In her column The Write Way, Katie O'Sullivan discusses common editing errors that can send your writing directly into the slush pile.

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The Write Way:
The Ubiquitous Holiday Letter

by Katie O'Sullivan

The holidays are fast approaching, and you know what that means. The annual influx of holiday letters from friends you haven't seen in years telling you how awesome their lives are. That they love their jobs. That their kids are amazing.

Yeah, it makes me cringe just thinking about it.

What's worse than receiving four self-aggrandizing missives in a single day?

Having to write your own.

Never fear, gentle writer. We're here to help.

First things first. Make a table with each person in your household at the head of their own column. Yes, it's fair game to include the dogs and cats, but goldfish don't count. (Unless you're desperate, then go right ahead.)

Under each family member's name, list their accomplishments for the year. Good or bad. What do I mean by that? Think of "accomplishments" in the broadest possible sense of the word. When you look back on the year that has just passed, what jumps out at you? What were the highlights – those are easy to write about. We can spin it as well as any politician.

Your husband lost his job in June? No problem.

"We were thankful that John was able to take the summer off and hang out with the kids by the pool and go fishing with the boys. Cape Cod is so beautiful and relaxing in the summer! He even taught little Johnny how to tie his own lures!"

Your older son got caught doing 100 mph on Route 6 and lost his license for his senior year at Nauset High School? We can spin that.

Katie O'Sullivan is the editor of this magazine.

She is the author of two romantic suspense novels, and her third book, the young-adult novel SON OF A MERMAID, is due out in 2013 from Crescent Moon Press.

For more information about working with Katie to make your words sparkle on the page, email her at

"After getting his driver's license, Scotty has decided he'd rather bike to school every day, helping him train for next year's annual Pan Mass challenge. He's hoping to break the record for individual contributions in this fight against cancer – so email us now with your pledge!"

Has your daughter decided she hates you all, and has worn black clothing and heavy black eyeliner every day since seventh grade began? Hmm, we can work with that one.

"Emma is currently exploring her career options in the world of fashion design, while trying to decide if she wants to become a make-up artist. We have a call in to the Harwich Junior Theatre to discuss a job for next summer!"

Your own big company job was eliminated by budget cuts due to the economic slowdown? That's an easy one.

"This was the year I finally took the plunge and decided to stay home with the kids, focusing on my family and my art. I'm so lucky that John is supportive of my decisions! The watercolor classes have been amazing, and I'm becoming a Zumba pro! In the coming year, be on the lookout for invitations to my gallery showings!"

Don't forget that exclamation marks can be really important! They can turn a humdrum sentence or questionable decision into something! to shout about!

Seriously though, your true friends already know what's going on in your everyday life.

They're there for you when you get the call from the policeman at midnight and have to go pick Scotty up at the station. They understand about John losing his job – and will be there to share a bottle of wine and reassure you that the economy will pick up in the coming year. They've been at that totally goth place with their own daughters. And lived to tell the tale.

Holiday letters are relics of the past that either need to be put to sleep or had fun with. I prefer the awkward family photo and a short personal note, but hey. It's America and everyone gets to do what they think is appropriate, right? If they want to spend their holidays bragging, they have that constitutional right.

It's your choice how you're going to enjoy your holiday season. Why not have some fun with it?

From the Write Way Mailbag:

One reader wrote to ask: "What's the difference between past and passed? I think the book I just started used the wrong one and I can't move on. What do you think?"

Well, "past" versus "passed" can be tricky.

PAST relates to location in time or space, and can be used as a noun, adjective, preposition or adverb.

PASSED is from the verb "to pass," and can be transitive (with a subject and object) or intransitive (with no object).

Writers can get confused between the two words because it can be tricky, as I said. One easy way to tell which word is appropriate is to rewrite the sentence in the present tense, as though describing something currently happening.

If you re-write it in the present tense and your sentence sounds like:

She and Karen pass the hot dog stand on their way to the beach, or

They are passing the hot dog stand as they walk to the beach

…then you want to use the verb passed, which is the past participle of the verb.

BUT, if you write it in the present tense and your sentence sounds like:

She and Karen walked past the hot dog stand…

THEN you can go ahead and use the word past, because your verb is "walked." Past is there in that sentence to specify location.

As a reader, it's going to be hard to determine what the author meant when writing. In my humble opinion, anything that makes the reader stop and focus on your word choices instead of your storyline is a bad thing.

If you have any question in your mind about the sentence you've just written, and whether you're using past or passed correctly, REWRITE THE SENTENCE.