Follow our top tips to good writing to reel in your reader with beautiful prose that not only obeys the rules of grammar, but is consistent, trustworthy and informative, writes Sophy Buckley
Grammar matters. Used correctly, the written word is clear and easy to understand. Good writing is critical to make blogs, articles and thought leadership stand out in a sea of corporate content, elevating them above the competition. Poor grammar, on the other hand, is at best an irritant; at worst disastrous. Not only can it lead to miscommunication, but it can also make the reader question the veracity and validity of what’s been written, undermining the author’s credibility and the impact of the whole piece.
Too often, a focus on good grammar is seen as pedantic – irrelevant even. It’s not. It’s actually closely linked to your brand. Getting grammar and punctuation correct is key to creating a consistent feel to all your work, as well as maintaining your tone of voice and point of view.
Eats, shoots, leaves. Eats shoots’ leaves. Eats shoots, leaves. Thanks to a few commas and an apostrophe, each iteration of the same three words has a different meaning. Perhaps the first is a cowboy, eating his beans and then shooting up the bar before leaving. The second is a panda, happily chowing down on the leaves of eucalyptus shoots. The third is a rabbit, nibbling the new grass before hopping off.
But there’s more to grammar and good writing than commas and apostrophes, and there’s plenty to get wrong. Within journalism, a whole career exists for expert guardians of grammar to elevate the work of everyone else – sub editors, known as subs. To help you get it right, we asked our own sub supremo Caroline Elderfield for her top 15 tips to better writing.
Caroline has worked as a sub and chief sub across every subject matter for 35 years, including a decade as chief sub for commercial content at the Daily Telegraph. In her book, there are unforgiveable errors; there are questions of style; and there are flourishes of fabulousness that elevate what’s on the page to the sublime. (Note: what we discuss below applies to UK English. Some rules are different for US English.)
These common mistakes make the writer appear sloppy or even stupid. Neither is a good look.
A singular subject takes a singular verb; plural subjects take plural verbs. See? Simple. But a surprisingly common mistake to make.
Love and respect the apostrophe
The apostrophe’s role confuses many, but there are simple rules.
Possession: going back to eats shoots’ leaves, it is the panda that eats the leaves belonging to the shoots. Note that the shoots are plural, so the apostrophe goes after the s. Only one shoot? It goes before – shoot’s.
Contraction or elliptic apostrophe: use when two words are shortened together. The most common mistake is confusing its and it’s – we’ve all seen sentences where it’s just wrong. By the way, “its” is the possessive pronoun: the dog loved its new bed.
Easy when you know how. “Complete sentences and their punctuation stay within speech marks,” says Caroline, but if you’re only going to quote a bit of a sentence, “they go inside the punctuation”.
Time to pay attention
These common mistakes are easily avoided with a little attention to detail.
Beware the plural. Companies, institutions and teams are singular. Indeed, this is illustrated by the huge importance FirstWord places on good writing. Its employees are very accomplished.
That or which?
When adding extra info use “which”. So, it’s the blue pen that I use to write; but the pen, which I used to write my bestseller, is blue.
“Can I add that companies and institutions are also not people, so use which not who,” pleads Caroline. FirstWord, which works with newsroom-honed journalists, is based in Covent Garden.
Affect or effect?
Affect is a verb – it is an action. Effect is a noun and refers to a result.
Learning about the power of grammar had a big effect on my ability to communicate.
Learning about the power of grammar affected my ability to communicate.
Sometimes the only way to remember something is to make up a memory nudge. Mine is that affect and action both begin with “a”, while effect and reflect are both spelt with an “e”.
Ditch the jargon
Good writing on any subject can be understood by any reasonably intelligent 16-year-old. Stuff it full of acronyms and jargon and even the most accomplished specialist will find it heavy going. Which is easier: the CO sent a memorandum to the DVLA about the WP; or the Cabinet Office sent a memo to the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Authority about the white paper?
Elevate to the sublime
Use these tips to lift your copy from the workaday to the level of professional writers.
Adopt a style book
Getting grammar and punctuation right is not just a nice-to-have, but critical to your identity as well as to maintaining consistency across your content. That means house style is as crucial to your brand as the colour and shape of your logo. Decide on yours and write it down so everyone can be consistent.
