Short quiz: what’s the difference between -, –, and —?

If you said length, well, yeah, size does matter. Kinda. But it is more about how you use it, of course!

The dash [ – ], which is created by typing the “minus” key, is used in compound words. Like in the sentence, “Toby is quite good-looking.” Or “Greg is awe-mazing”. You get my drift.

The ndash [ – ], which is created by typing the CTRL + number – or ASCII code “&#150” (ALT+0150 on number pad) or HTML code “–”, is used between a range of numbers, values or distances. For instance, “Lihsa could easily pass for 30–40 years old!”

The mdash [ — ], which is created by typing ASCII code “&#151” (ALT+0151 on number pad) or HTML code “—”, is used to set off a phrase or paranthetical—instead of actually using a nerdy pair of parantheses.

Note: you can use two ndashes––or two dashes–in place of the mdash.

But, please, leave out the spaces before and after the mdash. Otherwise, you lose all grammar-street cred if you don’t.

Have a fantabulous grammarous Friday!


[Please Welcome Guest Blogger Jeremy Byellin from Westlaw Insider Blog]


Recently, Greg asked me to write a guest post in his 3 Geeks and a Law Blog about my approach to blogging on Westlaw Insider.

Specifically, he wanted me to talk about my process and methods for the blogs I write, which tend to include more legal opinion and analysis than other posts on Westlaw Insider.
So, here goes.
I started writing for the blog back in February of this year.
At the time, the only regular posts were the “Hot Docs” post on Thursdays, which is about recent legal filings found on the Thomson Reuters News & Insight page, and the “Today in Legal History” post on Fridays, which discusses a legal event that occurred on that same date sometime in the past.
Up until I started writing them, the posts more resembled a factual narrative, and didn’t typically include any legal analysis or opinion.
The blog’s Managing Editor, Larisa Tehven, wanted me to take a different approach to the posts.
Namely, she wanted me to integrate more legal analysis (after all, it is a legal blog), and more opinion into them.
In addition to making the posts more interesting to the reader, some sprinkled-in opinion was intended to encourage dialogue with the blog’s readers, and make a shift away from a one-way communication channel.
I was happy to oblige, since I enjoy writing, legal issues, and giving my thoughts and predictions on them.
A few weeks into my writing tenure, Larisa encouraged me to expand to additional topics, and, again, I was happy to oblige.
In addition to posts about hot legal topics and fresh lawsuits, I started doing monthly theme posts, which are a series of weekly posts that share the same theme throughout the month.
In regards to my approach on writing individual posts, there are several important points that I keep in mind while writing.
First, while these are typically posts geared toward a legal audience, the subject matter may not be something that is particularly well-known to many readers, and there are still many readers without any legal background whatsoever.
As such, I include pertinent legal concepts as much as possible and try to simplify those concepts while not doing it so much as to insult the reader’s intelligence.
Next, I try to make anything I write about as pertinent to the reader as possible. 
While I can’t know exactly how every individual reader will find it significant, I do know that the reader is engaged in the contemporary world, at least to some extent. 
Thus, I always try to tie in whatever I write about to something relevant today.  This is harder for some posts than others (i.e. the Today in Legal History posts), but applying this principle to every post also steers me away from going too deeply into legal theories.
Lastly, understanding that readers would attend class if they wanted a lecture, I try to make it as enjoyable a read as possible. 
This translates into making discussion and analysis of the issues the central point of any post, and making these portions, in addition to the facts and law portions, as interesting and easy a read as I can.

And that about sums it up.  
Thanks to Greg for asking me to write this post!”

Andy Selsberg’s op-ed in The New York Times this weekend got me thinking about the difficulty of professional writing in the age of Twitter. As someone that was taught the standards of a five-paragraph essay, or a 500-word report paper, the modern style of professional writing simply doesn’t fit this mold any longer. Many will blame Twitter for the reduction in the length of communications, but as I think about it, this has been an evolving process for a number of years… most likely starting with the boom in e-mail communications starting in the mid-1990’s.

I think back over the years to the memos I’ve written for bosses, judges, professors, deans, associates, and partners and I’ve recognized that my writing style has gone from lengthy paragraphs (five-paragraph essay), to bullet-point sentence fragments, to what it is today; a short, concise sentence or two that explains the situation and either leaves an open-ended question to be answered, or points to another document that gives a further explanation. Sounds almost exactly like what I do with my Twitter messages.

