Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Mini-tutorial on writing: part four

As an editor and writing coach, I run across the same grammatical issues over and over again. With the help of a colleague (thanks, Jack!), I’ve assembled this “writing tutorial,” which addresses some of these. This information, presented in alphabetical order, should assist you in writing professional, clear, succinct, and grammatically correct books, articles, and promotional materials. Although some grammatical information is given, other information is a matter of personal style and format suggestions based on a couple of decades of professional writing and editing experience. Naturally, the style and format suggestions are only recommendations. As with any of this, it can be viewed as an editor’s job anyway, but the fewer the problems, the less editing will cost you in the long run. I’ll be running this as a several-part series. I hope you’ll find it helpful!

Commas. Commas should only be used when grammatically correct and to emphasize a comfortable pause in text. Do not use them simply because you think one might go there; always have a good reason. When in doubt, leave it out!

Quotation Marks. Quotes draw attention to words. Many words do not always need to have attention drawn to them, and do not need attention drawn to them more than once in a text—and especially in the same sentence. Never use them to indicate overused terms; this is simply bad form and bad writing, and it draws attention to both the quotes and the term. Use quotation marks sparingly to indicate direct quotes, titles of articles, and words that require emphasis to help the reader understand a point.

Bolding. Often overused, bolding should be reserved for headings and words that necessitate emphasis. Avoid bolding words in sentences when bolding is also used in headings as it tends to diminish the importance of headings. Avoid using boldface for emphasis in books; it looks amateurish.

Overall. Trust the reader to use his or her intelligence to understand what is important in text.

Parallelism. When developing items in a series, ensure that all components are parallel, such as using sentences or fragments, beginning with verbs or nouns, structuring as questions or not, and the overall structure of the line item.

Beginning Lists. Be sure to always begin each item in a list the same way, i.e., with active words, with verbs, “How to,” etc.

Consistency. Be consistent with your use of subjects and verbs with items in a series and with bulleted items.

Introducing Items in a Series. Sometimes you use a colon, sometimes you use a complete sentence, and sometimes you use a fragment. This is okay; just be sure to do it consistently. Variety is not the spice of life in all situations.

Apostrophes. Pay attention to the differences between plurals and possessives.

Colons. When introducing items in a series within a sentence (not a bulleted or numbered list), it is often better not to use a colon to prevent breaking the flow of the sentence.

Hyphens and Dashes. Study the various uses for the hyphen, en dash, and em dash, and use them consistently.

Semicolons. Note how these are used most often. They should not be used interchangeably with em dashes; both have unique and specific uses.

Serial Comma. Always use a comma before the “and” in items in a series. You will see this not done often because it is usually a matter of personal preference rather than grammatical protocol, but in business writing it is always best to use it to avoid confusion regarding whether or not the last two items go together as a pair or are as separate as all other items. For pairs, go ahead and use two “ands,” such as “For breakfast I had ham, grits, biscuits, hash browns, and bacon and eggs.”

Quotation Marks. Always be sure to have “smart quotes” activated in MS Word. You do not want to use the foot and inch symbols for quotes (although they are used automatically with sans serif fonts such as Arial).

Quotes. Ensure all quotes are accurate and verbatim. Otherwise, they are not quotes.

Acronyms. Avoid using acronyms or initialisms in titles. It may not be a standard grammar rule, but it is a good practice to avoid redundancy. Reserve in-text references for spelling out acronyms and initialisms. However, you may want to use the acronym if it makes headings fall on two lines in the Table of Contents. For instance, use “ES” for Editorial Services, but use it consistently.

Terms/Phrases. Avoid terms such as “free of charge.” It is just “free”; what other kind of free can it be.

References. These are tricky, but you need to ensure you are following a standard format, such as The Chicago Manual of Style, when listing references.

Show/Hide ¶. Try using the “Show/Hide ¶” activated when typing. It takes a little getting used to (just like using a trackball mouse) but you will catch many format problems along the way.