Rules to include:
- Lower case job titles – putting them in capitals doesn’t make the person more important. Caroline is a chief sub – that’s important enough.
- Avoid honorifics such as Mr, Mrs, Ms etc as it halts the flow. Introduce a person in full – Caroline Elderfield – and then use either the first name or family name subsequently (and consistently).
- First names are great for an informal piece such as a blog on a website; family names work best when gravitas is required. The exceptions are for professions. Doctor or professor should be spelt out in full on first mention and abbreviated to Dr or Prof subsequently.
- Numbers – use words for one to nine and digits for 10 and over. The exception is when a number is followed by a measure – she missed an A* in her English language exam by just 1 per cent. And talking of per cent, Caroline says spell it out in text but use the symbol % in graphs.
- Italics – restrict their use to the titles of media such as TV shows, books, newspapers, films etc and to foreign words. They should not be used for emphasis.
“Direct speech makes the piece more interesting, varies the pace and can add validity,” points out Caroline.
But make sure that any claims made are backed up with sources. This is true whether in speech or prose.
Keep it brief
Repetitive or off-topic pieces are a turn-off. The best way to overcome this is to write a plan and stick to it. Keep sentences short, use hyperlinks to sources that back up any claims and split longer sentences into two – or more. Compare these two sentences:
It had been raining since Saturday which meant Boshie hadn’t been out for a walk for two days so when Sophy read the BBC forecast that it was going to be dry for an hour she picked up the dog’s lead and the dog jumped for joy before speeding off towards the river where she dived in and swam for 20 minutes before shaking herself all over her beloved owner.
Boshie hadn’t been out for a walk for two days. When Sophy saw that the forecast was for a dry hour she picked up the dog’s lead. This was the sign the dog had been waiting for. She jumped excitedly before running off towards the river, swimming for 20 minutes. Once out, she shook herself all over her beloved owner.
Avoid repetition – even if it means junking a contributor. Just because they’re the boss there’s no need to have them saying something that someone else has already put better.
Embrace the colon…
Typically used to show that something is about to follow, colons are most often used to start speech or a list. But they’re a sophisticated piece of the grammar kit that can do so much more.
“Perhaps one of my favourite pieces of punctuation: the colon affects pace beautifully and can be great for emphasis,” says Caroline. Just don’t ruin a well-placed colon by following it with a capital letter.
… and the semi
“A semi-colon links two closely related sentences,” she says. They’re great for avoiding often repeated link words such as but, however, because or so.
I stayed up late subbing the report; it had been full of errors.
I stayed up late subbing the report; it was perfect when I finished.
Make a splash with a dash
“I do love a dash – but some people love them too much,” says Caroline. Their beauty lies in their ability to up the pace. “In that respect, they are better than commas or full stops – and they’re great for a quick explanation or expansion,” she says. The error is in their overuse.
Stick to a maximum of two in a sentence. And use the alt-hyphen-dash key combo to get what the media trade calls the “en” dash – it looks better than longer or shorter ones. (It’s called the en dash because it takes up the same typesetting space as a letter n as opposed to the em dash, which is longer.)
Avoid the sprawl
Long sentences with multiple subclauses are hard to read. “Take a few minutes to think about the nub of what you’re saying and turn that into a standalone sentence. If some of the subclauses add important info, put them into a subsequent sentence – though you’ll be surprised at how often you can just leave them out,” suggests Caroline.
In this way, “Ross was planning on attending his friend’s wedding on June 30th, but at the last minute he was called to jury duty so he couldn’t go and he felt really guilty” becomes “Ross was unexpectedly called for jury duty on June 30th so couldn’t go to his friend’s wedding. He felt guilty.”
An active voice is far more powerful than a passive one. Make sure the subject is doing the work. So “Adrian was doing the work” rather than “the work was done by Adrian”.
And finally – the payoff
Many find it hard to get the right end to a piece. Caroline suggests using a call to action or simply ending on a robust statement that sums up the reason for reading and acts as a payoff or a clear takeaway.
When you’ve got something to say, more people will listen if it is easy to read and understand. Good writing and good grammar are the bedrock of good communication. By following our 15 tips, you’ll be doing yourself and your audience a huge favour.
One more thing to bear in mind…
“Read the piece through aloud once it’s finished. If you stumble, so will others,” advises Caroline.