Little Words That Change Content in Big Ways

Once upon a very real time in New York City, an environmental official removed the word “not” from a report determining whether a road should be built along a river. The report emphasized this project should not be allowed because it would pollute the water; but the official said, “I’m not going to stop this project because of one little word.” So he deleted “not.”

Little, simple words can have a lot of power. In fact, the word “simple” itself is one of those words. The actions or instructions that you tell your customers are “simple” will baffle at least some of them. Then they have to decide if they are too dumb to follow simple instructions or if your instructions and product are terrible. Guess what choice they make? To check whether your instructions are clear, accurate and complete, follow what you’ve written down to the letter. If you find your hands doing something that is not written down, then you have to add that step to your instructions. And avoid saying anything is “simple.”

Another word with a lot of power is “only.” When you misplace the word “only,” you also change the meaning of your content. Consider “we only designed one product” versus “we designed only one product.” In the first instance, you only designed (you didn’t manufacture or distribute); in the second instance, you designed only one product (instead of many products). The difference in meaning is significant. Be careful where you place your “only.”

I once heard a story about lawmakers who wanted to ban the importation of fruit trees. However, they placed a comma between “fruit” and “trees” and thereby went without fruit for months before they could change the bill. A misplaced comma can drastically change your content. Consider the difference between “we pay attention to details, generating quality” and “we pay attention to details generating quality.” In the first instance, the act of paying attention to ideas generates quality; in the second instance, you’re paying attention to just those details that generate quality–all the other details you ignore. Where you place commas, periods, semicolons, and colons is important.

If you are worrying whether your content is saying exactly what you mean, please contact TWP Marketing & Technical Communications. We make sure content is clear, accurate, and compelling, down to the smallest detail.

 

6 Biggest Writing Mistakes

1. Turning your writing into a vocabulary test. Most small words have more energy than big ones and communicate faster. While some multi-syllable words can’t be avoided (“multi-syllable” being a good example), many of them are simply barriers to clear, passionate writing–for example, utilize, capability, and actionable.

2. Forgetting your audience. You have a goal: to write about everything your company can do and has done, so that the world will be impressed enough to beat a path to your door. But your customers are not looking for a company that does everything for everyone; your customers are looking for a trustworthy solution to their specific problem. When you write, write to meet your customers’ goals.

3. Giving your audience too much credit. If your customers were as knowledgeable as you are, they wouldn’t need you. You have skills, experience, and tools that your customers lack. Slowly guide them to understanding what you offer, using words, pictures, examples, and comparisons they can easily grasp.

4. Failing to recognize the power of pictures. Use graphs, illustrations, videos, and photographs whenever you can to replace paragraphs and pages of description. A great layout can add just the right emphasis and eye-candy to attract customers; a professional graphic designer is well worth using.

5. Overlooking the need to organize. Websites are divided into pages; blogs into posts; white papers into sections; manuals into chapters. Each of those divisions should have a single subject. If, for example, I shifted gears mid-way through this blog post to explain how to write a press release, you would be justifiably confused. It’s okay if your first draft is a brain dump. But then you have to organize the material so that it flows–and delete what doesn’t belong.

6. Falling in love with your own words. Set aside anything you write for at least 24 hours, then proofread, proofread, proofread and edit, edit, edit. Until you examine what you wrote with a fresh eye, you have no way of knowing if you truly communicated.

Sharon Bailly is the founder of TWP Marketing & Technical Communications which helps companies reach their customers online and in print. Our words mean business.