A Word, Please: Sound judgment

If you're one of the small percentage of people in this country who know they have good grammar, you write with confidence.

Whether you're composing a corporate earnings report or an informal e-mail, you know your syntax will shine, your punctuation will be perfect, and your word choice will be spot on. You can take a step back from any document you've written, look at it with a critical eye and see you did a good job.

So, to you, I have just one thing to say: Sure, but is it pretty?

That's right, just when you thought it was safe to rest on your linguistic laurels, I'm handing you a fresh writing worry: aesthetics. Most amateur and even professional writers don't stop to think about how their words look on a page or screen. After all, writing is about the ear, not the eye, right?

Not according to professional editors, or at least, to the people who wrote the style guides that editors follow. Many of the edits professionals make have just one goal in mind: visual appeal. If a piece is easy on the eyes, it's that much more digestible to the reader.

Many people know that a huge, dense paragraph can send a reader packing. That's why you should look for ways to break big paragraphs up. But not many people know what makes your daily newspaper or favorite novel easy on the eye.

Here are some style guide recommendations you can follow to make your writing more visually appealing.

- Avoid initialisms. The "Associated Press Stylebook" calls it alphabet soup — sentences cluttered with initials like, "The ASDSMA and the LFJC met with members of the UBAW and the DEAJ to discuss data reported in the BSRW." And, no, just because you force fed those initials to the reader via parenthetical insertions earlier in the document does not make this acceptable.

Readers don't instantly become familiar with a clump of letters just because you tell them to. That's why nicknames like CIA and FBI are always better than the ASDSMA and the LFJC. Whenever possible, look for familiar words to use in place of unfamiliar initials: "The Assn. of Shirt, Dress and Sock Manufacturers of America issued its policy statement last week. The apparel manufacturers will support the bill." The apparel manufacturers, the group, the association — any term your reader already knows is better than "ASDSMA."

- Keep the commas, semicolons and parentheses to a minimum. There are clear rules governing punctuation, but they leave you some elbow room. Comma rules allow a sentence like: "However, until Sunday, I had, somehow, known that the man, whom you call Bill, was, without a doubt, mean." But most of those commas could be chopped with nothing lost.

- Don't let companies tell you what to capitalize. Just because a corporation thinks its Homeowners Policy or its Roadside Assistance deserves the royal treatment, doesn't mean you have to listen. Only proper names get capitalized.

And there's no reason you can't, in your own words, call a restaurant's Chipotle Salsa its chipotle salsa. Whenever you can interpret a pseudo proper name as a generic description, you'll make it easier on your readers' eyes.

- Consider spelling out numbers. Newspaper style likes numerals for most numbers 10 or greater. "They have eight children and 22 grandchildren." But that's largely because newspapers have space constraints.

Book publishers opt for spelling out most round numbers on the belief that this style is more visually appealing and flowing. "When she was twelve, she had twenty thousand dollars in the bank."

I haven't decided whether I agree. But it's worth thinking about when you want your words to look as good on paper as they sound in your head.

JUNE CASAGRANDE is author of "It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences." She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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