“Everyone needs an editor.” This is an obviously popular phrase in the content game. But the deeper I’ve ventured into other industries and advanced in my career, the more I’ve felt the truth in those words transcend all markets.
Whether you’re wordsmithing for the web, wooing shareholders in a monthly newsletter, or crafting an everyday email, words matter. Phrasing matters. Syntax, semantics, and the all-important Oxford comma matter! And each of these details can easily be overlooked — even by veteran writers.
I regularly quote many of the teachings of a beloved, respected former editor of mine. She taught me so much — including how much I didn’t know about the basic rules of writing. Years later, I’m a bit embarrassed by some of the rules she had to teach me, but she made me a stronger writer and did so with such gentle grace. So, I’m paying it forward with these confessions of a now somewhat savvy copywriter.
Here’s my list of common content commandments every web writer must know — even though, once upon a time, I was completely oblivious to them.
To Write With Power, Ditch These Three Words
In order to drive the point home every time, remove the phrase “in order to” from your vocabulary. The first two words are unnecessary, and they weaken your argument. Without them, no context or meaning is lost, and your sentence is made stronger. To write with power, choose your words wisely. When it comes to copywriting, less is almost always more.
To Hyphenate or Not to Hyphenate
Confession, part two: This one still trips me up often. And I found many clients and writers in the same boat. So, I’ve developed a cheat sheet.
- Compound adjectives that appear before the object they’re describing: “The off-campus apartment’s state-of-the-art architecture is gorgeous.”
- Words that describe age and are before the person or thing they’re describing: “We have a two-year-old son, and our house is five years old.”
- Spelled-out fractions: “More than two-thirds of dieters gain back their lost weight in one year.”
- Compound adjectives that appear after the object they’re describing: “The apartment is off campus and 10 years old.”
- Compound adverbs that begin with very: “The very fast runner won first place.”
- Compound adverbs that end in -ly: “The finely tuned guitar is begging to be played.”
- Proper nouns when used as a compound adjective: “She is an Academy Award nominee.”
- Well-known terms when used as a compound adjective (varies by industry): “The life coaching industry is growing.”
- Fractions that begin with a- or an-: “Roughly a third of the club showed up.”
Note that, with some well-known verbiage, exceptions to these rules have been made over time. You should Google and consult trustworthy sources, such as The Oxford Dictionary and GrammarGirl.com, to determine whether your particular sentence contains an exception to the rules above.
“Such As” vs. “Including” and When to Use a Comma
When giving examples — a sampling of possible options but not a complete list — use “such as.” When rattling off a finite list of all possible scenarios or samples, the word “including” is appropriate.
Understanding the use cases for “such as” and “including” pales in comparison to knowing when to offset the words with commas, though! This might be my all-time most-cited note to writers whose work I review. The rule is simple: If the phrase is at the end of the sentence, no comma is needed; if the clause is inserted mid-sentence, such as this example, you should offset the words with commas. Read that again.
4 Common Comma Conundrums
I imagine the comma is the most used and abused punctuation mark on the planet. The guidelines are tricky, and it doesn’t help that certain writing standards suggest sometimes breaking comma laws for readability and other subjective reasons.
Let’s cover the common laws of commas.
1. Commas for Conjunctions
Use a comma before any coordinating conjunction (e.g., and, but, for, or, nor, so, yet) that links two independent clauses or complete thoughts. Here is an example: “I was waiting in line at Starbucks, and I called my mom.” Be very careful not to use a comma if the second clause is not actually a complete thought, e.g., “I was waiting in line at Starbucks and called my mom.”
2. Commas for Qualifying a Single Subject
A comma should also separate any two adjectives that are describing the same subject, e.g., “the slender, fast runner.” This rule relates to the serial comma, which is used in lists. But we’ll get to that in a minute.
3. Commas for Non-Critical Clauses
Use a comma to offset any information that proves to be supplementary, not critical to translating the meaning of the sentence. For example:
- After a dependent clause that starts a sentence: “While I was out jogging, I saw Deanna.” The dependent clause, “while I was out jogging,” provides extra context but is not necessary, so we insert a comma to show it could be removed without changing the meaning of the sentence.
- Before or around a dependent clause that provides supplemental information: “While I was out jogging, I saw Deanna, a fellow running club member.” We include the comma after Deanna’s name because the next clause provides additional information on Deanna.
- To offset negation: “While I was out jogging, I saw Deanna, not Donna, pushing a stroller.”
- After introductory adverbs: “Finally, I heard from my friend.”
- After an introductory “yes” or “no” word: “Yes, I like to run two or three times a week.”
- After directly addressing a person or object: “Deanna, do you want to grab lunch sometime?”
If you think you have a potential supplementary clause on your hands, read the sentence aloud with the phrase; then, read it again without the phrase. If both sentences convey the same intent, or no meaning is lost by removing the extra words, you have yourself a removable clause that should be offset with commas. And, yes, that last sentence was another example of this comma law in action!
4. The Comma That Rules All Commas: The Oxford Comma
Finally, the serial comma, or the Oxford comma, should always be placed between the last two items in a list of three or more. I won’t spend time defending the Oxford comma and its necessity. The judge has spoken.
Say More With Less
My beloved editor used to challenge me to slash as many words from my article as I could without weakening or detracting from my argument. This has become my favorite literary game. Embrace brevity and become a stronger writer in the process. The Office’s Kevin Malone said it best: “Why waste time say lot word when few word do trick?”