Our blog explores all aspects of writing and proofreading, and passes along effective business writing tips. Do you have questions or concerns about workplace writing? Then join our discussion!
Abbreviations come in several sizes:
Refers only to abbreviations that sound like—and are read like—actual words: North Atlantic Treaty Organization or NATO (pronounced NAY-toe). Some acronyms spell out real words: Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome or AIDS. And some acronyms become “real” words: laser began as the acronym LASER (light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation).
Refers to a series of letters that you say individually: ATM (automated teller machine), BBC (British Broadcasting Company), FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation).
Refers to abbreviations that include the first and last letters of the full word: Ms. (miz), Mr. (mister), amt. (amount), Gov. (governor).
1) To join two independent clauses: Some travelers like to plan their own trips; others like to use a tour company.
2) To link clauses connected by conjunctive adverbs or transitional phrases: Travelers who use a tour company prefer to have everything planned for them in advance; however, they pay a premium price for that luxury.
3) To separate items in a list that includes commas: He packed a toilet kit that included a toothbrush, comb, and toothpaste; a computer bag that held his laptop, cables, and mouse; and a daypack that contained his water bottle, energy bars, and maps.
If you think today’s emphasis on clear and concise writing is a rather recent, historically speaking, concern of good writers everywhere, think again.
Here is some sage advice from the Earl of Chesterfield in December 1751 to his illegitimate son, Phillip, after “setting the boy up in the world”:
“The first thing necessary in writing letters of business, is extreme clearness and perspicuity;
every paragraph should be so clear and unambiguous, that the dullest fellow in the world may
not be able to mistake it, nor obliged to read it twice in order to understand it. This necessary
clearness implies a correctness, without excluding an elegance of style. Tropes, figures,
antitheses, epigrams, etc., would be as misplaced and as impertinent in letters of business, as
they are sometimes (if judiciously used) proper and pleasing in familiar letters, upon common
and trite subjects. In business, an elegant simplicity, the result of care, not of labor, is required.”
(excerpt from The Atlantic, “How to Write a Business Letter: Advice From the 18th Century,” Shannon Chamberlain)
“It takes a lot of hard work to make something simple.” Steve Jobs
“If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” Albert Einstein
“You have to deeply understand the essence of a product in order to be able to get rid of the parts that are not essential.” Jonathan Ivie, Senior Vice President of Design for Apple [replace a product with an idea and parts with words and the quote now applies to writing.
The serial comma (also known as the Oxford or Harvard comma) is the comma placed before a coordinating conjunction (usually and and or, sometimes nor) that precedes the final item in a list of three or more items:
“I visited Norway, France, and Germany.”
The Chicago Manual of Style says to always use it. The Associated Press Stylebook, however, says you do not need it in a simple series (“I like the colors red, blue and yellow.”) but you do in a complex series (“While in Barcelona, we ate at three tapas restaurants, walked down Las Ramblas, and ran along the beach.”).
The trend in professional writing over the last decade or so has been: “the less punctuation, the better.” So you will see some articles in major publications that to not have a serial commas in a complex series, do not use commas to offset a non-restrictive clause beginning with which, do not have a comma before too when it comes at the end of a sentence, and other uses (or non-uses) of punctuation which appear to be errors.
So what’s the final verdict? Use the serial comma at your own discretion, that is, follow your Writer’s Intuition. The reason often quoted for using the serial comma is to prevent sentences like this one which refers to Merle Haggard and appeared in a major newspaper:
“Among those interviewed were his two ex-wives, Kris Kristofferson and Robert Duvall.”
However, common sense and your Writer’s Intuition tells you such a sentence needs a comma before the and to clear up the confusion. So put one in. But your Writer’s Intuition will tell you the serial comma is not necessary in other cases. For example, “Among those interviewed were Kris Kristofferson, Robert Duvall and Haggard’s two ex-wives.”
When it comes to business writing, one shortcoming I often see is that companies do not standardize on a set of reference guides that everyone must follow. That’s because many people feel all style guides are the same. They are not.
The Associated Press (AP) Stylebook, for example, says to write out numbers one through nine and use numerals for number 10 and above (a real space saver when you are writing newspaper and magazine articles that must fit a fixed number of column inches). The Chicago Manual of Style, however, says to write out numbers one through ninety-nine.
Also the AP Stylebook says the Oxford comma is optional, but The Chicago Manual of Style says to always use it. The AP Stylebook is full of information a journalist would want at his or her fingertips (for example, the difference between murder, homicide and manslaughter) but that a business writer would not.
There are many manuals on the market. If, for instance, you are in the medical industry, you might want to use the AMA Manual of Style.
The bottom line: be consistent throughout your organization. Choose a guide and a dictionary that everyone must use so documents leaving your company are uniform in style.
The Number 1 goal for everything you ever write—from laundry lists to technical reports to resume cover letters—is IMMEDIATE COMPREHENSION. This is the touchstone of good writing. If you don’t “get it” on a first read, the problem is with the writing, not you.
Example: “The IEEE electrical standards referenced by the sponsor in part 3 may be disregarded, subject to the procedures described within the standards, at any time if appropriate guidelines are referenced regarding the strict adherence to common-knowledge electrical procedures for the device in question.”
That’s bad writing. Winston Churchill referred to this type of gobbledy-gook as “terminological inexactitude.” You will find many people—too many, unfortunately—who will fall back on the excuse: “Well, this is technical writing. And it’s complicated. You need a technical background to understand it.”
The problem is that the writer did not take the time to think and hone down the message. Here’s one possible revision: “You may disregard IEEE standards if you follow and document commonly accepted electrical procedures for your device.” Boom! Done!
Writer’s Intuition is an instinct for what is correct or “works” in every assignment you write. It consists of your innate logic, common sense and everything you’ve interalized about writing and reading since the age of five. Everyone has a Writer’s Intuition. You must learn to recognize and develop it. It’s the key skill that separates experienced from inexperienced writers and the missing link in writing instruction. Your Writer’s Intuition helps you make the many judgement calls you encounter when writing. We’ve all heard the rule, “Avoid long sentences.” But how long is a long sentence and how many are too many? You can’t find the answer to that question in any writing guide. But your Writer’s Intuition will tell you.
Good writers have been ending their sentences with prepositions for centuries. The real rule regarding this grammar point is the same rule regarding all sentences: if it sounds awkward, don’t do it (in this case, end your sentence in a preposition). The rule “do not end sentences with prepositions” was an attempt, like many writing rules, to give inexperienced writers the cut-and-dried guidelines they so desperately wanted in order to write correctly “all the time.” Such rules ignore the fact that good writing requires the writer to make subjective judgement calls “all the time” (“Does this sentence sound okay with the preposition at the end, or not?”) and actually lead to bad writing because no one can write well if they try to remember dozens of writing rules while writing.
An anecdote that appeared in Sir Ernest Gowers’ Plain Words (1948) states that an editor once clumsily rearranged one of Churchill’s sentences to avoid ending it in a preposition, and the Prime Minister (who won the Nobel Prize for Literature), scribbled the following note in reply: “This is the sort of bloody nonsense up with which I will not put.”
The title “Plain Writing” is a relatively new term for a very old goal of writing teachers around the world. In 1664, the Royal Society of England set up a committee (which included the poet, John Dryden, and the diarist, Samuel Pepys) to recommend ways to improve writing skills. Their advice: writers should aim to achieve “a close, naked, natural way of speaking; positive expression; clear senses; a native easinesse, bringing all things as near the Mathematical plainnesse, as they can.”