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10 tips for polished text

By Tina Wild

 

I notice errors on a daily basis (perhaps as a copywriter and editor my trained eye spots things that not everyone notices). On websites, posters, in newspapers (not to mention social media), spelling, grammar and punctuation atrocities jump out at me. It makes my blood pressure rise and sometimes causes a laugh, (my favourite is pubic instead of public) but in business it creates a poor impression of the writer, and the brand and organisation they represent.

In today’s digital world, with a sea of news, stories and ads fighting for attention, good quality writing and editing skills are more important than ever. That’s why many companies use a professional copywriter to ensure their communications are proficient, informative, relevant and engaging.

How to spot errors
It’s about learning the basic rules and developing attention to detail. Here are 10 common mistakes and tips:

1. Spell check
It may sound obvious but use your spell check or a dictionary. Never feel embarrassed about looking up a word – it‘s important to learn what you don’t know. Beware of defaults for American English. If your audience or company are Australian they’ll probably use Australian English e.g. colour not color, s instead of z in words such as analyse.

2. Spelling and grammar errors

Their/there/they’re
• their is possessive e.g. their business
• there is about a place e.g. over there
• they’re is a contraction for they are

Your or you’re
• Your is possessive e.g. your house
• You’re is a contraction for you are

Its or it’s
• Its is possessive
• It’s is a contraction for it is or it has. e.g. It’s never a good idea to get between a dog and its bone

Practice or practise
• Practice (noun), a regular habit or custom, e.g. I have a regular yoga practice
• Practise (verb, used with action) e.g. I practise the flute twice a week

Possessive versus plural
• The use of an apostrophe implies possession. The photo’s colours were vivid.
• No apostrophe is needed for plural. Photos for sale.

3. Hyphens

Often classed as a dash, the hyphen is used to merge two compound words that together carry a new meaning.
• Common prefixes that use hyphens: anti- bi- co- counter- de- dis-
• Noun plus noun: these vary in terms of hyphenation so it’s best to check the dictionary. However, expressions are hyphenated where each element has equal status,
e.g. owner-driver, city-state,or where elements rhyme, e.g. culture-vulture, hocus-pocus
• Compound adjectives: two adjectives or a noun plus adjective are hyphenated, e.g. bitter-sweet, accident-prone, red-hot, colour-blind
• Compound adjectives with adverbial statements e.g. 40-year-old male, dusk-to-dawn
• Compound adjectives involving present or past participle are usually hyphenated
e.g. a government-owned facility, a heart-rending image
• NO HYPHEN when the adverb ends in ly e.g. an elegantly executed manoeuvre, a finely honed argument

4. Capitalisation
Ensure consistent use of initial letter capitalisation of headings, brand names, street names and people’s names. There is a tendency towards minimisation of capitals. Overuse appears dated and messy. The same goes for using bold and exclamation marks, they lose impact if overused.

5. Vary paragraph openings
Beginning paragraphs with the same words is a classic error. To avoid this, highlight the first word of each paragraph to check for repetition.

6. Long sentences
This is best avoided for digital communication. Keep your sentences concise for ease of understanding. People don’t have the attention span to read and digest lengthy sentences. Decide what information is essential and cull ruthlessly. Sentence length can and should vary but keep in mind the average is 15-20 words per sentence. Also keep your paragraphs short, especially when writing for the web.

7. Plain English
Consider your audience and avoid using too much industry jargon or abstract language. Aim instead for simplicity and accessibility. There’s a whole set of guidelines for this.

8. Read it aloud
This will help you spot errors, check if it flows and decide if it makes sense. Consider if the tone suits the intended audience and type of communication. Try to write how you would speak. Reading aloud will help you to see where to put commas; for example, insert a comma where you need to take a breath.

9. Second pair of eyes
Where possible have someone else proof your work; it’s often difficult to spot your own errors.

10. Separate the writing and editing
They are different skills and processes. Don’t worry about editing while you are writing. I suggest printing the document/article out and editing it by hand.

I don’t blame you for not rushing to pore over a grammar book for bedtime reading. However, there are many resources to help you become a better writer and editor.

Recommended resources:
• John Wiley & Sons Australia, Ltd Style Manual (my bible for editing)
• Lynn Truss Eats Shoots and Leaves, Penguin (an entertaining read about punctuation errors)
• Society of Editors NSW and the NSW Writers Centre offer a variety of writing, editing and proofreading courses.
• Invest in a good dictionary (Macquarie, Collins or Australian Oxford)
• Where possible refer to the house style sheet for capitalisation, hyphens, dates etc.

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