

I often see people write something like:

“I’m going to loose my mind.”

“She was afraid of loosing the love of her life.”

“How can I invest in the stock market without loosing too much?”

They’re using “loose” when what they really mean is “lose.”

Loose vs. lose

For the most part, loose gets used an adjective. It means free of tight restraints or bonds. “Her hair was loose,” is one example. Or maybe it was in a loose ponytail, meaning that she didn’t tie it too tightly.

Sometimes, you can also use loose as a verb that means to release something (or someone). You’re freeing them from a restraint or bond. When you say, “I’m going to loose my mind,” it sounds like you’re about to unleash your mind on the world, setting it loose on everyone.

In contrast, lose is a verb meaning to misplace something or get deprived of it in various ways. You can lose your keys and your sense of humor. Hopefully you’ll recover both.

People worry about losing their money in the stock market. They’re afraid of losing the love of their life to death or because of hurtful behavior. Losing isn’t always negative, though. If you lose yourself in some music, for example, the temporary parting from self-consciousness can feel pretty good.

Lose loose control

The confusion between loose and lose is understandable. In some situations, there’s a strong connection between the two. For example, if you tie your birthday balloon loosely to a chair, it may break free and float away. You lose your balloon because it was too loose. If something isn’t tightly restrained, or if you free it from its bonds, you may wind up misplacing it or getting deprived of it.

Also, people get mixed up because of the similarities in spelling. One ‘o’ vs. two. But it’s important to understand the differences between the words.

– Hila

Three tiresome writing voices


Every written work has its own voice – a unique personality and energy giving life to the words.

What impression does your writing voice give people?

Some writing voices get tiresome pretty quickly. They’re used too much and usually not well. They might convey indifference to your readers or something mean-spirited or lazy in the way you think.

Here are three common examples:


Four fun ways to use social media for writing inspiration

One of the great complaints about social media is that it wastes time. Twitter, Facebook, and all the rest can derail your work.

However, I’ve been trying to make peace with social media by discovering some of its benefits. Among these is the potential to inspire writing ideas.

The following are four ways to turn social media into a source of writing inspiration:

1) Tweets as prompts

A tweet could push you to write a longer piece.

Maybe it will trigger an idea for a work of fiction.

Maybe it will display such an absence of knowledge and critical thought, that you’ll feel compelled to write an article or blog post setting things right.

Maybe a topic trending on Twitter is worth expanding on. (Why is it trending? What’s interesting about it?)

2) How would five different people react to the same Facebook post?

Your Facebook friend has posted a favorable op-ed on your least favorite politician, or a recipe using three different ingredients you’re allergic to. Instead of stopping at your own immediate reaction, consider how different people would respond to the same post.

These could be five different fictional characters. Or maybe three people representing different philosophical, political or religious schools of thought.

3) Continue a scene on Vine

The videos are short and play in a loop. Imagine what could happen next.

4) Create a writing project Pinterest board

You can keep a board with public domain images you plan to use for a series of upcoming blog posts or articles.

Another type of board collects images that set the mood for a work of creative fiction or help you flesh out your main characters (the clothes they wear, what their homes look like, etc.)

Make your Pinterest board secret if you’re concerned about sharing too much about a writing project early on or feel uncomfortable displaying other people’s copyrighted images publicly without their consent.

Have you ever found writing inspiration in social media?

For creative fiction, content writing, or anything else?

It’s possible to fall into another time trap, where you endlessly search for inspiration and compile ideas from social media without ever writing anything (similar to reading countless online articles on productivity without getting anything done).

I also doubt I’ll suddenly take to social media and spend much more time on it. But I can learn to work with it more, which includes benefiting from whatever it offers that’s informative or inspiring.

– Hila

Which of the Hogwarts Houses Fits Your Writing Personality?

Welcome to Hogwarts School of Writing. The Hogwarts houses remain the same as in the school of witchcraft and wizardry from J.K. Rowling’s books, but this time you’re going to get sorted into one of the houses based on your writing personality.

Each of the Hogwarts houses has its potential strengths and weaknesses. Do you write like a Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw, or Slytherin?