Writing still matters, and you can quote me on that!

Students in my Case Studies class spend a semester immersed in PR process, from research through evaluation and everything in between. They also learn that writing matters more than any other skill they develop at Kent State, with the possible exception of beer pong.

Yeah, yeah. I know that success in PR requires meticulous research and critical thinking. I know it requires knowledge of social science, history, philosophy, government and business. But the ONE skill that other business disciplines (marketing, HR, finance and management) seldom bring to the table is the ability to write well.

Writing is our unique selling point.

At Kent, we reinforce writing skills in every class. If students don’t write well by the time they complete Case Studies, we advise them to consider another major. It disappoints many, but we’re doing the students and the profession a favor.

Good writing involves far more than I can summarize in a blog post. Good writing is about content, context, tone, organization, flow and texture. It’s about choosing words precisely and punctuating sentences accurately. Good writing also means sweating the “little stuff” — the details of grammar, usage and punctuation. It means caring enough to use the language artfully but also correctly.

Sadly, most of our K-12 educators don’t teach the rules of language any longer. And lord knows students don’t practice them in their text messages, emails or Facebook postings.

Are you a careful writer? My students, and a good many PR bloggers, love to violate these five rules:quotes.jpg

Quotation marks ALWAYS go outside periods and commas. No exceptions, at least not in American English. Example: Her all-time favorite blog is “ToughSledding.” At least half of the bloggers I know would put the closing quotes inside the period. So would half of my students. Cut it out, OK?

Singular nouns require singular pronouns. Consider this: “The ‘fastlane’ blog helps General Motors listen to their customers.” Wrong-O! “GM” is a singular entity that requires the pronoun “it.” My friends in Canada and the UK will bristle, but that’s how it’s done here. I broke this rule regularly in my early postings to this blog. I thought I was being “conversational.”

Plural nouns require plural verbs. Subject-verb agreement gets tricky when dealing with plurals such as “media” or “data,” both of which derive from Latin. Examples: Social media are useful tools for connecting with some stakeholder groups. The blog readership data are helpful…”

Commas aren’t always optional. I once begged my son’s tenth-grade English teacher to spend more time on comma rules. “It’s not that hard,” she said. “We just tell them to put one in where you breathe.” Doh!

While comma use is subjective at times, careful writers know when to use them and when to omit them. I’d need an entire post to present my comma lecture, and trust me, you don’t want to hear it. To see the 8 rules I preach, download here: commarules.doc

Hyphens and dashes aren’t the same. In fact, they’re nearly polar opposites, but students, and many bloggers, use them interchangeably.

Hyphens connect. Dashes separate. Use hyphens to connect compound modifiers, such as last-minute shopping, or when you omit a preposition, e.g, the Boston-Atlanta flight. Dashes separate, as commas do, but should be used sparingly to create emphasis or a longer-than-normal pause. I use dashes way too often, mostly out of laziness — and my love of the dramatic pause.

Many writers, including some of those listed in the right-hand column, insist that precise language isn’t important. It’s about “the conversation,” they say. Typos and errant grammar make it authentic. Taking time to editing or proofread just inhibits the flow of dialogue.

To this I say: Pshaw!

My posts to this blog are part of the body of professional work on which I am judged. The content isn’t always perfect, but it is as clear, as concise and as correct as I can make it.

We will meet again in the New Year, my friends. In the spirit of this holiday season, I’ve decided to shut my mouth and spend the next week counting my blessings. That will take some time, as those blessings are many, indeed.

33 Responses to Writing still matters, and you can quote me on that!

  1. Stacy Wessels says:

    Oh, Bill. You’re speaking my language. I love hyphens and dashes, but you do have to use them correctly. Valerie Wolford and I were talking recently about -ly adverbs. No matter how often “family oriented” looks better with a hyphen – resist the urge. The dash is a fabulous little piece of punctuation – I love it. Consider whether you should use an em dash or an en dash. It’s all about layout.

    “When Words Collide” is a great reference for professionals. Another one, “Elements of Style,” by Strunk and White. That’s E.B. White of “Charlotte’s Web” fame. No matter how much you believe you know about grammar and punctuation – and believe me, I know a lot more than the average bear – you need good reference books to help you along.

  2. SurfaceEarth says:

    “Hyphens connect. Dashes separate. Use hyphens to connect compound modifiers, such as last-minute shopping, or when you omit a preposition…”

    Had a conversation about this (excuse please the misuse of grammar) this evening, fortunate I ran across your post.

    Thank you for sharing.

    I will be forwarding it on.

  3. abster says:

    I love this post. I am amazed when I find polished professionals who misplace commas or speak in the wrong tense. I am new to the business ( an intern to be exact ) but I have found that I write pieces in an hour and spend 2-3 hours editing those pieces. I feel like so many people overlook the small details of writing. Yesterday, I was reading an article from a doctor. Needless to say, doctors are more concerned with saving lives than writing. But, one of the common errors in his work was the use of “there” instead of “their.” Seriously? You learn that kind of stuff in grade school. Come on people!

