September 27, 2012: As I kid, I spent a lot of time in my “reading nook” (i.e., a canopy I fashioned out of a quilt slung over my top bunk bed). Go ahead and judge me—I was that kid. But a lifetime of reading and studying the English language, as well as an 8-year career in copy editing/content marketing, has taught me a thing or two about proper grammar—when to use it and how to avoid abusing it.
It’s not just that Content Is King. Content also requires a so-called “Queen” (e.g., eye-catching visuals, proper social media distribution, etc.) in order to reach an intended audience. But, before you get to any of that, you need to make sure your content is clean, polished, and easy for your reader to digest. After all, as Alexis Grant writes in CopyBlogger, “You’ll gain a lot more respect and credibility if your writing is just as brilliant as the ideas you convey.”
Good writing involves getting the nuts and bolts of the English language down (i.e., all the things you learned in elementary school and have since forgotten). If the words “grammar” and “punctuation” send you running for the hills, don’t worry; sometimes all it takes is a second pair of eyes to review what you may have missed the first time. When creating publishable, shareable marketing content that engages your audience and keeps readers coming back for more, keep the following in mind:
Less is more. Really.
As an editor, part of my job inolves picking apart sentences to uncover what a writer’s trying to say. As a reader, that shouldn’t be your job—not all of us enjoyed diagramming sentences as much as I did when I was a kid. When writing a piece of polished content, figure out whatever it is you’re trying to say—and say it.
When in doubt, leave it out.
If you’re not sure what a word means, or how to use it correctly in a sentence, chances are you’re misusing it. Don’t try to “wow” your audience with impressive language. “Sally wrote a blog I shared with my customers/clients” is the same as saying “Sally wrote a stellar piece of content I disseminated to my customers/clients to showcase her thought leadership on XYZ.” The former implies you feel Sally’s blog is noteworthy enough to share; you don’t need to hit your readers over the head with it.
Back to the basics.
Basic grammar involves understanding the difference between a possessive pronoun and a contraction. Common mistakes include:
- Its vs. It’s
- “Its” is a possessive pronoun (e.g., “A well-written piece of content can stand on its own.”)
- “It’s” is a contraction that stands for “it is” (e.g., “It’s helpful to include an image with a blog post to engage your readers.”)
- Your vs. You’re
- “Your” is a possessive pronoun (e.g., “Your Facebook post has gotten more than 200 ‘likes’ this morning.”)
- “You’re” is a contraction that stands for “you are” (e.g., “You’re going to drive conversions if you target specific keywords in your blog posts.”)
- Their vs. They’re
- “Their” is a possessive pronoun (e.g., “Their most effective digital marketing channel is email.”
- “They’re” is a contraction that stands for “they are” (e.g., “They’re increasing brand awareness through social media engagement.”)
- Curveball: “There” is an adverb that expresses place or position. Copyblogger recommends the “That’s ours!” test when trying to determine when to use “their” or “there.” Are you talking about more than one person and something they possess? If so, “their” will get you there.
Attack of the adverbs.
People love adverbs. But, as Stephen King writes in his book On Writing, “adverbs are not your friends.” Adverbs are words that modify verbs, adjectives, or other adverbs—in other words, fluff descriptions that typically end in “ly.” Most often, adverbs can be removed to make whatever it is you’re saying sound much clearer. Example:
- “Marketers are certainly using social media strategies to target customers effectively and efficiently.” vs. “Marketers are using social media strategies to target customers.” There’s nothing wrong with the former statement; the latter just states the point in a clearer, more digestible way for the reader.
- Curveball: The word “literally” is very infrequently used literally. “Literally” means exactly what you say is true—no analogies or metaphors. So if you are “literally” writing the best piece of content in the world, you’re up against some pretty hefty competition.
Use a dictionary.
In today’s digital era, it’s easy to rely on Spell Check to proof any last-minute spelling, grammatical, or punctuation errors. But Spell Check can’t detect errors in meaning, no matter how convincing a proofreader it may seem. For instance, your organization may be the premier social media marketing company, but you and your colleagues would have gone to the premiere of The Social Network. Similarly, you may not yet know the effect of your new Facebook marketing campaign, but you should track how it affects marketing ROI over a period of time. When in doubt about a particular word’s meaning, pick up a dictionary—that’s what they’re there for.
Pay attention to punctuation.
The difference between a comma and a colon, an em dash and an en dash, or even possessive and plural possessive may not seem like a big deal when you’re writing, but it can make a big difference to your reader. For instance, if you have a “proven track record of driving results for your client’s marketing campaigns,” the reader will infer you’re talking about just one client. However, if you have a “proven track record of driving results for your clients’ marketing campaigns,” your reader will know you mean all clients, not just one.
As the late Ray Bradbury wrote, “I know you’ve heard it a thousand times before. But it’s true—hard work pays off. If you want to be good, you have to practice, practice, practice.” As a writer, you’ll be doing yourself a favor the more you write—and the more you read other people’s writing. So brush up on the fundamentals, get yourself a proper grammar guide, and go out and write the best marketing content you can write.