Writing Headache? Take Two Doses of Style and Call Me in the Morning

man with head on computerSean just smacked his head on his own desk. It was not an accident.  Frustration combined with apathy and the gravitational pull did the rest.

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. chicago manual of style

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.)


  1. Anna Biunno says


    I hear you loud and clear. Your post resonates with me, especially now that I’ve dipped my toe in the editing pool as a writer. I am temporarily working on both sides of the fence, so I have perspective as a writer and editor.

    As a novice editor, I am following our style guide. That means for every revision I make, I cite the section in the style guide to support my suggestions. There are times when I need to pause and refrain from making changes just because that’s not how I would have written a paragraph. It is exactly during these moments that I must refer to the style guide to remind myself what the exact rules are.

    I agree that with no style guide, the editing exercise becomes subjective (i.e. the writing begins to sound like the editor’s voice).

    I say keep it technical. If there is no style guide, create one so that the clashes between writer and editor can be avoided. But what’s more important is that with a style guide, different writers within an organization, who all have varying styles, can write consistently as one familiar, branding voice. Writers will push back because they like to maintain their individuality. If that’s the case, they’re in the wrong business.

    As a writer, you can still write with flair. You can drive as fast (simple sentences) or as slow (complex sentences) as you want, but the style guide will keep you inside the lane.

    • Anna – I hope your writers realize how very fortunate they are to have you as an editor. Thank you for maintaining such a high professional standard and for having so much respect for your writer’s voice.

    • Wow. I want to second Michelle’s comment here about your post, Anna: You sound amazingly sane about matters that often leave writers and editors unhinged.

  2. Michelle,

    I so love that you began a sentence in your post with “So.”

    More to the point: you make many fine, discerning points, all helpful, I imagine, to writers struggling under the relentless, recursive hand of editors. Adopting a style guide at least gives you consistency and a rationale you can point to when dealing with such editors.

    Doing commercial business writing, vs. writing for professional editors adds a whole layer of complexity to the issue of grammar vs. style. This is a crass generalization, but with the former, edits can be maddeningly arbitrary. But if they write the paycheck, you have to learn to accommodate the madness. Sometimes, the client proves to be not worth the money – which typically leaves the writer with a difficult choice (unless you were born a trust-fund baby).

    Madness can reign with professional editors as well. I wrote for a trade publisher and had one editor who thought my writing was superb. Another heavily edited my work, but would never provide guidance on why, or how I might accommodate his style consistently.

    Sheesh! The writer’s life. In the end, write because you love writing. And remember: you’re never too accomplished or too old to learn new lessons.

    • Hello Frank, and welcome! Thank you for your thoughtful comments and for expressing them with such personality and flair. I particularly like your parting comment and will take it to heart in the upcoming weeks. All my best- Michelle

  3. Style guides can be very helpful, and I wish more clients had them.

    I always ask a client if they’re looking for a formal, straightforward style or conversational (or even, the style I like best, snarky ‘n’ playful). By clarifying the tone and style upfront I can often avoid extensive comments — but not always. Sometimes, when the client sees the result, they realize they really wanted formal and straightforward after all.

    Sometimes we just can’t win. That’s when we bang our heads on the desk.

    • Hi Sarah – I have a coaching client in this very position right now. She’s building a web business, and she needs to sound both authoritative and personable. I encouraged her to simplify and energize some passages, but she’s uncomfortable adding personal pronouns. So after two sessions with her, I said publish it. Let your audience tell you how to proceed. And once you start engaging with them, you’ll get a better feel for your own voice.

  4. Great post. The biggest takeaway for writers who are wrestling with headaches is this: learn the rules of grammar like a pro so you can break them like an artist. Your “style” comes from the art you create with your writing. Unfortunately, academic writing doesn’t allow much room for panache. Perhaps the best we can hope for in this genre is that the writing will be clear, concise, and informative. If it’s engaging, well, that’s a bonus.

  5. Michelle,

    I think you nailed it on the head.


