Ramona Marks



Professional writing, web content, proofreading, and editing.

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Content Management and Strategy (a Quick Primer)

I stumbled on a blog post which I wish I'd written. It's a fast read and the quick version is that content is important and you have to know what it means to have a content strategy in order to be relevant online. Relevance online has become synonymous with relevance in the real world, especially for businesses. 

Great content is the way you establish a good reputation with both search engines and their users - your target customers or clients. Content is an umbrella term, used for anything you put on your website, from blog posts, to images, to descriptions of the services you offer. A website is a primary conduit for great content.

But a content strategy should also include social media content on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, Instagram, Pinterest, and LinkedIn. Not every business will benefit from casting such a wide net, but the biggest brands and the hottest stars use them all.

Of course, posting content is not enough; it also has to be good. You want to be relevant, so your content has to be relevant. It's not all that difficult, but it takes time and effort to plan and execute a content strategy. All too often, businesses don't put enough towards their content and end up with garbage blog posts, stuffed with keywords, and their strategy is near useless. 

If you are dedicated to creating the social interactions and offering the respectable advice that great content provides, your business will not only stay relevant. You'll find that your opinions are considered valuable, your customers are more loyal, and search engines will display your website to the right users and potential clients. 

The Oxford Comma and Me

I include the Oxford comma in my style guide, because to me this particular use of the comma adds clarity in most situations. But thanks to a great Mental Floss article, I've seen how the other side thinks and understand that not everyone needs to use the serial comma. There are good, bad, and mediocre writers who use and don't use that comma before the 'and'.

Writing with clarity is the goal. The well-worn example of poor comma use is the bear who 'eats, shoots, and leaves" - did the bear eat, then shoot someone, and then leave the building? Or is it a bear that eats the shoots and leaves of a plant?

Comma use is riddled with dangers. It has the ability to clarify and to muddle. In legal writing, impenetrable to all but the few who understand that it is a work of precision, the serial comma is critical. If a will states that 'the remaining wealth will be divided between his son, his daughter and her husband',  the son gets half and the daughter gets half with her spouse. Add the additional comma and each party gets one third. 

The Oxford comma is encouraged because of problems like these. If you understand how to correctly use the Oxford comma, you'll know when to use it and when to leave it out. If you don't use the Oxford comma, and therefore aren't interested in how it can be used to increase clarity, you're likely to make a muddle. 

But writers who avoid the Oxford comma can also be clear. There are great writers who don't use the Oxford comma and their comma use is without fault. Creating conflict about comma use is a great way to draw attention, but the most important rule applies not to the use of the Oxford comma, but to the use of commas in general: use commas correctly so that the writing itself is clear and the intended meaning is understood.

A Plea: Blog vs. Blog Post

Please, please, please let us stop the trajectory of the misuse of the word 'blog'. I know I'm not alone, nor am I the first, when I say that it is important to know the difference between a blog and a blog post. They are two different things and they deserve to maintain their unique terminology. 

Alas, more and more often I'm seeing the use of the word 'blog' to mean a 'blog post'. People are doing this all the time, everywhere. People who should have a command of the domain are misusing the names of their tools. My concern is that we're going to accept this change the way we somehow accepted the transition of the word 'literal' to mean it's opposite.

As an example of poor use, here's a fictitious request that is exactly like requests I receive:

"I need a blog about the importance of preserving water." 

To me, that sentence is asking for a whole blog about water preservation. I'm thinking of writing posts with topics like, 'Where Our Water Comes From', 'Should We Worry About Water Supply?', 'How to Save Water While Showering' and 'Ways to Water Your Garden as Efficiently as Possible'. 

But that's not what the client wants. They want just 400 words. They want a blog post about the importance of preserving water. Why not ask for a post? It's still just four letters. I'll know what you mean. 

Let's try another example. Would you ever say the words, "I need to write another blog for my blog"? (Please say no.)

