Why I Hate Online Grammar Checkers

Grammar checkers drive me crazy. Here’s the problem with online grammar checkers–and yes, I mean Grammarly also–they can’t think. When confronted with the slightest complication in a sentence, they default to “wrong, wrong, wrong.”

Recently, a client used an online grammar checker on a sentence like this:

We give sales, marketing, and executive teams greater visibility into financial performance.

In context, the grammar checker insisted that “teams” needed to be a possessive: team’s or teams’. In truth, the sentence was perfectly correct as it stood. Adding an apostrophe would make it grammatically incorrect.

Grammar checkers break down over possessives and contractions. I often catch them preferring “you’re” to “your” in a statement like “what should you do if your house collapses?” They are also baffled by capitalization: the Word grammar checker insists on capitalizing company even in a sentence like “we all went to the company picnic.”

Here’s another example of grammar checker bungling:

If you are going to send someone a long email, make sure that you start by listing the topics under discussion and that you are being as concise as you possibly can.

The grammar checker objected to the word “being” because (pause for irony) it wasn’t concise enough. This client asked me to remove “being.” But if I removed it, the client would be left with the phrase “you are as concise as you possibly can.” That phrase is simply awkward; compare it to “you are as happy as you possibly can.” Clearly there is a verb missing: if “being” disappears, then the phrase has to become “you are as concise as you possibly can be.”

The grammar checker choked on the original sentence because grammar checkers do not understand subordinate clauses. They also go into tailspins over compound subjects and compound sentences. Grammar checkers make suggestions without recognizing the need for alternatives that make sense.

I long ago reached the frustrating conclusion that grammar checkers are of least use to people who seek help with their English grammar. Those individuals may write a perfect sentence only to change it to something ungrammatical in response to a grammar checkers’ whim.

Should you ignore grammar checkers entirely? Well, like the watch that stopped at 6 o’clock, grammar checkers have to be right some times. But be aware of their shortcomings and that you might benefit more from someone like me, with 20 years of freelance writing, editing, and proofreading experience and skill.

Contact me whenever grammar and grammar checkers are driving you crazy.

Plagiarism and Creativity

In college, I had a professor who failed one of my papers because it sounded like something his favorite author had written. I asked if he had found any word, phrase, sentence, or paragraph that matched that author, whom I had never heard of. This was before online plagiarism checkers, and the teacher admitted he couldn’t find any duplication–the paper simply “sounded like.” This is not the definition of plagiarism.

What Plagiarism Is

Someone who plagiarizes takes another person’s work and passes it off as their own. For that to happen, the plagiarism must do more than merely sound like it might have been written by the other person; it must exactly duplicate the original work. And it has to encompass more than a mere phrase or a word or two.

You are plagiarizing if you quote from any online or print article, blog post, book, movie, or other creative work without permission and without citing the source. You are plagiarizing, for example, if you take a photo off the internet and pass it off as your own. The only exceptions are for information that is clearly marked as free to share. Do not assume that a work is in the public domain or that “public domain” frees you from citing a source: there is only one Romeo and Juliet and if you quote huge chunks of it, you should mention Shakespeare.

Whenever you give a complete attribution for a work by someone else–and there are many online sites that will explain how to do this–you are guarding against plagiarism by admitting that someone else created the content you are using. As mentioned, you may also need to ask the original creator’s or publisher’s permission first.

What Plagiarism Is Not

If you are fooling around with ideas, you don’t need to put quotes around “fooling around” as if you feared plagiarizing; it’s an overused cliché but it isn’t owned by any other person.

If you are writing for a client, as I do, then a work becomes the client’s (not yours) as soon as it is paid for and you cannot duplicate it for another client. But if no one has bought the work, it is yours to duplicate as you wish–in articles, blog posts, website content, success stores, and so on. (If you are writing for an independent publication, such as an industry magazine, make sure you understand their policies on ownership.) Generally, you need not fear plagiarizing from yourself.

