Attention class. Stop passing notes back there. Are you really scratching your name into the bottom of that desk? All eyes to the front, the lesson is about to begin. Every email marketer, social media manager, or PPC expert needs to master the English language. All grammatical errors and dangling participles are banished forthwith from this moment. Oh, and don’t forget your homophones. Mistakes in any of these areas are punishable by internet ridicule and overuse of the asterisk.
That is the law of the internet. Believe me, the internet isn’t shy about rapping your wrists with a ruler should you be found in contravention of any aforementioned subjects.
Because using the right “there/their/they’re” is the be all and end all of good ideas.
Let’s put paid that idea right now. One of my English lecturers made spelling mistakes, and pronounced some words incorrectly. But that didn’t matter – this was literally the smartest person I had ever been stuck in a room with. So let’s not start by thinking this article is a lesson in grammar. Despite my English qualifications, this blog is far from suggesting that excellent spelling and punctuation is the litmus test for great content.
These are just the tools. Excellent English language is how you use these rules.
And how you break them.
So forgoing the basic syntactical instruction, I have put together some English tips that will help you create great content.
Active is Good – Passive is Not as Good as Active
Anyone who uses Yoast or any comprehensive SEO package, will probably release steam at the mention of the passive voice. SEO doesn’t like it. Not because of any intrinsic search rule, but because it damages that lovely “readability” score that you are trying to build up before publishing. The active voice must be used often. Whether you are writing a blog, an email, or a killer Dystopian novel.
TERMIUM Plus, have written a comprehensive discussion and examples of active and passive voice in the article Passive Voice: Forever Bad? The examples illustrate the difference between active and passive. This is an interesting read, but to cut through the eloquent descriptors, the argument is simple. Sticking with the simple structure of Subject – Verb – Object is just simpler to read.
If I were to write “Dave threw the ball at Jane”, very few people would be unable to unpack that. Writing, “It was Jane that the ball was thrown at by Dave”, over complicates the issue. Although it is still simple to understand, it takes a little more unpacking. Emails are short pieces of marketing literature. For the most part, it is best to get to the point.
Mixing it up a little
Shanthi Cumaraswamy Streat‘s article 7 Tips on How to Improve Your Email Writing Skills is an excellent stop for anyone who wants to write excellent email. As an English Language teacher to multinationals, her blog strips writing back to its basics. It is difficult to argue with a professional of her calibre, however, one small idea appears to be a little reductive.
“Use short and easy sentences. Long sentences can often be difficult to read an understand.”
In part, this sentiment is correct. If every sentence was a winding tribute to a J.R.R. Tolkein Landscape, your recipient would soon get bored and your email will be unfinished. But similarly, if you only write in short sentences, everything can seem stunted. The flow is cut, the reader constantly stops and starts, and soon it begins to sound like a list. When written to create an effect, repeated short sentences are great for creating panic and anxiety. The trick, however, is to mix it up.
Being able to use conjunctives, and create a variety of sentence lengths is the mark of a good writer.
The Very Special Ambiguity of the English Language
There is one undeniable truth that every email marketer has to contend with. The English language is a mess. Language is the only tool we have to convey important messages, and yet it is desperately unsuited to the task.
We have injected buzzwords into our copy for so long, we forget that words like “optimise” and “maximise” are almost undefinable. They could mean a dozen things. They could mean nothing at all. As some words mean slightly different things within different industries, we are left with this incredible language full of ambiguity.
These words are embedded throughout our language. Common words such as “special” mean hardly anything. What makes your product special? What does special even mean. Is it special because it is unique, or do you just really like the colour?
Then there is that evil word “very”. This word should create a sense of exaggeration. Unfortunately it has been used so much in the English language that we are anaesthetised to it. Its use is almost anticlimactic. Furthermore, it is a bone idle technique to use when you could think of a singular adjective to represent “very good”.
It might be infuriating for email marketers to try and traverse through the English language and get their point across. However, there is a simple rule to follow: be clear and concise.
The Email Marketer Style
What has amazed me whilst researching this blog, is the amount of people telling you to write in specific styles. One writer asserts that you should always write formally in business. Another will argue that the only way to write an email is persuasively. I have written blogs suggesting that emails should be relaxed and witty. This is all great advice. But it is all contradictory rubbish too.
I am sure we are all capable of writing formal emails. One without contractions. Emails that read as though Moira Stewart should read them out on the news. But is that going to engage with the customers in your industry?
But then on the other hand, will an email rendition of a Michael McIntyre sketch do the trick either?
Shock horror! I am not going to tell you how to write. It isn’t up to what style you choose to represent your brand.
You need to be consistent.
Once you have decided whether you will adopting a tongue-in-cheek tone, or a serious and direct vernacular, you have created your brands voice. It no longer belongs to you. This is the voice of your products. If you continue to change it, you might disorient your readers, or alienate them. Your subscribers will come to expect a certain tone, and it might just be your witty patois that keeps them opening that email.
Proof of the pudding
It doesn’t matter how good a writer you are. Nor does it matter how accurate your grammar is. You will make a mistake. It may not have happened in the last two emails. It may not happen in the next three. But – you are human. It will happen. There are fewer certainties in life than that.
The last thing you want is a huge mistake clinging to your email like a rogue streak of porridge in a beard. Especially when a second set of eyes could have picked it up.
That is the thing with writers, they get so invested in their content, they often miss the mistakes. Your mind is good at filling in the blanks. If you have finished writing the email then first of all you should take a few minutes away from the screen and someone else should read the content. This can be your manager, a marketing colleague, the lollipop lady, or the accounts intern. It doesn’t matter who they are, as long as it is someone who can pick through the content and remove the mistakes strewn within.
It isn’t a weakness to have missed a typo, and it isn’t a massive crime to have misspelt the occasional word either. They can be fixed in the proofread and edit stage,
The problem with writing a blog such as this, is that there is no ultimate one size fits all for writing. Especially, where the English language is concerned. The email marketer has a lot of advice to follow, and most of the blogs at this point are saying much the same thing. The thing is, if you write your email in Word, or use Grammarly, the building blocks of the whole writing process are easy to fix. It is not like you are being handed a pot of tippex now is it?
However, it reminds me of a conversation I had with a young lad who struggles with literacy. It occurred to me that teaching a child to write to write cursively is pointless. In fact, as a priority, that should be way beneath even choosing what colour pen to use. Not everyone can read it anyway, and non-conjoined letters are far simpler to comprehend. Spellings, although they are a little more important, can be fixed afterwards. We are in the digital age, no error cannot be fixed once written. It is the quality of the content that matters.
Utter nonsense is still utter nonsense no matter how it is spelt.
I am sure the writers reading this may have their own tips, or opinions, so please leave a comment below to discuss this with us. Or, you can check our some of our other blogs on content creation:
Writing Great Content – Mark Ellis
Story and Marketing – Adam Ward