Here’s an old, old lesson in retailing that apparently many still don’t get: If you say it, mean it. In all communications with customers, particularly. Otherwise, your customers will doubt you/hate you/sneer at you/insert bad thing here.

My own illustration of this came just a few days ago, in a grocery store. I typically don’t shop at this particular large chain, because I just don’t like the atmosphere and I can’t seem to find things. Plus, they often don’t stock much in the way of organic.

I went to this store to grab a couple ingredients for some soup, because it was the closest place and I was in a hurry. And I went in thinking that since this store has a reputation for being cheaper than my preferred grocer, possibly I should rethink my bias.

The cold rain did not improve my mood. When I got inside the store, the grocery carts were all some form of wet. I hate that. My preferred store makes sure that the carts closest to the entrance are the ones that haven’t been used recently, so they’re least likely to be wet. Oh, and they make it a point to go get carts quickly when it’s raining.

But back to where I was actually shopping. I found the cream quickly enough, but the canned tomatos took a couple guesses. There weren’t any canned tomatos close to the pasta sauces, which I found strange. Two aisles over, in an erratically stocked section, I finally found some fire-roasted tomatoes. I took all but one can of the ones they had on sale. I felt sorry for the next person that wanted them on sale, but hey I was making soup for 30.

I had brought a reusable bag with me, and gave it to the cashier. Keep in mind that I had a gallon of cream and 17 cans of tomatoes. Neither the bagger nor the cashier asked me whether I wanted all of my items in the reusable bag or not, unlike the baggers and cashiers at my preferred store. The bagger just crammed all 17 cans and the four quarts of cream in one bag. I’d say it easily weighed 25 pounds.

There’s no way I can carry 25 pounds of dead weight. I’ve had abdominal surgery in the past year, and I have to be very careful about what I carry or risk a hernia and another surgery to fix that. I ended up grabbing some plastic bags from the self-serve kiosk to distribute the load better.

I did notice that the company’s slogan was embroidered on the cashier’s shirt: Where Customers Are #1. Too bad I didn’t feel like it.

Getting out of the habit of writing can lead to some ugly writing consequences. I’m not talking necessarily about the quality of what you write, but simply getting anything written at all.

write daily, coffee optional for some

write daily, coffee optional for some

I’m reminded of this because I recently rededicated myself to writing every day in the morning, before I look at email or do any other kind of work. It’s been great—I’ve made progress on my ebook, on blog posts, and on the beginnings of a novel. Yeah for me!

But I took yesterday morning off, since I was meeting with a friend for coffee on the early side, and couldn’t get there early enough to squeeze in some writing before said friend arrived.

This morning, trying to write has been one long uphill struggle. No words for the novel came, no motivation to write anything on the ebook. Finally with my hour set to expire, I decided that a short blog about how difficult today was might work. It has, to a point.

I’m not a morning person, the way that the Great Plains are not mountains. So why decide to write first thing in the morning? Despite my hatred of it, I need structure to write. Doing something creative first thing in the morning stimulates my brain in a way nothing else—even coffee—can, and sets a better tone for the day.

For several years, following Julia Cameron’s excellent advice in The Artist’s Way, I wrote morning pages—three pages longhand every morning right when I got up. (OK, I did make coffee first. I’m not a saint, you know.) While I was doing those, I also worked on a novel, short stories, even a play—and that was all in addition to my paid writing work.

Daily writing works, even if you don’t like what you’re writing. It’s nice if you like what you wrote, but you don’t need to. Usually your inner critic is picking on you, and about a month later, whatever you wrote suddenly sounds much better.

All of this is a long-winded way of saying what Tchaikovsky said about composing—it applies equally to writing: “I am at my desk at 9 o’clock every morning, and my muse has learned to be prompt.”

Jennifer Alvey is a writer and editor who is trying to make friends with mornings. She still prefers to edit in the afternoons. Have your own winning writing strategies? Drop a note to jalveyATwordsolutionsDOTbiz.

When I first saw the headline in today’s online Tennessean, I thought it was being purposefully funny: “Men’s pants half off: The dangers of discounting.” But no, it wasn’t a cautionary tale about being careful with your marketing copy in a down economy. It was, in fact, an article about why you should be careful not to discount your prices too aggressively.

Pants Half Off

So it is left to me to write the article about FOR GOD’S SAKE BE CAREFUL WITH YOUR MARKETING COPY. Because you likely don’t really want to conjure up images about men’s pants being halfway off them, and some related images to what happens after the pants come all the way off, if you’re just trying to sell some jeans or twills. Unless, of course, it’s a purposeful ploy to capture some attention, a la the way the Barenaked Ladies named their band. (Hint: name of band on bar marquee . . . )

So what are the lessons here? Nothing earthshattering, just some basics that won’t even cost you money to implement:

  • Pay attention and don’t let deadlines short-circuit a thoughtful review,
  • Get some sleep, or at least take a real mental break, before you approve marketing copy, and
  • Routinely read things from outside your area of interest and expertise, so you will be more sensitive to the broader culture in which your marketing copy will be read.

