Diagram a sentence for old time’s sake

There are moments in people’s lives when they get the first inkling of what they might want to do (as a career) when they grow up.

I didn’t realize it then, but one of my first career-awakening moments was in eighth grade at Our Lady of Sorrows School in McAllen, Texas (Go Cougars!). It was there in our cozy, air-conditioned portable building classroom that our teacher, Mrs. Marquis, revealed the mysterious and exciting exercise of diagramming sentences.

The Container Store for words

As I watched her at the chalkboard, all at once I began to understand what went into constructing sentences. I learned about parts of speech and their functions. This technique “organized” words and sentences for me and made everything make sense. Today, I would refer to sentence diagramming as The Container Store of sentence structure.

I see now that my excitement over sentence diagramming was a clue that I would years later pursue writing and eventually editing as a career. If you are a person who works with words (I guess we all do to some extent), likes words or is just curious about this old-school grammatical tool, take a look at this story and all of its helpful examples.

Grammatical technique reminds us to be clear 

If you ever get stumped by what’s going on in a sentence, whether you are writing or editing it, break it down into a diagram. And, yes, there’s an app for that (Windows, iPhone).

Clarity is the key to great writing and editing, and nothing clarifies sentences better than diagramming those sentences. Mrs. Marquis knew that, and I’m grateful she showed me how to do it.


AP Stylebook: College majors

Should you capitalize college majors?

Whether you are writing a website bio for your small business or for executives at a large corporation, the answer is the same. Use lowercase.


The AP Stylebook Ask the Editor section says the following:

Q. Where do I find the rule on capitalization for college majors and minors? I am instructing my students to follow the rule for course titles. Thanks! from BALTIMORE, MD on Jan 25, 2011
A. College majors are lowercase unless they include proper names. She majored in French, with minors in mathematics and American history.

Be consistent and always follow the rule, and if you don’t yet have an online copy of the AP Stylebook (with Ask the Editor and Webter’s New World College Dictionary Fifth Edition), get one.


Proofread Everything: Work schedules

Stock photography © Skypixel | Dreamstime.comThere may be times when your internal corporate communications department is tasked with producing hard-copy, in-house reference pieces for employees. That might include employee work schedules. Here’s a reminder to proofread them as carefully as you would any other document.

In this case, that means using an accurate calendar to check that each schedule date (Aug. 22, for example) has the correct corresponding day (Friday). Take your time and check each and every date with the day. I found an error while proofreading a 2015 work shift schedule for one corporation’s factory employees. One error may not sound like a lot, but this error, which occurred in February, made each and every subsequent date/day wrong for the remaining 11 months of the schedule.

Had the communications department not had the schedule proofread, workers might have missed shifts because of the inaccurate calendar, which would have cost the company in lost productivity and possibly lost revenue. Luckily, that didn’t happen.

Remember, mistakes can happen anywhere, so proofread everything!



AP Stylebook: Use it for your company

While proofreading a corporate communications piece recently I noticed that the writer either did not know AP style or did not make an effort to look up AP style rules for the story. It could have been that the writer did not work in the communications department and was unaware AP style is used.

Most corporations and many smaller businesses use The Associated Press Stylebook and often their own company style guide to set standards for writing. Some small businesses don’t follow AP style, but these business owners need to create their own style – a set of guidelines to make their writing consistent for their customers.

If you are a corporate communicator, you know that the AP Stylebook is just as much your writing bible as it is the gold standard of writing for professional journalists. And like journalists, your job is to know basic AP style rules and look up what you don’t know. Following AP style gives your company a consistent way of communicating. Consistency builds trust. Trust is good for business.

That’s why everything published by the company (online or in print and internally and externally) needs to first be funneled through its corporate communications department.

It may be helpful for communicators, therefore, to pass on a few tips to noncommunicators who regularly contribute to business writing.

