A punctuation poll–or much ado about small symbols

thumbnail1My appreciation for punctuation began when I discovered the poetry of e.e. cummings. His spare, unconventional use of these symbols and other writing conventions made me see the marks in a whole new way. They were elegant, strong—as powerful as a polysyllabic word in his hands. Out of context, their controlling purpose found freedom of expression.

As I morphed from poet to editor, my fascination with punctuation came full circle. I learned to wield its power for function to accentuate form… handled deftly, punctuation works almost invisibly, allowing a reader to drift into a story and forget that its transformative world was created entirely of abstract symbols on paper.

I recently thought my fellow Dragonfly editors might feel a similar kinship to punctuation. I asked a simple question: What’s your favorite punctuation mark, and why?* Here’s what I got.

Samantha Enslen:

My favorite punctuation mark is the comma. I use it too frequently, even when it’s not grammatically correct. Two years of texting have conditioned me to pen constructions such as these:

Going to grocery, need anything?

Me go Chipotle, what you want?

Me home 3pm, where kids?

I see now that my casual writing style has been reduced to Tarzan-level. Me want text. Me no care ‘bout proper grammar. As a copyeditor, it’s hard for me to admit this, but it’s true.

Amy Paradysz:

I love em dashes—my thoughts are full of digressions.

Jess Haberman:

Em dash. It’s so controlling! It likes to interrupt and make you wait. It’s the punctuation mark with balls—just not literally.

Ellen Henrie:

My initial reaction was the em dash. I like the graphic quality of it—it opens up a space and allows a thought to drop in, adding a layer or emphasis. It also comes in handy for transcribing, when speakers get to wandering around in what they want to say. Then I said, “Wait a minute—what about the period?” That lowly little dot that is like a fist**… hmmm… No, I admire the period, but it’s not my favorite. I feel sorry for the comma—the most used and abused of all marks. The poor thing gets sprinkled in thither and yon or else left out with no respect to the proprieties. Then there’s the semicolon; no, it’s too complicated. The parenthesis? (Things set in parentheses often seem distracting.) Ellipsis? The dreamy cousin of punctuation marks…yes, I have a certain fondness for this one. But I’ll stick with the em dash as my favorite—at least for today.

Diana Ceres:

Ellipses all the way… Love me some mystery… Email smiley is a close second. 🙂 Exclamation marks skid into third with me. I love how exciting and celebratory they are!!

Clair Allen:

The semicolon is the most versatile of punctuation marks and ranks at the top of the list. It is like a traffic cop. It neatly separates important sentence segments, which is absolutely necessary to the proper understanding of complex sentences. The semicolon facilitates and permits the serial comma to do its job. Without the semicolon in more meaty sentences, the poor serial comma would be absolutely adrift, lost—leading to all sorts of confusion. The semicolon is so powerful; it can easily replace a sentence-ending period whenever it wants (like it did in this sentence). Perhaps the only thing to add is that the semicolon continues to patiently wait for the greater respect due it by writers of all stripes.

Magi Walker (that’s me):

I confess, I am dazzled by the flare of an exclamation mark—and who can resist the deliciously onomatopoetic interrobang?! But the apostrophe wins my heart as punctuation’s unsung hero. It’s a beautiful word: apostrophe. It is the lofty cousin of the common comma and the multi-faceted twin of the single quotation mark. An apostrophe holds a place in line. It stands in for others, silently doing their job. It fuses two into one, slicing syllables without sacrificing sense. It implies a manner of speaking and lends a conversational tone. It softens the blow of the nots in this life. And it announces a belonging.

* Of course, if we have our punctuation pets, we have our pet peeves, too. I’ll uncover the annoying side of punctuation in a future post.

** Punctuation Kung Fu was created in Suffolk, England, to teach the mechanics of sentence structure to kids. It pairs fighting moves (such as the Full Stop Fist Punch) and sounds (HA!) with the rules of applying punctuation symbols.

