Writing for your business is not an easy task but it’s something a lot of small business owners have to do.
While I’d always advise investing in a copywriter (of course I would – I am one) it IS possible to handle small-scale copy yourself. You just need to make sure you don’t make mistakes that can harm your business’s image.
Because words aren’t only a functional tool that gets a customer from product page to purchase. The consistency and quality of the copy associated with your business influence a potential customer – without them even realising.
Good grammar, punctuation and spelling make you look professional. Trustworthy. Giving your target audience the subconscious feeling that you’re legit should be your number one concern as you sit down to write your copy.
Common mistakes people make when they write copy
1. The wandering apostrophe
Sure, it’s not good if you miss out an apostrophe but it’s often just a typo that you can pick up later. However, an apostrophe in the wrong place makes it look like you don’t know where it goes, so you’ve guessed.
- If something owns something else, it gets an apostrophe e.g. ‘This year’s sales have been astonishing’
- If you are smooshing two words together e.g. ‘It is’ or ‘You are’ then you use an apostrophe to show you’ve missed out some letters
- Decades, initialisms, acronyms and plurals in general never use an apostrophe: The 1950s, LOLs, WCs, Dos and don’ts
- ‘Ours’, ‘yours’ and ‘theirs’ don’t need apostrophes because they’re already possessive i.e. ‘Your hat’ is possessive whether you mention the hat or not
2. Americanisms: ‘-ise’
The verb ending ‘-ise’ comes from the French infinitive ending ‘-iser’ as in ‘spécialiser’ (to specialise). Loads of our language comes from French so in England we ‘specialise’, we don’t ‘specialize’.
The ‘-ise’ verb ending is argued over between the Oxford and Cambridge dictionaries but that’s not actually what matters. An English audience (i.e. ours) associates ‘-ize’ with American spelling, so it’s wise to go with the common feeling.
Other common American spellings:
- ‘Centre’, ‘theatre’, ‘metre’ not ‘center’, ‘theater’, ‘meter’
- ‘Programme’ not ‘program’ (except ‘computer program’ – got to give American tech nerds their due!)
- ‘Catalogue’ not ‘catalog’
- ‘Practice’ in English: ‘I practise (verb) at band practice (noun)’
- We also hold a ‘licence’ not a ‘license’ but that does make us ‘licensed’. Sorry.
These are a pain in the behind but they’re vital and the only way to get them right is to learn or remember to check.
3. Boring punctuation
Believe it or not, there are alternatives to the comma.
In website copy, the shorter the sentence, the better it generally is but using varied punctuation can also help. Bear in mind that people are scanning the copy and makes reading easier is a winner.
Em or En dashes (— or –) are used for additional explanatory parts of a sentence. They’re softer than brackets but break up your sentence so it doesn’t look so long.
‘The flange socket – used for easing the sump transition – is one of the most important parts of your transolomiser’.
The colon introduces a list but can also be a great way of introducing a big statement e.g. ‘We have just one aim: to be the best’.
Short sentences can cut out complicated punctuation altogether. They’re so effective, mainly because they stand out from other copy and draw the eye to something important. They can emphasise a mission statement or promise because sharp and simple sounds more like the truth. Flowery language has its place but is less trustworthy.
‘Looking for honest mechanics who put their customers first? We’re right here.’
4. Old-school ‘rules’
Starting sentences with ‘And’ or ‘But’ is something we’re told never to do at school because they’re conjunctions (joining words). But they can be used to convey a conversational tone or emphasise a point.
‘We’re well known for being great at MOTs. But that’s not all: we also…’
‘Many years ago we set out to be the best. And that’s exactly what we’ve done’
You’re writing for YOUR business. The rules matter but not as much as getting your point across.
5. Random numbers
Numbers are good to use when writing for your business because they attract attention, take up less space than words and can be very convincing.
Generally, anything over nine is written in digits, for example ‘Between seven and 11’. However, there are occasions when it’s OK to muck about with it in the name of clear copy. Do what feels right – just be consistent about it.
If you’re talking about occurrences or positions, it’s ‘first’ and ‘thirteenth’. Possibly the exception to this is ‘19th century’ which I would say is best for web copy.
If two numbers appear too close together then it is fine to spell one out for clarity: ‘We ordered ten 6-inch subs’.
6. Disagreeable sentences
Sentences that start with words in a certain number or tense need to match words later on in the sentence. Mistakes with this can make copy feel a bit odd.
‘Sentences that start with words in a certain number or tense needs to match…’
That sentence was wrong because the verb ‘need’ should have matched the word ‘sentences’, which was plural. If you took out all the words between ‘sentences’ and ‘need’, it’s easy to see. ‘Sentences need to match’.
If you start a sentence with ‘These services…’ everything else related to those services should be plural.
‘These services ARE plural and INVOLVE plurals’
If you present a range of things, it needs to range FROM something TO something.
‘We provide services ranging FROM vehicle servicing and MOTs TO wheel alignment and breakdown cover.’
When you start your sentence with ‘Why not…’ the sentence has to end in a question mark.
‘Why not give us a call to find out how we can help you learn more about tightrope walking?’
7. The passive voice
It’s not a grammar mistake a teacher would tell you off for, but try to avoid the passive voice. It’s the best way to make your lovely, local, family-run business sound like a terrifying corporation.
‘This service was created’ > ‘We created this service’
8. Not checking your writing
If you find it hard to read your own work through for errors, at the very least spellcheck. This won’t pick up everything but will screen your writing for silly typos.
It can really help to get someone else to read what you’ve written, or you could even print it out and ‘mark’ it with a red pen. Try doing something else for a while, then reading it when the subject has been erased from your thoughts for a couple of hours. Anything that changes the situation and makes you see your words in a new way.
For readability, I recommend the Hemingway Editor – you paste in your writing and it’ll tell you where your sentences are too complex or if there’s a better word for something.
Biggest mistake? Not putting your heart into it.
If you don’t care, no one will. I know it’s tough to make skip hire exciting, but putting a little bit of yourself into the words is something you can aim for.
It’s not enough to put the information on the page, connected by a few standard words. Think about who is looking for your business. What do they want, what are they like? What would YOU want if you were searching?
Each industry has a certain feeling that can be manipulated to sell it. These are some of the words which spring to my mind when I think about a particular type of company:
- Skips – recycling, the environment, ease, friendliness, decluttering
- Dentists – beauty, health, getting worrying problems sorted, caring, professional
- Builders – family, safety, interior design, new lifestyle, quality
- Nursery – safety, happiness, fun, health, learning, standards, trust
- Plumbing – reliability, safety, friendliness, warmth, home, family
- Kitchens – relaxing, taste, family, style, innovation, interior design, luxury, quality
These groups are called semantic fields, and every kind of company has a general theme of the kind of words and feelings you can use to make your customer feel a certain way.
Writing for your business is hard
That’s the reason copywriters like me exist. But we’re expensive.
If you’re not at the point that you can invest in taking your business’s copy to the next level, you now know which mistakes to look out for when you’re doing it DIY.