7 writing habits to leave behind in 2020

Want to become a better writer in 2021? Start by addressing these pet peeves.

7 writing habits to leave behind in 2020

I don’t want to jinx us, but I’m fairly confident 2020 is nearly over. While there are plenty of things I think we should leave behind us on New Year's Eve—wearing masks beneath one’s nose, 5G conspiracy theories, watery hand sanitizer—in the interest of time, I’m going to focus on bad writing habits.

If you didn't have a writing pet peeve before COVID-19, you certainly have one now. It might be a persistent spelling mistake, or a clichéd email greeting that never fails to grind your gears. Below are a few of the Outwrite team’s pet peeves from this year and how to cut them from your writing.

It's "very" annoying

If you’re selling something, you don’t want it to be pretty good. You want it to be very good. The problem is, though, that “very” is not a word that you should be using in your copy. It only comes before boring, run-of-the-mill, gradable adjectives. If you need a reminder on what gradable adjectives are, I wrote about them a while ago here. Instead, try to use strong, specific words to describe how good something is. If your product is meant to be a joy to look at, think “beautiful”. Easy to use? “Intuitive”. And don’t even dream about putting “very” in front of those words.

It's "somewhat" annoying

In the same way you shouldn’t try to hyperbolise every word with “very”, you also need to avoid using “somewhat”. While it’s not a word you want in your emails—it clutters your writing—it’s something you must avoid in your copy. When Orwell said “if it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out”, it would not surprise me if he had “somewhat” in mind. As we’ve discussed before, concision is one of the things that makes powerful writing. The word “somewhat” is the mortal enemy of concision. But, more than that, when you’re writing copy you should be writing with conviction. Pick a powerful adjective and don’t dilute it with “somewhat”.

Should of, could of, would of

This is a simple error, and one that is probably down to people writing like they speak. For example, let’s say you meant to send an email yesterday, but didn’t. You might say to your colleague; “I should’ve sent that yesterday.” Then, you get around to sending that email, and you write “I should of sent that yesterday.” The problem is, the word “of” should not succeed the words “should”, “could”, or “would”. The word you’re looking for is “have”. You should have sent that email yesterday (and you should have used Outwrite to proofread it).

Send the right message

Now that so much business—and general communication in this WFH world—is conducted via email, you should consider how you write your digital messages as part of your customer service strategy. For one thing, that means spelling the recipient’s name and company correctly (you wouldn’t believe how many emails we get addressed to “Outright”). But try to go a bit further than that. Phrases like “hope you’re well” can be impersonal and, frankly, sound vaguely aggressive to me. Try to make your opener a bit more meaningful. Maybe it’s a client who showed you a picture of their dog a couple of weeks ago; go ahead and ask them how Fido is. If it’s a customer telling you about an issue they’re having with your product, something as simple as apologising for the problem will be a better start to the conversation than a copy-paste job.

Photo of a red sign that says "For Hire"
Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash

Do the right job

Imagine you’re asking someone for a job. Think about the investment that comes with hiring someone. The time spent on training. The money. The risk of hiring someone an employer doesn’t know. All these components mean bosses are looking for hard-working, precise people with an eye for detail. Now put yourself in the employer’s shoes. For every job they post in the COVID Times, there’s likely going to be a huge number of applicants looking for work in a sparse job market. Now, among the multitude of competitive resumes, they open your cover letter and they see the words “Dear Hiring Manager”. Those three words do not associate with hard-working, precise people with an eye for detail. If you’re asking someone for a job, find out that someone’s name and title.

However you want to say it…

As I’ve mentioned before, the misuse of “however” is something that regularly infuriates me. Constantly, I see people join two clauses (ideas) using “however”, but without the appropriate punctuation. Maybe you’re sending your apologies for an event, and you hit the unfortunate inviter with a “I’d love to come, however, I cannot.” This is grammatically invalid! “However” can only function this way when it comes after a semicolon and before a comma. You can fix the above sentence by saying “I’d love to come; however, I cannot.”

Don't be a Covidiot

I know you’re sick of hearing about it. We all are. But if you're writing about the coronavirus for work, it's important to know how to spell and use it correctly. “Coronavirus” refers to a group of viruses that cause respiratory tract infections, not the specific virus that is currently locking the world down. “Coronavirus” doesn’t need to be capitalised, but it does have to be one word. If you do want to refer to the individual virus which has made 2020 feel so long, then the term you’re looking for is “SARS-CoV-2”. More than likely, however, you’re going to refer to the disease that is caused by SARS-CoV-2, known as COVID-19. Because it’s an acronym, every letter in “COVID” needs to be capitalised. Hopefully, now that we’ve learnt all that, COVID-19 will just disappear.

Bring on 2021

There you go! The (writing) things you should leave behind in 2020. Hopefully these tips will help you write even better in 2021. In the meantime, happy holidays and I’ll see you next year.