Margaret Walker edits, writes, and reads—and thrives on the evolution of language.

New Year’s resolution: step up your professional development

high-school-paper-sam-2Yes, friends, I can admit it.

I was not always a perfect copyeditor.

I lay the evidence before you: a 10th-grade book report on Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five.

In case you can’t read my teacher Mr. Vaughn’s comments, here they are in all their harsh glory.

“Wow! The subject matter here is excellent. Your writing is insightful and unusually readable. You might review some grammar rules, as you have several major, and careless, errors. Grade: A+ for content, D for grammar.”


Major, careless errors? What gives?

Apparently, I wasn’t always great with grammar. And sometime between 10th grade and now, I improved. And let me be frank: It didn’t happen in college.

Instead, when I decided to be a copyeditor, I sought out the professional training I needed.

Here’s what I did.

Study. I started by spending hours reading and taking notes. I studied books like the Chicago Manual of Style, the Associated Press Stylebook, and the New York Public Library Writer’s Guide to Style and Usage. I didn’t understand everything I was reading, but I knew that it would someday be relevant to my work.

Practice. Next I picked up two workbooks: Mark My Words and Substance and Style. (Both are out of print but can be found on Amazon.) I worked my way through each one, end to end, dutifully filling out each exercise and grading myself according to the key in the back of the book.

Attend. I also sought out training from experts in the field. I attended several classes offered by EEI Communications, including their Intensive Introduction to Copyediting, Substantive Editing, and Style Summit courses.

Continue. And I haven’t stopped. I regularly attend conferences, classes, and webinars offered by groups like IABC, Ragan, and Copyediting.com. I also read newsletters published by Ann Wylie, Daphne Gray-Grant, and Michael Stelzner, just to name a few.

In fact, despite all my training, I’m still afraid of falling behind. Maybe that’s because technology is changing the way we work so dramatically. Or maybe it’s because I want our company to be a leader in the communications industry, not a laggard.

So if you can’t find me some afternoon, look in the easy chair in the corner. I’ll probably be curled up studying the latest edition of Copyediting. I’m just reading it on my laptop these days, instead of paper.

Samantha Enslen runs Dragonfly Editorial.

3 questions every copywriter should ask

blue-glass-stonesNote from Dragonfly president Sam Enslen: I was recently talking with writer Jill Davis, and she mentioned quite in passing that there are really only three questions you need to ask when approaching a writing assignment: “Who am I talking to? What do they think now? And what do we want them to think?”

There seemed to be some simple brilliance in Jill’s words, so I asked her to elaborate.

Sam: So, Jill, you need answers to just three questions to write a marketing piece. Tell me more!

Jill: On the way to crafting a marketing message, a client’s first inclination is often to declare superiority in service or product. But shouting, “We’re the best!” “We’re the right choice!” actually isn’t persuasive. It takes a combination of information and empathy to be persuasive.

As a copywriting apprentice, I’d often come away from a kickoff meeting with weak direction that resulted in weak ads. I realized the onus was on me to direct the client’s thinking.

And as a student of dramatic structure and playwriting, I tend to imagine conversations and interactions between people. I’m not just putting words on a page, I’m adopting the character of my client and talking to someone about something important to them. Who is that person? What’s important to them? What do they think?

And the natural follow-on question: What do we want them to think?

I also dug into texts of notable copywriters who had developed their own versions of the same questions, so I knew I was on the right track.

Sam: You also mentioned that you take these three questions and “build on them” during an interview. Can you a talk about how that happens?

Jill: The “who” question prompts the marketing team to tell stories about recent encounters and challenges with customers.

My follow-up questions come naturally, such as, “Why did that customer come to you? What were they expecting from you?” “How did you address their problem?”I usually get some great anecdotes to draw from. The stories help me understand their target customer and how we should speak to their pain points.

Sam: As great as these questions are, is it ever hard to get your interviewees to answer them?

