Author Archive | Michelle

A copywriter’s top spelling and grammar tips

I really enjoy my job as a creative copywriter. I spend most of my days reading and writing things. Sometimes I’m coming up with new ideas, other times I’m just helping other people get their message across. It also means I get to see a lot of things that often confuse us when we’re writing (even me). So here’s my quick guide to some of the things I see every day that cause the most head scratching:

The apostrophe
The apostrophe ’ often seems to cause confusion. It appears where it’s not needed and goes AWOL when it is.

The apostrophe has two main uses:
1) To show something belongs to someone or something.
2) To show there’s a letter or letters missing from a word.

1) Using the apostrophe to show ownership or belonging

The client’s software (one client)
Doris’ business (in this example Doris’s is also correct, but we prefer the less cluttered punctuation)
The children’s father
My clients’ business
(more than one client)

But AVOID the green grocer’s apostrophe e.g.
The apple’s, the cauliflower’s, the carrot’s

When I see examples like this I always want to ask, ‘The apple’s, cauliflower’s, carrot’s, what?’

Note Possessive pronouns like yours, his, hers, ours, its and theirs are not followed by the apostrophe.

2) Using the apostrophe to show there’s something missing

There are lots of examples of this. Some we use everyday without really thinking about them:

I’m; you’re; we’re – I am; you are; we are
Don’t, won’t, haven’t, isn’t – do not; will not, have not, is not

Others sometimes seem to cause confusion:
Let’s for let us

Common mistakes
There are four common cases where it is easy to get confused.

It’s has an apostrophe when it means it is. When you want to show possession, the correct form is its.
It’s a long way to Tipperary.
Every business has its challenges.

Who’s stands for who is or who has. When you want to show possession, the correct form is whose.
Who’s running the company?
The manager, whose business was doing well, booked a well-deserved holiday.

If you can replace the word with “you are”, then the word you’re looking for is you’re. If you want to indicate that something belongs to someone, you need your.

You’re going to have a busy month.
Is this your tax return?

They’re stands for they are. The possessive is their.

They’re the people who bought our business.
It’s their business now.

If you want to show where something is, the correct form is there.

The business is over there.

Still confused? Check out this humorous, comic style guide to how to use an apostrophe.

Words that sound similar but are spelt differently

license (v) / licence (n)

practise (v) / practice (n)

advise (v) / advice (n)

To get these right, you basically have to know your nouns from your verbs. Remember from your English lessons, a noun refers to a thing and a verb is a ‘doing word’. Then use this sentence to help you choose the right spelling:

Stop the crocodile.

Any time you want the verb, use ‘s’ – like you do when you say ‘stop’. If you want the noun, it’s a ‘c’, as in crocodile.

license and licence:

He may be licensed to kill, but James Bond was still booked for driving without his driving licence.

practise and practice:

Mr Jones likes to practise his juggling at his accountant’s practice.

advise and advice:

You can advise people as much as you like but you can’t get them to listen to your advice.

Words that sound similar but mean different things

compliment / complement

A compliment is a nice thing said about someone. So if you say, “I like your new dress”, you’re paying someone a compliment. Something that’s given away free is also complimentary.

Complimentary drinks with every meal.

Complement has a number of meanings associated with matching or completing.

If you’re ordering business cards, why not choose some complementary letterheads?

stationery / stationary

It’s easy to remember the difference between these two. Just remember ‘e’ is for envelope and ‘a’ is for ‘at a standstill’.

affect / effect

To affect something is to change or influence it.

The computer failure affected her business.

Effect has a lot of subtle meanings as a noun, but it mostly refers to something that’s happens as a result of something else.

The new layout had a positive effect on the magazine’s circulation.

Effect is also a rather formal way of saying to make it happen.

The Government has effected a change in policy.

Most of the time affect is a verb and effect is a noun.

Some other places to go to if you get stuck
Online dictionaries
www.askoxford.com/?view=uk
(check out their better writing section too)
http://dictionary.cambridge.org/

Online thesaurus (for when you’re short of an alternative word)
http://thesaurus.reference.com/
(watch out for US spellings though)

More grammar resources and style guides:
Daily Writing Tips
Economist styleguide
Guardian styleguide

The Writer

On Friday I spent a very inspirational morning with John Simmons at the offices of The Writer in London. John is a very influential writer who’s advised and worked with some very big name brands, so spending a couple of hours with him was a real privilege.