And really, that’s all I’ve got to say about that.

Jennifer Alvey is a freelance writer and editor who lives for unintentional double entendres. They make life worth savoring. Have one to share? Email Jennifer at jalveyATwordsolutionsDOTbiz.

It’s summertime, and they’ve started to crop up again. On all those gas station signs and restaurant menus: “ice tea” and “ice water” and even “ice coffee.” Every time, it gives me the chills, but not in a good way.

Iced espresso for pondering spelling tipsUnless the tea, coffee or water is completely frozen or a frozen slush, those signs scream blatant spelling mistake. The tea and coffee has been poured over ice, as has the water, so they are iceD. Say it with me, ICED. Didn’t that feel cool and invigorating?

I have to admit, every time I see those misspelled signs, I think someone isn’t very sharp. I don’t know whether it’s the business owner, the clerk, or the harried assistant manager, but it shrieks to me: Sloppy. Can’t use a dictionary, or can’t be bothered. I dunno about this place.

Sure, lots of people won’t even notice. Some might even think it’s charming. Your existing customers know enough about you to give you a pass, hopefully. But in this economy, do you want to chance it with new customers? Nah, I didn’t think so. No one wants to give potential customers a reason to walk or drive right by.
Making sure your copy is perfectly spelled doesn’t mean you need to hire anyone to do that job (though if you generate a lot of copy, you probably should hire either a part-time employee or freelancer).

Three cheap, effective ways to get perfectly spelled copy

  • Have at least two sets of eyes look over all copy that the public will see. That means website copy (yes, even the forms on the order page), emails, brochures and of course, signs and menus. Don’t forget about any Facebook, Twitter, or other social media sites. The best people to look over copy are avid readers or other people who like to play with words. Have a bookish employee? She might be a perfect second set of eyes.
  • Give copywriters some cooling-off time. Unless you’re a news organization, require a minimum 20-minute cooling off period from finishing copy to hitting “post” or “send.” A few hours would be even better. Most spelling errors creep in because people are in a hurry, not because they’re stupid, lazy or incompetent. Letting a harried employee spend 20 minutes on Facebook before proofing their copy could save you a lot of public embarrassment.
  • Don’t rely solely on spellcheck. Spellcheck will not flag united when you mean untied, nor will it replace pubic with public–but you’ll wish it had!

Now, would you like to savor your perfectly spelled copy over sweet or unsweet iced tea?

Jennifer Alvey is a copyeditor who has learned these rules the hard way, and prefers iced espresso while editing in the summertime. Feel free to vote on your favorite iced beverage–email her at jalvey AT wordsolutions DOT biz.

As tempting as it is, I’m not going to gun for buzzwords today. (But you can read a great post about ridding yourself of business buzzwords at QuinnCreative, if you’d like.)

avoiding the word mazeInstead, I’m highlighting five common phrases that are guaranteed to clunk up business writing, and give you some substitutes for cleaner, clearer prose.

  1. “In order to.” This one tops my personal pet peeve chart. Lawyers in particular suffer a serious addiction to this phrase, but they are not alone. It’s verbal hesitation. Get to the point, eliminate the crutch of “in order,” and simply use “to.” Instant, painless verbal de-cluttering.
  2. “Despite the fact that.” This phrase nearly always results in tortured sentence construction, as in “Despite the fact that the defendant had notice that her conduct was unwelcome, she continued asking the plaintiff out on dates.” Bleah. Instead, use “even though” or “although.” So the improved sentence would read: “Even though the defendant knew the plaintiff did not want to date her, she continued asking him out on dates.” (Bonus points if you can tell me the other problem with the first sentence.)
  3. “In connection with.” If you want to sound like a stuffy old coot, be sure to use this phrase. Otherwise, “about,” “with,” or “concerning” will do nicely instead. Be careful with “concerning,” though, if wordiness is your Achilles’ heel; “concerning” often spawns complex sentence contortions if you don’t keep a sharp eye on it.
  4. “As such.” What does this phrase mean? Seriously. It’s filler, more throat clearing, and does not advance your point. Delete it, and say what you need to say.
  5. “For the most part.”  This is a verbal hedge. Using it signals uncertainty to your audience, and most of the time, you want to sound confident and assured. So drop “for the most part.” If you must qualify, try “usually” or “typically.”

If you simply can’t write without one of these phrases, drop me a line, and I’ll gladly help you figure out the fix.

