Improve your writing with these easy tips

When people send me something to edit, these are some things I'd change if I found them.  I try to make my writing simple and clean, especially since I write mostly for web/digital mediums. After all, K.I.S.S. is the #1 rule in digital media. 

Do as I say, not as I do.

I have a firm belief that if you're putting words together to communicate something, someone should read it over to make sure you're accomplishing what you want. At the very least, you'll avoid landing on one of those Buzzfeed lists that show bad copy mistakes. And, if you and your copyeditor are in sync, you'll get your message across in a clear, concise way. 

Do I have my writing copyedited? At work, yes. Outside of my day job, not so much. I like to think I'm better than the average bear at catching errors since copyediting is something I do professionally, but no one is perfect and you shouldn't edit your own copy. I cringe when I see errors I've made in work that's been published.

Short paragraphs. Short sentences. Short words. 

Writing on the web is choppier than you're used to from books. Paragraphs usually have 1-3 sentences. I know some bloggers who almost never have 2 sentences in a paragraph. The reason? Scannability, not readability.

I mean, who cares if people can read it? We need to make sure they can scan it! Because if they scan through quickly and don't see the value, they're gonna bail tout suite

But if they scan through and see good stuff they want to learn more about, they might spend more time and actually read it.

There are certainly industries and topics that vary on the complexity and formality of the writing and tone. But even academic subjects can be written less formally online than you'd find in journals and textbooks.

Scannability is critical, regardless of the subject.

Don't abuse punctuation.

Punctuation helps readability and scannability. I could probably go on a long rant about punctuation and my desire to institute fines for people who abuse commas, apostrophes, and quotation marks, but I'll spare you. 


Did you know you don't always need a comma before "but" or "because"? And you pretty much never need one after, though many people throw them in because they think there's a rule about putting commas where you'd pause in speech (there's not). That imaginary rule is kinda silly since everyone reads copy with different interpretation and inflection. 

I'm not rigid about when serial commas are used as long as what's being said is clear. You can be pro-Oxford comma and I'll like you just as much as that person over there who's anti-Oxford comma.

Quotation marks

I've lost count of the number of quotation marks I've deleted from words that had quotes around them for emphasis rather than an actual requirement to quote something. And every time I see it, I think of this:

Do you want me imagining Dr. Evil doing air quotes as I read your words? 

Do you want me imagining Dr. Evil doing air quotes as I read your words? 

In Austin Powers, the recently-woken-from-30-year-nap Dr. Evil is describing a "laser" designed to destroy the "Ozone layer" to his evil team. Of course, no laser was necessary to do that and the team already knows what these things are.

Does your audience know what you're talking about? Ditch the quotes. Do you want to emphasize a word or phrase? Italics are a better way. In fact, the HTML code for italics is "em" and it's short or emphasis: 

<em>This text would show in italics if I was typing this in the HTML editor.</em>

Is it a genuine, meaningful quote that's longer than a few words you can paraphrase? Keep the quotes and I will, too. (But I am going to double check the quote wording and attribution and I recommend you do the same.)


These handy little marks are mostly used to indicate possessives or create contractions. With contractions, the apostrophe stands in for the letters you remove. Somehow, though, apostrophes end up creeping into places they don't belong. Here are a few examples of words that don't need apostrophes (and I'm not talking about the confusion between plural and possessive):

  • Pluralized words that aren't typically plural: Dos and don'ts NOT do's and don'ts/don't's
  • Possessive pronouns don't need apostrophes: his, hers, its, theirs, ours, yours, and whose
  • Nouns, particularly acronyms and initialisms, that are plural but not possessive: 1980s (unless you go with: '80s), CDs, GICs, SUVs 

A few grammar gripes

There's a tendency amongst some to adopt an attitude of superiority about their skills and knowledge around writing. Some people call them "grammar Nazis" and some are proud to take on that title. I've had that tendency myself, but I try not to criticize even if something drives me crazy. I assume mistakes are not intentional and send a quick private note with an FYI just in case an error goes unnoticed. 

That said, I correct grammar mistakes because clarity is important. Here are a few common ways clarity is compromised in writing:

  • Right: rather than. Always wrong: rather then. (when referring to alternatives)
  • accept when you really mean except (or vice versa)
  • loose when you mean lose (you lose weight; you don't loose it)

You know why people get hung up on grammar rules? Because the rules help us communicate more effectively and efficiently. 

Of course, rules are made to be broken.

Breaking the rules: The fluidity of language

It pains me to see some of the short-form words that are now common in the tweet and text world we live in. But changes to communication channels have influenced changes in the words we use since the beginning of time. (I swear, I will never get used to seeing "ur" instead of "you're" and yes, I type in full words/sentences in texts.)

But if the language is fluid, that means all the rules are somewhat fluid, too. I can know every technical writing rule there is (along with all the exceptions) and opt to go with personal preference. That's the fluidity of language.

And because the words we use are evolving along with how we use them, it's better to be forgiving of different ways of writing. Even errors are made for a reason - missed in edits or ignorance of correct usage.

If you want to keep something I think is wrong, it's not important enough to me to argue. After all, rules are made to be broken, but take time to learn them so you can say you're doing it on purpose.