Spacing, Line. Be sure not to leave two or three spaces between words instead of the correct one space. (Many people who learned to keyboard on a typewriter still use two spaces between words; this is no longer correct.) This is noticeable in printed text and looks a bit unprofessional like you had a sloppy typesetter. Also, avoid inconsistent spacing between paragraphs. Although you are depending on your layout person to clean this up, you should get into the habit of using consistent spacing while writing. This would help to eliminate the potential for problems and mistakes later, and would reduce your production costs.

Spacing, Between Words and With Punctuation. The standard now is to use one space between words and after colons.

Subordinate Clauses. Avoid beginning sentences with subordinate clauses unless it just flows better, which it usually does not. Write “I have evaluated publishing operations for two major nonprofit member organizations” instead of “For two major nonprofit member organizations, I have evaluated publishing operations.”

Auto Symbols. Be careful when using such automatic symbols such as ellipses. They are displayed in a way that is not in compliance with standard style guides. (See “Ellipses” above.) Also, sometimes it is better to use boxed bullets from Format, Bullets and Numbering…instead of the Bullets icon, the latter of which may not apply the correct size and font.

Money. It is not necessary to include the period and double zeros if there are no cents.

Symbols such as @, #, %, &, +, =. Reserve symbols for tables or figures where space may be at a minimum. Otherwise, spell out “at,” “number,” “percent,” “and,” “plus,” and “equals.”

Time. When indicating before or after noon as well as before or after Christ, use periods and small caps: A.M., P.M., A.D., B.C. Type in lowercase, then format to small caps; otherwise, you will get uppercase small caps. Also, it is not necessary to include double zeros if no minutes are indicated.

Tables. Tables are a great way to display information. Just be sure that all items are parallel with or without subjects and verbs in each line item, are or are not complete sentences, and are punctuated appropriately and uniformly. Also, unless line items in a table are multileveled, you do not need bullets.

Tables of Contents and Indices. Think about generating these automatically; they will save you time and money later.

Take the Time Needed. I believe most good writers think faster than they write, and you are probably no exception. But if you want to save time and money, slow down. If you focus more while writing and proofing, it will take the editor less time to decipher your meaning and to offer suggestions that may or may not be correct, and this can reduce your costs in time and money to respond.

Use Standard Style, not British/Scientific Style. Standard style mandates that the writer put periods and commas on the inside of quotation marks all the time; British/scientific style places these punctuation marks contingent on the use. Colons and semicolons are placed contingent on use in both styles.

Use/Utilize. You “use” something for its intended purpose; you “utilize” it for something other than its intended purpose.

Voice. Although active voice is preferable, in some cases it is acceptable to use passive voice as in examples when the writer is trying to avoid using personal pronouns. In most cases, though, opt for “identify” instead of “the identification of.”

Weak Words. Avoid all words that really don’t add anything extra such as “very,” “thing,” and “there” as in “there are.” If you really feel a quantifier is needed, think of more descriptive words. Also, subjective words such as “good” usually can be replaced with a more objective term.

Which/That. “Which” commonly is used to introduce a subordinate clause; “that” is used in all other cases. Also, in most cases you should use a comma before “which.”

Who/That. Use “who” when referring to people; use “that” when referring to groups.


  1. Sue,

    Really useful list, thanks for that. I hope you'll collect this series together because it could help lots of writers (and some bloggers too!).

  2. i really dig your stuff. i'm new to the blog scene. some friends suckered me into it, but when i come across blogs like yours, i don't feel like i'm wasting my time. haha. i'd like to talk more and maybe you could give me some pointers as to how i can improve my blog and things like that. i'm basically computer retarded. i could use the help. haha. i'm at: exmypa.blogspot.com . follow me so we can talk more. thanks for your time.

  3. Bookman and Holm are both right on target. This list is very useful and even serves as a good reminder for business writers. I think I'll tweet your link @bookblogette.

  4. Great tutorial !!! you are helping us out in great way !!! thank you for the informative post ..... and please keep writing stuff like this.... Thank you ! http://www.modernlitho.com/