Monthly Archives: January 2014

Choosing words carefully

Business writers take pride in writing clear, concise, grammatically correct communications. But sometimes even the most precise communicators have difficulty knowing exactly the right word to choose:

Dear Style Master: One of my coworkers insists on using “percent of employees” in
business communications about management. I think she should be referring to a
“percentage of employees”. Who is correct?

– Fractious

 Dear Fractious: I see these two terms used interchangeably, but somehow “percent of a
number” doesn’t sound right to me. After a little search I learned that percent should always be accompanied by a number; percentage is used when no number is present. So, you might say that 98 percent of company employees reported satisfaction with the new time-reporting
software, and only a small percentage of employees had difficulty using the application. Fractious, I think you are correct!

The answer to your question is, in my opinion, unambiguous. But read on for a couple of word-choice questions that don’t have such definite answers:

Dear Style Master: When do I use “less” and when do I use “fewer” with percentages? I know to use “fewer” with countable nouns and “less” with nouns you can’t count, but are percentages considered countable or mass nouns?

Less Than Certain

 Dear Uncertain: To me, you are referring to a number of countable things when you speak of percentages. For example, you might say that fewer than ten percent of employees have difficulty using the new time keeping system. The noun employees is countable.

The trouble is that different style guides give us different direction. The experts at Chicago
Manual Online say that less is ok with percentages, because tradition holds that you use less when referring to time, amount, or distance. Percentages are amounts. But the AP stylebook agrees with me that, since you can count employees, fewer is correct.

If you look at online forums on style, you’ll see a lot of argument on this subject. So the answer is less. Or fewer. Either way, you’re certain to be correct.

Dear Style Master: Prior to encountering my current editor, I used “prior to” all the time in my project documents. But now, my editor is suggesting that I use “before” instead. Why?

Professional Documentation Project Manager (PDPM)

Dear Pro: Some editors say that prior to is grammatically incorrect because prior is an adjective (I couldn’t come to the party last night because I had a prior commitment). Others think prior to is just an affected, bureaucratic phrase that means before.  However, dictionaries generally
accept prior to as an informal noun phrase. So, prior to doesn’t seem to be flat out incorrect. It’s just annoying. I suggest using before to mean before and prior as an adjective, even if you’re a bureaucrat. (I’d also use after instead of subsequent to.)

Lessons learned as a freelancer in 2013

After a whirlwind end-of-year editing extravaganza, I now have some time to consider what I learned as a freelancer in 2013. Here’s what I know now that I didn’t know (or couldn’t face) a year ago:

Clients don’t necessarily need you when you need them.

In 2013 a new client did not materialize until midyear. I spent the first part of the year
worrying about how to survive and wondering if I’d make it as a freelancer. I spent the last half of the year worrying about how to do holiday shopping when I had to work days, nights, and weekends.

The big lesson, of course, is to budget: Save money so you can live during downtime (easier said than done when your 12-year-old car falls apart and your roof springs a massive leak).

And budget your actual time as if you were working. Early last year I began filling my time
with Meaningful Activities. I volunteered, and I flung myself into personal and professional
development: I joined a garden club, started a blog, joined a second professional organization, developed a brochure, and exhibited in the “Consultants Corner” at a convention. When paying work came up last summer, I found myself with several non-paying commitments that I no longer had time for. I had to go for the money.

Build time for your life into the schedule.

Sometimes personal obligations come before professional ones. In 2013 my mother went to a nursing facility and my dad to assisted living. I spent time driving my dad to see my mom,
discussing medical decisions with doctors, and helping both parents adjust to living apart after 62 years of marriage. Occasionally I had to tell clients and professional associates that I was behind and why. They all understood. Clients can be difficult and demanding, but they can also be compassionate and empathetic when you have to make room for family in the work schedule.

Promise only what you can deliver.

My friend Steve Wilson, a business consultant and manager, sent me a time management
plan with tips that seemed at first a little outlandish. The tip that caught me off guard involved setting a maximum workload and being honest about it with potential clients. Steve told me to look at my current workload and the maximum number of hours available to work, then determine a delivery date to communicate to a prospective client. I’d risk losing the client by being up front about that date, but I would not lose my reputation for honesty. And producing a deliverable on time or early would only enhance that reputation.

Communicate with clients before going over budget.

I’m still learning about estimates. Until I start working, I rarely know the extent of writing and editing required. If the material is complex and content is scarce, the job can take can take a lot longer than expected. If possible, I clarify that the original estimate is just that – an estimate. Then I communicate regularly with the client about progress made toward reaching project goals. If I see that a task is headed toward being over budget, I talk with clients about their
preferences. Would they like me to return a draft? Complete the job at greater expense? I have discovered that clients are often more concerned about a job well done than about manageable cost overruns.

Clarify technical details up front.

I took a job that required use of a technical publishing system. The current version of the publishing system was available only on PC and I had a Mac, so I bought a PC and the publishing system. I happily did the work and I really appreciated the opportunity to learn the ins and outs of the publishing system. When I turned files over to the production staff, I learned that the client had an early version of the publishing system and the production staff could not open my files! Eventually we figured out a way to create readable files for the client, but it was painful.

In retrospect, the issues could have been avoided if I had gotten version information about the software required. I probably would not have purchased an antique version of the publishing system, but I might have worked out a way to use client equipment and software, or I might have talked to an IT professional to resolve compatibility issues up front.

You can fail a test long after you’re out of school.

Sometimes I’m invited to take an editing test, usually by an organization providing editorial services to technical and medical professionals. Some organizations pay editors to take tests. I’m always amenable to taking a test, paid or not. After all, I got my first technical writing job after taking a test!

The tests I took this year had time limits, and I didn’t meet them. I carefully looked up a lot
of medical terms that I don’t use every day, and I was methodical in my edits. But I honestly reported my time, and I didn’t get any work as a result of the tests. Recently I experimented with one test and did a less-than-stellar job within the allotted about of time given. We’ll see what the employer thought about my “good enough” attitude. I suspect not much.

You never know where your next job will come from.

Here I am at the beginning of 2014, with time on my hands to blog, edit my LinkedIn profile, revisit my resume, and search for new jobs. In 2013 I got jobs through professional organizations, former employers and coworkers, and friends at church and on the tennis court. It turns out that all my downtime at the beginning of 2013 gave me a chance to be social and network my way into the next job. Here’s hoping networking pays off again in 2014!