  4. Kait says:

    Oh Bill – you’re a man after my own anal retentive heart.
    Thanks to you and your cronies at KSU, I have been dubbed, and I quote, “the Gestapo of red pen” in the office. Somehow that makes me happy.🙂
    Have a great Christmas.
    -Kait

  5. Sarah Wurrey says:

    I am another Red Pen Gestapo; I love this post. Blog posts about grammar and writing are the best Christmas gifts I could get this morning, thank you!

  6. Dino Baskovic says:

    Didn’t we debate the quotes issue once before? And your thoughts about ending that last sentence in a prepositional phrase, or starting this one with a conjunction?
    😉

  7. Dino Baskovic says:

    More than ever cared to know about proper use of dashes, with a “dash” of proper HTML technique and typography:

    http://www.getitwriteonline.com/archive/091502.htm
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dash
    http://www.alistapart.com/stories/emen/

  8. Kami Huyse says:

    I think writing and the proper use of language is very important. That said, I make mistakes all the time – the need for speed I guess. However, you mark one of my pet peeves, which is the use of quotation marks outside the punctuation.

    Have a great holiday my friend.

  9. Breeze says:

    Oh, Bill. You’re speaking my language. I love hyphens and dashes, but you do have to use them correctly. Valerie Wolford and I were talking recently about -ly adverbs. No matter how often “family oriented” looks better with a hyphen – resist the urge. The dash is a fabulous little piece of punctuation – I love it. Consider whether you should use an em dash or an en dash. It’s all about layout.

    Actually, family isn’t an adverb, and if the phrase “family oriented” is being used to modify a noun that immediately follows, it absolutely should have a hyphen–e.g., “a family-oriented film.”

  10. Judy Gombita says:

    Bill, I’m not sure why you think your Canadian friends would “bristle” about “Singular nouns require singular pronouns,” as that has always been my practise since studying magazine journalism at Ryerson University, where all of my lecturers were working, industry pros (journalists, editors, copy editors, graphic designers, etc.).

    The main textbooks used for all of our copy editing, editing and writing classes was The Canadian Press Stylebook and Caps and Spelling. To this day I keep current copies close at hand. But I don’t have need to look up “Singular nouns require singular pronouns,” because it’s just what I’ve always done.

    I wanted to comment here and quote directly from one of my CP books, but I couldn’t find a direct reference. So I picked up the phone and called Patti Tasko, long-time senior supervising editor at The Canadian Press (http://www.candianpress.com) and quite the Canadian legend as the Queen of Style.

    Here is Patti’s response by e-mail, which is reproduced with permission:

    “I have done a bit of research and now I think I know what he [Bill] is talking about, at least in relationship to the general use of collective nouns (not just companies). But in fact he is wrong re: the custom in Canada.

    In the Oxford Guide to Canadian English (an excellent resource), under collective nouns, it says most Canadians opt for the singular for words like government, family, etc., British English tends to use the plural. Americans also use the singular. I would assume the same principle applies for proper collective nouns.

    So there is a difference, but Canadian custom is more in keeping with the Yanks, not the Brits, on this one.

    The issue is not addressed directly in our stylebook, although our examples all show the singular with company names. See various examples in Business news section, page 44.

    (I have put a note in to include this issue in the next revision of the Stylebook.)”

    I actually agree with all of your points (even the ones using dodgy American spelling), but that’s because they all conform to Canadian (English) style. I do know, for a fact, that style in most of the other Commonwealth countries (e.g., the UK and Australia) puts the final punctuation *outside* the quotation marks. Ergo, your students who go on to have careers in multinational agencies and corporations should be aware that the style they were taught may indeed be (North) American-centric.

    Merry Christmas….

  11. mediatide says:

    I have two words for you: Catholic school.

    One of my now-retired colleagues, George Wolfe, was an English professor at UC-Clermont. He told me that he could pick out Catholic school students with amazing accuracy after reading the first essay assignment in his Basic Composition class, He said that those schools put a high premium on writing, unlike public schools.

    No doubt one of your many blessings is a totally cool brother-in-law in Cincinnati. Just a wild guess!

  12. Bill Sledzik says:

    Thanks for a wonderful discussion, folks. I do a post about writing every six months or so just so see if anyone still cares. Apologies to Judy and rest of our neighbors to the north. But I could swear I’ve see the institution-as-plural phenomenon from Canadian writers in the past.

    Enjoy the holiday. It’s time for me to sign off for a few days.

