The hands-down best way to beat typos for good

typosmainI don’t mean to toot my own horn, but back in high school, I was pretty darn good at algebra. Mediocre at geometry, but algebra? That was a cinch.

Even though I cruised through the class, however, I didn’t achieve perfect grades. I had all the theorems down, had memorized the formulas, could solve for X in my head, no pencil necessary. But when test time came around, I rushed through, heady in my own “aha!” moments. I forgot about the details. My Achilles heel: the good ol’ minus sign. I would drop it, add it, smudge it, fudge it. The points fell away and my teacher’s notes were oh-so predictable. It turns out, with algebra, as with language, the details are everything.

What’s the big deal about details?

Getting the details right is difficult, I won’t pretend for a second that it isn’t. That’s why editors of all varieties exist, from developmental editors to line editors to copy editors to proofreaders to color checkers. They safeguard accuracies, reputations, trustworthiness. After all, if you can’t trust an expert source, whether it’s a blogger or an international newspaper, to get things like pronoun agreement and punctuation correct, how can you trust them about the larger ideas?

The bottom line: You can’t. That’s why details are important.

And consider what a typo says to a reader: You don’t care enough to take the time to get it right, to make your copy clean. Would you send your boss an email without reading it through for inaccuracies? Absolutely not. You shouldn’t treat your audience with any less respect, lest you lose their attention entirely after one rogue comma or silly capitalization too many.

The technique that will save you time and embarrassment

Here it is, I won’t make you work for it: Read your work out loud, every single word, twice.

You don’t have to burn paper (though printing and reading your piece over, pen in hand, is an even better way to catch silly inaccuracies, and is my preferred method of reworking a piece). You don’t even have to read it a zillion times. Read it through once, slowly and loudly. If you trip over a sentence, rewrite it. If you’re not sure what you’re saying, rethink and rewrite. Take out silly typos, consider agreement and parallel language, think about whether or not the punctuation you used is the punctuation that best serves your purpose. Remove extraneous words—“just,” “very,” “really,” and “that” can often be done away with.

Finished? Read it through once more, slowly and loudly once again. This is your final polish. The intent: To make sure you make sense, and that the previous round of substantial editing didn’t leave a mess of misplaced letters and displaced periods in its wake.

Once you’re pleased with your work—and I believe you should be before you press “publish”—copy and paste it into your content management system of choice, preview the draft to double check your formatting, and make that sucker live for the whole wide world to read.

What to do if a mistake slips through

Take a deep breath. A rare mistake is not the end of the world. The most honest way to make a correction is to first admit that there is an error. You don’t have to leave it in the copy, but do include an addendum to your blog post, email, article—whatever it is you’ve written and published—that includes the date it was edited and the nature of the revision. This is standard newspaper protocol, and will align your work and standards with the best of the best. What more could you ask for?

How do you deal with the details? Please share your typo-proof tips in the comments!

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The truth about SAT words: Inflated language could be killing your readership

Does your writing make it seem as though you swallowed a thesaurus?I wrote my thesis on gothic romance novels written in the eighteenth century. As I combed through the thousand-page tomes, I was doing double duty: one finger in my novel, another in a dictionary. That’s fine for academic work, especially on more esoteric subject matter. But for more casual fare that you skim in a blog reader or on your smartphone, fiddling with a dictionary app becomes tiresome. Even if your readers’ vocabularies are loaded with $5 words, there’s a stiltedness that arises when you load your prose with verbiage. But what do you do if that’s, well, you?

In college, I shared a room with a girl whose vocabulary could best mine any day. Big words tripped off her tongue. And because those words were in her arsenal, she used them every chance she got. When her papers started coming back with notes on them saying, “this reads unnaturally,” and “you don’t need to use a thesaurus,” however, she was confused. After all, her papers weren’t inflated—that’s how she spoke and wrote 24/7. The problem was that even though the language came easily to her, it read as affected and hoity-toity to her audience.

Get vocal

One of the most effective tools I use every day in my own work is reading my writing out loud to myself. This lets me catch a variety of errors, from subject/verb disagreement to your/you’re mix-ups to run-on sentences to convoluted tangents. As you read, take note of areas where you stumble. Remember, you want anything you write—blog posts, important emails, official documents—to read fluidly. The more someone has to pause to figure out how to say a certain word or unravel a tricky clause, the less attention they’ll be paying to your point and the less likely they’ll be to reach the end of your piece.

