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Everyone’s got a favorite punctuation mark. As for me, I like the em dash. Seems like I often have something extra to say at the end of a sentence or find myself wanting to interject a thought between thoughts. I’ve got options, of course, but the em dash usually grabs my attention first. Em dashes are simple and clean, easy to type, and extremely versatile. They also make my writing flow the best. But take my advice: there are tricks to using the em dash effectively, and getting to know the ins and outs of this functionally fun punctuation mark is worth the effort if you want it to improve your writing.

What is the Em Dash?

The em dash is a dash that’s about as long as the letter m. Don’t mistake it with the en dash, which is shorter and typically used between numbers, dates, and times. It’s also not the same as a hyphen, the shortest dash and the one used in compound words.

While the em dash is often referred to as the long dash, it's a great way to bring tightness and focus to your sentences.

When is the Em Dash Appropriate?

If you’ve got an important detail you want to highlight or you want to show a sudden break in thought, the em dash may be just the ticket: Sarah decided to return the white dress—she never planned to keep it anyway—after her mother commented on how pale she looked.

It also works when adding a final thought: Eating healthy and staying fit and strong will improve your overall well-being—and keep you young at heart.

You might also use an em dash to set off an introductory series of nouns: Patience, empathy, and kindness—those were the virtues she preached the most.

Finally, em dashes make reading a sentence with other punctuation easier on the eyes: Fruits, vegetables, and protein—especially strawberries, cauliflower, and fish—are among her favorites.

Dos and Don’ts for Using the Em Dash

The em dash has a place in your writing, but it’s not always the right mark to use. Keep these dos and don’ts in mind:

  • Do place the em dashes in the right spot. When used with an interjected idea, put dashes on either side. When used for a final thought, place the em dash directly before the thought.
  • Do watch your spacing. Em dashes don’t need spaces between letters. Make them look neat on the page.
  • Don’t use the em dash if parentheses or commas make more sense; for example, when a detail is minor and doesn’t need amplification.
  • Don’t precede an em dash with a comma, colon, semicolon, or period. You may use a question mark or exclamation point, though: He made it on time—thank goodness!—and the meeting was a success.
  • Don’t overuse the em dash. If your entire page is filled with them, they backfire and become hard on the eyes. Place them sparingly throughout a piece of writing. And never use two or more em dash clauses in the same sentence

Got a propensity for the em dash? Me too. Use it appropriately and intermittently and make the mark work to your advantage.

 

 

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Summer’s nearing an end and it’s time to start thinking about hitting the keyboard full force. But while you’re busy collecting ideas for your fall writing schedule, here’s one more idea to consider: planning a fall vacation. Wait a sec, didn’t I just take a vacation, you ask? Whether you did or not, fall’s one of the best times to travel, especially if you want to make autumn a lucrative, productive writing season. Here’s why:

You Need a Fall Vacation to Recharge

Let’s face it, summer vacations aren’t exactly restful and rejuvenating. Bustling beach adventures, hectic air travel, and multi-stop road trips to visit the relatives can be exciting—and exhausting. Fall vacations, on the other hand, tend to be less chaotic and tiring, giving your brain and body time to refresh and recharge so you can write full force when you return to your desk.

Fall Vacations Offer a Multitude of Writing Ideas

Beautiful colors, perfect weather, and popular destinations for less money describe a fall vacation. What more could you want? Actually, there’s plenty more. Vacationing during the autumn months is also an ideal way to jumpstart a new season of writing. All the advantages of fall travel translate to a long list of writing ideas—from interesting vacation spots to unique fall foods, activities, holidays, and foliage.

Motivation Comes from Something to Anticipate

You don’t have to take a fall vacation at the beginning of autumn, but you can start planning and getting excited about it, which will help motivate you to work hard now so you can relax and enjoy the trip in a month or two. Knowing you have something to look forward to in the short-term can be just what you need to be productive after a long, unstructured summer.

You Can Make It a Writing Vacation

A vacation doesn’t mean you have to stop writing. If you love your craft (and most writers do!) and it relaxes you, why not take it along? Choose a private, quiet spot to travel, and bring your writing materials and creativity with. Or, sign up for an autumn writing conference or retreat, where you get the opportunity to mingle with other writers, enjoy the beauty of the surroundings, and spend time honing and broadening your skills.

Fall is a great time to write. It’s also a great time to get away. Do yourself a favor and plan a fall vacation. It’ll do wonders for your mind, body, and writing life.

