“We wrote our first blog post before we wrote our first line of code.”
- Jon Miller, founder, Marketo

Blogging is important for every business. So we don’t just offer ghostwriting services for others. We blog for ourselves. Why? To discuss big issues such as content strategy, commissioning and ROI, as well as tactics for effective copy creation or editing, not to mention news about Collective Content.

Remember, over a third of marketers say blogs are the most valuable content type. Let us know what you’d like to read about here.

Tag: writing

Copy-wise: Beware of too many, too few or misplaced commas

Imaginehavingtoreadentirebookscompanyreportsorwhitepapersinwhichwordswerent separatedbypunctuationofanykindcanyouimagineunderstandinganythingthefirsttime

Writing that way would seem like the opposite of clear communication, wouldn’t it? But that’s actually how information was recorded in ancient Greece, when all writing was meant to be read aloud by speakers familiar enough with the text to understand where – and how long – to pause between words.

Fortunately, today we have the comma, question mark, dash, semicolon, colon and exclamation mark to help break our written words into clear, manageable chunks. But they do this only if they’re used correctly. When they’re not, they can create confusion just as much as writing without any punctuation at all.

Let’s start by looking at the comma. This little curly mark has many good uses. But it also seems to be getting more than its fair share of abuse lately. Consider a few of these based-on-real-life examples:

Besides the benefits, this will bring to both our companies, this move will help our customers as well.

Rather than negatively affecting our customers, partners and suppliers, this buyout, a way of combining our company’s strengths with another’s will boost the appeal of both our offerings.

This problem arises when businesses that have offices in many parts of the world and need local suppliers, try to find services without understanding the region’s culture.

In all of the above examples, commas appear where they aren’t needed (after “Besides the benefits” and “need local suppliers”) or aren’t used where they should be (after “our company’s strengths with another’s”).

The problem shows up most often in sentences that are long and complicated. This illustrates why it’s important to keep writing succinct and try to stick with one key thought per sentence. When you muddle a sentence with multiple points, it’s easier to get lost in the punctuation weeds.

Beyond that, though, it’s worth reviewing the fundamentals of good comma use. Contrary to what you might have been told at some point, this doesn’t include putting in a comma “whenever you take a breath” while reading your writing out loud.

Instead, there are 10 simple rules for using commas properly, according to journalism professor Miles Maguire’s The Comma Project from the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh. Use them to:

  • Separate elements in a series (e.g., “We bought bread, olives, cheese and fruit.”)
  • Separate two independent clauses when they’re connected by an “and” or other conjunction (“We went to the market, and then we stopped by our old school for a visit.”) – although also check out our take on the Oxford Comma, which may or may not be the right style for you
  • Follow an introductory phrase that’s four words long or longer (“Before I drove to the train station, I picked up my clothes from the dry cleaner.”)
  • Set off a non-essential modifying phrase (“William Shakespeare, whose birthday is traditionally observed on Saint George’s Day, began his career writing comic and historic plays.”
  • Separate adjectives of equal importance (“The bright, modern dining room was set for a birthday party.”)
  • Set off a parenthetical word or phrase, or a word like “yes” or “no”) (“The park, of course, was empty during the stormy weather.”)
  • Set off a participial modifier (“Robert sat quietly for a moment, stunned by the TV programme’s final episode.”)
  • Mark a quote or paraphrased comment when appropriate (“Lara laughed and said, ‘I don’t believe it.’” However, no comma is needed in this sentence: “Lara laughed and said she didn’t believe it.”)
  • Set off cities, states, countries, dates, ages and titles (“The two boys, ages 15 and 17, arrived in Baltimore, Maryland, on June 15, 1967.”)
  • Separate two identical words when used next to each other (“The question is, is this enough to get started?”)

Finally, if you’re writing a complicated sentence that absolutely can’t be shortened, it helps to look out for missing commas by following this rule of thumb from writer and English/journalism professor Ben Yagoda:

“It may sometimes be because these phrases are so long that by the time we get to the end of them, we’ve forgotten about the first comma. In any case, a strategy to prevent it is to remember the acronym I.C.E.. Whenever you find yourself using a comma before an Identification, Characterization or Explanation, remember that there has to be a comma after the I.C.E. as well.”

Read Further

Quality work – why I constantly assess our agency model

On my mind: How to describe team members at our content marketing agency. That’s partly because we’re preparing a new website – nothing radical, just something every company does. But it’s also because of an article from a partner at a VC firm.

The founding general partner at Eniac Ventures talks about team slides in decks that companies use when they’re seeking seed-stage investment. Several things caught my eye, as they relate to Collective Content (although we’re not looking for investors). Number five on his list is “If you have shared history, make that very clear” – so we’ll be doing that, for example.

