10 Tips About Basic Writing Competency

By Mark Nichol

Here are ten areas to be sure to attend to if you wish to be taken seriously as a professional writer.

Formatting
1. Do not enter two letter spaces between sentences. Use of two spaces is an obsolete convention based on typewriter technology and will mark you as out of touch. If editors or other potential employers or clients notice that you don’t know this simple fact, they may be skeptical about your writing skills before you’ve had a chance to impress them.

2. Take care that paragraphs are of varying reasonable lengths. Unusually short or long paragraphs are appropriate in moderation, but allowing a series of choppy paragraphs or laboriously long ones to remain in a final draft is unprofessional.

3. If you’re submitting a manuscript or other content for publication, do not format it with various fonts and other style features. Editors want to read good writing, not enjoy aesthetically pleasing (or not) manuscripts; efforts to prettify a file are a distraction.

Style
4. Do not, in résumés or in other text, get carried away with capitalization. You didn’t earn a Master’s Degree; you earned a master’s degree. You didn’t study Biology; you studied biology. You weren’t Project Manager; you were project manager. (Search the Daily Writing Tips website for “capitalization” to find numerous articles on the subject.)

5. Become familiar with the rules for styling numbers, and apply them rationally.

6. Know the principles of punctuation, especially regarding consistency in insertion or omission of the serial comma, avoidance of the comma splice, and use of the semicolon. (Search the Daily Writing Tips website for “punctuation” to find numerous articles on the subject.) And if you write in American English and you routinely place a period after the closing quotation mark at the end of a sentence rather than before it, go back to square one and try again.

7. Hyphenation is complicated. In other breaking news, life isn’t fair. Don’t count on editors to cure your hyphenation hiccups for you; become your own expert consultant. (In addition to reading the post I linked to here, search the Daily Writing Tips website for “hyphenation” to find numerous articles on the subject.)

8. Avoid “scare quotes.” A term does not need to be called out by quotation marks around it unless you must clarify that the unusual usage is not intended to be read literally, or when they are employed for “comic” effect. (In this case, the implication is that the comic effect is patently unamusing.)

Usage
9. For all intensive purposes, know your idioms. (That should be “for all intents and purposes,” but you should also just omit such superfluous phrases.) On a related note, avoid clichés like the plague — except when you don’t. They’re useful, but generous use is the sign of a lazy writer.

Spelling
10. Don’t rely on spellchecking programs to do your spelling work for you, and always verify spelling (and wording) of proper nouns.

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20 Responses to “10 Tips About Basic Writing Competency”

  • Talidorn

    Thank you for sharing your points. I enjoyed your opinions.

    Regarding your first point – I believe you are wrong.

    According to APA style guide sixth edition the double space after a period has returned as the standard. You can see more here (http://www.apastyle.org/manual/whats-new.aspx).

    I quote from the section covering chapter Four.

    “Punctuation—return to two spaces after the period at the end of the sentence recommended for ease of reading comprehension”

    If you are not using APA style then this does not apply to your manuscript.

  • Bill

    These are great tips, especially the first one. I’m surprised how resistant so many are to this. I learned it from a graphics designer friend in the mid 1990s. My first thought: I’ll never be able to break the habit. I sat down to key something in and found that I broke it instantly and haven’t hit the space bar twice since. Some professional word processing software, like that that the Associated Press uses, won’t let you put two spaces after a period no matter how hard you try.

  • Corey Tomlinson

    The first tip came as quite a shock to me in my first corporate communications role. My prior experience had only been academic writing, where we had two spaces beaten into us as the standard. My first editors must have been appalled. Luckily they were also very willing instructors, and I’ve benefitted from their initial advice ever since!

  • Amy

    Unlike Bill, I have to disagree with number 1.

    The reason AP eliminates the extra space after a period is because newspaper text is typically justified (flush with both the left and right sides of the column), and adding an extra space can lead to huge gaps between sentences that impair readability.

    In text that is not fully justified, adding the extra space after a period makes it easier to distinguish one sentence from the next, which improves readability.

    It’s a shame that snooty editors would overlook a writer who favors visual clarity over typsetting trends.

  • Lauri Burkons

    Thank you, thank you, thank you. I now have a single article that simply states some basic rules of professional writing. I work with numerous technical writers each year; many really need to follow your advice so I do not need to edit their work so heavily.

    I have been trying to explain the single space after a sentence rule for years. Even younger people, who barely know what a typewriter is, tend to put two spaces between sentences. With your backup, perhaps writers will understand the concept.

