WordSouth Q&A — Avoiding Grammar And Writing Mistakes With Kathy Denes And Elizabeth Wootten

November 16, 2018


In this issue we continue an occasional feature where a pair of WordSouth experts dig deep into a subject they are passionate about. We’ve chosen topics we hope will give you some ideas that you can apply to your department or company.

For this installment, we’ve called on WordSouth’s grammar gurus to offer up tips on how to improve writing skills and avoid grammar mistakes.


1) Read what you’ve written from the audience’s point of view.

Kathy: In many cases, writers have the advantage of firsthand knowledge regarding their subjects. Through regular interaction with their sources, they are familiar with the acronyms, terms and phrases spoken conversationally within the context of a particular technology or industry. That doesn’t mean the reader knows what that terminology means! The writer’s job is to compose a story that is clear and interesting, and often that requires educating the audience — introducing and explaining technical words and acronyms. Writers then need to reread what they’ve written, making sure it provides readers with answers rather than raising more questions.

Elizabeth: Before starting the project, make sure the audience has been identified. Then, write with them in mind. Tell them with the piece why they should read it and care about it. Show them how it’s relevant to them. When the piece is finished, review it section by section and make sure the reader can follow the path laid out. Has the topic been explained clearly so that they come to the end of the story with a complete understanding? Do they know why it matters to them? A piece that connects with readers will become more than words on a page; it will become a conversation.

2) Be careful with slang and jargon.

Kathy: It’s tempting to try to appear “cool,” but writers need to save their smooth side for personal correspondence. This means avoiding common slang and jargon in stories for professional publications. Using proper language not only conveys a sense of authority and knowledge about a subject, but it shows respect for the reader. There will be cases when slang has a place within a special, limited context, but people get enough of informal language on social media and in daily life. Professionalism is best conveyed through well-written copy, which also reflects regard for the readers, many of whom may not be regularly exposed to writing that exemplifies proper language construction.

Elizabeth: The biggest issue I’ve run into with slang and jargon is that not everyone will understand all the words and phrases. Readers who grew up in different cultures or in different parts of the country may be confused by it. I remember telling a story to a friend and her stopping me to ask what “I reckon so” meant. I was surprised because I thought “reckon” was a part of everyone’s vocabulary. Since then I’ve tried to be more intentional about using common words and phrases, asking myself this question: “If people from another state were reading this, would it make sense to them?”

3) Use all available resources to find the right words.

Kathy: When that “perfect” word is on the tip of the tongue but just can’t be spit out, it’s time to go old school and dust off those reliable tools: a dictionary or thesaurus. Of course, now writers have access to all sorts of grammar tools on the internet, as well. Just call up a search engine and type in a word or phrase to check its meaning, accuracy or alternatives. The only downside to all these tools is when the writer gets lazy — that is, relies on them too strongly. Writers need to bear in mind these resources all were written or compiled by people just like themselves, so they need to give their onboard computer (brain) first shot at finding the right word or phrase.

Elizabeth: The internet has more resources for vocabulary than one person can truly explore in a lifetime. More than that, there are plenty of dictionary, thesaurus and grammar apps for mobile devices that can come in handy when writing away from a computer. Some of the apps are geared not just for quick research but also for deeper learning with practice lessons and quizzes that could help a writer in the long term. I would also suggest asking a friend or a co-worker if the word makes sense in the sentence and if it conveys that point being made. They may know and be able to suggest a stronger word, too.

4) Be a learner — expand your knowledge on a subject before trying to explain it in writing.

Kathy: The sources or clients provide information to the writers, who now need to put it into a story for the audience. Perhaps the information includes technical talk that is somewhat familiar but a bit beyond their complete understanding and comfort level. Sometimes the writers have to bite the bullet and contact their sources for explanation. But sometimes the answers they need are available on the internet. Just as grammar sites are a valuable tool, so is searching for technical articles related to the topic being written about. Writers should make every effort to educate themselves about their subject before trying to put it into words for their readers.

Elizabeth: There’s a quote attributed to Albert Einstein that I feel applies here: “If you can’t explain it to a 6-year-old, you don’t understand it yourself.” The children I have taught seem to connect with the material better when I use examples and analogies relevant to them. But for me to do that, it takes preparation and learning on my part. The same is true with any audience. Learn the complicated subject or concept well enough to be able to make the connections for the readers. Do the research so they don’t have to.

5) Write for accuracy, not to showcase your writing skills.

Kathy: Even stronger than the urge to seem cool is the need to show off those awesome writing skills. The writer has come up with a phrase that sounds so smooth, paints such a wonderful picture — and completely misses the mark in the context of the story. Poetic imagery and language that rolls off the tongue might have a place in some human-interest stories, but trying to insert these tools just for their cleverness and not to advance the point of the story is rarely appropriate. Professional publications are not showcases for puffery for puffery’s sake. If that wonderful phrase or analogy doesn’t fit the story, the writer has to be willing to let it go.

Elizabeth: I subscribe to a “word of the day” email, and if I come across a word that sounds great and looks impressive, I want to use it somewhere — text message, email, etc. However, it doesn’t always help the readability of the sentence. I don’t know of anyone who wants to need a dictionary to understand a text message. Sometimes a clearer word is the better word, even if to the writer it sounds too basic. Take into account the audience and write so that reading will be enjoyable for them. That may mean using “sarcastic” instead of “mordant,” which happens to be the word of the day.

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