Our core team averages about 20 years working with B2B content, as writers and editors. That’s across a mixture of agencies, such as PR and content marketing, and working for B2B companies. But mostly we’ve all worked in journalism (another way we’re different from other agencies). Even our wider roster of part-time specialist writers and designers tends towards the higher end of experience.

This is in contrast to agencies where a team of junior writers often means lower prices, along with a we-can-turn-our-hands-to-any-content approach.

 

Process affects

How does all this affect the way we work with clients? There’s one obvious way and it goes like this: Collective Content works to a four-step process for much content – a white paper or e-book, say. Other agencies, often where content is produced by a faceless ‘pool’ of writers (have you heard about our ‘farm fresh’ content theory?) will feed content back into a cycle of edits and other amends numerous times.

This happens because each stage isn’t as well planned, and because their model is based on cheaper, less experienced writers who iterate again and again. I don’t want to mention Shakespeare’s monkeys. But I just did.

 

The difference

The results – to be honest – can be the same. In one model (ours), a group of experienced writers and editors takes fewer stages to get the right outcome. In the latter model, where a larger group takes several more rounds of work but at a lower per-employee cost, the overall price tag to a client is similar.

Clients don’t necessarily have a preference. They just want a good result.

But I prefer doing things thoroughly at each stage, with the highest-quality people and fewer stages, to keep everyone’s blood pressure at a healthier level.

There is always a trade-off across speed, quality and price. Focusing on quality doesn’t necessarily make you slower – but it can maintain project sanity.

 

Follow us on Twitter – @ColContent

 

Read Further

What is… editing?

Writers tend to be solitary creatures but bringing writing to life is more often a group effort. That’s especially true in B2B communication.

Whatever the business writing project—a blog post, a white paper, an e-book or a script for a video—there are usually at least a few other people, if not whole teams, who have a say on the final product. But, just as too many cooks can spoil the broth, too many editors can turn a promising written work into a mess.

To avoid that outcome, it helps to understand a bit more about what editing is and isn’t.

First off, it’s definitely an art and not a science. Unlike two chemists told to produce the same compound, two editors—no matter how skilled—aren’t ever likely to produce the same results. There’s no one way to correctly edit anything.

While the process of mechanical editing, also called copy-editing or sub-editing, corrects spelling, capitalisation errors, noun-verb disagreements and other fundamental language errors, substantive editing or line editing focuses on the content itself and how it can be fine-tuned to make messages clear and effective.

Here’s how The Chicago Manual of Style, one bible of the editing world, describes the substantive editing process:

The editor will know by instinct and learn from experience how much of this kind of editing to do on a particular manuscript. An experienced editor will recognize, and not tamper with, unusual figures of speech and idiomatic usage and will know when to make an editorial change or simply to suggest it, when to delete a repetition or simply to point it out to the author, and many other matters. Since every manuscript is unique in the amount and kind of substantive editing desirable, no rules can be devised for the editor to follow.

Despite the ‘no rules’ description, editing is not an invitation to a Mad Max-style attack on someone else’s words. Whether you’ve asked an in-house writer to craft a short statement for a press release or commissioned an agency to ghost-write a book for your CEO, it helps to remember some guidelines during the editing process:

  • Respect the writer’s unique voice—As the Chicago Manual notes above, it’s often best to preserve personal wording and phrasing choices if your alternative isn’t more accurate or more appropriate for in-house style. One person’s ‘hodge-podge’ is another’s ‘smorgasbord’… but either is OK.
  • Keep your focus—While suggesting changes to copy, keep your eye on the goal of the final piece. For example, a product brochure needs to provide brief, user-friendly reasons for a reader to place an order or contact your company for more information; editing here shouldn’t involve adding material that’s better included in a lengthy white paper.
  • Offer useful suggestions—“No query to an author should sound stupid, naïve, or pedantic,” the Chicago Manual advises. “Nor should a query be so phrased that it seems to reflect upon the author’s scholarly ability or powers or interpretation… Every author has a right to expect conscientious, intelligent help from an editor.”

Editing, as New York Book Editors says, “addresses the creative content, writing style, and language use at the sentence and paragraph level. But the purpose of a line edit is not to comb your manuscript for errors—rather, a line edit focuses on the way you use language to communicate your story to the reader. Is your language clear, fluid, and pleasurable to read? Does it convey a sense of atmosphere, emotion, and tone? Do the words you’ve chosen convey a precise meaning, or are you using broad generalizations and clichés?”

Consider all these things. And don’t feel shy about asking for expert help when you need it.

Follow us on Twitter – @ColContent

Need a corporate blog but don’t have the time or editorial expertise? Try Speech-to-blog, a new corporate blogging service from Collective Content.

 

 

Read Further

Contact us

Contact us to find out how we can help you:

Email:  tony.hallett@collectivecontent.co.uk

Twitter:  @ColContent

Facebook: facebook.com/CollectiveContent

LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/company/collective-content

Phone:  0800 292 2826