Check it Out: How to Make Your Writing Error-Free

[This is the latest weekly post from our intern, Tessa. You can find all her posts here.

Editing (improving your initial writing) and proofreading (final reviewing before publishing) require much more than finding grammar or spelling mistakes. You have to remember to pay attention to flow, keep a consistent voice, eliminate jargon, etc. It’s a lot to keep track of. Even the experienced writer can forget to check for everything when reviewing their (or others’) work.

Recently, I stumbled across some articles that offered such a simple solution that I was surprised I hadn’t though of it sooner…. The ever-handy checklist!

Check Mark

HubSpot and Quick and Dirty Tips put together these amazing checklists (one even printable) to have by your side while editing and proofreading:

Your Essential Proofreading Checklist: 10 Things You Can’t Forget

Grammar Girl’s Editing Checklist

Bookmark them and/ or print them. Now. You’ll thank me. Happy revising!

For Your Mom Only: The Spelling of Mother’s Day

[This is the latest weekly post from our intern, Tessa. You can find all her posts here.

Let’s go there. Apostrophes.

I’ve seen so many misplaced apostrophes in my life. Contractions and abbreviations aren’t usually the problem. Most people understand that when cannot becomes can’t and about becomes ‘bout, that little floating comma comes into play.

It’s apostrophes’ possessive function that usually causes confusion. The reason? Based on whether a word is plural or singular, the positioning of the apostrophe changes. For example, if I were talking about only one apostrophe in the first sentence of this paragraph, apostrophes’ would become apostrophe’s. This causes a lot of questions. What happens if singular word ends in s? (Answer: Still add ‘s to the end). What happens if the plural doesn’t end in s? (Answer: Same thing: add ‘s).

These variables seem to cause other issues. Apostrophes show up where they don’t belong at all. For a thorough yet quick guide on proper apostrophe use, visit Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips: Apostrophe Catastrophe.

Anyway, back to the original purpose of this post: Mother’s Day is this Sunday May 11th! Believe it or not, the apostrophe in this holiday is intentionally placed. Mother’s Day was created in its singular possessive form as an indication that each and every mother should be individually honored.

Since so many mothers are celebrated on this day, yes, it technically should be Mothers’ Day. But there’s something sweet about the idea of giving each mother her very own special day. We all know they deserve it. So, happy Mother’s Day, Mom!

My beautiful Mama and me.


What’s Your Favorite Part of Writing? (In Honor of National Grammar Day)

[This is the latest installment from Tessa, our wonderful intern. If you like this one, check out her other posts.]

National Grammar Day

I can’t hide it. I’m kind of a grammar nerd. Which is why I got excited when I found out today is National Grammar Day.

It would be easy for me to use the opportunity to spout some grammar rules at you. I could tell you why that comma you just typed should be erased, ask you to change your “affect” to an “effect”, or remind you that the period should go inside the quotation mark. In fact, I would have a lot of fun doing that. Because for some reason, grammar rules are the only type of rules I enjoy following. Good grammar brings order into my often-messy life.

I understand that most people don’t get this same joy from punctuation, capitalization and word choice. And they certainly don’t use it as a method for staying sane in a disorganized world. (I’m sure there are much healthier methods.)

The point of this post is to say, somewhat reluctantly, that it’s okay not to get crazy about grammar rules. Of course you want your writing to be understandable, to flow well, and not to be full of noticeable errors. But with all things in life, you need to have a balance. If you are spending a substantial amount of time every time you write agonizing about the placement of each comma, take a step back. The most important thing is that your message is clearly received by your audience. And your grammar doesn’t have to be absolutely perfect for that to happen. (Notice how I started that last sentence with a conjunction? Grammar police would say “no!” to that…)

That being said, I’m not going to totally let you off the hook. You shouldn’t be making rookie mistakes such as misspelling common words or constructing sentences that are as long as this paragraph. If you find grammar to be a weak point in your writing, educate yourself on the things that keep tripping you up. Visit Grammar Girl often and learn the basics. You may even find a willing co-worker that would get excited to edit your work sometimes. I know because that was me in my last position. I somehow managed to manipulate “official proofreader” into my job description. Even if you don’t have a grammar enthusiast in your office, it always helps to have a second set of eyes look over your work whenever possible.

Let’s each use this day to reflect on what gets us excited about writing. For me, it’s taking complex ideas and simplifying them into short, easy-to-read sentences. What is it for you? Maybe it’s seeing your name in print on a final product. How about the people you are reaching with your message? Post your thoughts in the comments section of this post.

The naughty exclamation point!

In honor of National Punctuation Day, I’d like to offer a few tips on exclamation point usage. Of all the punctuation out there, why the exclamation point, you ask? Because I’m seeing a naughty trend in how y’all are using it. #ShameOnYou

Before we get to the naughtiness, let’s get something clear: Exclamation points are the cheerleaders and rabblerousers of the punctuation world. As such, you should only use one when you have a truly strong emotion–excited, mad, elated, indignant, astonished, etc–about whatever is in the sentence it is capping off (yep, I know that’s a dangling participle).

Now for the naughty: We (and by ‘we’, I mean ‘you’) are all too frequently making the poor exclamation point do the yucky work of masking a sub-awesome reality.