Jill: It usually isn’t difficult. One tough part can be getting them to talk about their competitive strategy. They might have hired the writer without having created one.

In that case, you need to find out what makes your client truly unique in their market. Or, they may be in parity with everyone else. In that case, you have to help them say something the competition isn’t saying, and say it in a unique voice.

Sam: Final question. Do you ever get stuck having to write without all the information you’d like to have? If so, what do you do?

Jill: Very frequently, clients hire a writer simply to make them “sound like Apple” or to imitate the voice of the “it” company of the moment. And that’s all the direction you get. Your work is rated on how well you do that, not how well you address customer needs.
Clients rarely have the luxury of time to look into their hearts to see what their own brand is really all about. And your contact probably doesn’t have the authority to push back on that. It has to come from the corner office.

So you do your best for the client. Your writing can make a tired brand sound fresh. But of course ideally you want to sound authentic, empathetic, really connected — all that good stuff that writing has the power to do.

Sam: Thanks, Jill. It seems to me your advice can be applied to any type of persuasive writing — case studies, web content, white papers — not just ads. In fact, I think I’ll use it on a project this week!

Jill: Thanks, Sam. Go for it and good luck.

Jill Davis is a copywriter with extensive experience in marketing, branding, and retail sales.

Passionate about punctuation: The serial comma debate

pencils1Think that regular people don’t care about punctuation?

Think again.

A friend from high school recently posted this on Facebook:

Lauren’s grammar homework:

Choose the correct way to rewrite the end of this sentence: “A string quartet has two violins a viola and a cello.”

a. two violins, a viola, and a cello.
b. two violins, a viola, and, a cello.
c. two, violins a, viola and a, cello.
d. no change is needed.

Maybe I’ve spent too much time with my AP Style Book, but none of these are correct!!!

Thus began a heated debate over commas, with 81 comments posted by a variety of people over less than two hours—and more comments to come.

The original post was by a career newspaper journalist. Journalists use Associated Press (AP) style and are firm in the belief that the serial comma is superfluous and must be expunged.

I was once a newspaper reporter and editor, so I remember my distaste for that “extra” comma.

But then I started editing for an assessment test publishing company. Educational publishers favor the serial comma.

And then I started editing proposals for tech companies that have corporate style guides based on Government Printing Office (GPO) style, which calls for serial commas.

And then for five years I was immersed in book publishing. Book publishers have corporate style guides based on Chicago Manual of Style (CMS), which also calls for serial commas.

Today, for nearly everything that goes through Dragonfly Editorial, we use serial commas. That’s because most of our clients use styles based on GPO (for tech editing) or the AMA Manual of Style (for medical editing). Both dictate use of the serial comma.

After five years of deleting those commas and 10 years of putting them back in, the serial comma and I have become friends. I appreciate its ability to clarify where one item in a list ends and another begins—which can be difficult to discern in the technical material that we edit.

But whether I like the serial comma or not isn’t important. What is important is knowing what the client wants.

In the latest edition of The Copyeditor’s Handbook, author Amy Einsohn touches on the debate:

The other issue concerns the so-called serial comma, which is the comma before the and or or that precedes the last item in a list. Chicago, WIT, APA, and CSE all either require or strongly recommend the serial comma, but most newspapers and magazines use the serial comma only when needed to avoid ambiguity. Ask your editorial coordinator about house policy.

And so, we can agree to disagree. And any time I go back to newspaper or magazine writing, I better be ready to check my “extra” commas at the door.

Dragonfly Editorial project manager Amy Paradysz thanks her Facebook friends for reminding her that details do indeed matter to people who are not editors—even if we disagree on the specifics.

Two reasons to read: Information and pleasure

thick-bookThere’s a big difference between reading for information and reading for pleasure.

Many writers don’t get that. When they’re encouraged to write short — to use plain words, tight sentences, brief paragraphs, bulleted lists — they don’t hear that you’re trying to enhance readability. They get a rushing in their ears and hear one (incorrect) message: “You’re trying to destroy my language!”

