You might be a seasoned copywriter or a budding freelancer, but that doesn’t mean you always get your content 100% perfect on the first draft. In fact, a large part of a writer’s job is editing – many would say more so than actually writing.
But in the age of fast content, proofing has a tendency to go out of the window. That’s why we’ve put together this essential grammar checklist for writing, to help improve your chances of getting things right first time around.
Your grammar checklist for writing
Before you submit your work to a client, it pays to give it some distance – ideally overnight, but even ten minutes can help. Step away from your computer, stretch your eyes and put your mind on something completely different. Then look again at your content. If you’re still not sure what to look out for, here are some common problem areas for writers:
Punctuation and grammar
- Missing punctuation: look for full stops at paragraph ends; commas after an introductory clause (‘Since we launched in 1995,’); unclosed parentheses (brackets and hyphens) and quotation marks.
- Too many commas: they only need using when joining individual clauses or to separate items in a list.
- Comma splices: this happens when you join two sentences together with a comma instead of a semicolon. E.g. ‘Comma splices are unnecessary; a semicolon can join two short sentences.’
- Colons vs semicolons: A colon adds emphasis to the second part of a sentence: like this. Or it introduces a list of items, such as: ‘the core modules on the masters programme include: xx; xxx; xxxx’. A semicolon joins two short sentences or separates out multiple lengthy items in a list (as in the previous example).
- Incorrect usage of hyphens, em-dashes and en-dashes: Hyphens join compound words, em-dashes separate out parts of a sentence, and en-dashes denote ranges. Here’s a quick guide.
- Not hyphenating compound modifiers: For example, ‘well-deserved success’, ‘high-quality cuisine’. (They only need hyphenating before a noun, not if they come after.)
- Irregular capitalisation: The start of all sentences and names require a capital letter. But beware, many modern company names may not start with an initial capital, so if in doubt, always double check.
Layout and stylistics
- Incorrect spacing: It’s now considered standard to have a line break between paragraphs, one space after full stops, and no indent at the start of a new paragraph. (Unless house rules specify otherwise.)
- Irregular subheadings: In the US most headings and subheadings have the start of each word capitalised. In the UK, just the first word is (called sentence case).
Word choice and syntax
- Inconsistent use of tense: Do you start in the present and end up in the past?
- Modifiers separated from their nouns: For example, ‘I chose the green child’s bike’. (‘Green’ should modify the ‘bike’, not the ‘child’.)
- Incorrect parallelisms: Where the form of a number of items in a list isn’t coherent. For example, ‘Its various forms can soothe, inspire and invigorate, as well as creating feelings of nostalgia and joy.’
- Subject and verb disagreement: If your subject is a plural (i.e. denotes more than one), you’ll need to use a plural verb, and vice versa. For example, ‘I are going to the zoo’.
- Repetition of words: No one wants to read content that uses ‘quality’ in every sentence.
- Mismatching ‘between’/’and’, and ‘from’/’to’: For example, it should be ‘between ten and twenty people’, and ‘aged from one to two years’.
- Less vs fewer: Yes, that old chestnut. Here’s a guide on using less and fewer.
- Incorrect names: Check, re-check and triple-check names of companies, brands and individuals.
- Commonly misspelt words: (See our list below)
Here are some of the most common typos we see here at Copify. They’re not always words that are associated with each other but can simply be a slip of the fingers when typing at record speeds!
Other things to watch out for
Proofing your content isn’t just about watching out for the mechanics of writing. In fact, nowadays a lot of traditional grammar rules have been proved to be unnecessary. Thankfully. While some are important to convey accurate sense, others are unhelpful and even read unnaturally.
As a copywriter generally earns a crust on writing in a style that is relatable to a wide audience, take note of these errors that can disrupt your flow and compromise the quality of your content:
This happens when you don’t have the necessary punctuation in place, such as a full stop, comma or semi-colon, to break up thoughts and clauses.
Overly complex sentences get you nowhere. In fact, many leading copywriters suggest keeping sentences under 20 words – 16 ideally. Combine this with opting for words with as few syllables as possible and you’ll score well on the Flesch Kincaid scale.
