6 Copyediting Mistakes to Avoid in Your Content
January 12, 2016
Blogs, e-books, and whitepapers are important elements of an inbound marketing strategy. Quality content attracts visitors, moves prospects along on the buyer’s journey, and establishes your organization as a thought leader in your industry and with your potential customers. The words you publish on your blog posts or within your e-books must resonate with readers and be informative, authoritative, and entertaining.
Just as important, your words must make sense. Unless you and your team are always perfect, copyediting should be part of your content creation process.
Unfortunately, most marketers do not come from any sort of editorial background and aren’t able to apply a fine-tooth comb to words and sentences the way professional copy editors do. However, a good 10-minute read on a 600-word blog post can catch many of the errors that naturally slip through when a writer submits content. Some errors are small—and you can get away with these—but others will decrease the quality of the copy and, ultimately, the message you are trying to convey. Here are six common mistakes to look for when editing copy:
Readers often won’t care how you reference someone or something, but they will notice if you can’t settle on one way or the other. For example, after a first reference of John Doe, if you bounce back and forth between calling the person John and Doe, the reader will become confused. Pick one way and stick with it, throughout the post and all your content.
2. Too many pronouns
Consider this sentence: The guests brought hot dogs to the picnics; they were happy they brought them. There are three plural nouns in the first half of the sentence, and there are three plural pronouns referring to them. Yet, which they or them is attached to which original noun? This example is extreme, but it goes to show that pronoun meanings, at least in print, aren’t readily apparent when you start mixing and matching. Take special care to designate whom or what a pronoun is referring to, and clarify if necessary. Better to have a name repeated twice in the same sentence than a reader confused about who’s who.
3. The nonspecific it
It behooves me to tell you that starting a sentence with it is one of my biggest pet peeves. For starters, there might be a reference to another singular noun in the previous sentence or later in the current sentence that will provide confusion on the actual it. More directly, this is a roundabout, passive-aggressive construction that weakens your stance as an authority. For the first sentence in this section (which I purposely wrote obnoxiously), a better option is Starting a sentence with it is one of my biggest pet peeves. This revision is not only shorter, but also more direct—I’m not apologizing for having to tell you this point; I’m declaring it outright.
4. Sentences that go on, and on, and on …
If you find sentences that are littered with commas, semicolons, dashes, and conjunctions, they may be too long. There’s no magic word count on what makes a run-on sentence, but if you feel you’ve been on the same sentence for a while or have just become lost, split it up. Use transitional words such as therefore, however, or furthermore in order to tie the new sentences together and direct readers from one thought to the next.
5. Always assuming the writer is correct
If you are copyediting other writers and you see facts that don’t seem quite right, don’t hesitate to follow up. Often, the info is correct, but even the most diligent writers can lose focus for a minute and type something they didn’t intend to type. Better to send a quick email or IM (or to leave a comment in the copy for review) asking for clarification rather than to let a serious mistake appear on your website.
6. Common usage mistakes
I could probably write a whole post about common usage mistakes that non-copy editors can easily look for when editing (and maybe one day I will!). For now, here are six common errors I see in the content I edit for SmartBug Media’s clients:
- While: Should denote—and only denote—simultaneous action and not be a replacement for though, although, but, or and. For example, He was walking while chewing gum is correct; While walking is good for you; eating a triple cheeseburger is unhealthy is not (although is a better choice).
- Since: This is another time-based term often misused. Since is synonymous with going back to that time, as in, Since 1908, the Cubs have not won a World Series. It should never be used in place of because: Since the Cubs are unlucky, they do not win the World Series is incorrect.
- Complement or compliment? To complement something is to complete or enhance it: Chocolate complements peanut butter in a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup. To compliment something is to praise or regard something: I emailed Reese’s to compliment the company on how delicious its candy is.
- Effect or affect? This gets tricky because both can be used as a noun and a verb. To affect something is to cause it to change; those changes are effects. Generally, affect is a verb and effect is a noun. On rare occasions, effect can be a verb meaning to be the agent of (e.g., He can effect change).
- Ensure or insure? I see this often. Ensure means to guarantee or make sure. Insure is to provide insurance for. Unless you are writing insurance copy, ensure will be your most likely usage.
- Plural, not possessive: Some writers like to add an apostrophe to any plural construction, possibly out of fear that the new word constructed with the s at the end will not be recognizable. However, the apostrophe denotes a possessive, which fundamentally changes the definition of the word. This often occurs with names: He went to the Gillespie’s for dinner. The Gillespie’s what? Reword the sentence if you want, or just accept that Gillespies isn’t so bad, but don’t add the apostrophe unless you intend a possessive.
About the author
Joe Gillespie is Director of Inbound Copy for SmartBug Media. He graduated from Marquette University with a B.A. in journalism and, before coming to SmartBug, was a two-decade veteran of the newspaper industry. Read more articles by Joe Gillespie.
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