It is not plagiarism if, on occasion, more than one person comes up with the same phrase. Let’s say, in the course of giving instructions to a DIY builder, you write this phrase: “Create a tight joint using glue and screws.” I can guarantee you that at least one how-to book, if not every one, contains a sentence identical to that. There are only a few ways to explain how glue and screws create a tight joint.

Creativity versus Plagiarism

These days teachers, managers, and editors can run anything you write through an online plagiarism checker to ensure that you haven’t inadvertently plagiarized from another source. That’s fine, but prevention can easily be carried too far.

Let’s suppose you write a sentence all on your own and the online computer program says that the sentence also appeared in a book someone published in 1918 that you never heard of and never read. Inadvertent repetition is part of the creative process in every field. A little simultaneous creativity isn’t necessarily plagiarism.

For example, scientists often scramble to be the first in their field because so many people are aiming for the same result and may reach it at the same time. They aren’t plagiarizing from each other (one hopes); they are merely following the same creative path to the same conclusion.

Creativity should never be manacled by slavish devotion to computer programs. You can use a computer program to find evidence of plagiarism, but never abandon common sense or devalue the results of independent thought.

By the way, that teacher who falsely accused me of plagiarism ultimately gave me an A for the course. A high standard of writing is not plagiarism, no matter how young you are.

I am proud of my ability to write marketing and technical content that is clear, consistent, concise, and creative. If you need writing like that, please contact me today.

Crafting the Perfect Opening Sentence

You have only a few seconds to grab a reader’s attention. That makes your opening sentence very important. A great opening sentence focuses on:

  • What your customers want: Give top priority to the features and benefits your customers want most. Suppose you’ve created a brand new frozen chili. If customers long for better tasting chili, emphasize the features (quick freezing, organic rice, fresh spices) that contribute to better taste. But omit information on the medical properties of chili peppers unless your customers expect and want that information. Address the needs of different customers in different sections of your marketing material. For example, you may want one website page on Great Tasting Recipes and another on Chili Peppers and Your Health.
  • What your product or service delivers best: Give top priority to the benefits and features that you deliver best. If your chili tastes better because you cook it slowly, the words “slow cooked” belong in your opening statement.
  • What your competition does best and worst: If every chili maker in the world slow cooks chili, that feature probably doesn’t belong in your opening sentence. If no one else cooks with fresh spices, that feature deserves a top mention. If your competitors cook with fresh spices, but don’t say so? Claim that feature yourself. Your competition’s weaknesses reveal areas where customers aren’t being served or believe they aren’t being served. That’s where your product or service commands the market.
  • What type of document you’re writing: In a news release (for example), customers expect to learn what you’ve achieved recently. If you start with a long history of chili, customers stop reading before they find out about your accomplishment. In the executive summary of a proposal, customers want to know that you’ve heard and addressed their specific concerns. Your opening sentence must suit the document.

Create a decision box where you list the most important features and benefits of your product or service. Rank them by how closely they meet the criteria above: giving customers what they want; representing something you are good at; filling a real or perceived gap in the marketplace; and matching the goals of the document. The feature/benefit with the highest score should help frame your opening sentence.

TWP Marketing & Technical Communications knows the value of a great opening sentence. Contact us today.

Start Writing with Your Wow Factor

Every new product or service has a wow factor—it’s faster, smaller, more beautiful, more reliable, more precise, or greater value than the competition. Your best selling opportunity is to start writing with your wow factor. Too many companies bury that important information deep in their copy. To identify your wow factor and give it the top billing it deserves, follow these four steps:

Step 1. Make sure you know what your customer wants most. Your customer’s priorities might be quite different from yours. You may want to boast about your success at miniaturizing internal components while your customer is only interested in whether the product looks cool. Your marketing copy must speak to the customer’s priorities, even if this means ignoring your finest achievements.

Step 2. Concentrate on the specifics—they set your product or service apart. If accuracy to 5 microns is important to your customers, your text should state “accurate to 5 microns” rather than relying solely on vague adjectives like “extremely accurate.” If personal service is important, let photographs, testimonials, and case studies reveal exactly how personal your service is.