A few examples and suggestions:

    • “The office coffee machine is broken. Good thing there’s a Starbucks just half a mile away!” If you’re used to being able to amble down the hall to get your fix, trudging half a mile is not an adequate substitute. And you know it. Person up and say something like: “The office coffee machine broke. We can either all snip at each other all day or you can take your bad selves down to the Starbucks. The walk will do you good. The machine will be fixed tomorrow. Deal.”
    • “We didn’t meet our fundraising goals this past quarter. But there’s always next quarter!” Are you really feeling pumped about not meeting your fundraising goals? Probably not. No amount of exclamation points is going to fix the fact that you didn’t meet your goals. Having said that, it’s also not the end of the world. But you do need to address what’s going on and have a discussion about how you propose to move forward. That means having a conversion. That means you need a question mark. “We didn’t meet our fundraising goals this past quarter. Why do you think that is and how can we work as a team to hit them next quarter?”

And your donors see through your exclamation points as well. If you overuse them, they lose their impact. Use them sparingly. If you find yourself sticking an exclamation point on everything, it probably means you’re using boring words (like, say, provide). Let your exclamation points take a nap while you forage for some spunkier words.

[Looking for more tips on using language to increase your impact? Check out Pitchfalls: why bad pitches happen to good people. Sneak peak available right here.]


5 Small & Deadly Mistakes to Avoid

MistakesA few weeks ago, Harvard Business Review blogger Kyle Wiens wrote a post about why he won’t hire people who use poor grammar. The comment section became a veritable grammar smack-down, with over 1,400 people weighing in.

As a non profit focused follow-up to Wiens’ post, I did one on why I wouldn’t give to non profits that use poor grammar. Based on how much traffic that post got, it’s clear this grammar stuff gets people all hot and bothered.

Why would posts about things as mundane as commas, semi-colons and apostrophes unleash such a fervor?

Because in people’s minds, sloppy grammar amounts to sloppy work. And few people want to support a sloppy org, let’s be honest.

Grammar isn’t the only small thing that turns out to be a big turn-off. Here’s a list of the Top 5 Small but Deadly Mistakes to Avoid (if you want happy supporters):

  1. Failing to honor someone’s request to not receive direct mail: Really, seriously take them off your list. No excuses.
  2. Not sending timely thank you notes: If someone can’t remember making the gift for which you are thanking them, you’ve missed your window for a gracious, heartfelt, “we value you” moment with that donor. Bummer. Ditto for volunteers, advocates or anyone else who has done something nice for your organization. Apps like Red Stamp and the ongoing consistency of the US Postal Service can help you make this happen.
  3. Misspelling someone’s name (yeah, I know this is close to grammar but it merits its own spot): One time? Okay. More than that—especially for your most committed supporters—is poor form. Nothing says, “I can’t be bothered” like consistently writing Addams instead of Adams.
  4. Poor phone etiquette: If someone has taken the time to pick up the phone to call you, they should be treated well. From the first “hello” to a smooth transfer to a courteous sign-off (“Thanks for taking the time to reach out. It means a lot to us!”), the phone experience matters. Basic phone etiquette can go a long, long way to happy supporter-dom.
  5. Cross-channel inconsistency: Okay, this one isn’t exactly small, per se, but it’s deadly if you don’t get it right. With the advent of social media, keeping consistent across channels is a challenge. If I first meet you on Facebook and then I visit your website and it looks like it was last updated in 1999, I’m going to wonder what the heck is going on with you. Facebook says modern. Animated gifs not so much. (If you’re stuck on this, this post might help.) Ditto for messaging. If your board chair describes what you do in a way that is inconsistent with the brochure she’s left behind for you to peruse, this doesn’t instill confidence. It erodes it. Confidence leads to trust and trust is the cornerstone of both initial and ongoing engagement.

Some of these traps can be handled with process improvement, some are a question of culture and values and others are a matter of carving out time to get your house in order. Can’t tackle all five? Prioritize them from most egregious to least and, over time, work your way through the list.

Here’s to sweating the small stuff!

I won’t give to non profits who use poor grammar

Last week, Kyle Wiens wrote a post for Harvard Business Review that unleashed a torrent of comments (724, at last count).

Kyle runs iFixIt and Dozuki. He hires a lot of people. He gives every single one of them a grammar test. For him, it’s a litmus of a candidate’s attention to detail. If you don’t pass the test, you don’t get hired.

This approach wouldn’t work for everyone, Wiens admits, but it works for him and, boy howdy, did people have opinions about his approach.

Most didn’t disagree that grammar is a pretty good proxy for attention to detail. What bugged them was that, in their opinion, Wiens didn’t use good grammar in the article itself. Nor syntax. And his word choices weren’t always up to snuff. None of these things are earth-shattering. Irksome, perhaps, but not huge deals in the Grand Scheme of Things.

So why all the outrage? Everyone has their “thing”. Maybe yours is when someone uses “alot”. (The word doesn’t exist. It’s “a lot”.) Or “its” instead of “it’s”. Or maybe typos are like fingers on a chalkboard for you. These small things are a big deal to people. They represent something bigger.

A poorly placed comma may not fuss you a bit–but it’s not about you AND it might be costing you big time when it comes to engaging donors, volunteers and supporters. They all  have their “things”. Do you know what they are?

Do you communicate as effectively as you think?


Do you communicate as effectively as you think?