  • Steve Campbell

    Rule 10 – don’t reply on spellcheckers – gets big cheers from me. (Oops, was that hyphenation OK?) I would even generalize rule 10 to say proofread, proofread, proofread. I almost always find errors even in my own simple email messages and often in the event announcements that colleagues send to me for distribution. Oh, and for those announcements, it helps to check for the old “who, what, where, when, why.”

  • J. M. Gaffney

    Most of your advice is quite good; however, I think you’re dead wrong to advise your readers not to put two spaces between sentences. Most writers who know their way around word processing use a proportionally spaced font, e.g., Times Roman. Proportional fonts keep the letters closer together than do mono-spaced fonts such as Courier and New Courier. Numerous studies have established that it’s easier to read sentences of proportionally spaced fonts and that two spaces between sentences give readers a slight edge in distinguishing between just the next word and the next sentence—a sentence that could very well change the thought thread to suit the writer’s purpose. Remember, you’ll eventually print whatever’s on the screen and the slight increase in the distance between sentences, particularly those written with a proportionally spaced font, will increase its readability appreciably and that is the point, isn’t it?

  • Nelida K.

    @Steve Campbell. I feel naughty today. You obviously infringed the rule…:) [“don’t REPLY on spellcheckers”]. Happens in the best of families, though (myself included). Trust to have provided you with a Thursday smile!

  • Curtis

    In regards to formatting, when submitting a manuscript for publication, always check the publisher’s guidelines first. Each has their own preferences. Major differences include line spacing, proportionality of fonts, margin width, and paragraph indenting. Some or all of these can vary dramatically between hard-copy and electronic submissions.

  • Chris

    With regards to #6, I often write technical documents for programmers, and need to be very specific with text strings. I often end a sentence with “some string” and put the period outside the quotes or parentheses. Is there a style I should follow or is this an exception to the rule?

  • Tracey

    Great tips. I’m pretty rusty when it comes to comma rules. But if I was submitting something that would be a must to refresh my knowledge.

    writing techniques are very important when it comes to looking polished and professional.

    Thank you for sharing this great post.

  • Sally

    Good job, Mark!

    LOL, Steve Campbell!

  • Mark Nichol

    Chris:

    Every rule has its exceptions, and of course there are occasions, as in some technical writing, when a writer must indicate precise wording and cannot include punctuation within quotation marks, lest it be considered part of a computer command, for instance. However, to get around breaking the rule (in American English, at least) of placing terminal punctuation within quotation marks, I recommend using some other form of emphasis for commands, such as styling them in boldface.

  • Mark Nichol

    Talidorn and others:

    I wasn’t aware that the American Psychological Association’s style handbook calls for double letter spaces between sentences, but I rarely edit according to APA. However, I have edited and written for numerous publishers and other companies, and they invariably require single letter spaces between sentences. If you, the writer, don’t format that way, then I, the editor, have to — a simple search-and-replace step, but an annoying one. But check Curtis’s good advice in a comment above.

  • Steve Campbell

    @Nelida K.: “[‘don’t REPLY on spellcheckers’].” Um, I don’t suppose you’d believe that I did that on purpose just to see if anyone was reading my comment? No, I wouldn’t believe it either. Mea culpa.

  • Mike

    One of the issues with the double space at the end of the sentence is the fact that all on-screen keyboards utilize this feature in order to automatically capitalize for a new sentence. I realize that no one is writing papers on their smartphone/ipod, but the habit is being ingrained in many different places and it is difficult to break.

  • Nelida K.

    @Steve Campbell: 🙂 Have a nice weekend!

  • Alton Harris

    10 Tips About Basic Writing Competency – Formatting

    You stated “Use of two spaces is an obsolete convention based on typewriter technology and will mark you as out of touch.”

    APA 6th edition suggests using two spaces between sentences in manuscripts to aid in editing.

  • Stephen Thorn

    I must disagree with #1 (spacing between sentences). As someone who has slightly-impaired vision that extra space between sentences aids me in reading, just as an extra or blank line between paragraphs helps me break the text into manageable segments.

    Using an extra space indicates I’m “out of touch”? Perhaps to a reader who is still a kid in their thinking, that is true. But to anyone old enough to have bought at least one pair of bifocals that extra space isn’t going to matter one whit.

  • vath

    OMG, it’s a principal of typewriting to put two space between any sentence or let’s say after a full stop mark, as known as an international concept for typing, so you should advise also where you’ve got this idea for only one space, or may be next month you may also advise without spacing possibly, thanks.

    No wonder why we have tried hard to study correct grammars, but we prefer to use slang conversations and say, it’s an exceptional tradition in our way of life, haha.

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