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.

Technical Writing: Is This Jargon?

Q. I work for a company provides technology, construction, and other services for a wide variety of industries-—each with their own vocabulary. Plus the company I work for has many specialized, technical products. When we talk about, say, a process analytical technology, that’s a real thing that our customers are looking for, not made up jargon. I want to write clearly, but how do I distinguish jargon from not-jargon?

A. Technical writers and technical companies often rely on jargon in an attempt to be brief. They try to pack the maximum amount of information into one phrase.

However, your first obligation as a writer is to be clear. You want customers to grasp your product and services quickly, and they can’t do that if they’re deciphering jargon. You might as well write in a secret code.

One of my customers boasted online about his software company’s “compatible knowledge component portfolio.” Would you know what you were getting if a company offered you a portfolio of compatible knowledge components? When I asked my customer to describe what the company was selling, he explained in clear simple language: software that helps transfer information smoothly from one program to another. So we replaced the jargon on his website with those clear words.

My customer’s original phrase illustrates some of the criteria for identifying jargon. You are probably reading or writing jargon if a phrase:

  1. Describes something that cannot be immediately diagrammed or understood by your colleague in the next cubical.
  2. Consists of three or more nouns in a row: knowledge component portfolio.
  3. Contains a majority of three- or four-syllable words: in this case, three out of four (compatible, component, portfolio).
  4. Ends with one or more of the following generic nouns: functionality, process, system, capability, service, solution: enhanced reciprocal functionality.

Sometimes jargon marks an attempt by companies to differentiate themselves. You may need a unique phrase to identify a unique product or service. But you should first explain your product or service in everyday English. Once customers understand what you mean by “enhanced reciprocal functionality” or ERF, you are free to talk about it in that shorthand—if you still want to. But make sure the definition is clear in every new document.

Sometimes jargon uses everyday English but is still incomprehensible. We may believe we know what a company means by offering a “strategic planning roadmap process.” The meanings of the individual words are well within our grasp. But in reality, we have no idea if this company creates, delivers, reviews, carries out, or consults upon strategic plans.

If you aren’t sure whether you are writing jargon, please contact me. I will help you communicate clearly, even about the most technical products and services, so that customers truly understand what you offer.

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.

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.

10 Questions for Your Freelance Writer

Here are 10 questions to ask a freelance writer before you start a project–and the reasons why those questions are important.

  1. What is your native language? You want a writer whose first language is the same as your audience’s to avoid cultural, idiomatic, and other missteps.
  2. How long have you been a freelance writer? You want a professional freelance writer with a track record who won’t abandon you the moment a “real” job comes along.
  3. What software do you use? Every freelance writer should be expert at Word and Acrobat (the editing version, not the reader). In addition, you may need expertise in FrameMaker, Excel, etc.
  4. What is your process? Find out if the writer charges separately for multiple iterations and for nudging to get a response to a question.
  5. Do you travel? Some freelance writers are willing to go to your site; others prefer telecommuting only.
  6. Do you have samples? The samples should show you the freelance writer’s style and whether it will align with your goals. They also are proof that the writer has completed assignments successfully in the past.
  7. Have you worked in this industry before? Lack of experience in your specific industry may or may not be a deal breaker; breadth of experience in your type of project (blog post, website copy, case study, etc.) may be more important.
  8. What are your typical prices and what is your turn-around time? Often a freelance writer cannot answer these questions without a better idea of your project–but do find out if the writer charges an hourly or project rate. Usually, a project rate is better for you.Also share your deadline and find out if it’s feasible.
  9. How do you want to be paid? Some freelance writers take credit cards; some don’t. For a long project, you may be asked to pay at milestones or at the end of each month.
  10. Do you offer any services aside from writing? Don’t assume that “writing” includes interviewing, graphic design, public relations, publishing, or proofreading. Ask if you have a specific need.

TWP Marketing & Technical Communications is a sole-proprietorship that offers writing, editing, and proofreading services to a wide variety of industries, including manufacturing, healthcare, consulting, and energy. For nearly 20 years, I have written blog posts, website copy, case studies, user manuals, insight papers, and more. Please contact me if you have questions or want to discuss a project. I welcome inquiries.

Grammar: When Good Copy Goes Bad

Mistakes in grammar pass by many a writer’s radar but they can cause huge problems with marketing copy.

For example, see if you can spot the error in this sentence: “The operations team reported an upward trend in efficiency, training, productivity, morale, failure rates, and innovation.”  An “upward trend” in failure rates would mean that the rates increased, not exactly something to boast about. The writer could fix this problem by changing “failure rates” to “operating life” or by starting another sentence with information about downward trends.

