Writing and Editing

The greengrocer’s apostrophe – a fellow ranter shares my pain

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I've long admired Imre Salusinky's articles. Back in the 90s I used to read his column in the Australian Financial Review. Now he's with The Australian, and a regular contribution to its The Wry Side column. Imre also writes a regular column in the weekend edition, and this week's column is near and dear to my heart. Imre is ranting about the inappropriate use of apostrophes, and, briefly, the misuse and lack of use of the semi-colon; one only seems to see the semi-colon as part of a winking smiley these days. Here's the link to Imre's blog post, but I'll quote my favourite bit below. "THE apostrophe is the plaster gnome in the garden of written English: ubiquitous, decorative and often unnecessary. While the semicolon (or "winking comma") is disappearing because younger writers don't understand how to use it, its evil cousin the apostrophe is spreading like privet. But success may prove the undoing of the "flying comma", with experts saying the time for a comprehensive weeding program has arrived. When a colleague recently pointed me to the website of a Melbourne outfit called Craig Thomson Entertainment, I was struck less by the coincidence in the company's name than by the labels on the links to its various services, which include: "duo's," "venue's" and "wedding's". This is the famous "greengrocer's apostrophe" (or, arguably, "greengrocers' apostrophe") so named because the superfluous apostrophe is reputedly a common feature on hastily scribbled blackboards advertising today's prices of "apple's," "tomato's" and so on." I do love the idea of the "greengrocer's apostrophe". That description encompasses the widespread misuse in the retail industry of this humble but pretty item of punctuation. I urge you to read the entire article - and think carefully about your punctuation in everything you write!

Free websites – you get what you pay for.

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FreeThis year I've seen a couple of campaigns designed to get Aussie businesses online with free websites and free domain names or free lessons on building your own. I won't mention them by name simply because - well, it's bad for my business! I don't build sites for free (but mine ARE affordable). However with anything that's free, you get what you pay for. (Note that you can have a blog site with static pages hosted on WordPress, Typepad or Blogger, and you can access a range of templates, all for free, however you can't host these sites on your own standalone domain name, and this post discusses sites hosted on your own domain name.) Yes, you can get up and running with your own website all by yourself, but I would suggest that if you go down that route, contact someone like me for assistance with graphics, SEO, and as part of that SEO copywriting. These days anyone can put a website up. You might have the best product in the world, but unless you know a bit about how keyword analysis works, how search engines work, and how to write copy that will use the system to your advantage, you're not going to get found. SEO is a real art, and with search algorithms changing at a rapid pace in line with website evolution, you need to constantly tweak your copy and keywords. I've seen so many small business sites let down with poor grammar and punctuation over the years that I highly recommend having a copywriter help you with your website material. The worst offenders are apostrophes: often popped in where they don't need to be and left out where they do, incorrect tenses and misuse of plurals. Poor grammar and punctuation looks unprofessional. Competition is tough out there. As well as SEO-friendly copy on your site and great graphics and images, telling your own story could make the difference between people buying your product or someone else's. People remember stories; they engage with them. Simply saying "Buy my widget because it's the cheapest" won't differentiate you from the competition, even with a good price. Saying "Buy my widget - I developed my widget as a result of there being nothing on the market that quite did the job. It took me ten years of experimenting to get it right, to tailor it especially for our local market and local needs..." is far more memorable, human and compelling as a sales pitch. People can relate to you and trust you. Look and feel is also a big part of the web experience. You not only have to grab your readers' attention with copy in the first five seconds, your site has to look professional and coherent. With free websites you are often constricted as far as design goes; apart from your logo there won't be much to differentiate you graphically from another business which has taken up the free site offer. Most free sites have a very limited number of templates and unless you're a whiz with coding or know someone who is, a limited number of options you can do with those templates. Often too you may be limited as to the number of pages or menu items you can list on your free site. You might not be able to expand your site in the way you want down the track. Free sites mightn't let you feed in your twitter and facebook feeds or offer a range of widgets and plugins. These are all items to think about if you're considering taking up a free site offer with your own domain name. Unless you're a marketing, copywriting or graphic expert, consider spending some money and getting professional help with your free site, or take the plunge and have a unique site developed. Domain names are cheap at the moment - from $9 a year and hosting with the fab Crazy Domains guys starts at $54/year. I can start you off with a micro-site to which you can add your own pages and menu items from $495, and it won't look like a free site built on the same template 50,000 other Australian businesses are using.