Step 3. Select your language to empower, not overwhelm, your customer. In an effort to be concise, companies sometimes cram 10 selling points into one long sentence or string of nouns (“a robust email marketing newsletter solution service”). First be clear, then concise. Educate customers slowly in everyday language; no matter how proficient customers are in their own field, they come to you for your special expertise, so share it in a way they can understand.

Step 4. Focus first on your strongest benefit. Always remember that the most powerful message you can send to a potential customer is “we can solve your problem.” When you identify a compelling problem and solution, you have your first sentence: your wow factor. Then you can detail the other benefits and features you offer. But customers can absorb only a limited amount of new information at once (some research suggests a 4-item limit). Stay well within those boundaries at the start of your marketing copy.

Are you struggling to find and write about your wow factor? Contact me at TWP Marketing & Technical Communications; I’m here to help.

A Bill of Rights for Your Reader

Sometimes I wish there were a bill of rights governing content for customers! Readers have the right to content that addresses their problem, offers a clear solution, is written logically and clearly, and explains what to do next.

You try your best. You’ve produced reams of online and paper content describing your products and services. But sheer volume isn’t enough. Here are the four biggest reasons a marketing message violates the bill of rights:

  • Nobody cares. You’re excited by your achievements. I once had a client whose entire brochure focused on her artistic philosophy and growth. But her customers weren’t interested in her personal triumphs. Their immediate concerns were, “What are you selling, what does it cost, and why should I buy it from you?”
  • It’s confusing. When you cobble content together from old content or have multiple authors writing independently, mistakes enter. For example, I often encounter both marketing and technical content where measurements shift from metric to English and back again; in this case, I recommend giving both measurements at all times: “approximately 10 feet (3 meters).” When customers receive information that’s inconsistent, outdated, or simply wrong, they begin to mistrust whatever you tell them.
  • No one understands it. Your customers expect content written in the plainest possible English, information they can understand quickly and thoroughly. One of my clients stated that “our chemical research has created an absolutely inexhaustible wealth of forms, phenomena, and possibilities.” What they meant was this: “our research has created a wealth of chemicals and new ways to use them.” If you consistently write with 4- and 5-syllable words, business jargon, acronyms, and tech speak or if you skimp on explanations because “everybody knows that,” you’re in trouble.
  • No one can find it. If you dump everything you do or provide into one huge list–or worse, one huge sentence–for the customer to sort out, the customer gives up. I remember a client who wrote a three-chapter proposal: 10 pages in the Introduction, 5 pages in the Conclusion, and 277 endless pages of actual information in the middle. Organize your content so that customers are guided directly to the information they are looking for.

When content aligns with the bill of rights, customers recognize themselves and their problems in your message. They understand that you have the solution they need and how to acquire that solution. And they don’t have to fight for the information because your writing uses everyday, straight-forward, consistent language in a format that is easy to follow.

Having trouble establishing your own bill of rights for marketing content? Contact TWP Marketing & Technical Communications. Our words mean business.

What Does “Concise” Mean?

Oh, those readers who give you a few seconds to deliver your message and capture their interest! You need concise marketing copy but how do you get concise and avoid boring?

The wrong way is to pack every bit of information about your company into a 35-word sentence or a huge list explaining everything you can do. No one enjoys a monologue; readers today are especially impatient to get to the point. And the point, for your customers, is not “what can your company do?” but “how can it solve my problem?”

So here are the rules for being concise:

  1. Know what your readers are looking for and direct them there. Even giant retailers like Amazon quickly send readers to that one object they want most. Surely you can do the same.
  2. Be precise. If your product is “more efficient,” then explain how efficient and by what measure. If your service is “customer-centric,” then provide testimonials, case studies, photos, or awards that emphasize your customer-first approach.
  3. Be direct. Turn “we are engaged in the manufacture of” into “we manufacture.” Turn “we are able to deliver” into “we deliver.” If you “are known for engaging teams,” then you “engage teams.”
  4. Avoid repetition. You must keep product and service names consistent, but English is lush with synonyms. An unexpected word like “lush” keeps the reader’s interest.
  5. Write like you talk. Use short words (under 4 syllables), short sentences (averaging 25 words), and short paragraphs (averaging 3 sentences). You are not dumbing down. You are making your marketing copy accessible fast and you are establishing a friendly relationship–just as you would talking one-on-one.

