email: tom.bajoras@gmail.com    
       

Ten Simple Ways to Write Better

If I could go back in time and give advice to my graduating college class, I would tell them, regardless of their career aspirations, learn to write well. I could give a million examples why good writing is important, but here are just a few:

  • when you write a letter accompanying your demo CD to the music supervisor at a music licensing company
  • when you send an email proposing a collaboration with another artist
  • when you write a comment on the music blog that just reviewed your latest project

Knowing the basic rules of grammar and punctuation, not to mention spelling, will make your communication stand out from the crowd. There’s nothing like ” i would suggest listenning to some jazz or for more understanding of something out of place but being intentfullly done that way, maybe some noise so soften you into the concept haha” to send the message that you are 14 years old and playing an out-of-tune guitar in your parents’ basement.

Here are ten very basic guidelines to improve the quality of written communication. This is just a list of very simple, mechanical, principles that address the most common mistakes in writing, so if you just follow these there’s a good chance that your writing will be above average. Obviously, writing goes far beyond these mechanical things. In today’s world of hyper-abbreviated channels like text messages, Facebook comments, and tweets, you’re not going to be constructing elegant story arcs, but hopefully you’ll still be able to impress your readers and make them want to hear a little more from you… or at least not make them want to hear less.

1. Use a spell-checker.

This one is such a no-brainer that it’s hard to understand why people skip it. When I was working in the HR department of a software company, it was amazing how often we saw cover letters from applicants with simple typing mistakes such as “I’m an expert in web desine.” This suggests sloppiness, which is not the most desirable trait in a web designer.

2. Punctuation goes inside a closing quote.

  • correct: “This is a sentence inside quotes.”
  • incorrect: “This is a sentence inside quotes”.
  • correct: Here is a list of things inside quotes: “melody,” “harmony,” and “rhythm.”
  • incorrect: Here is a list of things inside quotes: “melody”, “harmony”, and “rhythm”.

3. Know when to use single quotes.

Single quotes are used to indicate a quote within a quote.

  • correct: “I heard that John said ‘yes,'” said Bob.
  • incorrect: “I heard that John said “yes,”” said Bob.

I don’t know why, but some people seem to want to use single quotes instead of double quotes, or to use single quotes instead of italics, or for any number of random things.

Technically, with each level of nesting you toggle between single/double quotes, but such sentences are hard for the reader to parse and can probably be expressed in simpler ways:

John said “Bob said ‘John said “Bob said.”‘”

4. Use italics to indicate emphasis.

If you have access to styled text, then italics is used to indicate emphasis. In text-only email you can enclose the *emphasized* text in asterisks. Don’t make up random ways of emphasizing text, like “putting it in quotes” or ‘putting it in single quotes’ or Using Capital Letters. And PUTTING IT IN ALL CAPS IS RIGHT OUT.

5. Don’t capitalize words that don’t need to be capitalized.

There are of course situations that call for capital letters. For example, if you are referring to the President, or if you are referring to an organization by its name, such as The American Society of Capitalization. But don’t just randomly capitalize things that Seem Important.

The title of a book or movie is in italics; the title of a story, song, or article is in quotes.

  • correct: Where God Went Wrong by Oolon Coluphid
  • incorrect: “Where God Went Wrong” by Oolon Coluphid
  • correct: “Fish Heads” by Barnes & Barnes
  • incorrect: Fish Heads by Barnes & Barnes

6. A comma separates the parts of a compound sentence.

  • correct: I went to the store, and I bought some guitar strings.
  • incorrect: I went to the store and I bought some guitar strings.

This is a compound sentence because each part can stand on its own as a sentence:

  • I went to the store.
  • I bought some guitar strings.

When the subject (“I”) of the second part of the sentence is removed, what we’re left with is no longer a compound sentence, and therefore there should be no comma.

  • correct: I went to the store and bought some guitar strings.
  • incorrect: I went to the store, and bought some guitar strings.

You can tell that this is not a compound sentence because the two parts can’t both stand on their own:

  • I went to the store.
  • Bought some guitar strings.

To help you remember this rule, remember that “compound” and “comma” both start with “com.” Then all you need to do is remember how to tell if it’s a compound sentence.

7. “Its” is the possessive form of “it.” “It’s” is the contraction of “it is.”

  • correct: It’s the best song I’ve ever heard.
  • incorrect: Its the best song I’ve ever heard.
  • correct: We love music for its ability to communicate pure emotion.
  • incorrect: We love music for it’s ability to communicate pure emotion.

8. “Their” is the possessive form of “they.” “They’re” is the contraction of “they are.”

  • correct: They’re almost finished mixing the album.
  • incorrect: Their almost finished mixing the album.
  • correct: Their first album was good, except for the song about fish heads.
  • incorrect: They’re first album was good, except for the song about fish heads.

9. Write out the numbers 1-10; use numerals for numbers above 10.

One, two, three, … eight, nine, ten, 11, 12, 13…

10. The Penultimate Comma

Ah, the penultimate comma…Hardly anything in the rules of usage inspires so much passionate debate. On the progressive side of the argument, the rule is “use it or lose it, but be consistent after you choose it.” On the conservative side, the rule is “give me the penultimate comma, or give me death.”

Here’s an example of a penultimate comma: I went to the store to buy mic cables, a mic stand, and a pop screen.

Here’s the example again but without the penultimate comma: I went to the store to buy mic cables, a mic stand and a pop screen.

So which one is correct? The answer is… it depends. Most business communication tends to be conservative and preserves the comma. But artists, well, they like to think different.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.