Putting the Pro Back in Professional Writing: 3 of 3
We already talked about the top three complaints undergraduate students (and as it turns out, working professionals) have about writing. We covered writing an outline and how to get started when you have writer's block.
Last but not least, here’s how to deal with:
Complaint #3: I Hate Grammar and Punctuation. Who doesn’t?! I don’t. But writing is a large part of my job and I enjoy it. So if your gripe about writing is how to navigate the seemingly endless rules of grammar and punctuation, read on.
Proper grammar and punctuation help tell your story. Your message is communicated more clearly and you’re seen as more of an authoritative expert when your writing is polished and easy to understand. If you think your job doesn’t involve writing, think again: proposals, reports, summaries, emails, memos, budgets, policies, etcetera. The list goes on. Everyone’s job is to write, and when your writing represents the company, you don’t want to look like a fool. This is the benefit of paying attention to the details, and the details often involve grammar and punctuation.
Solution: Focus on the Basics and the Big Picture Proper grammar and usage involves more than just knowing the difference between their/they’re/there, it’s/its, and your/you’re. You should know the differences already and use the correct form of the word properly regardless of what the context is (business or personal).
Below is a shortened list of the more important, slightly modern rules for common scenarios you’ll encounter in professional writing and an example for each rule. Thank you to my Spring 2016 class at Pitt for helping to compile the example sentences used here! I know you loved that homework assignment.
Eight Grammar Rules – A Shortened List
It is perfectly acceptable to start a sentence with and or but. But I am still waiting for an answer.
It is perfectly okay to end a sentence with a preposition [word indicating time or place]. What will the new computers be used for?
Professional writing doesn’t have to be dry and stuffy! You’re communicating a message, not demonstrating knowledge of outdated grammar rules from yesteryear.
The adverb [modifier to verbs or adjectives] corresponding to the adjective good is well. The project we are working on is going well.
The subject of the sentence determines the number of the verb. The box of chocolates is on the kitchen table.
With either/or and neither/nor in the subject position, the second element controls the number of the verb. Either written or typed is acceptable for your response.
The words however, therefore, and otherwise cannot join independent clauses without additional punctuation. Today, class was cancelled; however, we still had to take a quiz. Look for the semi-colon and comma. Both are required.
Relative pronouns (that, which, who) must appear alongside their antecedents [word or phrase that can be substituted with a pronoun]. In other words: keep your descriptions close and your pronouns closer. Individuals who want to apply should download the application. Note that ‘who’ refers to people and ‘that’ refers to objects. ‘Which’ is always set off by a comma because what comes after it is non-essential information.
An appositive [noun or noun phrase] is set off by commas when it is not essential to the sentence (when it is nonrestrictive), but is not set off by commas when it is essential (restrictive). My dentist, a graduate from the University of Pittsburgh, is also my neighbor. Notice how the sentence reads fine without the text in between the commas? When the appositive is essential to the sentence's meaning, there are no commas.
Six Punctuation Rules – A Shortened List
Hyphenate phrasal adjectives. The 10-year-old business is starting to have some financial troubles.
Use a comma before and and or, or when listing three or more items. You can get the shirt in red, blue, or orange.
Don’t use a comma to separate two compound predicates [2 related verb phrases]. Do use punctuation to separate a series of three or more compound predicates. In other words: Don’t use commas when you don’t have to. I read the book and studied the notes.
Don’t use an apostrophe to form plural nouns. She got all As on her report card. Long dashes [aka: em dashes] have two defensible—and valuable—uses: to frame and to emphasize. Our company’s employees have one common goal – customer satisfaction.
Why not use a colon or comma? Because our goal is to emphasize ‘customer satisfaction’ in a less formal way. Colons are more formal than dashes – so we use the dash – and em dashes are more emphatic than commas.
For singular possessives, add ‘s even if the word ends with an –s, -z, -x, or –ss. The waitress’s tips were stolen.
Still with me? Excellent! To finish up, here are two important concepts to keep in mind to improve your writing:
When possible, write with the subject performing the action. In this sentence – The dog chased the ball – the dog is the subject and the ball is the object. If we switch the sentence to passive and give the object (the ball) the attention, the new sentence reads The ball was chased by the dog. See the difference? Active voice is more concise and easier to understand.
There are situations where using passive voice is necessary, like in company announcements or reports.
This is because eliminating the subject (probably ‘the company’) also reduces liability and culpability. If you were to say in a company memo, John, the manager, fired Steve and Judy, it elicits a strong, negative response. However, the sentence Steve and Judy were fired today is not only easier to digest, it also takes the liability off John the Manager. We should also talk about word choice there, but you get the idea.
This is important. If you’re writing a report in present tense, make sure all your verbs are present tense. If you have a bulleted list, make sure the first word of each bullet point is the same style and format. Consistent headings, font, colors, etc.
Consistency also applies to tone and style. Think of tone as the attitude and mood you project (funny or serious, objective or subjective) and style as the personality (formal or informal?). Once you identify your style and tone, stick to the words and phrases that best suit your choice. Don’t go between formal and informal, or throw jokes in a report about cutting costs, for example.
Sound easy? It’s not. Go back through your own writing and try to pick out inconsistencies in verb use, lists, formatting, style, and tone. This is probably one of the most difficult editing skills to learn, but with a little practice, it becomes easier – and your writing will improve as a result (see the use of an em dash there?).
Hopefully, these posts provided you with a guide on how to improve your professional writing. Brainstorming and organizing your thoughts, thinking critically about audience and purpose, and using better grammar and punctuation can make a huge impact on the quality of your written communications - and the arguments within them.
Since there is a lot of information between these three posts, pick one thing at a time; practice it, use it, and get good at it. Use your old writing as a starting point (no pressure to get it done quickly or get it right). Apply what you practiced to a new piece of writing. Continue to work on a little at a time, and before you know it, you’ll see a difference in your entire approach.
Remember, you don’t have to be a professional writer to write professionally.
To receive your own guide of Professional Writing Tips, email us here.