One of the most important skills for a public relations professional is the ability to write clearly and concisely. Writing well takes practice, and practice often means opening yourself up to the critique of others.
Unfortunately, some people take offense to criticism about their writing. They either want to think they are good at it, or that they should be good at it because…well…because it’s supposed to be something everyone can do.
As someone who has been writing for a living for many years, I’m happy to pass along some basics for writing well:
- The most important part of writing is re-writing. Nothing is perfect the first time around. If I’m writing something important, I like to do a draft, then let it sit there for a while (assuming there is time). Waiting even an hour after writing something makes me more objective about what I have written.
- There is a difference between style and basic grammar. No, that run-on sentence is not creative. It’s just wrong. Yes, you can occasionally use a sentence fragment for emphasis, but know the rule before you break it.
- Punctuation is not an afterthought. In fact, punctuation provides the framework for communication. It’s what helps people understand what you mean. A misplaced or missing comma can change the whole meaning of a sentence, as was cleverly demonstrated in the title of a book on punctuation, published in 2003: Eats, Shoots and Leaves, by British author Lynne Truss.
- Sometimes what looks good on paper may not be what it seems. Especially in the era of computer editing, it’s easy to become sloppy when making changes. If you are writing an important paper, read it aloud. You may be surprised by what you have written.
- Be careful with your tone. This is especially true with email, which can cause all kinds of misunderstandings. If you plan to discuss a sensitive subject, it’s often best to just pick up the phone.
Most of us have pet peeves regarding the written word. Here are some of mine:
- Misplaced modifiers: Don’t confuse your readers. “She saw two cows on the way to school.” Were the cows on the way to school?
- The use of less when you mean fewer: If it’s something you can count, use “fewer.” The use of “less people,” for example, is like fingernails on a blackboard to me.
- Misplaced quotation marks: Periods and commas always go inside quotation marks, even inside single quotes (unless you are using British English).
- Not finishing the comma set-off for nonessential sentence elements: “The author, who was born in New York, wanted to write about her city.” When you leave out the comma after New York, you are separating a subject and a verb with a comma – a big no-no!
I’m sure you have your own pet peeves. Please feel free to share them.