Evaluate your audience

According to the National Adult Literacy Survey completed in 2003, the average American adult reads at a 9th grade level. Chances are, you’re writing for someone—and that someone isn’t you. So then the question becomes, who are these people that comprise your audience: Are they lawyers, who have spent the last decade in higher education? Are they contractors who are looking to improve their clientele? Are they stay-at-home dads who have to balance your blog with their toddlers tacking the stairs? Weigh the value of sticking to what you know versus finding words and phrases that better suit your purpose. It’s not about dumbing down, it’s about being effective.

Call in backup

Still not sure if your writing needs to be tweaked? Here’s an easy fix: Ask a friend, family member, or coworker to read over a few writing samples. Choose someone you can trust to provide honest, critical feedback of your work. You can even hire an editor for a consultation to get a professional opinion. Instead of asking, “So, what did you think?” opt for targeted queries like, “Do you think my sentences are too long?” and “Do you think my word choice is a too formal?” Be specific, and remember to take the criticism constructively. This isn’t about you. This is about improving your success rate. And it could be as easy as becoming more accessible.

Resources you can use

The average newspaper is written at an 11th grade reading level. That’s higher than most adults are comfortable reading. For assistance in writing plainly—and examples of texts written explicitly for different reading levels—I like William H. DuBay’s “Working With Plain Language Training Manual,” which is available here for free. Scholastic also has a Book Wizard tool that you can use to find books that have been rated according to grade level criteria.

What challenges do you face when it comes to writing for a particular audience?

Is video your future? Let your audience answer that question

youtube1

A few years ago, video exploded. It got so big, magazine powerhouses like Conde Nast launched branded digital channels to open their titles to new audiences. Pop stars from freshly minted bad-boy Justin Bieber to The Voice alum Christina Grimmie got their start posting song covers on YouTube. Talk and morning television shows such as The Ellen DeGeneres Show and Today promote user-generated videos of cats chasing down attack dogs and babies dancing in front of the tube. They’re catering to their audiences—and in some cases, it’s working. Just because it works for them, though, doesn’t mean you should leap onto the video bandwagon. Here’s the question you need to answer: What type of content does your readership want to see?

Case Study

I worked for seven years as a web editor, with three and three-quarter years of that at a national magazine. I dislike video content. In most cases—such as reporting a typical news story—it’s irrelevant. If I wanted to watch the news, I would turn on CNN. As a professional 20-something working in an office, it was impossible to press play and watch an embedded clip whenever a website pushed it in front of my face. And for me to go to the trouble to get out headphones, double check that I’ve plugged them into the correct slot, adjust the volume and wait for the darn thing to load, it had better be a darn good video. It frequently wasn’t.

Let’s move on to the numbers. According to DMR: Digital Marketing Ramblings, YouTube’s growth in web traffic referrals has increased over 50% from 2012 to 2013. Only 14.4% of Americans use YouTube during work hours, though. And as for demographics, there’s a huge jump in usership from Generation Z (late ‘90s to mid-2000s babies) to the Golden Age (those born prior to the Baby Boomers). Eighty-three percent of teens visit YouTube at least monthly. The numbers fall from there: 70% of Millenials, 58% of Generation X, 49% of younger Baby Boomers and 40% of older Baby Boomers, and 30% of the Golden Generation visit the site monthly.

The Bottom Line

Video isn’t bad. Video is, in and of itself, an incredibly diverse medium that can tell stories the written word couldn’t even begin to. Consider the difference between Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park and Steven Spielberg’s trio of films. The books are incomparable to the movies in terms of richness and realization of the imagined scenes. Indeed, sometimes, 10 seconds of film can summarize a point you would have spent paragraphs trying to relate. But often, that’s simply not the case. And to compound the issue, if your audience comprises professionals who tend to read your blog or website during standard office hours, or is an older demographic that isn’t used to hitting that ubiquitous arrow, video as a medium might not pay off.

