Don’t quit your day job… yet.

Just as being in a relationship can make you more attractive to others, having a job can make you more attractive to employers.

Why? It’s a brutal feature of human psychology: People want what they can’t have, and if someone else has you (either as a mate or as an employee), an observer will want you more. If you’re a free agent, a potential mate or potential employer may see you out there alone and think, “Sure, this person looks good, but why isn’t he/she married/employed already? What’s wrong with him/her that I’m not seeing? And why would I want to take a chance?”

If you’re sending your résumé out, it’s usually to your advantage if you already have a job while you’re looking for a new one. Other than the obvious perks of enjoying a steady income and avoiding a stressful employment gap, being employed shows a potential new employer that you’re not desperate for work; if you apply for an opening, it’s because you want it, not because you need it. It puts you in control and prevents you from appearing desperate.

I always advise clients, who are often so confident in their new résumés and excited to start sending it out, not to quit their jobs prematurely for these very reasons.

Of course, there may be compelling reasons to leave without a new job lined up — an intolerably toxic work environment, an impossible schedule that won’t allow you to interview for new jobs, or pressing family obligations that you hope a new position will be more accommodating for. Everybody’s situation is different.

But if it’s at all possible, don’t let go of the old job until you’ve landed a new one.

 

The worst mistake I ever made with an otherwise powerful résumé

Fresh out of college, many years ago, I made a good impression on an interviewer for a job at a major media corporation in Manhattan. A strong résumé had earned me the interview; now a strong interview was inching me towards an offer.

The interviewer called his producer, the next person up the chain of command, to ask if he had a moment to meet with me. The producer did, but only for a minute. That was my minute to sell myself, and I was ready.

I walked confidently into the producer’s office, we shook hands, and I sat down. I had rehearsed answers to all the possible questions they could ask about my goals, my experience, and what I could bring to the company.

But he asked the one question I hadn’t anticipated:

“Do you have another copy of your résumé?”

And the answer was no. I had sent one in with an impeccable cover letter when I applied, which is how I got in the door to begin with. I assumed, rightly, that the interviewer would have a copy in front of him while we chatted, but it never occurred to me that somebody else might want one, too.

Wasting valuable time

I scrambled back to the first interviewer’s office to ask for his copy of my résumé to bring back to his producer. I raced back to the waiting producer’s office, and he read it over while we chatted briefly, but by then I realized the unwinnable situation I had just put myself in.

This busy New York City TV producer, who had spared some of his valuable time for me, had been kept waiting because I was young, disorganized, and unprepared.

I didn’t get the job.

But I did learn the lesson. Never again would I show up at a job interview without more copies of my résumé than I could possibly need. As my career advanced, my portfolios grew to include writing samples, performance reviews, and other relevant artifacts that testified to my skills and assets, and I brought those, too — multiple copies of each, one for anyone in the office who wanted to meet me on interview day.

Now, whenever I write a résumé for a client, I share this anecdote with them as they prepare for applications and the ensuing interviews. Because as important as it is to have a strong résumé when applying for a job, it’s just as vital to bring it with you every time.


The Syracuse Pen provides résumé, writing, and editing services for students, professionals and small businesses. Visit our home page for more information about what we can do for you.

2, four, 6, eight: What a difference consistency makes!

Publishers follow consistency standards so their readers know what to expect and won’t get confused. But what if those standards are stumbling blocks to clarity?

That’s the question raised by some BBC coverage of the constantly changing (and consistently confusing) political situation in the United Kingdom right now. BBC’s streaming content Monday included a list of former prime ministers and their tenures. The entire stream is available here, but a partial list follows (I’ve bolded the relevant points):

James Callaghan 1976-79 (three years, 29 days)
Margaret Thatcher 1979-90 (11 years, 209 days)
John Major 1990-97 (six years, 154 days)
Tony Blair 1997-2007 (10 years, 56 days)
Gordon Brown 2007-10 (two years, 319 days)
David Cameron 2010-16 (six years, 60 days as of today)

The BBC’s own internal guidebook for consistency (similar to the Associated Press Stylebook, the standard bearer for the U.S. news industry) dictates that numbers one through nine should be written out, while larger numbers starting with 10 should be written using numerals. The reporter was apparently following this rule Monday when compiling the list above.

