Do you boldly go where no writer has gone before? Or excitedly exclaim with exclamation marks? How about using upper case letters in odd cases just in case? Ever wonder if you actually need that period in Dr.? And sheesh — is it “Dr” or ‘Dr’? Nothing can make you feel as inadequate as a sea of red (or blue) editor’s marks all over your writing. You know what you meant, she knows what you meant, but there they are poking holes in your brilliance — because ‘rules’ … ermm “rules?” rules”? When even your good friend spell and grammar check can’t solve the problem, where do you turn?
One of the most important resource for writers in Canada is the Canadian Press Stylebook. At ~$35 for a real paper copy with a hard cover, it’s a bit of a bargain. Access to the online version is a mere $6.25 a month; it pays for itself really. Ay, but there’s the rub! The Canadian Press Stylebook is not the only game in town. What if you are writing for an American publisher? What if your organization has chosen to forgo Canadian style and use American Press Style instead (it happens). What if you just need a quick answer and aren’t yet ready to invest cold hard cash?
Fear not. There are some completely free online resources that can help you through most writing conundrums. I said “most” – not “all.” Any good grammar question always seems to leave a little room for debate. Eats, shoots and leaves? Eats, shoots, and leaves? Eats shoots and leaves? There will be times when you have to take a stand and be prepared to fight for your comma, your lower case "d" or your use of Canadian spelling.
Here are some of my favourite, always bookmarked, resources:
The Canadian Style
This free resource is made available by the Government of Canada. Since they did such a nice job with the introduction, here it is:
“The Canadian Style gives concise answers to questions concerning written English in the Canadian context. It covers such topics as the decimal point, abbreviations, capital letters, punctuation marks, hyphenation, spelling, frequently misused or confused words and Canadian geographical names. It also includes useful advice for drafting letters, memos, reports, indexes and bibliographies. In addition, The Canadian Style includes techniques for writing clearly and concisely, editing documents, and avoiding stereotyping in communications.”
If you are also a translator, Termium Plus offers one of the world’s largest terminology and linguistic data banks. This tool give you access to the correct French (and sometimes Spanish and Portuguese) translations of specialized terminology.
Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab (OWL)
Nancy Bray, who teaches Communications Fundamentals for Professionals at the University of Alberta, recommends OWL to her students. “It has an excellent reputation, it’s very thorough and offers clear advice on a range of styles, including just academic,” she adds.
How can you not love the Grammar Girl, Mignon Fogarty. Fogarty is funny, smart and endlessly interested in the English language. Her mnemonics work for my kind of brain! A word of caution — you can go down the rabbit hole if you’re not careful; go in armed and ready to make a ninja exit or you will wander for days learning fascinating things with which to annoy your family. (Like this one — why DO we call it a cummerbund?) As a bonus, Mignon is on social media! Check out her Facebook page to start. An hilarious antidote to the full on barrage of bad grammar in your inbox. (How many times have you shouted in your mind: “It’s ME, not I — ME ME ME — a great selfie of my kitten and ME — not my kitten and I?? ARRGGGHHHH!!!!!” — or is that just me?)
I have not tried the paid version of Grammarly, but I quite enjoy the freebie. Mostly I like that it offers corrections for you to simply click on (versus right click, choose, click). It doesn’t pick up all the errors but it’s deadly for those emails that you’re rushing through. It catches cut-and-paste errors, mistaken words (did you mean son or sun?) and it does it all in a real-time interface so you know just how bad your email writing is as you type!
No matter where you work, or what guide you find easiest to work with, always check to see if your client or organization has already decided which approach it prefers. The University of Alberta has a small Editorial Style Guide for example, most helpful for things specific to the university. Even so, some faculties use APA.
And finally, while not a guide per se, novelist and writing coach Margaret MacPherson recommends subscribing to LitHub, where you will find things like this. It’s American of course, but they do try. There is, after all, nothing that will help you perfect your writing quite as much as reading will.
What’s your favourite writing resource? Let us know.
Anne Pratt is a career communicator with experience across the private sector, government and academe. Currently cross-appointed to the Faculty of Nursing and the Health Sciences Council at the University of Alberta, Anne worked with the Government of Canada from 1999 – 2011, most recently as communications manager for Public Works and Government Services Canada’s Western region. Anne has also worked as a freelance art critic and commentator, writer and broadcaster and, briefly, art department production manager. In addition to her two University of Alberta positions, Anne is an active and engaged volunteer managing communications for her community league and for the Attention Deficit Association of Greater Edmonton. Anne is also an associate with the Centre for Excellence in Communications in Ottawa. You can find Anne on LinkedIn, Twitter and Instagram @anneelisonia