There are few rules to follow when it comes to producing professional content but having an established house style that resonates through your website, email newsletters and social media posts can help.
Though house styles vary from one publication to the next, and journalists can argue for hours over things like whether to capitalise ‘Prime Minister’, there are some things you won’t seem many editorial professionals do.
1. Don’t use & in body copy
Don’t use ampersands mid-sentence – write out A N D every time.
What are you saving – two characters and perhaps a third of a second?
And because it was designed to represent the French et in the days of letterpress printing, it delivers an amazing double-whammy of seeming both affected and lazy.
It’s acceptable to use it in headings every now and then, or in the names of partnerships – Fortnum & Mason, Laurel & Hardy – where it improves the clarity of the text. Otherwise, avoid.
2. More than, not over
“We work with over 300 clients in the Cambridge area.” It’s not wrong but it’s not… right.
“We work with more than 300 clients in the Cambridge area.” This seems clearer and, somehow, more professional. But why?
Probably because generations of journalists were taught to take the latter approach so we’re used to reading it that way in newspapers, magazines and in non-fiction books.
So, again, this isn’t a rule but will add that bit more polish to everything you write.
(But don’t get carried away: people are still over 40.)
3. Avoid close repetition
Ask any editor and they’ll tell you the same thing: if you use the same word more than once in the same sentence, same paragraph or on the same page it will register with readers as… samey.
Here’s a rewrite:
Editors are in agreement: If you use the same word more than once in any given sentence or paragraph, or even in more than one place on that page, it will register with readers as… samey.
This is something you’ll pick up if you give yourself time to edit or, even better, ask someone else to edit your writing for you.
And, of course, repetition can work as a deliberate rhetorical technique: “We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets…”
4. Easy with the screamers!
The overuse and misuse of exclamation marks are one of the most obvious signs of a non-professional writer.
It’s easy to understand why people lean on them – they want to put across enthusiasm or good humour.
But they don’t. They convey over-excitement, silliness and hysteria, as if every line is being bellowed through a broad Joker-like smile. That’s why journos call them ‘screamers’.
When I’m advising accountants on tone of voice, I generally suggest that they avoid exclamation marks.
In truth, the odd one doesn’t do any harm, especially if used properly to indicate something truly astonishing. But more than one per blog post is probably too many.
5. Cut the ‘thats’
Most of us use the word ‘that’ more than necessary. It’s become a bit of a filler.
The words that you choose, and the ways that you put them together, send signals to the people that you most want to do business with about the kind of person that you are, the sort of practice that you run and the way that you work.
Or, to put it another way:
The words you choose, and the way you put them together, send signals to the people you most want to do business with about the kind of person you are, the sort of practice you run and the way you work.
You could further trim and tidy that copy but even just a quick pass to remove superfluous ‘thats’ makes it feel more polished.
Getting they’re, their and there mixed up is another common mistake, but as long as you can remember some basic rules, it’s fairly simple to get it right.
They’re is a contraction of ‘they are’ – “they are going to start a business” means the same as “they’re going to start a business”.
Their is the possessive form of the word ‘they’, so you can use it when you’re talking about something that belongs to a person, or group of people – “someone left their bag on the train”.
Meanwhile, there could indicate a location (‘over there’) or it could introduce the subject of a sentence (‘there are’, ‘there is’).
Even if you’re familiar with the grammar, it’s worth double-checking for this kind of typo, as they can easily creep in when you’re writing quickly or not paying close attention.
On a similar note, keep an eye out for mix-ups when you use the words you’re and your.
The difference between these two words is essentially the same as with their and they’re – you’re is short for ‘you are’, and your is the possessive version of ‘you’.
For example, “you’re due to pay your tax bill”.
The difference between its and it’s is another one to look out for.
This can be particularly confusing because when you’re writing about an object, you usually expect to use an apostrophe before the ‘s’ to make it possessive – “the book’s cover” or “the house’s front door”.
However, the possessive version of the word ‘it’ doesn’t follow this rule – instead, you just need to add the ‘s’ – “the dog wagged its tail”.
On the other hand, ‘it’s’ is another contraction, this time of ‘it is’.
For example, “it is raining”, or “it’s raining”.
9. Get to the point
Most people spend around 15 seconds scanning content on your website before deciding whether or not it’s relevant to them. There’s no time to waffle on – you need to get to the point if you want to grab their attention.
In most cases, people should know after reading the opening paragraph what the story is about, why it should interest them and why they ought to read on.
While we know Google values long-form content of around 2,000 words, the challenge is to make it easy for readers to access the information they want when they want to read it. Don’t ramble to fill space or bump up the word count – if you want the piece to be long, say more.
10. Not only but also
When you use ‘not only’, don’t forget to follow up with ‘but also’ later in the sentence. This can sometimes be a tricky rule to remember, especially when you’re writing a long sentence (and forget where it started).
Wrong: “We not only help with tax compliance, we help your business grow.”
Better: “We help not only with tax compliance, but also help your business grow.”
* * *
Again, some of these aren’t rules – they’re journalistic or editorial conventions. But if you want that journalistic or editorial sparkle on your writing, give them a go.
And of course there’s plenty we haven’t covered here – look out for ‘10 more easy ways…’ later in the year.
For copywriting, custom blog posts and branded content for your accountancy firm’s website, get in touch.
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