  13. theprlab says:

    Hi, Bill

    An apt way to end the year. Students look at me like I’m an idiot when I tell them what you’ve written. Tip: get the local newspaper editor to come in with 24 hours worth of media releases and he/she can tell the students why they to be able to write well (and identify real news). It worked a treat for me. Then again, I’m in a major city and he had around 300 releases (and they were just the faxes). Happy Christmas.
    – Greg Smith

  14. […] One of the courses that we require of our public relations majors at Kent State is called Print Beat Reporting. Here PR students spend a semester covering a beat on campus and writing stories for the Daily Kent Stater. The result. They see that some sources are pathetic when it comes to working with reporters: no return phone calls or e-mails, not prepared for interviews, etc. That helps our students become better public relations practitioners. They learn how not to do it. And they learn how to research, interview and write for publication. Bill Sledzik offers an interesting perspective on the emphasis that PRKent places on writing in his blog, ToughSledding. […]

  15. Steve Shannon says:

    Two questions for you Bill at the end of this post. When I was at Kent back in the day (the day being ’83 to ’86), my dad made me take Writing 103, or whatever the course was beyond the first two required. It wasn’t about grammar, punctuation and all that, but “content, context, tone, organization, flow and texture” and probably was worth the entire tuition my dad paid Kent. My question: how many writing classes are your PR students required to take beyond writing 101 and 102? How much are assignments marked down for poor use of punctuation, usage and grammar? My money is on none in both cases.

  16. I have been unsuccessfully trying to convince several of my professional colleagues of validity of your rule about quotations and punctuation for sometime now. What writing manual is that information from? My college professor felt very strongly about that rule, but every publication and company that I’ve worked for since seems to think that placing the punctuation (.,) inside or outside the quotation marks is conditional. I need some proof to share.

    Thanks!

  17. “of THE validity of your rule.” (typos in my comment about writing well – priceless)

  18. Bill Sledzik says:

    Steve,

    I assume you’re referring to English classes. Students still take 101 (composition) and 102 (literature), but the classes have different numbers today. Students also take a third English class, and while they have a wide range of options on that one, we (in PR) advise them to take Argumentative Prose or Expository Prose — both writing-intensive classes with heavy emphasis on organization and flow. Of course, they may also take Children’s Lit and read Harry Potter books.

    So, yes, the requirements haven’t changes a lot. But the rigor isn’t the same as it was in your day. MOST instructors in these entry-level English courses don’t dock points for errors in grammar, punctuation or usage. Many don’t even point out these errors. In the School of Journalism, we’ve had to counter with a class called “Media Writing,” which has a heavy emphasis on mechanics of language. But we’re also working with the English Department to offer “101” and “102” classes designed specifically for students entering journalism, and those classes include emphasis on mechanics.

    PR students also take a course in Newswriting, followed by “Beat Reporting,” a class that places them on the staff of the Daily Kent Stater for one semester. We’ve been criticized for our heavy emphasis on journalism skills early in the program, but our approach removes nearly all of the weak writers before they hit the PR “skills” courses, and this contributes to our 92% job placement rate.

    Johnny doesn’t write as well as he did 20 or 30 years ago. I see two reasons: One, Johnny doesn’t read good writing any long — nor do his parents encourage it as they once did. Two, Johnny’s K-12 instructors no longer have an anal-retentive bent when it comes to precision of language. The “whole language” movement is partially to blame as well.

    The decline in student writing skills over the past 15 years is significant and it’s scary. Blame the Internet, video games, television, whatever you’d like. But it’s a very real problem.

  19. Bill Sledzik says:

    Julie,

    I am simply following the rules listed in every grammar book I own. I refer to these two books most often: “When Words Collide” and “Working With Words.” I recognize that other languages and cultures may follow a different protocol, but in the U.S.A. this rule is NOT conditional — not at all, though I will admit it is sometimes counter-intuitive.

  20. theprlab says:

    This discussion is essential to all who care about journalism and PR. I’m copying all comments to present to our School after the break. Things are exactly the same here in Australia. It’s interesting, because at 52 I am heading back to PR (and a bigger salary) due to the shortage of quality graduates. I’ll keep tutoring, but methinks this problem will get worse before it improves.

  21. theprlab says:

    PS: In Australia, generally we only put the full stop inside the quote if it’s a direct quotation (i.e., speech).

  22. Bill Sledzik says:

    Thanks for dropping by, Greg. And good luck with your venture back into the “real world” of PR practice.

    I’m no longer surprised by the volume of comments I attract when I blog about writing. It’s nice to see so many folks still care, though most who comment are fine writers themselves. It’s no surprise.

    I’ve noticed that my acquaintances from Australia and the UK place quotes inside the period or comma when the material isn’t part of a direct quote, though I can’t say they do this consistently. Here’s an example from a recent post from Heather Yaxley, whom I consider a fine writer, and one who knows the rules of punctuation.

    Grunig and his colleagues identified in their Excellence study the importance of the communications function having a direct report to the “dominant coalition”.