But alternating between numerals and written-out numbers was enough to prompt Liz Eden, an Oxford resident and friend of mine, to complain on social media (partly out of frustration with the presentation of data, partly out of frustration over the general turbulence over there this month).

“Having a mixture of words and digits for writing out numbers doesn’t help readability,” she wrote.

And I’d have to agree.

This material is presented in a bulleted format specifically so a reader can scan quickly and compare how long each prime minister served. As such, the information could have been presented more clearly if the term lengths had all been listed numerically, regardless of length.

“Three, 11, six, 10, two, six” isn’t as easy to visually process as “3, 11, 6, 10, 2, 6.”

This reminds me of a head-to-head I had with my editor over a decade ago while working at a Gannett newspaper in New Jersey. I had just interviewed a young girl and her father who had climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro, and wanted to open up the story as follows:

BOUND BROOK – A few numbers to consider:

During a course of 7 days, Jenna Nerger hiked 62 miles through 5 climates to a height of 18,650 feet.

And she’s 11.

Because my lead focused on the impressive statistics, I had pushed the AP Stylebook aside and written all those stats using numerals. My editor, ever loyal to the spiral-bound bible of the newspaper world, insisted that 7 and 5 be spelled out in accordance with style. I passionately made my case (“Sometimes you need to bend the rules for poetic license; that’s what makes this an art that connects us with our readers!”), and she eloquently made hers (“No.”), so the story went to press with a combination of numerals and written numbers.

But looking at what the BBC posted Monday, I notice one key difference between their story and mine that demonstrates why I needed to stick to the rules but the BBC should have strayed from theirs.

In my story, each number measured something different (time, distance, climates, height, age). In the BBC story, each number applied to years, measuring the same unit. It was written for the clear purpose of comparison; therefore, a consistent way of expressing the numbers would have better served that purpose.

Are readers over the age of 8 – I’m sorry; eight – capable of understanding the list anyway? Of course.

But the British government is confusing enough right now, and poor Liz already has a headache; why complicate things further?


The Syracuse Pen provides writing and editing services for students, professionals and small businesses. Visit our home page for more information about what we can do for you.

You’re not using semicolons; you should.

 

Let’s say you wrote a friendly letter to your boss, and upon rereading it before you drop it in the mailbox, you notice something amiss:

You smell like an elephant’s butt, an elephant’s butt would actually be a better boss.

Oh, no! That comma separates two complete sentences without a conjunction (and, but, or, so) after it. This sentence is a run-on; it’s a good thing you caught it.

Have no fear; it’s easily fixable. You don’t need to erase or cross anything out; you don’t need to cram in the word “and” after the comma. Simply turn that comma into a semicolon by adding one simple, tiny dot above it.

You smell like an elephant’s butt; an elephant’s butt would actually be a better boss.

Suddenly, your major grammar faux pas has been transformed into a more sophisticated, enlightened sentence. Your boss will be impressed; I guarantee it.

Kurt Vonnegut once famously wrote, “Do not use semicolons… All they do is show you’ve been to college.” That’s not true; they may show you’ve taken Mr. Marano’s seventh-grade English class, and in a few minutes, they’ll show you’ve read Mr. Marano’s blog.

In its simplest form, a semicolon’s job is to connect two related sentences. Seeing a semicolon end a sentence is no cause for alarm; it simply means the second sentence is closely related to the first.

Take a look back at all the semicolons used so far in this blog; you’ll notice a few things that each use has in common.

