THE OFFICE WRITER
by

So you’ve been hired as an assistant editor. That means you'll be doing a lot of writing. Maybe you will be named editor of the company newsletter, but you are likely to be writing the newsletter. Or maybe you will be writing news releases, reports, speeches, or simply memoranda. Whatever the assignment, the main thing to remember is that you have to communicate.
To communicate most effectively, keep your writing simple, straightforward, and easy to understand. Never use two words where one will do. Use short sentences. Avoid dense text by using bulleted lists, brief paragraphs, and subheadings.
Give the readers your full attention; always put yourself in their place and keep your writing conversational. Read it aloud -- or at least mouth the words -- to verify that it is conversational. If your readers can simply go with the flow, they are most likely to catch your meaning and remain interested.
Remember, writing should never get in the way of communication.
The Heading

The title should be interesting and informative. It should let your readers know what you are writing about -- and why that is important to them.

In some cases, the title is merely part of the heading. A memorandum, for example, will usually have a heading that is standard for the company or organization. It will include this information:

To: (the recipients)

From: (the official or department)

Subject: (the title)

Date: (the date of issue)

In other cases -- for example, articles in the company newsletter -- the title will be a headline, choice words drawn from the opening paragraph and fitting into a snug space on the printed page.

If the document is part of a series, the heading will indicate that. For example: The Primary Concern, Fifth in a Series; or Insight No. 7: The Primary Concern.
Subheadings

If an article is lengthy -- that is, a full page or multiple pages -- use subheads to break it into readable segments. Unless the content dictates otherwise, there should be no more than two subheads on an 8 ½” x 11” page of double-spaced copy. Usually, a subhead will consist of few words and won't take a full line; it should grab the reader’s attention and reveal something about the subsequent material.
The Paragraph

A paragraph should consist of a few sentences related to the same subject matter. In general, a paragraph should contain between 150 and 200 words. If it must be longer, look for ways to break it up. For example, if it contains a series -- James collected Rolling Stones CDs, DVDs, and concert posters -- change it to a bulleted list. James collected Rolling Stones:

*CDs

*DVDs

*Concert posters

Doing so adds “air” to the page, diminishing the density of the type. It makes the page an easier, quicker read.

Style note: There is disagreement about the proper punctuation for this bulleted list. A particular style is not sacrosanct, however. The important thing is to adopt a style and use it consistently.
The Sentence

The sentence is the basic building block of every written product, whether it is a memo; a book review; a press release; a news article; or a feature story. So it is in constructing the individual sentence that the writer establishes an article's readability and interest level. Here are some guidelines for ensuring it will score high on those scales:

*The sentence should be concise.

*It should be simple and straightforward.

*It should flow conversationally.

*The reader should be pulled by the flow.
There are two essential elements in a sentence: the subject (a noun or pronoun) and the predicate (a verb, one word or several words that tell what action the subject is taking or has taken).Most sentences also contain articles (a, an, the) and modifiers (adjectives, adverbs).
An adjective modifies a noun; it is a word or phrase that names or describes an attribute of the noun. For example: the blue room, the tall woman, the balding man, the once and future king. An adverb, on the other hand, modifies a verb. It is a word or phrase that expresses time, place, cause, manner, or degree. For example, he read slowly, she spoke articulately. Adverbs may also modify adjectives, other adverbs, or adverbial phrases.
Frequently, a sentence will include a prepositional phrase. A preposition is a brief word (of, for, by, at, to, under, over) that introduces a phrase modifying a noun, verb, or clause. Every prepositional phrase has its own object. For example, to the movies, under the bridge, after a few minutes, across the lake.
Note: “Concise” is not a synonym for “brief.” A long article may consist of concise writing. The test is whether every word is necessary. Check each word in a sentence; does it clarify or add meaning, or is it superfluous? If all superfluous words are eliminated, the writing is concise.
Brevity, of course, is desirable, too. If the writing is concise, the article is likely to be as brief as the subject matter allows.
Punctuation

*The period (.) marks the end of a sentence; it also separates elements of an Internet site name [the “dot” in “dot com”].

*The comma (,) separates items in a series; divides a compound sentence; sets off interjected material; with a small conjunction (but, for, and), connects two independent clauses; sets off introductory phrases; sets off the name of the larger geographical entity when citing city, state, or province, nation; separates discrete adjectives (“short, stocky fellow”).

*The colon ( : ) follows a phrase that introduces a list; follows an independent clause that introduces an explanation; follows the salutation in a business letter; separates an independent clause from a quotation it introduces; in a script, separates the speaker’s name from his/her speech. Note: If the clause following a colon is a complete sentence, it should begin with a capital letter.

*The semicolon (;) separates two complete thoughts; separates items in a series if one or more of them contain a comma;

*Quotation marks (“ “) begin and end quoted material; enclose titles of lesser works, such as chapters and episodes (for titles of books, television programs, and films, use italics); serve as a symbol for inches.

*Quotation marks (’’) begin and end quoted material within quoted material; serve as a symbol for feet.

*Question mark (?) at the end of a direct question.

*Parentheses ( ) begin and end interjected material, as well as references and other information that is related to but not suitable for the main text.