Here are two suggestions:

  • Know some AP style basics, such as:
    • Headline capitalization: Capitalize the first letter, then use lowercase.
    • Abbreviations: Spell out abbreviated words on first reference. Use abbreviations in subsequent references. See the stylebook for exceptions.
    • State names: Spell out state names with cities. (A change from the long-standing rule.) Use a comma after the state name if in the middle of a sentence.
    • Capitalization of corporate titles. Capitalize titles before the name of the person. After the name, add a comma and use lowercase for the title.
    • Commas in a series: Don’t use a comma in a series before “and” (Lions, tigers and bears).
    • Commas for independent (noun-verb) clauses: Use the comma before “and” (Dorothy said hi, and the lion blushed.)
  • Get an AP Stylebook.
  • Look up what you do not know in the AP Stylebook.
  • If your company has its own corporate style guide, as most do, with variations of AP style, make sure you use it.

So, if you regularly contribute to business publications and you are not a trained communicator, learn some basic style rules to help your company send a consistent message.


AP Stylebook: No ampersand (&)

Photo of an ampersand symbol being held by a hand against an orange background.

Updated Nov. 28, 2017

First of all, for people who don’t know, an ampersand is this doohickey: &.

It’s a cute, fancy-looking symbol meaning “and.” But it’s not something you want to use often.

The exception is if you are referring to the proper title of a business, as in “Johnson & Johnson.” The ampersand is used in “Johnson & Johnson” because it is part of the trademarked, official name of the business. That name is the company’s brand, and it’s “branded” on all of its products.

Here’s The Associated Press Stylebook rule for the ampersand:

“Use the ampersand when it is part of a company’s formal name or composition title: House & Garden, Procter & Gamble, Wheeling & Lake Erie Railway. The ampersand should not otherwise be used in place of and, except for some accepted abbreviations: B&B, R&B.”

(By the way, only use “B&B” and “R&B” on second reference, as per AP.)

Also, here are some ampersand examples for you to consider:

This is the wrong way to use the ampersand:

“Our twin toddlers, Jack & Jill, poured orange juice & spaghetti on their hair, so we are now washing their hair with Johnson & Johnson baby shampoo.”

And this is the right way to use the ampersand:

“Our twin toddlers, Jack and Jill, poured orange juice and spaghetti on their hair, so we are now washing their hair with Johnson & Johnson baby shampoo.”

Whether you own a small business or a large corporation, don’t use the ampersand willy-nilly. Using any symbol any old time you feel like it means your content is not consistent, which diminishes the credibility of your website or blog – and in turn, diminishes the credibility of your business. You can still be cute or fancy (or both) in your writing if that fits your business culture, but, as moms of toddlers often say: it’s better to “use your words.”


Create original content – Don’t steal it

Don't be a Grinch - Create original content - Don't steal it

Do: Publish your own original content on your website or blog.
Don’t: “Rewrite” or “curate” other people’s words and publish it as your own.

It’s OK to hire someone to create original content for you as long as it is original (no one else has written this specific information). But it’s not cool if content has been stolen from someone else. I didn’t think people did this, but they do.

Example: I was hired as a freelance editor some time ago by a company that created content for business sites. I was told I would be editing “curated” content created by freelance writers. I was told the writers would rewrite an existing article from the Web using their own words. If they quoted from the original article, they would use direct quotes or paraphrase and attribute this to the original article. The writers were not supposed to plagiarize, and, as editor, it was my job to make sure that they did not.

But they did plagiarize. A lot: Phrases, whole sentences and sometimes without attributing the article as the source. This all became clear when I read the original articles and checked them against the curated ones. This plagiarizing was just wrong. It was also time consuming for me, as an editor, to read and compare the articles, searching for plagiarized words. So, in no time I resigned from that job, citing those reasons.

A better way to create content: Write your own brand-new copy. If you don’t have time, hire someone to interview you or your other experts to write original stories for your blog. If you don’t know what to write about, it’s OK to search other sites for subject ideas. But then you need to create your own angle and do your own reporting and writing. It should not be a copy of another article. It should be your own. Keep it real, and keep it honest. Otherwise, why bother.



AP Stylebook: Know these AP Stylebook changes


Is it “Walmart” or “Wal-Mart”?

