Top Mistakes of Online Writing – Tips for New Media Authors

ARTICLE: I am often asked in my daily gig of copy-editing other folks’ work (my company has an online publishing network, and also runs a respected newswire service) if there is “tip sheet” of common mistakes to look for when writing online copy, be it a company bio, or articles for Internet journals. Since there are a number of things I coach or caution folks on all the time, it seemed a good idea to share these tidbits.

Since many online journals no longer use trained copy-editors, and most of the new “newswire” services and online posting sites have no editorial staff to filter bad writing, these tips might help you keep the most common mistakes to a minimum.

First, the most common mistakes I find in business press releases include:

It’s vs. Its: “It’s” is short for “it is” or “it has” (“it’s raining”), whereas “its” is a possessive pronoun, as in “its coat.”

You’re vs. Your: “You’re” is short for “you are” (“you’re not going to like this movie”), whereas “your” is a possessive pronoun, as in “your shirt has a hole in it.”

There vs. Their: “There” is a place (“let’s go over there for a boat ride”), whereas “their” is a plural possessive pronoun, as in “their boat sure is big.”

Insure vs. Ensure: The term “insure” should be considered related to the insurance business, whereas “ensure” means “to make sure.” So you would “ensure people make it to the wedding on time” rather than “insure” they get there. UPDATE 2011: This has changed quite a bit, where even the Concise Oxford now considers “insure” to be an acceptable U.S. use of “ensure.” However, most journalists still prefer more specific usage of each word for clarity. As in “I need to ensure I have paid up on our insurance, and that State Farm will insure the stuff in the garage in case of damage.”

Watch for other like-sounding words – it’s all about the i and e: Some of the most common errors come from words that sound the same, but are spelled differently and have subtly different meanings. Much like insure and ensure, the same problem arises with premier and premiere, and compliment and complement.

Brand Names: Many people don’t understand that certain brands are spelled a certain way, or Initial Capped (first letter of word capitalized) a certain way. And some brands are not generic terms for a type of product. For instance Kleenex is a brand name, not a generic term for tissue. Xerox is a brand name, not the term for photo-copying. Some brands have letters capitalized in certain ways like iPod or YouTube, or PayPal. So, using pay pal or paypal would be incorrect. Wi-Fi is actually a trade name and is not “wifi.”

Consistent Company Names: Too often I see companies that don’t seem to know their own legal name. Throughout a press release, one should be consistent with use of WidgetWoo, Inc, or Widgetwoo, Inc. or WidgetWoo Inc (check your letters of incorporation if you don’t know proper use of commas and periods in your company name and whether the inc has a period at the end or not – and which letters are initial capped).

Know what acronyms actually mean: Many people don’t understand what acronyms are or what they stand for: an acronym is a word formed from the initial letters of other words. A common mistake is ATM, which stands for Automated Teller Machine. Technically, if you write “ATM machine,” that is redundant, and is like saying automated teller machine machine. Other similar errors might be “USB bus” or “DVD disc.” Acronyms must always be written all upper case, “atm” is wrong, as is “usb” or “dvd.” Computer tech items based on acronyms are often incorrectly used, and these include: ROM, RAM, CD, PC, RAID and LED.

Punctuation and Quote Marks: Commas separating a direct quote from the rest of a sentence should be placed inside the quotation marks. The same is true for periods. Question marks should be inside quotes only if they are part of the quote. So for instance: “Life is a lovely bunch of chocolates,” said Jane Smith, CEO of WidgetWonk LLC.

Ellipses (…) vs. Em Dashes (—): Ellipses indicate something was removed from the text and should not be used to separate a thought — that’s a job for the em dash (so named because in traditional typography, the dash was the same width as a capital M; this has also now been carried over to Cascading Style Sheets, or CSS, for HTML, used to specify increments of letter and line spacing). Since the em dash often requires an embed of what’s called a high ASCII character, it’s often represented by a double hyphen. Here, the em dash is used to set off text that defines the sentence’s subject: “My wife the wedding planner — the one who asked me to give this presentation — is not here today.” In this next sentence, the words “the one” were replaced by an ellipsis: “My wife…who asked me to give this presentation is here today.” Also, when a quote or sentence ends with an ellipses, a further period is required, as in: “The world of garp is full of tarp if only ….”

The ellipses is technically used most often when quoting or citing a reference, say a review of a product, and taking part of the sentence or overall quote, and cutting out something in the middle, and that is where you would have the ellipses to indicate something has been removed in the quoted information.

It’s generally considered acceptable in some online content such as press releases to use a single hyphen versus a double hyphen to simulate the em dash, as so: “There’s trouble brewing – not coffee, mind you – around the tracks, back by the barn.”

In traditional print writing, you would not actually have spaces on either side of the em dash, either, but for readability and line breaks online, the space on either side of an em dash has become acceptable usage.

For both press releases, and for Web journalism, some of the most common mistakes are in not actually proofing (proof reading) what you’ve written. Here are some tips for checking your work:

View your document at 125 or 150 percent (“zoom”) in your word processor (such as Microsoft Word, Apple Pages, OpenOffice, WordPerfect, etc.) so you can better see what you’re reading and more easily spot errors.

Switch your font (typeface) to Courier, a mono-spaced font (looks like old typewriter text and not book text), to break the brain’s typical pattern recognition. This makes it easier to catch mistakes, because it forces you to pay closer attention to the text including elements between words such as punctuation.

Don’t just skim. Take the time to really read what you’ve written, word for word, line by line, as if you’ve never seen it before.

When possible, read your work out loud. Hearing the text may help you spot errors you might not see, as another part of your brain might think, “Hey, that didn’t make sense.”

Print your document. You can often catch mistakes on paper that you’d miss on the computer monitor. If you’ve ever noticed an error in something you’ve posted to a blog, after it’s live, and you’ve gone to read it “on the page,” this is same principal, except you’re checking before it’s been published.

Have somebody else read it. Another pair of eyes can be the magic bullet in finding errors, as different people see both text and information differently. However, this will more often find thematic or grammatical issues than pure punctuation. Obviously, if the person checking you doesn’t know what an ellipses is either, it won’t catch that kind of mistake.

And finally, why not actually use your word processor:

Give the pesky grammar checker in your word processor a try. The latest and greatest software applications are much improved from the clunky software of the last century. Microsoft Word will often give you ideas on how to fix fragmented sentences, or replace a phrase. You don’t have to follow their advice or example, as often it’s quite wrong, but sometimes it can make you re-examine something that actually does have an error in usage.

MS Word will even underline suspect words and double spaces to fix. Sometimes it’s just a word not recognized, and you might add that to the built-in dictionary. Sometimes, it will catch an obvious item like a missing apostrophe, or repeated words. If you’re using a word processor, why not actually use it to do more than be an on-screen typewriter?

These tips won’t make you a better writer, as you still need to have something to say, or clearly communicate what you want somebody else to understand, but perhaps these tips will help you find and fix some of the mistakes I see made every day, and how to avoid them yourself.


Article is Copr. © 2006-2011 by Christopher Laird Simmons – all rights reserved.