  1. Two separate sentences are connected; both sentences could stand alone as independent clauses.
  2. There is no conjunction next to the semicolon; there is only the next sentence.
  3. The second sentence starts with a lower-case letter; this is why a semicolon is such a perfect fix for a comma splice.
  4. A semicolon can’t replace a comma; each has its own discrete purpose.
  5. Most importantly, the two sentences are closely related to each other; the second one wouldn’t make as much sense without the first one.

There are other uses for a semicolon, but that’s a topic for another time. For now, just know there’s nothing particularly fancy or convoluted about it, and you can use it skillfully with just a little practice.

Just don’t overdo it; nobody likes that.


The Syracuse Pen provides writing and editing services for students, professionals and small businesses. Visit our home page for more information about what we can do for you.

Fill your writing with the perfect amount of emptiness

 

This is a blog about nothing.

Specifically, it’s about the emptiness between words. The void after one sentence ends, before the next begins. The most negligible character in your text, produced by the largest key on your computer.

Space.

There is really one thing you need to remember about the space, and it’s this: There is never a reason to have two in a row. After a sentence: one space. After an abbreviation: one space. Between any two words: one space.

The two-space practice comes from the age of typewriters, set in monospace type, in which every letter, number, punctuation mark and space took the same width on paper, and two spaces together helped the reader’s eye recognize the start of a new sentence. Now that most fonts and devices operate in proportional type and will adjust the width of each letter (so an i doesn’t take up as much space as an m anymore, for example), this practice is no longer needed. Worse: it identifies you as antiquated, and more comfortable working on a machine with ribbon you need to wind and change once in a while.

There are two scenarios in which you want to hit the spacebar twice:

  1. You want to mimic the style of a typewriter because you’re a nerd like that.
  2. Your phone will interpret a double-space as a transition between sentences, automatically giving you the period to end one and the capital letter to begin the other.

The only thing worse than two spaces is inconsistent spaces.   One thing I see often with clients and students is that they’ll put two spaces after a sentence, or even  between words. Other times they’ll put one space after it.   Sometimes, they’ll even put three. It becomes  tedious to go through and   delete the extraneous spaces, but it has to be done.       You can probably guess how irritating inconsistent spacing can be for a reader, can’t you?

There’s no shortage of rules in English regarding spelling, grammar, and punctuation. Perhaps this is why the space is usually overlooked; after all, it is literally invisible. But even though you can’t see it, you still need to know how to use it.

It may be nothing, but it’s still something.


The Syracuse Pen provides writing and editing services for students, professionals and small businesses. Visit our home page for more information about what we can do for you. 

If someone wants to use ‘They’ as a singular, let them

When you talk about someone of an unknown gender, using the wrong pronoun can be offensive, especially if you’re using stereotypes to make a guess (“When you see your doctor, tell him about your rash,” or “Someone left her pink umbrella on the bus”).

So what’s a socially aware speaker to do?

Technically, you’re supposed to say something like “him or her,” “she or he,” or “his or hers.” As an English teacher, this is the method I swore my allegiance to when I recited The Syntactic Oath with my right hand raised and my left on a copy of Elements of Style. However, there are two problems I have with this approach.

First, saying “he or she” can come across as too formal (you’re not a legal document; you’re just somebody chatting with your friend or boss), or worse: pretentious. If your use of language creates a barrier between you and your audience, it doesn’t matter whether you’re technically right. What matters is how it affects your audience’s perception of you and your ability to connect with them. Will they be impressed by your proper but cumbersome pronoun usage? Possibly. Or will they be turned off by your subtly pedantic tone?

My other objection comes from a principle I write about often. By going with “him or her” instead of “them,” you’d be adding two extra words that don’t contribute to your message. Your audience probably already knows what you mean, so adding unnecessary words is a misdemeanor against brevity and effective language.

