Credibility. It’s hard-earned and easily lost – which might explain why so many people feel a little self-conscious about their writing.
Whether you’re penning a key thought leadership blog, an important product page, or just an internal email, a basic grammar or spelling error can instantly erode your authority and undermine the message you wanted to communicate.
It’s easy to think this kind of thing will never happen to you, but mistakes and sloppy writing habits catch all of us out at some point – marketers, managers and, yes, even copywriters too.
Here are 10 of the most common – with some tips to help you avoid them.
10: The comma splice
The comma is a powerful tool, but it’s easy to overuse it. When you start splitting unrelated clauses with a comma, rather than a full stop, that’s a clear case of comma abuse. It even has a name: the comma splice.
While many might consider this a stylistic choice in creative writing, it’s not something you want to be leaning on in traditional copy as it is technically incorrect. After all, a comma should be for splitting clauses, while the trusty full stop is left to separate unique ideas.
If you have any doubt, check your style guide to see if it allows for comma splicing.
Sloppy: We are an experienced HR company, we won the award for best HR provider in 2017.
Better: We are an experienced HR company. We won the award for best HR provider in 2017.
[Editor: alternatively, see Kieran’s excellent blog post about semicolons.]
9: Apostrophe catastrophe
We’ve all done it. There’s no shame in admitting you accidentally put an apostrophe in the wrong place (or added one unnecessarily). It was just a typo, right?
Just keep a good eye on it so you don’t accidentally make something a plural possessive again.
Sloppy: We have a range of employees’, all skilled in different industries.
Better: We have a range of employees, all skilled in different industries.
8: It’s not “its” unless it’s possessive.
This one is a rare example of when an apostrophe doesn’t signify possession. In this case “it’s” is a shortened form of “it is”.
Confusingly, “its” is used to signal that a particular thing possesses something.
Sloppy: Today’s businesses struggle with tight budgets. Its a real problem.
Better: Today’s businesses struggle with tight budgets. It’s a real problem.
7: You’re getting your words mixed up
Two ways to say “your.” This is pretty basic stuff, but easy to miss, especially if you’re wrestling with a longer document like an ebook or white paper – and spellcheck won’t always help you out.
Unfortunately, if one does slip through the cracks, it can do serious damage to your credibility – and to the message you’re trying to convey.
- Your: Something you own
- You’re: Short for “you are.” Something you are doing
Sloppy: Don’t forget to check you’re applications work after migrating them to the cloud.
Better: Don’t forget to check your applications work after migrating them to the cloud.
6: When they’re not quite there with their “theres”
Another common mix-up between three similar words that mean very different things. Unfortunately, this is also another easily-missed blunder that can undermine even the strongest of arguments.
- There: refers to a place, or is used as an abstract to introduce a phrase – “there is no solution that compares to ours”
- Their: refers to plural possession – “their solution is unproven compared to ours”
- They’re: shortened form of “they are” – “Customers love our solution. They’re using it to optimize all their processes”
5: Non-parallel structures
If you plan on using any kind of structured list, it’s important to ensure your structures are uniform. Whether it’s a list in text, or bullet points in an email, non-parallel structures can break the flow of copy and make you look unprofessional.
Sloppy: Our solutions can reduce costs, faster and improve outcomes.
Better: Our solutions can reduce costs, accelerate work and improve outcomes.
4: Plural and tense confusion
Plural and tense confusion aren’t the sole reserve of new writers. When sentences get complicated, we can all be guilty of losing our way and slipping into the wrong tense, or rapidly shifting between singular and plural.
Even in shorter form writing, it can be easy to mix up tenses and plural/singular. Part of this is happens when we’re encouraged to write in a conversational way. But that doesn’t mean you can get away with grammatical errors like you can in the spoken word.
Sloppy: Here’s three ways to optimise your sales processes
Better: Here are three ways to optimise your sales processes
3: Incomplete comparisons
If you’re writing a benefits-led piece of copy (especially anything with a competitive takeout spin), this is an easy trap to fall into.
If you use any comparative language, make sure you state what you’re comparing the subject with. Otherwise, your bold claims make no logical sense.
Sloppy: Our new solution is faster, cheaper, and more efficient
Better: Our new solution is faster, cheaper, and more efficient than competing tools
2: Passive voice
Passive voice can be hard to spot, but essentially it’s when you put the object at the beginning of a sentence rather than the end. That’s what’s happening in odd-sounding sentences like “the milk was bought” rather than “I bought the milk.”
This isn’t a clear-cut case of right or wrong, as the passive voice is perfectly valid in some contexts. But if you want your copy to be clear, unambiguous, confident and enjoyable to read, you’re usually better off couching it in the active voice (“John decided to throw the old server out of the window”) than in the passive voice (“A decision was made to retire the legacy server”).
Sloppy: Our solution is used by business around the world
Better: Businesses around the world use our solution
1: Companies always referred to as plural
This is probably the most common issue that crops up in B2B copy I review. Again, it’s part of that push to conversational tones of voice, as you’d often call a company “they” in casual conversation.
Many style guides will overlook companies in the plural, or even actively encourage it. And when it comes to writing in UK English, there’s scope to refer to a collective noun in the singular or plural based on how it’s being used.
However, in American English, using a plural for a collective noun doesn’t tend to fly. So, if your intended audience is primarily based in the US, make sure you keep those companies in the singular.
Contextually sloppy: To enhance their efficiency, X-corp deployed our solution
Better: To enhance its efficiency, X-corp deployed our solution
[Editor: or in this example, you could just remove “their” or “its” altogether, and avoid having to make the decision]
Bonus entry: Commonly misused terms in B2B tech
- “On-premise” doesn’t make any sense. Use “on-premises”.
- Don’t capitalise common industry terms and trends like “internet” or “cloud”, unless your style guide demands it (and if it does, have a word with the editor; this is 2018, not 2003).
- “IT” is a well-known term. You don’t need to spell it out, and you certainly don’t need to put full stops between the two letters.
- “Whilst” and “amongst” will make your writing sound archaic and overly formal. “While” and “among” are perfectly fine.
Avoid these habits and safeguard your credibility
Sloppy habits can creep into your writing unnoticed, whether you’re a full-time writer or not. And the tough part is, most of them aren’t always wrong; it depends on context.
But if you keep these ten in mind, and avoid them where possible, it’ll help to make sure your writing credibility is (mostly) bulletproof.
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