Let’s face it, writing isn’t exactly the easiest thing to do for many of us. Most of us have been able to establish a formula for writing (again, usually based upon a variation of the five-paragraph essay), and can “fake” our way through it by following that formula. Unfortunately, many of the people that are reading what we have to write don’t have the time or the interest to read your introduction, explanation of ideas, and conclusion, so they tend to skim through and pick out the highlights of what you’ve written. So, like it or not, your writing is already getting scaled back by the reader, and hopefully they haven’t missed the real highlights that were shrouded in those 15-20 sentences.

Selsberg nails the modern writing style when he hints that we’re not talking about dumbing down the way we write, but rather shortening the way we write by “learning how to write concisely, to express one key detail succinctly and eloquently.” He makes his students write these short, concise, succinct and eloquent assignments explaining YouTube videos, writing a review on Amazon, or an eBay ad on the clothes they are currently wearing. In the professional world, we have similar items that we write on explaining a newspaper story, a recent court decision, or synopsis of a competitive intelligence report. Just like with the classroom assignments, the short message is meant to give the reader enough information to either lead them on to something else, or to move them away from the topic because there is no need to go any further.

I just noticed that my explanation of modern short writing style has resulted in a basic five-paragraph (520-word) essay. It is still the main formula I use for blog writing, but I’ll shorten it up when I link to it on Twitter, or when I send out an email to my friends and colleagues pointing them to the post. Of course, now I’m wondering how much of this you’ve skimmed over just now trying to pick out the highlights?

I’ve always thought I wrote my blog posts in the tradition of great writers like Jonathan Swift, and now I have the data to back up my claim. The website “I Write Like” allows you to paste in some of your writings and it will analyze it against the writings against a list of famous authors and let you know who you resemble the most. The fact that I match up against a writer in the know for satire, fantasy and sci-fi doesn’t surprise me at all. In fact, it verifies (in my own mind at least) the style of writing I am attempting.

The next time you are turning in your legal brief to the court or an exam to your professor, copy and paste it into I Write Like’s analyzer and see what famous author you are channeling. Perhaps at the top of the document you could mention that you write like “J.R.R. Tolkien”  and give the reader a little ‘heads-up’ to your style so that they can put themselves in the proper state of mind while reading your masterpiece.

And, just for fun, I decided to see who my co-bloggers write like.

Toby Brown = Edgar Allan Poe
I know both Toby’s and Edgar Allan Poe’s writings have creeped me out in the past, and have left me wondering what kind of ‘medication’ they took right before sitting down to write.

Both Lisa Salazar & Scott Preston = Cory Doctorow
In fact, it seems that many of the guest bloggers match up with Cory Doctorow as well. Apparently, we are a bunch of Canadian Journalist, Sci-Fi writers on this blog!! I thought that title belong to all the folks up at SLAW.CA.

I recently had the privilege of participating in a mentoring session given by a senior partner in my firm.  This partner is a consummate rainmaker and he was sharing how he approaches finding opportunities.  In essence, he is always looking for opportunities to make connections with people.  He talked about making the effort to provide answers even if the answer is connecting someone with a problem with another attorney.  He said “the attorney will not forget that you provided an opportunity and will reciprocate eventually and the person with a problem will see you as a problem solver”.  He went on to say, “even if the problem has nothing to do with legal services, offer a solution.  If the problem has to do with plumbing issues, find a plumber”.  This partner explained these ideas in very simple terms.  Easy to digest and even easier to implement.
The concepts and approaches he describes are even more relevant today, but the techniques are changing.  

Today, an attorney needs to know how to leverage social networking as a way to become “part of the conversation”.  

While the Internet has certainly changed the concept of community, it does not change the essence of being a trusted advisor.  Toby helped me understand the notion of “being part of the conversation” as a differentiator.  His point, more and more people are turning to the Internet to find quick answers.  

If they don’t hear your voice as part of the conversation, they will not know you are part of the community.  

As Toby usually does, he started explaining this by drawing a picture.  That picture is elegantly displayed in my office and usually becomes a point of discussion.  It is a constant reminder to me and serves as an opportunity for me to educate others around me about the power of the virtual community that has come to be known as social networking.
Have your voice heard, get involved, become part of the community and contribute to the conversation.  Provide your thoughts and share your interests.  Give a little, get a little.

