The Five C's of Quality Writing
- By Scott White
- Published 04/25/2008
There are two components of any copy, whether it's an article, a Web site, or a book: content and appearance.
Content means the words that actually appear on the page - your message. It can be serious, humorous, elegant, bold, technical, or conversational in tone. But the message is the words themselves. What you're saying and how you're saying it. Content includes grammar, spelling, jargon, acronyms, and the like.
Appearance relates to the way the words (content) look on the page.
These are things that affect the way the words look on the printed page (or monitor, for Web copy) - all of which goes in to making your copy easy to read.
Are your paragraphs all piled up, one on top of the other, with no graphics, subheadings, or other means of breaking them up? Are they manageable in size and easy to digest? A paragraph is supposed to contain one chunk of related information. Sometimes they can get fairly lengthy and still be in correct literary form . . . but keep your reader in mind. If there's a way to break up one big, gigantic, one-and-a-half-page paragraph, DO IT!
THE 5 C'S OF CONTENT
Make you content CLEAR. Avoid the overuse of jargon and acronyms in your copy. Unless you are writing for a specialty Web site where only people intimately familiar with your industry and/or business will visit it, make sure your language is understandable to the broadest possible audience. Get someone objective (i.e., not in your industry) to read it for you. If they don't get it, chances are some of your other readers won't get it either.
Make it CONCISE - even for books and long-copy sales letters. Most people have a tendency to overwrite. Be precise with your language. Avoid run-on sentences. Avoid long, meandering phrases when one or two words will do.
Rule of thumb: Polish your written piece until it gleams. Get it to where you think it's perfect. Then go back and cut it by 25 percent.
"Not possible!" you say.
Oh, but it is. Get rid of phrases like "of the" and all the extra instances of "that". Delete redundancies like "simple, effortless, and easy-to-use." Sometimes more is better. Other times, more is just more - and might actually work against ease of reading and understanding - which means it works against you.
Make your content COMPELLING. Use motivating language. In sales copy, for example, detail your features and benefits. Give people a reason to want to buy from you or use your service. An isolated product list probably is not going to compel anyone all by itself. However, whatever you do, do not ever lie or misrepresent yourself! This will only come back to harm you in the long (or not-so-long) run.
If you claim to have contacts who are producers at Warner Bros., you'd better be sure the person you know at Warner Bros. is not the sister of the assistant to the catering manager. Or if you offer 2-day delivery at no extra charge, you'd better be ready to fulfill that promise, even if you receive 1,000 orders in a day!
Also, tell stories. Don't forget you're the expert. If you're writing a book about job hunting for baby boomers, and you've helped a lot of baby boomers get jobs, use those stories in your writing to illustrate your points. Stories are compelling because they help your readers relate to your material. They can be entertaining, offer lessons, or dramatize particular elements - but use stories in all of your writing to create and maintain interest.
Make sure your content is CONSISTENT. This is another place where you can tell a sloppy writer from one who takes time to double- and triple-check their work before they submit and/or publish it.
There is not necessarily a correct answer to these ones. Simply determine what your personal and/or company standard is, and stick with it. One of the worst offenses of inconsistency appears when there are several different spellings or phone number styles within a single document. Mistakes like these make your work - and by extension, you and your company - appear sloppy.
Is it on line, online, or on-line?
Is your style ABC Deli or A.B.C. Deli?
formatting phone numbers: Do you use 602.253.8463 or 602/253.8463 or (602) 253-8463?
Make your content CORRECT. Proper grammar and spelling are essential!!! There's no way to state this strongly enough, particularly with respect to Web copy. There is so much competition for business on the Web - if you have sloppy copy that is badly spelled and riddled with grammatical mistakes, the next site is just one click away - and you won't get a second chance to bring those lost visitors back.
Although everyone makes a mistake now and again, please do not underestimate the importance of correct grammar. If you don't know whether it's correct or not, ASK someone who knows, LOOK IT UP in a book or online resource, or PAY a professional editor/proofreader.
The most glaring grammatical errors:
Stupid spelling mistakes. Write your copy in Word and SPELLCHECK before you dump it into html (or Publisher, PowerPoint, or whatever other format you might use for delivery).
Missing and incorrectly used apostrophes. Again, there's no excuse for this mistake - and it is one that will set you apart from the others in your industry. Apostrophes are NEVER used to create plurals - but you see this all the time. A ridiculous sign of sloppy writing and a complete lack of editing.
EXTREME EXAMPLE OF COMMON ERRORS:
In this writers opinion, dumb grammer mistake's cost people more business than they reelize.
TIP: If you use ALL CAPS, change your text to lower case or initial caps to run SpellCheck. SpellCheck will not catch errors in text in ALL CAPS unless you set it to do so.
TIP: Use ALL CAPS sparingly. Text written in ALL CAPS is exceptionally difficult to read. The fact is that the shape of a word, as much as its spelling, facilitates quick reading. Words written exclusively in capital letters lose the shape differentiation caused by the ascenders (b, d, f, h, k, l, t) and descenders (g, j, p, q, y). As a result, words written in ALL CAPS take a great deal more effort to read.
Remember, it is virtually impossible to edit your own work. You're too close to the material and have seen it too many times to even notice errors any longer. If you find yourself in a position where you must edit your own writing, take a significant break from it - two hours, at minimum, but two days is suggested. This will allow you to return to your work with "new eyes," able to spot errors you would likely have missed had you not taken the break.