SEO Scribe – a must for bloggers

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As of 2009 there were 120 million blogs in the world (as tracked by BlogPulse). That was last year - so this number will have grown exponentially. So how do you make an impact with your blog? How do people find you as a blogger? You need to tweak your SEO (Search Engine Optimisation) and the best way to do this is with SEO Scribe. This tool is a brilliant addon for WordPress, Drupal and Joomla!. It's not free, but then if you want to get your blog posts up in their rankings it will be the best investment you've ever made. It is particularly good for novice bloggers, because it makes you think about how you structure your posts: using keywords effectively, the length of each blog, how many links you include. When you use SEO Scribe to evaluate your posts, it provides a thorough list of what's good and what's bad, and provides suggestions to tweak your copy for ultimate SEO. It will teach you to write well. To quote from the SEO Scribe site, here's the methodology it employs: "First, the Scribe keyword research tool tunes you into the right language before you write. Once your content is created, the Scribe keyword suggestion service shows you keyword phrases you might have missed. Second, Scribe analyzes your natural, reader-focused content, and tells you how to gently tweak it to spoon feed search engines based on 15 SEO best practices. Third, Scribe’s link building tools help you build back links from other sites, crosslink the content within your own site, and identify influential social media users who want to share your stuff." That's a powerful tool, and it's very easy to use. I use it on this blog and it has certainly helped me focus my writing. I love to digressthis software shakes its digital finger at my (its digital digit, perhaps?) and keeps me on track with my chosen post topic. If you wish to try it for yourself, a free 30 day trial is available. By the way, I'm not employed by SEO Scribe or in any way connected with the company. I simply think this is a fantastic tool and too good not to tell people about.

Recommended Reading: Corporate Blogging for Dummies

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So, you want to start a blog and use it to gain customers and raise awareness of your products and services. Everyone tells you it's the thing to do. But how do you blog successfully? I recommend reading "Corporate Blogging for Dummies", by Douglass Karr and Chantelle Flannery. Then get some help from myself and my social media expert colleagues to get yours underway. This book will help you choose a blogging platform (including of course the wonderful WordPress which I highly recommend), and guide you through developing a strategy for your blog. Because what you post on your blog - or indeed your website or any social media platform - is in the public domain, you'll have legalities to consider such as copyrights and ownership, especially if you use material taken from another website. This book will tell you all the CYA (Cover Your Ass) stuff you'll need to know. The authors share best practice tips, as well as the all important What Not To Do. The book features successful corporate blogs as examples you can learn from. Best of all, at my bookshop prices start from around $16 (exc shipping). With the Aussie dollar almost at parity with the US$, that's fantastic; even with shipping included it's cheaper than buying it in Australia. So go forth - buy! Part of a successful blog is the look and feel of the site it's on, and that's where I can help you (as well as with actual content if you need help writing). If your blog is a standalone site rather than part of your corporate site, I can match your corporate look and feel so you have consistent branding across your sites. Contact me about getting your blog up and running as part of your social media strategy.

New to blogging? Here’s the gen to get you rating from day one

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I love WordPress. So does Google. They're a pair made for each other.

But simply starting up a blog on WordPress itself or one your own domain name isn't enough.

If you're a newbie to blogging, there are things you need to know. Obviously you have to have your blog topic all thought out (and I'm not talking about the posts themselves, I'm talking about what your whole blog is going to be about.). And I'd advise, if you're using WP to build a corporate site, to sit down with a pen and paper or better yet an Excel spreadsheet and work out the framework of your blog before you press the 'install' button on WordPress.

Once you've done all that, and preferably chosen a good professional theme (as professional themes are better built for SEO), there's something you should read: 43 Blogger Tips for WordPress Installations.

Andrew Rondeau is from the UK and a very experienced and successful blogger (by the way, I am not affiliated by him, but rather impressed by his entrepreneurship). While I implement a lot of his tips on my site and sites I build for others, Andrew puts this advice so succinctly and clearly it's worth directing you to his post.

One thing I can add to Andrew's advice is to tweet your blog. Get on Twitter. Install Twitter Widget Pro on your site and tweet every post. More than once, if you can find something different to say about your post on a separate tweet or two.

Social media works best when it works in partnership: blogs with Twitter, or YouTube, or Facebook. Try and combine your social media memberships with your blog.

