Revised May 12, 2020
With more than 80% of b2b and high-value consumer purchasing decisions now starting with online research, content marketing is hot. Consider:
Buyers want content. According to J-P De Clerck, “87% of surveyed buyers look for advice before buying a product, service or solution. The first source when doing so: Web searches. With 71% of respondents who look for information, searches are by far the main source of information. Search and content are by definition very integrated.”
Marketers are producing more content. Recent research from MarketingProfs found:
- On average, B2B content marketers are spending 33% of their marketing budgets on content marketing, up from 26% last year.
- 54% plan to increase content marketing spending next year.
- All content tactics are being used more frequently than they were last year, with the use of research reports, videos, and mobile content having increased the most.
Content is replacing advertising. Writing in Forbes, Michael Brenner explains how content (which buyers seek out) is more valuable than advertising (which many buyers ignore or even try to avoid): “Great content and engaging stories help your company’s content get found and get shared. When great content is shared, commented on or liked, it is no longer your content alone. It is their content. And user-generated content is trusted more than advertising or promotion.”
As content proliferates, standing out becomes more difficult. It requires originality, deep understanding of customer needs and motivations, and the cultivation of a network to share and amplify it. But most fundamentally, it has to flow well, to follow the basic rules of spelling, punctuation and grammar.
Faced with an overwhelming array of choices, buyers first prune their lists of any obvious “no” options. Vendors can be excluded out of hand for many possible reasons: their prices are too high, they lack expertise in the buyer’s industry, their products are missing critical features, or…their content is sloppy. It’s similar to a human resources manager reviewing a hundred resumes for a single open position: those with spelling, punctuation or grammatical errors get tossed in the first review cycle.
Though marketing content can come in a wide variety of forms—text, video, podcasts, infographics, animation—virtually all content starts with writing. Poor writing leads to ineffective content; content that doesn’t get shared, doesn’t get ranked, doesn’t get (widely) read, and doesn’t compel action.
So, the basis of producing interesting, shareable, actionable content is solid writing. To help make your content “must read” rather than “just toss,” avoid these 17 unfortunate, grating and all-too-common writing mistakes.
1. “A lot of.” Granted, there are times when it’s okay to use this phrase (and a lot of people would agree with that), but in general, it’s abused. Avoid unless it’s really the best fit in context. It’s informal and imprecise, e.g., “a lot of marketers are embracing content marketing.” That’s true, but not helpful. Is 100 “a lot” of marketers? Is 72%? Or better yet, 72% of b2b marketers in small to midsized companies?
2. “Things.” Ugh. This is bad—rarely do we write about “things.” Features, attributes, concepts, attitudes, perspectives, capabilities, options, topics, specifications, qualities, and benefits yes, but “things” no. This is particularly awful when combined with #1 above. Which is better? “A lot of things make XYZ software stand out” or “Several unique features make XYZ software stand out.”
3. “Good.” Double ugh. This is one of the most overused words in the English language, despite a wealth of superior and more precise synonyms. A “good” meal may be delicious, tasty, scrumptious, satisfying, delightful, lip-smacking, or even extraordinary. A “good” writer may be brilliant, skilled, creative, original, capable, expert, talented, accomplished, prodigious, adroit, adept, widely published, often-quoted…you get the idea.
4. Misuse of “over” vs. “more than.” This one is somewhat subjective and tricky, but one general rule of thumb is to use “more than” before numbers and “over” before units, e.g., “We got more than 12 inches of snow” but “we got over a foot of snow.” Grammar Girl does an excellent job of describing the subtleties in this word choice:
“The AP Stylebook encourages you to look at your particular sentence and then pick whichever phrase sounds best…You always want to evaluate your phrasing for each specific sentence you’re writing…The AP guide suggests that ‘She is over 30’ sounds better than ‘She is more than 30.’ The AP’s second example is ‘Their salaries went up more than $20 a week.’ I do think it would sound odd to say ‘Their salaries went up over $20 a week.’ I would definitely pick ‘more than’ in that sentence. If you choose to agree with the majority of the style pros and use more than and over interchangeably, always read over your work and make sure the phrase you’ve chosen sounds right in your particular sentence…There’s ‘more than one opinion’ about this. I do think it would have sounded odd if I’d said, ‘There’s over one opinion.’ Don’t you agree?”
5. Misuse of hard / difficult / challenging. As this paper from the University of Birmingham makes clear, as with “over” and “more than” above, the use of “hard,” “difficult” and “challenging” is subjective and depends to a degree upon author preference and which word sounds best in a given context. There are no hard and fast rules (though one would never speak of “difficult and fast” or “challenging and fast” rules).
