13 ways to make your writing look more professional

Simple copyediting things.
The nice thing about these is that, unlike with truly good writing, no skill and very little work is required to put them into practice. They’re all just a matter of paying attention.

I’ve done some copyediting as part of my job, especially with marketing material. Certain basic mistakes come up so often that I made a list that I’ve been tempted to give to whoever gave me the original content and say “please make sure that it doesn’t have any of these problems first!” I didn’t, but for those who are interested, following these simple rules will make your writing look more professional. The nice thing about these is that, unlike with truly good writing, no skill and very little work is required to put them into practice. They’re all just a matter of paying attention.

  1. Never give someone something to read that you haven’t spell checked. If it has typos that a spell checker would have caught, it’s like saying “my time is so much more valuable than yours that I couldn’t bother doing this simple, mechanical two-minute task before giving this to you.” If you’re writing with a tool that doesn’t have a spell checker, paste the text into Microsoft Word or LibreOffice and look for the red squiggly lines. If a spell checker doesn’t recognize a company name and you’re not 100% sure of its spelling, take ten seconds to check it on their website, especially if someone from that company may see the piece.

  2. Only put one space after a period, question mark, or exclamation mark ending a sentence, not two. People used two in the days of manual typewriters for hard copy manuscripts that would be submitted to typesetters, but as with the carriage returns that we formerly added to the end of every single line on typewriters, we now leave it up to the computer to decide how much spacing is appropriate. If you put two spaces after a period, your word processor will put too much space there.

  3. In something published by an American company, punctuation at the end of a quoted phrase goes inside the quotes, “like this,” not outside, “like this”. In the UK they do it outside. This is a stickier issue with technical writing, where you may be referring to specific strings of quoted text; for example, if I write that a password is “swordfish”, I don’t want readers thinking that the comma is part of the password. The important thing is to be consistent within a document.

  4. In a bulleted or numbered list, either end all the bullets with punctuation that treats the bullets as complete sentences or end none of them that way. Don’t do this:

    • Go out the front door

    • Pull the mail out of the mailbox.

    • Bring the mail back inside

    • Leave the mail on the dining room table.

  5. The items of a list like that should be grammatically consistent: all complete sentences or all grammatically consistent phrases (for example, all noun phrases) with no complete sentences. For example, if the first item says “Easier setup and installation” and the second says “Wide choice of reports,” then no other items in that list should be complete sentences.

  6. Put consistent spacing around em dashes and don’t confuse them with hyphens. A hyphen is the keyboard character that usually connects words being used together as a single adjective as in user-friendly interface or in-memory database. An em dash (named for being the width of the letter “m”) is used for appositive phrases. It’s often written with two hyphens--like this--which Microsoft Word and LibreOffice will convert to an em dash character. In HTML, you can enter — or just paste the character from somewhere else. (An en dash is a bit narrower and used for date ranges. Handy hint when you're unloading your last few tiles at the end of a Scrabble game: both em and en are legal words.) Em dashes should either have a space on both sides — like that, or on neither side—like that. Pick one spacing convention and make sure that all the em dashes in a given document are spaced consistently.

  7. Some phrases may or may not use initial caps, like Artificial Intelligence. If you do, capitalize it consistently throughout a document. Don’t refer to Artificial Intelligence in the first paragraph and artificial intelligence in the fourth. Also, with phrases that may or may not be written as one word, pick one and be consistent; don’t write “filename” in one paragraph and “file name” further on in the document. (Early drafts of this blog post made this mistake with “spellcheck.”)

  8. We use apostrophes to stand in for a missing letter in a contraction (such as standing in for the “o” from “is not” in “isn’t”) or for the possessive, as in Jim’s car, so never ever use “it’s” as a possessive—“it’s” can only be used as a contraction for “it is.” Don't use an apostrophe and an “s” to indicate a plural. (Some people make exceptions for numbers like 1990’s and abbreviations such as M.D.'s.)

  9. Use English instead of Latin abbreviations: “for example” instead of “e.g.” and “that is” instead of “i.e.” Instead of saying “etc.,” introduce a list with “such as” to indicate that the list is incomplete and that there are probably more entries. For example, say “baseball teams such as the Mets, Yankees, and Red Sox” and not “Mets, Yankees, Red Sox, etc.”.

  10. In the age of the web, underlining means hypertext link. Don't use it for anything else because it clutters a layout. (In the old days, it was an indication to a typesetter to italicize text.) For emphasis, use bold or italics. For example: Never use an apostrophe and an “s” to indicate a plural.

  11. Check that all the links work. As with spell checking, this is best done (or redone) just before sending a document off to someone, because if you do it and then make many other edits, those edits may introduce new problems.

  12. If a product name is trademarked, only put the trademark symbol after the first mention of the product in a document. Here is what one intellectual property attorney tells us:

    In written documents — it articles, press releases, promotional materials, and the like — it is only necessary to use a symbol with the first instance of the mark, or with the most prominent placement of the mark. It is a common misconception that each and every instance of the mark should bear a trademark symbol. Overuse creates visual clutter and may detract from the aesthetic appeal of the piece. Provided there is at least one conspicuous use of the TM, SM, or ® on the face of the writing, do not be afraid to eliminate superfluous markings.
  13. Don't say “and/or.” If necessary, rewrite the sentence. In general, the use of slashes to indicate indecision is a bad idea. Decide on something, or rewrite the sentence.

2016-12-23 update: In her article Lessons from a year's worth of hiring data, Aline Lerner demonstrates her surprising finding that the fewer grammatical and spelling mistakes software developers made on their resumes, the more likely they were to be worth hiring. See her Number of errors example in which many of the rules I've listed above are broken.

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