The Experiment

Wondering which way to go? First, consider financials. To produce a good video, you need decent equipment and, most importantly, someone who knows what they’re doing. The time and money involved is not inconsequential. Second, consider your competition. If you’re going up against a big-time producer with the resources to make top-quality content in huge numbers, you’ll want to find a niche that might not be video inclusive in order to make a significant impact. Third, consider what you already know. Take a look at your analytics and study your audience. Answer questions like…

  • What age range is my target demographic, and what age range is my audience? (Note the subtle difference between the two)
  • When do they visit my website? (Real-time analytics software like Chartbeat can be useful here)
  • What is their purpose in visiting my website? (To answer this, try looking at keywords)
  • What type of content best tells my story and supports my mission? (Look back at your business plan to help you answer this)

Your turn! Tell me your experiences with video—what pitfalls and pluses have you observed?

Even Professionals Need An Editor

typewriter1I was skimming through my afternoon blog digest when I came across this giggle-worthy mistake from Babble.com blogger Sierra:

The path to parenthood used to be fairly narrow: get married, get knocked up, gestate for 9 months and Viola! You have a baby.

Now, when I first read it, I thought, “Oh, what a great play on ‘voila’! Maybe the kid’s name is Viola! How cute!”

I read the rest of the piece and it turns out that the wordplay gods did not rule in Sierra’s favor today. I’m pretty sure she did, in fact, mean to type “voila”, for which, entertainingly enough, the Wiktionary, an open-content dictionary, offers synonymous interjections such as, “Lo! There it is”, “ta-da” and “presto”.

So, I was right, you see. Every writer needs a critic! And every writer (and editor) enjoys poking harmless fun at the mistakes of others, so it’s all in good fun, folks. Join the party and leave a comment with the funniest (or most disastrous) mistake you’ve seen recently!

Jumpstart Bad or Boring Writing with Journalism


Welcome to the last section of the “How Good Writing Happens” series!

New to the block? Read the first few installments here:

For the last two years of my tenure as a undergraduate university student, I became the black sheep of the journalism department. It began with news writing and snowballed during copy editing the following semester. Why would I subject myself to a class with so many blue-inked F’s scribbled on quizzes when I didn’t have to? I kept my mouth shut to avoid pariah status, but I loved that class. And as I continued to score remarkably well on our tests, I snickered to myself as they whined over having to complete another edit. Suckers.

Two more classes followed in the spring of my senior year. Every few weeks or so, my professors would raise an eyebrow and ask, “Are you sure you’re not a journalism major?” Nope. English all the way. And I loved completing my English major. But I would not have been the same, successful English major I grew to be if I had not taken so many journalism courses in the brick building across the quad.

Journalism teaches its students how to…

Find and compose interesting stories

As a journalist, you have the opportunity to write pieces that are obviously fascinating stories in and of themselves, and stories that have the potential to be fascinating if the writer can find something of interest among the drek and mumbo-jumbo. With this skill in your toolbox, you can find the glimmer of light in any topic.

Write concisely

I spent much of my secondary education writing run-on sentences filled with more adjectives, adverbs and prepositional phrases than any normal person would want to wade through while searching for a point. And much of the time, I wrote that way to disguise the sad fact that there wasn’t one. While a great high school English teacher taught me to cut out the crap, college-level journalism illustrated the value of each and every word. When space comes with a premium, you have to be picky about which words you choose to tell your tale. While it certainly makes the task more challenging, it also produces a much worthier product.

Write fluidly

“Transitions are important.” It’s something my English teachers had always told me, circling the disappointing sections where an in-between bit would have served my essay rather well. It wasn’t that I didn’t try to do it better. Something just hadn’t clicked. Secondly and thirdly and so on just didn’t sound good. So I would lose myself in rambles trying to get from one point to the next, adding a page or so on the way. I seem to have mastered the subtle art of transitions and along with it, the exact science of quote inclusion. It’s not even a challenge anymore; it’s second nature. When you have to pay attention to word count and someone is constantly crossing out whole sentences, you learn that you want to spend your allowance on the things that count rather than the stitches that hold the piece together. In journalism, everything counts. There is no waste. Not so in academic writing. All writing benefits from starving itself of unnecessary verbiage.

It’s all important–the criticism, the by-the-book education, the concision lessons. All of it has brought me to this point, the point at which good writing happens. Now, I want to hear from you. What’s made you the writer you are today?