My Personal Style Guide
This is an organic document. I’ll reference it as a develop as a writer and editor, and I’m sure it will change and get longer overtime. In it are reminders, personal preferences, and rules that I’m only allowed to break via a formal appeal process.
- My Personal Style Guide
- Style: Savory, Then Sweet
- Trim the too-broad intro.
- Cut cliches; create original figures of speech.
- Favor active voice.
- Avoid adverbs.
- Immutable Mechanics
- “Who gives a f*ck about an Oxford comma?” Me, myself, and I!
- Use em dashes liberally but never to join independent clauses.
- Notes on Usage
Style: Savory, Then Sweet
Lead with the thesis. Ideas, not facts or events, should be at the fore. Hook the reader with salt and spice — the meat! — not with sugar. But don’t forget to serve dessert.
Trim the too-broad intro.
An intro can be long, but it should only be as long as is necessary. Give your reader enough context to understand your main ideas and no more. The most common error is to open with too broad of a scope. That’s where the fluff is, and that’s what you can cut.
Narrow your scope while leaving it broad enough to orient your reader.
If you’re writing about Springfield, don’t start by talking about the globe or the city. Start with the state:
There’re many Springfields, but Missouri’s is the only one famous for cashew chicken.
Cut cliches; create original figures of speech.
If you want to be understood, you’ll need to use metaphor, simile, and analogy. Figurative comparisons build bridges between what we already understand and what we have yet to grasp. But if you’re introducing a new idea, is a tired cliche really best for making that connection? I doubt it.
Instead, create unique comparisons — whichever work best for you. Take some time to brainstorm and experiment. Find something catchy and accurate, entertaining and descriptive. If you want your ideas to stand on their own, you can’t borrow bridges.
Favor active voice.
Sentences are clearer when you identify a subject and describe it’s action. Disembodied action leaves the reader wondering. Sometimes, though, that is your intent: to make the reader wonder.
When you can’t identify a subject or intend for the subject to be ambiguous, use passive voice.
That man was murdered, and no one knows who did it.
Adverbs are clunky and can cause a simple thought to become a convoluted sentence. The less you use adverbs, the more each will mean. Unhinged adverb usage is a sign of lazy writing and (maybe) a weak vocabulary. Adverbs stand out. Your reader will sense your effort to qualify or add emphasis to a verb, which distracts them from
actually feeling it. To avoid adverbs, use descriptive verbs and apt nouns.
very best artists can paint
precisely.” —> “All precise painters are talented artists.”
temporarily delayed the event.” —> “The coordinator postponed the event.”
excitedly greeted me” —> “His whole arm shook when he waved at me.”
These rules put prongs on your rake so that you can tend to your lawn.
“Who gives a f*ck about an Oxford comma?” Me, myself, and I!
If you think you will ever use a conjunction within a single list item (you will), you need the serial comma. The serial comma stands for clarity. It is the marriage of form and functionality. There literally no drawbacks to using it. And it makes your sentences looks better; It makes a list appear symmetrical, balanced, rather than titled like a teeter-totter.
“At the playground, they had Monopoly, Risk,
chutes and ladders.” —> “… Monopoly, Risk, chutes, and ladders.”
“I’m happy to lend you a book, backpack,
pen or pencil.” —> “… book, backpack, pen, or pencil.”
- It’s unclear whether the borrow would get just one item from the list of four or a book, backpack, and either a pen or a pencil.
“That idea comes from the Greeks,
Lao Tzu and Kant.” —> “… the Greeks, Lao Tzu, and Kant.”
Wouldn’t it be a tragedy for the Greeks to get credit for Taoism and Deontology? Use the Oxford comma.
Use em dashes liberally but never to join independent clauses.
The em dash is wonderful. It can be conversational, dramatic, or emphatic. Use it to attach appositives, to clarify, or to interject but not to join independent clauses. This is to maintain a separation of responsibilities for punctuation. No mark should be able to join both independent and dependent clauses. Your reader needs an indication of whether the attached clause is subordinate. (The colon is the exception; it can join either independent or dependent clauses. But the reader will know which if you capitalize the first letter of the independent clause.)
I still haven’t found the pomegranates, pineapples, or pears
––we can’t leave yet.
I still haven’t found the pomegranates, pineapples, or pears; we can’t leave yet.
- Rather than using a dash, split the clauses with end-punctuation (like a period) or join them with a semicolon, colon, or a comma and a coordinating conjunction.
Also, with the exception of fictional prose, put a space on either side of an em dash (” — “).
Notes on Usage
Identify a set of purposeful rules, then apply them consistently. That’s the shortest route to clear writing.