Getting Down to the Nitty-Gritty
Once you've done an overall proof, it's time to look at the three main elements of your text more closely.
Is it school busing? Or school bussing? There's quite a difference. The first is about getting your kids to school. The second is about what goes on in a high school hallway between periods!
Pay particular attention to regional variations in the spelling of certain words. If you're writing an ad that will appear in a British newspaper, then you need to know that they spell “jail” very differently. (It's gaol.) In Canada, you write someone a cheque, not a check.
The number one mistake that copywriters make is putting too much trust in their computer's spell-checker. In fact, some people rely on this feature so explicitly that they don't bother to do any further proofing. Not a good idea. Although computer spell-checkers are a wonderful tool, they are just that, a tool. They do not do all the work for you any more than accounting software will do your books. Proofing always requires a human set of eyes.
The most common typos that get missed are the homonyms (words that sound alike but mean different things). Many of these words also look alike, which makes catching these errors that much harder. Watch out for:
their, there, they're
you, your, you're
Also be careful when you use the contraction there's. For example, “There's rules to writing great copy” is not correct. “There are rules to writing great copy.” There's is not a contraction for there are.
Double-check personal names and product names. Early in her career, pop singer Avril Lavigne was often called April because reporters assumed that the “v” was a typo. Also pay close attention to gender. Well-known copywriter Chris Marlow is a woman. But some articles about her use him and he. Product names, too, can be easily misspelled and go unnoticed.
You're trying to win the hearts (and wallets) of customers, not the approval of your sixth-grade English teacher. However, grammar does play an important role in persuasive communications.
There is a mistaken belief among some copywriters that grammar gets in the way of crafting effective copy. “Adhering to strict grammar guidelines results in copy that is too formal and even a bit unfriendly,” they say. That's not necessarily true. Understanding the rules of grammar can often help get your sales message across more effectively. The majority of grammar goofs are often those that create a lack of clarity and even confusion for the reader — hardly the ingredients of good copy.
An overview of grammar is beyond the scope of this chapter. If you'd like to learn more, pick up a copy of The Everything Grammar and Style Book.
The Copywriter's Grammar Guide
Copywriters don't break the rules of grammar, though the rules are often bent a little. That's because much of copywriting is about connecting with the reader on a personal, conversational level. This is especially true in e-mails and sales letters where the copy style and tone is very much like someone talking. And people don't always follow the strict rules of grammar when they talk.
So what are the style and grammar rules that a copywriter can bend if required?
Using clichés. Many people think, speak, and write in clichés. And they'll keep on doing it until the cows come home. Now that doesn't mean your copy should be riddled with them. There are times when a cliché is useful for making a particular point.
Sentence fragments. It's a myth that copywriters always write in short, staccato sentences. Not true. Absolutely not. It's a lie! However, in order to maintain a conversational style and tone, sentence fragments are common. Like this one.
Contractions. Copywriters use these a lot, especially in sales letters, e-mails, and other direct one-to-one communications. “You're” sounds more informal and friendly than “you are.” Just don't overdo it and contract everything. Rule of thumb: Try not to use more than one contraction in a sentence.
Repetition. Repetition is one of the keys to persuasion. In copywriting, the benefits, advantages, offers, call to actions, and other key messages are repeated over and over again. Just don't be tiresome. Explore new ways to say the same thing.
Redundancies. How many times have you seen the phrase “free gift” in a direct-mail piece or other promotion? Isn't a gift supposed to be free? Yep. But adding the word free helps to quell the skepticism in the reader. So free gift it is.
Personal pronouns. Copywriters frequently use “I,” “we,” and “you” to connect with prospects and customers on a more personal level. This is appropriate in direct communications, such as sales letters, telemarketing scripts, and e-mails. For brochures and Web pages, however, the tone may need to be slightly more formal.
Punctuation is more than just periods. There are at least a dozen other punctuation marks used in the English language: commas, colons, dashes, ellipses, exclamation marks, and more.
This is another area that is not taken seriously by copywriters during the proofing process. But it should be. Here are some common punctuation mistakes and issues:
When should you use a colon or semicolon?
Should you put a period at the end of every bullet or just on the last one?
Do you need a period at the end of a headline or subhead?
Should you use an en dash or an em dash?
Are commas used correctly?
Is there excessive use of exclamation marks? (This is a common ailment in many promotional pieces!)
Punctuation typos are particularly difficult to miss. These little guys are small! It's easy to miss an unintentional comma in place of a period at the end of a sentence. So don't just check for typos in the words you use, look closely at your punctuation marks as well.
The most important thing is consistency. A period used to end one subhead but not the others looks like carelessness, and it is. It's for this reason alone that you should proof your document for correct use of punctuation marks as diligently as you would spelling and grammar.