Before you “scrooge” me, consider that Christmas follows one of my two busiest times of the year: finals week and finals week. You bake cookies and trim trees; I grade papers. When I could be choosing meaningful gifts for the people I love, I’m coaching the next generation of PR pros, and occasionally evicting a few from the business. It’s a dirty job, but…
Anyway, I’ve been working up a holiday rant on my favorite subject: writing. Just finished reviewing 26 final projects and 44 final papers. Most students performed to expectation. But the writing? It’s just not there.
But no matter how loudly I preach the importance of quality writing, students on deadline revert to bad habits. Hope you enjoy this list of writing gaffes that drove me friggin’ nuts this holiday season.
Using “due to” when you mean “because.” Due to the fact that🙂 I care about precise writing, I allow students to use the phrase only as a time reference: “Our plane is due to arrive at 10 a.m.” Careful writers don’t use “due to” as a way to indicate cause. It’s inefficient: “The client’s sales are declining due to the recession.” Instead: “The recession caused a sales decline.”
Various and many adjectives really piss me off. Among the first things you learn in journalism school (after the 5Ws) is to use of modifiers sparingly — especially modifiers that add NO specific meaning or degree. Tops on the list of bad modifiers: very, many, various and extremely. They fill space and add no value.
For the GenY writers out there, this rule also applies to “amazing” and “awesome.” To steal a verb from the 2.0 vernacular: Fail!
Pronoun-antecedent agreement. What’s so hard about matching singular nouns with singular pronouns? Hmmmm? In the United States, organization names such as Kent State University or Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. require the pronoun “it.” The word “they” isn’t a gender-neutral singular pronoun unless you move to the UK. For what it’s worth, I can name a dozen prominent PR bloggers who make this error routinely. I suspect they know better. They just don’t care.
Lifeless verbs strangle sentences. And I find them a lot in student PR plans: “Have the client do two special events,” or “Have employees talk about the company’s products in their social media activities.” Some students believe clients “should be able to get” publicity for their community relations efforts. Yuck!
Lesson No. 1 in “Writing 101” tells us verbs are the engines of sentences. The best verbs describe action and drive sentences forward. “Have” and “be able to” don’t have motors. And while “get” is technically an action verb, why not be specific?
The client “should stage two special events to coincide with industry trade shows.” The client should “encourage employees to discuss company products in social media.” And the client should “pitch stories to local media.”
It’s not a “need,” it’s a recommendation. The most overused and hackneyed phrase of Finals Week 2009 is “needs to.” The client “needs to” do research on employee attitudes. The client “needs to” pay closer attention to social-media conversations. The client “needs to” be more aggressive about its publicity effort.
Ugh! My students need to expand their vocabularies and need to be more aggressive in rewriting and editing.🙂
What students call a need is, in fact, a recommendation. The client “should undertake a survey to gauge employee attitudes.” The client should “monitor and measure” online conversations. The client should “initiate” an aggressive publicity campaign.
Never start a sentence with “there is,” or its cousins “there was” or “there has been.” These phrases lead to passive constructions, forcing the subject out of its rightful place at the head of the sentence. At times, the construction can be effective, as in this line from Benjamin Disraeli: There is no education like adversity.
Punctuation? Don’t get me started. The worst offenses this semester:
- Failure to use commas to offset nonrestrictive phrases.
- Placing quotation marks inside periods or commas.
- Using dashes and hyphens interchangeably.
- Ignoring the hyphen in compound modifiers.
You’ll not get a punctuation rant out of me today. If the subject intrigues you, download: Perfecting Your Punctuation from my SlideShare site. More than 2,000 already have, and damn it, not one has thanked me for it. Not one. So much for gratitude this holiday season, eh? And you call me Scrooge!
Until then, I leave you with this priceless gift one more time: Michael O’Donoghue’s classic essay, “How to Write Good.” It’s a lot funnier after an “attitude adjustment.” You should have plenty of time for that over the holiday!