The Number One Rule of Good Writing

As an editor, people ask me all the time about the number one rule of good writing. That’s easy. It’s so easy, in fact, that it’s the very same rule for the millions of striving attorneys as it is for the lonely (but optimistic!) Zamboni repair service. No, it’s not about knowing that it’s is not the possessive of it, though “its versus it’s” is the number one punctuation mistake people make. And it’s not forgetting that a singular noun requires a singular pronoun, though that’s the number one grammar mistake people make. It’s not about the fact that compliment is the number one misspelled word in every Multiple Listing Service from sea to shining sea (no offense, all you realtors). And no, good writing is not about using earthshakingly grandiose words.

Nope, the number one rule of good writing is simple: Review your work. Take the minute or so you need to double-check what you are emailing, printing, or publishing. Take the minute or so you need to double-check what is being emailed, printed, or published on your behalf. Does what is written make sense? Any words MIA? Are you really sure of the spelling of that name? Did you run the writing through spell-check? Are all your I’s dotted and your T’s crossed? Hmm?

Just those few seconds can save your bacon.

We are in such a rush nowadays that too often we don’t stop, go back, take a breath, and just read. How hard is that? Answer: not hard at all.

Because if there’s one rule in life, my friends, it’s this: You never know when you’ll need to know how to spell Zamboni.

Funny Franchisors

Welllll, when I say “funny,” I really mean the opposite. There was nothing funny about the writing I observed at this weekend’s Franchise Expo in Ft. Lauderdale. I suppose it was a good thing, since it proves my point—as if I needed any proof!—that business people can’t write. But it’s sad—so sad—because these are supposed to be some of our best and brightest. If that’s the case, we are doomed.

Just look at this!

I am the principal author of the IFA’s Statement of Guiding Principals. 

Do you really think that the IFA has a “Statement of Guiding Principals”? It might have a “Statement of Guiding Principles,” but “principals”? I doubt it very much.

Maybe you’re like, chill, Liz, it’s just a typo. But why? Why is there such an icky, stinky, obvious typo in biographical information about a supposed industry leader? Answer me that.

LinkedIn “Learning” stinks!

LinkedIn “Learning” stinks. LinkedIn “Learning,” at least as far as American English goes, is jaw-droppingly horrible. I think I already said that—somewhere, sometime, and if I didn’t, I meant to!—but I continue to get emails from LinkedIn, and those emails continue to have nails-on-the-chalkboard mistakes.

Like this gem:

Have you ever pored over a beautifully-written article and wished you could write with the same kind of flair?

If you write with the “same flair” as this supposed instructor, you’re writing with something other than “flair” because everybody knows that you never, under any circumstances, hyphenate an -ly adverb.

My most recent post is about an online education provider called Schoox. Schoox is out of Texas by way of Greece. In Greece, people use British English, which ain’t what we use in Texas. Or Florida. Or California. Or New York. Or anyplace in the States. The Schoox voice-overs are by British English speakers, which means that the word “schedule” is pronounced “shedule” every other word in a podcast on behalf of BNI, which, last time I looked, is an American company.

It’s a sin and a shame that major providers of so-called online education can’t write their way out of a paper sack, even when these providers are supposed to be providing education about…wait for it…writing! LinkedIn is a company that should be watching out for its users and ensuring that all its online learning is, at a minimum, correct, yet much of LinkedIn’s online English writing material is full of mistakes, typos, and out-and-out sloppy writing.

Who is teaching whom? Worst example of corporate inconsistency ever.

There are three C’s to good writing: you have to be correct, you have to use compelling language, and you have to be consistent.

Consistency is the big bugaboo for businesses. It’s amazing to me how often I’ll come across a business whose very name varies from page to page to page, a business whose business name is different online and -off, a business whose business name is not the same from one employee bio to another.

I’ve never seen a worse (or, I suppose, better) example of this kind of sloppy writing than I saw yesterday on behalf of a company called Schoox, a company that—get this—provides online training for many different industries. The writing itself is pretty awful, and that’s no big surprise: these people can’t even figure out the name of their business, so why expect them to know how to spell!

