Here Are Three Things I Learned About Writing in 2020

Photo by Dmitry Ratushny on Unsplash

I spent a lot of time in front of screens this year. I mean, a lot of time. If I wasn’t fixated on CNN waiting for updates on the coronavirus pandemic, I was in front of a computer monitor — working on client projects, writing freelance articles, and trying to finish the second draft of my first novel.

As the year evolved, I realized my writing had changed in three ways — ways significant enough for me to list them here, in no particular order:

1. I finally accepted the Oxford comma.

With a degree in journalism and almost 25 years in the newspaper and magazine industries as a news reporter, features writer and editor, The Associated Press Stylebook means the way to abbreviate Wisconsin is “Wis.” — not the postal preference WI – and the only numbers that should be spelled out are one through nine, with everything from 10 and up written as a numeral.

I’m sure the original developers of AP style had their reasons for their rules, but none became more confounding in 2020 to me than this one:

Use commas to separate elements in a series, but do not put a comma before a conjunction in a simple series:

The flag is red, white and blue. He would nominate Tom, Dick or Harry.

Put a comma before the concluding conjuction is a series, however, if an integral element of the series requires a conjuction:

I had orange juice, toast, and ham and eggs for breakfast.

The other comma option is the serial comma — or the Oxford comma, which takes its name from insistent use by Oxford University Press dating back to the early 1900s. It is used before the final conjunction, and with the Oxford comma, the AP Stylebook’s examples would read like this:

The flag is red, white, and blue. He would nominate Tom, Dick, or Harry.

Incidentally, The Elements of Style, the evergreen manual by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White first published in 1918, advocates for the Oxford comma. Why? Clarity, plain and simple.

The United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit emphasized the serial comma’s importance in a 2017 ruling that resulted in Portland, Maine-based dairy company shelling out $5 million to its delivery drivers — all because of a missing comma.

According to The New York Times:

The case began in 2014, when three truck drivers sued the dairy for what they said was four years’ worth of overtime pay they had been denied. Maine law requires time-and-a-half pay for each hour worked after 40 hours, but it carved out exemptions for:

The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of:
(1) Agricultural produce;
(2) Meat and fish products; and
(3) Perishable foods.

What followed the last comma in the first sentence was the crux of the matter: “packing for shipment or distribution of.” The court ruled that it was not clear whether the law exempted the distribution of the three categories that followed, or if it exempted packing for the shipment or distribution of them.

That’s a big difference.

More publications and websites are shunning the AP’s outdated take on the final comma and opting to add one. This has forced me to switch my comma strategy depending on the project.

But when given the option — as in this piece — I now opt for clarity over loyalty.

2. I, along with many other white writers, began uppercasing “Black.”

In the wake of Black Lives Matter protests over the summer, many publications began taking a look at how they referred to individuals often identified in print as “African Americans.” The Columbia Journalism Review, which I’ve read since the late 1980s when it was a monthly print magazine, offered the best take I saw this year on the issue:

AT THE COLUMBIA JOURNALISM REVIEW, we capitalize Black, and not white, when referring to groups in racial, ethnic, or cultural terms. For many people, Black reflects a shared sense of identity and community. White carries a different set of meanings; capitalizing the word in this context risks following the lead of white supremacists.

There’s (much) more here, but the above two sentences are all you need to know. Unless otherwise requested by an editor or client, I go with “Black” and “white” — because the reasoning is pretty black and white.

3. I found effective email greetings and sign-offs.

With the pandemic raging, signing off on business emails with an upbeat “Cheers” or “Talk soon,” or a generic “Best,” “Regards,” or “Have a great day,” just didn’t feel right. Unless you had a close working relationship with the recipient, you never knew what was going on in the life of the person at the other end. Had he or she lost a job due to the pandemic? Was a family member sick with the virus? Was your recipient sick?

So I experimented a bit. First, I tried signing off with “Peace,” until someone (who later explained to me during a subsequent phone call) mistook its usage as the language of an aging hippie. I went with “Take care” a few times, but that seemed trite and even a little condescending. So I came up with “Stay safe,” which morphed into “Be well,” which — as coronavirus cases spiked again in many states — multiplied into “Be well and stay safe.”

Eventually, I also started opening emails with either “I hope you are well” or “I hope you are staying safe.” It acknowledges the current state of the world and indicates a degree of empathy.

This year taught us many things, not only about ourselves but also about who we are as a collective (and some of what we learned turned out to be pretty ugly). The key is taking that new knowledge and making improvements. I feel pretty good about the writing habits I changed.