Ten writing mistakes that make you look unprofessional

BadLanguage.net: Ten writing mistakes that make you look unprofessional

It doesn’t matter what industry you work in, or what your job title is – you probably write copy for customers and colleagues. It can be as simple as an email or letter, or as complex as product descriptions or web copy.

To go from good to great, you may need a professional writer (ahem!) but to avoid looking bad, watch out for these common writing mistakes:

  1. Incorrect spelling. With spell-check software and Google, it’s much easier to spot and correct spelling mistakes. This is good because they undermine your credibility.
  2. The wrong word. Software alone will not find every mistake: it will not tell you if you have written their instead of there, or mad instead of made. Read through your copy and watch out for typos and homophones (words that sound the same but are spelt differently). Or, better, get someone else to proofread it.
  3. Changing tense. Be consistent. Pick a tense and stick with it. (The past, the present and the future walked into a bar. It was tense.)
  4. Affect / effect. Don’t confuse the two. Affect is a verb, a doing word, meaning to influence or alter. Effect is a noun, the name of something, meaning the change that has happened as a result of an action or other cause.
  5. Apostrophes. Only use an apostrophe to show ownership: “Clare’s informative article” or missing letters: “I haven’t read it.”
  6. Its / It’s. While we’re on apostrophes, this case deserves its own point because it’s such a common mistake. Its denotes ownership, for example: “I don’t like its (the carpet’s) colour. Whereas, it’s is an abbreviation of it is, for example: “It’s a lovely carpet.”
  7. Txt spk. Never abbrevi8 wrds the way u might on a txt msg. It’s hard to read. Apart from common abbreviations like CD or PC, avoid acronyms too if possible. You may think it’s professional to use the jargon of your industry but the odds are you’ll just make it harder for your readers to understand what you’re trying to say.
  8. Passive voice. If you can add ‘by zombies’ to your sentence and it still makes sense, then you have the passive voice. Mistakes were made (by zombies). The passive should be avoided (by zombies).
  9. Long words. Try to write the way you speak and don’t overuse the thesaurus. Long words make your writing harder to understand and, as a recent study demonstrated, they make you look less clever not more so. Short words are best.
  10. Formality. Too many people think that writing like a professional means writing in an extremely formal way, like a contract. Wrong! It’s okay to talk to your reader directly. It’s fine to abbreviate phrases like it is (it’s) and cannot (can’t). Feel free to use the first person: I and we. For example, it may sound more professional to say “the company recommends that users upgrade their software” but it’s actually more effective to say “we recommend that you upgrade.”

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28 Responses to Ten writing mistakes that make you look unprofessional

  1. Oliver Lawrence October 30, 2012 at 5:18 pm #

    Ah, the passive again.

    Using it is not a mistake, people!

    It has its uses, such as when the agent is not known or not relevant, or when you want to focus on what happened rather than whodunnit.

    It can even be handy occasionally to “front-load” sentences when writing for the web, where it helps to put the most important content at the left of a line, so that web readers will find it when they scan the page.

    So don’t overdo it, but don’t eschew it.

    • Matthew Stibbe October 31, 2012 at 11:28 am #

      I agree but I see it so often in corporate writing that it’s pretty clear to me that it’s not a choice but a default. To me it signifies lazy thinking and imprecision. But rules and models are the enemies of genius and art!

      • Michael Kenward October 31, 2012 at 6:35 pm #

        Yes. I am not as quite as zealous as I was in stamping out passives, but when they obscure who is actually doing something, then they have to go.

        Businesses are great at them, but for even worse abuse of the passive voice, try reading anything written by scientists and engineers.

        • Matthew Stibbe October 31, 2012 at 6:39 pm #

          Yes, I think scientists and engineers are especially self-effacing!

  2. Brian Hardy October 31, 2012 at 11:21 am #

    Hi Dee
    Passive voice. If you can add ‘by zombies’ to your sentence and it still makes sense, then you have the passive voice. Mistakes were made (by zombies). The passive should be avoided (by zombies).

    I can’t stop giggling. This is the most memarable idea I have heard in ages

    Brian

    • Clare Dodd October 31, 2012 at 11:48 am #

      Thanks Brian. I always find it’s the funny tips that stick. Whenever I come to spell necessary I still think ‘one corset, two suspenders’.

      • ode Laforge November 1, 2012 at 6:04 pm #

        Ha Ha ! Good tip !

        • Corey Tomlinson December 21, 2012 at 1:31 am #

          The “by zombies” tip is the best I’ve heard in a long time. Funny and useful, well done!