Image by David Whelan

 

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Blog and website owners are always in need of professionally-written web content, which is good news for freelance writers. Not only is web content in high demand, writing it is lucrative, fun, and open to just about any level of experience. But here’s the catch: While anyone can write web content, writing cash-worthy content takes patience, practice, and some important pointers. Here are six tips to help you craft the best content you can—and land a sale every time:

Be Fresh

Let’s face it, everyone’s written about practically every topic out there. But that doesn’t mean you can’t write one more article or post on a used idea—just make it fresh. In other words, find a new angle, a different perspective, or an interesting update. Of course, you can always come up with something completely untold, like a unique, personal experience. Best advice? Do some research before you start writing to rule out overdone topics. And remember, when it comes to selling content, fresh is the name of the game.

Know Your SEO

Using keywords that will help your content rank high in search engines is, well, key. If you don’t know SEO practices for writing web content, study and learn them. Content that’s SEO-friendly is going to help it sell. Bear in mind that SEO needs to be balanced with good, readable writing that delivers valuable advice or high entertainment value to the reader. Over-stuffed keywords in content that has more fluff than function won’t be worth anyone’s time—including a buyer’s.

Watch Word Count

If a blog owner specifies a word count, adhere to it. When you don’t have a word count to follow, aim for 2,000, say recent studies. Years ago, short blog posts and web articles of 500 or so words were the way to go. Now it appears that, for SEO purposes, longer posts have better sales potential. Check out this article about word counts for more information.

Avoid Haste

While it’s true, some readers scan through content looking for tidbits of information, others take their time and read entire posts, including several thousand word ones. The point is, never take your writing lightly. Hastily putting together an article that contains errors and useless advice won’t sell. Instead, write carefully and offer something relevant, include strong titles and bold subheadings for those who like to skim, and edit, edit, edit. In fact, set aside your work for a few days and review it with fresh eyes before submitting.

Price It Right

Be mindful when setting a fee or pricing your content. You may think your time and work are worth gold, but a buyer is looking for a reasonable price. Check around and see what the going rate is for content similar to yours. Consider your experience, the amount of research you’ve done, and the time and effort you’ve put in. You don’t want to underprice yourself, either; well-written, useful content will eventually sell for a fair price. If you’re writing for an article database or catalog, take into account the percentage the content distributor keeps when pricing your work.

Be Efficient

Writing web content can be time-consuming, but you can find ways to speed up the process, increase your output, and still produce quality work. For one thing, try coming up with several writing ideas at once. Often, this comes naturally. After gathering research for a topic and putting together an outline or draft, you might discover that you could turn your article into two or even three pieces. Most important, write when you’re able to fully concentrate so that your writing session consists of quality time. Efficiency goes a long way in helping you write—and sell—web content.

Writing web content is a fun way for writers of all backgrounds to earn money and get published. Learn the ins and outs of writing cash-worthy web content, and see how lucrative this writing niche can be.

 

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In today’s world of loose rules and anything-goes sentence structure, bad grammar often gets a pass. But using effective grammar is essential for readability, credibility, and clarity in writing. If you think you could use a grammar refresher, look no further. These five tips will help you hone and improve your grammar—so you can give your readers a satisfying, stammer-free experience.

Take a Class

Why not enroll in a grammar refresher course? They’re fun and challenging and help sharpen this important writing skill. Recommended classes include the Editorial Freelancers Association's Grammar Combo course, ed2go’s Grammar Refresher, and Media Bistro’s Grammar and Punctuation. You might also check with a local college or community education program for onsite grammar refresher classes.

Download a Grammar App

There are many grammar apps out there, so why not take advantage of this useful tool? Grammar apps do everything from point out errors in your writing to offer quizzes and games to make learning fun. Some of the most popular grammar apps include Grammarly, Oxford A-Z of Grammar and Punctuation, and Grammar Up, but an online search will reveal many more.

Explore a Grammar Site

Websites set up to assist with grammar can be a great resource for those especially interested in learning more about the mechanics of good writing. Three to consider are GrammarCheck, Daily Grammar, and Purdue Online Writing Lab. These sites include newsy information on today’s use of grammar as well as helpful hints to keep your grammar spotless—and spot on.

Invest in a Good Style Guide

This is a must if you’re a writer. Style guides give rules for how editors (self-editors too!) should handle all kinds of grammar-related issues—from basic mechanics to word usage. For tips on choosing a style guide, check out Allena Tapia's article on the subject. Style and usage books, like the classic On Writing Well by William Zinsser and Strunk’s The Elements of Style, offer important grammar help for writers, too.

