Editor etiquette

When you critique other people’s work, it’s hard not to compare what you’re reading to what you would have done. “He should have started with a quote,” you think, shaking your head. Or “Oh God, not the passive voice!”

This attitude will not make you popular with your colleagues. More to the point, it doesn’t serve the project.

If the writer is guilty of poor grammar or word choice, awkward phrasing or other laziness, you need to call him on it. But before you do, think about what’s really bothering you. Is it the way he writes? Or the fact that he doesn’t write like you?

When the writer does make a mistake, your criticism should be constructive. Scrawling “AWK” all over the piece won’t help. Neither will rewriting it–he’ll be insulted and you’ll be angry that you had to spend so much time on someone else’s work. Try to offer concrete suggestions (“rephrase as an active statement,” “eliminate repetition”) and vent your frustration somewhere other than on the page.

Passive aggressive

I hate the passive voice; it’s sneaky and whiny. Most people use it to slither out of something they feel guilty about, whether it’s missing a deadline (“the newsletter was delayed”) or fathering a child out of wedlock (“the situation was unfortunate”).

I’ve been calling for the death of the passive voice ever since I picked up a blue pencil (we used these quaint tools to edit copy back in the last century, children). But after 20 years on the front lines, today I admit defeat.

The passive clause is essential to corporate writing. Like the heads of the Hydra, every time I lop one off, two come back. Whether justifying ourselves to shareholders or placing the blame on another department,  we can’t get by without it.

This sad fact can no longer be denied.

In praise of humane writing

Reader and Renaissance man Bob Parker brought my attention to Alfred Kahn, economist and former head of the Civil Aeronautics Board, who was perhaps best known for a memo he circulated in 1977 containing guidelines for the avoidance of “gobbledygook” in corporate speech. The whole thing is a gem, well worth the five minutes it will take you to read it. Here are a few of my favorite lines:

“If you can’t explain what you’re doing in plain English, you’re probably doing something wrong.”

“Try reading some of the language you use aloud, and ask yourself how your friends would be likely to react.”

On the passive voice: “Typically, its purpose is to conceal information: one is less likely to be jailed if one says ‘he was hit by a stone’ than ‘I hit him with a stone.'”

“I have heard it said that style is not substance, but without style what is substance?”

What indeed. The memo garnered Kahn a marriage proposal (he was already married) and newspaper editorials suggesting he be elected president and/or get the Nobel Prize. He died late last year, so perhaps it’s time to nominate him for sainthood.

In praise of recycling

I keep a folder called “Templates” on my desktop. Whenever I write a proposal, create a spreadsheet, or send a query letter that contains language I may want to use again, I save a copy into it.

Some of the pieces are dated. But over the years, this practice has saved me countless hours of writing time.

What are your best time-saving tips?

How low can you go?

There’s a fine line between refreshing informality and embarrassing folksiness in business writing. Worse, the location of this line varies from industry to industry.

Read my thoughts on formal vs. informal writing at Ragan.com.

Look who’s talking

The first rule of successful business writing is “Know your audience.” But an important corollary is often overlooked: “Know who’s doing the talking.”

Do your marketing materials have a clear point of view? Here’s a cringeworthy example from a corporate law firm:

“Clients turn to us for help with bet-the-company matters that impact your bottom line.”

This sentence starts in the third person (Clients), but quickly shifts to first (us) and then second (your).  It also boasts three buzz words—bet-the-company, impact and bottom line—that would  never leave the mouth of a corporate lawyer.

So who’s doing the talking here? Clearly someone with no sense of the site’s audience (buyers of $900/hour legal advice) or product ($900/hour legal advice). As pitch materials go, it’s not much of a confidence builder.

I write, ergo I misuse Latin

The use of Latin is virtually unavoidable for business writers, especially in the legal industry. The Romans developed the first written system of law, and lawyers—never quick to innovate—have yet to update their terminology.

Although a few Latin terms can add gravitas to your presentation, anything more smacks of pretension. Here are common examples along with guidelines for proper use.

  • E.g. is short for exempli gratia (“for example”). Use periods after each letter.
  • Et al. (et alia, “and others”) should be punctuated only after the second word—the first is not an abbreviation.
  • I.e. (id est, “that is”) precedes a clarification. It’s frequently confused with e.g., which introduces  examples.
  • N.B. (nota bene,“note well”) can almost always be replaced by the words “Note that….”
  • Re is short for in re (“in the matter of”). Email headers to the contrary, it does not mean “reply.”
  • Viz. is an abbreviation of videlicet (“namely”).  Often—and understandably—confused with e.g., it precedes a list within a larger class: “Three species of apes lived in the monkey house, viz. chimpanzees, gorillas and gibbons.”