  3. OF October 31, 2012 at 3:33 pm #

    “It’s” is also short for “it has”.

    Sometimes the passive is the right mood. Eg “The decision was not taken lightly”

    • Matthew Stibbe October 31, 2012 at 3:48 pm #

      Yes. True on ‘it’s’.

      But I think it’s better to read “We found it difficult to make this decision” than “The decision was not taken lightly.”

      When you remove the subject of the sentence, you weaken it and make the reader work harder. It looks like an evasion when mostly with writing you want the reader’s trust and confidence.

      I really struggle to think of a good use of the passive, except perhaps Oliver’s stylistic case of ‘front loading’ a sentence. But even then…

      • OF October 31, 2012 at 4:29 pm #

        I agree that the use of the passive is commoner in evasive language – Orwell spotted that too. For example, “Your contract was terminated” absolves the speaker/writer of telling the person who exactly who terminated the contract. Weaselly stuff.

        However, if it’s not in bad taste, I consider “For several hours, the city was buffeted by a cyclone” to be better than “A cyclone buffeted the city for several hours”. (Given more time I could probably come up with a better example.)

        I think you mean “agent” rather than “subject” when you say “When you remove the subject of the sentence, you weaken it and make the reader work harder”: there is certainly a subject in “The decision was not taken lightly” – it’s “decision”.

        • Matthew Stibbe October 31, 2012 at 6:27 pm #

          Not sure about the Cyclone example but the bit that makes it palatable is ‘by a cyclone’. In other words, there’s a subject in the sentence somewhere.

          I think Clare meant ‘subject’ of the sentence in the grammatical sense. (See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Subject_(grammar)).

          You’re right that there is a subject in the sentence “The decision was not taken lightly” but it’s still passive voice because of the word order. “The mat was sat on by the cat” is another example of this kind of inversion. The problem here is that the reversal makes it harder to read as the Dr. Seuss example makes clear.

          However, all this digging around helped me find one example of the passive which is sublime and necessary: “All men are created equal.”

          • Clare Dodd October 31, 2012 at 6:48 pm #

            Of course, that leads us on to a whole other question of the passive: that at the time this statement was made, it was passively accepted that the equality of men was all that mattered.

  4. Dave Fox October 31, 2012 at 5:27 pm #

    Well-chosen items Clare. If I was to add another error it would be: ‘writing from your own point of view, rather than your reader’s’. This is about mindset rather than technique, but it probably accounts for more screwed up paper and deleted emails than anything else.

    The link I followed to this article (from Twitter) said ‘nine-and-a-half mistakes . . .’ which probably was a nod to the idea that using the passive is not so much a mistake as a bad habit. People just don’t realise they’re doing it. Reports are worst of all for this — no wonder people don’t read them, but just pretend to!
    Our advice is always ‘prefer the active unless you have a good reason to use the passive’. ‘The cheque had already been cashed’ (agent unknown) and ‘The baby was delivered safely’ (agent unimportant) are two good examples.

    It’s also worth noting that ‘it’s’ can also be an abbreviation of ‘it has’ as in ‘it’s been raining all day’

    • Matthew Stibbe October 31, 2012 at 6:28 pm #

      Baby and cheques are good examples of ‘good’ passive use. Thanks for sharing them. Nine and a half it is! :)

  5. Michael Kenward October 31, 2012 at 6:40 pm #

    I would add only one, but it is really a more general point.
    Do not switch between singular and plural when describing a company, organisation or other body.
    I was working on an article with these yesterday:

    “Since their founding in 1991″ and then, a bit later, “[nameless] has provided”.

    I’m a singular person, but whichever you use, be consistent.

    • Matthew Stibbe October 31, 2012 at 6:48 pm #

      I agree completely. In my book companies are singular.

  6. Chimey Nangchen November 14, 2012 at 2:56 am #

    Finally I was able to get an answer to the terrible Microsoft Word “Passive Voice” error. And “By Zombies”, now I know how to fix it!

  7. Tai facebook November 29, 2012 at 8:17 am #

    ” Never abbrevi8 wrds the way u might on a txt msg. It’s hard to read. Apart from common abbreviations like CD or PC, avoid acronyms too if possible. You may think it’s professional to use the jargon of your industry but the odds are you’ll just make it harder for your readers to understand what you’re trying to say.”

    That is good idea!

    • Michael Kenward November 30, 2012 at 7:00 pm #

      CD and PC are not acronyms. They are initials.

      The point is valid, though, avoid them like the plague. Along with cliches.

  8. Elizabeth December 4, 2012 at 2:05 am #

    And if the copy you’re writing is important, hire a competent editor!

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