Ideally, the English language would have a gender-neutral singular pronoun appropriate for referring to people. Not only would this solve the “they” problem altogether, but a gender-universal pronoun would be inclusive of those who identify as transexual or gender-fluid (whose presence in social discourse is only going to grow with time). A gender-neutral singular pronoun would be perfect for everyone.

But we don’t have one, and until we do, you have a choice to make every time this situation comes up. My recommendation: Say “them.” It’s the most fluid and natural option, it’s commonly accepted, and it doesn’t usually require clarification.

But if someone uses the technically correct but awkward phrasing when talking to you, forgive them; then kindly refer them to this blog.


The Syracuse Pen provides writing and editing services for students, professionals and small businesses. Visit our home page for more information about what we can do for you. 

When does a word not mean what it means?

“Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong,” I found myself muttering during a conference on education last week, attracting the attention of strangers and colleagues who were undoubtedly wondering what my problem was with the speaker.

To appreciate my position, they’d have to recognize this:

Words are like money. Neither has any meaning except for that which people agree to attribute to them. A $100 bill only has value because everyone agrees to treat it with value, and to accept it as such. Similarly, a word contains only the meaning that people agree on.

When you communicate, you need to use words as your reader understands them, even if that goes against the official definition. So while nutritious foods are technically healthful, your reader will likely consider them healthy, so it’s usually better to go with it than to use the more obscure term. If someone complains that they’re feeling nauseous, don’t tell them they’re actually feeling nauseated; just offer some Dramamine.

And if the universal consensus is that the word valedictorian means the head of the class, the slayer of bell curves, the gold medalist of the high school academic olympics, then that’s exactly what valedictorian means.

That’s what I wanted to say to the speaker at this conference. In a discussion on whether it’s healthy or appropriate to crown one graduate as superior to all others, he invoked the Latin origin of the term. “The true meaning of ‘valedictorian’ comes from ‘valedictory,’ which means ‘a farewell address,'” he said. “It doesn’t mean ‘the top student.'”

And maybe at one time, what he said about the word is true. But language evolves. Meanings change. And because everyone believes that valedictorian means the top student, then right or wrong and regardless of its etymology, that’s exactly what the word means.

So the next time someone tells me everyone is wrong about what a well-known word means, I’m going to ask for some Dramamine, and tell them I’m feeling nauseated.


The Syracuse Pen provides writing and editing services for students, professionals and small businesses. Visit our home page for enlightenment or more information about what we can do for you.

When writing, never underestimate the value of a fresh set of eyes

I had just finished working with a very important client (henceforth known as “my niece”) to help her fine-tune her college application essay. Upon completion, she was so excited to have it done that she planned to send it out immediately. I had one word for her:

Wait.

I told her to read it again. Think about it. Go to sleep. Get a good night’s rest. Read it again in the morning with a fresh pair of eyes.

You can imagine how thrilled my niece was to take this advice, after working on her essay for weeks and just wanting it to be over with. We all know that frustration; putting so much mental energy into a project that it becomes physically painful to give any more. Who can blame her?

But I inspired her with wisdom from Confucius about patience and education: “The worst colleges are full of kids who rushed to submit their applications” (I’m no Confucian scholar, but it sounds like something he would probably say, so I took a few liberties).

She begrudgingly took my advice, and the next day noticed a major criterion that her essay did not meet. Because she hadn’t yet submitted it, she was able to make the correction before it was too late.

The lesson? Other than listen to your editor/tutor/uncle? Other than always read the directions carefully? Other than don’t trust quacks who make up Confucius quotes to try to sound enlightened? It’s this:

Time is a powerful tool when writing. When you come back to your writing later, your memory isn’t as fresh, but your eyes are. The more time you can put between the writing and the re-reading, the more the memory fades, the less you rely on what you meant to writ or what you think you wrote. This is when you have to really look at your writing again, as if for the first time. This is when you’ll notice the typo, or realize you never addressed a key point, or be inspired with a brilliant way to rephrase that one awkward sentence.

