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Are you afraid to use contractions in your business writing? Most of us learned along the way that contractions were acceptable in casual writing ONLY. Teachers marked down our school essays when we used isn’t or didn’t or don’t. Only in creative writing were we permitted to use non-standard grammar.

apostrophes everywhereLike so many things we learned in school, we must now unlearn this belief. For Gen Y, it’s easy; you haven’t been burdened with decades of reinforcement. But for us old Gen Xers and Boomers, it’s hard. Our knee-jerk reaction is to pick up the red pen (or font) and scribble a terse “S.O.” (spell out).

People who study linguistics, such as Wayne Danielson and Dominic Larosa, found out a decade ago that contractions enhance readability (see A New Readability Formula Based on the Stylistic Age of Novels, 33 Journal of Reading (1989), pp. 194, 196).

Even the government advocates using contractions to make writing easier to read. The Government Style Manual says

“Write as you talk” is a common rule of writing readably, and the best tool to do that is to use contractions. People are accustomed to hearing contractions in spoken English, and using them in your writing helps them relate to your document.

Use contractions with discretion. Just as you shouldn’t bullet everything on a page, you shouldn’t make a contraction out of every possible word. Don’t use them wherever possible, but wherever they sound natural.

And, contractions feel much less stuffy. Think that’s not important? Maybe you’ll reconsider when your audience bypasses stuffiness for articles or memos they can easily digest. Using contractions to make your writing more accessible means you can still discuss difficult concepts, but with a better chance of being understood. Isn’t that the reason you wrote something in the first place? I thought so.

Jennifer Alvey is a writer, editor and trainer who can’t imagine writing “cannot” all day long in her work. She can be reached at jalvey AT wordsolutions.biz.

There are phrases that we use daily without examining them. Until someone clues us in that there might be something offensive about the phrase.

One time, a colleague told me about the phrase “in like Flynn.” I thought it meant that someone got into something–a club, school, or other kind of selective place–more easily than most. My colleague, one of those Harvard-educated lawyers, said that actually, the phrase referred to film star Errol Flynn, who certainly had quite the reputation for myriad romantic conquests. Intimate romantic conquests, if you catch my drift. (Oh, the joy of writing to appease web site blocking software.)

I was pretty horrified when she told me this. I’m not a Pollyanna, but I am a control freak about words. I want to know both the connotation and denotation of what I’m saying. Especially if there’s a judge or client or boss on the receiving end of a letter I wrote with suspect phrases in it.

It’s hard to be well read and keep current with pop culture these days. After all, you’re a busy professional. I doubt the productivity gurus would accept, “But I’m surfing to make sure I’m current on lingo, so my memos/emails/legal briefs/client letters are better.”

There’s a great website to give you a quick, well researched summary of loads of colloquial phrases: The Phrase Finder. Because the site is run by some witty Brits, it’s very heavy on British phrases. But there are plenty of phrases from across the Pond, too.

Some good ones for business and legal writers:

Phrases.org.uk also offers a free weekly email that details the origins of one phrase. I always learn something. If you’re a professional writer or just write a good deal of material that requires color and zing, you can also purchase an annual subscription to search the database. It’s £28.00 for a single user (about $40 at this writing), or £70.00 for a multi-user site license (about $100). For businesses that rely on words, that’s pretty economical. (And I don’t make any money if you sign up; I just think it’s a great resource.)

Happy phrase hunting!

Jennifer Alvey is a writer, editor, and trainer with a background in law and business. She thinks getting your audience to read your website or marketing copy depends on colorful writing and solid information to back it up. She can be reached at jalvey AT wordsolutions DOT biz.

Copyediting is a tricky business. In this age of 24/7 everything, copyeditors save many writers from certain shame, catching errors like leaving the “l” out of public, misspelling client’s corporate names, making sure what is united is supposed to be (rather than, say, untied), and wrestling with the general public’s inability to use “its” and “it’s” correctly.

[Side rant: I simply do not get how people confuse “its” and “it’s”. My 8th grade English teacher in public school in Kentucky taught us a really simple way to figure it out: Can you substitute “it is”? If yes, use the contraction “it’s”; if not, “its.” Yet I see writers of all ages and backgrounds confusing the two. If you can explain it, please, please drop me a comment or email.]

The WaPo recently ran a nice article on what copy editors do. In addition to catching spelling and grammar errors, copyeditors are the ones who stand in the place of your reader and say “huh?” So often, our brains run ahead of our fingers, and we think we explained ourselves beautifully–until the copyeditor asks a pointed question. “If the plaintiff is named Dan Parker, why do you refer to ‘her employees’? Is the plaintiff’s name Dana, possibly?”

Since lawyers mostly hate, loathe, and despise looking silly or stupid, hiring a copyeditor to review web site copy, marketing materials, presentation materials for conferences, and even briefs could be a smart move. (Though to use a copyeditor for a brief, you have to be really committed to getting the thing done at least a day before the filing deadline–hard for many attorneys, I know.) For about a third of a new associate’s hourly rate, you can have errors small and large eliminated, and look smart and polished. What’s not to love?

Should you and your team catch this kind of stuff? In theory, of course you should. But let’s be honest: When you’ve read the same 50 pages about 20 times in two weeks, you and everyone else will glaze over, regardless of title or salary.

Jennifer Alvey is a writer and editor who laughed with gusto at Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss. She can be reached at jalvey AT wordsolutions DOT biz. She will not point out any spelling or grammar errors in your emails unless you ask her to.

I see this a lot in law firm newsletters, articles and alerts: long, dull headlines. So what? you ask. It’s the substance that’s important. The headline is a detail.

Of course the substance of a legal article is important. But without a good, grabby headline, will your audience bother to read your pearls of wisdom? Probably not.

Newsletters are media, and the competition for all kinds of media attention these days is fierce. In our internet/smartphone overloaded work-life, newsletters are just one more drag on a client’s time. Will clients click your newsletter email open, or maybe download a competitor’s podcast and go for a run, instead? The answer may hinge on your headlines.

So here are my top three rules of good headlines:

  1. Six words or less. Oh, I can hear the protests already: Six words aren’t enough to convey the nuance of the subject. That’s quite true, but completely beside the point. Headlines are not meant to convey nuance; their job is to lure readers into the story.
  2. Tell readers why they should care. Here’s a typical headline that lawyers write: Supreme Court Decides Smith Case. Well, that’s nice and all, but it gives no context or clue about why your client needs to be concerned. Compare to: Supreme Court Says Reimbursement Formula Flawed. Which would give your client a reason to read further?
  3. Be clever, cute or provocative, but not too much. I’ll confess I sometimes go overboard on clever or provocative headlines. Particularly in the age of search engine optimization (SEO), you’re often better off sticking to the facts, ma’am, just the facts, so your article will appear higher in the search rankings. Yet your readers are intelligent people who appreciate wit and humor, so use those on occasion, especially for feature (as opposed to news) articles. Here’s a great headline from a recent article (subscription required) by an employment lawyer: Management: No Jerks Allowed. How much more enticing is that headline than something like “Rudeness Among Managers Leads to Legal Liability”?

Writing good headlines is an art, not a science. Don’t get frustrated if your initial attempts aren’t home runs. Keep trying, and you’ll improve.

Jennifer Alvey is a legal editor and writer who has edited thousands of headlines. One that sticks in her mind is this one: Call the Doctor, I Think I Am Gonna Crash: What You Need to Know, But Are Afraid to Ask, About the New Designated Doctor and Required Medical Examinations Rules and Processes. She put that one on an emergency fast, and it got better. Contact Jennifer at jalvey AT wordsolutions DOT biz.