Confuse and Lose Prospects With Basic Copywriting Errors

April 27, 2009

As one of Digett's resident wordsmiths, I occasionally comment on poor online copywriting practices such as incomprehensible business-babble and the use of overly casual language. I've neglected, however, to target those abuses in spelling, grammar, and other basic areas that are pervasive on the web.

Why? The likely explanation is that I commit such basic mistakes on a regular basis; all the training, experience, and spellcheckers in the world can't conquer human error. Thankfully, such mistakes are usually caught and corrected rather quickly. Nonetheless, these errors drive me batty and, more importantly, could cause some prospects to think twice about having us help out with copy edits.

Likewise, you'll have a hard time selling products—or competency—if your site is riddled with misspellings, grammar mistakes, and inconsistencies. You can generally take control of your copy, however, with a few simple measures.

Don't take the computer's word for it

Everyone agrees that spellcheckers are handy-dandy tools, but they're hardly foolproof. To wit: "Its you're problem, not there's." There isn't a single spelling error in that sentence, but it's still all kinds of wrong. True, some word-processing applications also check for grammar mistakes—sadly, they are all too common—but you may not be using a program that does. Besides, do you really want to trust these guys to proof your work?

Despite what James Cameron tells you, human ability will not be superceded by computers in the near future, so put your copy in front of another live being. If necessary, put it in front of two or three others.

Promote consistency by using a style guide

A style guide (or style manual) is a set of editorial and/or design guidelines that govern a particular type of communication. The idea is to promote consistency. When should you use an em dash (or en dash, or hyphen)? Do you always use serial commas? What words in titles and subheads do you capitalize? If you think your customers won't notice or won't care about subtle inconsistencies in your copy, you're not giving them enough credit.

What a style guide covers varies; some guides (like the AP Stylebook) focus largely on word choice and naming conventions, while others (like the Chicago Manual of Style) are far more extensive. Many organizations create their own guides, which are continually updated according to need. Personally, I prefer the AP manual for press releases and the Gregg Reference Manual for most other copy.

Remember that all copy is not equal

That is, what you write for a direct mailing or tri-fold brochure should never, ever be used verbatim on your website (and vice-versa). If you're wondering why I included this in a post that covers basic copywriting errors, the answer is that writing without a consideration of the medium is as basic as an error gets. Do not put your print copy on the web, and do not put your web copy in print.

The reason? People read media differently, and you need to accommodate them. Granted, there is plenty to say on this topic, but we'll cover it down the line. In the meantime, check out what web usability guru Jakob Nielsen says about writing for the web versus writing for print.

Comments

Typo on this page?

Is that hard return in a strange place deliberate?

We have a winner ...

Murphy's Law told me something would go awry with this post, given the topic. To answer, no, that hard return was not intentional—and it has been corrected. I'd love to blame that on a copy/paste issue from another application, but I typed this directly into the Drupal interface. Odd that it should appear, under those circumstances, but I thank you for alerting me.