Think First, Write Later

  For the past few months, I have been learning about a new document type called Species Status Assessments (SSAs). My learnings are resulting in some interesting writing tips that I’m excited to share with you. SSAs are a process resulting in a document used by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service in a […]

Differentiate Between the Em Dash and the En Dash

If you ever wish to extend a work meeting, ask one of two questions: How many spaces belong after a period? or What is the difference between an “em” dash and an “en” dash? Either is guaranteed to prolong the discussion by at least 30 minutes. Neither will result in a productive use of anyone’s […]

Eliminate There Is and Other Expletives

Editors are notoriously snarky. Still, I do not think I am alone in finding the following editorial change surprising: Their research identified multiple characteristics associated with resiliency. There are multiple characteristics associated with resiliency. I understand that the words “their research identified” can be replaced with a parenthetical citation at the end of the sentence. […]

How to Capitalize and Punctuate Bullet Points

Writers and editors searching for consistent, standardized advice about how to capitalize and punctuate bullet points will be sorely disappointed. Bullet points are not a natural product of language, such as pronoun-antecedent agreement. Instead, they are a feature of the document’s formatting, akin to chapter titles, running headers, and page numbers. As such, writers have […]

How to Hyphenate Numbers Using the GPO

A writer with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recently stumped me with a question about numbers and hyphenation. He asked the following: In our consultation documents (biops, letters,) we often see numbers connected to hyphens when describing a noun, but otherwise unhyphenated.  I try to remember this as something like: “The two 20-foot-long logs […]

Review: Successful Scientific Writing, by Janice R. Matthews and Robert W. Matthews

Matthews, Janice R. and Robert W. Successful Scientific Writing: A Step-by-Step Guide for the Biological and Medical Sciences. 4th ed. Cambridge, UP, 2008. In a few weeks, I will resume my teaching responsibilities with Eight Weeks to Writing with Clarity, an eight-week online course that gives environmental scientists clarity, focus, and insight into the process […]

Eliminate Excessive Parentheses in Technical Writing

One of my pet peeves in scientific and technical writing is the use of parentheses. It seems like once a writer gets started they just can’t stop, and soon every sentence has a parenthetical list. Parentheses are distracting. They are a mark of punctuation that the readers’ eyes are drawn towards. So they have the […]

A Definition of a Rose is Still a Rose, Right?

We all learned to use reference works in the fourth grade. Yet as a government writing trainer, I still teach reference works to adult professionals. And I get lots of questions about what would seem like “the basics,” such as – which dictionary should I be using? It is not because these questions are basic, […]

From WordPerfect to Microsoft Word: Macros, AutoCorrect, and Quick Parts

When I was in high school, a lo-o-o-o-o-ng time ago, I took a course in WordPerfect. I learned that program from the inside out. I had keyboard shortcuts and macros for EVERYTHING. I never typed anything longhand. Using that program was like being a court reporter. Conveniently enough, I worked my way through undergrad as […]

The 18F Guide: The Government’s Latest (Insufficient) Attempt at Plain Language

Earlier this summer, government writers got another plain language “goose” when the Washington Post featured the government’s newest plain language guide, The 18F Content Guide. DC’s newspaper reporters were hopeful at this sign that government writers are taking the Plain Writing Act of 2010 seriously. The article lauds the handbook’s conversational tone and the sound, common sense […]