That’s because many professional writers are dyed-in-the-wool, obsessive, library-lovin’ readers. And we like our words. The longer and more luxurious, the better. I mean, we read people like Italo Calvino and James Joyce for fun. You think we can’t handle long sentences? We eat long sentences for breakfast.

But that’s reading for pleasure.

Reading for information? That’s another matter entirely.

Reading for information is a chore. And whether you’re reading an instruction manual, an airline schedule, or a pamphlet from the oncologist, it ain’t fun. It’s a means to an end. And you want to reach that end quickly.

That’s where readability comes in. Writing short helps people read quick. It’s as simple as that. And believe it or not, literature lovers, there’s an art to it. Just as there’s an art to writing long.

Ann Wylie could be considered a master of writing short, just as David Foster Wallace is a master of writing long. Each style of writing has a purpose. Each has a place. And when you need one, you don’t want the other.

So next time an editor or creative director encourages you to write shorter, don’t get defensive. Take a deep breath and remember that you’re writing for readers.

And whether it’s a fact sheet, case study, or website, you need to get them information quickly. So they can get on with their lives.

Samantha Enslen is a writer, editor, and reader. She runs Dragonfly Editorial.

I love my clients, part 8

heart-in-bookI say this all the time, but it’s true: we have really great clients at Dragonfly.

What makes them great? A bunch of reasons.

They understand what we do. They appreciate it. They know how much time, effort, talent, and concentration our work requires — whether its copywriting, tech editing, or medical editing. And perhaps best of all, when we do an exceptional job, they take time out of their busy schedules to say “thank you.”

Here’s a note we received after one of our recent projects. Not what you normally think of coming from a corporate executive.

I just wanted to take a moment to thank you for your help editing and formatting [our] proposal.

I appreciated the effort that you made to coordinate the support that we requested and to meet the deadlines. Furthermore, I know that all of you worked hard over the weekend, which is never ideal or, honestly, desirable, but it made a big difference.

Moreover, I need to mention that Jody provided some last-minute help yesterday afternoon that had not been coordinated beforehand and that she nonetheless stepped up and offered without hesitation.

All of that work and effort improved our final product.

Thank you, dear client. We think that you’re the best, too!

A love letter to our staff

illustration-dragonfly-heart-convertedLast week, Amy and I were both out of the office on vacation. We couldn’t help it — Amy and her daughter were camping, and I was on vacation with my in-laws. And let’s just say that I didn’t have much choice in the matter of dates.

But all was OK — because we had backup.

Many things have been rewarding about working with our editors and writers over the past few years. One of the best has been seeing each individual rise to the occasion when asked to do something outside their normal scope of work.

That includes Amy, who took a crash course in writing case studies and became a key contributor on our writing project for KeyLogic.com. And Jeni, who in a few short years has become a lay expert on urology. She now manages our team of five editors who copyedit European Urology, one of the world’s top journals in that field.

Last week, several folks stepped up to the plate.

Diana served as the single point of contact for our client Booz Allen, handling multiple concurrent projects with aplomb. Diana smoothly coordinated the work of multiple editors, negotiated scope of work and schedules, and made sure all our projects got done on time and to spec. Thank you, Diana!

Magi had a curveball thrown her way when I asked her to handle an unexpected project from a client who she had never worked for — and probably didn’t even know was on our roster! Despite this, she dove into the project with her usual professionalism and good cheer. She took in the client’s requirements, quickly put together an editing team, and returned the documents on time. All this despite the fact that the Word files were some of the “crashiest” we had encountered. The clients were impressed with Magi’s work and thanked us for doing so much for them with so little notice.

Our good friend Erika, on loan from her own Church Street Editorial, also managed a number of fire drills. Everything from coaching an inexperienced designer, to guiding a fellow writer through three challenging assignments, to calming a nervous client — Erika did it all. Thanks, E!