Well, now we know. All references should be hyphenated (whether talking about the store or the company), according to The Associated Press Stylebook editors who last month announced this and other updates to the publication at the national conference of the American Copy Editors Society.

Photo of the cover of The Associated Press Stylebook 2013.

If you’re a blogger, you need to follow a style guide to be consistent and correct. The AP Stylebook is the gold standard for journalists. If you don’t follow AP style yet, you can order the Stylebook here. I recommend adding the official dictionary of The AP to your order also (Webster’s New World College Dictionary Fourth Edition). I did that when I renewed my online subscription to the Stylebook, and the cost for both with automatic renewal was just $22.

AP is so ‘over’ it

Whether you are going to write about Wal-Mart or not, The AP has many other new guidelines for writers of the world. For one thing, “selfie” is now officially accepted, according to the Stylebook. And you can write “LGBT” on first reference instead of spelling it out at the start, but AP suggests spelling out “lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender” later within the article.

Other changes  include the now-allowed use of “over” versus “more than” when talking about a number that’s of greater value. Previously AP preferred, “He makes more than $1 million a year…” rather than “He makes over $1 million a year.”  The word “over” is often used for physical scenarios, a newsroom editor told me years ago, like, “The cow jumped over the moon.”

To get the full list of changes and other tidbits, take a look at this ACES article on the updates revealed during the organization’s “Ask the AP Stylebook Editors” conference session. The updates are also available in real time if you have an online Stylebook subscription, and you can receive emails telling you any time the Stylebook is updated.


Blog post review: Rubbermaid


Rubbermaid has a great content marketing post this week on Organizing Baking and Snacking Supplies that:

    • Grabs readers’ attention by providing solutions to a common problem.
    • Inspires readers with verbal and visual examples.
    • Makes readers (me included) want to go out and buy their stuff.

The article leads with a specific organizing problem – how to make two separate areas of the kitchen more organized and accessible. Then it shares solutions, including the names of specific Rubbermaid products and how and why they can help restore order in this situation. Photos back up all the suggestions, and additional suggestions (container labels) show how Rubbermaid can once again transform a kitchen into a beautiful place.

The last line of the post draws readers in even further by asking them to suggest their ideas on how they might use a suggested product.


Make blog post content rich with layers


Making content-rich blog posts reminds me of those seven-layer Mexican Dip recipes. You know – with the beans, guacamole, sour cream, cheddar cheese, etc.? Once you have your protein for the dip, then you add on the layers. The combination of each individual ingredient makes for a rich and delicious meal.

Although this is not a cooking site, I can't resist providing you with a link to the recipe.

Layering content is the same idea. The meat (or vegetarian protein) of the post is your main message. Write what you want to say, then add any of the following:

  • Examples.
  • Personal anecdotes.
  • Quotes from experts.
  • Links within the post to related content.
  • Photos representing your topic.
  • Photos that also contain a hover message.

All together, you’re giving your readers a bounty of information and resources.


AP Stylebook: Use periods after bullets


The Associate Press Stylebook says when writing lists “use periods, not semicolons, at the end of each section, whether it is a full sentence or a phrase.”

It’s hard for some people to wrap their heads around this rule, especially if each item on the list is not a full sentence. To make peace with periods in a list, think of the entire list (including the lead-in word or phrase) as several sentences (all of which need a period at the end).

To see what I mean, read the lead-in word or phrase then read the first item on the list. Next, read the lead-in word or phrase again followed by the second item on the list. Continue from there down the list. Try it with these examples and see if the period makes more sense.

I voted on election day because I:

  • Want my candidate to win.
  • Like to exercise my right to vote.
  • Believe every vote counts.

To illustrate the example, you’d say “I voted on election day because I want my candidate to win.” “I voted on election day because I like to exercise my right to vote.” “I voted on election day because I believe every vote counts.”

Try it with a list of shorter items like this.

My son likes to play:

  • Soccer.
  • Baseball.
  • Tennis.
  • Basketball.

Does this help? If all else fails, when it comes to accepting AP style: Just do it. If nothing else, your writing will be consistent. And consistency goes a long way in creating clear, credible content.