7. Get the mechanics right.
Reading gorgeous prose littered with grammatical and punctuation errors is like looking at a hand model with dirty fingernails — it’s distracting. Even readers who can’t put their finger on what’s wrong with a piece may get the feeling something isn’t quite right when they encounter it.
Wordiness, redundancy, passive voice, false subjects, clichés, poor word choice, lack of parallelism or subject-verb agreement, misplaced modifiers, errant commas or semicolons, dangling clauses and run-on sentences are just some of the offenders that can obscure meaning and hinder readability.
Consider the following example from a recent ProofreadNOW.com submission for a style (substantive) edit:
Your goals should be shared very discrimately with only the few people that can really help you. There’s good reason for only sharing with those that are on your support team and/or are helping you achieve the goal. Otherwise you may find yourself defending you goals to naysayers before you even get started. Let’s face it. Naysayers only can comprehend the “fruit on the tree” — so to speak. They aren’t good at understanding or supporting you when you are “working on it.” Sometimes that support is not necessarily found with friends and family. It may be with a trusted coach you pay to be in your corner.
This passage is certainly understandable, but it lacks the punch needed to convince someone to hire a life coach. That’s partly because it contains passive voice (should be shared, is not necessarily found), a false subject (There’s good reason), redundancy (first and second sentences), clichés (fruit on the tree, in your corner), typos (can you spot them?) and some punctuation issues, among other substantive problems. The following paragraph incorporates our revisions, which not only fix the grammatical problems but provide suggested changes for increasing the impact of the message:
Share your goals discreetly — only with those who will help you achieve them. Some say you should tell as many people as possible about your plan, on the theory that the more people you tell, the more accountable you are for doing what you say you will. But what often happens is that you end up defending your goals to naysayers before you even get started. And surprisingly often, the loudest naysayers can be your family and friends, who may chide you for not being more “realistic” or “pragmatic.” Dreams don’t have fences, and sometimes it takes a more objective third party — like a trusted coach — to help you see and achieve such possibilities.
Mistakes hinder credibility. Whether you’re writing an annual report for a Fortune 50 company or a marketing brochure for a tire shop, even seemingly small errors can portray you or the company as careless.
Rarely does a prospective or current client see an error in a company document and declare, “I’m taking my business elsewhere.” The effect is often more subtle, subconscious even. The first error may sow a seed of doubt. Future mistakes will fertilize it. That’s a crop no one wants to cultivate.
Proofreading involves a lot more than running a spell-check — especially because so many correctly spelled words can be used in the wrong context and easily missed (e.g., “you goals” in the third sentence of the original example). And although a grammar check will catch passive voice, it won’t catch many of the other problems noted above.
Neither will you. Even with eagle eyes and a vast knowledge of English mechanics and usage, you can have a hard time evaluating your work objectively. You’re just too close to it. That’s why the next tip is essential.
9. Ask someone else to review your work.
The importance of the document, the extent to which it likely will be viewed and its longevity should dictate the level of review a draft receives. An interoffice memo might require only one other set of eyes. On the other hand, material designed to inform, attract and retain customers likely will be around for a while and should undergo more scrutiny.
That’s true for both print and online copy. Some companies are more lax about having online copy reviewed, thinking they can easily change it if someone later reports errors in it. But what they don’t consider is how many people might see the errors before someone points them out and the impact that has on their ability to attract new customers.
Another reason for having more than one reviewer is that even the best proofreaders aren’t perfect. Even though our ProofreadNOW.com editors are experts, we require two editors to look at every job to ensure nothing gets missed.
10. Make your document easy on the eyes.
Readability applies to not only what you write, but how you visually present it. Considerations include:
- Using short paragraphs with more space between lines, paragraphs and headings.
- Using bullet points to break up big blocks of text.
- Using an easy-to-read font and point size.
- Avoiding any text in all uppercase.
- Avoiding white or light-colored text on darker backgrounds.
- Making text flush left instead of justified.
- Incorporating graphics effectively.
We’ll talk more about readability in a future post.
That wraps up our three-part series on how to improve your business writing. If you’d like help fine-tuning what you’ve written, click below to find out how we can help.