Improve your writing with these easy tips

When people send me something to edit, these are some things I'd change if I found them.  I try to make my writing simple and clean, especially since I write mostly for web/digital mediums. After all, K.I.S.S. is the #1 rule in digital media. 

Do as I say, not as I do.

I have a firm belief that if you're putting words together to communicate something, someone should read it over to make sure you're accomplishing what you want. At the very least, you'll avoid landing on one of those Buzzfeed lists that show bad copy mistakes. And, if you and your copyeditor are in sync, you'll get your message across in a clear, concise way. 

Do I have my writing copyedited? At work, yes. Outside of my day job, not so much. I like to think I'm better than the average bear at catching errors since copyediting is something I do professionally, but no one is perfect and you shouldn't edit your own copy. I cringe when I see errors I've made in work that's been published.

Short paragraphs. Short sentences. Short words. 

Writing on the web is choppier than you're used to from books. Paragraphs usually have 1-3 sentences. I know some bloggers who almost never have 2 sentences in a paragraph. The reason? Scannability, not readability.

I mean, who cares if people can read it? We need to make sure they can scan it! Because if they scan through quickly and don't see the value, they're gonna bail tout suite

But if they scan through and see good stuff they want to learn more about, they might spend more time and actually read it.

There are certainly industries and topics that vary on the complexity and formality of the writing and tone. But even academic subjects can be written less formally online than you'd find in journals and textbooks.

Scannability is critical, regardless of the subject.

Don't abuse punctuation.

Punctuation helps readability and scannability. I could probably go on a long rant about punctuation and my desire to institute fines for people who abuse commas, apostrophes, and quotation marks, but I'll spare you. 

Commas

Did you know you don't always need a comma before "but" or "because"? And you pretty much never need one after, though many people throw them in because they think there's a rule about putting commas where you'd pause in speech (there's not). That imaginary rule is kinda silly since everyone reads copy with different interpretation and inflection. 

I'm not rigid about when serial commas are used as long as what's being said is clear. You can be pro-Oxford comma and I'll like you just as much as that person over there who's anti-Oxford comma.

Quotation marks

I've lost count of the number of quotation marks I've deleted from words that had quotes around them for emphasis rather than an actual requirement to quote something. And every time I see it, I think of this:

Do you want me imagining Dr. Evil doing air quotes as I read your words? 

Do you want me imagining Dr. Evil doing air quotes as I read your words? 

In Austin Powers, the recently-woken-from-30-year-nap Dr. Evil is describing a "laser" designed to destroy the "Ozone layer" to his evil team. Of course, no laser was necessary to do that and the team already knows what these things are.

Does your audience know what you're talking about? Ditch the quotes. Do you want to emphasize a word or phrase? Italics are a better way. In fact, the HTML code for italics is "em" and it's short or emphasis: 

<em>This text would show in italics if I was typing this in the HTML editor.</em>

Is it a genuine, meaningful quote that's longer than a few words you can paraphrase? Keep the quotes and I will, too. (But I am going to double check the quote wording and attribution and I recommend you do the same.)

Apostrophes

These handy little marks are mostly used to indicate possessives or create contractions. With contractions, the apostrophe stands in for the letters you remove. Somehow, though, apostrophes end up creeping into places they don't belong. Here are a few examples of words that don't need apostrophes (and I'm not talking about the confusion between plural and possessive):

  • Pluralized words that aren't typically plural: Dos and don'ts NOT do's and don'ts/don't's
  • Possessive pronouns don't need apostrophes: his, hers, its, theirs, ours, yours, and whose
  • Nouns, particularly acronyms and initialisms, that are plural but not possessive: 1980s (unless you go with: '80s), CDs, GICs, SUVs 

A few grammar gripes

There's a tendency amongst some to adopt an attitude of superiority about their skills and knowledge around writing. Some people call them "grammar Nazis" and some are proud to take on that title. I've had that tendency myself, but I try not to criticize even if something drives me crazy. I assume mistakes are not intentional and send a quick private note with an FYI just in case an error goes unnoticed. 

That said, I correct grammar mistakes because clarity is important. Here are a few common ways clarity is compromised in writing:

  • Right: rather than. Always wrong: rather then. (when referring to alternatives)
  • accept when you really mean except (or vice versa)
  • loose when you mean lose (you lose weight; you don't loose it)

You know why people get hung up on grammar rules? Because the rules help us communicate more effectively and efficiently. 

Of course, rules are made to be broken.

Breaking the rules: The fluidity of language

It pains me to see some of the short-form words that are now common in the tweet and text world we live in. But changes to communication channels have influenced changes in the words we use since the beginning of time. (I swear, I will never get used to seeing "ur" instead of "you're" and yes, I type in full words/sentences in texts.)