  6. Actually,note: never use adverbs in this way in a legal or professional manner–in the very first parts he was misuing grammar as well as not speaking in the venacular of his industry. As a journalist I learned to write essays fitting the subject I was commenting upon. note: never end in a pronoun lol. I used words pertinent to the subject matter and depending upon who would be reading my work, upgraded or downgraded my vocabulary to fit the audience and the subject matter. Mostly–note: never use advebs in this type of writing and never ever start out with one–I wrote in terse clear language, not wasting words or boring the reader. Creative writing is another story–I break rules and I tell- note: don’t tell, show–a good story with prose that sometimes awes even myself. I enjoyed this essay, L. Michelle and I’m sure you know all of what I’ve said here, but the love of writing made me do it. 🙂


  7. The post and the detailed comments have taught me much about the writers’ dilemma when writing ‘to order’.
    Believe it or not, some clients (ie me) do not know about style guides.
    When creating something for a client do you ask them for their preferred style guide? I have never been asked.
    I resonate with Sara’s comment – sometimes it is only by seeing something written in a style you don’t want, you realise what you DO want.
    Inexperienced clients must drive you up the wall!

    • Julia – it’s actually a relief to me when a client doesn’t need a style guide! Then you have the freedom to move along with your own voice without such constraints, which frankly I often consider ridiculous. In my humble opinion, style guides are useful to the extent that they help you to be consistent. But when you’re writing a website or a blog filled with fun, flair, and personality – consistency is pretty far down on the audience’s list of priorities, at least in terms of punctuation placement.
      Far more important is that the author maintain a “voice” that is unique and identifiable.
      A style guide becomes useful when that voice is shared by a group of writers who are all working for the same company or publishing house.

  8. Interesting post. As a long-time editor (trained by the University of Chicago Press 20 years ago), and an author of nonfiction, I’ve been on both sides of the editing fence. I’d say that the editors in this example were all right–but they didn’t go far enough in guiding Sean with explicit examples. The problem is that, although Sean is probably great at his job, he’s not the best writer. Sorry Sean. Writing after all is hard work–don’t let anyone tell you differently. And writing is both a profession and an art. I don’t claim to be good at math even though I have a working knowledge of it, yet so many claim they could write that report or write a book, if they just had the time. My first bit of advice would be to let a professional do the writing, but that’s a different issue.

    The editors were trying to get Sean to rewrite so that the reader didn’t have to struggle to understand, or trip over awkward sentences. It WAS a long, complicated sentence, and should have been shortened. But the second version WAS choppy. At some point, the editor should have offered an example of exactly what he/she had in mind–and why. Rewrite the sentence and explain why it is a better version. The rewrite is not arbitrary. There is such a thing as rhythm to a sentence. There is such a thing as flow. There is such a thing as grace. Good editors have an ear for those patterns, honed from years of reading the best writers and working hard at understanding what about their work makes it so good.

    There’s also a difference between voice and tone. Sean’s tone was more conversational than formal. That’s not voice. Voice takes a lot of hard work to develop. Joan Didion has a distinct voice. Hemingway does, too. In business writing, there’s no real reason to develop a voice. It does nothing but distract from the business of conveying, well, business. Clarity is what you want.

    Finally, the best book for learning how to achieve clarity and grace in writing is the brilliantly short, The Elements of Style, by Strunk and White. Read it and you’ll be a better writer and a better editor.

    • Hello Barbara, and welcome! You make a number of excellent points that are obviously drawn from years of experience. Thank you for such a thoughtful and articulate response to Sean’s dilemma. I particularly appreciate the point you make concerning voice and tone, and I agree that subject matter experts writing within their professional environments rarely have need for a voice that detracts from the subject.
      As for reading recommendations, I personally prefer The Subversive Copy Editor by Carol Salle Fisher and Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace by Joseph Williams to the Strunk and White, which I feel is outdated and misleading. I agree wholeheartedly with Geoffrey Pullum’s essay on the book, from The Chronicle of Higher Education, “50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice.”

  9. Style and grammar are indeed two different yet complimentary things. As you say, one can break the rules, but must do so with knowledge of the rule and break them with intent, not accidentally. I wish every publication I wrote for had it’s own style sheet or at least followed one guideline religiously. I’ve blogged on this, too, and share a great link to a Stephen Fry clip on the topic: http://alisondelory.com/blog/2011/11/22/how-to-be-a-stylish-grammarian.html


  1. […] 16, 2011 Leave a comment (0) Go to comments No wonder there’s so much confusion about style guides – there are so many of them! In the past decade alone, we’ve seen the publication of Woe is I: […]

  2. […] 2011 Leave a comment (0) Go to comments What a shame it would be to write an entire series on grammar and style without paying at least some cursory attention to those writers who have chosen to break […]

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