Waitrose is my local shop. It’s not a snobby thing, it just happens to be closest to my house, and though my shop-local ethic raises its eyebrows, my walk-when-possible ethic often wins.
One night we got in from a holiday and found we had no food and no milk. I’d not slept for over 24 hours, and quite frankly I looked like it had been longer. It was five minutes to closing time, so I hopped in the car for speed and went out as I was. After all, who was going to see me?
I stumbled in to find a string quartet playing. One of the assistants offered me nibbles and a glass of wine from a serving tray (did I say I was in track suit bottoms?) They were having a members-only soiree, and I was the first ‘guest.’ Did I want to start with the flower arranging display, they asked?
It was as if the town had gone steeply upmarket in the two weeks I’d been away. I muttered some sort of an excuse, and stumbled back out into normal life.
It was years ago, and I now keep a tin of instant milk for emergencies. But I still often think of that experience as I start to click ‘send’ on an email. Who’s going to see it? Who indeed.
Write for your audience?
It’s easy to think that we write for a carefully understood, specific audience, and that’s it. In reality anyone can share, spread, take photographs of, and otherwise distribute your writing. Once it’s out there, it could go anywhere, and take your reputation with it.
This can work both ways. A small but perfectly formed piece of originality can spread across the internet and make an unknown person famous in hours, like the r2tutu baby. Or worse, like the scout leaders in the US National Park, a piece of bad judgement on YouTube can shame someone into never wanting to leave the house again.
As carefully as I prepare my emails, I’ve been caught out a few times when my painstaking effort to woo ends up with someone else entirely – whose style and response are very different than I intended.
Fortunately we’re all bit too boring to become internet sensations, but the effect of carelessly edited writing can affect your customers’ assumptions about your business as a whole.
Finding the balance
I’m always surprised by the depth of passion some delegates in my writing courses have about careless spelling and punctuation. I totally agree that taking the time to write correctly shows we care enough about the point we’re making to present it well. I just don’t carry a noose in my handbag ready to string up the nearest offenders. Stick with me here.
Let’s say my baker puts out his sign at 8:45 when people are on the way to work to let them know HOT DONUT’S NOW. In the past I might have moved on, abhorring his sloppy apostrophe and quietly wondering what the world and the language were coming to. But I was missing out on making friends with Merv, joining my neighbours in the warmth for a chat, and the joys of a hot pastry.
Pulling him aside for a lecture on punctuation wouldn’t make him a better baker.
If my solicitor, on the other hand, can’t spell my name correctly, then I will move on. Attention to detail is the quality I hire her for, and I need to see that demonstrated in every aspect of her work. (Unless she bakes me donuts).
Writing well implies respect for the reader. It suggests how conscientious we are in our professional work. Nevermind what we’re saying. How we say it tells a story of its own.
Two things to try
Everybody’s got one thing they just keep getting wrong. Find out what yours is, and meticulously check for it before sending out anything important. One very senior friend of mine still can’t do apostrophes. I always stop and think about compliments and complements. Know your weakness, and diligently proofread and correct when it matters.
If you’re not convinced that people are making judgements about you based on your writing, try this: Go into Google’s search bar and type ‘How do u’. Notice the suggested search terms – then type ‘How does an individual’ and see how the suggestions change. Everybody makes judgements about you, just by the language you use. Even Google.
The words we share and send are out there for a long time, and we never know who might see them. Your original audience might not mind a bit of text speak on Facebook, but you don’t know who else is looking. Attention to detail is increasingly the factor that determines job candidates and customer decisions – even if just to avoid the ire of the Apostrophe Preservation Society members in my training sessions. It’s worth getting it right.
Do you think that blogging is a medium where attention to detail still matters? I’d love to have your contributions at the Better Business Blogging sessions running on two dates:
See White Dot at Eventbrite for details of how to join us.
Member since: 23rd September 2013
I’m Director and Shop Manager of Kett's Books, a social enterprise bookshop in Wymondham, and I write the White Dot Business Writing Blog. Life in the bookshop keeps the business writing advice real.