This is usually the case if you either a) don’t know who you’re writing to, or b) haven’t embodied the voice of the brand.
Active vs passive voice
The active voice begins with a noun leading the action (the verb), rather than the other way around. It adds urgency and gives direction – something which is essential in copywriting.
Consider: ‘We set the gold standard for website design when we launched over a decade ago’. Rather than: ‘The gold standard in website design was set when we launched over a decade ago’.
While it’s often unavoidable to speak from the point of view of the client, try not to focus on using ‘we’ and ‘our’.
Instead, a good copywriter always talks to their audience. That means relying more heavily on ‘you’ and ‘your’. After all, your job is to sell the benefits of a product, service or company through the lens of how it makes your reader’s life easier and better.
Likewise, never write from a place of ‘I think’ unless a specific job or brief calls for it, such as a thought piece – even then, use it sparingly.
An easy trap when you’re new to sales writing. Remember: you’re selling the benefits of a product, so your content should describe a tangible outcome or idea. Use fewer words like ‘beautiful’, ‘stunning’, ‘great’, ‘terrific’ and more words like ‘crystal-clear’, ‘high-definition’, ‘compact’, ‘lightweight’… Even better, use statistics where appropriate.
There’s plenty more advice on there, including this article on how language can ruin your marketing message.
A note on house style
If you’re writing in-house for a company, or you’re submitting a guest blog, note that the company will usually have a house style. This will determine things like:
- Preference for particular spellings where there are more than one
- UK or US English (or other)
- Whether (and when) to use numerals or written numbers
- Standardisation of other stylistics, such as headings and HTML rules
If you don’t know what the house style is for your company (and you’ve tried to find out by all means possible), use a well-known styled guide.
Most companies use the AP style guide, but it’ll cost you. There are other free style guides out there though that will probably suffice, including The Guardian’s style guide.
Get help with these grammar tools
If you don’t have Grammarly yet, where have you been hiding? While not perfect, this add-on helps you snag those common typos and missing words when your eyes are weary. It also has a handy multi-language dictionary setting to help you write for a UK, US, Australian or Canadian audience.
A decent dictionary
It depends on your preference but choose a reputable one such as Oxford Dictionaries which allows you to search for spellings in a range of languages and contains a thesaurus.
PerfectIt is a comprehensive paid-for piece of software that can run alongside Word. It doesn’t just flag up missing full stops, it queries inconsistencies in word usage and things like punctuation, abbreviations as well as table and figure placement, making it invaluable for serious editors.
Ginger Grammar and Spell Checker
Ginger is good at finding those easily overlooked inconsistencies such as subject-verb disagreement, typos and misused words. Like Grammarly, it can also be installed on your browser so that you can correct mistakes at the click of a button without having to rewrite.
Hemingway is a web-based tool that is free to use. You can input your copy and get insights into things like the number of passive sentences and the readability grade of your content. The lower the grade the easier to understand your content is.
If you write a lot of copy that uses similar turns of phrase (usually sales copy such as product descriptions and content that requires boilerplates like press releases), then Phrase Express is a tool which helps you utilise shortcuts for common phrases. Not one for creative writers, but good if you need to turn bulk content out in a pinch.
When your eyes are tired (which is always as a writer), a text-to-speech tool can be one way to catch any niggles in phrasing. Natural Reader is one such tool where you can insert your content and have it read back to you, but equally, there’s a useful text-to-speech function in Word that does the same job. There’s still a lot to be done on naturalisation, but this should improve with time.
Every writer needs to ensure they’re only producing unique content. More advanced checkers like Copyscape are available at a cost, but you can find some free-to-use web-based ones too. They’ll usually only let you check a certain amount of words at a time and won’t be as thorough, but they’re decent enough for you to check if anything flags up on Google as duplicate content.
As a writer, you’re only human, and it’s important to give yourself a break from time to time. That means from making the odd mistake, but also literally so you’re less inclined to make mistakes!
The above tools and grammar checklist for writing can help you keep on top of those common errors. But if you need content writing and it’s not your forte, consider using a content creation service that comes with free proofreading, like Copify.