Darth Blogger’s Holiday Writing Rant

Confession: Christmas isn’t my favorite holiday.

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!

Wishing you all happy holidays from my tree stand in the snowy woods of Northeast Ohio!

36 Responses to Darth Blogger’s Holiday Writing Rant

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by BillSledzik, Judy Gombita. Judy Gombita said: [Love snotty Pronoun-antecedent agreement] RT @BillSledzik My holiday rant; I promise to keep beating on bad writers! http://bit.ly/4vxQNN […]

  2. I am extremely sad to admit that I commit modifier abuse very often. Wait, did I do it again?

    Bill thanks for this. Even though you’re ranting, your Grinch-like actions are helping your students (past and present). Consider your lessons your Christmas gifts to all of us, we need it.

    Due to your lessons, student will be… I mean…
    Students will be better writers because of your lessons. Thanks!

  3. Susan says:

    Bravo!

    Good writing is powerful, and that’s a fact of life no matter what writing you’re doing: advertising copy, a news release, blog post, news story or class paper. We all get lazy, but that’s never an excuse and I applaud you for holding your students to a higher standard. It matters.

  4. Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by BillSledzik: I’ve posted my holiday rant, and I’m offering no New Year’s resolutions. But I promise to keep beating on bad writers! http://bit.ly/4vxQNN

  5. Kelly Rusk says:

    THANK YOU for writing this and I hope students (and professionals needing a refresher) take note.

    The point about pronoun-antecedent agreement in particular drives me crazy because I see it everywhere. On web sites, press releases, even occasionally in published pieces. Yikes!

  6. Blair Boone says:

    Where’s the Elmer Fudd hat? If you got it, flaunt it! Or fwaunt it. (Oh, sorry. Should I be talking about good writing? Speaking of which, doesn’t Elmer say “wery, wery” all the time? A peculiarly memorable and effective double use of your least favorite adverb.)

    Have a very Merry Christmas!

  7. A Blair says:

    Thanks for the blog and the slides… they are awesome! (Sorry just couldn’t resist : )

  8. I see far too many basic errors in student papers; for example there/their. Although my pet peeve is misuse of the apostrophe especially its/it’s.

    Beyond grammatical errors I despair about the lack of critical thinking and papers where assertions are totally unsubstantiated. If you cannot prove something or back it up with a reference, it is opinion or anecdote.

    • Bill Sledzik says:

      You and me, both, Heather. Opps. I mean “You and I.” My post focuses on the mechanics of language, but achieving perfection in grammar, usage and punctuation doesn’t make one a “writer.” I read plenty of papers that present too little evidence to support their points. And when the evidence is there, it often misfires in the logic.

      Another weakness is the tendency of writers to qualify their statements with “I think,” or “in my opinion.” For more, see “I think, therefore I stink — at persuasive writing.”

  9. CJE says:

    “Among the first things you learn in journalism school (after the 5Ws) is to use of modifiers sparingly.”

    I do try to use of modifiers sparingly, but I find proofreading even more of important.

    And seriously, treestand in khakis and no shotgun?

    • Bill Sledzik says:

      Sorry, man. This photo was shot the day before the “late season” opened. Besides, I look really silly in full blaze-orange camouflage. My wife took this photo when she came out to help me secure the stand. But much to her dismay, I’ve not yet filled the larder with venison.

  10. Excellent tips. Thanks for sharing — and good luck with the grading.

  11. Heather’s comment points to something that has long irritated me about Word–it will suggest a grammar correct under “it’s” suggesting a need to revise even if it’s being used correctly. Drives me almost as crazy as it being used incorrectly in the first place.

    And, they’re/their/there confusion also makes me nuts.

    Great piece Bill–thanks for the reminders. May the Force be with you.

    • Blair Boone says:

      Ah, yes. The Three “There’s” and their German cousin “thier.” (Don’t see much of him since the advent of spell check. Even Word gets some things right.)

      There are reasons I left teaching. Four of them right there.

  12. I have been seeing a lot more run-ons this semester than in the past. Usually there is a dim awareness that something belongs between the two sentences (like maybe a comma?), but today I have even encountered run-ons with no punctuation at all. That kind of thing is hard to read even when I’m not bleary-eyed from grading.

    • Bill Sledzik says:

      Someone at our place developed a simple shorthand for marking errors in grammar, usage in punctuation. R/O = run-on sentence, but C/S indicates a “comma splice,” or a run-on created by joining two indepedent clauses with only a comma. I give a copy to every student in every class.

      One of the best things I ever did was teach a a course called “Media Writing.” It forced me to learn the rules, recognize the problems, and coach students on how to avoid the problems. I still teach a section every 2-3 years, just to keep my Scrooge skills sharp.

      • I’ve never bothered to make the distinction between comma splices and run-ons, because they are essentially the same structural error, but I’m grateful to hear the distinction.

        Sometimes I would like to build a writing unit right into my curriculum, but that is challenging in a a large survey course that is supposed to teach Western Civ in only one semester. (Not my idea, you can be sure.)

  13. laszlow says:

    Bill, with regards to the image, it is fine (Quite jaunty!) please stay away from the Photoshop icon on your desktop.

    Anyhoo, je digress…

    Bill, what about … the overuse of the elipse?

    He … wonders?

  14. Greg Smith says:

    There you go, Bill. You’ve still got it. To think that it was a blog that once again caused a rush of replies. Maybe you won’t give up on the “ancient” art after all. Happy Christmas.

    • Bill Sledzik says:

      Writing is one of those topics that always produces a ton of responses on this blog. The real PR professionals know it still matters. But sadly, many of the marcom Johnny-come-lately types don’t have the same passion.