I came away re-invigorated and refreshed, as though seeing what I’d written for the first time. And picked up lots of ideas that will help me keep things fresh and interesting in future. It was enlivening to spend time with someone who loves working with words and really understands the power of saying things simply.

Here’s what I jotted in my notebook on the train home:

What I take with me from today…
An invitation to join the dark angels
To revel in black ink on paper.
A journey in someone else’s shoes
To find new ways to see the old, tired and too familiar.
The freedom of constraint.
And the confidence to face the world as a writer.

Is imitation really the sincerest form of flattery?

I caught the new Ford TV advert this week.

Not a bad idea I thought, but not as good as the Sound of Honda.

Honda has created some very clever, eye-catching television adverts over recent years. So when I start to watch an advert that’s a bit quirky, I instinctively start to think of Honda. That’s a really powerful bit of brand association. (But I still drive a Mini!)

Familiarity can be a good thing for a brand, but what happens when you start to see the same thing everywhere?

Innocent is a brand that’s really established a strong identity through its tone of voice (which I have to admit I love). But now it has its imitators. Barclays seems to be trying to adopt a more ‘innocent style’ and fellow smoothie makers PJ’s are desperately trying to catch their cheeky, fun, irreverent tone (but not quite getting it IMHO).

So what happens to the Innocent brand if one element of its uniqueness, is no longer so unique? Will their smoothies be diluted by these pale imitations? Or are the other brands just savvy by trying to sparkle in their reflections?<

Drumming gorillas and Phil Collins?

It’s the latest advert to cause a buzz in the world of marketing, picked up and posted on YouTube and the subject of much debate and discussion.

First aired in a plum slot on UK TV during the Big Brother final, it depicts a man in a very convincing gorilla suit sitting behind a drumkit and launching into an enthusiastic rendition of the Phil Collins drum solo from In the Air Tonight.

And that’s it. That’s all. No pack shot, no company reference, no strapline, no musical sting, no web address. None of those things that countless textbooks on marketing recommend.

So how do you know what it’s trying to sell? Well there are clues of course. Catch the very start of the ad and you’ll see it’s made by A Glass And A Half Full Productions, and the wall behind the drumming gorilla is a particular shade of purple. I got the association pretty much straightaway, but whether that’s due to the strength of brand association or my over-familiarity with its product – I’ll leave you to decide.

But I wonder how many times “drumming gorilla” was entered as a Google search term before the advert was shown? And how many more afterwards?

Will it sell any more product? Or help restore the feel good factor of a brand that’s taken some knocks? We’ll have to wait and see. But it’s certainly got people talking.

And if you’re still wondering what the heck I’m blathering on about, see for yourself.

Edinburgh

Glistening dark pavements
Send street lights scattering after a rain shower.
Hot chocolate snaps the sharp cold of February,
Smoothed by the soft burr of locals.
Grey stone exteriors with an exuberant heart
Kick back, let loose, shock, outrage and rebel
In a brief carnival of colour.
The festival as Mardi Gras
Antidote to granite skies.

I met a new word today

The word is chaebol. And today was the first time I’ve ever encountered it.

I met it in an article which referred to Samsung as a “Korean chaebol”, which didn’t really give me many clues as to what it meant. So I had to look it up. I couldn’t find it in the online Oxford or Cambridge dictionaries but Dictionary.com came up trumps. 

For those of you still in the dark, chaebol is a conglomerate of businesses, usually owned by a single family, especially in Korea.

It’s not every day that I meet a new word. When I do, they’re often compound words  like podcast or blog, and I can work out their meaning from the context and understanding of their familiar roots.

Unfortunately I don’t think I’ll be using chaebol in my every day language. But it was nice to make its aquaintance.

A new favourite author

Something great happened this weekend. I read a wonderful book. It’s called Stardust and was written by Neil Gaiman.

