Here are five quantitative quick tips about improving your writing functionally, before you even get into improving the quality of your prose:
1. Always Use Serial CommasThe policy of preceding every item in a list but the last one with a comma is commonsensical (read a previous article about the serial comma). Confusion is possible when you don’t and highly unlikely when you do. What if, using a non-serial-comma style, you write about more than two things when one of the things consists of more than one part or ingredient? (“The choices are roast beef, turkey, and ham and cheese.”) Do you insert a serial comma for clarity (and introduce an inconsistency) or leave the sentence as is for readers to stumble on? Adherence to serial-comma style eliminates the dilemma.
2. Minimize CapitalizationJob titles are capitalized only before names. Names of academic majors aren’t capitalized unless they are already proper nouns, like names of languages (“English”) or references to regions (“Asian studies”). Generic names of entities (“the hospital,” “the organization,” and so on) are lowercased. Yes, capitalization is a minefield; when in doubt, look it up, and search on this site for “capitalization” for many articles on the topic (including this one).
3. Repair Comma SplicesA comma alone cannot separate two independent clauses in a sentence. Break the clauses into distinct sentences, or separate them with a semicolon or an em dash — or a comma and a conjunction (and, or, and so on) — but not with a comma alone. For more information on this topic read 5 Ways to Fix the Comma Splice.
4. Omit Extraneous Hyphens, and Insert Necessary Ones“Decision making,” “problem solving,” and similar compound nouns require no hyphen, unless they precede a noun as a compound modifier (“decision-making procedure,” “problem-solving aptitude”). “Near collision” and other similar constructions don’t, either, with the same exception (“near-collision statistics”). Established compound modifiers usually don’t require a hyphen even before a noun (“high school student”). Confused? Here’s a simple rule: Look it up. (And check out this DailyWritingTips article and find others on the topic by searching on the site for “hyphens.”)
5. Limit Displays of EmphasisWords can be italicized to indicate that they are being used to refer to themselves, not the things they stand for (“Note the word emphasis”), or to signal a foreign term (“Wunderbar” means “wonderful”), or to make sure the reader understands that something is really important. Words can be initial-capped to indicate irony or other humorous intent. (“The rent-a-cop exuded the air of an Authority Figure.”) Boldface is appropriate for introducing new vocabulary or otherwise calling attention to an unfamiliar term but is best limited to textbooks and guidebooks. But all-caps are invariably excessive, “scare quotes” are seldom necessary, and be judicious about otherwise calling attention to words and phrases.
Norm Applegate author of:
Into the Basement