9 Power-Proofreading Tips for Sales Copy

When money talks, nobody notices the grammar it uses. I don't remember who said that. But it was probably a copywriter.

Yep. We're universally renowned for not sweating the small stuff. And, unfortunately, for not always proofreading our work before turning it in.

Anyway, today I'm going to talk about proofreading. Not just the conventional kind, done with "AP Stylebook" and red marker in hand … but proofing that applies DIRECTLY to sales copy in particular.

So, without further adoo … adue … (er, ahem) ado …

First of all, writers of all kinds constantly mistake the task of proofreading for copyediting.

Proofreaders look for so-called "surface flaws." Grammatical speed bumps. Klutzy word choices. Creative spelling. And all those other little wrinkles that rankle your reader and distract him or her from your message.

A copyeditor, on the other hand, goes deeper.

He looks for leads that go straight to the point … structure that works throughout …descriptive images that are relevant … moments of sarcasm or specialized humor that might lose a reader …

In short, he does what you should be doing ALREADY when you re-craft your own first draft. Only he does it a second time. As a fail-safe.

As I said, there are general rules of proofreading that apply to almost all writing. You can look those up online. Lists of common spelling mistakes and the like ("there" vs. "their," for example) are posted on about a thousand different websites.

However, while I won't get into those more conventional ideas of proofreading … I WILL share something more up my alley today. Proofreading secrets as they might be specifically applied to writing better marketing copy.

This won't be a comprehensive view. Just a sampling. That said, here are 9 quick tips:

  1. NUMBERS HAVE IMPACT: Statistics, percentages, dollar amounts … numbers can hit harder than words, if used properly. A small personal preference – wrong as it may be according to the style guides – I prefer to use the actual number in print (9 … 3 … 5,632%) when possible. Rather than use the spelled-out "nine" or "three" or so on. (Though "five-thousand-six-hundred-and-thirty-two percent" has a nice ring to it.)

  2. GET BACK THAT "CONVERSATIONAL TONE": The grand-daddy of rules about copy is that we're supposed to "write like people talk." This is NOT, however, an excuse for sloppy writing. Rather, it means, among other things … using more clipped phrasing … shorter sentences … smaller words … lots of contractions …and even a lot of these ("…") things.

    You get the picture.

    In some ways, making yourself do that while writing the first draft requires MORE vigilance, not less. Because we're taught in school that good writing is dense and literary.

    If you worried you didn't get it right the first time around, no problem. Simply hit the "find" feature on your word-processor and start searching. See how many words you can find ending in "tion" and "sion" … or "ance" and "ate" … or "able" and "ment." You might be able to eliminate some of them.

    Then go back and search for "cannot" or "is not" or any other opportunities to pull words together.

    The basic idea – you want words that are easily absorbed and let the message shine through.

  3. A GUARANTEED PROSE ACCELERATOR: "Americans say 'that' very often," observes Silvie, my French teacher. Indeed we do. However, it's a good rule of writing to cut back on 'that' where one can. And here once again, the "find" feature is your friend. Pluck out as many 'that' occurrences as possible. You'll find it won't change the meaning in about half of your sentences. But your "flow" will vastly improve.

  4. REDUCE THE "COMMA CURVE": Call me guilty as charged. About half the commas don't belong where I put them. The other half are grammatically correct but create one long sentence where I should've written two short ones. Apply seek-and-destroy tactics to excess commas too. You'll be shocked by how much better your copy reads afterward.

  5. BULLETS, VERBS, AND NUMBERS: Here's something the average grammarian wouldn't think of (of which the average grammarian wouldn't think?): Bulleted lists of benefits, features, and facts are ubiquitous (that means "all over the place") in sales copy. On a second pass, I like to make sure most of those bullets start with a number, a powerful verb, or – at least – a hook phrase like "how to."

  6. THE RULE OF THE RHETORICAL "YES!” Have you ever noticed how copywriters inject a lot of rhetorical questions into their copy? Have you also noticed how a lot of those questions are written so the most likely answer is "yes"? Don't you think this is done for a reason? And. if "yes", don't you think it would be a good idea to SEARCH for "?" and make sure you've done the same? Yes, I thought you'd say that.

  7. THE ARM'S-LENGTH EDIT: Another step for a copywriter proofing his or her own stuff: Hold the page at arm's length. See any big blocks of text? Too much consistency in the length of your paragraphs? Or anything else that looks awkward? Break it up. Pace it. Open with lots of short paragraphs. Hit them with a 3-5 line paragraph. Then a couple of two-liners. And so on. That's a suggestion, not a formula. Point is, keep it interesting. Said Molière, "Tout le plaisir … est dans le changement." (I got that from a postcard. It means, essentially, "Variety is the spice of life.")

  8. PUT IT TO PULP: The idea that you – or even a third-party proofreader – can find your mistakes without first printing out the document is a myth. (Sorry, trees, but it's better to do a proofing scan on paper than on a computer screen.)

  9. GIVE IT VOICE: I've said it a dozen times. I've only done it a couple (to be honest), but I don't doubt that reading a piece of prose aloud is also an EXCELLENT way to find mistakes – both superficial and under the surface – that you otherwise might have missed.

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Published: May 5, 2003

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