Happy Friday, everyone!
I was talking to a friend yesterday about our writing habits – which of them are beneficial and which are not. While our discussion mainly revolved around our overall writing process, it made me think about the smaller habits I see in clients whose work I’m familiar with, and my own. Old habits die hard, goes the adage – and why? Because so often we don’t realize they’re there and though our well-intentioned friend the auto-checker tries its best, it frequently doesn’t catch them.
You’d be forgiven, after scanning the list below with bated breath, to not see a problem with many of them – what you may not realize is that these habits make your work sound dated, look unprofessional, and feel clunky, which are the absolute last things you want! Often it is the littlest of things that makes a reader question the authority of the writer, and even stop reading altogether. The more you can avoid these tell-tale signs of an unpracticed writer, the better.
- Capitalizing keywords unironically. (Not to be confused with typing in all caps.) Capital letters should only be used in specific instances – titles, proper nouns, and the beginning of sentences being the three main areas. No doubt you’ve seen them used as a stylistic choice, such as to make a webpage appear uniform (look at any of the button labels on most websites you regularly use) or as a tongue-in-cheek way to pretend something is more serious than it actually is (see if you can spot it in this post of mine). You’ll also see legal documents capitalizing important terms. However, too often I see the old habit of using them for emphasis in everyday writing, as though this technique were interchangeable with italics or bolding. It’s not. Don’t do it, folks – not only is it old-fashioned, untidy, and incorrect, but it smacks of poor marketing and is a sure-fire way to make your reader wonder if you’re trying to sell them something.
- A double space after every sentence. This is another common one. Instead of hitting that space bar once at the end of the sentence and starting another, it’s hit twice. While not incorrect, strictly-speaking, it can get distracting and is a clear indicator of the generation in which you learned to type (or the age of the person who taught you). Why? The practice of using the double-space after the end of a sentence began as a typesetter’s bad habit back in the advent of the printing press, which was originally straightened-out once conventions were developed during its rise to power. However, the reason you yourself may be guilty of this habit is whether you were introduced to typing via someone who regularly used a typewriter, wherein they may have found difficulty determining where a sentence ended due to the machine’s limitations; a double-space was used so that you could more easily tell that sentence was over. Thanks to modern computing, we don’t generally have that problem. Get rid of that second space.
- Bunny-ears. You may see them written “doubly“ or ‘singly‘, and you may know them by a less endearing name, but they’re there. Of course, there’s a time and a place for using quotation or speech marks – the problem arises when you use them too liberally and when it’s not really necessary. When that happens, when I’m reading all I can hear is an older person trying to be cool with the kids. On a more practical note, though, consider this: speech or quote marks are often used in this context to show that you’re quoting someone else, or that the sentiment or thought contained therein isn’t really yours. It’s a distancing tactic. Fine – sometimes it’s appropriate to do that. But when every other thought that you’re expressing carries this sign of uncertainty, I begin to doubt your confidence in what you’re saying. Not to mention it’s going to get confusing when you’re actually quoting someone or writing dialogue.
- Dated phrasings, particularly references to technological advancement that’s already happened. As an example, take one of my pet peeves: ‘In today’s world’. If you’re about to write about something that’s occurring now, just write it without introduction. We automatically assume it’s happening in the present without you needing to tell us. If you do, it makes you sound like you’re preaching from decades back. This is of course slightly different from archaisms – words and phrases that we don’t use anymore, such as ‘pray tell’ for ‘what is it?’. If you’re uncertain whether you’re using a dated phrase, ask yourself if the sentence will still make sense without it, or if it’s stating the obvious. This involves understanding your intended audience.
- Multiple exclamation points, question marks, or over-use of ellipses. Conversely, this can also denote an immature writer. There is no reason to use more than one exclamation point or question mark. No excuses. Adding more will not make it more. Most of us rarely stray into that habit – more often I see the incorrect or over-use of the ellipsis (‘…’). More than a comma or dash, an ellipsis is used to slow the reader down. You may remember being introduced to it in school as a technique to create suspense. The problem lies…when you use it…too much… Then I don’t know…what you’re trying to lead me into thinking, or even…what you mean…sometimes…or even if you know… (You see what I mean?) It’s melodramatic, cluttering, and like too many bunny-ears leads me to think you’re not confident enough in what you’re saying.
Not sure about usage? Spotting these in your own work not your strong suit? That’s what your editor is for! Additionally, as you’ve noticed a lot of these have to do with punctuation; I’m aiming to explore each of the punctuation marks in their own ‘spotlight’ posts to help you get a better grip on them. Stay tuned.
What are some bad habits you can’t seem to shake? What are some of your pet writing or typing peeves?