Clear Copy Matters
Great copy can stop you in your tracks. So too can an error. Though common mistakes vary from the minor to the mortifying, nearly all are avoidable. Worst of all, they can leave your readers/clients wondering: If you’re not catching this, what else aren’t you paying attention to?
The good(ish) news? Everyone makes mistakes. The key is to catch them before hitting “publish.” Here are five tips to help make that happen.
1. Make an Editorial Style Guide
If you’re creating content, you need an in-house style guide—even if you’re the only person using it. Consistently making the same grammatical and stylistic choices will not only strengthen your messaging but also reinforce your authority as an expert. Here are the sections that every style guide should include.
General notes are just that: a few key statements about your house style. Here’s an example:
MCQUEEN will conform to CP Style unless otherwise noted. Spelling will conform to the Canadian Oxford Dictionary unless otherwise noted.
Conform to Elements of Indigenous Style when writing about Indigenous Peoples.
Please note that the MS Word defaults will attempt to correct contrary to many of these usages/spellings. Do not accept suggested corrections without checking the style sheet.
After completing a project, please transfer the additional project style notes to this style sheet for conformity.
The mechanics section outlines the “nuts and bolts” of how you use n-dashes and m-dashes, whether or not to use serial commas, when to spell out numbers, how to treat units of measurement, etc. Here are some example:
- n-dashes in number ranges set close (no spaces), e.g., 4–5 cm
- m-dashes set close (no spaces), e.g., Erin—and Warren—took the day off.
- obliques (slashes) set close (no spaces), e.g., 50 km/hr.
- temperatures set wide (with spaces) e.g., 30 °C
- initials set close (no spaces), e.g., J.J. Jameson
- No serial commas, except to create clarity, e.g., Cats, mice and ravens. or e.g., There will be food, drinks, and fun and games.
- If a word is bolded or italicized and followed by a comma or a period, that punctuation should be bolded or italicized.
- Spell out numbers below 10. Use digits for numbers 10 and up.
- Never start a sentence with digits. Write the number out in words, regardless of length.
This section alphabetically lists words that your brand spells or abbreviates a particular way (e.g. Canadian spelling) and acts as a quick reference for any team member who works with copy.
2. Embrace Plain language
Clear and concise is always best. It’s better than clever, it’s more likely to be read, and it’s always appreciated. What it’s not, is boring.
Despite its misleading name, plain language isn’t without style, tone, or smarts. It’s simply a form of communication that’s about the reader, not the writer. And that’s the number one rule of effective communication: write with your reader in mind. Here are some tips and examples.
- Avoid jargon and clichés. They can be confusing, misinterpreted, and will generally distract from your message.
- Use the active voice rather than the passive. Active voice in writing means constructing a sentence in which the subject of the sentence performs the action.
Example: The mother-of-the-bride gave the speech.
In a passive voice sentence, the subject of the sentence is being acted upon.
Example: The speech was given by the mother-of-the-bride.
- Don’t write long paragraphs. Limit paragraphs to three or four sentences.
- Use periods. If you’ve written a long sentence that can be broken into two sentences, do it.
- Make your content skimmable. Lists and bullet points are your friends. Just keep them short (no more than five items in a grouping) and introduce them properly with a short sentence.
3. Use Parallel Constructions
Whether you’re creating bulleted lists, using subheads, or writing a sentence containing a list, present parallel ideas in parallel grammatical form.
Examples: singing, dancing, and jumping. Make an editorial style guide, embrace plain language, avoid jargon. Ducks, cats, and dinosaurs.
4. Have Reference Materials at Hand
Google is a lot of great things. A reliable source is not one of them. Count on these Canadian-specific reference materials instead:
- Canadian Oxford English Dictionary
- The Canadian Press Caps and Spelling
- Elements of Indigenous Style: A Guide for Writing By and About Indigenous Peoples, by Gregory Younging
The number one rule of proofreading is to leave time to proofread. Here are the others:
– Hire a proofreader. The person who wrote the copy shouldn’t also proofread the copy. When you’re familiar with the text, your brain will fill in missing words and skip over blatant errors.
– Don’t count on spellcheck. It will only identify words that don’t exist. For example, if you work in the public healthcare sector, spellcheck will not catch a mortifying error about your experience working in “pubic healthcare.”
– Check every change you make. Sadly, typos and inadvertent line breaks are often introduced while correcting an error. If you’ve made a change, check the change.
Commonly Misused Words
Fighting someone with your “bear” hands can be as tricky as choosing between two words that look and sound alike. Here are a few that are commonly misused.
all together, altogether: All together means “in a group, in unison.” Altogether means “ thoroughly, entirely.”
allude, elude: Allude means “refer to indirectly.” Elude means “escapes notice.”
complement, compliment: Complement means “goes well with.” Compliment means “praise, flattery.”
criterion, criteria: Criterion is “a standard of judgement.” Criteria is the plural form of criterion.
explicit, implicit: Explicit means “directly expressed or stated.” Implicit means “suggested or implied.”
farther, further: Farther relates to a physical distance. Further relates to a figurative distance.
fewer, less: Use fewer when the number of things can be counted (cookies, items). Use less with uncountable and/or collective nouns (milk, money).
lay, lie: Lay means “place or put something on something else.” Lie means “recline.”
palette, palate: Palette means “board on which artist mixes colours” or “range of tones.” Palate means “the sense of taste” or “structure closing the upper part of the mouth cavity.”
regardless, irregardless: Regardless means “ without regard or consideration for.” Irregardless isn’t a word.