Words matter. Every communication that you send—e-mails, letters, reports—influences others’ impressions of you, for better or for worse. We keep this in mind when we’re interviewing for jobs, but we tend to become less careful over time. We’re busy, we’re working quickly, and maybe we don’t have someone on hand to run an eye over our words before they go out into the world.
Some of the shortest and simplest work I do for clients is also some of the most important. I call this service document review. I read over clients’ important e-mails, proposal cover letters, or PowerPoint presentations and make sure the grammar, spelling, and punctuation is correct. Do their plurals and singulars agree? Are their commas in the right places? Did they leave out a word?
Without getting paralyzed by worry that your grammar is making you look unprofessional, you can take some easy steps to feel confident about your writing—both in everyday work and for more important projects.
- Read it out loud. They tell the kids that in middle school and it works for any of us: if you want to catch a wording error, read that e-mail or letter right out loud.
- Don’t try to be fancy. Use simple language and make your points clearly. If your sentence goes on and on, break it up into separate sentences. Impressive words won’t make you look smart if you use them incorrectly.
- Curb your enthusiasm. Use exclamation points sparingly (and only one at a time!) and save emojis, text smiley faces, and LOL for Facebook.
- Read over your titles. Now do it one more time, slowly. So often, even professional editors miss obvious errors in titles, headings, headlines, teasers, or captions. Double-check everything—and read it out loud just to be sure.
- Make a style cheat sheet for yourself. Do you regularly misspell certain words? (I can never get recommend or embarrass right the first time.) Are there rules you can’t remember? (One Post-it on my desk says “Toward not towards.”) Look them up, write them down, and keep the list where you can see it. Spell check helps, but it won’t catch everything.
- Apostrophes cause trouble for a lot of people. Here’s a handy (and funny) guide to using them.
- If you need help, hire an editor to put together a short style guide (or cheat sheet) just for you. Have him or her read through a few of your letters, e-mails, or other short items you’ve written, note your common errors, and make a list for your reference. And for those times when a project really matters, working with an editor can help your writing shine.
I hope these steps will make you more confident in the writing your business requires and help your words work for you rather than against you.