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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.

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