5 Writing Questions You’re Too Embarrassed to Ask

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1dcbcc7Writing isn't easy, even if you have an ear for it and have built a long career on your ability to deliver clear, concise prose on demand. The blank screen never gets less intimidating, especially if you're paid to write.

Each word, phrase and sentence represents a difficult decision. And with each decision comes the question: "Do I really know what I'm doing?"

PR pros and journalists are supposed to have the answers to questions about writing style, and if they harbor more questions than answers, they may be too embarrassed to ask a colleague. So we'll absorb the embarrassment for you, and pose five common questions about writing style, with answers from Jonathan Rick, president of the Jonathan Rick Group and the kickoff speaker at PR News' recent Writing Boot Camp in Washington, D.C.

1. Should I avoid the use of contractions in my professional writing to make my work appear more authoritative and businesslike?

No, you should not—make that shouldn't—avoid contractions. "Write the way you speak—favor contractions," says Rick. Your purpose as a writer is to engage, inform and perhaps even inspire readers, not impress them with your sober stuffiness.

2. Should I never end a sentence with a preposition?

Clarity of meaning should always come first, and good writers know when to break rules, says Rick. So if your sentence works better with a preposition (about, after, by, for, from, etc.) at the end, so be it.

3. Is it OK to split an infinitive?

According to Grammarist.com, "a split infinitive is created by placing an adverb or adverbial phrase between 'to' and a verb." Split away, says Rick, if it makes your sentence more conversational and memorable. The Star Trek phrase "to boldly go" would have been needlessly drained of power had it been "to go boldly."

4. Does using big numbers and data strengthen points I'm making in my writing?

No, not if you don't humanize those big numbers, says Rick. Large numbers without humanizing context often indicates that the writer doesn't have a firm grasp on the subject at hand, minimizing the possibility that anything interesting or of value is being communicated. Example: Instead of writing "The U.S. federal budget is about $4 trillion a year," write, "In one second, the federal government spends what two typical American families earn in an entire year."

5. If my subject is complex, should I simplify it for lay people or direct my writing at experts on that subject?

Always aim for simplification, analogies and clarity. You want to extend the reach of your content, not limit it. "We falsely equate incomprehensible writing with intelligent writing," says Rick. "Incomprehensible writing shows a lack of subject knowledge, a poor education or intent to mislead."

It doesn't get any clearer than that.

Follow Jonathan Rick: @jrick

Follow Steve Goldstein: @SGoldsteinAI

  • Jonathan Rick

    Thanks for this thorough and engaging recap, Steve!

  • Ed Ness

    As a former journalist 20 years ago we were taught when writing something that people will read, one should avoid contractions. When writing for the ear, use contractions because you are telling your audience about the subject. Things have changed.