Jennifer Alvey is a writer, trainer, and editor who thinks that simplifying your life includes simplifying your writing. She can be reached at jalvey AT

Are you afraid to use contractions in your business writing? Most of us learned along the way that contractions were acceptable in casual writing ONLY. Teachers marked down our school essays when we used isn’t or didn’t or don’t. Only in creative writing were we permitted to use non-standard grammar.

apostrophes everywhereLike so many things we learned in school, we must now unlearn this belief. For Gen Y, it’s easy; you haven’t been burdened with decades of reinforcement. But for us old Gen Xers and Boomers, it’s hard. Our knee-jerk reaction is to pick up the red pen (or font) and scribble a terse “S.O.” (spell out).

People who study linguistics, such as Wayne Danielson and Dominic Larosa, found out a decade ago that contractions enhance readability (see A New Readability Formula Based on the Stylistic Age of Novels, 33 Journal of Reading (1989), pp. 194, 196).

Even the government advocates using contractions to make writing easier to read. The Government Style Manual says

“Write as you talk” is a common rule of writing readably, and the best tool to do that is to use contractions. People are accustomed to hearing contractions in spoken English, and using them in your writing helps them relate to your document.

Use contractions with discretion. Just as you shouldn’t bullet everything on a page, you shouldn’t make a contraction out of every possible word. Don’t use them wherever possible, but wherever they sound natural.

And, contractions feel much less stuffy. Think that’s not important? Maybe you’ll reconsider when your audience bypasses stuffiness for articles or memos they can easily digest. Using contractions to make your writing more accessible means you can still discuss difficult concepts, but with a better chance of being understood. Isn’t that the reason you wrote something in the first place? I thought so.

Jennifer Alvey is a writer, editor and trainer who can’t imagine writing “cannot” all day long in her work. She can be reached at jalvey AT

I really, really, really had vowed not to post about fonts for a while. But then I saw a link to an Onion article about the 73rd Annual Fonty Awards, and just could not resist. Looks like I may have to eat my words about Helvetica.

Onion Coverage of 73rd Fonty Awards

Here’s the link. Enjoy!

Jennifer Alvey is a writer, trainer and editor who may need some help with her font fixation. Suggestions can be sent to jalvey [at] wordsolutions [dot] biz.

If you are of a certain age, your first conscious exposure to fonts was probably similar to mine: an IBM Selectric typewriter that had an italic ball. Or maybe it was when you first used a Mac in college or grad school, back in the day. (Gen Y’ers might not know this, but Macs were, as Steve Jobs says, “the first computer with beautiful typography.”) Now, of course, our familiarity with fonts is mostly through Microsoft Word.

Why do fonts matter in this day and age? The same reason they’ve always mattered: readability, and emotional subtext.

Fonts profoundly affect readability in print and online, but in different ways. As anyone in need of bifocals knows, font size is important. But even more important is the font family, serif or sans serif. You know what these are, even if you’ve never consciously thought about it. Serif fonts like Times New Roman sport small decorative strokes, the non-structural details, on the ends of letter stems. For example, in the photo, the “i,” the “n” and the “t” are in various serif fonts, while the “p” and the “r” are sans serif (sans is French for “without”).

serif and sans serif examples

serif and sans serif examples

When choosing fonts for readability, you need to know whether the finished product is going to be primarily some kind of hard copy, or whether it will be viewed primarily on a screen. (We’ll get to mixed use in a moment.) If your font is difficult to read, your audience gets fed up and goes elsewhere, whether it’s to find the equivalent info or make a purchase. If your audience is stuck with you for some reason, they’ll be resentful. Not the feeling you want to generate in customers or clients.

If you’re in a print world, serif fonts are generally more readable; the added strokes help lead the eye from letter to letter. Times New Roman, Georgia, and Garamond typically are good choices for print fonts.

Sans serif fonts, on the other hand, are easier on the eye when reading from a screen. Sans serifs have a higher “x-height,” the height of the lower case x that typically governs the height of all lower case letters in a font. Larger x-heights make fonts more legible at the low resolutions found online. Also, the crisper edges of sans serifs give a higher contrast on a screen. (Ink bleeds, even on the best printers.) Tahoma is a nice, middle-of-the-road sans serif, as is Verdana. Not Comic Sans, trust me.

Fonts go in and out of fashion. That’s where the emotional subtext comes into play. Remember some of the groovy fonts used in the Seventies?  Most of them now are found only in graphic design software, unless you download and install them yourself. Times New Roman has been the leader in projecting stability for businesses for quite some time, if for no other reason than it was the default font in Microsoft Word. Many courts and professors require documents be submitted in Times New Roman.

But with Office 2007, Microsoft updated its font collection and made a new font, Calibri, the default. Calibri is a sans serif font, a nod to the prevalence of online reading. It’s more rounded than Arial or Helvetica, making it a better option for documents that might be printed out–a good option if your document will be mixed use.

