I understand that offices are less formal than they were 15 years ago and that organizations now assign writing tasks to staff that were hired for other talents (I’m looking at you, scientists and MBA grads). But good writing still matters. I believe that sentences should be properly capitalized and that verbs should agree with nouns. From smart authors (especially from smart authors), we should expect smart writing. When our colleagues stumble, our job as communicators is to politely yet firmly direct them toward the light.
There are countless writers who are more prolific than I am and likely more qualified to give advice. But I can’t help myself. So below are some simple tools I keep handy and three books that every writer should read (and keep and read again). They not only help as I write, but they provide great backup when I have to defend my edits with my clients.
The New York Times‘ “After Deadline” grammar blog is one of my nerdy guilty pleasures. Perhaps I read it to see if I can spot the errors before the editor points them out. I’ll never tell. For someone in the communication business, reading about writing is a healthy habit and one I’m proud to keep. And it makes me feel good to know that even the Times makes mistakes.
A dictionary. No joke. I use online dictionaries to confirm spelling. But to confirm that I am using a word correctly, nothing beats a paper dictionary. Why? Mostly it’s because I hate buzz words like optimize, convergence and other words that dictionary editors know are manufactured fluff but include in new editions out of fear of appearing stuffy and old. I prefer to use words that have existed for more than 20 years (Stephen Colbert’s“truthiness” a worthy exception). With online dictionaries, I can’t tell if a word was invented yesterday.
A thesaurus. I prefer to use an actual book, but an online version, if used often, can be a good substitute. When I was a kid, I’d use a thesaurus to find fancy words so I’d look smarter than I was. At work, we tend to use words that are more complicated than necessary (utilize instead of use, for example). These days, a thesaurus often helps me find the simpler, not the more complex.
The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White. Known informally as “Strunk and White,” it’s the best book on writing I’ve ever read. There’s a good chance you’ve already read it. Read it again. Reviewing the authors’ simplicity and focus would be a good annual habit. Note: the authors aren’t always right, in my opinion. But they are good to know.
On Writing Well by William Zinsser. Equally heralded by those that have read it but less famous than “Strunk and White,” “On Writing Well is, in many cases, even more instructive and helpful for workplace writers. It’s another good annual read.
On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King. Part biography (you learn how King came up with the storyline for Carrie; creepy) and part writer’s workshop, On Writing provides a peek into the habits and opinions of one of America’s most prolific fiction writers. No animals come back from the dead, and it’s a much shorter read than almost anything else King has written. But you’ll gain a real appreciation for words.