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Writer’s Tip #103: 20 Tips from Bill Bryson

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Write better

When you read your story, does it sound off, maybe you can’t quite put your finger on it, but you know you’ve done something wrong? Sometimes–maybe even lots of times–there are simple fixes. These writer’s tips will come at you once a week, giving you plenty of time to go through your story and make the adjustments.

If Bernstein’s the acknowledged expert on English grammar, Bill Bryson is the most famous living expert who share’s his knowledge with a pinch of humility and humor.

I met Bryson reading his Short History of Nearly Everything. Therein lay the seeds of my initial distrust. How could an author who wrote such an enthralling historic book like Short History switch genres and write a successful dictionary? Shouldn’t that be the job of a bibliophile or Mr. Webster’s great grandson? Despite my misgivings, I decided to give it a try. Anyone who could distill history into 480 pages must have the see-the-forest-for-the-trees ability to decide on the need-to-know grammar required for a budding author. After all, I needed to spend the minutes stolen from my day job on what would quickly kick-start my authorial expertise. I’d get to ‘everything’ later.

So, despite my misgivings and with a nod for the appeal of humor in the dry world of word study, I bought Bryson’s Dictionary for Writers and Editors (Broadway Books, 1994). It didn’t disappoint. As Bill Bryson notes, it will provide you with “the answers to all those points of written usage that you kind of know or ought to know but can’t quite remember.” It not only includes dictionary-appropriate word meanings, but factual details that writers might get wrong. On the one hand, he discusses the difference in meaning between ‘a’ and ‘an’, and then later, he shares the meaning of Au secours! (a cry for help). He seems to include 1) whatever struck him as interesting or relevant based on his own personal writing experiences, and 2) what he considers critical to be a successful writer–well-beyond plot, characters and story arc. Many entries have his notes/definitions/explanations, but some include just the word, there for a writers’ ruminations. To that end, the book is a fascinating stroll through Bryson’s writing mind.

Here are some of the gems I found:

  1. the difference between ‘autarchy’ and ‘autarky’
  2. ‘auxiliary’ has one ‘l’
  3. the difference between ‘avenge’ and ‘revenge’
  4. difference between ‘before’ and ‘prior to’
  5. what BMW stands for
  6. difference between ‘bimonthly’ and ‘biweekly’
  7. what is carpaccio
  8. ‘chickenpox’ is one word
  9. how to translate Chinese names to English
  10. difference between ‘compare to’ and ‘compare with’
  11. difference between ‘compel’ and ‘impel’
  12. what does ‘Dum spiro, spero‘ mean (‘While I breathe, there is hope.’)
  13. difference between ‘fewer’ and ‘less’ (the former covers singular nouns; the latter, plural)
  14. the difference between ‘gibe’ and ‘jibe’
  15. what’s a ‘haggis’ (Scottish dish)
  16. ‘Lacy’ has no e
  17. ‘Laddie’ isn’t spelled ‘laddy’
  18. what’s a ‘macaronic verse’ (a type of poetry in which two or more languges are mingled)
  19. what’s ‘ochlocracy’? (government by mob)
  20. difference between ‘regretfully’ and ‘regrettably’

Jacqui Murray is the editor of a technology curriculum for K-sixth grade, creator of two technology training books for middle school and four ebooks on technology in education. She is the author of Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy. She is webmaster for six blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer, a columnist for, Editorial Review Board member for Journal for Computing Teachers, Cisco guest blog, IMS tech expert, and a bi-weekly contributor to Write Anything. Currently, she’s editing a thriller that should be out to publishers next summer. Contact Jacqui at her writing office or her tech lab, Ask a Tech Teacher.

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11 thoughts on “Writer’s Tip #103: 20 Tips from Bill Bryson

  1. Those are interesting. I’ve enjoyed Bryson thus far (A Walk in the Woods, and 75% through Sunburned Country). I’ll keep an eye out for his dictionary and might write one myself. It will be short.


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