A new year always brings resolutions, and they usually sound something like this: “I’m going to lose weight, tone up my abs, and stick to a more healthful diet.”
In keeping with that tradition, the Hollister Creative team offers 10 ready-made resolutions that will exercise your mind, tone up your writing, and give your audience a diet of clear, effective content.
Eschew the Purple Prose
If your writing sounds like a page ripped from the thesaurus, it’s time to walk it back. Excessive use of modifiers, adverbs and adjectives is amateurish and bogs down the flow of your copy.
If you’re not sure what we’re talking about, check out this description of purple prose, written in purple prose, from the Uncyclopedia:
“Deep in the annals of time, Purple Prose has existed, moving with the flow and ebb of history, sauntering through the halls of the past, and serenading its dulcet melody through the halls of tomorrow, like a ship at sea, weary of the tumultuous waves crashing aboard.”
Writers often fall into the purple prose trap when they’re trying to sound smart, show off or pad content. Don’t let it happen to you.
If you want to make an impact, be precise, keep it lean and write with authority.
To illustrate what we mean, let’s compare two snippets from an imaginary nonprofit’s thank-you letter:
“We want to take this opportunity to write and say thank you to all of you who attended our first-ever Northern Jackalope appreciation fundraiser. Words can barely express how excited we were at the turnout. We are definitely going to plan one next year, because it exceeded everyone’s expectations.
“We’re writing to thank everyone who attended the first Northern Jackalope Appreciation fundraiser. The turnout was amazing — we’re so pleased, we’re making it an annual event.
See the difference?
Retire Run-on Sentences
In general, shorter is better: Shorter words, shorter sentences, and shorter paragraphs. Author Ernest Hemingway knew it. Advertising legend David Ogilvy knew it. You should know it, too.
If your sentences run on and on, readers may forget the content before they get to the end. Sure, some writers have done it famously and well. Charles Dickens, for instance (“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of reason ….”). But unless you’re Charles Dickens, keep it brief.
(If you’re a masochist, check out what’s considered one of the worst run-on sentences in Internet history.)
Break up big blocks
Like run-on sentences, big blocks of text will send readers packing. Attention spans seem to be getting shorter every year, and more readers than ever are using mobile devices to view your site.
Most readers scan articles, looking for the information they need or find interesting. Big blocks of text invite frustration, and that brings higher exit rates.
Breaking up sections with subheads and using shorter paragraphs helps keep readers happy, because they can easily find what they want. A happy reader is a good thing.
Choose your words wisely
Whether you’re writing a blog post, sending an email, or updating a social media status, context is important. Adidas found this out the hard way. A marketing email sent to runners of the 2017 Boston Marathon runners sported the subject line, “Congrats, you survived the Boston Marathon!”
In most cases, that would be an innocent, even acceptable choice, given the grueling nature of a marathon. But given the 2013 bombings that killed 3 and injured more than 260, it came across as utterly insensitive. Public reaction was swift and angry, and the company was forced to issue an apology a day later.
Bloomingdale’s had a similar experience in 2015. A Christmas catalog advertisement featured a picture of a well-dressed young woman being ogled by a well-dressed young man. The picture was tasteful. The caption, however, raised eyebrows, along with accusations that the store condoned date rape: “Spike your best friend’s eggnog when they’re not looking.”
The lesson: Consider the context from every angle.
It’s Just Comma Sense
In general, commas are used to indicate a pause or separate a clause.
For instance, you’d use a comma to set off these conjunctions: yet, so, and, but, for, or, nor. (He wasn’t here yet, so we left without him).
Comma usage can also have a huge impact on meaning. Consider these sentences:
“Let’s eat Grandpa.”
“Let’s eat, Grandpa.”
“I enjoy cooking dogs and cats.”
“I enjoy cooking, dogs and cats.”
“Have you eaten my child?”
“Have you eaten, my child?”
Tense? Be Consistent
Pick a verb tense — a timeframe for the narrative — and stick to it. If you start out writing, “It was a dark and stormy night,” but make the next line “The rain falls in torrents,” you’ve switched the narrative from the past to the present.
Likewise, the tense used in your organization’s communications needs to reflect the sequence of events. For instance, in a press release, the following sentence would be confusing (and incorrect).
“The Widget Corp announces third-quarter profits yesterday.”
Hypothetically Speaking, Use the Subjunctive
Speaking of tense, some grammar rules, such as the subjunctive mood, make writers (and editors) tense.
The subjunctive is misused frequently — or forgotten altogether — but it’s not hard to figure out. In its most basic form, it boils down to this: When do you use “was” and “will” and when do you use “were” and “would”?
Use “were” when you’re speaking in hypothetical, or wishful, terms:
“I wish I were a rich man.”
“If I were famous, I would not have to wait for a table!”
“If she were more organized, she wouldn’t be late.”
Now compare those to the indicative mood, which indicates statements of fact:
“I was rich a rich man in 1999, but when the stock market crashed, I lost all my money.”
“When I was famous, I never had to wait for a table!”
“When she was more organized, she was never late.”
In American English, commas and periods go inside quotation marks. For instance:
“Look,” he said, “I don’t understand why you’re confused about this.”
My boss said, “I think we need to rethink that deal.”
Dashes, colons and semicolons, on the other hand, always go outside quotations:
Buy Strunk and White’s “Elements of Style”; it’s an essential guide for writers.
Here’s all you need to know about “Star Wars”: The movie sequels will go on as long as the studio is making money.
It gets a little trickier when it comes to question marks and exclamation points. If the punctuation is part of the quotation, it stays inside:
“No way! I can’t afford that!”
“Did you sign up for the class?”
If it’s not part of the quotation, the punctuation goes outside:
This blog post is longer than “War and Peace”!
What’s the relevance of “All the President’s Men”?
Mind Your Who’s and Whose
This is a simple one, but we see it wrong so frequently we’re starting to think everyone slept through elementary-school English class.
“Who’s” is a contraction for “who is”: Who’s coming to the holiday party?
“Whose” indicates possession: Whose coat was left behind after the holiday party?
Make Fewer Count
You wouldn’t know it, but there’s a big difference between “less” and “fewer.”
“Fewer” is used for things that can be counted, and for plural forms. “Less” is used for things that can’t be counted, and for singular forms:
“I got fewer presents than you!” the boy exclaimed.
“Yes,” his sister answered, “but I got less birthday cake than you.”
“There are fewer cookies in the tin this morning — did you eat some?”
“Less snow fell this week than last week.”
There are four exceptions to the counting rule: time, money, distance and weight. This often throws people off, but if you apply the singular and plural rules, it’s not hard.
Although you can count $50, it’s considered a singular amount. Which means you’d say: “I have less than $50 in my checking account.”
Although you can count time, you’d say: “I’ll be done with work in less than two hours.”
The same logic goes for weight (“He weighs less than 120 lbs.”) and distance (“She lives less than 30 miles from my house.”)
Use our list of resolutions to learn these 10 writing mistakes to avoid, and you’ll be on track for a more healthful content lifestyle in the new year.
Need help creating content for your organization? Contact Kim Landry at [email protected] or 484.829.0021.