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If Horton Can Hear a Who, a CEO Can Spot a Good Writermacallit.

Posted by Michael E. Fitzgerald, CAE on Sep 27, 2017 9:00:00 AM

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A great deal of the image your professional or trade association projects is dependent on the quality of your publications, blast emails, marketing flyers, convention programs, dues notices and other communications vehicles. To a significant degree, association members and the public judge how professional your association is based on how well-written these vehicles are.

If your association has few staff and a modest budget, you are likely to afford only one communications professional. That critical staff member is likely to be selected by a chief executive officer or other hiring manager who is not skilled in communications.

So, how can a hiring manager select the right candidate for the job under those circumstances? Here are five telltale signs you can look for in candidates' writing samples to help distinguish the strong writers from the weak.

No. 1—Do candidates avoid redundancies?
One of the most common redundancies is using the word also in independent statements that begin with and, in addition, additionally or furthermore, as in, "In addition, Sam also ate green eggs and ham, and Marvin K. Mooney also went home on a Zike-Bike."

A similar redundancy is using but before while, yet, although or despite, as in, "But while the Grinch stole Christmas the night before, the Whos down in Whoville sang carols when they woke."

Also easy to spot is the redundant combination of own personal when used with a possessive noun or pronoun, as in, "Although delighted that Thing One and Thing Two were his own personal friends, the Cat in the Hat was saddened that he was unable to name a single friend who was not his own and not personal to him."    

No. 2—Do they know who from that?
The pronoun who is used in describing people, as well as animals with names. In contrast, that is used for inanimate objects and animals without names. However, that is often mistakenly used in place of who, as in, "Jay and Kay are the children that are featured in One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish."  

No. 3—When do they capitalize job titles?
Most modern stylebooks capitalize a job title only when it is used directly before a person's name, as in, "Mayor Sam Who." A job title should be lowercased when it stands alone, as in, "the mayor of Whoville"; when it follows a person's name, as in, "Sam Who, the mayor"; and when a comma separates the title from the name, as in, "the mayor, Sam Who."

No. 4—Where do they place quotes?
The American preference for quote marks is to place them after periods and commas, regardless of whether the quoted material is a full sentence, a partial sentence, a phrase or single word. Many inexperienced American writers, however, inadvertently follow the British convention of placing quote marks before, not after, commas and periods when the quoted material is less than a full sentence.  

Here's a simple example of the difference between the two conventions:

  • American style—The verb in the book's title is "hop," and the noun is "Pop."
  • British style—The verb in the book's title is "hop", and the noun is "Pop".

No. 5—What do they include with include?
Include suggests what follows is a partial list, while consists of suggests a complete list is being provided. Candidates who do not understand this difference often give themselves away when they specify the total number in a list before using include and then provide a list with that exact number of items, as in, "Ten Apples up on Top has three main characters, including a lion, a dog and a tiger."

Tip of the iceberg
Although not a comprehensive method for assessing writing samples, these five easy-to-spot signs should help hiring managers who are not trained communicators to judge candidates' basic skills. Each represents the tip of the iceberg on more sophisticated communication rules and conventions that are likely to be difficult for untrained eyes to detect.

For example, candidates who avoid using also redundantly are more likely to be attuned to less obvious redundancies, such as general public. Candidates who know the difference between who and that are also more likely to know the difference between that and which and, in turn, understand the pivotal concept of essential and nonessential clauses and phrases.

Candidates who know when they should or should not capitalize job titles are more likely to be skilled in other rules of capitalization, such as avoiding arbitrarily capitalizing common nouns like nation and math. Candidates who place quote marks correctly are more likely to use other punctuation correctly, such as the colon, the semicolon, the apostrophe and the especially tricky comma. And most important, those who use include with partial lists are more likely to understand the meanings and connotations of the words they use.  

Topics: Communication, Learning, Leadership, Career, Association Executives, Association Management, Hiring Strategies, Writing, Writers

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