Blogging is something people do, many people -ahem- have even blogged about blogging. But when you add another entry to your blog, it's not also called a blog. If you're confused, try this diagram.

I am not against changes to language, termed 'semantic drift'. I happen to know that the word 'blog' comes from the predecessor 'web log' and I think it's a change worth noting, so I use the older (yes, so ancient) version. I don't mind the word blog as a replacement or contraction of 'web log'. I'm willing to adjust my language usage based on the way general usage changes. I've submitted a new definition (not even the first!) for a previously non-existent word to Urban Dictionary (I'm GoGopher in case you'd like to give me a little thumbs up, nudge, nudge).

But not this. There is simply no reason to have dual meanings for the word 'blog'.

Can we please start a campaign to address this? An educational campaign, perhaps? With kindness and information we may yet be able to turn the tide.

If you have a good reason, a logical argument, for why it makes sense to use the word 'blog' when you mean 'post', please let me know. 

A Writing Career

As soon as I knew what a writer was, I considered myself a writer. In high school I took creative writing and loved it. The result was a lot of mediocre poetry, some that I absolutely loved and needed to write. What else would I have done with all those emotions?

The primary audience was always me. I wrote poems for boys sometimes and I wrote poems for class. The vast majority I would only share with friends who also wrote poetry. And I would read the poems over and over to myself, processing whatever pain or fear or love had inspired the words. I wrote, therefore I was a writer.

During my fourth and final year in college, second semester, as a senior majoring in Economics, I decided to take Creative Writing 101. For fun, and because I still loved to write. My classmates were mostly first year students who wanted to become writers and I enjoyed my time in their company. They were creative and many dressed in a dark, carefully chosen, intentionally sloppy style. Oily hair helped to keep hairstyles in place. Some were shy and feared the feedback. Others were outwardly confident and argued with the professor.

The professor herself was in her first semester at the school and had been thrown this class because another professor had to drop it at the last minute. She was a graduate of the famous Iowa Writer's Workshop and a published author. She asked for patience but was strong about her views and what she had learned. She also had the beginner educator's overly ambitious intention of giving each and every one of us personal attention and feedback, hoping to ignite our writing careers with a spark of her experience and knowledge.

For our final project, we had to write a piece that would be read by  classmates as well as the professor. We'd have feedback from a number of people, therefore, and we'd discuss each person's writing as a group. I wrote a story in a style I thought shadowed Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes because I'd read it recently and been completely taken with his meandering descriptions and the fantasy world that emerges. My story was about a romantic moment that was clearly amorphous, backed up by a set of fantasy-style descriptions that were often confusing.

The feedback from the class was great. Some of my classmates were confused and gave pieces of advice, the story was very clearly not to the taste of others, and a few absolutely loved it because they could feel the experiences I'd tried to put down on paper. The variety of reactions was in itself a good lesson. But when I sat down with the professor for our one-on-one time, she delivered on the spark. And burned my writing down. 

Her take was that nobody would ever publish this work, that if I wanted to be a writer I had to think about my audience as well as what a publisher and agent would think. I tried to explain that I wasn't writing to be published and she brushed me off by saying, 'Every writer wants to be published.' As if I didn't even know it, but that was my goal. 

She gave me the perspective of a commercial writing world that was disastrous for me. She pointed out problems, asked me to make my descriptions more concrete, gave me a lot of painful advice. I re-wrote the story for the class, as that was my final assignment and my professor said so. 

Being published was not my goal. After that I stopped writing. For almost 10 years, I couldn't write anything for myself without that critical voice in my head. When I put down words to express my emotions, they seemed insufficient, cliche, and worst of all, pathetic. The notebooks full of poems from the previous 8 years were relics, gems that had come from a different time. I was afraid to re-read them because I didn't want them to look foolish, too. 

Losing my comfort with writing was painful, but it was only one part of life, and everything else moved forward in good ways. I ditched a very indirect career in finance and non-profit accounting for a life of travel, hoping to pick up work online in database management or something similar. I started off my remote career by continuing in non-profit work and looked for remote accounting gigs. Nothing really came through. 

