Understanding Good References for Writers

Bad information spreads on the internet like a virus. If you get incorrect information, you can easily find another source online that will confirm it. In fact, you can get any kind of information you want on the internet. If you want to say that 1+1 equals 11, there is most certainly a site that you could use as a source.

That’s why books from reputable publishers make the best references. They’ve been edited and fact-checked for accuracy.

When you have to use a website for a resource, it is especially important to verify its credibility. It is best to use academic resources and official agencies for specific information, and to double check them against other credible resources.

Common red flags on many websites include:

• Poor grammar and writing
• An obvious political bent
• Hyperbole (“Obvious or intentional exaggeration.” www.dictionary.com)
• Statements that just seem wrong

This is where your instincts come in. Watch out for confirmation bias. This is when you want to believe something is true, and you look for sources that back up your assumptions, rather than for ones that speak to the accuracy of your assumptions.

Making Titles Pop

Titles are a first impression, and you only get one chance to seduce a reader into looking at your copy. Consider the following when writing a title:

• Your title often shows up first on Web search results.
• Your title can make a story seem more or less interesting than it is.
• Your title has to condense your article into very few words.

Luckily, there are several tips you can use for optimizing titles, such as writing the title last (or considering your first title a draft). This allows you to craft a title that truly fits the content. As writers know, articles can take their own direction once the writing actually starts, and thus it can be better to let the article dictate the title.

Secondly, read your title back to yourself. Does it capture the subject of the article well? Does it arouse your curiosity and make you want to read on?

When you read the title, compare it to the article. The title should include the most interesting feature of the article. The main subject of the article should be apparent in the title.

Also, contemplate the verbs you use in the title. Headline writers for news services are masters at this. For example, consider which of the following titles makes you want to read the article more:

• River Water Level Rises, Causes Flood Conditions
• River Surges, Flooding Hazard Grows

The second title’s urgency is heightened by its use of active verbs and exciting words, and therefore, will likely draw in more readers to the same article.

Grammar Tips: Split Infinitives, Further vs. Farther, Hyphens, and Numbers

The point of proper grammar is to foster clarity and consistency (and certainly not to nitpick…). Though rules evolve over time (accounting for popular annual publications such as the Chicago Manual of Style), we’re presenting some common rules here that have stood the test of recent time, but still confuse even the most talented writers: split infinitives, further vs. farther, hyphens, and numbers.

Split Infinitives
Splitting an infinitive means putting a modifier between “to” and the verb that follows it. So, technically, “To boldly go where no man has gone before” is grammatically incorrect. It should be “To go boldly…” It’s not universally accepted, however, that it’s wrong to split infinitives; there are precedents for both cases going back hundreds of years.

However, because so many people today do consider it incorrect, splitting infinitives can be distracting, so better safe than sorry on this one. In other words, better not “to go boldly” (incorrect) and to split an infinitive haphazardly.

Further vs. Farther
Further and farther are confused quite often. The basic rule is, if you’re referring to taking something to another degree or pursuing something in more detail, you are going further. If you are physically walking or driving a greater distance, you are going farther.

Hyphens (In a Series)
Hyphens, when in a series, are applied in the following manner: “It could be a one- or two-bedroom house.” The hyphen follows the “one” in this example, even though what it refers to (“bedroom”) doesn’t appear until the end of the series. This rule is commonly overlooked.

Numbers are another very common area of grammatical errors. Generally, numbers fewer than 10 (such as nine) are spelled out, and numbers including and above 10 are written as digits.

There are some instances where style conventions will override this. For instance, it is uncommon to see “Three-gigabyte hard drive” in well-reputed publications and websites (rather, “3-gigabyte—or 3GB—hard drive”).

In general, it’s a great idea to check the style requirements and industry usage for whatever you’re writing, where numbers are concerned.