The truth is, we are all writers now. Even if you are not officially paid to write, your working life will be much more successful if you write well.
There are plenty of sources for grammar, punctuation, and even writing advice, but I want to focus on the things that I’ve not seen written anywhere else—common mistakes and lessons I’ve learned writing thousands of pages/screens of copy and teaching others how to write. Hopefully all this will teach you how to become a more successful writer.
Get good at the basics. The basics matter, no matter if you want to be successful in business writing or fiction. Basics include spelling, punctuation, and grammar. One typo can make someone think, “This person isn’t really paying attention. I’m not interested in hiring someone who isn’t paying attention.” And, you can’t hope to communicate professionally if your content is littered with mistakes. Every typo is a distraction and it takes you down a notch in the reader’s mind. Here are the most common mistakes that people make, and grammar tips to help you remember the right way:
- It’s versus its. “It’s” is a combination of two words: “It” and “is.” “Its” is the official possessive form of “it.” So many people make this mistake that someday the wrong way will become the right way. But we aren’t there yet. To help you remember: If it is a combination of two words, you need an apostrophe. If not, you don’t.
- They’re, there, and their: They + are = they’re. There = over there. Their = possessive of “they.” To help you remember:
- They’re = combination of two words, “they” and “are.”
- There = includes the word “here.”
- “Their” has an “i” in it. As in “me.” As in “mine.”
- Correctly punctuate sentences with quote marks.
- Periods and commas ALWAYS go inside quote marks, at least in the United States.
- Semicolons and colons go outside quote marks.
- Question marks and exclamation points go inside or outside, depending on the context:
- “Are you going now?” she asked.
- Why did she say, “I’m going now”?
The basics include what, who, why, and how.
What? Put on your buyer’s hat. How many times have you gone into Amazon (or any other ecommerce site) and had trouble finding the most basic product information—such as the product’s size or an accurate representation of the color or a clear photo of the product? I’m amazed at how often the basic “what” information is left out. Which is why the “customers answering other customers’ questions” section is so helpful.
Who? If people care about the people making the product or delivering the service, the “who” is super important. I can’t tell you how many CEOs have told me the first place they go when evaluating a possible service vendor is to the “About” section to read up on the leadership team.
Why? The “why” is a part of that analysis. The buyer is asking: “Who are these people, and why are they doing this? What is their motivation? Why did they do what they did when they designed this product or created this service?”
How? Then there is the “how” question. “How does this work? How will it work with what I am already using? How have others used it, and what was their experience? How can I use this to my best advantage?”
These questions must be answered in order for the person to consider buying your product or service.
Understand the finer points of sentence construction. Sentences should be short for the most part. Blunt. To the point. Don’t dance around the subject; don’t lead up to it; just spit it out. Each sentence should be one complete thought, not a number of thoughts.
Understand that complexity = confusion. Complexity actually has a weight to it. Make sure that you see that weight and distribute it accordingly. Examples:
This is difficult to follow: “This program is a flexible option designed for high-demand, one-time jobs, and temporary needs, and is a great way to introduce or supplement your regular requirements for your team and your clients.”
This is easier to follow: “This program is a flexible option designed for your temporary needs and high-demand, one-time jobs. It is a great way to introduce or supplement your regular requirements for your team and your clients.”
Note that the first sentence was too long and too complex; so your first fix for too much complexity is to take that long, winding sentence and break it into more than one sentence. But there was another writer’s secret that I put into play here: putting the more complex part of a list at the end of the sentence. “High-demand, one-time jobs” is more complex than “temporary needs.” So I put “temporary needs” first, and the more complex phrase at the end.
This may seem like a small thing, but one of the tricks to good writing is to realize that your reader doesn’t know where you are going unless you make it obvious. Each thought should stand on its own, and move logically to the next thought. The reader should be comfortable reading your writing, knowing that you will lay the ideas out efficiently and logically. This is especially true of business writing, but it also applies to fiction.
Hyphenate multiple-word modifiers, except when the modifier ends in “ly.” So “highly intelligent people” should not be hyphenated, but “less-confident people” should be hyphenated.
Use “e.g.” and “i.e.” properly. I misused “i.e.” for the longest time until I finally looked it up and committed it to memory. To help you remember:
- You should use “i.e.,” when you mean “in essence” (i.e., “in other words).”
- You should use “e.g.,” when you mean “for example.” As in: “You can use this cooking tool for a number of cooking tasks (e.g., cutting, scraping, mincing, and dicing).”
Avoid using company names as possessives. Instead of saying, “IBM’s servers are designed to . . . “ say, “The IBM servers are designed to . . . “
Use ellipses correctly. You should use three dots with spaces before, between, and after them, when using them in the middle of a sentence . . . just like that. You should use four dots with spaces before, between, and after them, when using ellipses at the end the sentence . . . . Like I just did.
When referring to numbers, use “more than” and “fewer,” not “over” and “less,” e.g., “There were more than 100 people at that meeting, which is still respectable, but it was fewer than we had expected.”
Pay attention to your tone. Never, ever, put your hands on your hips when writing. (“Isn’t that what you just did?” you might be thinking. No, I’m giving you friendly advice. If I had put my hands on my hips, I would have added some form of judgement or implied superiority, as in, “Don’t be an idiot; keep your hands off your hips when you’re writing.”)
No one likes being insulted. If you write with your hands on your hips or your nose in the air, you will limit the number of people following you. Readers can always sense the intent of the writer. If your intent is to feel smarter than they are, they will drift away.
Do your homework. It’s not really enough to just Google everything. I find it so interesting when I’ve researched the heck out of something in Google, then I talk to at least one expert on the subject, someone who lives and breathes what I’m writing about. There are always nuances that bring the topic to life, opening a door to a whole new perspective. Great copy is the result.
It reminds me of the fact that my husband can’t leave the sound on while watching “How It’s Made.” He knows too much about both manufactured and hand-made methods to listen to the narrator drone on about things the writers knew nothing about.
Write to help. Readers will also be able to tell if you are trying to help them. Even sales copy should be informative and helpful, not just self-serving. When writing sales copy, think of it as your part of a friendly conversation, not a situation where you are sitting in front of someone’s desk and going on and on and on about how great you are. “How can I help?” is the first thought on your way to being a successful writer.
Today’s customers expect a two-way conversation. If you’re not listening—in other words, interviewing real customers and learning their real stories and writing to who they really are—your readers will know you don’t know them. How many times have you read sales copy and thought, “Man, these people really don’t know me at all!”
Because so few writers get to know their readers/customers, most marketing and sales copy misses the mark.
I’ll never forget Rob, a copywriter working for Dow Jones when I was there doing a marketing department turnaround for them. I passed by his cubicle just after he had interviewed a customer, and the look on his face was priceless. “Wow,” he said, turning to me. “I just got off the phone with a customer.” He had learned so much. He was so much more informed about who that person was, and what that person cared about. It is never what we assume. Guessing is a sure recipe for failure. To this day, Rob continues to interview his customers before writing to his customers.
By the way, as I talk about in my book, you only need to have in-depth interviews of five to seven customers of a given type in order to get to know them. By the seventh customer you will understand what their issues are, what they care about, and who they are. You will be writing to someone you actually know. Someone you like, even. And your readers will know that you know them, and your content will be relevant to them.
While it is essential to get the basics right, for the sake of your success, no amount of grammatically perfect writing will be as powerful as personal knowledge of your reader.