Last month, I got an interesting email from the principal of Sales Benchmark Index, a sales and marketing consultancy, who needed a writer to produce a style guide for the company’s blog. My first reaction was “Huh? A customized blog style guide? That’s a new one!” But when I called the principal and he explained what they needed in more detail, I came away with a nice new project — and a lot of respect for this company and how they approached their marketing communications.
Turns out that this firm publishes daily blogs on topics related to helping B2B companies improve their sales. These blogs are written by 18 different authors, so as you can imagine, the writing styles were all over the place. They were getting rave reviews for their content, but some readers were pointing out that the quality and style of writing were inconsistent.
I give this company a tremendous amount of credit for two things: First, recognizing that this was a problem, and second, actually doing something about it.
So I embarked on a new kind of project (for me, at least) that brought out my inner editorial and grammar geek: creating a writing style document that ended up being kind of a mini, customized AP Stylebook. It helped that this company’s CEO had already created two guides himself on writing blog headlines and body copy, which we incorporated into their style guide.
My Top 10 Writing Rules
Working on this project reinforced a lot of basic writing rules and guidelines for me that I pretty much knew, but weren’t always top of mind. Given this, I thought it would be helpful to share a few of them here with you.
I narrowed the guide down to my Top 10 Writing Rules for Marketing and Communications Writers. These apply to virtually any type of writing, whether blogs, articles, websites, brochures or sales letters:
1. Capitalization of formal titles — These should only be capitalized when they precede a person’s name, not when they follow it. For example: Microsoft Corporation Chairman Bill Gates; or Bill Gates, chairman of Microsoft Corporation.
2. Punctuation and quote marks — Periods and commas should be placed within quotation marks. But colons, semicolons, dashes, question marks and exclamation points should be placed outside of quotation marks, unless they apply to the quoted matter.
3. Continuation of quotations — If a person’s quote continues uninterrupted from one paragraph to the next, there should not be a closed quote at the end of the first paragraph. I see this mistake a lot.
4. Spaces after periods — Single, not double, spaces should be used after punctuation at the end of a sentence, regardless of the type of punctuation (period, question mark or exclamation point).
5. Hyphens and compound modifiers — A hyphen should be used to join two words that describe a noun (like first-quarter touchdown) — unless the first word ends in ‘ly’ (it was an easily forgotten game).
6. e.g. and i.e. — e.g., can be used in place of for example, while i.e., can be used in place of in other words. Both should be followed by a comma.
7. Who vs. that — Who should be used when referring to an animate object (person or animal), while that should be used when referring to an inanimate object (a thing).
8. Noun-pronoun agreement — This is one of the most common writing mistakes I see. Incorrect: If a person isn’t aware of their circumstances, they could get into trouble. It should read: If a person isn’t aware of the circumstances, he or she could get into trouble. Or: If people aren’t aware of their circumstances, they could get into trouble.
9. Numbers and numerals — In body copy, spell out both cardinal (one, two, three) and ordinal (first, second, third) numbers below 10, but use numerals for numbers 10 and above.
10. Amounts of money — For amounts of money less than $1 million, use numerals and the dollar sign ($500). And be careful not to use both, like $500 dollars — I’ve actually seen this in published material before.
Bonus: Copywriting Tips
As a bonus, here are a few excellent marketing copywriting tips from the company’s CEO, Greg Alexander:
• Put the reader first. In marketing and communications writing, it’s all about your reader, not you or your organization. Write with a “you-orientation,” not a “we-orientation“ or an “us-orientation.”
• Use short sentences and simple words. Again, it’s not about impressing readers with your extensive vocabulary and flowery prose. It’s about clearly communicating your marketing message.
• Avoid technical jargon. Don’t use jargon when writing to an audience that might not speak the lingo of your industry. Doing so confuses (and loses) readers and muddies your message.
• Get to the point quickly. Marketing communications aren’t the place to beat around the bush. Your lead paragraph must fulfill the promise of your headline and draw the reader into the rest of your copy.