If you are involved in business, “writer” is one of the many hats you wear. On any given day, you need to communicate effectively in writing – from texts and emails, to proposals and contracts, to a brochure or website content.
When the content is important, it is wise to have a second set of eyes proofread your work before you publish.
Proofreading and writing are separate, yet inseparable, disciplines. Writers intend to convey information, ideas or instruction in words. Proofreaders ensure the written words actually communicate what the writer intended. To achieve this, proofreaders must apply appropriate rules of grammar, spelling and punctuation, while being sensitive to style, tone and content.
Writers make mistakes. Proofreaders save our butts.
Unless you are President of the United States, you probably don’t have the luxury of proofreaders looking over your shoulder, assessing word-for-word every communiqué in real time. Fortunately, readers of your texts, emails and letters are generally forgiving. They will often let you know if a message is confusing or ambiguous, presenting the opportunity to clarify and beg forgiveness. (I find Autocorrect to be a convenient scapegoat.)
However, readers have higher expectations for the veracity and integrity of other communications content. When perusing websites or marketing materials, I am often floored by the volume of grammatical, spelling and punctuation errors they contain. Readers may dismiss a typo or two in a 50-word email, but on a website’s home page errors reflect a lack of professionalism and attention to detail. Worse, a prospective client is unlikely to provide this feedback. She’ll just move on to a competitor’s site that better meets her expectations.
So, the lesson of the day is: Learn from the feedback your clients and colleagues provide on your daily communications. And, for materials that need to stand the test of time, employ a second set of eyes (and perhaps third and fourth…) to ensure you’ve clearly expressed your ideas, information and instruction.
Sometimes, as with this blog, I act as both writer and proofreader. That’s when I get in trouble. It is probable that some errors are posted here. In advance, I humbly apologize, and invite your gentle comments.
The diminutive comma is the subject of an inordinate amount of debate. In particular: When listing a series of items in a sentence, does one include a comma before the word “and” at the end of a list? Among persnickety people who discuss such things, this is known as the “Oxford comma.” I have clients that are firmly entrenched at both ends of the argument: always “[comma] and…” or never “[comma] and…” Clients who pay their invoices in a timely manner are allowed to choose their preference and receive my grateful compliance.
When writing for myself, I am firmly entrenched in the middle. In some cases a comma before the last item in a series adds clarity and is, in my opinion, necessary. Otherwise, the inclusion or exclusion of a serial comma is at the writer’s discretion.
By definition, the Oxford comma is optional, included or excluded at the writer’s choice. In my view, the utility of a comma is dependent on context.
For example: The 80’s revival included performances by Adam Ant, Echo and the Bunnymen, and Siouxsie and the Banshees.
Removing the last comma in this series could lead the reader to believe the concert debuted a new super-group formed of Echo, Siouxsie, Bunnymen, and Banshees. While this union might produce heretofore-unimagined musical possibilities, the comma placement clarifies that three acts appeared separately.
In other musical news: Headbanging fans screamed above the hyper-amplified thrashing of Metallica, Slayer and Megadeth.
The absence of the Oxford comma here creates no ambiguity. On the other hand, inclusion would not alter the reader’s understanding. The writer gets to choose.
Finally: The aging metalheads carped that today’s bands are crap compared to Led Zeppelin, Blue Oyster Cult, and Deep Purple.
I am inclined to include the serial comma here. Since multiple words identify each item in the series, I argue that including the comma helps more clearly separate each complex item in the list. That said, I certainly would not disparage a writer who might exclude the comma before “and” in a similar instance.
When contemplating commas, my advice is for each writer to punctuate in a style that most effectively communicates his or her intended meaning.
(Note: This entry's title may elicit grins among readers who grew up in the 80’s. Younger readers may wish to Google “Boy George.”)
From our first days in elementary school, we are drilled in the rules of sentence structure, punctuation and word choice. However, with all due respect to English teachers everywhere, the rules of writing are not absolute.
When composing sentences, it is often acceptable to place a preposition at the end. And one can begin a sentence with a conjunction. Fragmented sentence? No problem. Colloquialisms? Fuggettaboutit!
Written communication in general is taking on a more conversational tone, largely as a byproduct of email, texts and social media replacing much of the interaction that once transpired in person or on the phone. As people talk more with their fingertips than their tongues, the rules of writing are relaxing, and we are learning to infuse greater clarity and expressiveness into our prose.
So feel free to exercise your own creativity and style. There are exceptions to every writing rule. Except one.
The only inviolable rule of effective writing is this: Always write to your audience.
When writing for business, your objective is to persuade target readers to take action of some kind: Read my book. Visit our website. Call for an estimate. Partner with me on a project. Send referrals.
However, before you can rouse them to action, you must first gain their interest and their trust. To achieve this, look at your offering through the eyes of your target reader. Get inside their heads. Who are they? Where do they live? What motivates their decisions? What makes them tick? What makes them ticked-off? Why should they do business with you? Why might they choose to do business with your competition? Answer these questions before you begin to write.
As is human nature, people would rather read about themselves than they would you or your company. Your understanding of the readers’ desires and motivations prepares you to relate to them through words that will draw them in. Then you are ready to bridge readers to your ideas, and encourage them to act.
To write effectively, view content through the eyes of your intended audience.