This is the third time this month his white paper on climate control has been reviewed.
His original draft had read:
We burn coal and natural gas, generating electricity, which releases billions of tons of heat-trapping carbon dioxide (CO2) gas into the atmosphere. So by switching to more “clean” energy sources, we could curb a lot of America’s greenhouse gas emissions, which are partly responsible for warming the climate.
The initial review stated:
- Who are “we”? Suggests complicity. Revise.
- So by switching… Never begin a sentence with a conjunction. Revise.
- “curb”! We’re not pooper scoopers. Revise.
So he revised:
Burning coal and natural gas to generate electricity releases billions of tons of heat-trapping carbon dioxide (CO2) gas into the atmosphere, so switching to more “clean” energy sources would help to lessen a lot of America’s greenhouse gas emissions, which are partly responsible for warming the climate.
His draft passed the first round of review and went to another editor, who said:
- Long sentence. Revise.
So he revised:
Coal and natural gas generate electricity. This releases billions of tons of heat-trapping carbon dioxide (CO2) gas into the atmosphere. “Clean” energy sources release less gas and would help to lessen a lot of America’s greenhouse gas emissions. Gas is partly responsible for warming the climate.
The draft is now ready for his Director’s approval. He returned it today, with the following comment:
- Choppy. Revise.
Hence, Sean’s headache.
Could you use some Tylenol?
Seriously, what can you do when caught in a stylistic debate? Let me see if I can give you some suggestions. Surely we can do better than a head plant.
1) Recognize that you haven’t done anything wrong. These editors are arguing over style,
not grammar. While grammar constitutes the rules that govern language – rules like subject and verb agreement, pronoun case, or the use of definite and indefinite articles – style is a matter of choice.
Style includes one writer’s personal preferences; their voice, tone, personality; the flair that makes them unique. And for the more mundane aspects of language, like comma placement or the decision whether to compound or hyphenate a word, we have what is commonly referred to as a “house” style.
Certain editorial boards, like the Associated Press and the Chicago University Press, have formalized their house styles, published them, and seen them widely adopted by many outside their industry. And that brings us to our second solution –
2) Adopt a style guide. If you find yourself and your editors, your colleagues, your peers engaging in routine debates over language, put an end to the argument. Find a style guide that suits your needs and use it.
Whether you’re in business, the social sciences, the humanities, or the natural sciences, there’s a style guide designed specifically for you. For a complete list of editorial boards, the industries they serve, their websites, and their manuals, please visit Style Guides and Usage Manuals, a Resource page compiled by yours truly (you’re welcome!).
3) Know the difference between style and grammar. So now you have a guide, and you’re checking it to see, what?
- A company that knows its crap and a company that knows it’s crap.
Sorry, that won’t work. The distinction between its and it’s is not a stylistic one. It’s not a matter of personal preference to say it is versus its possessive. That’s a grammar distinction.
You have to know the rules before you can break them. So if you’re going to use a style guide effectively, you need to know your grammar handbook inside and out.
4) Use your style guide for a whole range of problems. Some people think style guides are
only good for telling them where the commas go. And it’s true that the serial comma has engendered a healthy debate recently. (Of course, some comma rules are grammatical. For example, a comma splice is a grammar error.)
But style guides are also good for spelling, like color vs. colour, or center vs. centre.
A style guide can tell you if you should be spelling work force, workforce, or work-force.
Style guides can tell you whether the passive voice is acceptable, and when.
Tricky subject-verb pairings, like collective nouns? – use a style guide.
Capitalization trouble? Proper nouns, proper adjectives – one is plural, the other is singular, which one should be capitalized? – use a style guide.
Can I start a sentence with a conjunction?
Can I use personal pronouns?
Now, now – we’re getting giddy. Just look at all the em dashes. Time to sober up. So my last suggestion –
5) Write your own. Yes, I know it sounds daunting, but you’re industrious. Just look at how long you’ve been reading this post. And you’ve been at your job long enough to know what’s ticking everybody off. Make a list, check it twice, and email it to everyone. There are plenty of examples to follow in any one of the guides referenced above.
Especially if you’re one of the editors that I referenced above (and you know who you are!), highlight the relevant bits to return along with the document. I can guarantee you’ll never see that same mistake again. And wouldn’t that save you some time?
I think I see Sean starting to recover. How about you? Is that headache wearing off? Are these suggestions realistic, practical, able to be implemented? Let me know what you think. And best wishes to you as you navigate those prickly reviews!
(NOTE: Sean’s sentence can be found in its original form at Climate Central. I modified it several times over for instructional purposes.)