Writing and Puzzles

Most people associate writers with either A) a scruffy, tired wordsmith huddled over a messy desk and a pile of papers, scrambling to get their genius out and onto the page, or B) a cool, calm, and composed author, neatly decorating a crisp blank page with their thoughts while occasionally looking up to the sky for inspiration.

I fall into neither of those categories.

Drew Barrymore Oops GIF by NETFLIX - Find & Share on GIPHY

For me, writing is less of a mad dash or aesthetic activity and more of a puzzle. Pulling together the pieces of an idea, seeing where they best fit and flow, until I eventually have a completed draft.

Puzzling together a piece of work is where I get stuck and spend the most time, but it’s also the most fun. This game of mental gymnastics is actually a huge part of why I love my work.

And that’s how it always goes, isn’t it? The processes that frustrate us actually end up being the most rewarding.

Idioms Are Nonsense

Photo by Patrick Tomasso on Unsplash

Earlier this week I used the phrase open a can of worms in a comment in a Word document. Word flagged the phrase and offered these alternatives: a complex issue and an assortment of problems.

However, the suggested phrases didn’t work in the context of the comment. A better alternative would have been overly complicate things.  

But why did Word flag open a can of worms in the first place?

Because it’s an idiom—a culturally specific figure of speech that doesn’t make sense when translated literally because the meanings of the individual words don’t match the meaning of the idiom. 

For those whose first language isn’t the source language, idiomatic phrases can cause confusion and be difficult to understand. And because idioms can vary from region to region, they can cause confusion even among those who share the same first language.

Consider Your Audience

As always, knowing your audience is key. I typically recommend erring on the side of caution and using plain language for informational writing. A writer’s goal should always be to advocate for the audience, and plain language is better than clever figures of speech for ensuring clarity. 

In the comment I made in the Word document, I left the phrase as is because it’s meant for one person, and I happen to know they will understand the idiom. And besides, the idiom was perfect in that context. However, if I were writing for more than an audience of one, I would have reworded it.

Uncurl Your Inch and Foot Marks

Quotation marks are not the same as inch and foot marks. 

Quotation marks are curly.

Inch and foot marks are straight.

The image below shows both straight and curly marks and their Windows, Mac, and HTML key commands.  

Image courtesy of Butterick’s Practical Typography.

A Simple Trick

In most word-processing apps, the smart quotes (curly) feature is automatically turned on.

Here’s an easy tip for changing curly marks to straight if you need inch or foot marks: Type the mark, then immediately hit the undo key command (command + z on a Mac; control + z on a Windows machine). This trick works in Word, Google Docs, and Pages.

Further Reading

Visit Butterick’s Practical Typography to learn more about the difference between curly and straight marks. 

How Deep Editing Can Take Your Professional Documents to the Next Level

When prospective clients first approach me for editing, they think they need an editor to review their documents for proper grammar, spelling, punctuation, and consistency. Sometimes that is exactly what they need, but we often uncover bigger challenges during the needs assessment — like problems with structure, presentation, and logic.

Deep editing goes by various names: structural editing, substantive editing, developmental editing, content editing, and likely some other names I don’t know. In this post, I’ll refer to it as deep editing. This type of editing goes beyond reviewing a piece for grammar, sentence structure, punctuation, and consistency.

What I Listen For

My clients run small professional services businesses — often one-person operations — and the types of documents they write and deliver include reports, proposals, white papers, and instruction manuals.

Small professional services businesses lack the people power and resources larger firms have, yet they still need to deliver clear, concise writing that showcases their expertise and has a consistent brand voice. That’s a bigger task than many people realize. Sloppy, inconsistent writing that fails to advocate for the reader could damage their credibility.

When I hear a potential client say the following things, I know they likely need deep editing in addition to copyediting:

  • I’m too close to the work to see the gaps. If the reader has to work to connect the dots, they’ll be confused or lose interest. Every document should be written with the reader in mind, at a level they will easily understand.
  • I write like I talk. Although I encourage clients to write in a style that sounds natural, if they tell me they write like they talk, it often means their writing is overly wordy and repetitive, which can obscure their message.
  • Several people contributed to writing this. This likely means an editor needs to rework the text so it has a unified voice and style.

What Does Deep Editing Entail?

A deep edit often involves rewriting chunks of text and possibly reorganizing it for better flow and coherence. Flexibility and balance are key to getting this right: The editor’s rewrites should make the writing clearer and more concise while maintaining the author’s voice and intended meaning. This requires mutual trust and respect between the author and the editor. The editor should keep an open dialogue with the author and ask for feedback regularly to make sure they’re on the right track.

My Approach to Deep Editing

When I do a deep edit, I check for the following:

  1. Does the piece advocate for the reader? The first step is working with the client to understand who their target audience is and ensuring the writing will resonate with that audience.
  2. Is the piece well organized and coherent? Does it fulfill its intended purpose? The style, presentation, structure, and amount of information included in the piece are all taken into account in this step. Because authors are often too close to their writing to see gaps, I will make sure the writing has a logical progression and flow and will flag or fill in any gaps in logic.
  3. Is the piece written with a consistent brand voice? In this step, I ensure the writing complies with the company’s writing standards and — especially if two or more people contributed to the piece — that it has a unified voice and tone.
  4. Is the piece overly wordy or too complex? I will eliminate redundant and repetitive phrases and minimize use of jargon, which can all detract from your message and potentially confuse the reader.
  5. Are figures and tables used appropriately? Figures and tables are visual elements used to display detailed data and clarify information for the reader. I will ensure that information in the tables and figures is relevant and clear and will flag or query discrepancies between table and figure data and the accompanying text.

Anything you write on behalf of your business is part of your brand image. If your documents fall short in any of the five areas above, work with an editor who can help whip them into shape so you can deliver top-quality writing that puts you and your business in the best light.

Why Every Professional Services Business Needs a Writing Style Guide

Anything you write on behalf of your business is part of your company’s image. If you don’t have a writing style guide to keep track of your preferences, you risk creating sloppy, unprofessional-looking content, which could damage your credibility.

Three Ways a Writing Style Guide Simplifies the Writing Process and Improves Writing Quality

A writing style guide is a living document that includes your writing and formatting preferences and helps keep writers, editors, and anyone                        else involved in the writing process on the same page.

Writing style guides can help strengthen your writing in three ways:

  1. It reduces conflict over style and formatting preferences. Because everyone has different preferences, writers and editors are bound to disagree over style and formatting issues from time to time. Having your preferences spelled out in your writing style guide helps keep everyone on the same page.
  2. It shortens the writing process. Pulling out old documents to see how you wrote and formatted things in the past or consulting your default major style manual for the same rule over and over adds time to the writing process. Documenting your writing and formatting preferences will make the writing process faster and less frustrating.
  3. It ensures a consistent brand experience for your clients. Consistency helps build credibility and makes your brand recognizable. People often think brand consistency is important only for visual elements like logos and brand colors, but it is just as important in your writing.

Seemingly small things like using emergency room and emergency department interchangeably, styling your phone number 555.555.5555 in some places and 555–555–5555 in others, or using the abbreviation PM to mean both project manager and program manager in the same document can make you seem less credible and diminish the value of your brand.

Why Not Just Use a Major Style Manual?

Your writing style guide should be based on a major style manual. Which one you use depends on your industry niche and your preferences—more on that below.

The main reason I recommend creating a house style guide in addition to using a major style manual is this: In my 20+ years of writing and editing, I’ve never worked with a company that didn’t have writing and formatting preferences that differed from the guidance in their preferred style manual. Keeping track of those differences is important to maintaining consistency in your writing — and everyone involved in the writing process should know where to find this info.

Also, most style manuals are massive. For example, the print version of the 17th edition of The Chicago Manual of Style has 1,144 pages, and the online version of the manual is even larger. If you find yourself looking up the same rules over and over again in a book or its online equivalent, add them to your writing style guide so they’re easily accessible.

What to Include

The info you include in your company’s writing style guide will depend on the type of writing you do, but I recommend these 11 basic sections for most businesses:

  1. Common terms and terms to avoid. Include the company’s preferred terms and in what context they should be used. Terms to avoid are equally as important — these are often terms now considered outdated or offensive. List the terms alphabetically.
  2. Writing point of view. Describe how to write about the company and departments or teams within the company — e.g., Is it acceptable to refer to the company or a team as we?
  3. Brand voice. Add guidance about company philosophy and how it should come through in all company writing.
  4. Punctuation. Include guidance on whether to use the following: the serial comma, end punctuation in vertical lists, spaces around dashes and mathematical operators. Also add guidance on appropriate use of hyphens and semicolons.
  5. Numbers. Include preferences for when to spell out numbers and when to use numerals, phone number format, and how to treat percentages.
  6. Abbreviations. Include a list of commonly used abbreviations and info on how to introduce and define them. This guidance may vary depending on the type of piece and the amount of space available.
  7. Bulleted and numbered lists. Add guidance on how to style the lists and when to use them.
  8. Headers. Include info on how to style various types of headers.
  9. Web addresses. Include info on how to style web addresses and a list of commonly used addresses.
  10. Blog and social media. Keep a list of your company’s social media handles and guidance for writing blog and social media posts.
  11. Logo and tagline. Add guidance for proper use of your company’s logos and tagline.

BONUS TIP: If you cite sources in your writing, include a section on styling references and in-text citations.

Which Major Style Manual is Right for You?

When choosing a major style manual, consider the type of writing you do and your field or niche. Below is a list of several major style manuals and their corresponding fields or niches.

A Little Preparation Can Go A Long Way

Although writing may never be your favorite part of your work, establishing writing standards can make the process feel like less of a chore and help you produce consistently high-quality pieces that showcase your expertise, reflect well on your brand, and resonate with your audience.

Editing Tip: Always Read a Clean Copy After Tracking Changes

Photo by Christopher Burns on Unsplash

When you edit a document using Track Changes in Word or Suggesting mode in Google Docs, the pages can quickly become cluttered with strikethroughs, insertions, and comments. And although the ability to see what’s been changed can be useful, the tracking features can be distracting and make it easy to miss double words or missing words, errors introduced during editing, the list goes on.