Read

You’d be surprised at how many grammar tips you can pick up by just reading a book. Plus, reading is an entertaining and informative way to hone your craft. So go ahead and read to your heart’s content. But instead of reading as a reader, try reading as a writer. Your grammar won’t just improve; so will your overall writing.

Don’t let your grammar fall by the wayside. Take it seriously, and make your writing as professional and crystal clear as it can be.

 

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Want to get more exercise this year? Join the crowd. Getting in shape has long been a top New Year’s resolution. But writing, like other sedentary jobs, isn’t exactly conducive to improving fitness. The good news is you can use one of your innate talents to get yourself moving: creativity. Try these tips, and see how easy it is for you to slip exercise into your daily writing schedule.

Exercise at Your Desk

Just because you’re working at your desk doesn’t mean you can’t be exercising too. Between tasks, try doing arm pumps, leg lifts, body stretches, and shoulder rolls. For a full list of ideas, check out WebMD's desk workout guide.

Get Fit Before You Sit

Why not start the day with exercise, before you even begin writing? You’ll get your daily fitness out of the way, put your body and brain in working order, and feel energized and ready to write your best.

Rely on a Friend

For many people, getting inspired to exercise requires a companion. If that describes you, enlist a spouse, friend, or even your dog to be an exercise partner. Find someone who’s dependable and motivating so you won’t let each other down.

Restructure Your Lunch Break

Used to sitting at your desk while you eat? Try something new this year. Head to the lunch room for a change of scenery, then walk the stairs afterward. Or, take your lunch outside and finish with a stroll around the block.

Write It on the Schedule

If you keep a daily task list, include an exercise session in the schedule and make it as important as everything else on the list. Out of sight, out of mind, but “exercise” written in large print is a great way to remind you to do just that.

Take Five between Projects

It only takes five minutes to get a healthy spurt of exercise. Situps, pushups, lunges, squats, jumping jacks, you name it—you can work in plenty of exercise breaks between projects without infringing on your writing time.

Drink Up

Water isn’t just a hydrator; it boosts metabolism, aids digestion, cleans the body of toxins, and helps you lose weight. Plus, water encourages activity by motivating you to get up from your chair to use the restroom.

Becoming a nonsedentary writer is easier than you think. Resolve to meet your writing and fitness goals, and make this year the one you succeed at both.

 

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If you’re thinking about doing some charitable giving this holiday season, why not give the gift you know best—writing? There are many ways to put your talents to work for others, and doing it for free actually benefits you too. Volunteer work not only teaches new skills, it improves self-worth and confidence and provides an outlet for networking. You might even land some paying gigs in the process!

Ready to give a little year-end writing for free? Here are 12 ideas to get you started:

1. Write Grants for Nonprofits

If you’ve never done grant writing in the past, it’s never too late to start. Seminars and courses on grant writing are widely available, but you might also find a grant writing mentor to guide you through the process. Check with your favorite nonprofit for volunteer grant writing opportunities or go to volunteermatch.org for ideas.

2. Volunteer Your Editing Skills to Schools

Students of all ages and backgrounds could use a little writing help, and many teachers welcome writers to share their expertise. See how you can help a school in your community by volunteering your writing and editing skills—or just visiting to discuss your profession.

3. Guest Blog for a Website

Whether you get a link back to your website or not, guest blogging is a great way to volunteer your talents to another writing professional or startup business. Be willing to blog about whatever would help the website gain exposure and readers.

4. Write for a Community Newsletter

Newsletters contain valuable information for the community. If you have a newsletter you like to read, why not contribute to it? Animal rescue groups, arts councils, chambers of commerce, and other local organizations put out newsletters regularly. Find one that interests you and get crafting!

5. Write a Letter to an Inmate

Check with local and regional prison and correctional facilities for direction on writing letters to inmates. Or, see if a local church has a prison outreach program that encourages inspirational letter writing.

6. Draft a Response to a Newspaper Editorial

Did you read an article recently that got you thinking? Newspapers like to print responses to their editorial pieces from readers. You won’t get paid, but you will get noticed—and read.

7. Contribute to a Nonpaying Magazine

Nonpaying magazines may not be your first choice when it comes to submitting your work, but your contribution can pay off in more ways than monetary reward. You’ll help the editors fill their calendar, support your peers, and give readers the gift of the written word. Submit to a nonpaying children’s magazine or e-zine, and impart your knowledge for the benefit of the next generation of readers and writers.

