The Most Neglected Writing Tip

I was at a restaurant the other night. Naturally, I was reading the menu. I was trying to decide if I wanted to eat a second dinner that evening. (Yes, that’s right, second dinner. Don’t judge.)

That’s when I saw it. It hit me hard — like a squirt of lemon juice to the eye.

It was a typo. A misused apostrophe, to be more precise. Instead of simply adding an “s” to make a word plural (as in “tostadas”), the menu writer added an apostrophe and an “s” (as in, “tostada’s”).  I sighed. Not again.

As I scanned over the menu, I noticed a number of other typos and blatant errors. These would have easily been caught if someone had taken the time to proofread. And this really bothered me.

If this sounds like a minor issue, it’s not. This matters — more than you may realize, in fact. And not just for writing. Whether you’re a woodworker or a business executive, you need to learn your craft.

Learn Your Craft
Photo credit: US Army Corps of Engineers (Creative Commons)

Now, everyone is picky

Would you feel good about a doctor’s visit if the physician’s credentials came from a website? If she didn’t know the word for stethoscope?

What if you were buying a house and the realtor arrived late to your showing?

Wouldn’t you expect them to be ready to do the work? And wouldn’t you expect excellence?

Some people care more about one thing than another. