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.
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
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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:
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.
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?
Brand voice. Add guidance about company philosophy and how it should come through in all company writing.
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.
Numbers. Include preferences for when to spell out numbers and when to use numerals, phone number format, and how to treat percentages.
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.
Bulleted and numbered lists. Add guidance on how to style the lists and when to use them.
Headers. Include info on how to style various types of headers.
Web addresses. Include info on how to style web addresses and a list of commonly used addresses.
Blog and social media. Keep a list of your company’s social media handles and guidance for writing blog and social media posts.
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.
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.
“You can always improve your punch”
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?
Want to Write More Clearly and Concisely?
I’m a technical writer and editor, and my clients often ask me for feedback on their writing. One piece of advice I give nearly all my clients is to eliminate redundant and unnecessary phrases.
Redundant Phrases Muddy Your Message
Redundant phrases make writing clunky and sometimes unclear. A few examples of redundant phrases are end result, skin rash, and majorbreakthrough. If we delete the redundant words, we’re left with result, rash, and breakthrough.
Most unnecessary phrases come at the beginning of a sentence. Examples include It is important to note, There is, and In other words. These phrases are extra words that add no value to a sentence. Your writing will be stronger and clearer if you delete them.
Writers use redundant and unnecessary phrases out of habit and because they’re often used in speech. However, these phrases make your writing muddy and detract from your message.
Ready to Trim the Fat From Your Writing?
I’ve compiled a list of the redundant and unnecessary phrases I see most often: The Essential Guide to Redundant and Unnecessary Phrases.Download the PDF, and keep it handy to help you write more clearly and concisely.
Writing Tip: Is It OK to Split Infinitives?
I was taught at a young age that splitting infinitives is wrong.
What Is an Infinitive?
An infinitive is to + a verb. For example, to travel.
A split infinitive has a word or phrase between to and the verb. Likely the most famous example of a split infinitive is from Star Trek: “to boldly go where no one has gone before.”
Whether to Split Is Up to You
For years I followed the “do not split infinitives” rule and wrote lots of awkward sentences.
Sometime in the late 90s, I decided to look the rule up in The Chicago Manual of Style and couldn’t find it!
I looked in other major current style manuals and found no rule to support what I’d learned in school.
Splitting infinitives isn’t ungrammatical or wrong. It’s a stylistic choice, so go with what sounds most natural in your writing.
Here’s a questionin The Chicago Manual of Style Q&A on the topic.
Writing Tip: Gibe, Jibe, and Jive
What’s the difference between gibe, jibe, and jive?
I looked this up recently when I was working on a piece that used jive to mean in agreement. I thought it should be jibe but wanted to see if jive is listed as an alternate spelling. More on that below.
These Three Words Look Similar But Mean Different Things
Gibe means both to taunt using sarcastic words and a sarcastic taunt.
Jibe means in agreement. It’s also a sailing term that means to shift from one side to the other or to change a ship’s course by moving the sails to the opposite side of the boat to catch wind from a different angle.
Jive was popularized by jazz and swing musicians in the 1920s. It can mean both deceptive, glib talk and to talk in a misleading, exaggerated manner. It can also refer to jazz and swing music.
Jive is also commonly used to mean jibe or in agreement. However, Merriam-Webster and the American Heritage Dictionary do not include this meaning even though it’s been used in this sense since the 1940s. The OED does include this meaning in definition 1b under verb.
It will be interesting to see if that sense earns an entry in major US dictionaries.
Merriam-Webster Won This One
This Merriam-Webster poston the definitions of the three words persuaded me to change jive to jibe because the client’s house dictionary is Merriam-Webster.
If you’re interested in learning how words get added to the dictionary, check this out.
Do You Use e.g. and i.e. Interchangeably?
The abbreviation e.g. is short for exempli gratia in Latin and is used to mean for example.
How to Use e.g.
Use e.g. to list examples of one or more things, like this: I eat fruit for breakfast every morning (e.g., bananas, pears, figs).
In the above example, I list types of fruit I might have for breakfast, but it’s not an exhaustive list — I might eat other fruits not listed here.
TIP: Never use both e.g. and etc. in a list — it’s redundant. Pick one or the other.
How to Use i.e.
The abbreviation i.e. is short for id est in Latin and is used to mean that is.
Use i.e. with a clarifying statement, like this: Brake/break and weather/whether are homophones (i.e., pairs of words that sound the same but have different meanings).
The part after i.e. in this example clarifies what a homophone is. It’s one specific thing, not one example of several possible things.
A Simple Trick to Remember the Difference
Here’s my favorite way to remember the difference between e.g. and i.e.:
e.g. = example given
i.e. = in other words
Write the Rule Down
Because e.g. and i.e. are often mistakenly used interchangeably, it’s a good idea to include guidance for how to use them in your writing style guide.
Three Tips for Editing Your Own Writing
Editing your own writing is hard. You can be the best editor in the world, but it will always be easier to edit someone else’s writing than your own.
I always recommend hiring a professional substantive editor and copy editor. However, you can get your writing in decent shape if you follow these three tips.
1. Create a Reverse Outline
A reverse outline is an outline of what you’ve already written — not what you think you’ve written.
Working from your completed draft, use two columns to create your outline. In column 1, write a short summary of each paragraph. In column 2, explain how each paragraph summary supports the main idea of your piece.
A reverse outline can help you
assess whether the piece is logically structured,
check for unnecessary repetition,
and ensure it will make sense to the reader.
2. Look at It in a Different Format
Save it as a PDF and read the PDF on a tablet or ebook reader or print out a hard copy. It will give you a different perspective and help you catch errors.
3. Read It Aloud or Use Your Word Processor’s Read Aloud Feature
Reading a piece aloud can help you notice awkward phrasing, repetition, and unnecessary words and phrases that you might not notice when reading it on the screen or on paper.