By: Kristy Hoelscher and John Donovan
Strategic America serves clients in countless ways, and one of the most important is one that often goes unnoticed: Making sure you present a consistent brand voice.
Your brand voice is at the core of your brand’s personality. The words, sentence structures, and punctuation you use to engage your audience determine their perception of your business.
In the creative department, our copywriters and editors are responsible for helping you create and maintain your brand voice with copy that’s consistent—and correct. Copywriters Kristy Hoelscher and John M. Donovan (Dono) offer some basic writing tips that will help strengthen everyone’s writing.
Dono: I’m going to dive right into the deep end with appositives and how to punctuate them. Let’s say we’re writing a story about SA creative director Bruce Ganzer.
RIGHT: SA creative director Bruce Ganzer often leaves his drink at someone else’s desk.
ALSO RIGHT: Bruce Ganzer, SA’s creative director, often leaves his drink at someone else’s desk.
WRONG: SA creative director, Bruce Ganzer, often leaves his drink at someone else’s desk.
NOT WRONG: The SA creative director, Bruce Ganzer, often leaves his drink at someone else’s desk.
In the first sentence, “Bruce Ganzer” is the subject of the sentence and “SA creative director” is an adjective phrase describing him. No commas are necessary. In the second example, “Bruce Ganzer” is still the subject, but “SA’s creative director” is an appositive—which essentially renames the noun it follows. Appositives are set off by commas.
The third example is wrong because nobody talks like this. If you take away nothing else from this blog entry, take this: Punctuation is the simply the written word’s attempt to emulate speech. The fourth example is correct because it’s something someone would actually say. “The SA creative director” becomes the subject and “Bruce Ganzer” is the appositive.
By the way, I don’t know why Bruce often leaves his drink at someone else’s desk. Perhaps it has something to do with the heavy responsibility he bears as the SA creative director.
Kristy: SA creative director Bruce Ganzer has never left his drink at my desk, but I have left my drink in his office. Hmm. Very curious. I’ll leave the mystery of Bruce and the Misplaced Drinks to one of our resident detectives to solve.
Meanwhile, I’d like to talk about jargon and big, unnecessary words. Unless you’re writing for a very technical audience, you don’t need them. In fact, I’d argue that using big words to sound smart actually has the opposite effect on your writing.
I’m going to pull an example from the good ol’ SA style guide.
RIGHT: SA associates work to find a better way, always.
WRONG: The personnel of SA toil to descry a more desirable procedure in perpetuum.
Alright, so my example of “wrong” isn’t grammatically incorrect. But it is trying way too hard. Who would want to read what comes next? If you tell me that SA associates will always find a better way, I’m intrigued. What can they do for me? That other sentence tells me only that I don’t want them writing anything for me.
Dono: I’m pretty sure Bruce once left a drink in the perpetuum. However, that has nothing to do with our next topic, parallel construction. Most readers have probably never heard the term, but they sure can tell when your writing doesn’t have it.
WRONG: Greg set fire to his laptop, his work station, and ran over six geese in the parking lot.
This is a poorly constructed sentence that could have been saved with parallel construction. If you lead a reader down one path, you need to stay on it. In this case, we’re leading the reader to believe there’s a series of things coming after “Greg set fire to,” and indeed we start off in that direction, with “his laptop,” “his work station,” and—screeeech!—now there’s a new verb in the middle of the series! Greg set fire to ran over six geese?!
RIGHT: Greg set fire to his laptop, his work station, and the soda fountain. Then he ran over six geese in the parking lot and laughed maniacally.
As long as you continue the series as you’ve originally established it, you will satisfy the demands of parallel construction. In the following example, the series simply follows “Greg.”
RIGHT: Greg set fire to his laptop, ran over six geese in the parking lot, and realized too late that he’d left his cell phone at his work station.
Forgive me for going on and on about parallel construction, but there are artful ways to change directions in mid-sentence. Let’s go back to that first example and fix it a different way.
RIGHT: Greg set fire to his laptop and work station, and ran over six geese in the parking lot.
Parallel construction is your friend. Specifically, it’s a friend who will keep you from making screeching noises in your readers’ ears.
Kristy: I’m so glad you covered this one, Dono. I see this problem all the time. The screeching in my head gets to be too much some days.
Another common error I see is the overuse of modifiers. The strength of one strong modifier can’t be overstated. Tired strings of muddled descriptors often confuse readers—and they lack creativity. What makes a convoluted string of modifiers even worse? When they’re all synonyms.
WRONG: Kasey is a creative, imaginative, inventive artist.
RIGHT: Kasey is a visionary artist.
The first sentence tells us that its author knows how to use the thesaurus. The second sentence may prompt the reader to learn more about Kasey’s work. What has she done for SA’s clients? What can she do for me?
Being another SA visionary, do you have any final words for our blog readers, Dono?
Dono: Just that I look forward to writing a blog entry in defense of the serial comma.
Kristy: Ooh! I am excited to defend this essential, controversial, and often-removed bit of punctuation. Until then!