A nice 2006 article on the Poynter Institute website suggests Constantia or Cambria as other alternatives for mixed use documents.

If you are in the Washington, D.C. area on Feb. 23, stop by the Corcoran at 7 p.m. for a eye-opening lecture on fonts. Matthew Carter, the creator of the Verdana, Georgia, and Tahoma fonts, will be speaking.

In the meantime, you might want to give your newsletter, email, and website fonts a quick review.

Jennifer Alvey is an editor, writer and trainer with a background in both print and online media. She confesses to a slight obsession with fonts, but only changes her default font on Word once a month now. She can be reached at jalvey AT wordsolutions DOT biz.

There are phrases that we use daily without examining them. Until someone clues us in that there might be something offensive about the phrase.

One time, a colleague told me about the phrase “in like Flynn.” I thought it meant that someone got into something–a club, school, or other kind of selective place–more easily than most. My colleague, one of those Harvard-educated lawyers, said that actually, the phrase referred to film star Errol Flynn, who certainly had quite the reputation for myriad romantic conquests. Intimate romantic conquests, if you catch my drift. (Oh, the joy of writing to appease web site blocking software.)

I was pretty horrified when she told me this. I’m not a Pollyanna, but I am a control freak about words. I want to know both the connotation and denotation of what I’m saying. Especially if there’s a judge or client or boss on the receiving end of a letter I wrote with suspect phrases in it.

It’s hard to be well read and keep current with pop culture these days. After all, you’re a busy professional. I doubt the productivity gurus would accept, “But I’m surfing to make sure I’m current on lingo, so my memos/emails/legal briefs/client letters are better.”

There’s a great website to give you a quick, well researched summary of loads of colloquial phrases: The Phrase Finder. Because the site is run by some witty Brits, it’s very heavy on British phrases. But there are plenty of phrases from across the Pond, too.

Some good ones for business and legal writers: also offers a free weekly email that details the origins of one phrase. I always learn something. If you’re a professional writer or just write a good deal of material that requires color and zing, you can also purchase an annual subscription to search the database. It’s £28.00 for a single user (about $40 at this writing), or £70.00 for a multi-user site license (about $100). For businesses that rely on words, that’s pretty economical. (And I don’t make any money if you sign up; I just think it’s a great resource.)

Happy phrase hunting!

Jennifer Alvey is a writer, editor, and trainer with a background in law and business. She thinks getting your audience to read your website or marketing copy depends on colorful writing and solid information to back it up. She can be reached at jalvey AT wordsolutions DOT biz.

I text (oh my, am I really using “text” as a verb? sigh) my 11-year old niece occasionally, plus a friend, my sisters, and my husband. Until the lines die at the Apple store for the iPhone, texting is a laborious thing for me. I use an aged Motorola phone, whose software designers should be sentenced to use their product for three more years. In short, it’s not a device that lends itself to texting.

And that is good, very good. Since texting isn’t easy on this phone, I find myself compressing wordy phrases often. Like so many lawyers, I was trained in law school and in practice to use complicated grammar and words to express complicated ideas. And it’s a habit that creeps inexorably into other writing (see what I mean?).

But texting makes me ruthless in word choice, because I don’t feel like typing one more character than I must on my craptastic phone.

I’m flirting with opening a Twitter account, so that all 37 of the people I know in the world can sign up to read my sage, delightful observations of 140 characters or less. That’s right, Twitter limits entries to 140 characters. (So you know, 140 characters takes you to roughly the end of the first sentence in this paragraph.)

This is a fantastic discipline for lawyers. You must be concise, or you’re cut off. There’s no judge who can grant you an extension. The software doesn’t care.

I’m not alone in seeing the value for writers. The Huffington Post’s Rachel Sklar is all for Twittering, as she discussed in a Washington Post article about Twittering from the Democratic convention:

Sklar loves the haikulike restrictions, “posting my real-time thoughts, impressions and wisecracks without having to worry about fleshing them out for a proper blog post. Working within that 140-character limit — and still managing to get out your observation, your comment, your setup and punch line or what have you — is great training for a writer.”

For those of you who couldn’t care less about Twittering or texting, there’s a wonderful substitute called flash fiction. You don’t even need a computer for it. Flash fiction requires you to write an entire story with a set number of words, say, 100. If the class instructor is feeling generous, you might get 150 words. Few things will make you more aware of word choices. It’s an excellent way to practice Strunk & White‘s timeless edict: Eliminate needless words.

Jennifer Alvey is a recovering lawyer, writer, and editor who loves new technologies that actually help people get where they want to go in life. She will someday soon achieve iPhone nirvana. She can be reached at jalvey[at]wordsolutions[dot]biz.