How to Avoid Copywriting Disasters

Dizzy Dean, who though a good baseball player is best remembered as a sportscaster, was infamous for mangling the English language. After being hit in the head by a wild pitch he told reporters, “The doctors X-rayed my head and found nothing.” No doubt, many a copy-editor has taken a second look at some copy and wondered the same thing about the writer, and sometimes himself.

Most writers and copy editors are supremely qualified for what they do but labor under circumstances that can often lead to copywriting disasters. With tight deadlines, a profession defined by the term multi-tasking, and the tricks both tired eyes and minds can play on the brain, mistakes are bound to be made. With that in mind, here are some basic copy editing tips that might be wise to post somewhere near your computer.

Typo Rule 101- I Never Met a Spell Checker I Could Trust

We’ve all seen them and laughed. You know, the typo that was hilarious but after the laughter died down made you rush back to your web site to make sure you hadn’t done the exact same thing. One well known technical web site had a link that read, “Current rates appear in (brackets).” Now I wonder how long it took for an army of detail types to email in about that one?

The object of this lesson is to never give a spell check engine the keys to the kingdom. A computer simply can’t know whether the writer meant to use the word road instead of toad in an article. The simplest trick of self editing is the safest trick for copy editing – read it backwards. Reading an article from bottom line to top is the safest and surest way to catch all the junk that spell checkers are too dumb to catch.

Headlines are 75% of the Game

Most people have seen those funny headlines on Jay Leno, like “Parents keep Kids Home to Protest School Closure” and “Local Toddler Wins Gun for Fundraiser.” What makes those so painfully funny is they are real headlines that were approved by some copy editor somewhere. Here are some reminders about good headlines:

  • Cute only goes so far! Originality is a good thing as long as it isn’t confusing. Business headlines need to catch the reader’s attention, but they also need to make sense.
  • Start selling in the headline. Save any wit for the body of the article. People are busy and the headline often determines whether they read on or not.

Looks Do Matter

Sometimes great copy is never read because the road maps for the reader aren’t there. In most formats and certainly on the web, people scan. Part of a copy editor’s job is to make sure a reader’s eyes are drawn to important information. A few guidelines to remember in copy layout include:

  • Paragraph headers should concisely describe information in that paragraph.
  • Always put the most important points in headers and bullets.
  • Bullets should be brief and to-the-point.
  • Remember readability rules: Sentences no longer than 3 lines. Paragraphs no longer than 5 lines. There are a number of good readability tools available for Microsoft Word and online writing.  A quit Google search can point you to these.

Pop Quiz – Which of the copy editing tips was violated in this article? The spellchecker fail in the last bullet, of course. What on earth is a quit Google search?

By remembering these simple tips you will sharpen your copy editing skills and avoid many of the most common disasters of copy editing. Happy writing!


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