You’ve been there, right?
You send an email to an important lead. You click the send button and then see a glaring spelling error in your subject line.
You are hosting a webinar for a big group of potential clients. As you click to the next slide, you see something very different than what you intended.
It happens to everyone. I’ve spent my career as a communications consultant, and I teach business writing, editing, and proofreading. It has happened to me — more than once.
Sometimes, we all work too fast for our own good. We think we wrote what we intended to write, but we actually wrote something else. Maybe most people won’t notice the mistake. But whether it’s noticed or not, it is a problem and a challenge for your image as a professional.
Mistake 1: Avoid the “What?” Reaction
Have you ever been reading something and when you’re part way through it, you’re going, “What?” So, you start over, but you still don’t get it. The writing is illogical and unclear.
When something is clearly written, readers can follow it from beginning to end, like someone stepping on rocks to cross a stream. They take one step after the other in the shortest path to the other side.
That’s what you want your writing to do. Lead the reader to the other side of your message. You do this by starting with the end in mind.
What do you want your reader to:
when they finish reading?
Answer this question before you start writing and keep it in mind as you work. Everything should contribute to this goal, and each sentence should take the reader one step closer to it.
Mistake 2: Strike the Right Tone
Tone is what you hear when you read. Even though you are using your eyes to read, you are sounding out the words as you read. That’s the tone. It is a major factor in how a reader reacts to your message — positively or negatively. Here are some tools to help manage tone.
- Sentence length. Shorter sentences create a lively, punchier tone. Longer sentences create a more sedate, softer tone. (If people have accused you of writing abrupt, in-your-face emails, just use longer sentences.)
- Active vs. passive voice. Active voice is dynamic while passive voice is, well, passive. Listen to the difference: “Sign up now, and we will process your enrollment in the program” vs. “Sign up now, and your enrollment in the program will be processed.” Which is more dynamic?
- Positive vs. negative structure. You are naturally either a positive or negative writer. Positive writers use positive wording, such as, “You can start your program as soon as you complete your enrollment.” A negative writer will write, “You can’t start the program until you complete the enrollment.” Readers prefer positive writing, so pay attention to how you write. If you find yourself slipping into negative writing, flip it around.
Mistake 3: That’s Not What I Meant!
I was hired by a client to edit their writing after they had sent out their holiday email with the salutation, “Dear Friends and Colleges.” Seriously, colleges, not colleagues. Needless to say, their friends and “colleges’ never let them forget it.
Using the wrong word is a mistake that many people will recognize. But using the wrong word also can be dangerous since it’s a mistake that can change meaning.
There’s a big difference in meaning between affect and effect. Affect is most often used as a verb and means to influence, impact, or change; Effect is most often used as a noun and means the result of something. The environment is affected by the use of pesticides. The effects of pesticide runoff can be long-lasting.
What about insure, ensure, and assure? Yep. All different.
I can hear you groan about now. But hang in. Helpful resources are coming.
To start, here are some common mistakes that are easy to make when you’re writing quickly even when you know the difference. They are words that sound alike or similarly, but have different meanings and uses.
- Its and It’s: Its — possessive form of it. The dog ate its kibble. It’s — contraction for it is. It’s too late to go shopping for groceries.
- They’re, Their, There: They’re — contraction of they are. They’re late. Their — possessive of them. Their dinner is getting cold. There — to focus attention on something. There is the door.
- Your and You’re: Your — possessive of you. Your dog dug up my lawn. You’re — contraction for you are. You’re liable for repairing my lawn.
- Than and Then: Than — comparison. Denis is taller than I am. Then — to create a sequence. Then there were none.
Mistake 4: Rambling On and On and…
Get to the point. Fast.
Most readers are skimmers. They read the first sentence, and if it doesn’t grab them, they move on. Maybe they will read the first sentence of the next paragraph — or maybe not.
Write like a journalist. Start with the most important message — the who, what, where, when, why, and how. Then drill down to less important information.
Also consider how people read. Most of us are using portable devices, such as smartphones and tablets, so you want to focus on what’s “above the fold.”
“Above the fold” is also a journalism term. It refers to the top part of the newspaper that you see when it sits in a rack or stack. Today, it also applies to what a reader sees when they open a document on a device. Whatever is “above the fold” — on the screen — must grab them and keep them reading.
Mistake 5: Playing Fast and Loose with Punctuation
Let’s eat, kids.
Let’s eat kids.
If you’re the kids, punctuation matters.
If you want to be a professional, if you want to be clear, punctuation matters.
Here are four punctuation rules that are often broken.
- Apostrophes — Indicate possession: The child’s toy is on the dresser. Create contractions: The toy isn’t on the dresser. Don’t use apostrophes with possessive pronouns: his, hers, its, theirs. No apostrophe.
- Commas with That and Which: That introduces necessary information for clarity — no comma. Hand me the blue book that is on the third shelf. This structure is used when there are several blue books, and I need to point out the specific one I want. Which — uses a comma in front when introducing non-essential information. Hand me the blue book, which is on the third shelf. I use this structure when the blue book I want is the only one I could be referring to.
- Commas in a series: When writing a series of three or more items, some style guides require a comma before the and. I bought a dress, a handbag, and shoes today. This comma is the “Oxford comma.” Some style guides recommend not using the comma before the and. I bought a dress, a handbag and shoes today. However, there may be times when the Oxford comma is necessary for clarity. My recommendation: Use the Oxford comma, so you don’t have to figure it out.
- Capitals — used to mark the first word of a sentence and for proper nouns and titles that precede names. Common nouns are not capitalized. Correct: I stopped at the Hudson County Court House today. I saw Governor Smith there. Incorrect: I stopped at the Court House today. I saw the Governor there. In this example, court house and governor should not be capitalized in this example. They are common nouns.
Always run spell and grammar checks — but don’t trust them. Question what they recommend that you do to correct an error. They aren’t always right.
I can’t cover all the rules here, and, fortunately, you don’t have to go back to school to relearn the them. Here are some online tools to help you:
- Grammarly — excellent grammar check, but don’t completely trust it.
- Hemmingway app — online editor. Again, don’t completely trust it.
- Online Writing Lab at Purdue University — excellent resource for all things grammar and writing, with sections for ESL writers.
Lastly, proofread, proofread, proofread.