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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.

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 wordsolutions.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:

Phrases.org.uk 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.

Copyediting is a tricky business. In this age of 24/7 everything, copyeditors save many writers from certain shame, catching errors like leaving the “l” out of public, misspelling client’s corporate names, making sure what is united is supposed to be (rather than, say, untied), and wrestling with the general public’s inability to use “its” and “it’s” correctly.

[Side rant: I simply do not get how people confuse “its” and “it’s”. My 8th grade English teacher in public school in Kentucky taught us a really simple way to figure it out: Can you substitute “it is”? If yes, use the contraction “it’s”; if not, “its.” Yet I see writers of all ages and backgrounds confusing the two. If you can explain it, please, please drop me a comment or email.]

The WaPo recently ran a nice article on what copy editors do. In addition to catching spelling and grammar errors, copyeditors are the ones who stand in the place of your reader and say “huh?” So often, our brains run ahead of our fingers, and we think we explained ourselves beautifully–until the copyeditor asks a pointed question. “If the plaintiff is named Dan Parker, why do you refer to ‘her employees’? Is the plaintiff’s name Dana, possibly?”

Since lawyers mostly hate, loathe, and despise looking silly or stupid, hiring a copyeditor to review web site copy, marketing materials, presentation materials for conferences, and even briefs could be a smart move. (Though to use a copyeditor for a brief, you have to be really committed to getting the thing done at least a day before the filing deadline–hard for many attorneys, I know.) For about a third of a new associate’s hourly rate, you can have errors small and large eliminated, and look smart and polished. What’s not to love?

Should you and your team catch this kind of stuff? In theory, of course you should. But let’s be honest: When you’ve read the same 50 pages about 20 times in two weeks, you and everyone else will glaze over, regardless of title or salary.

Jennifer Alvey is a writer and editor who laughed with gusto at Eats, Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss. She can be reached at jalvey AT wordsolutions DOT biz. She will not point out any spelling or grammar errors in your emails unless you ask her to.

If you don’t keep up with the publishing industry, you may not know that the Washington Post recently shed a slew of its experienced copyeditors in a downsizing buyout. And I’ve been able to tell. I’ve seen many headlines for story links with bad punctuation, wrong words or, yikes! misspelled words. Or headlines that are unintelligible.

Some examples:

A link on 8/1/08 that read: Whose to Blame for Oil Prices? (“whose” is possessive, but “who’s” is a contraction for “who is”, the intended meaning here)

A photo caption on 8/1/08 about Olympic runner Usain Bolt that read “Blot Sets Record for 100 Meters”. Bonus points for this one because in the photo, Bolt’s name was prominent on his shirt.

A caption for a photo on the 7/16/08 homepage: Rose Levy Beranbaum who holds degrees in food science shows chemistry — and good pies — cannot be ignored or rushed. (lacks an appositive comma after “who”)

It’s not just the WaPo, either. Just today, I saw this headline when I signed into Yahoo!:

Magazine over featuring Obamas draws criticism (AP)

This is exactly the kind of flub that Word and other word processing programs don’t catch. When you’ve read the same text more than a couple times in the same day, you stop seeing errors, no matter how excellent your editing skills. Short turn-around times nearly always equal bloopers, in my experience.

Yet even if you have vast savannahs of time, there’s no guarantee of perfect copy, particularly if yours are the only eyes reviewing. More than once, I’ve been so grateful to have the luxury of a proofer or copyeditor who caught some whoppers, despite three others on staff who had edited the copy twice each previously. Those editors weren’t incompetent, just overburdened and constantly rushed. Sound like anyone you know?

Here’s a fun story by Gene Weingarten at the WaPo about the importance of copyeditors. See if you can find all 57 errors. If not, let me know and I’ll send you the list.

Jennifer Alvey is a writer, editor and trainer who gets equally irritated at avoidable mistakes in copy and endless debates over which and that. She can be reached at jalvey AT wordsolutions DOT biz.