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. thatWho 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.

This Post Has 6 Comments

  1. Paul

    Right on Don! These are major pet peeves of mine. You would be surprised how many attorneys violate these rules in formal pleadings.

    1. don

      Actually, I wouldn’t be surprised at all. I’d be more surprised if they followed these rules!

  2. alison amoroso

    Hi Don,

    This is a great cheat sheet! Thanks so much for sharing it! I find it fascinating how people can be really good at some rules and not others. It’s always humbling to find a rule I just forget, or maybe never learned! For me that is the punctuation after the end quote. Thanks!

    If you don’t mind, thought I’d mention two pesky examples I found in your list. Although not rule-breakers, it’s better to use active writing, for instance, without a more literary context: it was an easily forgotten game, would be better as, The game was easily forgotten.

    Another one pretty high up on the list of clear writing sticklers is the “rule” to use “while” when describing something happening at the same time, or in the context of time, otherwise to use “although.” Somehow it’s become much more common in spoken language and its creeping into writing as well. In this situation I’d write something such as, “Although e.g. and i.e. are used interchangeably, e.g. replaces ‘for example’ and i.e. replaces ‘in other words.’ Check out #6 above. In this example one is not happening at the same time as the other, it expresses a concession:
    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.’

    hope all is well with you!!

    1. don

      Good catch on the ‘while’ vs. ‘although,’ Alison. Think I’ll add that one to my list!

  3. Laura L. Smith

    Good post. Because I always strove to in my quest of proper English usage in my college papers–I received A+’s. However…

    As you know in copywriting–you sometimes have to break the rules of proper English to make your copy reader friendly.

    After all–the goal is to keep the client interested to keep on reading.

    1. don

      Amen, Laura! It’s funny — my high school daughter always asks me to look at her lit papers before she turns them in. I have to force myself not to copyedit them and remember that she has to follow rules like 5 sentence paragraphs that don’t apply to commercial copywriting.

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