5 Pet Writing Peeves

My five pet writing peeves may not be identical to your own top 5–but I think you’ll agree that they are “peeve-worthy.”

  1. People that need people. No, no, no. For once, a song lyric has the grammar right: people who need people are the luckiest people in the world. However, people that need people are probably robots. “That” is appropriate for a thing. “Who” is the only word appropriate for people.
  2. Entitlement. If I could ban one word, I would ban entitlement. It has become so warped in meaning that people use it as a generalized insult. “Kids today, they feel so entitled.” Entitled to what? Food, clothing, education, muscle cars–what?
  3. Rampant semicolons. I’m not sure when everyone decided that semicolons are the same as commas, but I’m here to assure you that they aren’t. Try a comma first.
  4. Electronic online grammar checkers. They are useless. They are worse than useless because they are generally 100% wrong and yet people believe them.
  5. i.e., e.g., and etc. No one speaks Latin anymore, which hasn’t stopped us from using it. “Id est” (i.e.) means “that is” or “to clarify what I said previously” while “exempli gratia” (e.g.) means “for example.” They are not interchangeable. “Et cetera” (etc.) means “and other things” or “and so on.” Do not use “and etc.”; it translates to “and and so on.” Please note the use of periods.

I remember when my pet peeve was the use of “data” (many pieces of information) to mean “datum” (one piece of information). Boy, did I lose that battle. So maybe there’s no hope to reverse the trends indicated by my pet peeves.

Do you have a pet writing peeve? I’d enjoy hearing about it. Maybe it will make my top 5 next year!

For clear, concise, accurate, writing with passion, contact Sharon at TWP Marketing & Technical Communications.

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.


No One Reads Anymore (and Other Myths)

Every so often another article or blog post appears claiming that no one reads anymore. It’s an interesting tactic to write about no one reading. Side-by-side with that argument is usually another article or blog post bemoaning how often people check their smart phones for a new text message or search the internet for reviews of the latest restaurant. Someone is reading those texts and reviews.

So clearly people are reading. They may be reading in shorter bursts. They may insist on information that is targeted to their specific interests. They may be reading in places that didn’t even exist a decade ago. They may be reading online instead of print. But they are reading.

And in many ways their demands for content haven’t changed.

  • They still want to be told first what they want to know most. Burying vital information deep in the text is more counter-productive than ever. When you have the length of a tweet to get to the point, you ought to get to it fast.
  • They still want clear communication. Yes, emoticons and abbreviations have flooded personal emails, but customers expect businesses to state clearly and accurately what they do, how they do it, why anyone would be interested–that demand hasn’t disappeared.
  • They still like pictures, videos, and artwork. A great picture is still worth 1000 words; and people still recognize consistent brands quickly.
  • They still want to connect with you. The passive voice keeps customers at arm’s length; it didn’t engage them in the past and it doesn’t engage them now.
  • They still want to know why they should choose you and not your competitor. That’s one reason why online reviews, success stories and testimonials are so powerful.

If you need help writing materials that engage customers online or in print, contact TWP Marketing & Technical Communications. We’ll establish the connection and keep it strong.

Marketing Collateral: How Much Is Enough?

Many of my clients come to me with multiple printed or online marketing pieces–rack cards, postcards, brochures, newsletters, prints of articles. While it is a good policy to stay in contact with your customers, you can save time, money and customer exasperation if you ask yourself these questions before embarking on yet another piece of marketing collateral:

  • Can I get the marketing collateral to my customers? For example, rack cards are excellent to hand out at trade shows or place in racks at Chambers of Commerce, libraries, tourist attractions and so on. But if your customers interaction is completely online and mail order from around the country, maybe you don’t need a rack card at all.
  • Am I reaching my customers in the way they want to be reached? Your marketing collateral, especially your newsletter, may need to work well both in print and online.
  • Am I being consistent? Marketing materials with the same color scheme, font, logo and contact information allow customers to recognize you at a glance.
  • Am I repeating myself? Yes, you need several attempts before customers take advantage of an offer or remember that you exist. But a little variety in content ensures that they actually read your communication before they throw it out.
  • Am I able to find something to say and the time to write it? Before you start a blog or newsletter, build up a backlog of several posts or articles to ensure that you have something to say about your company, products and services and that the content will interest your customers. If you lack subject matter or time, consider hiring a professional writer to take over.

As a professional marketing writer, I not only recognize the need to communicate with customers, I recognize the need to stop and take stock. The best marketing collateral reaches customers in the way they prefer, with timely information they want, in a consistent format and with interesting content. TWP Marketing & Technical Communications is ready to help.

Add Clarity to Your Message with Bullets & Numbers

From the moment writing was invented, a communication problem arose. Person-to-person, a speaker has to take a breath at some point, allowing the listener a chance to respond. On anything written, from website to email or from manual to product insert, monologue is the rule. The recipient cannot interrupt to answer or ask questions or to verify an important point.

One solution: bulleted and numbered lists.

If you are writing to ask questions and you genuinely want answers, then number each question. Do not group questions into long paragraphs. Numbers prevent the recipient from becoming confused by the relationship between questions that are haphazardly grouped together. If a question is missed or misunderstood, both sender and recipient can easily refer to it by number.

As for directions, take a hint from Google Maps, where each step in a set of driving directions is numbered. They know that dense paragraphs of directions are always misread because the tendency of a reader is to scan, not break them down. Using numbers not only ensures that the directions are followed step-by-step, but it allows for questions about a particular step if the reader needs clarification or verification.

In general marketing material, such as brochures or websites, bullets and numbers bring interest as well as clarity to the text, avoiding large and forbidding blocks of type. Be careful to be consistent in your use and selection of bullets/numbers, as readers are thrown off by arbitrary changes from, say, round bullets to dashes or Roman to Arabic numerals. They believe the change signals a change in importance (or simple sloppiness, which is also undesirable).

When clear communication is important to you and your customers, TWP Marketing & Technical Communications is ready to help.


Write Like You Talk

Recently I read a famous fiction author’s advice on writing. He said writing should be invisible, so that the characters and actions shine through. Simple writing, he said, is best.

The same advice applies even more strongly to marketing writing. Your goal in marketing writing is not to impress people with your vocabulary and the cleverness of your sentence structure. Your goal is to communicate a marketing message. Five syllable words, the most recent jargon (proactive, state-of-the-art), and complicated sentence structures merely get in the way; customers may admire your cleverness but do they remember your product or service?

Take these examples:

  • From a brochure: “The multiplicity of chemical elements in nature has given rise to an absolutely inexhaustible wealth of forms, phenomena and possibilities.” When write-like-you-talk is the rule, the message is easy to understand: “Nature has given us a wealth of chemical elements and a wealth of possibilities for combining and using them.”
  • From a flyer: “Only a carefully prepared specification of the  entire project that is tailored to the effective requirements of the user can form a basis for an optimum solution.” Here’s the write-like-you-talk version: “We understand your requirements, and we tailor our solutions to your specific needs.”
  • From an advertisement: “We offer a broad portfolio of compatible knowledge components.” It took a while to puzzle this one out but the author meant that “Our different software components link together to form the exact solution each customer is looking for.”

Technical companies aren’t the only ones who fall into the mistake of using complicated language and sentence structures in order to impress. If you truly want to impress customers, make it easy for them to understand the value in your products and services. Write like you talk.

At TWP Marketing & Technical Communications, we’ve proven that clear and accurate language sells in websites, articles, newsletters, blog posts and technical documents. Contact us today.

What Your First-Time Website Needs Most

In the rush and excitement of developing a new website, you may overlook these fundamental must-haves:

  • Contact information. Make sure your contact information appears on every page, not just the Contact Us page.
  • Navigation that tells people who you are. A tab for each major product or service gives visitors more immediate information and leads them more firmly than a generic “services” or “products” tab.
  • Words. Search engines don’t search for pictures, they search for words. Make sure you have labeled pictures descriptively to aid the search engines in their search.
  • Responsiveness. Users are frustrated by email addresses or forms that seem to lead into a black hole; assign someone knowledgeable to respond quickly to queries.
  • White space, subheads and bullets. No one likes to read hundreds of words of unbroken text.
  • Working links and videos. Never assume that links and vidoes are working properly. For videos, especially, it’s important to look and listen as if you were a visitor–do videos load quickly and are they clear, easy to understand and current?

If you are building a website for the first time, there is no need to struggle through alone. Contact TWP Marketing & Technical Communications and take advantage of our experience.

Writing Instructions: Fewer Words Mean Faster Understanding

We all have a friend who rambles on and on when giving instructions that could be described in one sentence. What we’ll forgive in a friend, however, we are unlikely to forgive in a user manual or other written procedure. We want to move quickly from instructions to actions. Complicated instructions are more likely to be misunderstood or ignored entirely.

The next time you write instructions, check your copy for these word-wasters:

(a) Putting everything in the future tense: “The equipment will turn on after a 4-second delay.” The meaning is perfectly clear in the present tense: “The equipment turns on after a 4-second delay.” One “will” makes little difference–a manual full of “will’s” can easily double in size.

(b) Beginning sentences with “it is” or “there are”: “There are two ways to shut down the equipment: manually or automatically.” Again, a rewrite saves words while keeping the meaning clear: “The equipment can be shut down either manually or automatically.”

(c) Adding unnecessary qualifiers: “The shutdown delay is in the range of 7 to 10 seconds.” Since “7 to 10” is already a range, the sentence can be simplified as: “The shutdown delay is 7 to 10 seconds.”

If you are having difficulty keeping your instructions within reasonable limits, contact TWP Marketing & Technical Communications.

Health Care Attitudes: Is Your Industry Healthy?

Last year, Providence Business News in Rhode Island “announced the winners of its newest event, Healthiest Employers, which recognizes companies–large and small–that have health and wellness initiatives and believe in encouraging employees to adapt healthy lifestyles.”

Oddly enough, about 40% of the 28 winning companies were in health-related fields, from insurance to preventive care. A similar top-20 list by the Kansas City Business Journal featured a rehabilitation center, an insurance broker, a medical center and a hospital–20% of the total winners.

Now maybe companies in the healthcare and insurance industries have a greater commitment than most companies to employee health. (Or maybe they are just more aware of health-related contests!)

How would you rate your industry for its attitude toward employee health? Take the poll on LinkedIn at Let’s Talk Health Care or leave your comments here.

Disclosure: I’ve partnered with Harvard Pilgrim on this sponsored post. However, the thoughts and opinions expressed are my own. You can find more ways to be well at HarvardPilgrim.org/CountUsIn and Let’s Talk Health Care.



Frequently Asked Grammar Questions

This post is a quick Q&A to answer some grammar questions that drive people nuts.

Q. How can I tell if it’s “it’s” or “its”?

A. “It’s” means “it is” and “its” means “belonging to it.” Write your sentence and then try this: When you come to “it’s,” read “it is” instead. Does the sentence still make sense? When you come to “its,” read “his” (or “her”) instead. Does the sentence still make sense? If it does (“It is a good thing the dog went to his house”), you are using the right words. If the sentence doesn’t make sense (“His a good thing the dog went to it is house”), you are using the wrong words. By the way, its’ (with the apostrophe after the s) isn’t a word.

Q. What’s the difference between “insure,” “assure,” and “ensure”?

A. They are close in meaning but try to keep them separate. Use “insure” when you are talking about an insurance policy (“he wanted to insure his boat”). Use “assure” for the act of reassuring or pacifying someone (“he assured her he was a good sailor”). Use “ensure” in the sense of “make sure” (“with daily maintenance, he ensured the boat was seaworthy”).

Q. When should I use a semicolon?

A. The three most frequent uses of a semicolon are (1) to separate a series of items when the items contain commas, as used in this sentence; (2) to separate an independent clause that starts with “however” from the rest of the sentence (“He is a good sailor; however, he could be better with training.”); and (3) to join two independent clauses together without the use of “and” or “but” or some other conjunction (“He is a good sailor; he would be better with training.”). Independent clauses can also be written as two separate sentences with a period between.

If you want more information about grammar, I highly recommend two books: The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White; and The Little, Brown Compact Handbook.

Send me your grammar questions. I’ll be happy to reply with answers for you.