    Another Brit, Lynne Truss, author of “Eats Shoots & Leaves,” does the same thing with quotation marks in her wonderful little book subtitled “A Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation.” In fact, she was taken to task for this by Louis Menand in his essay for the New Yorker headlined “Bad Comma.” Menand says “the British are less rigid about punctuation and related matters, such as footnote and bibliographic form, than Americans are.”

    Those are Menand’s words, not mine. So don’t shoot the messenger. Just shoot some leaves — or whatever.

  23. Breeze says:

    Per Julie’s question, here’s a summary of the use of punctuation with quotation marks that’s based on the rules of the Chicago Manual of Style, the reference from which I work most often:

    – Put commas and periods within closing quotation marks, except when a parenthetical reference follows the quotation.

    – Put colons and semicolons outside closing quotation marks.

    – Put a dash, question mark, or exclamation point within closing quotation marks when the punctuation applies to the quotation itself and outside when it applies to the whole sentence.

  24. Bill Sledzik says:

    Thanks, Breeze. I don’t much care for Chicago style. Crust is too thick.

  25. Breeze says:

    When it comes to style, Bill, I’m sure everyone’s got their favorites. Chicago’s not ideal, but it’s better suited to my work than AP.

    In any case, it’s a reference–not gospel.

  26. Bill – thanks for the kind words (although I do find the comma a bit tricky). I’m a fan of Fowler’s English Usage myself when stuck on various points of correctness.

    Anyway, this is a fascinating thread and the variation in views on style from among the various English-speaking nations (well supposedly) evidences the complexity of the language and its grammar.

    I believe writing well is a key compentency for anyone in public relations. My own pet peeves include the use of apostrophes (especially its and it’s) and the mismatch of singular/plural noun and verb (some of us Brits do care).

    Having said that , the best thing about the English language is that it lives and changes. This means it can accommodate new words and uses as well as enabling rules to be established and broken.

  27. Karen Dalton says:

    Hi Bill,

    Just one point of clarification regarding the use of quotation marks. In fact, if the quote is a complete sentence, then the period goes inside the quote marks. If the quoted text is not a complete sentence then the period or comma is on the outside of the quotation mark. You used it correctly in your example.

  28. Bill Sledzik says:

    I may ask you to clarify, Karen. My style books say periods and commas go inside the quotation marks ALWAYS. No exceptions. In my example — Her all-time favorite blog is “ToughSledding.” — the quoted materials is NOT a complete sentence, but still appear outside the period. That’s how we play it in the USA, but I know these conventions are not worldwide.

  29. Nancy Teppler says:

    I enjoy this site! Just a note on the dash: it should not have spaces befored or after it (or, if used by typing two hyphens together due to keyboard restrictions, there should be no space between them). The importance of striving for good writing practices can’t be overstated. I fear for the future when I see what is printed by our youth in MMORPGs (massively multi-player online role-playing games). I will be back to visit often. Thank you for caring enough to post such excellent information.

  30. Nancy Teppler says:

    Regarding Karen’s advice–I believe she is referring to a British rule of punctuation.

  31. Bill Sledzik says:

    Thanks for dropping in, Nancy. The rules of punctuation (at least all I have researched) support you on this one: no spaces on either side of the dash. But some of the stylebooks do not agree with you. The New York Times, for example places a space before and after the dash. It bothered me a lot when the Times began this practice, but it grew on me. I’ve found the spaces aesthetically pleasing and easier on the eye (my opinion only).

    Because the rules of grammar and punctuation are constantly morphing, I opted to accept the Times’ style on dashes. I like the paper a lot, and I work in a journalism school. What can I say? I will confess to overusing the dash in my blog writing. A dash should designate a dramatic pause and should not be used as a substitute for the comma.

    Karen (in her comment) may, in fact, be citing British rules regarding the use of quotation marks, as I know of nowhere in the U.S. that would endorse placing quotes inside the period or comma. It’s done all the time, and it’s always wrong by American rules.

  32. […] I’m Linking to a Post About Writing, What a Surprise! Tough Sledding Since I began writing for CustomScoop’s blogs this year, I’ve been continually emphasizing the need for quality writing skills for anyone working in communications. Getting through to an audience is difficult enough, if you’re not armed with excellent written communications you’re starting out by swimming upstream. Bill Sledizik underlines the importance of writing, particularly in training the PR pros of tomorrow in his classes at Kent State. He offers some worthy grammar and punctuation tips that everyone in PR should keep in mind. “Good writing involves far more than I can summarize in a blog post. Good writing is about content, context, tone, organization, flow and texture. It’s about choosing words precisely and punctuating sentences accurately. Good writing also means sweating the “little stuff” — the details of grammar, usage and punctuation. It means caring enough to use the language artfully but also correctly.” […]

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