So don’t rush. Give yourself plenty of time, take a break, and then go back. Be patient. Your writing will be better for it.

Confucius didn’t say that; I did.


The Syracuse Pen provides writing and editing services for students, professionals and small businesses. Visit our home page for enlightenment or more information about what we can do for you.

Make your words stronger, not louder

“We’ll never change the name,” he said. “It’s that simple. NEVER — you can use caps.”

This perfectly written quote originally appeared in USA Today in 2013 (repeated in this month’s The Atlantic), in which the owner of the Washington Redskins, Daniel Snyder, discusses his openness to changing his team’s name.

Hats off to the reporter, Erik Brady. Professional journalists recognize that putting a word in all capital letters is a tool of the weak writer, that there are few occasions to do so well, and even fewer editors who will let it pass. When Brady caught such an opportunity, he ran with it, and made an untold number of readers chuckle, myself included.

But don’t you try it.

The second I see an email subject line written in all caps, I know either it’s spam or I’ve drawn the ire of someone who doesn’t write well. When I see a word capitalized for emphasis within a text, I picture the speaker yelling, standing too close, smelling of hot dog juice.

There are other equally bad ways to emphasize a specific word within a text. You can bold it or increase the font size, or use multiple bold, 18-point exclamation points. Any of these strategies is the writing equivalent of honking your horn in traffic: it will catch someone’s attention, sure, but they will be at least mildly annoyed at you for going that route, and they’ll wonder if you’re actually 8.

These tactics will make your words look bigger and louder, but why not use words that are actually stronger instead? You can manipulate the strength of your words and the focus of your reader through brevity, paragraph breaks, and careful word choice. Doing so will get your point across while keeping your reader’s respect.

In the case of the USA Today article, the capitalized NEVER was the right move because it’s exactly what the speaker intended. But few of us ever get that lucky. Don’t try it.

Seriously.

DON’T!

I mean… don’t.


The Syracuse Pen provides writing and editing services for students, professionals and small businesses. Visit our home page for more information about what we can do for you.

How to make the most unbelievable characters come alive

Can you guess the famous fictional character who spoke these words?

“It was morning when I awoke, and my first care was to visit the fire. I uncovered it, and a gentle breeze quickly fanned it into a flame. I observed this also and contrived a fan of branches, which roused the embers when they were nearly extinguished. When night came again I found, with pleasure, that the fire gave light as well as heat and that the discovery of this element was useful to me in my food, for I found some of the offals that the travelers had left had been roasted, and tasted much more savoury than the berries I gather from the trees.”

Any ideas? No? OK, try this, then: Same character, same topic, but this time it’s a famous comedian doing an impression:

“Fire bad!”

Answer: The character is Frankenstein’s (never actually named) monster. The first passage is from the book by Mary Shelley; the second was Phil Hartman’s version of him on Saturday Night Live.

According to Shelley, this creature – who learned all his English just by spying on an oblivious family – has a command of the language as full as Shelley has herself. According to Hartman, the monster hasn’t mastered verbs. So whose version is more believable? The answer reveals a writer’s dilemma.

In the novel, the scientist conceals his secret to bringing the monster to life. But the author’s technique is no secret; she brings him to life through dialogue.

By giving the monster the unlikely gift of eloquence, Shelley allowed him to bring the reader along as he discovered life, beauty, rejection, fury, and ultimately desperation. She made the reader care because she made the monster authentic and sympathetic, able to express the same feelings a human being can. This could not have happened if she had limited his lexicon to what you would expect an uneducated, abandoned being to have (especially since a good portion of the novel is the monster telling his own story).

By taking his eloquence away, Hartman created an entertaining caricature. Hartman made him more realistic to make him funny.

But Shelley had the harder job; she had to make him less realistic in order to make him more real.


The Syracuse Pen provides writing and editing services for students, professionals and small businesses. Visit our home page for more information about what we can do for you.