Chance or Opportunity? You decide

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Maybe I'm just getting grumpier with age, but these days I tend to mentally edit a lot of what I read in newspapers, magazines and online. One of my main causes to get out the mental red pencil is the use of the word "chance" when the writer was really describing an "opportunity". What's the difference? I was taught back in communication school there's quite a lot of difference between the words, although both may mean similar things. Let's a have a look at the meanings of both. Dictionary.com offers the following meanings, among others, for chance: –noun 1. the absence of any cause of events that can be predicted, understood, or controlled: often personified or treated as a positive agency: Chance governs all. 2. luck or fortune: a game of chance. 3. a possibility or probability of anything happening: a fifty-percent chance of success. 4. an opportune or favorable time; opportunity: Now is your chance. And it says this about opportunity: –noun, plural -ties. 1. an appropriate or favorable time or occasion: Their meeting afforded an opportunity to exchange views. 2. a situation or condition favorable for attainment of a goal. 3. a good position, chance, or prospect, as for advancement or success. You can see areas where both words overlap (ie meaning 4 of chance is similar but slightly different to meaning 1 of opportunity), but let's look at using them in context. One of my clients is Ryde Business Forum, and I organise many events for this association. In the invitations I write, I offer members and guests the opportunity to hear a keynote speaker, not the chance. Chance suggests a gamble in what the visitors might get out of the occasion - it could be good or it could be rubbish; opportunity suggests they're going to hear something to their advantage. If I'm organising a charity auction, I advertise that bidders have the opportunity to win the object of their desire - this isn't a game of chance, they have to put the highest bid in to be successful. If I'm organising a charity raffle, then ticket buyers are told they have a chance of winning as they don't, unlike an auction, have any say over the outcome. If you are writing a media release, copy for your website, an invitation to an event or other promotional material, think carefully before using chance or opportunity to make sure you're using the correct word for the situation. It does make a difference to the way your readers will perceive you and your chosen topic. If you're confused about which word to use, drop me a line on the contact form you'll find on this website!

…and it’s only Thursday

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Having started this new blog with the current incarnation of my website the intention was to post something every couple of days, but the last week has been tremendously busy. I've hardly had time to think about what to write; even worse, I did have a good idea, didn't jot it down and now I've forgotten it in the cocktail of things I've been doing for people! Grr! Busy I might be but it's all exciting stuff. I'm currently working with Martin Sekel of StreetViewHQ on rebuilding the Ryde Business Forum website in Joomla. Martin's doing the lion's share, especially some of the back end stuff with databases and online payments. I get to do the pretty graphic bits among other tasks. With all the work I already do for RBF I don't have the time to build the site myself, and as I'm not as experienced in Joomla as Martin he can get it done in far less time. Monday and Tuesday this week passed in a fug as I spent about 14 hours each day, coming up occasionally for food, working on the site and flicking ideas back and forth with Martin. We hope to have the site live sometime in June. Last weekend I did a rebuild for OctoberFirst's website. It didn't too long as it's not an extensive site, but it certainly put paid to at least half of the weekend. I knew I had fat chance of rebuilding it during the week as the RBF site was beckoning. In addition, it seems some of my smaller clients think it's a good idea to update their websites this week. So far I've done changes for Christian Community Aid and BlandsLaw, and now Devine Law at Work has sent me a bucket of changes too. Something I'll have to get out of the way this morning as this afternoon I have to head to an Economic Development Advisory Committee meeting at the City of Ryde. Oh, and  I'll have to write and send out an e-news for RBF by the end of the week.  As well this week I've had a board meeting with RBF, recorded a slot for 2RRR-FM, and the usual several hours' worth of admin/marketing work for RBF. I'm hoping to have some time off this weekend and put the work/life balance back in better order.

