Recently, a PR professor asked my thoughts about real-world skills that would be useful to her students. When I mentioned writing, she shared that her college students often turn in work with grammar and punctuation mistakes. She also said many students are surprised when she grades them on these errors and that she sometimes deducts points for grammar mistakes without specifically noting it.
Then she said this: “I don’t think I should have to teach them things they should already know.”
Her statement stopped me because I realized I had heard it somewhere before … sort of. Earlier this year, a prospective client mentioned that poor writing skills were among key reasons her company was dropping its former agency. I later learned that the old agency never knew writing skills were an issue. The client had never mentioned it.
Here’s my point: Just because no one tells you about specific mistakes in your writing doesn’t mean you don’t make them. And whether you’re a soon-to-be graduate or already in the workforce, repeatedly making grammar and punctuation mistakes could cost you. As director of editorial services at Ketchum, I review the writing exams of numerous job candidates. The ones that get tossed into the C or lower pile contain precisely the kinds of mistakes the PR professor was talking about. If I were to meet those candidates, I probably would tell them about their mistakes. But I typically never get the chance to. (I’m sure you can guess why.)
So, if no one tells you about your writing mistakes, how will you know? Here are a few tips for figuring out what no one else will tell you.
Read. One of the best ways to learn how to write well is to read good writing. Take a little time every day to read a good blog post, a book written in standard language, a newspaper article or even a press release. You will start to notice which ones are well-written and which could be written better. In the good ones (usually the ones that are easiest to understand), pay attention to punctuation, word choices and spelling. Taking note of these things in other writing will make you more mindful of them in your own.
Solicit feedback. Ever notice someone you’re talking to has, say, spinach in his teeth, but you don’t say anything because you don’t want to embarrass him? Now, imagine that person stands in front of you and asks, “Do I look OK?” You’re much more likely to tell him about the spinach. A boss, co-worker or friend might feel the same way if you give them a document riddled with basic grammar errors. Rather than assuming silence means everything is fine, ask someone who you think is a good writer to specifically look over your work for grammar and punctuation errors. Whenever possible, ask someone else to review what you’ve written before you send it into the public sphere (or to your professor). Do this even if you are a good writer yourself. Some writing mistakes are just that – simple mistakes that you might not make on another day. Even editors need editors.
Remember previous mistakes. Because of my editorial services role, colleagues frequently come to me with grammar questions. At least once a week I hear someone say, “I always have trouble with that word” or “I always get those two words confused.” Most of us have some issue like this. Maybe you always use “compliment” when you mean “complement,” keep placing periods outside quotation marks, or frequently misspell the same word. Whatever your common mistake is, make note of it. Whenever you’re writing, be sure to double-check when using those words or punctuation marks.
Use writing resources. If you’re even a little unsure about a word or grammar issue when you’re writing, stop for a minute and try to find the answer. Most times you can do this with a simple online search. If you type a grammar question into a search engine, be sure to skim a few results to find the most reputable source. Another option is to keep a dictionary, thesaurus, grammar reference book or Associated Press Stylebook handy when you’re writing. I have several of each in my office and use them at least a couple of times a day.
Practice. Write often … especially if writing intimidates you. The more you write – whether it’s a couple of paragraphs for a pitch or a full-blown press release or letter – the more you will get used to using certain words and constructions, making it easier to get them right every time. Writing regularly also can make organizing ideas easier and faster over time.
If you think any of these steps will take too much time or might be embarrassing to do, remember that it is always better to spend the time (or risk the embarrassment) on the front end than to have it count against you later – even if no one ever tells you that it did.
Calmetta Coleman is Senior Vice President and Director of Editorial Services at Ketchum. Calmetta was a reporter at the Wall Street Journal before serving as Senior Communications Manager at JPMorgan Chase.