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Feed the Seagulls and Instantly Improve Your Writing

A corporate client asked me to put together a presentation identifying and explaining the most common language and grammar problems I was seeing in their in-house team’s marketing communications collateral. At that point I’d been developing and editing content for the company for more than three years and was well familiar with different staff members’ writing preferences and patterns. The whole team was excellence-minded and open to feedback, which made this task (and my job) easier than normal.

The hardest part of being an editor, after all, is the nature of the job itself. The editor’s purpose is to scrutinize your work, call attention to your mistakes, tell you what you did wrong, make little squiggles on your papers, check your facts, and change what you worked hard to create.


Editors are seagulls, essentially. We swoop in, get uncomfortably close, squawk right in your ear, shit on your stuff, and fly away without a backward glance. Editors and seagulls are swift, decisive, and annoying.


Another feature common to both is that they feed whenever the opportunity strikes. Ever left an open bag of Lay’s Salt & Vinegar Flavored Potato Chips unattended at the beach or at the office? Squawk! My point here is to feed the seagulls. Feed them early, often, and again.

 

In a series of posts, I’m going to discuss several of the figurative "chips" you can launch at swarming gulls to keep them away from your cozy spot on the beach. I’ll begin with capitalization.

 

Capitalize is a verb that means to leverage or take advantage. When you capitalize a letter or word, you give it leverage. You literally elevate it above all the little lower-case peasants and serfs milling around in your writing. If you capitalize all the letters in a word or sentence, you can’t tell which one has the leverage and they start shouting at each other.

Capital misuse, abuse, and overuse is, in the infinite universe of written communication, incorrect, unclear, confusing, and not very readable. By contrast, competent use of uppercase and lowercase indicates intelligence, insight, experience, and expertise.

Barring any style guides you have to follow, such as AP or Chicago, reserve your capitals for the right occasions.


Capitalize:

  • Proper nouns

  • Your organization’s name and brand names

  • Titles of books, songs, albums, movies, artwork, TV shows, and other works

  • Nouns and verbs, no matter how short, in title case

Don't capitalize (in most cases):

  • Common nouns

  • Department names

  • Directions

  • General groups

  • Job titles

  • Occasions and events

  • Seasons

  • School subjects, majors, and degrees

  • Imposters


 

UP NEXT: A few more details and some examples of the above bullet points, with the slight possibility of another seagull metaphor.



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