But if the language is fluid, that means all the rules are somewhat fluid, too. I can know every technical writing rule there is (along with all the exceptions) and opt to go with personal preference. That's the fluidity of language.

And because the words we use are evolving along with how we use them, it's better to be forgiving of different ways of writing. Even errors are made for a reason - missed in edits or ignorance of correct usage.

If you want to keep something I think is wrong, it's not important enough to me to argue. After all, rules are made to be broken, but take time to learn them so you can say you're doing it on purpose.

Is writing a challenge for you? Try these tips!

The internet makes it so easy for just about anyone to become a content publisher, but writing doesn't come easily to everyone. It's a good thing that writing is a skill you can improve with practice - whether you consider yourself to be a writer or not!

I know lots of business owners that have heard about the benefits of blogging, but it's overwhelming to get started when you don't feel you're a writer to begin with. (Here's one of my dirty little secrets: I didn't call myself a writer when I started blogging!) Fortunately, you don't have to call yourself a "writer" to write well about your subject matter expertise.

What would you say to clients and prospects?

Do you struggle to answer questions or explain concepts within your expertise to people who make inquiries with you? I hope the answer is (mostly) no because half the battle in writing is knowing what to say. If you can do that verbally when someone asks you a question, you're half way there.

The next step is getting those words out onto a page - physical or virtual really doesn't matter. There are a few ways you can do that:

  1. Write questions/inquiries down to answer on your blog, then do it.
  2. Record conversations (with permission, of course) to review.

Writing down questions and inquiries you get on a consistent basis will give you a flow of content that speaks directly to what clients and prospects are asking. That means these are the things they're interested in learning more about. That is critical information for your business! Playing back a recording of your answers will help you to hear the responses you give without thinking. That can form the basis of good content for your business.

Write with active voice, not passive

I don't see passive voice a lot on the web, but it nearly always gives me a double take when I do. Here's an example of active vs. passive that I've borrowed from Grammar Girl, because it's very funny to me. Imagine each of these versions sung by Marvin Gaye as you read:

Active: "I Heard it Through the Grapevine"

Passive: "It was heard by me through the grapevine"

The difference from a technical perspective is that in active voice, the subject is taking action. Marvin Gaye is the subject, and the action is that he's hearing that you won't be his much longer. 

In passive voice, the subject becomes "it" - the news that not much longer would you be mine - and the song title becomes both silly, overly formal sounding, and challenging to fit to the rhythm and melodic sequence of the song. Not to mention that "it" - the news - is an incredibly awkward subject given that "it" isn't really doing anything other than being heard.

Active voice is stronger, simpler, and gives your writing greater clarity. Most of the time. If you read the full text of Grammar Girl's article on active vs. passive, she explains that it's not really wrong. Sometimes there's no real way to get around using passive voice. Active voice does, however, work better most of the time when creating web content.

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Proofread your writing

I often write posts a week or two before I actually publish them. Sometimes longer. This allows me to come back to them 2-3 times before I publish to review what I've written and correct errors. This also gives me the chance to solidify how I want to present my thoughts and ideas.

  1. Check for spelling. Actually re-read and try to catch any words that are the right word, wrong spelling (e.g., to, too, two). This applies to similar words also.
  2. Check for grammar. Please don't ask me to draw a sentence diagram. Ever. But I can still edit for grammar and you should be able to as well. 
  3. Check for punctuation. Commas are often overused and underused. I'm not sure which is worse. The same goes for apostrophes. Avoid punctuation abuse.

Even if you struggle with proper spelling, grammar, and punctuation, spending time to proof your work before it's published will help you put your best work out into the world for your audience. 

Write like you're talking to someone 

That's what people mean when they say to write conversationally. I actually read parts of my posts out loud if I start to worry that my words are sounding too formal. When I hear the actual words coming out of my mouth, it's easier to decide whether that's how I would verbalize them to someone. The flip side is that you can record the words you want to say and then transcribe them or use dictation software to get them on the page.

Don't worry too much about the rules of writing

The rules matter, but you can break them if you want. Also, mistakes happen. You're human and fallible. Don't be too worried about errors, because no one's perfect. I love when people give me a heads up about problems they spot in my writing. It helps me fix them and (hopefully) do better the next time. 

Everyone gets stuck

After writing for a while, you may find yourself stuck and unsure what to write. There are many ways to combat the affliction of writer's block. Try out anything and everything to find what works best for you.

Bonus tip: You can outsource, too!

You don't have to do it alone. There are many writers out there (like me!) who offer blogging services - from editing to writing whole posts. If you are stuck for time, ideas, or need help with the actual words, you can get the help you need.