How To Achieve Style

Dear Reader,

I’ll tell you something I probably shouldn’t. I’ve worked as a professional writer in various capacities for eight years, and I am not perfect. I am guilty of sloppy writing. I commit grammar mistakes. I confuse usage. It happens.

To control my mess, I use a personal style guide. What is a personal style guide? It’s a set of preferences that informs your writing. For example, some writers never use the word although, but instead use though. When used as a conjunction, though and although are interchangeable.

Ex: I am a talented writer, though my friends don’t think so.

I am a talented writer, although my friends don’t think so.

I use though. If the words are interchangeable when used as a conjunction, then why does it matter? Because if I write:

I am a talented writer, though my friends don’t think so.

And then later in a piece I write:

I don’t care what my friends think, although it would be nice to have their support.

Then I’ve exposed myself as a lackluster writer. The goal of all writing is to not expose yourself. Using a personal style guide will mitigate that risk.

There are many hard and fast rules governing grammar. A ruthless reader, one heartless enough to relish in this sort of thing, could likely find a few errors in this very post. And you’ll note it in the comment section, no doubt. There’s a camp that enjoys grammar for this reason. This is the camp that gets off on telling others they are wrong. I am not of this camp.

I am of the camp that appreciates the clarity and consistency provided by grammar and usage rules. It makes life easier. It gives structure to my thoughts.

Academics have their MLA and Chicago. Journalists and PR folks worship the gospel of AP Style. The rest of us are in the precarious position of not having a style by which to abide. For those among you to whom this applies, I recommend creating a personal style guide.

A personal style guide won’t help you win an argument. It won’t help you pass a test, and it won’t always keep back-seat editors at bay. What it will help you do — what it helps me do — is achieve consistency. What follows are excerpts from my personal style guide. I annotated where I felt necessary and I explained where I felt defensive. I’ve also included a few common errors to avoid.

Don’t use while when you mean though. This is a common error. Many people write:

While I disagree with your suggestions, I appreciate the simple, clean format of your blog post.

What they mean is:

Though I disagree with your suggestions, I appreciate the simple, clean format of your blog post.

Don’t overuse the em dash. The em dash creates a strong break in a sentence. Em dashes can be used in pairs like parenthesis or they can be used to set off the end of a sentence from the main body. My rule is only use the em dash once every three or four paragraphs. Using too many em dashes makes the page look weird.

Don’t use since when you mean because. This is another common error. Many people write:

Since you’re wearing a tie in your photo, I assume you also fill some kind of account-support role and that’s your primary job.

What they mean is:

Because you’re wearing a tie in your photo, I assume you also fill some kind of account-support role and that’s your primary job.

Unless it’s absolutely necessary, don’t use semicolons in non-academic writing.

Use the oxford/serial comma.

If you ask a question, answer it. Questions are really popular in writing on the internet. But overdo it with the questions and you’ll annoy readers.

Don’t use misleading titles.

Cut unnecessary words and paragraphs.

Use alternative ledes sparingly. Alternative ledes are no good for purely informational articles and short pieces (the lede shouldn’t account for 30 percent of the piece). Let the reader know what your piece is about in the first couple sentences.

Tell the reader something new and interesting in the first sentence of the piece.

State your thesis early.

Paragraphs should be three sentences or less. I get excited and mess this up all the time. Fellow Nebo copywriter Katelyn Dramis keeps me in check.

Avoid jargon and technical terms.

Avoid the word just.

I just can’t even. 

Don’t use over when you mean more than. Use more than when describing a number or frequency. Use over when describing an area or thing.

The period and the comma belong within quotation marks. The dash, semicolon, question mark, and exclamation point go within the quotation marks only when they apply to the quoted material. The marks go outside when applied to the entire sentence.

Avoid using impact as a verb.

My words impact readers.

Impact is a controversial word among editors and writers. Many of us argue against linguistic trends that impact is only correct when used as a noun (Ex: My words have an impact on readers.). Unfortunately, using impact as a verb is a red flag to many readers, even though what you’re communicating is absolutely clear. Use impact as a verb and you give the reader an opportunity to say this guy doesn’t get it. We want to limit those opportunities.

I hope you find this helpful. I hope it inspires you to create your own personal style guide. I’ll leave you with the best writing advice I’ve ever read. It’s from Jeffrey Eugenides, author of The Virgin Suicides, Middlesex, and The Marriage Plot.

I tell my students that when you write, you should pretend you’re writing the best letter you ever wrote to the smartest friend you have. That way, you’ll never dumb things down. You won’t have to explain things that don’t need explaining. You’ll assume an intimacy and a natural shorthand, which is good because readers are smart and don’t wish to be condescended to. I think about the reader. I care about the reader. Not “audience.” Not “readership.” Just “the reader.”

Sincerely,

Your humble copywriter,

Drew

Written by Drew Grossman on August 20, 2015

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Wow - I thought I was a pretty good writer, but I am guilty of several of these. (And I just used an em dash - I think. Oh no! Just used another one.)

Can you give examples of when to correctly use "while" and "since"? I know I misuse those.

What is a "lede"?

How about "fewer" and "less than"? Misuse of those words is a pet peeve of mine. I believe "fewer" applies to things you can count/measure, and "less than" applies to things you cannot count/measure. Like "fewer site visitors" and "less traffic." Agree?

Thanks! Signed, Fellow Grammar Nerd

Wow - I thought I was a pretty good writer, but I am guilty of several of these. (And I just used an em dash - I think. Oh no! Just used another one.)

Can you give examples of when to correctly use "while" and "since"? I know I misuse those.

What is a "lede"?

How about "fewer" and "less than"? Misuse of those words is a pet peeve of mine. I believe "fewer" applies to things you can count/measure, and "less than" applies to things you cannot count/measure. Like "fewer site visitors" and "less traffic." Agree?

Thanks! Signed, Fellow Grammar Nerd

Written by
Drew Grossman