2 – Basic Tools of Writing

This chapter attempts to make the point that a good writer knows the tools he or she has to work with. The basic analogy in the text is with the carpenter, who has a hammer and a saw. The carpenter must know what tasks he or she can accomplish with a hammer and what he or she must use the saw to do. A carpenter may have a great idea for something to build, but unless he or she knows the difference between a hammer and a saw, it is unlikely to get built. The writer is the same way. The writer may have some great ideas, but those ideas won’t come into being unless the writer knows the tools he or she has to work with.

This chapter is a brief review of some of the basic tools a writer must work with. You may feel that grammar and punctuation are not subjects you wish to spend time on in your course. If that is the case, I would strongly recommend that you have your students read those sections and that you spend some time on the word usage section. This is an area I have found consistently that students have difficulty with. Knowing when to use a word for its precise and generally accepted meaning is particularly important in writing for the mass media.

Key terms and concepts

One of the purposes of this chapter is to give students a brief review of types and structures of sentences. Another is to point out some of the most common grammar and punctuation mistakes that students make. Instructors should use this chapter to their best advantage by deciding what emphasis needs to be placed on these subjects. The exercises at the end of the chapter and the grammar exam and diagnostic exam in the appendices of the textbook could help you in making this assessment. Students should leave this chapter with an understanding of the following:

Sentence structures — Simple, complex, compound and compound-complex.

Sentence types — Declarative, interrogative, imperative and exclamatory.

Parts of speech — Nouns, pronouns, adjectives, adverbs, verbs, conjunctions, prepositions and interjections.

Use of the comma — Overuse and underuse of the comma are both problems that students have. Commas should be used for clarity; that is, to separate items that would be confusing if they were not separated.

Agreement — Getting verbs and subjects to agree in number, and especially getting pronouns to agree with their antecedents, are among the most common problems that students have with their writing.

Apostrophe — Proper use of the apostrophe is the mark of an intelligent and well-educated writer. The apostrophe is most often used to indicate possession. It is only rarely used to create a plural.

Comma splices and run-on sentences — The joining of two independent clauses with only a comma is another common problem among student writers. Students should learn that for two independent clauses to be joined, they require a comma and a coordinating conjunction or simply a semicolon.

Spelling — The rules of spelling are important to learn, even at this stage of a student’s development.

Links and resources

Guide to grammar and writing. The guide to grammar and writing contains scores of digital handouts on grammar and English usage[EB1] . This site is a general guide to producing accurate writing and is helpful for aspiring and practicing journalists alike. The site is interactive, as visitors can select from a variety of grammar topics as well as writing situations and forms.


Professor Gibson’s wonderful world of editing. The site offers an all-around guide to editing complete with grammar and media writing particulars such as attribution, writing headlines and strategies for improving copy. The site is very deep and is a valuable resource for writers and editors.


Hypergrammar at the University of Ottawa. One of handful of online writing labs, visitors of this site may find grammar tips based on parts of speech, parts of a sentence, punctuation and more. Under the main page, visitors may also find links to other online writing labs in both the United States and Canada.


Chapter notes

Rules for using commas. Ever wish you had a single sheet with all the basic rules for using commas on it? You could hand that to your students and say something like, “Here, learn this. We’ll have a test next week. You won’t ever have an excuse for misusing a comma again.” Well, your dream has been fulfilled. JPROF.com offers a single-sheet (HTML or PDF file) that contains all the basic rules for using a comma —along with examples for each. The same material is also available on an HTML page. And in the quiz center of the site, there are a couple of comma quizzes you can use to help your students learn the rules. Look in the Writing section of JPROF.com. http://www.jprof.com/writing/%E2%80%A2-grammar/%E2%80%A2rules-for-using-commas/

Grammar terms and rules. Just as any competent artisan knows the tools of his or her trade, the professional writer should know the basics of the English language. That includes knowing the terms of grammar (verbal, antecedent, etc.) as well as the rules. How is the writer to avoid a run-on sentence if he or she doesn’t know what it is? To learn these things, students must do the ditch digging of the intellectual process: repeated study and memorization. JPROF.com contains a thorough (but not overly long) list of terms and rules for using the language that the professional writer should know. The site also has an extensive primer on grammar, spelling, punctuation and diction in the editing section.