Writers: Rules of Thumb Are Meant to Be Broken

WORDS YOUR WAY BLOG

Writers: Rules of Thumb Are Meant to Be Broken

Over and over, I see content professionals mock the old English teacher’s rule of thumb about not using the same word twice on the same page. I want to scream at my screen: “You’re both WRONG!” Those teachers, I gather, explained this rule as a way to give “color” or “interest” to your writing. It is not. The content professionals assert that readers have an easier time with consistent terminology. However, consistency can’t trump meaning. It goes back to audience and purpose. Say your company sells dog food. Switching from “dog” to “pet” to “canine” to “pup” to “mutt” on a catalog page is likely to feel more forced than colorful, is not search engine friendly, and adds no meaning. Teacher: 0. Content pro: 1. Now imagine you are writing (for the company’s blog) a personal essay about your evolving relationship with the stray dog your son found in the backyard and convinced you to keep. The animal enters the story as a “mangy cur.” You realize she’s “just a puppy.” You accept her as a “canine family member.” Finally she earns a place in your bed — “man’s best friend.” Now suppose, in addition, that the strategy of the piece involves using a narrator who remains unaware of the gradual shift in his feelings; the changing words clue the reader into what’s happening. Teacher: 1. Content pro: 0. You can take writing out of artistic contexts. You can’t take the art entirely out of writing.
Barbara Ruth Saunders is a writer, editor, and writing coach.

Cutting the Clerical Handcuffs

WORDS YOUR WAY BLOG

Cutting the Clerical Handcuffs

Updating documents authored by others, I keep crashing into one of the worst aspects of Microsoft Word. That would be crashing — over code problems when pasting numbered lists, images, and text pulled from Web pages. So, Google Docs it is. Sometimes things don’t take, but they rarely crash the document and cause me to lose work. I’ve learned two big lessons about working with content, though: 1 – Collaborating on documents does not require tracked changes. I was afraid to let it go. I’ve found my collaboration teams work fine without it. 2 – Somewhere along the line, people came to expect that everyone should demonstrate “power user” skills in every communication. In fact, it makes much more sense to get information down in the most minimally formatted text that will do the job, and have the last writer or editor add the formatting at the end. It is ridiculous to have two or three colleagues in a row staying up late to make nice looking documents whose flourishes cause it to crash on the next editor.
Barbara Ruth Saunders is a writer, editor, and writing coach.