Jumping into the Ring with the Serial Comma

Think of a typical writer: slightly introverted, non-athletic, and of course, bespectacled. There are certainly many exceptions to this stereotype, but most of us fit the image to varying degrees.

Wrestling over the serial commaOne characteristic that is rarely ever assigned to writers is that of fighter. Sure, we may wield the poison pen from time-to-time, but rarely do we become full-fledged mixed-martial artists. However, there is one contentious topic that will make even the most reclusive wordsmith break out the TapouT® t-shirt and execute a mean flying leg kick: the serial comma.

A serial comma is simply a comma after the second-to-last item in a series of three or more things:

Chicago is known for hot dogs, pizza, and Maxwell Street Polish sausages.

Here is the same example without the serial comma:

Chicago is known for hot dogs, pizza and Maxwell Street Polish sausages.

The anti-serial comma contingent argue that the final comma is unnecessary, while those in favor of the serial comma believe that it prevents ambiguity.

The truth is, there is no right or wrong answer because even current style guides disagree. I personally prefer the serial comma because it’s just a tiny punctuation mark—why shouldn’t we use all available means to prevent confusion like this:

I went to the store with my two nieces, Grandpa Joe and Uncle Bob.

Well, I better get out of the ring now, or my glasses might get broken.


Erin Wright is a freelance writer and editor in Chicago, Illinois. She specializes in business documents, copywriting, marketing collateral, blogs, web copy, and instructional content.

Copywriting versus Technical Writing–Or, the Not-So Bitter Battle Between Kiwis and Potatoes

Comparing copywriting and technical writing is like comparing kiwis and potatoes, right? One is fuzzy, tropical, and sweet—and the other is an underground tuber associated with European famine. But, is the difference between copywriting and technical writing really this drastic?

KiwiAs both a copywriter and a technical writer, I don’t think so. Copywriting traditionally relates to marketing activities. Think direct mail, advertisements, press releases, and brochures. On the other hand, technical writing typically provides “how-to” or “need-to-know” information in the form of manuals, instructions, proposals, progress reports, etc.

Many projects span both categories. For example, white papers share concrete information on a specific business or technical topic. However, since white papers are published by companies to attract the attention of other companies, there is also a subtle undercurrent of persuasion.

Case studies are similar to white papers but are shorter and usually document a client’s success with a specific product or service. Case studies use more overt marketing language than white papers while still accurately reflecting the client’s experience.

Other types of content that can mix copywriting and technical writing include:

  • Websites
  • Blogs
  • Newsletters
  • Trade magazine articles
  • Speeches
  • Video scripts
  • Product or service descriptions

And the list goes on and on… Now, who’s up for a kiwi potato salad?


Erin Wright is a freelance writer and editor in Chicago, Illinois. She specializes in business documents, copywriting, marketing collateral, blogs, web copy, and instructional content.

Kick it to the Curb: When to Ditch Your File Naming Protocol

I am going to conclude our current discussion on file naming with some shocking news. Sometimes you have to ditch your protocol. Yes, chuck it, trash it, leave it by the wayside.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: Why would I spend three previous posts (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3) extolling the glorious virtues of file naming protocols only to turn around and tell you not to use one? Because safety and privacy should always trump organization and content management.

Starved Rock State ParkWhen we share photos, videos, or documents with other people, be it on a website, social media, or through email, the viewer has access to the file name. Normally this is no big deal; however, your file names may occasionally contain identifying information that you’d rather not share.

For example, let’s say you have a great picture of yourself that you want to use on your company website, but for privacy reasons you don’t want strangers to know that the picture was taken at Starved Rock State Park near Utica, Illinois. Maybe you live nearby but don’t want to advertise that fact. Maybe it’s your favorite relaxation spot and you don’t want it to be overrun by day trippers from Chicago. We can speculate all day long because there are probably a million and one legitimate reasons why an individual or business would want to share a picture—without sharing specific details.

Nevertheless, if the picture is named JaneDoe_StarvedRock_03Nov12.jpg, chances are high that any interested party will figure out that you were at Starved Rock in November. Cover blown!

The easy solution is to re-save the file under a sanitized name, e.g., JaneDoe.jpg. Then use this new, safe version on your website, social networks, or as an email attachment. Of course, you can still keep the original file, with the original name, for content management purposes.

Safety first!

(P.S. Starved Rock is truly a wonderful park, and I know from personal experience that visitors from Chicago and all other nature lovers will receive a friendly Central Illinois welcome. Also, the hot chocolate in the Lodge Cafe is quite tasty!)