Many problems with grammar come from relying on the grammar checker that comes with Word. That grammar checker seems to hate the word “who,” leading to a proliferation of sentences where people are referred to as things: “The engineers that are responsible for this innovation….” ought to be “The engineers who are responsible for this innovation.” But try telling that to Word.

Common mistakes in grammar include random changes in verb tense from past to present and back again, indecision about whether a company should refer to itself as “we” or “it,” lists that change in midstream from phrases to whole sentences, and lack of agreement between noun and verb.

Why is bad grammar a problem?

  • First, as shown in our initial example, it can send the exactly wrong message to your readers.
  • Second, bad grammar is one of the markers for online scams, according to the founder and chairman of Identity Theft 911. You don’t want your message to be tagged as spam.
  • Third, bad grammar sounds unprofessional. Yes, the misuse of “that” for “who” is so common now that most people will accept it; but it still sounds bad (or it ought to!) and interrupts the smooth flow of your message.
  • Fourth, more and more companies are international. Your readers who speak English as a second language (and any translation software they use) will struggle needlessly if your English is grammatically wrong.
  • Finally, how can your readers trust the quality of your products and services if you can’t even describe them in standard English?

If you aren’t confident in your grammar, please contact TWP Marketing & Technical Communications to review and edit your marketing or technical writing. Make sure your message goes out the way you intended.

How Can I Focus My Website?

Q. You often say that the best marketing message for customers is: I can solve your problem. But how do I figure out what a customer’s problem is? How do I focus my website’s marketing message for a customer I never talk to?

A. You have a point: If you had a storefront, you would know a customer’s problem right way–you would walk up to the customer and ask, “How can I help you?”

In a way, your website needs to do the same thing.

When you started your business, you must have identified some need in the community or industry that your business would fill. Whether that need is for shoes with velcro fasteners or software to fly a drone, your marketing message should concentrate on the specific types of customer who have the exact need you are aiming to fill. You can not reach “everyone.” Whether by walking in your physical store or by searching online, most customers will self-select based on the problem they believe you can solve. Your website should focus on those customers and your solution.

Are you wondering whether your customer’s needs have changed? Your website’s “contact us” page should allow customers to email or call with questions. By keeping track of those questions, you’ll have a good handle on what your customers are looking for and whether your website and mission are meeting their needs.

Q. My company offers lots of products and services and we’re great at all of them. How do I know what marketing message I should focus on?

A. Let your customers help you decide. First, as explained above, you should ask yourself what what problems your customers need you to solve. Your marketing message should focus on providing solutions. Then ask: What solution brings you a steady income you can live with and the most satisfaction in providing? The hope is that a clear match occurs between what your customers need most and what you need most. Finally, go to the website of your favorite major retail store and study how they let customers drill down through multiple products and services. Give your customers some control over the solution they reach, and they will listen.

Do you have a question about marketing or technical writing? We’re happy to provide answers. Contact TWP Marketing & Technical Communications, where our words mean business–and give your website just the right focus.

 

Exact Words Make for Stronger Writing

Your product is best-in-class; your projects are completed in a timely manner; your company is at the forefront of technology.

So what? Those claims can be made by anyone–by any competitor or even by a company in an entirely different field. Vague phrases tell your customers nothing. When you use exact words instead, you stand out.

Vague words come in two types: Generalities and bad grammar.

Generalities

What industry or internal standard did you meet to qualify as best-in-class; does “timely” means within days or within weeks; and what brought your company to the fore in technology? The answers to those questions are different for every company. They separate you from the pack.

In addition to stock phrases, such as best-in-class, companies often use words that sound specific, but aren’t. For example, they will say, “Our precision measurement …” or “Our expert engineering…” without explaining whether “precision” means to the inch or to 0.000035 cm or explaining what their engineers do that shows their expertise.

Facts, figures, examples, awards, case studies, testimonials: these all require exact words.

Testimonials are a special case. You never want to prod your customers into saying something they are not comfortable with. But you can ask them to relate a specific way in which you helped them or specific results they appreciated.

Bad Grammar

Vague words in marketing copy often confuse customers about who did what. For example, “We introduced the app to the marketplace once before but they ignored it.” Who is “we” and who are “they” and what “it” (the introduction, the app itself) did they ignore? Make sure all your pronouns have clear antecedents.

If you address the customer as “you” in your marketing copy, keep track of who that “you” is. For example: “I tell my customers that you should always update your virus protection software. You should take that advice, too.” In this case, the “you” in the first sentence (all current customers) is a different person from the “you” (the reader, a potential customer) in the second sentence.

When vague phrases take over, your marketing copy is harder to read and your message loses its zip. If you want to be sure you’re using the liveliest exact words possible, contact TWP Marketing & Technical Communications. We’re experts at giving marketing material a memorable edge.