7 signs your writing is professional

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.

Posted January 10th, 2017 in Power Writing

  • Jill O’Mahony Stewart

    Great summary of best practices.

  • John Blois

    Happy New Year, Daphne. Thanks for keeping this column going. It must be tough. Now to my question: why do you say, in item 5, never use contractions in a thesis? Is it to do with formality? I recommend the opposite: use contractions to improve the tone of your thesis and sound human. Over-formality is the enemy of clarity–they’re on opposite ends of a communications teeter-totter. Most academic writing is bad. Really bad. And one of the many causes is a misguided goal to sound formal and professional.

    • I totally agree with you re: academic writing. I’ve just been told by many people that a certain formality is required for a thesis — and that this means no contractions. Perhaps it depends on your supervisor? Believe me, I have no interest in promoting overly formal language. (Nor, however, do I wish to see students fail their Masters or PhDs because their thesis isn’t considered “up to standard.”)

      • John Blois

        You’re right–there’s a common belief that formality is needed. It takes on a life of its own, without reason. Same thing in legal writing. Many young lawyers are shocked at the idea of using contractions and dashes, and they refuse to do so. Then we show them that justices of the Canadian and US supreme courts use these tools. At least, the justices who are the best writers do. Some lawyers then change their mind. Others say they prefer to stick with the pompous tone because that’s what lawyers should do.

        • If I were a lawyer it wouldn’t be hard work to persuade ME to be less formal!

  • Kelly Hendrickson

    Point 6 triggered a memory of a line from somewhere, and I wish I could remember what book or article, that has always stuck with me: “Why eschew, when you can avoid?” It may even have been here; I’ve been receiving your email newsletter since about #40.


    • Don’t think that was me, even though I LOVE the word “eschew.” It’s been in my vocabulary ever since I read a wonderful book written by a journalism professor titled “Eschew Obfuscation.”

  • Nagaraj

    Happy New Year Daphne!
    When I read your #3, I remembered a recent article sent to me from a friend. In that article, one sentence goofed up with this rule. In that infomercial or info-article, they wrote this:

    As VOIP proudly claims, “We are a single stop shop for all their
    Unified Communication needs, including PSTN calling, Audio, Video
    collaboration tools and single point of contact for all their support

    They made similar mistake multiple times. That gives away that article is not written by a professional.
    Thank you for all your posts.

    • It always amazes me when sentences like that manage to find their way into print…

  • David Carlson

    I haven’t been paid to write since my job at 3M was eliminated 17 years ago. I try to write professionally, even my memoirs, which only family and friends may read.

    Thanks for the link to “Fanny Hill”. Classics I have missed come to the top of my reading list.

    My wife recently received an academic book from Penn State University Press, “A Saving Science: Capturing the Heavens in Carolingian Manuscripts”, by Eric M. Ramirez-Weaver. My wife was paid to create the index at the back of the book. Here is a sample of writing I find too difficult:

    “The syntactical formal parameters or criteria with which any Carolingian image had to comply simultaneously established the legitimacy of that form for Frankish use and were bound eternally with the benefit of the image for liturgical or educational implementation.”

    As he says, I benefit from viewing excellent prints of 9th Century art without the need for words that comply with current Church doctrine.

    • Wow! That sentence is really hard to understand. Life is too short to spend it translating obfuscations like that one!

  • kimmarla

    Fantastic post, Daphne! I’m going to share it on my blog. My readers love writing tips.

  • Lisa Maggart

    Very wise post, Daphne! We’ve all felt the frustration when a boss or leader refuses to admit mistakes and accept criticism. Your advice will not only help readers become better writers, but it will help them be better leaders!

    • Well, in the interest of full disclosure, let me tell you there was a mistake in this column, earlier. A good friend of mine read the post nice and early and kindly sent me an email. I was able to fix it here, immediately and even had time to remove the error from my newsletter (a “then” when it should have been a “than” — sheer carelessness) before it went out. It’s really important to admit mistakes and fix them as fast as you can!!

  • Barbara Sanders

    Thanks for providing a metric for me to gauge my writing!

  • Russ Skinner

    Great post, Daphne, and I love the tidbit on “fanny.” I feel a blog post coming…

  • Lisa Dieter

    Regarding #6 about catching typos – my mom always taught me to read me essays backwards (sentence by sentence not word by word) as a final proofing process. Your brain is a lot less likely to “auto-correct” the words on the page that way. Great post Daphne!

    • Thanks, Lisa. That’s a good tip. Reading aloud is also really smart. So is using a ruler underneath the line you are proofing.

  • Hoa

    Great post as always. I learned a lot from point# 2.
    Thanks Daphne.

    • Oh, transitions are SO important. I find they are often the biggest clue to whether or not I consider a writer to be truly professional.