Sunday, April 14, 2013

Writing Matters – Business


In my first professional copywriter job, I wrote primarily product marketing copy for a direct mail marketing company. In the 30-odd years since then, I’ve had the opportunity to write nearly anything that has words: ads, brochures, marketing collateral, packaging, technical documentation, RFPs, press releases, web copy, business documentation and more. I’ve performed freelance copywriting/editing for over 30 years. In my current full-time position, much of my time is spent copyediting work submitted by company employees for internal or external publication.

Even if you’re not a professional copywriter/editor, it’s likely you’ll have to communicate something in writing, either to a co-worker, supervisor, customer or vendor at some point during your workday. Some people write easily; others have told me that they find the task torturous. Easy or not, writing matters. Customers’ perceptions about a company are affected by a company’s written communications, such as letters, emails, websites, etc. Incorrect orthography (grammar, spelling and punctuation) creates a perception that the company itself lacks polish and professionalism. And customers detest overly hyped, promotional boasts; “marketese” creates doubts about credibility.

Here are some tips to help make your business writing more readable and improve credibility:

  • Get to the point. Start with the most important content first. Don’t make the reader search for the point.
  • Be concise. Avoid filler words; make sure each word matters.
  • Use natural language to ensure clarity and understanding.
  • Use a strong, active voice; avoid a passive voice. (“Jim mailed the contract” vs. “The contract was mailed by Jim.”)
  • Be objective. Avoid loaded, emotional words or opinions that reflect a narrow viewpoint.
  • Check the orthography:
    • Spelling – Don’t rely solely on spellcheck. Proofread once or twice.
    • Grammar – Know the rules of that/which, there/they’re/their, its/it’s, your/you’re. (Contractions should be the easiest.) Also, “through to” is impossible; it’s either “through June 5” (to the end of June 5) or “to June 5” (to the end of June 4).
    • Punctuation –
      • Use commas correctly
      • Use apostrophes for possessives, but not plurals
      • Place periods within quotation marks, not outside
      • Use hyphens for compound modifiers. (“Man eating lion” and “man-eating lion” have different meanings. In the first one, “eating'” is  a verb; in the second, “man-eating” is a compound adjective to describe a lion.)
      • Use only one space after a period at the end of a sentence, never two. (Typewriters used monospaced fonts; today’s computers use proportional fonts, so only one space is needed because the program makes the adjustment automatically. Save yourself the extra work.)
    • Avoid random capitalization; only capitalize proper nouns. (A surprisingly common mistake.)
    • Have someone else review important documents; even professional writers use editors.
  • Avoid square blocks of text; they’re hard to read. Use white space, bulleted lists and bolded headings that include keywords of the content.
  • Don’t center or justify text. Eye-tracking studies show left alignment with a ragged right edge is easier on the eyes.

Conciseness, accuracy, a natural tone and easy-on-the-eyes layout help reduce the reader’s cognitive load, make information easier to process and improves customers’ perceptions about a company’s credibility and attention to quality. Just keep it simple and easy to read.