      I’ve considered creating a blog focused on writing for PR professionals, but Dan Santow (Edelman/Chicago) has it covered. Happy holidays, my Aussie friend. Enjoy the sunshine!

  15. Jackie Lloyd says:

    “To steal a verb from the 2.0 vernacular: Fail!”

    HA! And that’s why I miss ya, Bill!

    You look so jovial in that tree stand photo. Mr. Holiday Cheer himself.

  16. Andrew says:

    Brilliant Bill. It just goes to show that you don’t learn how to write once; you need to practise every day. I routinely misuse its/it’s mostly because I work in Danish a lot of the time and I get rusty. A thorough regime of proof-reading is the key and reading Harold Evans’ “A Newsman’s English” every few years.

  17. Andrew says:

    …or should that be proofreading?

    • Bill Sledzik says:

      Thanks, Andrew, Two points here.

      1) Because you work in another Latin-based language, you are probably a better writer than most. Learning a second language forces the writer to inspect the mechanics of that language as well as their own. Remember conjugations?

      2) Practice! Ah, yes. That’s what I do here at ToughSledding, and why I encourage my students to blog, too. It forces them to record their thoughts, rewrite, edit, polish and proof. Practice also applies to language. I have long ago lost my ability to use Spanish or German, the two languages I studied in school. But I get by in both cultures by knowing these magic phrases: “Cervesa, por favor,” and “Ein bier, bitte.” Cheers!

  18. Sir Pent says:

    Would you listen to our songs and tell me what we have done that is grammatically incorrect?

    LIZARDS FROM AFAR
    http://reverbnation.com/lizardsfromafar

    • Bill Sledzik says:

      I not gonna analyze your lyrics, Sir Pent, but I’ll leave this comment up since it doesn’t appear to be an automated SEO scam, but a personal one.

      Anyone who studies lyrics knows they are rife with grammatical errors. My favorite gaffe is from little Johnny Cougar (aka, Mellencamp): “I need a woman that won’t drive me crazy.” Can you spot the error?

  19. “Pronoun-antecedent agreement” – Guilty, & that’s why I read this blog!

    Did you cover what every editor has to explain to – in my day they were called “cub reporters”?

    It’s “more than” not “over” (or under). Over is a direction, or the end of a show.

  20. Steve Crescenzo says:

    Bill:

    Wonderful post. I don’t envy you the job of teaching today’s iPhone-addicted, texting, Twittering, status-updating generation how to string the proper words together.

    But I’m glad someone is up there on that wall, trying to do it. And I’m glad that someone is you.

    Have a great Christmas, now that (one would hope, on Christmas Eve) all the papers are graded.

    Steve C.

  21. Bill Sledzik says:

    Same to you, Steve. Someday we’ll have to get together. I know you don’t need a writing coach, but I can teach you how to roll Christmas presents! It’s an acquired skill. Have a good one!

  22. Bill Huey says:

    Merry Christmas, Bill. Boy, that deer stand looks cold and boring! You should be at home in front of a fire with a glass of something.
    When I was teaching, I noticed that students had no feel for written language because they don’t read much. Everything was like, colloquial and conversational, y’know? Thinking in 140 characters or less has only exaggerated that tendency.

    • Bill Sledzik says:

      I’m convinced that lack of reading by most students is at the core of the writing problem, Bill. I understood news-style writing early on because I read newspapers since I was 10. Too many students today consider that a quaint notion.

      But let’s remember something else: These students got into college because their high schools said they were prepared. And by the time they get to my classes, most will have passed two semesters of college English. At Kent State, a student won’t earn a PR degree without demonstrating solid writing skills. But those who can’t often earn degrees in other communication-related majors. And that’s not just a Kent State thing.

      Standards, at least for writing, ain’t what they used to be. In too many state universities these days, the objective is to keep butt$ in $eat$. (I guess that isn’t very subtle, is it?)

      Happy holidays to you and yours, Bill. And thanks for being a loyal visitor and contributor to ToughSledding. As for the tree stand, it’s almost always cold up there, but it’s never boring. Mother Nature always offers a little excitement.

  23. Blair Boone says:

    Bill, don’t single out public colleges and universities for not upholding writing standards, or for needing butts in seats for $$. The privates are just as bad, and in some cases worse. I seem to remember a guy in the White House who could not even speak proper English, yet he held degrees from the two most prestigious private universities in the USA.

    Yes, the high schools sending these kids on unprepared are terribly at fault, but there’s also an element of personal responsibility on the part of both the students and their parents. If a student’s too lazy to learn, no amount of outstanding teaching can cure that. If a student’s parents are too shiftless to encourage or even demand better performance, no teacher or university on earth can effect some miraculous change.

    Anyone who’s ever stood in front of a class knows that.

    • Bill Sledzik says:

      You speak the truth. We can’t lay the shortcomings of our secondary education system on the teachers and administrators alone. Parents and communities have to bear some of the responsibility. And I agree that the lust for $$$ is not just a public college thing — it’s just the world I live in, therefore the only one I feel qualified to comment on.

      Can we fix it? We’re trying. More than a decade ago, our journalism school created a new freshman-level writing class that is 50% remedial (though we aren’t allowed to use that word, since the state won’t subsidize remedial courses at the college level). We spend a lot of time in this class diagramming sentences and teaching basic lessons such as subject-verb and pronoun-antecedent agreement.

      Should this be necessary at the college level? No. But it would be negligent for us to ignore the problem. Funny, but I passed my J-School writing test with a 93% during my sophomore year. Even though my last formal grammar lesson had been in the 8th grade, I understood the language because 1) I read good writing and 2) I was required to write a lot.

      But as you point out, if students aren’t motivated to do these things, it’s tough to expect miracles at the college level. My solution to the unmotivated is this simple question: “So, kid. Have you considered another major?”

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