I teach a course on how to become a freelance writer. Naturally, this means I read a lot of my students’ writing — and there are a handful of mistakes that crop up regularly.
Mistakes that make my students seem unprofessional, and therefore less likely to be able to score higher-paying clients.
But these tips aren’t just handy for those who want to become writers. If you run an online business, and you do any of the writing for it yourself — blog posts, email newsletters, web page copy — making these mistakes could damage your reputation, too.
Here’s what you can do to avoid them.
1. Learn How to Use Commas Properly
I love commas. Sadly, they’re the most abused punctuation mark. My biggest gripe is the comma splice, which is when a comma is used to join two complete sentences. I see this all the time with my students, as well as a whole bunch of other random incorrect usages, which I’m not even sure there are names for. Using commas wrongly can make sentences confusing to read, or just make you look like an amateur. Bad times. You’ll want to fix that.
To learn how to use commas correctly, check out Grammar Girl — my go-to reference site for grammar advice. (Yes, I need it too sometimes. For instance, I just looked up whether I should include a comma before ‘too’.)
2. Don’t Know How to Use Semicolons? So Don’t Use Them!
The poor semicolon is gradually being pushed out of existence. But let’s be honest — it’s with good reason. We don’t really need it. It’s perfectly easy to get by without the semicolon, and that’s exactly what you should do if you’re not quite sure how they work. I’ve seen some interesting uses of the old semicolon in my students’ work, and almost nobody gets it right. My advice is always the same: if you don’t know how to use them, just don’t use them! Use a full stop (period) instead.
If you insist on using them, at least learn how to do it properly.
3. Choose a Narrative and Stick to It
Another thing I often see in my students’ work is constantly changing narratives, which isn’t necessarily confusing for the reader, but it does make your writing look sloppy. You can get away with using both the first person (I) and second person (you) narratives together, as I do in pretty much all my blog posts. This makes sense, because it’s how you would speak in conversation.
The trouble comes when you start throwing the third person narrative (he) into the mix. Things just get messy. For the most part, I recommend steering clear of the third person in online writing unless you’re writing an unbiased, objective piece. On your business’s website you should be directly addressing your reader — and the second person is the narrative for the job!
4. Contractions Are Your Friend
This is one of my favourite writing tips, but it doesn’t seem to come naturally to a lot of people. This is probably because we’ve all been brought up writing essays and shit in school. But school essays and compelling writing are not the same.
Using contractions makes you sound more casual, more like a real person — which is good when you’re trying to make a connection with your readers. Again, it’s how you would speak in conversation.
Do not use contractions if you would like to come across as stiff and formal. See?
5. Keep Your Sentences and Paragraphs Short
One of the most basic rules of writing is to use the fewest words possible to get the job done. You’ll get your point across faster and people won’t get bored when reading. Coupled with the fact that nobody wants to read a wall of text, it’s plain that short sentences and short paragraphs are the way to go.
6. Use the Simplest Word for the Job
Using fancy words can make you seem like a douche. Even if you’re just a nice guy who’s trying to sound impressive… you’ll still come across as a douche. Why say ‘purchase’ when you can say ‘buy’, you know? What a douche move.
7. Watch Your Thats
‘That’ is one of the most overused words. Usually you can cut it out without affecting meaning. Doing so will make your sentences flow better, so keep an eye out for ‘that’ when proofreading. If you find any you can remove without consequence, do it.
8. Be Consistent
This is one of the most overlooked rules of good writing, and is something that drives me crazy when marking my students’ work. Whether it’s using the same narrative all the way through or capitalising your headlines in the same way every time, a little attention to detail can go a long way in making you appear more professional.
And when you’re in business, professional should be what you’re going for. Capisce?