8. Host a Writing Workshop

Got kids in the neighborhood who like to write? Invite them over for a fun day of writing activities. Play word games, write stories based on a popular theme, or have the kids rewrite a favorite fairy tale. You might also volunteer to host a writer’s workshop at your public library or other venue.

9. Help Fundraise with Free Content

Fundraisers help a worthy cause or an individual in need. Write content to help fundraise, and see how your writing can bring in money to improve the lives of others. If you don’t know where to fundraise, look online for fundraising options where you’re work might be needed.

10. Write a Review

Holiday books and movies are popular this time of year. Volunteering to write a review helps people decide which one to pick. When writing a review, avoid going on a rant. Try to find the positive in everything, but be honest about your opinions and experience. You might also write a review on a new restaurant in town.

11. Tutor for Adult Learners

Want to help adult learners become better writers? Sign up to offer tutoring help. Check with the library or a community center for information on volunteer tutoring work.

12. Volunteer with Distributed Proofreaders

If you like to proofread, volunteering with Distributed Proofreaders might be just the ticket. Distributed Proofreaders welcomes help from anyone who enjoys working with words. You’ll help proofread public domain e-books as part of Project Gutenberg and can do it a page at a time or whatever fits your schedule. For more information, go to https://www.pgdp.net/c/.

Image by Shayla

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The holidays are fast approaching—which means it’s time to get writing! Put aside any thoughts of a pre-holiday writing break and get ready for some festive and productive fun. Holiday writing is plum full of opportunities that can bring bounds of joy, not to mention some well-earned cash. Try these ideas, and prepare for holiday season 2017 the writer’s way:

Get Ready for the Winter Olympics

Craft a story or article about the 2018 Winter Olympics, just around the holiday corner. Write about the host country of South Korea, a new sport being added, a rising star athlete, or whatever angle strikes your interest. Olympic topics are engaging, plentiful, and lucrative.

Write a Holiday Recipe

Got a unique holiday recipe you’d like to share, like a festive cookie or a favorite dish from your great-grandma’s recipe box? Food publishers are always on the lookout for tasty holiday fare. Be sure to test your recipe out, write it well, and include mouthwatering pictures.

Go on a Shopping Spree

This one will pay off big; you’ll get a jumpstart on holiday shopping and first dibs on the inventory, plus you can sell a piece about your shopping experience—like tips on finding the perfect gift, how to beat the rush, where to shop, and ways to get the best deals this season.

Write Your Personal Gift List

The holidays are all about giving and receiving. Focus on receiving for a minute and consider what might boost your writing potential in 2018. A new style book? A different desk or lamp for your office? Don your thinking cap and put together a gift list that’ll help further your career.

Draft a Holiday Game

If you enjoy playing games during the holiday season, here’s an idea: create one of your own. Draft holiday trivia questions or a word game or puzzle. Holiday games and puzzles are in high demand, especially in the children’s market. And who better to write an intriguing game than you!

Research Holiday Writer Events

Lots of events for writers come to town during the holidays. See if one of your favorite authors is scheduled to speak, look into a writer’s workshop, or attend a local bookstore’s holiday event. Listening and learning from the pros can go a long way in enhancing your writing efforts.

Don’t let the holidays slide by without taking advantage of the many opportunities available to utilize and hone your craft. Try these activities, and prepare for a productive season of writing.

Image by Negative Space

 

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Every writer produces work they’re not proud of. But if you feel stuck in a pattern of bad writing, don’t get discouraged. Chances are you’re not losing your mind—or your talent. In fact, good writing gone bad could be due to something much simpler and easier to fix than you think. Here are some possible culprits that could be harming your work and what to do about them:

Your Office Setup

Is your desk chair comfortable? How about your office—is the temperature too hot or too cold? How’s the lighting? Do you have enough space to spread out your research? All these things can affect comfort level, which in turn can harm your writing quality. Try rearranging your office or investing in better equipment if necessary. Make your workspace one that makes you feel good and inspires you to write your best.

Hunger

Hunger pangs aren’t just loud and annoying; they can compromise your brain power. When you’re hungry, you may feel lightheaded, tired, and fuzzy. Get your mind in good working order by making sure you’re satiated. Food boosts creativity, focus, and mental acuity. And while you’re at it, drink up. Staying hydrated keeps you energized, so be sure to sip on water throughout the day.

Unsolved Personal Problems

Has something been nagging at you, like an argument with a friend or an upcoming stressful event? Whatever’s distracting you, get it off your mind so you can devote your brain to your work. If you can’t address the problem immediately, jot it down in a notebook to deal with later. Then refocus your attention on your writing. You can return to your troubles after a good writing session—and maybe they won’t seem so bad after all.

