I’m a copy editor, meaning I read and edit others’ words to help them look and sound as smart as they are.
Over the last 25 years, I have seen many ways of succeeding and, sadly, a few things that almost guarantee readers will be turned off before they get very far into an article that someone worked so hard on.
Here are my top three ways to lose readers before they get to know us:
LEAVING TYPOS IN THE TITLE AND/OR SUBTITLE!
If you must make errors, try not to do it in your title or subtitle — the first impression will likely not be a positive one.
Are the words spelled correctly? Are they all there? Are they used correctly? Are the words in the correct order? Did you double-up a short word, which is so easy to do?
Read out loud. Look carefully at each word. Make a great first impression.
Check the first paragraphs, too. Too many obvious goofs coming that quickly will have your readers switching to the next interesting-looking article. (Obviously I want you to check everything, but once readers get hooked by your information, an occasional goof may seem less important.)
USING THE WRONG HOMOPHONE
In (inn) English, we (wee) have homophones — words that sound the same but (butt) don’t mean (mien) the same thing and aren’t spelled the same way (weigh, whey). They can trip up even the most experienced writers because we all (awl) rely too (to, two) much on spellcheck, right (write, rite)?
Let’s remember that spellcheck does only one (won) thing: It checks spelling. It does not (knot) check usage. A correctly spelled word that is not the one you (ewe) meant will be (bee) approved by (buy, bye) spellcheck.
If you frequently write it’s when you mean its, or you’re when you mean your, create your documents in a program that has a grammar and spellcheck program. Misspelled words will automatically be flagged (at least in Word), although homophones will not. But if you use the grammar checker, they will be.
Another trick is to use the find/replace feature in Word: Type in one of the pair (or threesome) you’re unsure about, see where it is in your sentences, and make sure it’s the correct one. Then type in the OTHER one to see if you’ve used that one correctly.
This one trick would have saved me when I meant to write public in an article, but I left out the letter l. Yeah. The result was a perfectly fine word, but NOT what I meant. An alert reader private-messaged me to let me know. Now I type in the word I don’t want — pubic — to make sure I don’t see it in any article that contains public.
You can also decide to really learn the meaning of one of the words in the pair, and if it’s not the right one for your sentence, use the other one. That might cut down on mistakes.
For instance: It’s can only be used when you mean “it is” or “it has.” If that doesn’t fit in your sentence, use its. You’re can only be used when you mean “you are.”
MISUSING BASIC PUNCTUATION MARKS IN YOUR VERSION OF ENGLISH
Why do I say your version of English? Because American English (the version I grew up with and teach) is very different from British English in all its variations. Some of our words are spelled differently (harbor vs. harbour). Some of our punctuation rules are different, especially when it comes to quotation marks.
But in general, what I see are writers using commas where they somehow believe they should be (without following any known rule or need), using semicolons all over the place (there are really only three semicolon rules you need to know for most of your writing), and using apostrophes in the wrong places (mostly to form plurals of regular nouns, which is completely wrong).
We spend a lot of time creating articles to show our ideas to others. Let’s do our best to present ourselves in such a way that our readers come back for more!