After years of struggling with this, I discovered a feature in both Word and Google Docs that lets you see how the document will read after the edits have been accepted, and it’s made my work SO much easier. 

I know I can’t be the only one who’s been frustrated by a mess of changes on an edited document, so I’m spreading the word to help ease the pain for other writers and editors. Because, as you know, sharing is caring.

How to Read a Clean Copy in Word

To see a preview of the document with your edits accepted in Word, go to Review → Tracking → No Markup.

How to Read a Clean Copy in Google Docs

To see a preview of the document with your edits accepted in Google Docs, go to Tools → Review Suggested Edits → Show Suggested Edits Preview Accept All.

These previews give you a clean view of the document and make it easier to read and to spot any mistakes.

For instance, I recently rewrote and reorganized a 48-page manuscript. When I did the clean read-through, I noticed that when I’d moved a big chunk of text from one page to another, I left one sentence behind. Sure, I might have caught it with the markup showing, but it’s way easier to notice it on a clean page.

Bonus Tip

When I edit for clients, I always send two versions of the document back: one with every comment, deletion, and insertion visible and a clean copy that shows my edits accepted. It’s a little extra that doesn’t take much time on my end, and my clients always appreciate it.

“You can always improve your punch”

Karate Mirrors Life

One of my karate teachers used to say this all the time in class.

After the warm-up, the first part of karate class is often focused on basic sets of punches and kicks. The idea behind “You can always improve your punch” is this: No matter how long you’ve been training or what belt rank you’ve reached, there are always ways to hone even basic techniques.

I’ve been training in martial arts since 2006, and I still enjoy doing basics. There’s something comforting and meditative about drilling basic techniques. But I also like to look for ways to make each technique better, more precise, more powerful.

I get my cues for refining techniques from my teachers and training partners. For instance, the teacher might ask us to focus on generating more power each time we do the technique, or a fellow student might ask a question that shifts the way I think about the technique.

Karate Mirrors Life

The same is true with writing. Although I’ve been working with words for more than two decades, I don’t know it all, and I like to remain curious and open to learning tips for strengthening my writing.

I love following other writers and editors on social media because I learn from them and get different perspectives.

All of this helps me be a better writer and do better work for my clients.

What do you do to sharpen your skills?

As well as is not a synonym for and

ZZ Raven Plant

A common writing mistake is substituting as well as for and. But they’re not synonymous.

Because as well as is not a coordinating conjunction, it cannot be used to join two or more things of equal importance.

Instead, it places the importance on whatever comes before as well as.

Here’s an example where  as well as is used incorrectly:

This could potentially limit his ability to influence his team, as well as build momentum for further changes and improvements.

Replacing as well as with and in that sentence makes it correct:

This could potentially limit his ability to influence his team and build momentum for further changes and improvements.

If you’re joining two or more things of equal importance, use and.

Consider adding guidance on this in your writing style guide.

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Steer Clear of the Alphabet Soup

Rx sign on brick building


Practical Tips for Using Abbreviations Without Confusing
Your Audience

Abbreviations are used a lot in technical writing, and they’re great for saving space or staying within word or character count limits. But they can be tricky, and if you use them the wrong way, you risk alienating your reader. The following tips will help you use abbreviations in a way that makes sense to your reader.

The Introduction

In most instances, it’s best to introduce and define an abbreviation at first mention in running text, like this: adverse event (AE). Don’t introduce it in a header or subhead. For subsequent instances, use only the abbreviation. In longer pieces with multiple long sections or chapters, consider defining the abbreviation at first mention in each section or chapter.

Executive summaries and abstracts are typically treated as separate pieces because they’re often used as standalone pieces in other publications or as reference materials. If abbreviations are allowed in executive summaries and abstracts, they should be defined in those pieces and then again in the main body of the document.

Tables and figures are also typically treated as separate pieces, with abbreviations defined at the bottom of each piece in alphabetical order.

PRO TIP : Avoid creating sloppy abbreviation lists. Be sure that all abbreviations that appear in the table or figure are listed and that all abbreviations in the list appear in the table or figure. This task is tedious
but essential.

Know Your Audience

Defining abbreviations is especially important for a lay audience. However, if you’re writing for subject matter experts, it’s often fine to use abbreviations without defining them. This means you have to really know your audience—if you’re even the teensiest bit unsure whether to define or not define, err on the side of caution: When in doubt, spell it out.

Follow Publication Guidelines

If you’re writing a journal article, check the publication guidelines to see if they have rules about using abbreviations. The rules vary for each journal:

  • Some journals don’t allow abbreviations.
  • Some journals allow them but may have restrictions for using them.
  • Some journals have a list of preferred abbreviations, those that should never be used, or those that can be used without a definition.

Keep It Simple

The goal of technical writing is to explain complex ideas in a way that will make sense to your audience. If you follow these tips and avoid the alphabet soup, you’ll be well on your way to meeting that goal.