3 Tips to Avoid Common Writing ErrorsPosted by Nicole
For the month of March, Write Ahead will be providing tips and tricks to help you improve your writing, editing, and proofreading skills. March is also the month we happened to launch our free e-book, “Ten Tips for Editing and Proofreading Your Own Copy” (tip: find out how to receive it by subscribing to our newsletter below!)
In this post we will de-mystify three common “typographical tricksters” to help writers, editors, and proofreaders save time and effort with their work. Learn the guidelines and the rules – or print this post – to spare yourself the frustration of researching to double-check, or worse, correcting.
For more help with improving your writing, editing, and proofreading, our free e-book, “Ten Tips for Editing and Proofreading Your Own Copy” is available now to Write News subscribers. Sign up today!
Writing Tip #1: Is that an em dash or an en dash?
This is a rule worth learning; you don’t want to rely on your word processing program to do the thinking for you. MS Word often incorrectly jumps to conclusions (as it does when you want a stand-alone lower case “i” and it thinks you don’t). Always use your wits as you write, and proofread carefully for your word processing program’s automatic corrections.
Now back to dashes: which is which? The em dash is the longer of the two at roughly the size of the letter “m”, and looks like this: ?. It can be used in place of other punctuation, like commas and semi-colons, for emphasis. It can indicate an interruption in thought or a sudden change of mind or heart. In other words, it can be used to express drama.
Unlike the em dash, the en dash never adds drama. It is the more utilitarian of the dashes, is the size of the letter “n”, and is generally used to separate periods of time or for open compounds.
Here are some examples of correct use of the em dash:
“I never knew the difference between the em dash and em dash – until now.”
“This blog post offers three helpful writing tips – it explains the correct use of dashes, periods and numerals.”
Here are some examples of correct use of the en dash:
“He lived in Vancouver from January-July 2010.”
“It seemed to take forever to reach the BC-Alberta border.”
Writing Tip #2: Where does the period go when I use quotes?
For those of us educated in Canada, the odds are that our teachers taught us how to spell and punctuate like the British. However, these days American style dominates most newspapers, publishing houses, and style guides used in both the U.S. and Canada.
When questions arise about proper usage for spelling (“neighbour” vs. “neighbor”) or where the period should go when punctuation is not part of the quoted sentence, writers, editors and proofreaders will need to verify the preferred convention with whomever they are working for. Sometimes it may not matter to a client, so you can decide which style you prefer (which is great – but remember to know the style conventions thoroughly, and to be consistent!)
Now for the rules. For quoted text, American style dictates that periods belong inside the end quote. The British, on the other hand, allow their periods to have the final say in a sentence.
So if you are Terry Brooks writing in West Seattle, the following is correct:
“I know they do things differently in Britain and the Commonwealth, but I prefer the way we do things here.”
If you are J.K. Rowling writing in Kensington, West London, you would be correct to write:
“They do do things differently in the U.S., don’t they? I’m glad I live where the rules regarding English punctuation make sense”.
Writing Tip # 3: Is that a One or a 1?
As with Writing Tip #2, whether it is correct to spell out a number or use a numeral will depend on your writing project and for whom you are working. While I generally prefer to spell out numbers, I edit copy for an exercise therapist who includes charts and tables in his manuals. In this case, it is easiest for his readers to digest numerals, and it happens he prefers using numerals throughout his manuals as well. That’s his prerogative – and his house style.
As technology advances and publishing as a whole evolves, it is becoming more and more common to use numerals in place of spelled out numbers. Numerals are often used in writing for the web as they may be more SEO friendly (hence, the title for Jessica’s article for Thrifty and Green magazine, “5 Simple Steps to Trim Heating Bills”, and the subtitle for this post). For those of us accustomed to spelling out a number at the beginning of a sentence, seeing a numeral there at the beginning of a title can look a bit odd at first.
Even among publishers who want to see numbers spelled out, there are variations in standard. Many editors spell out single-digit whole numbers and use numerals for numbers ten and up. At Write Ahead, our house style is to spell out numbers from one to twelve and use numerals for everything else.
In your own writing, you can decide which usage is suitable. As always, if you are writing or editing for someone else, ask what is preferred and create a style sheet so you remember the house rule next time.
For more helpful writing, editing, and proofreading resources, check out www.grammarbook.com and www.dailywritingtips.com (both of which I referred to when researching this post). Regarding the rules for differences in U.S. and British punctuation, I referred to Punctuation Errors: British and American Quotation Marks at www.dailywritingtips.com.
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