An Overworked Mind

Sometimes bad writing days are the result of overwriting. If you haven't had a break lately, it could be time to take one. Breaks can do wonders for writers; they offer an opportunity to refresh, rejuvenate, and brainstorm for new ideas. Set your work aside, and catch a movie, have a lunch date with a friend, or go on a mini-vacation. You’ll return with a renewed sense of enthusiasm that will show in the quality of your writing.

Lack of a Mentor

When writing goes sour and you can’t figure out why, consider consulting a writing mentor or friend. Often it takes another set of eyes to figure out where you’re going wrong. It could be that your writing isn’t as bad as you think or that it just needs a few tweaks here and there. On the other hand, another writer can help you fine-tune your work and clear up any major writing problems you don’t see.

It's easy to blame yourself when the quality of your work slips. But what’s wrong with your writing could have nothing to do with your talent. Give the above ideas a try, and get back to crafting the quality stuff you’re used to.

Image by Jerry Bunkers

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Fall is almost here, but are you prepared for a new season of writing? Whether you’ve been punching away at the keyboard all summer or not, autumn is a great season to refresh, recharge, and renew your writing life. Here are five tips to help you get ready for fall writing—and produce some of your best work yet:

Collect Fresh Ideas

Think about the summer and what you learned or experienced in the last few months. Tap into your senses to discover a new twist on the changing colors, air, and pace of this time of year. Attend a lecture or do some reading. Ideas are everywhere; find something unique to share.

Write a List

Goals are important for successful writing because they keep you organized, on task, and productive. Put together a list of them. Make it as detailed as you can, knowing you can alter your list as needed. Then put it somewhere visible to serve as a reminder and motivator.

Make Some Useful Purchases

Need a new writing desk? How about a new dictionary or a style book? Now’s the time to buy. There’s a full inventory of office and school supplies available, many at discounted prices. Take advantage of the deals and get your writing tools updated.

Join a Group

Writing groups are an ideal way to advance your craft, network, and keep you inspired to write. Find a group online or in person and get connected. You might also join a writing organization related to your genre. Many writing organizations have national and local chapters.

Prepare a Schedule

After the unstructured months of summer, it can be hard to get back to a routine. Take the time to prepare a schedule—and a plan for following it. Decide when you’ll write during the weekdays and weekend. Spend a day or two trying out the new schedule to see how it feels.

Fall is one of the best times of year to get serious about your writing. In fact, many writers create some of their best work during the autumn months. Let the above tips help make this writing season a success for you.

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Semicolons get a bad rap for being a punctuation mark that’s outdated, pointless, and confusing to use. But many of those arguments have no merit. In fact, semicolons can serve an important purpose in writing, no matter what it is. Knowing how to place semicolons in the right spot for the right reason, though, is key, and can make this underrated punctuation mark a writing tool worth your time and attention.

Here are five things you need to know about semicolons. Use them mindfully, and see why there’s nothing semi about them.

They’re Effective for Emphasis

If you want to emphasize your point by reinforcing it with a similar thought, the semicolon can help you out. For example, “She never works late; only a crisis would keep her at the office past five.”

They’re Best When Not Noticed

Don’t let the semicolon stand out and distract the reader. Instead, slip it in where it won’t be noticed. Too many semicolons are noticeable. Just one strategically placed within a paragraph on a page is all you need for a subtle break from the usual punctuation.

Sometimes They’re Better than a Period

Semicolons can often be replaced by periods, but sometimes a semicolon is a better choice. If the sentence needs splitting up but doesn’t make two different points, try the semicolon. It might be just the connector you need.

Sometimes They’re Better than a Comma

That’s especially true for complex lists—like those that already include commas. Example: She did three things this morning: read the paper; planned her trip to Washington, DC; and made a yogurt, berry, and granola parfait. Choose semicolons over commas with transitional adverbs, too: She knows how to knit; however, she only learned the skill yesterday.

They’re Nothing to Fear

Don’t be afraid of semicolons. They won’t make you look like an amateur. In fact, semicolons are completely acceptable and even a good thing when used properly. Practice using the semicolon and get comfortable with it. You’ve got nothing to lose, other than your fear.

If you’ve wondered whether you should use a semicolon, wonder no more. It’s a useful punctuation mark that’s full of value and function. Go ahead and get on the semicolon bandwagon; just be wise with it for the most impact.

Image by SpeedyGonsales