To pay my bills and generally not be homeless, I work for a corporation. It’s big, with lots of people and computers and printers that never seem to work. While the environment is a bit drab, it has its merits, like job security and a never ending supply of humor based on the petty squabbles of my coworkers.
My role in this little subsection of the corporation is to make sure everything looks and sounds nice. You could call me a technical writer, a QA analyst, any number of fancy names. But really, at the end of the day, I’m just an editor.
And as an editor, I come across many documents that need my help. Proposals, status reports, presentations, white papers; even sometimes training material. I try to remain objective, as any good editor should, but I’ve encountered the following errors or practices all too often, from people who – based on their pay grades – should definitely know better. I don’t see a lot of the major grammar foibles (their/they’re/there, then/than, it’s/its) that seems to get discussed frequently, but I do see an odd assortment of other bizarre, lazy, or downright wrong behavior.
1. One (1) space after a period
This is a difficult one for a lot of people as their entire formal schooling reinforced the idea that we, for reasons unknown, need two spaces after a period. The history of this practice dates back to a time when pre-humans banged out letter on mechanical “type-writers” and needed two spaces to clearly identify where a new sentence started. Now that we’ve evolved, and our fancy word processors can automagically set the correct character spacing, we no longer have a need for dated practices like double spaces. I see this so often at work that I’ve actually written a macro in Word to find all double spaces and replace them with singles. Do all of us editors a favor and break yourself of the habit. And don’t try to argue this point; I’ve got typographers on my side, and everyone knows you don’t mess with them.
2. View -> Show/Hide -> Ruler
I get a lot of requests to fix spacing issues for content that is all out of whack. It often looks like someone just left it for dead in the middle of the document, and couldn’t figure out how or where to put it. Instead of using the basic, built-in functionality to align their words, they instead chose to hit the space bar 900,000 times, hoping that they could slowly push it to the right position. This is bad. Please don’t do this. You can set indentations using the ruler, and even make sure it’s all perfectly lined up. If you can draw lines, you can align your text correctly, and save me the hassle of removing all of your “hard work.”
3. Qualify acronyms once then leave them the hell alone
The world of government contracting involves millions and millions of acronyms. Billions even. It’s so ridiculous that many projects have acronym cheat-sheets to help differentiate their particular acronyms from other acronyms. I get why they exist and why they’re used; it’s the nature of the beast when trying to describe large, complicated systems. It is important to qualify your acronyms, but you only need to do this once, this first time it is introduced. After that, you are free to just use the acronym, as the reader knows what it stands for. The only time you’d have to re-qualify it is if you use another, different acronym that uses the exact same letters, in which case, you should step away from the keyboard and re-evaluate what the hell you’re doing.
4. A .pdf is not a .doc is not .txt. is not a .zip
It’s not hard to learn what these file extensions are used for:
.pdf = Portable Document Format. It was created by Adobe in 1993, and basically creates a “snapshot” of your document that looks snazzy and can’t be easily changed. Use this for final documents. Do not send me a draft in PDF and expect me to edit it. Do not send me a final in .doc format and expect me to submit it.
.doc = Short for “document”. This is the MS Word proprietary format. It includes all of your crazy markup and formatting and pictures. These files can get very big, very quickly. Use this to work on the document, nothing else.
.txt = This is a plain text document. Unlike its .doc counterpart, it doesn’t keep any of your spiffy formatting. This is good for moving large chunks of content around without worrying about fonts or spacing. I’m not sure why you’d ever need to use this format (unless you’re technical, in which case you know how to use it), so don’t.
.zip = A ZIP file is a compressed file that may contain more than one file. It’s nice to zip a file to reduce it for sending via email, but it’s not bullet proof. Don’t be upset if your 8GB file won’t zip down to 550KB. I’ll add: zipping a zipped file doesn’t make it any smaller. And be careful, I heard that a zipped, zipped, zipped, zipped, zipped, zipped, zip file can explode the internet.
5. Complete sentences good
Status reports and meeting minutes always fall victim to the “unfinished sentence” plague. Somehow, a lot of people think it is OK to write weird, abstract fragments. It’s not OK, and I wish you’d stop. Chances are the people who will ultimately read your report didn’t attend the meeting, and won’t understand what, “Team said progress on DITE go forward” means.
6. I will reject your hot, underdeveloped, inarticulate mess
My role in the company is to polish your carbon into diamonds, not crawl down into the mine and harvest the raw ore myself. If you send me a pile of words that has 4 different fonts, 2 sizes, uses first, third, and somehow second person voice, you better be ready to get it right back. We’re all busy, I get it. That’s no excuse for sending me something that should be immediately deleted to save us all the trauma of reading it. Don’t take the rejection personally; I’m rejecting your crappy, poor-excuse for work, not you personally.
7. In the office, articles, like clothes, are not optional
There are only three on these, and if you don’t know them by now, then I don’t even know what kind of weapon I’d like to hurt you with:
- 1. The
- 2. a/an
- 3. some
Always use these before a noun, or your writing sounds like that of a very sleepy three year old.
“IRS has requirement to fix network problem that OCC described.”
8. Sending emails and calling while I’m editing doesn’t help
Give me my assignment then leave me alone. Your constant barrage of phone calls, emails, OCS messages, and carrier pigeons does nothing but distract me from editing your document. Editing is extremely focused activity, so go away and let me focus. Otherwise I might not catch one of your mistakes. Or I might add a new one of my own.
9. I’m technical, but that doesn’t mean I understand everything about every proprietary system that your project works on
You have to remember that eventually what you’re writing will find an audience. That audience will probably be a group of crotchety old people who think computers are possessed by the devil. If I, as a young, techy person, can’t understand the incredibly dense description of some data migration policy, chances are the management won’t either. Try asking yourself, “would a really smart monkey understand this if I used sign language to explain it to him?” If so, you’re good. If not, you might want to consider making it a little more “stupid friendly.”
10. Don’t expect miracles
I’m just an editor. I can smush, mix, blend, fix, and tweak your writing as much as humanly possible. That being said; don’t expect filet mignon when you gave me dog food. I can’t build a to-scale model of the Eiffel tower out of bendy straws. If you expect your content to be good, make it good. It’s my job to make it great.