Lost in translation…

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Sydney's a multicultural city, and people whose first language isn't English can sometimes find it hard to market successfully to a wide and sophisticated audience. You can have the best idea, product or service in the world, but you need to be able to tell people about it clearly and professionally. That's why one of the services I offer is editing material for people for whom English is a second language (ESL). Often these people can speak English fluently, but written English can be a much harder challenge. How many of us have had a giggle at the "Engrish" photos people have posted on various websites showing signs, products and other material translated into English, which either don't make sense or are downright suggestive. Admittedly most of those photos are taken in countries where English isn't readily spoken. Writing in a language that isn't your native tongue is hard and fraught with spelling, punctuation and grammar dilemmas which could leave you looking less than professional. Sometimes words and phrases just get lost in translation. My editing services help ESL speakers engage with their Australian audience without losing their own personality. I met a lovely lady at a function very recently; she's Chinese and is a super sales person with a vivacious personality. We got chatting and I told her some of the things I did in my business, and she's keen to talk more with me about my proof reading and editing her hard copy marketing materials. I'd love to help her, because she's very professional in her outlook and honest in her business, and it wouldn't take much to rework and polish her marketing documents. I've put a call in to her office and we'll see what comes of it. First impressions count, and if you get a flyer or brochure in your letterbox that has spelling errors or sentences that don't make sense, what's your first impression of the company that sent it? Are you going to trust them and use them? Or do you think, "Hmm, if they send out information full of mistakes, how good a job are they going to do?" Think about it. If you know someone I can help, or if you ARE someone I can help, contact me now to talk about my rates, which are very reasonable.

When good apostrophes turn bad

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Have you noticed how Apostrophe Man has been leaving his mark more and more often? How much marketing material do you receive, by email or hard copy, with apostrophes either in the wrong place or not there when they should be? Many of us use apostrophes to incorrectly denote a plural, eg: CD's $19.99, in the 1990's, PC's on sale now. You see this everywhere, don't you, and assume it's common usage. It might be used everywhere but it's still incorrect and pedants like me itch to get the TippEx out and fix it. These apostrophes are not denoting plurals, they are being possessive when they have nothing to be possessive about. In short, they simply shouldn't be there. Sadly even the most educated of us fall prey to inappropriate apostrophe usage; I've received many letters and emails from marketing managers and experts with degrees in communications who still get it wrong. This is a personal thing but bad punctuation does turn me off using or buying the product or service it's promoting. Then there's the confusion between its and it's. "It's" should only be used as a contraction of "It is". "Its" is actually a possessive pronoun like "yours" or a possessive determiner like "my". There are several good books about language and punctuation which are easy reads, can set you straight and ensure your marketing material doesn't fall prey to Apostrophe Man and his evil band of language assassins. One is the stalwart Style Manual produced by the Australian Government Publishing Service. The other is the marvellous Eats Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss, which you and your employees will fight over. It's serious, but also seriously funny. Both these books can be purchased at booksellers. End of gripe...go and check your marketing material and website now and consider your apostrophes! If you're in doubt about what's right, contact me to proof read your material for you.

The power of editing

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I was reading a memoir by an Australian author a few weeks ago. I won't name and shame, because that would be unfair; especially as this was the most badly-edited book I'd read in a long time. Blimey, the punctuation was painful! Commas in the wrong places, colons and semi-colons inserted apparently at random because they're punctuation marks and deserve to be used. Every proper name (ie Christian name, name of town) was italicised every time it was used. By the time I crawled through Chapter Three I was in two minds: do I get the red pen out and do a proof on the book as I go, or do I write to the publishers expressing my frustration at trying to read something so unreadable? Both options would make me feel better and I opted for the latter. The publishers replied within a day, and I could feel their embarrassment jumping off the screen. The book had slipped through the system with minimal editing in an effort to get it printed. The author has now written a follow-up, which is being heavily edited (my heart goes out to the editor). The first book, which the publisher wished they'd pulped before too many copies got loose, is going to be reprinted next year after a heavy editing session. I offered my services there. The subject matter was one that really appealed to me and I'd have a ball turning it into readable English. Now when I bought that ill-fated book it was on the remaindered pile, despite only being published the year before. That's sad news for a local author with a good tale to tell. I suspect the poor writing style had something to do with the remaindering. Really, there is no excuse for not presenting a well-written document to the world, whether it's a memoir of your fantastic time living overseas for ten years, or a company newsletter with a casual feel. Casual doesn't mean sloppy, by the way. You can be friendly and casual and still conform to the rules of punctuation and grammar. This post is an example. It IS worth asking an editor to check your work. Isn't it better to have a second pair of eyes go over your work, make any necessary corrections - especially those little typos which may have slipped your notice after you've redrafted something many times - and leave you with a document that presents a professional image to your clients? I get numerous e-newsletters in my inbox every week; most are well-written and professional, some make me wince. The ideas are good but the grammar and punctuation isn't. Editing is a powerful tool that can make a massive difference to how people perceive you and your company. If in doubt, try it out! Mention this post and I'll give you an hours' worth of editing for free. Contact me if you're interested.