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. 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, proofreading tends to go out of the window for some. That’s why we’ve put together this essential English grammar checklist for writing, to help improve your chances of getting things right the first time around.
Your grammar checklist for writing
Before you submit your work to a client, it pays to give it some distance. Overnight is best, 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
Look out for the following easily overlooked grammar and punctuation errors:
- Missing punctuation: Ensure you have included full stops at paragraph ends, commas after an introductory clause (‘Since we launched in 1995,’) and closed any sets of parentheses (such as a pair of brackets, like this) and quotation marks.
- Having unnecessary commas: Commas only need to be used when joining individual clauses or to separate items in a list. They can help with pacing but use too many and they add unnecessary pauses to your work.
- Using comma splices: This happens when you join two sentences together with a comma instead of a semicolon or conjunction. E.g. ‘Comma splices are unnecessary; a semicolon can join two connected short sentences.’
- Incorrectly using colons vs semicolons: A colon adds emphasis to the second part of a sentence: like this. Or it introduces a list of items. E.g. ‘the core modules on the master's programme include: xx; xxx; and xxxx’. A semicolon joins two short sentences or separates out multiple lengthy items in a list (as in the previous example).
- Incorrectly using hyphens, em-dashes and en-dashes: Hyphens are short dashes that join compound words; en-dashes are a bit longer and denote ranges (e.g. 1-5); and em-dashes are longer still and separate out distinct parts of a sentence. Here’s a quick guide.
- Not hyphenating compound modifiers: This helps denote which noun is being modified by the preceding adjective. E.g. ‘well-deserved success’, ‘high-quality cuisine’. Note, they only need hyphenating before a noun, not if they come after. E.g. 'her success was well deserved'.
- Using irregular capitalisation: The start of all sentences and names requires a capital letter. But beware: many modern company names may not start with a capitalised initial, so if in doubt, always double-check brand guidelines.
Layout and stylistics
Copywriters and content writers know that formatting affects the impact their words have. Check for these common issues:
- Having 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 a brand's house style specifies otherwise.)
- Using irregular subheadings: In the US, most headings and subheadings have the start of each word capitalised (called title case). In the UK, just the first word is (called sentence case).
Word choice and syntax
As a writer, your words are your bread and butter. Here are some things to be aware of:
- Using tense inconsistently: Do you start writing in the present tense and end up in the past? E.g. 'I was afraid I am making these mistakes'.
- Separating modifiers from their nouns: This is common when two nouns fall together. E.g. ‘I chose the green child’s bike’. (‘Green’ should modify the ‘bike’, not the ‘child’.)
- Incorrectly using parallelisms: Pay attention to how you present items in a list and start each with the same tense for consistency. E.g. 1) Soothes, inspires and invigorates, 2) Creating feelings of nostalgia and joy...
- Having subject and verb disagreement: If your subject is plural (i.e. denotes more than one), you’ll need to use a plural verb, and vice versa. E.g. ‘I are going to the zoo’. (should be 'I am going' or 'We are going to the zoo'.)
- Repeating words: This is easily done when you've looked at the same copy for a long time. No one wants to read content that uses ‘quality’ in every sentence, so try reading the words aloud to catch any repetition and come up with synonyms instead.
- Mismatching ‘between’/’and’, and ‘from’/’to’: This is particularly relevant when specifying ranges as sometimes people mix up these word pairings. 'Between' is used with 'and' (E.g. ‘between ten and twenty people’) and 'from' is paired with 'to' (E.g. ‘aged from one to two years’).
- Mixing up less vs fewer: Yes, that old chestnut. In summary, use 'less' to refer to uncountable things, such as weight, and 'fewer' when talking about countable items, such as the number of apples in a bag. E.g. 'This item has less weight' and 'This bag has fewer apples'. Here’s a guide on using less and fewer.
- Using incorrect names: Personal spellings don't always agree with grammatical rules. Check, re-check and triple-check the names of companies, brands and individuals.
The English language is notoriously complex to learn with multiple possible spellings and soundings for different words. 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! Here are some of the most common typos we see here at Copify:
Other things to watch out for
Proofing your content isn’t just about watching out for the mechanics of writing. As copywriters generally earn a crust writing in an accessible style that can be understood by a wide audience, it's important to be aware that some stylistic errors can disrupt your flow and compromise the quality of your work. These include:
Run-on sentences are those which are unfocused and lengthy, making it hard for the reader to stay engaged or grasp the point you are making. This happens when you don’t have the necessary punctuation in place. Easy fixes are breaking up thoughts and clauses with a full stop, comma or semicolon, or simply removing waffle.
Overly complex sentences get you nowhere. 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.
If you care about your subject, then you'll write with passion. Having a genuine interest and passion for your subject is one of the best ways to create persuasive content that others want to read. Mundane content usually happens when you either a) don’t know who you’re writing for, b) haven’t embodied the voice of the brand and connected with its mission or c) haven't researched the topic well enough.
Active vs passive voice
Using the active voice brings urgency to the tone and gives direction - something that is essential in copywriting. It begins with a noun leading the action (the verb), rather than the other way around. Once you spot it, you'll find it used to great effect in advertising.
E.g. ‘We set the gold standard for website design when we launched over a decade ago’ reads better 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’. 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 is stuffing your copy with fluffy adjectives that distract from the main argument. Remember: you’re selling the benefits of a product, so your content should describe a tangible outcome or idea.
Use fewer vague words like ‘beautiful’, ‘stunning’, ‘great’, and ‘terrific’ and more concrete words like ‘crystal-clear’, ‘high-definition’, ‘compact’, ‘lightweight’… Even better, use statistics where appropriate.
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 is more than one
- Use of 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
Sometimes a writer needs a little help. These tools can help spot errors in your work to make you more efficient:
If you don’t have Grammarly yet, how are you still alive? 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 Cambridge Dictionary which is kept up to date. It 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. 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.
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. 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.
Although a lot of traditional grammar rules have been proven unnecessary (thankfully!), unhelpful or at odds with current usage, there are still some rules that can help you to convey meaning accurately.
If you're writing content which relies on more conversational or creative language, then it's a good idea to balance these concepts depending on your brief and audience.
While the above checklist can help you improve your grammar and spelling skills and stay alert to common errors, remember that as a writer, you’re only human. It’s important to give yourself a break from time to time. That means taking a break from making the odd mistake, but also literally so you’re less inclined to make mistakes in the first place!
✏️If you need content writing and it’s not your forte, reach out to us at Copify about our content creation service which comes with free proofreading.
Main image credit: libellule789