Write Right: The art of consistency

Estate attorney Paul deHoll provides a meeting prompt for our fellow colleagues’ short presentations at our weekly business networking meeting. This week, the prompt was to “create your own personalized license plate frame” and describe “how would it relate to your business.”

I created “WRIGHTE” and printed it out as a speaking prop. On the back side, I spelled it out in color to make it clear: “WRIGHTE” “WRIGHTE.”woman wearing a paper bag with a black question mark on it

My vanity plate popped into my head quickly because earlier in the day I had edited a non-profit’s event program. The program was mostly clean, except for the emcee’s bio. The emcee is an award-winning television journalist and weeknight anchor at a local Washington, DC, affiliate.  His bio, which had been sent to us from the station and plopped into the program verbatim, contained numerous punctuation and style errors.

I wasn’t surprised. I know a number of professional speakers who are entertaining and educational. They can grab an audience and keep them enthralled for an hour or more. My favorite TV journalists tell engaging oral stories. But, in many cases, the promotional materials provided by professional speakers are poorly written and executed.

In this case, the lack of consistency is what appalled me most.

For example, in some places the writer used serial commas and in other instances not. A serial comma, for the uninitiated, is also called the Oxford comma and is used before “and” in a series of three or more listed items. Therefore, one would write, “She was blond, petite, and buxom.”  Without the serial comma, it would be written, “She was blond, petite and buxom.”

Depending on what stylebook you’re using, either can be correct. Most mass media outlets follow the Associated Press style and drop the serial comma. The Chicago Manual of Style, among others, insists on the serial comma. Generally, when I am writing for mass media, I drop the serial comma. When I’m writing for anyone else, I include it. My rationale for inclusion is because people who believe in serial commas tend to be zealots. If you drop the comma, you are damned to Hades. Non-serialists, however, tend to be laidback, almost Californian. “If you want to spend the energy for the extra keystroke, dude, hey, knock yourself out.”

Another inconsistency in the bio was italicizing or not italicizing the names of television programs the anchor worked on. (Yes, I know I ended that sentence with a preposition. Sue me, preposition zealots.) Again, depending on the stylebook, the program name can be italicized, in quotes, or just capitalized. (Did you notice the serial comma there!?) Personally, in an event program, I don’t care. What I do care about is consistency. Pick a style and stick with it.

That’s part of writing right. There are many styles. Sometimes it’s wise to choose one over another. But whatever you do, be consistent.

At the very least, a television promotional person should know the rules to good writing and apply them consistently.  I don’t think that’s too much to ask.


Tom Pfeifer is the managing partner and chief strategist for Consistent Voice Communications. Reach him at Tom@YourConsistentVoice.com.

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