Then I saw a job for "a few good writers". It was the right fit. I was hired as a writer, writing web copy for someone far away. It was fast and dirty and quality was not the goal. Speed was.

From there I've built a writing career. I am paid to write, but not because I managed to live someone else's dream of getting published. It happened by accident. And best of all, nobody who reads what I've written knows it was written by me. I'm anonymous. It's perfect. If only that professor could see me now.

Not too long ago I finally opened up some of those high school notebooks again. I looked through a self-published book of poems from the 8th grade. And I opened the envelope that contained the story I'd written for my Creative Writing 101 final project, all the copies marked up by classmates, and the final version I turned in to the professor. Re-reading both versions, I decided that they were both good. But the final, concrete version was not to my taste.


Bangs vs. Fringe, Pants vs. Trousers

Ack! English is a group of languages. There truly are many kinds of English. Beyond the obvious British vs. American English, it turns out that Canadians are somewhere in between. Australians have an incredible range of idiomatic expressions and slang words whose meaning is mysterious to other English speakers. And unless you've bumped up against these difference through travel, you probably have no idea that they exist.

I have one regular client in the UK and he has requested that I use British English spelling and "no Americanisms". I do my best to avoid "Americanisms" but I'm sure some slip by. How do I know if it sounds particularly American?

Spelling is easy, thanks to the availability of country specific dictionaries in the spell checker. Recognize becomes recognise. Organization becomes organisation. Center becomes centre. 

My favorite lessons in the variety of English include a couple of doozies; the use of a word in one country will illicit laughs in another. For example, in the US, 'bangs' refers to the hair on your head that is shorter, falling towards the eyes, covering the forehead. In the UK, it's the third person singular slang for getting laid. Brits use the word 'fringe' for the hair covering the forehead.

Thong may be a kind of underwear in the US, but in the rest of the world they're shoes. Flip-flops. If you're in Australia and someone asks if you've got thongs, try to think of footwear.

And what will someone in the UK think of when you say 'pants'? Pants is short for underpants and never a replacement for trousers. If you're in the UK and you say you're not wearing any pants, it means you're going commando. Which is probably an Americanism.

Chimbley Sweep

Learned something new today: 'chimbley' is an alternative pronunciation and dialect form of the word 'chimney'. If you live in parts of the county of Norfolk, England or indeed in New England in the US, you may already know this. I thought it was a mis-pronunciation, similar to the way people sometimes say 'ambliance' (instead of ambulance), or pasghetti (instead of spaghetti). But no, chimbley is official.

The Norfolk dialect has a number of interesting pronunciation quirks, some of which have been connected back to Scandinavian influence, as the region was once settled by Vikings. But where the Norfolk dialect has traveled is also interesting.

The differences between the Norfolk pronunciation and, say, London pronunciations are quite obvious. Words like 'new' in much of England are pronounced 'nyew'. The same is true of 'due' (dyue). That 'y' sound is called a 'yod', and 'yod-dropping' is the term used to describe the way words are said in Norfolk; you get more 'noo' and 'doo' sounds.

If you're American, that is probably familiar and comfortable. American English follows the Norfolk dialect in some ways, especially if you listen to the accents of New England. The way someone from Maine or Massachusetts would say words like 'better', 'thicker', and 'butcher' is similar to the Norfolk dialect, as well. Glottal stops make the words sound more like 'betta', 'thicka', and 'butcha'. But some Norfolk dialect particularities are more like accents of the US south; word usage like 'good'un' instead of 'good one' is common to both regions. 

Chimbley is more than a pronunciation quirk, even though the spell checker disagrees with me. If I had a Norfolk dialect spell check option, would it allow the word 'chimbley'? My favorite discovery from these language meanderings is the alternative pronunciation and use of the word 'exactly' in the Norfolk dialect - zackly. I could be convinced to bring that one back into circulation.