I am back on my writing bandwagon: lawyers should leave copywriting to copywriters. I will never forget the first law firm invitation that I made for a lawyer. We went through at least 20 versions and agonized as to whether to use the words “invite” or “cordially invite.” An invitation. An invitation that would be read once. An invitation that would be read once and then thrown away. Of course, I am the exceptional lawyer who can write good copy. 😉 Why? Because I was trained as a journalist and as a writer long before I ever went to law school. Because of that very experience, I did not do very well in my legal writing class—a badge of honor in my book. Here are my 5 basic rules for writing good copy:

  1. Do not write a sentence that is longer than two lines.
  2. Drop all adverbs. Any word with “-ly” is superfluous. If you can not write well enough to invoke descriptions without using adverbs then you need to practice more.
  3. Use an active voice. What does this mean? Instead of saying, “The Firm was given The Best Law Firm in the World award by the Two PR Professionals and a Dime Organization,” say “The Two PR Professionals and a Dime Organization gave the firm the The Best Law Firm in the World award.”
  4. Do not use legalese, unnecessary capitalization or Latin. Enough said. If you don’t know what I mean, then you really do not need to be writing your own copy.
  5. Do not use exclamation points. Okay, lawyers never use exclamation points. But marketers love to use them. Exclamation points are too cutesy, too redundant and too lazy. If you want to excite a reader, write exciting copy. An exclamation point does not transmit excitement, even if you are Yahoo! (maybe that should be especially if you are Yahoo!).

These are just a few of my rules for writing. If you want to read an excellent book on how to become a good writer, I would suggest Stephen King’s On Writing—a splendid how-to book on the craft. And be patient with yourself. It takes a very long time to write a good, short sentence. As the famed journalist A.J. Liebling said, “I can write better than anyone who can write faster, and I can write faster than anyone who can write better.”

Photo courtesy of WordPlay at http://hubpages.com/hub/2008-election-clipart-Obama-McCainFor reasons I won’t go into now, I don’t watch TV. If I can’t watch it online, I’m not doing it. So when the President was inaugurated or when he was giving an important speech, I watched it online via streaming video. Tonight I missed Obama’s speech to the Joint Session. And when I went onto C-SPAN, they pulled the video while I was watching it (it is up now). So I opted to download his speech and read it (as an aside, I will continue to do this in the future–it only took 15-20 minutes to read). Anyway, my point is this: the President does not have very good grammar skills. I must have spotted about 10 typos. Now before you start thinking (if you haven’t already), “what does this have to do with online legal marketing,” let me explain. Everything. Due to the demands and expectations of our “get-it-now” culture and the speed of technology, more web content than ever before is now being posted on a daily basis. The Online Publishers Association reports that, in July, the average online user either read or posted content on over 1,000 pages–let’s be conservative and say the average user wrote 300 pages of content. It could be a tweet, a blog, web content. This means we are writing just as much as we ever have but even more people are reading what we have written. The need for proof-reading is at an all-time high. Which brings us to the law: lawyers and law firms are judged by their legal writing skills and, consequently, grammatical mistakes are not well-tolerated. But what I have learned in my business as an internet marketer is that mistakes will happen. All the time. So what I have taught my staff is one of my favorite “Lisa-isms”: “We are not perfect, we all make mistakes. All I ask is that you fix it.” So I was greatly comforted to find that even the President of the United States has problems with grammar. I do too. Despite the fact that I majored in English Literature, most of the grammar I learned was from on-the-job training. So Mr. President, on the behalf of legal online marketers every where, I thank you. P.S. Another favorite “Lisa-ism”: “everything is fixable on the web.” Photo courtesy of WordPlay at http://hubpages.com/hub/2008-election-clipart-Obama-McCain

I spotted a James Carville article in the FT.com op/ed (Daddy, tell me, what exactly is a derivative?) this morning that reminded me of how difficult it is to write for the web.Carville was writing about Obama’s “supposed communication breakdown during the financial crisis.” Carville says the failure is not in Obama’s ability to communicate but in the complexity of what he is trying to explain.I can definitely relate.I will never forget what my grizzly, old editor told me when I was interning for a small newspaper in Orange County, “Honey, you gotta write dumber. Most people can’t read above a 4th grade level.”Writing dumb may sound easy, but it is not, especially if you are writing about a complex topic.Granted, in the legal field, I am generally writing to a more sophisticated audience. But I run into another challenge: time.My readers do not want to pour over paragraphs of analysis. They want to be able to read my story in less than 30 seconds.So I have to be able to tell my story in a paragraph. And, no, that does not mean a 10-line paragraph. If you look at my writing, most of my paragraphs are only 1-2 sentences long. And my sentences are very short.Here’s another lesson that I learned from another grizzly old guy: look at your sentence and eliminate every fifth word.Yeah, it is hard to write small. And just like I pointed out in my SEO post: you have 3-4 seconds to get their attention on the web.So you better engage them fast!