How NOT to Write Web Copy: 5 Pet Peeves

February 22, 2011 •

Your website looks fantastic. Your blog is easy to navigate, full of compelling images, and keyword rich. You tweet great insights about your industry regularly. Your Facebook page has tons of custom tabs.

All of this is wonderful, but without good writing, don’t even bother. Marketing—especially online marketing—depends on skill with words (ok, a red wheelbarrow, too).

Every day at Right Source Marketing, we write for ourselves and for our clients. And rewrite, and rewrite again. Everything we write is analyzed and edited for strategy, flow, and much more.

So when we see poorly written blog posts and awkward website copy, it drives us a little crazy. Of course, everyone makes mistakes, but below are some of the writing mistakes that absolutely make us cringe:

1. Exclamation points!!! Isn’t it so exciting to be reading this blog post!?!!! Actually, you probably want to take my exclamation points, and throw them off a cliff, don’t you? Of course, there’s a time and a place for everything, even exclamation points. But next time you feel yourself using more than one every five sentences or so, stop and think. Do you really need those exclamation points? They’re annoying, immature, and a crutch for weak writers. With a little rewording and reorganizing, you can get your point across by using strong diction and syntax, not ridiculous punctuation.

2. Over utilizing utilize. People don’t read blogs and websites for vocabulary lessons.  So hold the cream and sugar and the fancy words. Of course, you should sound intelligent, and use your business’ lingo (especially if you’re writing for a business to business audience). But don’t use big words just because they’re bigger. “Utilize” is a prime candidate for this. Sure, “use” gets…over used…but most of the time, when you feel the urge to write “utilize,” a word like “use,” or even better, a more specific verb, will do the job.

3. Than vs. Then. It’s amazing how many seasoned writers and business people don’t know the proper usage for the words “than” and “then.” For example: If you have more gusto than your boring competitor, then you might put them out of business. Than is for comparison, then is for sequence and order.

4. Its vs. it’s. The rule here is so easy to follow, but also so easy to get wrong. “Its” is possessive, and “it’s” is a contraction of “it is.” For example: It’s fun to watch a dog chase its tail.

5. The fact that. As Strunk and White, authors of The Elements of Style, would say: “omit needless words.” Unless you’re stressing that something is a fact, and not a guess, 9 times out of 10, you can replace “the fact that” with just one word, even if it means you have to rearrange the sentence. For example: “My business is better than yours because of the fact that your employees smell bad” should be “My business is better than yours because your employees smell.” Ah, much better.

What are your biggest pet peeves? Spotted these mistakes anywhere funny recently? Comment, and let us know.

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About the Author

The Marketing Trenches blog provides thought leadership from actual marketing practitioners, not from professional thought leaders. Designed to help business leaders make more educated marketing decisions, our insights come directly from our experience in the trenches. You can find more from Right Source on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Google+.

  • Mike Sweeney

    Tracy – Are there any published/widely accepted rules surrounding two spaces vs. one space after periods? I don’t know when and how one space became the standard (or at least accepted), but it seems to have become the norm at least for blogging.

    Great post, agree with all. (I’d use !!!! at the end of that sentence, but you’re right. I am really not THAT excited about it.)

    • Thanks Mike! Two spaces=dead wrong unless you’re on a typewriter:

      • Mike Sweeney

        Interesting. One space makes SO much more sense, but seriously when did this become so “official”?

        Maybe I am just old and missed the one-space press release. That’s why blogging is so much fun; the rules are fluid.

        • To paraphrase the Slate article linked to above, two spaces was never official. One space has pretty much been the rule since the early 20th century. I know you make fun of yourself for being “old,” Mike, but you’re not old enough to remember that convention! (Yes, exclamation point.) The reason why two spaces became a new convention was because of the aesthetics of writing on a typewriter, specifically. So the two spaces rule has never been the official rule, according to the books, except for on that particular technology.

          • I think the space after a ‘period’ (in the UK we call it a ‘full stop’) is bad for typography (for some reason or other…) My mum’s a typographer and used to wince whenever I put double spaces after the period/full stop. This was just for school work.

            Talking of pet peeves though… One thing I do A LOT is this: … I just find myself typing three dots or ellipses (as I believe they are called). It’s a habit I need to stop myself doing, but I just can’t help myself. However, I hate it when someone types more that three dots.

            Something that annoys me when written in website content is when someone writes about ‘piece of mind’ – as in ‘Our alarm system offers you complete piece of mind’. What they actually mean is: ‘Our alarm system offers you complete peace of mind’. If I give you a ‘piece of my mind’ I’m not best pleased with you, so, the first use is really, really wrong. I know most people would get the intent because of the context, but it does make me think the writer must be ignorant, which may make me think twice about using the services or buying the products that are designed for my ‘piece of mind’…

          • Amelia,

            It’s definitely bad for a printed publication because it takes up valuable space that could be used to fit more words, or make room for more ad space. So, your mother is right. As usual, huh? (That’s how it is for me, at least.)

            I overuse ellipses too, though I’m more likely to do it in casual conversation than in web copy. Nothing wrong with that as long as you’re using three.

            Piece/peace of mind is a good one! And thus deserves an exclamation point. I see that one all the time and it drives me nuts. It’s understandable though, because spell check won’t check it and it’s really easy to just whiz by without noticing. But you’re right, reading that makes me want to give that writer a piece of my mind, and not the other way around.

            Thanks for stopping by and the great comment!

  • Don’t overuse contractions. Yea or neigh?

    • Absolutely–if you’re writing legal documents. But if you’re writing something more casual (such as a blog post) or space restrained (such as a tweet), contractions are just fine, and sometimes necessary. So the answer: “neigh.”

  • Great post. I have far too many pet peeves to list here but you have covered a few of them. Others include apostrophe misuse (or is it abuse?) e.g. when one is inserted into a plural noun: “He took my key’s”. Drives me nuts. The other one I see most often, even on professional websites, is “your” when it should be “you’re”. There are many others but it’s Friday afternoon, and…

    • I know, I could have kept going forever. But then again, I always feel as if I’m jinxing myself to make mistakes when I write something like this. Hey, keeps me on my toes. Glad I nailed a few of the ones that bug you, too. Apostrophes in the wrong place drive me absolutely crazy!

  • Michelle J

    Hi Tracy, people at work are split on when to use “quotes” in copy. I tend to say no most of time. Is it more appropriate in certain types of writing over others? Since I do it all, copy writing to fiction, I know I should know this…!!! (Have I annoyed you totally?). Appreciate your perspective. Useful info in here. Thanks.

    • Hmm, I’d say that using “quotes” depends on the tone you want and the formality of the writing. I lean towards not using them except, obviously, in dialogue. Just like exclamation points, quotes show that writing is relying on punctuation, not clear expression, to get something across. But in casual writing (which, depending on the tone of the copy writing you’re doing, can apply in many different situations), they can definitely serve a purpose. Thanks for reading and glad you enjoyed the post! (!!! aren’t annoying me at all–it’s a comment, not a home page!)

  • Geoff

    I always have to go back to Billy Shakespeare when he wrote that it was ‘brevity that is the soul of wit’. Not cleverness, not humour, not being witty – brevity is hard. The fact that he’s Shakespeare only proves my fact is accurate…. 😉

    • That quote is too often forgotten. Brevity is especially hard for web copy, because you have to include those pesky keywords. Thanks for reading and sharing!

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