Erin Wright is a freelance writer and editor in Chicago, Illinois. She specializes in business documents, copywriting, marketing collateral, blogs, web copy, and instructional content.

As Easy as Putting on a Helmet: A Few Simple Questions Can Help You Create a File Renaming Plan

HelmetTo rename or not to rename ….that is the question! Okay, so I’m being a bit dramatic, but renaming existing files can create unexpected trouble later on. I learned this the hard way during a most inconvenient time—tax time.

Each February, I download the newest version of my preferred tax software, which then imports the old tax records stored on my computer. The program uses these old files to auto-fill information that doesn’t change from year-to-year, such as social security and bank routing numbers, thereby reducing the chance of introducing mistakes. Having the old files also allows the program to preload questions and forms based on prior needs, which reduces the overall hassle.

Well, several years ago, I decided to rename all of my existing files and folders. My snazzy new protocol allowed me to easily distinguish between personal files and work files. So, when tax time rolled around a few months later, I downloaded the tax software and waiting unconcerned while it attempted to locate the old files—but this nonchalance turned to panic when the software repeatedly told me that the old files no longer existed.

For a brief moment I thought I had lost all of my old tax records. Now, I’m a belt-and-suspenders kind of gal, so of course I keep backups. But still, how could I just lose something that important? Then I remembered that I had renamed the files; however, the software was searching for them under the old names.

While my situation was easily corrected because I was only dealing with a few files stored in two different locations (my computer and an external storage device), things can get mighty hairy if you’re handling  dozens or even hundreds of renamed files stored in multiple locations. So, before changing any file names, ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Are the files stored in more than one location? If so, where?
  2. Are the files accessed by more than one user/client? If so, who?
  3. Do software programs automatically import these files? If so, which programs?
  4. Do websites import these files, either automatically or by user request? If so, which sites?

You can then use the answers to these questions as a springboard for creating a renaming plan before actually making any changes. After all, there’s nothing wrong with occasionally wearing a belt, suspenders—and a helmet.

If you missed my prior discussions on file naming, hop on over to Jumpstart the New Year with a File Naming Protocol and The Mechanics of File Naming: No Elbow Grease Necessary.


Erin Wright is a freelance writer and editor in Chicago, Illinois. She specializes in business documents, copywriting, marketing material, blogs, web copy, and instructional content.

The Mechanics of File Naming: No Elbow Grease Necessary

Machine ScrewIn the last post, we discussed the importance of establishing a file naming protocol. While creating said protocol is not particularly difficult, here are a few tips to keep in mind:

1. Blank spaces are like germs, avoid them. Most of today’s desktop programs allow blank spaces in file names. However, spaces can cause database problems, so if there is any chance at all that your files will be stored outside of your regular computer or laptop, eliminate the spaces.

Also, if your files will be published on the Internet, remember that spaces aren’t permitted in URLs. While most current browsers will automatically convert spaces into other characters, this process isn’t error proof. Why chance annoying your web visitors with the dreaded 404 File Not Found page?

The safest way to represent a space, without actually including one, is to use an underscore ( _ ).

2. Some characters are special, for a reason. So-called “special characters,” such as forward and backward slashes ( / and \), the asterisk (*) , and the question mark (?) should never be used in file names because they have specific functions within various database and server systems.

Luckily, nearly all modern software will prohibit you from using these characters in file names. But, if you are not sure, visit Wikipedia’s Filename page for an extensive list of reserved characters.

3. Camels are cool. Camel casing is simply the process of putting two or more capitalized words together, thereby creating camel-like humps. Many companies use this technique in their names, such as YouTube, LinkedIn, and PayPal. Camel casing is a good option when you want to indicate different words but don’t want to overuse underscores. For example, you can use underscores to separate sections of a file name and camel casing to indicate individual words within the sections:

  • HumanResource_FinalDraft_05Jan13
  • ResearchReport_V1_10Feb13
  • CaseStudy_JaneDoe_05May13

One word of warning about camel casing: Many systems will convert all of the letters to lowercase or uppercase behind the scenes. Therefore, if you label one file HumanResource_FinalDraft, you will run into trouble if you call another file humanresource_finaldraft. To be on the safe side, consider sticking with camel casing all of the time.

I had planned to talk about renaming existing files; however, this post has grown a little longer than expected, so I will save that topic for next time. After all, file naming is certainly an extraordinarily exhilarating topic, so I might as well keep it rolling, right? (What, it’s not exhilarating? Okay, maybe not. How about mildly interesting? Slightly entertaining? Somewhat not boring?)


 Erin Wright is a freelance writer and editor in Chicago, Illinois. She specializes in business documents, copywriting, marketing material, blogs, web copy, and instructional content.