*Brackets [ ] set off parenthetical material that occurs within parentheses.
Capitalization

In headlines: Choose an “up” or “down” style and stick with it. The “up” style: Capitalize all the words in the headline except articles and prepositions that are no longer than four letters. The “down” style: Capitalize only the first word of the headline and any proper nouns that appear in it.

In the text: Here, too, you should choose an “up” or “down” style. The “down” style: Capitalize only the first word of every sentence, plus proper nouns. The “up” style: Capitalize Federal, State, Department, and so on.

Your choice of “up” or “down” style will also apply to any subheadings.

Whether you choose “up” or “down,” you should always capitalize the pronoun “I” and relatives’ titles when used with the proper name (for example, “Uncle Dan,” but “my uncle“). Capitalize Mother or Father when addressing the parent directly, but not when referring to him or her (“my mother,” “my father”).
TYPES OF PRODUCTS

The News Article

A news article’s first sentence -- the “lead” -- is its most important element. The lead must contain as many of the key ingredients -- who, what, where, when, why, and how -- as possible. These facts inform the reader of the main thrust of the news and provide a context for understanding what follows.

Subsequent paragraphs provide further information. They appear in order of descending importance for a very practical reason: If there is not space enough for the entire article, it may be cut from the bottom without destroying its essence. This factor distinguishes the news article from the feature story and the editorial.

The Press Release

A press release is a news article with spin, company propaganda. It reports the news about a new product or business development in a positive manner. There is not likely to be a downside included.

Of course, that describes a proactive press release; a reactive one might very well include negative information -- if the company perceives that it needs to acknowledge certain facts in order to salvage its public image.

The Opinion Piece or Editorial

Writing an editorial or an opinion piece is similar to writing an essay, although less formal in structure and style. In all three, the author asserts a point of view and supports it with logical discourse or facts.

The piece may define, describe, or explain a concept or a proposal; evaluate and/or compare ideas, systems, processes, or activities; make and defend a choice among options.Opinion pieces should always be labeled as such.
The Feature Story

A feature article may take various forms -- a human interest story, a celebrity interview, an in-depth explanation of a current issue or development, a profile of a local leader, the saga of a successful business. The list could go on and on. Feature articles are characteristically longer than most news stories.

All features attempt to interest the reader in something unusual. For instance, an article might examine the role of women in Arab societies, the new elements in the revised SAT, or the Internet business that is being outsourced to India. Perhaps a local man has been selected to appear on Jeopardy! There is really no limit to the possibilities.

For a company publication, more likely topics might be staff reorganization, United Fund drive progress, product development, and an officer profile. And the CEO will probably want you to ghost-write a column bearing his/her byline.
The Newsletter

As the editor of a newsletter, you will have a number of key decisions to make at the outset.

*What size will it be? Most newsletters are 17” x 11” folded to 8 ½” x 11.”

*How many pages? Four or any multiple of four.

*Binding? If more than four pages, saddle-stitch binding.

*Self-mailer? Leave space for recipient name/address, return address, and mailing indicia.

*Number of columns per page?

*How often will it be published?
Matters of Style

*Typeface for text and headlines? Type sizes?

*What font and size will the subheads be?

*Should type be flush left and ragged right or fully justified? (Justified type is flush left and right. Ragged right lines end with the last full word that fits.)

*What size will the masthead be? Where will it be placed?

*Will articles jump from one page to another or be printed in a continuum?

*Will you use artwork or photos? Cut lines or captions?

*Where will you place the staff box?

*Will you list all of the contents -- or selected items -- in an article or box on the front page?
Matters of Content

*Chances are the topics to be covered were spelled out initially, either by your boss or by the organization’s leaders, or perhaps they were dictated by the organization’s purpose/function.

*Don’t work in a vacuum. Appoint a committee of people representing different parts of the company/organization; meet with them in a planning session for each issue.

*It’s a good idea to have a mix of news items and feature articles, plus brief notices in boxes that break up the page. Variety makes a newsletter lively and keeps the reader interested.
Article Review

Establish procedures for review of your articles by staff members prior to publication.

After type is set, arrange for another staff member to proofread, backing you up.
About Layout

Whether you are doing desktop publishing or sending camera-ready copy to a printer with an offset press, you will have to lay out your pages. To do so, you should create a template with the number of columns of the width you have chosen and feed your headlines, articles, and artwork into the template. You will be able to set type in multiple column widths to enhance the visual appeal of your newsletter.
Artwork

You will probably want to use the CEO’s picture with his/her column, and you may also use mug shots of employees who are mentioned in other articles. Original artwork adds sophistication to your newsletter, and if you can afford to hire an artist, you will probably want to follow this course. It will be up to you (and your boss) whether to use a mix of photos and original art or use original art exclusively.
Speech Writing

If you’re assigned to write a speech for the CEO, insist on interviewing her or him about the purpose, the content, and the desired outcome. Listen carefully to the CEO’s speech patterns. Short or long sentences? Serious or light demeanor? Articulate or not? Terse or long-winded?

Discuss whether to open with a joke or get right down to business, how to structure the material, how much time the speech should take. The more successful this interview, the better the speech.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
The author has more than 40 years experience as a writer and editor. He was manager of corporate publications for Educational Testing Service, a newsletter editor for Merrill Lynch, and held various positions with educational agencies and as an education reporter for three major dailies. He is retired now but offering his editing skills on the Web at http://www.youreditoronline.com

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