If you keep your readers clearly in mind, are precise and direct, avoid repetition, and write like you talk, you will find that your marketing copy automatically becomes more concise. But if you are still having problems saying exactly what you want to say, please contact TWP Marketing & Technical Communications. Our words mean business.

Need to Emphasize Your Words? Here’s How

One way to show that your written words are IMPORTANT!!! is to emphasize them with bold, italic, full capitals and end with a bunch of exclamation points. Unfortunately, that technique loses its impact quickly.

A full course of bolding, italics, capitals, underlining, and exclamation points has the same impact as shouting. It might get attention the first time but it will definitely annoy the longer it goes on. Better techniques involve framing the sentence or paragraph for emphasis, using repetition correctly, and engaging a professional graphic designer.

Frame a Sentence for Emphasis

When you have something important to tell your readers, take a chance and say it without the tantrum. For example, in the preceding sentence, you probably placed a stress on “without” although nothing in the sentence directed you to do that. The rhythm and sense of the sentence alone produced the stress on “without.”

Make sentences and paragraphs short–average 25 words per sentence and three sentences per paragraph. Information at the end of a sentence or at the start or very end of a paragraph is more likely to be remembered than information in the middle.

Use Repetition

Repetition creates emphasis if it is done correctly. Tell your reader what you plan to write about and then write about. At the end, summarize the information. But make sure each repetition is exact. If you promise to write about trips to Spain, Italy, and England, then write about them in th/at order and do not throw Portugal in the mix.

On the other hand, simply repeating one word (“this is very very very important”) has the same annoying effect overall as piling on exclamation points.

Engage a Professional Graphic Designer

A well laid-out page draws the reader’s eye exactly where you want it through font selection, color, graphics, and illustrations. Professional graphic designers work wonders that way but amateurs risk creating design overload.

Keep in mind this general rule of thumb: The more devices used to emphasize text, the less power any of them have.

In the best case, writers and graphic designers work together to give you marketing collateral that delivers your message with just the right jolt of emphasis. TWP Marketing & Technical Communications can help you find that perfect team. Contact us today.

Writing Well When English Is Your Second Language

If you are a writer for whom English is a second language, you probably have several advantages over native-English speakers. You may be more likely to write with short sentences, short paragraphs, and everyday words–these are choices that more people should make.

But you may also face writing challenges in these four areas:

  • Sentence construction. Many constructions that are acceptable in other languages–for example, putting a verb at the end of a sentence–are uncommon in English. Some constructions used in British English (for example, “Well done, you!”) sound odd to US ears.
  • Spelling. US English has borrowed words from many countries, yet rejected their original spelling (confidant/confidante or colour/color). Homophones are common: vein/vane/vain and they’re/their. Another problem arises with close spellings, such as effect/affect and compliment/complement.
  • Contractions. US writing includes lots of contractions, even in formal situations. Some contractions can be especially challenging: “I’d” could mean “I had” or “I would” or “I should,” depending on context.
  • Verb choice. The good news is that you don’t have to worry about gender when using English verbs. The bad news is that it is very easy to get tangled up in participles, gerunds, verb/noun agreement, and whether the past participle of lay is lain or laid (laid is correct).
  • Local differences. You probably know that US football is not soccer, but you may not know about US nonsmoking laws, wildly different climates from East Coast to West, or other legal, cultural, and geographic differences. In addition, every country has sensitive topics; failing to navigate them can detract from the message you intended to send.

Are you concerned that your message is being lost among problems with US or British sentence construction, spelling, contractions, verb choice, and cultural differences? Consider asking a professional, native English writer to review your written materials.

In the course of my career, I have helped individuals and companies from China, Russia, Italy, the Czech Republic, and Britain write in standard and idiomatic US English. I would be delighted to help you. Contact me at TWP Marketing & Technical Communications.

Insight Papers: Is Your Expertise Going to Waste?

