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5 resources to overcome writing challenges

grammarWriting a review is often a long drawn out process for me. It involves searching the book to check I’ve correctly spelled character and place names but also frantically looking for the quote I thought I had noted but now can’t find. I also spend a fair amount of time re-writing because I’m not happy with the flow of a sentence or realise what I’ve written is grammatically incorrect. When inspiration refuses to play ball and I know I need a different expression or word, I’ll turn to my my monster size Chambers Dictionary or Roget’s Thesaurus.

Over the years I’ve found many on line resources that I’ve found helpful. Those I list below are some of the lesser known ones. If you know of some other gems, do tell me about them by posting a comment.

Plainlanguage.gov

This is a site developed in North America by the Plain Language Action and Information Network. The network is a group of government employees who support the use of clear communication in official documents.  There are some good resources about organising, using plain language writing principles, and writing for the Web. If you work in a corporate environment, take a look at the  word suggestions page where you can find easy to understand alternatives to some of the more cumbersome phrases you’ll probably recognise. The Made up Word list will have you groaning – are there really people who use words like “autoised” or “bloatware”? I hope I never meet them…..

PlainEnglishCampaign

Similar to Plainlanguage.gov the Plain English Campaign is a group that believes strongly in clear communication. It was started in 1979 by Chrissie Maher, a grandmother who was frustrated by the quality of government documents she was expected to complete. She took her battle to London where she burned many official documents in Parliament Square, a protest which brought her to the attention of a government minister by the name of Margaret Thatcher.  Their fight against jargon and misleading information has become an international campaign. On their website you’ll find some very easy to understand tips (particularly helpful is one that deals with bullet points) and a downloadable A-Z of Alternative Words. I have a special affection for this group since I worked on a project with them in the mid 80s and met the founder; a more down-to-earth person you could not imagine.

Purdue Online Writing Lab (OWL)

Purdue OWL comes from the Writing Lab at Purdue University, USA. It covers the mechanics of writing, grammatical issues and how to deal with citations. Particularly helpful are the exercises – even if you’ve been writing for years it’s good to do a refresher now and again.

A Guide to Grammar and Style 

Jack Lynch is a professor of English who has put together a site covering grammatical rules and style. It’s written in a fresh, no nonsense style from a man who says he has writing struggles despite his extensive experience. “I’m not out to make definitive statements about what’s right and what’s wrong, and Lord knows I wouldn’t be qualified even if I tried. I can, however, make suggestions on things that are likely to work” 

World Wide Words

If you’re interested in how vocabulary and language changes over time, this could be the website for you. It contains some discussions of new words as well as the histories of certain words and the oddities and quirks of the English language. Ever wanted to know the origin of the phrase “Gone for a Burton”? or why the expression “methinks” has fallen out of favour? Both are recent discussions on the site.

Armchair BEA: 10 resources for creating blog posts

book heart armchairbeaToday’s Armchair BEA topic is a free choice selection. Since I’ve spent so much of my time this week writing posts for BEA, I thought I’d pass on some resources that I’ve found a great help when creating blog content.

First of all, finding the right word

Obviously you need a good dictionary like the Collins English Thesaurus so you can check you are using the correct spelling in your post. Although most word processing software programs these days come with automatic spellcheck you can’t always rely on them for accuracy. I do like to look up words myself.  But there are many other  tools. Here are 5 recommendations:
1. Plain English Campaign Guides

The Plain English Campaign is an organisation I admire enormously for their work in getting government departments, insurance companies and travel firms to simplify their official documents.  The site gives you the basics on how to write plain English. The tool I find particularly helpful is the A-Z of Alternative Words – this will help you avoid writing that can be complex.  Look up ‘acquire’ and it tells you the better word is ‘get’ or ‘buy’ as an example.

2. The Visual Thesaurus 
This is a good resource for people who like to think in visual terms. It’s both a dictionary and a thesaurus. You type in a word and the tool creates word maps based on that entry. The maps branch out to related words. Although use of Visual Thesaurus requires you to take out a subscription, there is a free trial version.

3WordHippo

This is more of an unusual tool. It’s really useful when you are struggling to find the right tense or when you are trying to avoid repeating the same word too much in a sentence. It enables you to search for words under different categories; for example you can search by “singular for “adverb for,” “past tense of” and you can also get help on how to pronounce your chosen word.

4. Idioms at The Free Dictionary

This one is good if you want to use headlines that involve a play on words. You put in a word and the tool gives you a list of common phrases in which the word appears.

5. Thsrs (The Shorter Thesaurus)

If you are making a conscious effort to shorten the way you write (Plain English Campaign guideline is to aim for sentences of around 20 words), this is the tool for you. In The Shorter Thesaurus you enter a long word and get a list of shorter synonyms. Would be useful for Twitter users also.

Finding the right image

We all know what a difference a good image can make to a blog post. It’s not always easy to find the right one and stay legal at the same time. Here are some resources that can help you say within the law.

But first let’s touch on the thorny question of when it is ok to use an image you find on the web.

Often when you go to a site it will tell you that an image is free to use. That doesn’t give you carte blanche to use the image however – you need to make sure you understand the terms and conditions. For example, some images will be labelled in Google as Labeled for reuse which means the license allows you to copy and/or modify the image in specific ways. If you’re blog is not generating income, then that will generally be sufficient for your needs but if you are getting an income stream from your blog you need to look for Labeled for commercial reuse images instead and follow those terms and conditions.

1. Google Images

This is where most of us start off when we are looking for an image.  Not all the images you see here are ones that you can use without breaking copyright law. You need to refine your search so that you only look for ” free images”  using the small gear icon on the right side of the screen. Then select “Advanced Search.” and the correct image use type from the blue sign that says “Usage Rights.” You do need to know what image use types exist.

2. Flickr Creative Commons

There are thousands of images on this site. Again you need to make sure you are using only those which are designated as ‘creative commons’ usage. Make sure you select the “Creative Commons” box in the Advanced Search page.

3. PhotoPin

This could be a quicker way to find Creative Commons images since it finds images with all the attribution details and license info.

4. FreeDigitalPhotos.net

A rich source of good images. Those which are free tend to be smaller in size but that should be ok for a blog. If you need anything bigger, you pay for them.

 5. You

Yes, believe it or not, you are a source for images. All you need is a digital camera and a tiny bit of technical know how to upload the image onto your computer.  Instead of grabbing an image of a jacket cover from Google (which could get you into trouble) why not take your own photo of the book – maybe put it in the place where you do your reading to make it more distinctive than everyone else’s photo of that book cover. This is something I’m going to be trying out myself starting this weekend.  I’m also going to be looking for a low cost graphic design package so I can create my own images. The last thing I want is a solicitor’s letter dropping through my letter box alleging I have stolen someone else’s intellectual property.

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