And Amy, just getting back from a week in the woods, volunteered to work a full day on Sunday — even though she surely would have preferred to relax in her air-conditioned apartment and catch up on laundry and groceries. Amy’s dedication and desire to contribute has been and continues to be remarkable.

And in the background, so many of our staff — Michelle, Lex, Lisa, Josh, Jess, Anne, Julie, Ellen, Mary Ann, Jill, Kevin — continued to do what they do for us every day. Provide careful copyediting and clear writing, always with a cheerful attitude and a great deal of care.

I’m proud of the team we have, and I value everyone’s dedication so much. Thanks for letting me go on vacation last week, guys! You’re the best.

Love, Sam

Copyeditors, add this to your reading list

copyeditors-guideErin Brenner at Copyediting has a great article this week on books to improve your editing skills.

This was helpful for me because the two books I used to recommend for new editors are now out of print. I cut my teeth on these two volumes some 15 years ago — Substance and Style, by Mary Stoughton, and Mark My Words: Instruction and Practice in Proofreading, by Peggy Smith. Both are comprehensive, fantastic resources — and both were published by EEI Press, which now seems to be defunct. Both books can be found on Amazon but are often pricey. A used copy of Mark My Words, for example, was recently listed for $97.10. Ouch.

With this in mind, it was great to see Erin’s suggestion about a new resource for those who want to learn how to copyedit. Here’s what she writes:

The Copyeditor’s Handbook by Amy Einsohn. This is probably the book for copyeditors. Einsohn covers what copyediting is, how to copyedit, and what resources are available for copyeditors. If you haven’t yet, challenge yourself by doing the exercises in the book.

Einsohn is working on a new edition, and you can preorder it on Amazon whenever you want. Look forward to seeing it!

Pauses and punctuation

ying-yangAs I was doing yoga this morning, I started contemplating the importance of pauses—in editing, and in life.

Commas clarify and slow us down before we reach the end of a sentence. Ellipses invite us to consider a jump in time or speech. Em dashes swoop in to rescue the reader when commas just won’t do. And then there’s the good ol’ semicolon, waiting eagerly like a happy dog, wagging its tail mid-sentence. I just love pauses …

… Really, they’re everywhere. In a good movie, exposition gives us a break from the intensity of action sequences and dramatic turns of events. In novels, flashbacks and descriptive passages fill our minds with images and possibilities. In paintings, negative space saves our eyes and souls from sensory overload. In music, cadence governs the flow of sound.

Finding balance in chaos

Pauses serve a vital purpose. They provide balance in the chaos that is life. If we didn’t have pauses, everything would happen simultaneously, and it would be impossible to enjoy the in-betweens. When I was a dancer, I would often wait for the shift in cadence. It was my invitation to explore the notes further. Just like a good musician provides his or her own interpretation to own a piece, we as writers, editors, parents, friends, artists, and spouses (i.e., soulessencescrammedinsidehumanbodies) provide our own unique interpretations to our lives.

You didn’t think I was going to forget parentheses, did you? The granddaddy of pauses. The sure thing in any technical proposal replete with innumerable acronyms and examples. Like a good parentheses, we need to cocoon ourselves with pauses—be they short or long. It doesn’t matter what kind of pause it is or how long it lasts. The important thing is that we embrace the pause, allow it to envelop us like a sleepy summer day.

Softening the sharp edges of life

In doing so, we find the edges of our lives soften. Deadlines seem less daunting. Pain is given an escape route. Sentences that appear to be written by ESL students on acid suddenly become comprehensible, reparable.

This post is an invitation to all of you to embrace the pause, to take some time to become curious if your edges have sharpened, to explore any given moment, and to allow your breath, your next comma, your next eager semicolon to soften and escort you into the next moment.

Note from Dragonfly president Samantha Enslen: Skeptical about the connection between punctuation and peace? Check out the yin/yang symbol shown above. If that’s not two commas entwined in an eternal dance, I don’t know what is.