It’s a fairy tale for grown ups. Think about that for a second. Think about the effect that fairy tales had on you as a child. They opened up new and magical worlds in your imagination. Filled them with wonderful, weird, brave, loyal, scary or cunning characters. Fairy tales took you on a journey. They left you scared and anxious in the deep dark woods. They made you smile and feel smart if you worked out the riddles. They transported you out of reality for a while and lingered like the memory of a warm summer day when you eventually had to return to real life.

That’s a pretty rare and special experience for a grown up. So thank you Mr Gaiman. And I’m sorry I didn’t get round to reading your work sooner.

Aristotle the blogger

In one of those curious and convoluted connections that I love so much in the world of the web, I’ve seen two references to Ancient Greek wisdom this week.

Copyblogger.com (one of my regular feeds) presents Aristotle’s Top 3 Tips for Effective Blogging. Tips which work for all types of writing.

And then, in an article about the importance of the ending to the overall experience of a movie, there’s a quote from screenwriter Jan Sardi, who says, “It’s a principle that comes from Aristotle’s Poetics: that the challenge for any screenwriter or dramatist is to surprise the audience with the inevitability of everything that happens. There should be only one way a story can end. The ending is written in the beginning.” [Thanks to Kathy Sierra of Creating Passionate Users who provided the original link.]

I’m going to try and apply some of Aristotle’s common sense advice to my next marketing job. But these connections also reminded me of learning Latin at school and encountering the beautiful poetry of Homer’s Iliad for the first time. I think it’s time for a re-read. For someone who loves the music of language, my poetry intake is pretty much confined to clever lyrics.

In the meantime, is it just coincidence when diverse sources use the same references at similar times? Or are they just smart people?

Editing a long sentence to make it easier to understand

In my job as a copywriter, I often encounter very long and unwieldy sentences, particularly when my clients are trying to cram as many product features into as small a space as possible. It’s my job to unpick the seams of these sentences and suggest alternatives which are easier to understand and which you can actually read out loud without the need for oxygen!

These lengthy statements often fall into a pattern which I’ve called “Venn diagram style”. If a product or service does all these things AND all these other things, clients often place the product in the middle of the copy.

So for example, I might be presented with the following sentence:

“Designed to help you communicate with your customers, reach new audiences and sell your services more efficiently, Product X can open up new markets, boost your sales and retain customer loyalty to your business.” [NB This is a made-up example].

Fair enough, it’s not impossible to wade through and understand the message, but it does look a bit unwieldy and I’m all for simplicity when it comes to copy.

A simple way to unpack the Venn diagram style is to separate the ideas into two or more sentences.

For example:
“Product X is designed to help you communicate with your customers, reach new audiences and sell your services more efficiently. Product X can open up new markets, boost your sales and retain customer loyalty to your business. ”

Or the slightly more elegant:
“Product X is designed to help you communicate with your customers, reach new audiences and sell your services more efficiently. As well as helping you to open up new markets, Product X can boost your sales and retain customer loyalty to your business.”

Of course, I often have to persuade my clients that packing all their super-duper features into one sentence is not necessarily the best way to get the message across. Sometimes less is more. More effective. More eyecatching. It has more impact.

But when the clients absolutely insist that everything’s got to be in there somewhere, unpacking the Venn diagram is a useful tool.

New compound words

This week I was asked to look over some copy that included the word ‘webinar’ and it almost caused a physical twitch. I’m guessing the writer used it as a shorter way of saying web-based seminar.

But it started me thinking about my attitude to compound words in general. You see I didn’t like ‘blog’ or ‘podcast’ the first time I heard them either.

‘Blog’ sounds like what it is – a made up word, a contraction of web log and it just felt clumsy in my mouth. I objected to podcast initially because I felt it was inaccurate. You didn’t have to own an iPod to listen to one.

Needless to say I’ve overcome my first reactions and have adopted and use both terms. But it’s going to take some serious persuasion to get me to use ‘webinar’.

Nancy Friedman picks a word of the week on her Away with words blog. Last week it was upycling which I like and this week it's crowdsourcing – which I'm a bit undecided about. As a matter of personal preference, I recognise it's a purely subjective judgement. They're fun to collect though!