Reading time: About 4 minutes
Clients often ask me if their writing is “professional enough.” Here’s how to know if your writing is good enough to make the grade…
I used to read a blog written by someone who had serious writing challenges. I was interested in her content so I usually forced myself to ignore her writing lapses, even when they grated. The worst? She regularly used the phrase, “don’t fall on your franny.” (See photo, above). I winced every time I saw that and visualized some poor woman named Franny being crushed by all the people pitching headlong on top of her.
Many readers pointed out the problem to this writer — in her comments section. The correct word is “fanny,” they told her. (And here’s an interesting aside: In the U.S. and Canada, the word refers to your rear end but in most other countries, it means female genitals. The origin of the term is thought to rest with the name of the heroine in the scandalous 1748 novel Fanny Hill or Memoirs for a Woman of Pleasure.)
But instead of politely correcting the error, the blogger delivered a cringe-worthy post blaming her readers for being so “perfectionistic.” I unsubscribed immediately. Now, I cannot even remember her name but in the spirit of being mischievous let’s call her Franny.
Franny disobeyed at least two of the rules of professional writing. See if you can spot them below….
Professional writers always try to:
1-Focus on extraordinary verbs: Grade school teachers often encourage students to make their writing more interesting by adding splashy adjectives and adverbs. When I was in school I remember doing endless worksheets on this task (and I always hated it.) Then, when I graduated into the newspaper business, I learned that my teachers had been wrong.
Good writing has almost nothing to do with adjectives and adverbs. In fact, many writers believe that these parts of speech simply display amateur enthusiasm. The professionals are the people who concentrate on their verbs. Look, for example, at these two sentences from the very fine book The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (I’ve highlighted the verbs in bold): “A careful pattern of colored stones decorated the station beneath Lumbly’s farm, and wooden slabs covered the walls of Sam’s station. The builders of this stop had hacked and blasted it from the unforgiving earth and made no attempt or adornment to showcase the difficulty of their feat.”
So many beginning writers have the verbs “to be” and “to have” stuck to their writing like static dust. They don’t know what else to use. If you want to take your writing to the next level, focus on your verbs. And once you’ve done that, attend to your nouns. Winston Churchill illustrated that plain, Anglo-Saxon nouns are some of the most powerful words in the English language. Recall his famous speech, “We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender…” Those beaches, landing grounds, fields, streets and hills are common, everyday words that give you clear visual images in your mind’s eye. This makes them words that hold power.
2-Use transitions with aplomb: Bridges, connectors or transitions are the words, phrases and stylistic devices that help direct readers through our writing. Beginning writers seldom see them; professional writers lace their work with them. If you want to learn more about transitions, check out my 2014 blog post on the topic. Know that adding a transition can be as simple as adding a single word — “but” is my favourite. (My post also lists 81 other such words or phrases.) But adding a transition can also be as complex as carefully paraphrasing a quote before you give it. To me — and to many others — stylish transitions are one of the hallmarks of professional writing.
3-Display clarity with antecedents: I promise, I won’t get all grammar geeky on you, but an antecedent is a word or phrase that gives meaning to a pronoun. Consider the following sentences: “Mary Ann took her dog for a walk. She found the exercise tiring.” Mary Ann is the proper noun and “she” is the pronoun. In this construction, it’s very clear that Mary Ann is the person who finds the exercise tiring. Now, look at this sentence: “The suitcase was on the plane; now it’s gone.” But what exactly is gone? Is it the suitcase or the plane? This is an example of an unclear antecedent. Beginning writers are frequently unclear with their antecedents; professional writers, almost never. (Tip: Before submitting a story or a paper, always search your text for the word “it” and make sure that all of its antecedents are clear.)
4-Lard their writing with stories: the human mind loves stories and tension. We are all hardwired to want to know how any story is going to end — even if the ending is predictable. (Why do you think murder mysteries remain such a staple of literature?) If you’ve ever been lucky enough to see a superb speech, I can guarantee that the speaker stuffed his or her remarks full of stories. Stories aren’t just for children; if the stories are interesting enough, they’re for adults, too. Notice how I began this column with a story.
5-Exhibit a vocabulary and style that matches their readership: If you are writing a thesis, your vocabulary and writing style should be very different than if you’re writing a blog post. This does not make one writing style better than the other — a professional works hard to match the writing to the audience. Should you use contractions? Never, in a thesis. Always, in writing for a general audience. Should you use acronyms? Perhaps, if your readers are certain to be familiar with them. Never, if your readers will find them puzzling. Make sure you write to please your audience rather than yourself.
6-Eschew typos and errors: I don’t want to be hypocritical here because I know my blog posts sometimes have typos and I still regard myself as a professional. I work hard to avoid such mistakes. Part of the problem is that all of our brains have an “auto correct” function. When we proofread our own work our brains see what we intended to write rather than what’s really there. In an ideal world, I’d use a professional proofreader but that’s too expensive for a blog post that’s delivered for free. I do, however, make a prodigious effort to avoid typos. In addition to reading the post aloud to myself (you catch more errors if you read aloud), I also have a friend review the column. Further, the student who posts this column for me (thanks, Laura!) also proofreads it. Still, despite this threefold effort, mistakes occasionally slip through. That’s why point #7 is so important…
7-Accept criticism with grace and correct errors as quickly as possible: Most of my readers are very kind and polite when they point out errors. (And here I give thanks to reader Patty Nestor who kindly alerted me to the error in last week’s newsletter. I’d mistakenly said the deadline for submitting a comment to win a book for this month was Dec. 31/17 when, of course, it was Jan. 31/17.) But even if readers aren’t as kind, I always give profuse thanks. And I mean it! I’m happy because their effort allows me to correct the error, which I do immediately. Professional writers never quibble with edits; they know that there’s something much more valuable than their pride in one story: the chance to become an even better writer.
As you will have guessed by now, Franny’s mistakes were #6 and #7 — her unwillingness to eschew errors and her unwillingness to accept criticism. They sealed her fate as an amateur. But you don’t need to doom yourself to a similar label. With a little effort, you, too, can become a professional writer.
What criteria do you use to judge writers as professional? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section below. Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by Jan. 31/17, will be put in a draw for a copy of Authorisms, by Paul Dickson. Please, scroll down to the comments, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join the commenting software to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest.