Category Archives: Style Guru

What happens when spell-check can’t help (and what to do about it)

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Building relationships and trust with prospects and clients requires a jaw-dropping amount of work. Once you’ve established your organization as a credible, reliable and legitimate source of information, don’t jeopardize your efforts with embarrassing spelling errors.

Quality writing isn’t just for style junkies. If I were trying to earn your business and sent you marketing email with grammatical mistakes, would you hire me? Imagine the message that would send to your audience. If you’re not minding the details, why would they plunk down six figures for your new product?

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How to turn mediocre copy into tantalizing content

OK handWe’ve all been there.

You write the best blog post, ad, white paper, story or (fill in the blank) ever. And then someone dumps all over it. The red sea of edits and corrections makes you wonder what went wrong.

The thrill is gone.

But you can bring it back. Here’s how …

Know the five signs of copy drivel and avoid them like the bubonic plague. They’re content killers and they’ll take you down every time.

  1. Long sentences
  2. Wordiness
  3. Jargon
  4. Passive voice
  5. Random capitalization

Let’s explore these in-depth so that you’ll be able to recognize and fix them in your own writing.

#1: Long sentences

The shorter your sentences, the more readable they are. Aim for a maximum of 15 words per sentence, but don’t be obsessive about it. Look for opportunities to cut when you can. This sentence from a daily writing tips blog (for real) screams for hedge clippers:

“Although variety of sentence length occurs naturally, it’s a good idea, when it’s feasible, to recite your writing aloud to ensure that stacks of sentences of repetitively equal or nearly equal length aren’t slipping through.”

Whoa! I dare you to get through that without stopping for a breath.

How to fix it

Short sentences pack a punch. Use them liberally. You can even write one-sentence paragraphs to help readers breeze through your content.

Push yourself to trim your word count. Turn a 100-word e-blast into 50 words and then slash it to 25. If you’re feeling brave, cut another 10 words.

Now, let’s rewrite the tip above:

“Vary sentence length to grab readers’ attention. Read your copy out loud and then rewrite any monotonous sections to spice it up.”

Got it? OK, let’s move to the next sign.

#2: Wordiness

You can’t help yourself.

You fall prey to deadwood like “in order to,” “in need of” and “at the present time.”

Does this look familiar?

“If you’re in need of a refund, please contact the corporate office immediately in order to get your money back. The local branch is closed for repairs at the present time.”

How to fix it

Resist the temptation to use three or more words when one will do. Trim wordy phrases and your readers will thank you.

Use this cheat sheet to get started:

Avoid Replace it with
As a result of Because
At the present time Now
At that point in time Then
At this point in time Now
Due to the fact Because
In close proximity Near
In need of Need
In order to To
In the event that If
Make use of Use
Subsequent to After

Prune as many words from your copy as you can. It becomes easier the more you do it.

Ready for the next one?

#3: Jargon

Your audience expects you to use inflated words, right?

Wrong.

If you use business and industry jargon, you could alienate readers who aren’t familiar with those terms, as well as bloggers, journalists and others whose attention you’re trying to attract. You want your audience to read and act on your message. That won’t happen if they don’t understand it.

Try decoding this banking jargon:

“We must effect a needs assessment of the downturn in commercial lending package applications.”

Huh?

Translation: “We need to find out why no one is applying for loans.”

How to fix it

Impress readers with clear, concise and benefit-driven content – not bloat. Simple words are approachable and meaningful.

For example:

  • Choose “rules” instead of “methodology.”
  • Use “improve” instead of “optimize.”
  • Select “think” – not “conceptualize.”
  • Pick “avoid” rather than “circumvent.”

OK, on to #4.

#4: Passive voice

Fizzle or sizzle? It’s your choice.

Passive voice goes down like a can of pop that sat open on the counter for three days. It’s impersonal and unfriendly, and often produces ambiguous, unsatisfying sentences.

Here’s an example:

“The database contains 1 million veterans’ records and can be easily viewed and searched online.”

The first half of the sentence is fine. The rest doesn’t tell readers who can view and search the database.

Check these out. They’re all in passive voice:

  1. “Mistakes were made when the cars were produced on the assembly line on March 4.”
  2. “It was heard by Susan that a companywide audit was scheduled.”
  3. “Pat’s new car was driven too fast and the fender was scratched.”

How to fix it

Rewrite your copy in active voice. It’s easy: Determine who or what performs the action and use that as the subject of the sentence.

Now, let’s try those again:

  1. “The welders made mistakes when they produced the cars on the assembly line on March 4.”
  2. “Susan heard that the CFO scheduled a companywide audit.”
  3. “Pat’s son, Blake, drove the car too fast and scratched the fender.”

Last but not least …

#5: Random capitalization

“Hi, my NAME is [fill in the blank] and I have an overwhelming Compulsion to capitalize RANDOM words in my copy. Even Worse, I do it inconsistently. I Need HELP.”

Here’s the thing: Capitalization within a sentence implies a proper name, such as Anita Job or Acme Widget Co.

It confuses readers when you capitalize words or letters at will, such as “our Financial expertise,” and “I TRUST that you have Integrity.”

TRUST me – random capitalization doesn’t make a word inherently important.

How to fix it

If you want to emphasize a word or phrase, use bold text or italics, but don’t go overboard. Emphasize too much and you’ll diminish your point. Better yet, use plain text. It promotes readability and comprehension.

Take this example – it’s jarring to your audience:

“I’m happy to report that we’ve made excellent progress in reducing our PRICING MISHAPS, SHIPPING ERRORS AND BAD DEBT.”

Capitalizing these words is unnecessary and is the equivalent of SHOUTING AT YOUR READERS.

You’ve got this

The first step to turning ordinary copy into irresistible content is to apply these five fixes to your own work. It might take some practice, but everything worth doing requires a commitment. If this list intimidates you, master one or two and then work your way through the rest one at a time.

You can do it!

Do you have tips of your own for making middling copy magical? Let us know in the comments below.

Building brand identity with style and consistency

Ever notice that publications like the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, Crain’s Chicago Business or The Wall Street Journal all seem to follow their own rules when it comes to language?

Of course, that’s because they do. Along with the rest of the publishing world, these four newspapers all adhere to slightly different language guidelines that spell out whether the appropriate usage is “champing at the bit” or “chomping at the bit”; “healthcare” or “health care”; or “ballgown or “ball gown.”

This linguistic minutia may seem insignificant in isolation. But taken together with thousands of other language rules assembled into thick “style manuals,” these volumes not only make a publication’s copy consistent, but they convey and protect its distinctive voice, values and brand identity.

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Caps off to you

“The President of the College will speak to Law Students Tuesday about Health Care issues.”

Many people would breeze through that sentence without a second glance. As grammar guardians, though, my fellow editors and I read it and wince.

Improper capitalization is one of the most common grammar mistakes we see at The Simons Group. For some reason, people love to hit the caps lock when it comes to certain words and phrases (although we almost never see the opposite problem, where writers lowercase words that should be capitalized).

In general, the only words you need to capitalize in a sentence are the first word and proper nouns, or nouns that denote a specific person, place or thing (Alexandra, France, Ford Motor Co.). Yet some argue that capitalization underscores a term’s importance, while others claim certain words and phrases just “look right” when they’re capitalized. The truth is, though, that willy-nilly capitalization makes your writing confusing — and writers who pepper their prose with uppercase words run the risk of sounding like a lost chapter from “The Canterbury Tales.”

Below are some of the most frequent marketing-related capitalization mix-ups. Master these, and you’ll be well on your way to keeping your caps where they belong.  

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R U tired of bad grammer? Me 2

My library’s recent book fair was the hottest ticket in town. Book nerds within a 25-mile radius lined up outside before the doors opened to get first crack at the thousands of used paperbacks and hardbacks inside.

Schlepping wagons, suitcases and cardboard boxes, they ran – not walked – hoping for hidden treasures at cheap prices. Seeing the size of the literature section gave me hope for finding “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “Of Mice and Men,” but surprisingly, I came up empty.

Moving on to the “writing” pile, I dove in and waded through castoff dictionaries, outdated writing guides and faded copies of The Chicago Manual of Style. My only competition was a bearded, backpack-toting hipster who seemed to have little interest in anything published after 1980.

Buried at the bottom was “Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation” by Lynne Truss. I vaguely remember reading this when it was published in 2003. At $2, it seemed like a bargain, so I snatched it up. Truss, a former sports columnist for the London Times, bemoans the sorry state of punctuation. 

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Exclamation points: The ugly truth revealed!

Any reputable grammar and style guide tells you to use exclamation points sparingly. Never! Ever! Abuse! Them!

But there’s a caveat. Grammar and style guides are writers’ bibles. They tell us whether health care is one word or two and when to use a comma or a semicolon. Lis and I refer to them because we want our copy to be professional and error-free. The content we provide, however, is for blogs, websites, e-blasts, newsletters and other marketing collateral. The guides we rely on are intended for these uses.

Where does that leave email and texting? Both forms of communication have exploded for business and personal use. And they’re often more informal than other kinds of writing. Exclamation points are creeping in because they convey emotion. The same goes for their evil twins – smiley and frowney faces.

One is the loneliest number

Writers often have the space to set an emotional scene or atmosphere with words alone in an article or Web page, but emails, text messages, Facebook posts and tweets aren’t that generous. You’ve got to get in and get out. The limitation seems to encourage an exclamation point – or even two.

I don’t seem excited when I text, “I can’t wait to go to the Cubs game.” But consider, “I can’t wait to go to the Cubs game! (smiley face)” Is there any doubt I’m fired up now? Of course, the only thing Cubs fans are looking forward to is next year, but that’s another blog topic.

Just for fun, I asked our clients what they think about exclamation points and smiley/frowney faces in emails and texts. My informal poll of 17 people shows that exclamation points and faces are A-OK more often than not.

“I hate to admit it, but I’m the exclamation point queen,” says Dianne Ransom, senior editor and editorial programs manager at PDI Global. “I put them everywhere, but not in official articles. In email, it’s game on. And I love smiley faces.”

Christy Baranowski, CPA at Morrisey Associates, says, “I use exclamation points all the time, particularly when I’m expressing happiness, congratulations or anger. I use smiley faces as well, but pretty much only in texts since it’s easier.”

It used to be that less is more, but now more is more among some proponents.

“I’m prolific with my use of exclamation points,” says Robyn Traub, program coordinator for the Family Business Council at the University of Illinois at Chicago.” I find that I’m using them two or even three times in an email, and have tried to limit myself to just one per email as necessary.

“In texts, I think it’s OK to use as many as you want, especially since those are usually intended for friends or family,” Robyn adds. “Smiley and frowney faces are definitely a must in texts.”

Just say no

Not everyone is a fan of exclamation points and smiley/frowney faces.

“Texting can give you some liberties: People accept more abbreviations given the more difficult nature of entering the message from various keyboards,” says Dan Oscarson, vice president of Global Buyer Marketing at Insurance Auto Auctions. “It’s best to spell things out and punctuate appropriately, however. A text doesn’t give you additional license to be goofy or more lighthearted than you would in regular communication.”

“I hate exclamation points,” adds Lucy Ramirez, communications and marketing manager at Chicago Family Health Center. “I think they make people seem obnoxious and angry, even though I know it’s impossible to tell the real demeanor of the person who is texting or emailing. For me, they are as bad as typing in all caps.”

Beating temptation

In the end, I would apply common sense. Just as I wouldn’t send an expletive-filled email to my boss, I wouldn’t go crazy with exclamation points and smiley faces in business or personal communications. The more you use them, the less power they have.

Get my point?!!!!!!

Initialisms stir up confusion

I’ve been swimming in alphabet soup lately. Not the kind with noodles and chicken, though. I’m talking about editing copy that is redolent with initialisms, causing me anxiety. These darned things always give me pause and it seems I’m not alone, judging by other writers’ comments online.

Be not afraid. I’m going to give you the ingredients you need to whip up a batch of initialism-laden copy – and do it correctly. Your readers and your company won’t have any idea you weren’t an expert already.

Initialisms are formed from the first letters of a phrase or name, but they can’t be pronounced as words. Examples include CEO, IRS, DVD and URL. So far, so good, right? I get in a clutch when I have to think about the different uses. Do they cause you to sweat, too? Read on to learn how they work.

Punctuate initialisms according to their usage:

  • s for plural
  • ‘s for singular possessive
  • s’ for plural possessive

Plural examples:

  • She borrowed 15 DVDs from the library.
  • Great CEOs are worth every penny.
  • Boaters, campers, hikers and motorists use GPSs to find their way.

Singular possessive examples:

  • A recordable DVD’s compatibility with different players may vary.
  • A CEO’s leadership is crucial to a company’s long-term success.
  • A GPS’s ability to help boaters, campers, hikers and motorists cannot be underestimated.

Plural possessive examples:

  • DVDs’ surfaces are easily scratched.
  • The CEOs’ limousines are waiting outside.
  • GPSs’ margins of error differ from unit to unit.

Initially, I gave examples with URL, but when I got to the plural possessive, I got a brain cramp and caved. Can you form a sentence using the plural possessive of URL? Good luck – and let me know in the comments section.

Here a quote, there a quote, everywhere a quote-quote

When you curl up with a good book, chances are that it’s conversation-heavy. Who doesn’t love coffee and good conversation, after all? Trying to wade through a story that’s all narrative is so boring, it’s like watching your computer defrag.

I tried to read a Jack Kerouac book once that was worse because not only did no one talk, but Kerouac used little punctuation. It was 300-some pages of the world’s longest run-on sentence. He may have thought he was being unconventional and edgy, but the book was a train wreck. My favorite used-book store didn’t even want it for free.

Conversation adds pep to otherwise banal copy.  Features and profiles, such as those you might write about your company’s employees, or success stories that highlight how your products and services solved your customers’ problems, are excellent places to experiment with conversation.

Have some fun with it, too. You don’t have to stick to the traditional he said, she said. Try mixing it up with quotations within quotations or full paragraphs of quoted material. Variety shows off your versatility and helps engage readers.

Quote mark basics

Direct quotes: These are the simplest form of quotations: “Make sure you complete your assignments by Friday,” the teacher said. Robert told his wife, Suzanne, “If you go to the grocery store after work, please don’t forget the eggs.”

Quotes within quotes look like this: “When Bob Marley sang, ‘Man is a universe within himself,’ I think he was right,” Dave said. When an individual is quoting someone else, use single quotes around that content, as in my example. Here’s another one: “Did she ask, ‘What’s going on?’”  The quoted material needs single quotes, ‘What’s going on?’ and then a double quote to complete the thought.

Running quotations: Are you getting a visual of quotations growing legs and chasing you in your nightmares? It’s OK – you’re not alone. This term refers to a full paragraph of quoted material that is followed by a paragraph that continues the quotation. Do not put quotation marks after the first paragraph. Do put quote marks before the second paragraph. Here’s how this works:

“Despite the anemic economy, our company will continue with its long-range marketing plans that we developed last year,” CEO Donald Weiss said. “Our social media initiatives, in particular, are on target and surpass what our competitors are doing. We also plan to build on the momentum we’re gaining from our recent website redesign. (No quote marks here, but use a quote to kick off the next paragraph.)

“Furthermore, our management team is investigating a possible overseas expansion that would include our partners in China, France and Germany,” Weiss added. “This untapped potential could open many new doors for us in terms of market penetration and industry competitiveness.” (The CEO is finally done talking, so you need a quote mark to complete his Very Important Points.)

Unfamiliar terms or irony: Put quote marks around these so they will stand out for readers. She tried to explain what she meant by “knowns” and “unknowns.” Now for irony: The “debate” turned into a free-for-all.

Dialogue or conversation: No matter how many people are speaking and no matter how brief their thoughts are, place them in separate paragraphs, with quote marks at the beginning and end of each person’s comments:

“Will you go with me to Glade Creek?”

“No, I’ll pass.”

“Would you like to go to Lewisburg instead?”

“Sure.”

“When?”

“Let’s go now.”

Avoid fragmented quotations: Don’t use quote marks for a few ordinary words. This sentence is incorrect: The tea party candidate said he would “go home to Florida” if he lost the election. Here’s the correct usage: The tea party candidate said he would go home to Florida if he lost the election. (No quotes.)

Quoted material in headlines: Put single quote marks around any words that you pull from a story. Say you wrote a headline for a story about former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich and the copy contained this quote: “I will be glad to testify during my retrial. In fact, the truth will come out when I do.”

The headline would be, Blagojevich: ‘The truth will come out’ at retrial.

That covers most of what you need to know about quotes. If you need help with any copy that falls outside my examples, I’ll be happy to help you sort it all out.

Use this, not that

Confusion about similar words abounds, especially when they sound alike. Writers sometimes use one word when they really mean another. Have any of these tripped you up?

Accept, except – These are often misused and confused. Accept means to receive or agree to. Should I accept the gift even though I know it’s really expensive? Except means to exclude. Everyone was invited to the party except Bob.

Aid, aide – Aid is assistance. Aid can also be a verb. Pakistan desperately needs aid to recover from massive flooding. Aide is only a noun and it’s a person who serves as an assistant. As a teachers’ aide, Lori helps students learn to read.

Allude, elude Allude is an indirect reference to something. The CEO alluded to his company’s acquisition plans. Elude means to escape or avoid detection. The robber eluded police for several days.

Capital, capitol – These are a little tougher. Capital is the city where a seat of government is located. Cheyenne is the capital of Wyoming. Capital also refers to money. The struggling business needs a large infusion of capital to survive. Capitol is the building in which the U.S. Congress or state legislatures meet. Capitalize U.S. Capitol and the Capitol when referring to the building in Washington, D.C., and when writing about state capitols. The meeting was held on Capitol Hill in the west wing of the Capitol. The Virginia Capitol is in Richmond.

Complement, compliment – My personal favorites because so many people confuse them. Complement is a noun and a verb that indicates completeness or the process of supplementing something. Her new shoes complement her dress. Compliment denotes praise. I complimented her on her new dress and shoes.

Conscience, consciousConscience is a noun for the sense of moral goodness. She could not, in good conscience, keep the wallet that she found in the park. Conscious is an adjective that means being aware. I am conscious of the fact that he lied to me.

Ensure, insure – Use ensure to mean guarantee. We will pack everything ourselves to ensure that nothing breaks when we move. Use insure for references to insurance. The policy insures his life.

Hangar, hanger – I use these so rarely, I always have to look them up when I do. A hangar is a building. The airplane hangar is just to the left of the terminal. A hanger is used for clothes. I need to trade my wire hangers for wooden ones.

Medal, meddle, metal, mettle – Double your trouble! A medal, often made of metal, is a prize for winning something or doing something brave. She won a silver medal in the marathon. Meddle is to interfere in something that is none of your business. Her nosy neighbor liked to meddle in her private life. Metal is a shiny substance that conducts electricity and heat. The artist makes hanging garden decorations from refurbished metal. Mettle is strength of spirit or temperament. She showed a lot of mettle in finishing the race.

Premier, premiere – As a noun, a premier is a prime minister or a leader of a country. Jean Charest is Premier of Quebec. As an adjective, premiere means first in rank or position. President Obama holds the premiere place in U.S. government. Premiere is also a noun and means a first performance. The premiere of  The Lion King will be next Monday.

Reign, reinReign is the period a ruler is on the throne. The king began his reign in 1952. A leather strap for controlling a horse is a rein. I asked Susan to rein in her horse. She took the reins and headed back to the barn.

Sight, siteSight is the act of seeing. It also relates to something that is seen. My mom and I went sightseeing in Ireland last year. We set our sights on traveling across the entire country, but we ran out of time. Site is about a place. The developer selected the ideal site for the new shopping center.

Stationary, stationery – Stationary means to stand still. The soldier remained stationary in his position. Writing paper is stationery. Now that so many homes and businesses have computers, few people take the time to write letters by hand on stationery.

I could go on because there are many other confusing word combinations, but I’m more interested in any that you get stuck on. Send them my way.