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Banish these six SCARY writing mistakes from your copy

Like frightening ghouls and goblins, these six common writing errors can easily crop up in your copy—and creep out your readers! Keep a watchful eye out for these scary mistakes, or readers will run from your piece faster than a black cat from a haunted graveyard.

Fortunately, there are simple fixes for these faux pas that plague many writers. Here’s how to exorcise these pesky demons from your prose:

Crummy headlines

If you’ve didn’t make it past the headline of a particular article or blog post, it could be because the writer made one of these common mistakes:

  • Too general: “All about Cancer”
  • Too vague: “Surgery and Patient Recovery”
  • Doesn’t create intrigue: “Doctors Don’t Need to Use Pinterest”
  • Too long: “How a New Surgical Technique is Revolutionizing Cancer Care for Stage III Colon Cancer Patients.”
  • Too cliché: “The Number One Reason Why Students are Using Instagram.”
  • Unclear reading audience: “Why You Should Consider Online Learning.”

Of course, if readers don’t make it past the headline, they’ll never read the call to action.

The best headlines are brief, specific, inviting, and often very clever. Here are a few strategies for writing irresistible headlines:

  • Ask a question: “Are E-Cigarettes Really Safe?”
  • Appeal to your readers’ sense of curiosity: Toxic Killers in your Grocery Cart”
  • Use an active verb that appeals to the senses: “Cracking Pancreatic Cancer’s Code”
  • Play off a popular or common phrase: “Zach’s Got Game” (A college student launches a non-profit that holds video game tournaments to raise funds for charity.)
  • Use alliteration: “A Leonardo in Latex” (An artist paints colorful wall murals in a patient area of a cancer hospital.)

Buried leads

Some articles seem to meander on and on, without giving readers a clear signal as to what the story is about or why they should be reading it in the first place.

In journalism, this mistake is called “burying the lead”—concealing the essential point of a news story beneath multiple introductory paragraphs or other incidental details. Readers usually abandon these poorly written stories and move on to something more interesting.

Before committing words to paper, the writer should always ask “what’s the most important thing I want to tell my readers?” The answer is the lead. Present it within the first couple of paragraphs. The lead need not be in the first sentence. It doesn’t even have to be in the first paragraph. But it should appear fairly quickly to hook your readers and make them want to learn more.

Consider this opening paragraph of a story I wrote for a university alumni magazine:

If you watched the recent solar eclipse, you likely used special solar filter glasses. But to see this rare astronomical event as it passed over North America in 1878, you needed some serious equipment. Eastern’s Sherzer Observatory has an example of one of these rare instruments, made even more special by the man who used it.

The last sentence is the lead. The readers know:

A – Eastern Michigan University has a rare astronomical instrument

B – The person who used it in the 19th century made it special.

This info is the hors d’oeuvre to the story’s main course.

Long, impenetrable paragraphs

Part of the writer’s job is to create flow so readers can move through the story smoothly. The best way to do this is to write clear, short sentences (about 18 words) and brief paragraphs (about three sentences). Short paragraphs become even more important when writing for the web, since people skim online content.

Long paragraphs not only slow the reader down, they also suck up white (empty) space on the printed page. This has a suffocating effect on the reader, who may not feel the desire to begin reading, let alone finish the piece. (When was the last time you read an investment prospectus, cover to cover?)

Of course, writing short is a lot harder than writing long. But the extra time spent streamlining copy during the editing process will result in a better product. Writing short also helps improve Flesch-Kincaid Readability Statistics (you do check these, right?).

Jargon

Doctors and other health care professionals often speak in medical jargon. So do university faculty—especially in the sciences. After all, they’re immersed in their profession’s terminology every day.

If you’re a medical or science writer, you might also have a level of familiarity with these terms. But your readers may not. And nothing turns readers off faster than a boatload of complex terminology they don’t understand.

When writing for a broad, public audience, get in the habit of asking your interviewee to explain the topic in layman’s terms. It might help to ask the interviewee to imagine he’s just met a group of people at a party, none of whom work in medicine or science. How would he explain the concept to them?

Plain, simple language works best for general readers. Recognizing this, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has published “Everyday Words for Public Health Communication,” a handy guide that can help you translate complex terms into jargon-free language for non-experts.

Passive Voice

Good writing is direct and vigorous. Bad writing is passive and weak.

Use an active voice in your writing to emphasize the person or thing doing an action, rather than emphasize the recipient of the action. Active writing is also concise, and as you know, copy space is always precious.

  • “The flesh was eaten by the zombie.” (Passive)
  • “The zombie ate the flesh.” (Active)
  • “The monster was brought to life by Dr. Frankenstein.” (Passive)
  • “Dr. Frankenstein brought the monster to life.” (Active)
  • “The screams were heard by the villagers when the werewolf appeared.” (Passive)
  • “The villagers heard screams when the werewolf appeared.” (Active)

If the person or thing that completed an action is unknown, then a passive construction is fine.

  • “The mad scientist’s laboratory was left in shambles and the castle grounds was littered with debris.”

Its, It’s, Its’

Yes, the right choice among these three options is elementary. But I’m continually amazed by how often the wrong word appears in the work of professionals. Please don’t make this mistake—it really lowers the bar on your work product.

Its = Possessive of “it”

  • “The car flipped on its side during the accident.”
  • “The watch won’t run because its battery is dead.”
  • “The workers placed the statue on its base.”

It’s = Contraction for “it is” or “it has.”

  • “It’s been a great event for networking.”
  • “If it’s noon, then it’s time for lunch.”
  • “Please check the washer to see if it’s full.”

Its’ = Does not exist in the English language. Just. Don’t. Do. It.

Are there other writing mistakes that scare the Dickens out of you as a reader? What are the common errors you watch for in your own work? Let us know in the comments section below.

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