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You Need To Sweat the Small Stuff in Analytic Writing

Analysts rightfully put a lot of effort into getting the big things right in their written work, such as being objective, having a clear analytic bottom line, and using evidence properly. They don’t always get them right the first time, but they try. The level of effort and attention to detail seems to drop off when it comes to getting the little things right, however, particularly grammar and punctuation.  Unfortunately, a never-sweat-the-small-stuff strategy doesn’t work well with analytic writing.

Getting the small stuff wrong can undermine the trust you’re trying to build with your customers. As I discussed in my last post, many customers are skeptical about reading analytic products and are looking for any excuse to avoid doing so. Often that excuse comes in the form of a small mistake early in a piece, such as improper punctuation or a grammatical mistake. I’ve heard plenty of stories about senior policymakers who stopped reading analytic pieces after stumbling over something minor in the opening lines. From their perspective, if an analyst was careless about punctuation, where else were they careless?  Did they improperly cite evidence or leave out an important part of the story?

The problem with the small stuff is that it’s so easy to make a mistake, ether by accident or because it’s hard to keep all of the arcane and confusing rules of grammar and punctuation straight.  I’ve been writing and reviewing for 25 years, and I still constantly get things wrong. (Needless to say, my analysts always gleefully pointed out when I had a typo or misused a comma.)  It takes a lot of effort to monitor and get better at the small stuff, and even then you’ll still make mistakes.  I’m sure there’s a mistake or two still hiding in this post.

Hope is never a good strategy when you’re unsure about grammar or punctuation.  In other words, don’t hope that you’ll guess correctly or that your reviewer will catch and fix your mistakes.  When you’re not sure, LOOK IT UP, and then fix it yourself.  I constantly consult style guides or search on rules that are unclear to me.  Just today I looked up “bimonthly” to check whether it means twice a month or once every other month–annoyingly, it somehow means both.  It used to drive me crazy as a reviewer when I’d look up the small stuff in my analysts’ pieces yet they rarely did.  Did they think their time was more valuable than mine?  (Here’s some free career advice: it’s not a good idea to suggest this to your boss.)

To help analysts get better with the small stuff, I developed a presentation based on the most common mistakes I saw in analytic writing that I then inflicted on my analysts—they not so affectionately referred to this as the “comma” briefing.  After 25 years, I’ve refined this presentation into a free one-hour course in E38 Academy, Ten Tips for Improving Your Analytic Writing.  The course is a great way to help you focus on the small stuff—as well as some bigger mistakes that I constantly see.  Check it out and learn how to sweat the small stuff.

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