Your written communication says a lot about you and your business. Mistakes are like having a piece of broccoli stuck in your teeth. Even though they’re unintentional, they’re distracting.
More importantly, if you don’t set your standards high, it can have serious long-term consequences. Joann Killeen, past President and CEO of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), notes the potential impact of poor communication:
“In today’s competitive business environment, clear and concise writing is a must for financial success. If customers or clients don’t understand what you’ve written or aren’t clear what goods and services you are selling, how long do you expect to stay in business, let alone ever be profitable?”
The truth is, no one expects you to be a Pulitzer Prize winner or know every grammar rule ever written. The key is being aware of your shortfalls and taking the time to prevent them.
Here are five common trouble areas to watch for in your business writing:
1. Not Getting to the Point Quickly and Effectively
Bryan Garner, author of The Harvard Business Review’s Guide to Better Business Writing, states, “One of the great diseases of business writing is postponing the message to the middle part of the writing.”
Know what you need to say, and say it. If you have more than one point to make, write a quick outline to organize your thoughts. (It’ll also help you determine which points are the most important.)
Don’t expect your readers to be psychics. If there’s an action you want someone to take, don’t hide it in the last sentence of the third paragraph.
If you need to list or call out a number of items, bullets can be your best friend.
2. Spelling Errors
We all live in fear of the dreaded spelling error. The best way to avoid mistakes is to slow down and use spell-check. (If you’re sending an email, give the error-checking tool a chance to run before hitting Send.)
If you’re unsure of the correct spelling, use an online dictionary. If the word is a business term that’s not in the dictionary yet, you can also do a simple online search. Or, try seeing how another business or publication uses the term.
It should also make you feel better knowing that when Google Trends released its map of America’s Most Misspelled Words, it misspelled the word “ninety” as “nintey.” The map was corrected a few hours later.
3. Unbearably Long Sentences
This happens most often when you write exactly like you talk. While a conversational tone can work, a sentence that goes on and on does not.
Compare these two examples:
I was trying to make this article friendly and approachable, so I read a few articles for reference, jotted a few notes and tried to keep everything as simple as possible by avoiding too many details.
I was trying to make this article friendly and approachable. I kept everything simple by avoiding too many details.
Shorter sentences read more quickly. It’s also helpful to eliminate extraneous talking points. Finally, if a long sentence is joined together using “and” or “so,” try removing the connector and dividing the thoughts into separate sentences.
4. Apostrophe Abuse
According to Grammar Girl, Mignon Fogarty, apostrophes are used to show possession or stand in place of something missing.
One of the most common forms of apostrophe abuse is confusing a plural (more than one of something) with possession (ownership).
- Dogs — plural — more than one dog.
- Dog’s — singular possessive — belonging to one dog.
- Dogs’ — plural possessive — belonging to a group of dogs.
Mistakes happen when people use dog’s (singular possessive) instead of dogs (plural). To prevent this mistake, ask yourself if you mean more than one or if you intend to imply ownership.
- Correct — I have five dogs.
- Incorrect — I have five dog’s.
Understanding how apostrophes work in contractions can also help you with common mistakes like:
- Its (belonging to it) vs. it’s (it is).
- Your (belonging to you) vs. you’re (you are).
- There (location), their (possession) or they’re (they are).
In all fairness, apostrophes are really tricky.
- You don’t use an apostrophe when you pluralize an acronym like VIPs.
- But, you can use an apostrophe to shorten the 1990s to the ’90s. (Never 1990’s.)
Again, if you’re unsure, look it up.
5. Error Pattern Blindness
Everyone makes mistakes. Everyone. What’s unacceptable is a lack of caring. If you pay attention to your writing, you’ll start to notice the mistakes you make most often. It will also make it easier for you to catch these mistakes.
Tools like Grammarly can also help you prevent errors. Depending on how you choose to set it up, you can have it check the text you enter in interactive forms and your social media posts.
Pairing standard spell-check with more advanced tools will help. But, these tools don’t work with every platform or device, and you always need to be careful of the things spell-check won’t catch, like its vs. it’s.
If you know your own style and shortcomings, you can even use the Find function to make sure you’ve caught any unsightly gaffes.
If possible, try not to wait until the last minute when you have something to write. If it’s really important and you don’t want to risk a mistake, sleep on it. Read it again the next day before sending it. You can also ask a colleague or peer to review it.
Communication is a powerful tool. Respect it, and it will earn you further respect. Ignore it, and well…
(FYI: The three little dots are called an ellipsis.)