Here’s how its name (a stupid, made-up name) is spelled by its employees; notice that a couple of sentences contain other misspelled words in the same sentence:

Spelling #1: My goal in Schoox is to create a delightful, meaningful mobile experience putting people first nad making learning a pleasure

Spelling #2: Every problem has a solution, here in schoox we find it and solve it via cooperatation, communication and fun.

Spelling #3: Working at SchooX provides an awesome environment with great people that changes the way people learn.

And here’s how BNI International, an entity that doesn’t have any employees (you heard me) who can write their way out of a paper sack, spells Schoox:

Spelling #4: Your registration has been confirmed. Please click here to enter schooX

Since neither the employees nor its customers knew how to spell its name, I went on to its “legal page” and discovered that the name seems to contain an uppercase “S” and then lowercase for the rest: Schoox.

This kind of top-to-bottom confusion about something as basic as how to represent the name of a company in print is less than impressive, and, for a company that claims to be focused on helping other people learn, it’s laughable.

Looks to me like Schoox needs some schoolin’, which makes its online offerings…suspect.

How to punctuate with parentheses, Part I.

Hey, this is easy. Parentheses are used to create an aside to the reader, and are less of a break than dashes, but more profound than the break created by a comma or commas. And, unlike commas or dashes, parentheses only come in pairs. Though the decision whether or not to use parentheses can be a judgement call, with practice you begin to see which of those marks—commas, parentheses, or dashes—is most correct. There are basically three different ways to punctuate with parentheses.

Let’s take the easiest use first, which is an independent clause inside a pair of parentheses, by which I mean a full sentence that is by itself inside parentheses but not inside another sentence. (Put another way, this “full sentence” offers ancillary information—an aside, if you will, to your reader—that is not part of another sentence.) Material inside parentheses in stand-alone information must be a full sentence.

Okay, that was my example, the full sentence inside parentheses. Note that the first sentence has its own period, and then the second sentence, the parenthetical sentence that follows 1) starts with a capital letter, and 2) the period is inside the second parenthesis. These are two separate sentences. Do you see it?

Let’s look at the second example, which happens when the parenthetical information (which may or may not be a complete sentence) is part of another sentence.

Again, that’s my example (using a dependent clause, i.e., not a full sentence). Here the parenthetical information is completely inside another sentence. You kick off that information with a lowercase letter and no punctuation inside the second parenthesis.

So this example is incorrect:

How do you WP? (where do you work, listen to music, require a cup of coffee?)

Why? Because these aren’t two separate sentences. This information should look like this:

How do you WP (where do you work, listen to music, require a cup of coffee)?

Do you see how I removed the first question mark and then took the second one outside the second parenthesis? Now we have one full sentence with proper punctuation.

This next would also be correct, because I just made the parenthetical information a full sentence:

How do you WP? (For example, where do you work, listen to music, or require a cup of coffee?)

And here’s my third example, which happens when the parenthetical information comes at the end of the main sentence:

Again, that’s my example (using a dependent clause, i.e., not a full sentence).

The rule is that your dependent clause starts with a lowercase letter and your end punctuation is the period for the main clause, and that is placed outside the parenthesis.  The interior punctuation  of the parenthetical information (if there is any) just sits there, just like you want it.

Stay tuned for the less common, but still important, punctuation issues that come up using parentheses.

Editing: Why bother?

Gee, why bother to breathe?

When you use your language with authority, then by gosh and by golly, you look like an authority. With authority comes credibility, and with credibility comes that most important coin: trust.

A couple of weeks ago, I took my car to a car wrapping service to get a quote. Tooling around Sarasota with “” emblazoned on all four sides of my Honda (not the Porsche!!) is like an editor’s wet dream because a) everybody needs an editor, and b) no one knows how to find a good one. In fact, I liked the slogan “…because everybody needs an editor” so much, I got the .com and made it my tag line. (One of my tag lines, anyway, because I have a couple, depending on the audience: “…because good writing makes you money” for business-related projects and “…because good writing makes you look smart” for individuals.)

So the guy snapped pictures of the Honda and a couple of days later back came the mock up, with a tag line that read “…because everybody need an editor.”

Lemme ask you a question: Do you think that business got my business? Do you? Not taking those, what?, three seconds? four seconds? to review my mock up cost that business a thousand or so bucks. That’s $250 per second.

