You don’t need to be an expert on grammar, punctuation, and spelling to create useful, relevant online content that will be read, appreciated, and shared by potential buyers of your business’s products and services. This is what I tell the clients of my agency when I’m encouraging them to get more involved in the content creation process—even do some writing themselves.
I firmly believe that the ideas contained in a piece of online content, the expertise and real-world experience it reflects, is at least as important as the quality of the writing itself. Without those ideas, the content is useless; it will never resonate with readers, no matter how dazzlingly proficient the prose. And the best source for those ideas is straight from the horse’s mouth itself, the person who actually had those experiences and insights. This is why, as much as I appreciate being able to give work to my fellow professional writers, I always encourage our clients to take a stab at writing content themselves.
But, this isn’t to say that just because you’re not a professional writer you have free rein to mash independent clauses together into enormous run-ons, capitalize willy-nilly, or mistake “your” for “you’re,” or, for that matter, “yore” (it happens). Grammatically incorrect, poorly punctuated, and misspelled copy could harm your image at the exact time you need to look your best: in front of potential customers.
Your Under the Microscope
Like it or not, there are people out there who will judge you and your business for your adherence to the rules of English. I’m one of them (sorry, but this is what I get paid to do). So is iFixit CEO Kyle Wiens. In a highly-cited blog post from 2012, Wiens declared, “I Won’t Hire People Who Use Poor Grammar.” He wrote:
Good grammar is credibility, especially on the internet. In blog posts, on Facebook statuses, in e-mails, and on company websites, your words are all you have. They are a projection of you in your physical absence. And, for better or worse, people judge you if you can’t tell the difference between their, there, and they’re.
Weins’s article generated quite a bit of debate. His detractors did have a point. There are certainly situations where it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to judge a person’s ability to do a job by his aptitude with grammar.
On the other hand, one could argue that more writing errors emerge from carelessness than cluelessness. In other words, if you neglect to follow the rules of writing when you actually know them (I would guess most people with an average education understand the difference between “your” and “you’re” if they think about it), what does that say about your attention to detail in other aspects of your work?
Besides that, we don’t get to choose how people judge us. I don’t think what I wear to a job interview says anything about how well I would do the job, but that doesn’t mean I won’t put on a tie just in case it gives me an edge with the interviewer.
Your online content might be the first encounter a prospective buyer has with your business. First impressions matter. It’s time to put your best foot forward.
Tips for Avoiding Writing Errors
The clients with which my agency works have the benefit of a crack writing and editing team to catch their mistakes and spiff up their content. But for reasons of budget or principles, many businesses choose to keep content creation entirely in-house. My agency has; we’re ramping up our efforts and you’ll be seeing more and more articles written by members of our team on this blog in the near future.
If you don’t have access to professional editorial help, here are few tips for avoiding grammar, punctuation, and spelling mistakes in your online content:
1. Get Over Yourself
I’m fairly new to the business world (coming from a journalism background, which technically, yes, is a business, but not the same way) so maybe it’s only because of my outsider’s perspective that I’ve observed this, but have you ever noticed that the higher up you get in a business organization, the lower the quality of writing gets in emails and other written communication?
In my experience, lower-level employees are more likely to communicate in well thought-out, structurally coherent sentences, while CEOs are more likely to communicate in vague, misspelled fragments crammed into the subject line of an email.
Perhaps it’s because those lower-level employees are more worried about making a good impression with the boss, while the CEO has nothing to fear. Perhaps it’s because the CEO sees himself as a big picture guy who doesn’t need to sweat the small stuff. Whatever the case, when it comes to business blogging, no one is too important to write well.
How you communicate with your own employees is your own business. However, when you’re communicating with prospective customers, it’s time to put your ego aside and do it right. Don’t leave it up to a lesser employee—or worse, your reader—to try to sift through your lazy writing habits and interpret what you’re saying. If you’re a highly ranked member of your organization, there’s usually a reason for that. You have great insights and tons of experience to share. You’re the exact person readers need to hear from. If you know how to write better, do it.
2. Be Your Own Editor
This point is closely related to the point above, but it applies to anyone blogging for a business. Writing—writing well, anyway—is a draft process. You would be surprised how much copy I get handed to me to edit that has clearly not been given even a once-over by the writer. I can tell because it’s full of obvious errors the writer could have corrected on his or her own: missing words, misspellings, unfinished sentences.
If your blogging process begins and ends at the first draft, you’re missing an important step. You might not be able to catch every writing mistake you make, but before your articles reach someone else’s eyeballs, try at least to catch the ones you’re capable of catching. Here is the process I use when writing these “On Content” articles:
- Write the first draft of the article in Word.
- Read it through and make any changes I feel are needed.
- Post it and format it for the blog in HubSpot.
- Read it through again in HubSpot and makes any changes I feel are needed.
- Publish it with a time delay.
- Before it goes live, read it through again.
- Read it through one final time after it goes live, just in case any last-minute changes are needed.
I’m still not confident this process is enough to ensure everything I write is a flawless masterpiece, but at least I can feel like I’ve given it my best shot.
3. Don’t Ignore Those Squiggly Lines in Word
Microsoft Word (and its various clones) is far from perfect at picking out grammar and spelling errors, and it certainly doesn’t have a whole lot to say about style and structure, but it is good for identifying boneheaded mistakes. If you can’t think of a reason not to, anytime your word processor underlines your writing in red or blue, go ahead and follow its advice.
4. Pass it Around
This one should be obvious. Two heads are better than one; several heads are better than two. There may be no one in your organization that would characterize themselves as a wordsmith, but everyone knows a thing or two about writing. Maybe through the combined powers of your entire blogging team you can approximate a wordsmith.
Foster a collegial, workshop atmosphere among those of you who are handling the writing at your business. Pass your articles around and encourage feedback and when you get it—this is important—don’t just hit “accept all changes” in your document. Read through the changes your colleagues suggest, ask yourself if you agree with them, and if you do, learn from them and apply the lessons to your future writing assignments.
It can also be extremely valuable to solicit feedback from people outside of your organization. That is, after all, who will be reading your articles once they’re published. Ask your spouse or a friend to take a proofreading pass. Chances are, because they won’t be too interested in the content of your article (written about your boring industry) they’ll be more likely to catch stupid writing mistakes.
5. Use a Style Manual
At the very least, adhering to a style manual like the Associated Press Stylebook or the Chicago Manual of Style will get you and your team thinking about the words you use and why you use them. It will also help settle disputes about the proper way to spell or punctuate a word. Sticking to a style manual is a great way to elevate the professionalism of your writing and maintain consistency when you have several authors contributing to a single blog.
If you don’t agree with everything in one of the major style manuals or feel they don’t cover enough, create one just for your organization. HubSpot offers a pretty good one to get you started.
6. Get Professional Editing Help
If you’re not convinced by the tips I’ve offered here that you and your business can go it alone, or when all else fails, there are plenty of professional content writers and editors ready and waiting to assist you. But instead of just dumping a one-sentence assignment in the lap of some random writer who doesn’t understand your business, try doing the first draft yourself and then turning it over to a professional writer or editor for polishing. This is the best-of-both-worlds approach: your ideas and expertise, a professional writer’s way with words.
Again, be sure to review the changes your professional writer or editor makes. Try to learn from them. As you progress, you might find fewer and fewer changes are needed. Eventually, you might be able to cut your editor loose and go it alone after all.
"On Content" is an ongoing blog series by IMR content manager Matthew Cook that confronts the difficulties and celebrates the pleasures of writing online content.