Remember life before the Internet, before blogs and Facebook and live tweeting? Yeah, me neither. In the wide world of our online existence, just about anyone can type up some thoughts and hit publish. Talk about the ultimate form of democracy. I’d go so far as to say that this free exchange of ideas ushered along by technology is something that makes modern life so grand. Unfortunately, it also means there’s a lot of crap out there. You want your words to shine above the muck? You want to spread the vegan message, in the most diplomatic and effective way? Well, if you do (and I hope you do), you need to put your best writing foot forward, rather than putting that foot in your mouth. As animal advocates, we have an added responsibility to get our message heard. We’re speaking for those who can’t, so we better sharpen those proverbial pencils (has anyone used a pencil in the last 10 years?) and polish up that prose.
Pretend you’re typing up something for your vegan blog or crafting a witty retort for the comments section on an article about how grass-fed local beef will save the world. You’re feeling passionate, maybe a little angry, and you just know you’re right. You want your message heard. You hit submit, but you realize – too late! – you used then instead of than. Right before your very eyes, the trolls and typo hounds have jumped on your comment and started a flame war, shouting across the electronic ether about how eating tofu and sprouts has made your brain weak.
Let’s face it. We all think our point of view is the right one. And we feel good when we win an argument. Even though I wish it were so, we’re probably not going to convert the meat-eating masses to veganism just by making our blog posts syntactically sparkle. But I’m here to say that good writing can’t hurt our cause. In fact, when we present our vegan message from a platform of poise and professionalism, we don’t have to yell. Our message is clear, and the image of the calm, cool, and collected diplomat for the animals will resonate throughout the Internet.
OK. That’s a big dose of idealism, but I can’t help it. Stringing words together makes for some powerful mojo. As an editor, we can call my love of the written word an occupational hazard. Charging forth as the champion of quality communication is my job. And with that, I give you five tips to help you make your writing clear, readable, and effective.
1. Keep Your Grammar Toolbox Close By
I deal with words, all day, every day, but I don’t know every single rule or law of English. It would be impossible to cram all that into my brain and pull out each necessary tidbit with perfect recall. Who can remember lay versus lie or the difference between whoever and whomever? I can’t, and so when I come across one of those sticky situations when I’m writing or editing, I don’t just guess. I look it up. I highly recommend bookmarking online tools such as a reliable dictionary and Grammar Girl, who explains the rules in clear language that everyone can understand.
2. Embrace Parallel Structure
Parallel structure has nothing to do with parking cars. It’s about grouping like with like for good flow. An example of parallel structure is my list of tips. Each one starts with a verb phrase (keep, embrace, don’t be, use, wait,). I’ll share a little secret, though. When I started jotting down notes for this piece, I first called this section parallel structure, without a verb, which is then just a noun phrase. It was a reminder of my idea, but I knew I’d have to come back to it and add a verb, so the entire list would flow and match. Parallel structure saves your readers from that momentary scratching of the head that comes with poorly connected ideas.
3. Don’t Be Afraid of the Hyphen
Hyphens are tricky business. I don’t remember hyphenation being covered much during my grade school grammar lessons, but the consideration of adding a hyphen to indicate that words are functioning as a group is an important one. You want your readers to keep reading, and part of that momentum involves not laying any word stumbling blocks in their path.
I’ve got a real world example (actually, that’s one right there, too – real-world example or real world example?). I was reading an online newsletter from the maker of a popular line of fitness-themed vegan products and came across this tip about exercise nutrition:
“Consume caffeine and sugar-free fluids.”
It took me a minute before I realized that the directions weren’t saying to consume caffeine. It should have been Consume caffeine- and sugar-free fluids. That extra hyphen hanging out on the end of caffeine tells me as a reader that the word is grouped with something else, which is coming later, but still coming. Hyphens may look strange to our eyes, but they will help make your writing readable.
4. Use Capitalization and Quotation Marks Judiciously
Yes, you should love your friend the hyphen, but be wary of flagrant overuse of other punctuation and style. Ever notice how some writers like to capitalize Certain Words just because they are Important? See? That sentence looks ridiculous. As long as you’re not drafting a legal contract, keep everything lowercase, except for proper names and terms that call for capitalized letters (we can all appreciate the difference between the white house and the White House). And please, I ask you, from the bottom of my grammar-soaked heart, save quotation marks for quoted material – words people actually said or text from other sources. Ironic quotation marks (called scare quotes) are distracting. How many times have you noticed a new type of kale chip that is “on sale”? Is it actually on sale, or is it part of a pretend sale?
5. Wait, Marinate, and Proof
No, this is not a recipe for bread. It’s a friendly reminder to put down what you’re working on and let it rest for a bit. Step away and get some mental (and, heck, even physical) distance. I know you really want to get that witty zinger in on Facebook before someone else thinks of it, but a thoughtful, composed response may win more hearts and minds than a sloppy one. Of course, if you’re working on a longer piece with a deadline, then you might not have the luxury of time, but, ideally, you should get a draft down and then ignore it for at least a day. Self-editing is difficult – and I say this as an editor and a writer – and everything from your mood to the time of day to your immediate surroundings will affect your ability to catch typos and see the holes in your argument. You have my permission to slack off for even an hour so you can come back with a fresh perspective.