Do the math, everyone. Good writing makes you money, and bad writing costs. It’s just dollars and common sense.

How to use a semicolon, Part II

The second main use of the semicolon is to separate items in a list when one item has its own comma.

For example: My favorite books are Gone With the Wind, Alas, Babylon, and The Bronze Bow.

How many books are in that list? Three? Four? Not sure?

It helps to remember that the purpose of punctuation is to make things clear to your readers. So when one item in a list has its own comma, then you need to show your readers where each item starts and stops. In this case, not everyone knows that Alas, Babylon is the title of a terrific book by Pat Frank about the aftermath of a nuclear war in 1950s central Florida. There very well could be a book titled Alas and a book titled Babylon. You have to make things clear to your readers.

Punctuated correctly, that sentence reads like so: My favorite books are Gone With the Wind; Alas, Babylon; and The Bronze Bow.

Notice that you use a semicolon everywhere you’d use a comma, including the comma before the “and,”  which is also known as the Oxford or “serial” comma. I’m a big fan of the serial comma.

I’m all for keeping punctuation to a minimum, or, put another way, I’m for keeping punctuation to the “lowest” level possible. To me, a semicolon is a higher level of punctuation than a comma. I used to think that any sort of internal punctuation in an item in a list would trigger the semicolon rule, but now I don’t. The only way your readers could get confused is if one item has its own comma. An item in a list with a question mark, a colon, or even a semicolon would not confuse a reader; only a comma in an item in a list would cause confusion.

How to use a semicolon, Part I

There are two main uses of the semicolon (;): to join two complete sentences without benefit of a conjunction, and to separate items in a list when one (or more) of the items has a comma of its own.

In the first use, the trick is to imagine a see-saw. (Do we still have see-saws anymore? Maybe I should update my imagery, but this works so well!) So, each side of the see-saw is perfectly balanced, and in the middle is the semicolon: full sentence-semicolon-full sentence.


I ate the entire pint of Ben & Jerry’s New York Super Chunk Fudge ice cream. It made me sick.

I ate the entire pint of Ben & Jerry’s New York Super Chunk Fudge ice cream, and it made me sick.

I ate the entire pint of Ben & Jerry’s New York Super Chunk Fudge ice cream; it made me sick.

As an author, there are reasons that you’d choose one of these options over another.

In the first example, with the two full sentences, you can almost hear the pause and believe that the second sentence is (possibly) the punch line.

In the second example, with the  comma and “and,” it seems like the “it” refers more to the eating than the ice cream.

In the third example, the one with the semicolon, it seems like the “it” refers more to the ice cream than the act of eating it. (You got sick because you ate this specific flavor of this specific ice cream.)

Bottom line: When you use a semicolon in this way, the material on either side of the semicolon has to be a full sentence. Not a full sentence? No semicolon!




I love you, Randy Rainbow!

Yes, it’s official! I have publicly declared my love for YouTube star Randy Rainbow in The New York Times!


If you don’t know Randy, you need to!

“Hey, USA we just elected us a mean girl!”


Here are links to a few of my favorites, but, honey, trust me: they are all great!

Would you pay for this person’s advice?

Question: If someone advertised that he (or she!) is a WordPress “expert” and a “business adviser,” but misspelled the word “adviser,” would you have any confidence whatsoever that his (or her!) advice would be worth, well, anything?

Answer: Hell, no!

But, gee, that’s just what I saw recently on a LinkedIn profile of a self-proclaimed WordPress “expert.” I can’t post the entire sentence, since I just realized that when the sentence is “googled” this person comes up #1 with a bullet, but I can tell you that “adviser” was spelled “adisor.”

It’s kind of like a professional bio I edited recently and the person, who was in a branch of the U. S. military for 20 years, spelled “united,” as in “United States,” as “unted.” He (it’s a “he”) wants to be a professional speaker.

Question: How many misspelled words does it take to ruin your credibility?

Answer: Depends. If you’re an eighth-grader, I’ll cut you some slack. If you are a grown up and are marketing yourself as a professional, you get no slack, especially if the word should have been caught by spell-check.

In fact, if you can’t spell, not only would I not pay for your advice, I wouldn’t take it, even for free!