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Grammar and Editing Make Writing More Effective

Writing happens throughout municipal operations, in everything from drafting a council meeting agenda or resolution to crafting inter-office emails or responding to news media requests. Writing well can be the difference between conveying a message correctly, or undermining a message through confusion and the appearance of unprofessionalism.

These writing tips can help with writing for any audience:

  • Active voice almost always wins out over passive voice. This is the difference between “the person took the action” and “the action was taken by the person.” Consider saying “The mayor cut the ribbon to officially open the new park” is more effective than “The ribbon was cut by the mayor to open the new park.”
  • Use simple words for impact. There are many examples:
    “Find out” instead of “ascertain”
    “Send out” instead of “disseminate”
    “Use” instead of “utilize”
    “Best” instead of “optimum”
    “Explain” instead of “find an explanation for”
  • Know the difference between “it’s” and “its.” The first means “it is” and the second is possessive. This is the difference between “it’s time to go” and “the bag fell on its side.”
  • Know when to use “I” and when to use “me.” For example, “he is going with John and me” is correct. Think of it without John, so that it reads “he is going with me.” A writer who leaves John out of the sentence would not write, “He is going with I.”
  • Understand the difference between “that,” “which” and “who.” “That” is used for essential clauses in a sentence, for example, “The car that crashed into the tree could not be salvaged.” “Which” appears in nonessential clauses and often requires a comma, for example, “the car, which is blue, crashed into the tree.” When comparing “that” to “who,” “that” refers to an object while “who” refers to a person.
  • Know when to use “affect” and “effect.” “Affect” is in many cases a verb that refers to causing an outcome, “effect” is in many cases a noun referring to the outcome created. Both words can make sense in a single sentence, such as, “The effect of the storm on the sports schedule will affect games for the rest of the year.” 
  • Be careful with homophones. These are words with the same pronunciation but different meanings — “to” and “too,” or “their,” “there” and “they’re.” 
  • Understand compound modifiers. These are phrases acting together as an adjective modifying a noun, generally require hyphens. For example, with “city-owned street,” “city-owned” acts as an adjective explaining what kind of street it is. Hyphens are not used, however, when the phrase contains an adverb containing an “-ly,” for example, “highly praised officer.” 
  • Capitalize proper nouns only. Proper nouns are the specific name of a person, place or thing, while common nouns are more generic references. For example, the “City of Columbia” is a proper noun, as it is the full name of the municipality of Columbia, but when discussing what a “city government” does, there is no proper noun and no capitalization, since no specific city government is being referenced.
  • Know when to use quotation marks. Use them for quotations of speech or quotations of text passages, but not to emphasize words.
  • The first draft is never the best product. Edit, rewrite, then edit some more. Rest between drafts. Let someone else with a fresh perspective look at a draft, then edit some more. Be on the lookout for convoluted sentences, or run-on sentences that continue far too long to be clear.