Insight papers or white papers are a perfect way to present your expertise to current and future clients and customers. They are also a way to develop a deeper understanding of your own business and consolidate your marketing focus.

A true insight paper requires more than writing down everything you have learned in your career. It should present a new perspective on a current industry problem; information that has not been gathered in one place before; and support for a stance.

Here are five steps toward building an insight paper:

  1. Research the current trend(s) in your industry. For example, if you are a kitchen designer, you might want to research the use of color, metallic, and engineered surfaces.
  2. Ask your clients and experts in your field about their experiences with that trend. Most people are happy to be cited in an insight paper, but treat their comments with respect whether or not they agree with your preconceptions.
  3. Research the topic of your insight paper. For example, if you are a manufacturer, you might research statistics on how just in time manufacturing has affected innovation in your industry.
  4. Take a stance–one you believe in. For example, if you are an executive coach, you might argue that some team building exercises alienate employees instead of inspiring them.
  5. Make it interesting. No one wants to read two thousand (and more) words of statistics or a lecture on what you believe. Use quotes, stories, illustrations, and even humor to make your point.

One of the easiest ways to construct an insight paper is to create it from your own blog posts or other marketing collateral. But remember that an insight paper must go beyond a reiteration of your own thoughts: it must be substantiated with quotes from experts, statistics, and stories about real experiences. A well-constructed insight paper is far more valuable as a source of future blog posts and marketing collateral.

One of the advantages of your research is the insight it will give you into your business. Are you taking advantage of recent trends, marketing to the concerns of your customers, and developing solutions that meet their needs and set you apart from your competition?

You might decide to self-publish your insight paper on your website; provide a hard copy to potential clients; email it to past customers to remind them of your expertise; or submit it to industry magazines. It can serve to generate qualified leads, when people are interested enough to leave their contact information in return for the insight paper.

If writing an insight paper feels like a momentous task, please contact TWP Marketing & Technical Communications. You’ll be delighted with how efficiently an insight paper can be written and delighted with the results.

7 Years of Blogging: Lessons Learned

I have been writing blog posts for various customers for over 7 years–weekly or bimonthly–and I’ve learned several important lessons about regular blogging.

Three Important Facts about Blogging

First, regular blog posts gather dedicated readers over time. They prompt comments, requests for contributions from industry organizations, and discussions on LinkedIn.

Second, blogging and the reactions to it often clarify customer expectations and what a company should be doing. It may lead to a shift in the company’s entire marketing plan or become the basis for an insight or white paper that confirms the company’s expertise.

Third, writing a great blog post is a matter of following a few basic rules:

  1. Focus on one idea at a time–there’s always an opportunity to write another post.
  2. Aim to educate, not sell.
  3. Keep the post short; but concentrate first on quality content, then size.
  4. Write with a recognizable and consistent voice.
  5. Deliver details (e.g., 10 steps to…), not vague generalities.
  6. Make sure blog posts appear regularly, whether once a week or twice a month.
  7. Recognize your blog is one tool in a marketing toolbox–not the entire box.
  8. Obey the rules of all great marketing content: concise, clear, concrete, and passionate.
  9. Take time to find an interesting title.
  10. End with a next step for readers.

How to Rescue a Faltering Blog

Are you hesitating to write a blog, are you running out of ideas, or has your blog languished, untouched, for over a month? Consider asking a professional freelance writer to take over.

One of the advantages of having a professional writer handle your blog posts–besides the savings in time and energy–is that you may be too close to your business to understand what customers find interesting and informative. What seems to you to be a boring detail or information that “everyone” knows may actually be fascinating to customers.

A professional freelance writer adapts to your comfort level: submitting ideas for approval, researching content, interviewing customers and employees, tracking the competition–whatever you need. You can review individual ideas before a post is ever written and/or approve the completed post before it appears online..

Conclusion

For a professional writer, blogs posts are interesting and fun to write, and I have written them for many businesses in fields as varied as home construction, clinical trials, executive consulting, and marketing.

Contact me if you need help setting up and maintaining your blog content; that’s what I’m here for.