Generally, “hard” is used with physical actions (e.g., “it’s hard to move a pile of rocks by hand”), “difficult” implies trickiness (“maneuvering a large boat through a narrow waterway is difficult”) and “challenging” is used in intellectual and sporting situations (“it’s challenging to out-coach Bill Belichick”). Ultimately though, this word choice requires judgment; it can be hard, difficult or challenging to select the right word at times.
6. Misuse or non-use of adjectives. Too often, writers skip needed adjectives or use fluffy, pointless descriptors in place of meaningful words. “XYZ provides the best service in the industry” is an example of both sins. First, “best” in this case is worthless puffery. Now, if XYZ won a Best Customer Service award from a recognized organization, then by all means, let people know! Otherwise, skip the self aggrandizement.
Second, the sentence above begs the question: the best what service? Dental service? Excavation service? Software implementation service? Prospective customers actually search for phrases like those, so including the most specific adjective is essential for search optimization. But no visitor worth attracting ever searches for “the best service.”
7. Incorrect subject/verb agreement. Skilled writers knows what this means. See the problem?
8. Improper use of single vs. double quotation marks. “Quotes are always set within double quotation marks.” Single quotation marks are used only for quotes within quotes, e.g., as Chris Smith wrote, “in my interview with Pat Jones, Pat insisted ‘Capable writers understand the proper use of quotation marks.’ I think that’s true.”
9. Mistaking your vs. you’re. This is elementary English, yet it’s disturbing how often the wrong term is used in place of the other. “Your” is possessive, “you’re” is a contraction for “you are.” You’re going to look like an idiot if your writing includes this mistake.
10. Improper hyphenation. Hyphenation is another practice that’s not that difficult but nevertheless often done wrong. Hyphenate terms when using them as adjectives (“she’s attending a high-level meeting”) but not when using them at nouns (“he is performing at a high level”).
11. Mixing first-, second-, and third-person voice. No writer should mix voices, writing from different perspectives within one piece. We don’t often use first-person voice on this blog. You should be consistent in your writing.
12. Using passive vs active voice. Is it improper for one to employ the passive voice, needlessly adding words to a sentence? Yes, so use the active voice.
13. Incorrectly spelling out (or not spelling out) numbers. Spell out numbers less than 10 (one, two, three) but use numerals for larger numbers (39, 139, 1,339, etc.).
14. Getting “you and me” vs. “you and I” wrong. This is another area of common confusion that should be easy. When in doubt, leave out the “you” and then see whether “I” or “me” fits the sentence. “You and I should go to the park” is correct because “I should go to the park” is correct. “She sent it to you and me” is right because otherwise she would have sent it to me, not sent it to I.
15. Improper use of “who” vs. “whom.” So many people find this situation so confusing that the use of “whom” is rapidly disappearing. Shame though, as it’s a perfectly fine word, and the rules for using “whom” vs. “who” are in general no more complex than those for the proper use of “you and me” versus “you and I” above.
In this case, determine whether the sentence in question would make more sense using he/she versus him/her. For example, “To whom should I mail this?” (I should mail it to him.) “Who will sign for the package?” (She will sign for it.)
16. The unnecessary use of “that.” Unnecessary “that”—let me assure you that we don’t make this mistake. Necessary “that”—we don’t use this word improperly because that would be annoying.
17. Repetitive word usage. Consider the following two examples:
Facebook is on a roll. Facebook now has more than one billion users. It’s hard to imagine any competitor overtaking Facebook.
Facebook is on a roll. The world’s largest social network now has more than one billion users. It’s hard to imagine any competitor overtaking Mark Zuckerberg’s creation.
Synonyms are a writer’s (and reader’s) friend. Use them. Sometimes it requires a bit of creativity, other times it’s as simple as checking thesaurus.com, which should be a prominent bookmark in every writer’s browser.
Proper writing alone won’t win every battle for business or search engine rank, but shoddy, sloppily produced clients will often guarantee a loss. Avoiding the sometimes simple but too-common mistakes above is a baseline for content marketing success.
For an expanded and far more amusing list of common writing mistakes to avoid, check out How to Write Good. Among their words of wisdom:
- Take the bull by the hand and avoid mixing metaphors.
- If you reread your work, you can find on rereading a great deal of repetition can be by rereading and editing.
- And always be sure to finish what