Are You a Grammar Troll?

For years, it seems, it’s been impossible to find a language-related post or article online without a stickler making trouble in the comments section. Even on political, social, and retail sites, outraged commenters love to point out a misplaced apostrophe as a way to challenge the writer’s intelligence, education, or morality.

I’ve never believed that typos are that revealing. Anyone can be distracted or in a hurry. No one catches every single error. One study on human error rates concludes that “the best performance possible in well managed workplaces using normal quality management methods [has] failure rates of 5 to 10 in every hundred opportunities.”1 (Read that again: “the best performance possible”!)

And are we not human? Why shouldn’t we err?

At the University of Chicago Press a whole staff of editors makes a living finding typos and grammar goofs in book and journal article manuscripts, and no one thinks those writers are ignorant or corrupt.

It’s simply wrong to assume that anyone who types your when they mean you’re doesn’t know the difference. And in any case, is it right to point it out in a rude, public manner?

I’ll confess to taking a little evil pleasure when a grammar shamer commits a typo, falling victim to Muphrey’s Law [sic]: “If you write anything criticizing editing or proofreading, there will be a fault of some kind in what you have written.”

What’s your take?

Subversive Copy Editor: Random Advice for Copyeditor Newbies

If you’re new to copyediting, consider these snippets of advice. (Be sure to check with your supervisor if any of them contradict your usual instructions.)

  • Don’t query a word or spelling or locution without looking it up. If a writer uses an unfamiliar word or spelling more than once, it’s very possibly intended. It’s easy to paste “eat one’s cake and have it, too” into a search engine and learn that the writer doesn’t have it backward.

  • Don’t waste a writer’s time by continually asking for approval. (“Okay? If you don’t like this, I can put it back.”) Rather, indicate your flexibility in the cover letter. On the manuscript, use queries for giving or asking for information.

  • Save grief later by e-mailing the author before you make editing decisions that are hard to undo. (“Re romantic/Romantic: do you have a system for capping? Should I meddle?”)

  • Don’t track changes that will be invisible or confusing on a black-and-white printout, such as deletions of hyphens.* If the editing is difficult to read, the writer won’t easily see that the results read well.

  • Be conservative in editing until you have more experience. You should be ready to explain every mark you put on the page.

  • Remember the copyeditor’s creed: First, do no harm.


Help! The Words Don't Make Sense

Writing is a lost art, and many professionals don’t realize how essential a job skill it is. Even if you’re not a writer by trade, every time you click “Publish” on a blog, “Post” on a LinkedIn update, or “Send” on an email, you are putting your writing out into the world.
Your writing is a reflection of your thinking. If you want to be thought of as a smart thinker, you must become a better writer. If you want to be taken seriously by your manager, colleagues, potential employers, clients and prospects, you must become a better writer.
It’s not just you who must become a better writer- it’s all of us. I’ll be the first to admit, I too have had to learn to become a better writer. So here are five ways that I’ve become a better writer over the last several years:

1) Practice, practice, practice. The old joke comes to mind: A tourist in New York asked a woman on the street, “How do I get to Carnegie Hall?” and she replied, “Practice, practice, practice.” The truth is, the best way to get better at anything is to do it repeatedly. Write a personal blog or begin that novel you’ve always wanted to write. Offer to write some content for your company’s marketing team. Write a short, interesting LinkedIn update each day. The more you write, the better you’ll become at writing. That’s why I write here on LinkedIn every Monday and Thursday, no matter what.

2) Say it out loud. I read all of my articles and books out loud before I publish them, and many of my emails out loud as well. It’s great to hear my writing the way others will “hear” it as they read. Especially since tone in emails is difficult to convey, it’s valuable to say what you’re writing aloud, and then consider a quick edit, before you put it out there.

3) Make it more concise. Less is often more, so during my editing process, I’ll often ask, “How can I say the same thing in fewer words?” People don’t have time to read a long email, or memo, or article, so out of respect for your intended audience, practice making your writing short and sweet. I’d even argue that tweeting has helped me a lot with this, as it obviously limits you to 140 characters. If you’re not on Twitter yet, this is another reason to get tweeting.

4) Work on your headlines. A mentor once told me that 50% of your writing is the headline. So, spend equal time and energy working on your headline as you do the piece itself. Whether it’s the headline of a blog post or an inter-office memo, or a subject line for an email to a sales prospect, your headlines will either grab your reader’s attention, and get them interested in what you have to say, or not. Lists and questions work very well as headlines and subject lines. Practice them.

5) Read. Besides practicing writing, the number one way to improve your writing skills is to read great work. I read at least one book per month, at least 20 articles per week, and countless tweets, Facebook posts and emails per day. I know we all have limited time, but truly the best way to become a better writer is to become a better reader.
These are my methods for becoming a better writer. Do you agree or disagree with me that all business professionals can work to become better writers? How important is good writing to you? And how have you become a better writer over your career? Let me know in the comments below!

Run-On Errors

A run-on sentence, might just seem like a type of sentence that goes on and on without a clear point. It is. A run-on is when two or more independent clauses fuse together without using punctuation to separate them.

For example:

  • Incorrect: Every day, millions of children go to daycare with millions of other kids there is no guarantee that none of them are harboring infectious conditions.
  • Incorrect: Many daycare centers have strict rules about sick children needing to stay away until they are no longer infectious but enforcing those rules can be very difficult.
  • Incorrect: Daycare providers often undergo extreme pressure to accept a sick child "just this once" the parent has no other care options and cannot miss work.

You can make two complete sentences by inserting a period. You can use a semicolon between the two clauses if they are of equal importance; this allows your reader to consider the points together. You can use a semicolon with a transition word to indicate a specific relation between the two clauses; however, you should use this sparingly. You can use a coordinating conjunction and a comma, and this also will indicate a relationship. Or, you can add a word to one clause to make it dependent.

For example:
  • Correct: Every day, millions of children go to daycare with millions of other kids. There is no guarantee that none of them are harboring infectious conditions.
  • Correct: Many daycares have strict rules about sick children needing to stay away until they are no longer infectious; however, enforcing those rules can be very difficult.
  • Correct: Many daycares have strict rules about sick children needing to stay away until they are no longer infectious, but enforcing those rules can be very difficult.
  • Correct: Daycare providers often undergo extreme pressure to accept a sick child "just this once" because the parent has no other care options and cannot miss work.


How to Become a Better Writer

Everyone wants to communicate effectively, so here are some helpful tips to take your writing to the next level. You will need reading material, a pen or pencil, a notebook, a dictionary and the ability to handle constructive criticism.

Step 1. Read as often as you can. Reading other people's work is one of the best ways to learn more about writing. And it can inspire you, too. Read books you like as well as books that are recommended to you. Venture into other styles and genres.

Step 2. Research before you write. Develop a broad knowledge of your subject to bring out the best in your writing.

Step 3. Find ways to build your vocabulary. Sign up for word of the day e-mails or crossword puzzles. If you run across a word you don't know, look it up in a dictionary.

Step 4. Simplify your writing. Learn to cut out extra words and sentences that don't add anything.

Step 5. Always have a notebook handy to write down ideas. Take time away from the computer to write in your notebook, which may free up your writing.

Step 6. Get your work critiqued by giving it to trusted friends, mentors, and teachers to read. Pick people who you know will be honest with you. Once you find someone who gives good notes, develop a relationship with them. Here's a little known fact: Emily Dickinson only published seven of her 1,700 poems during her lifetime.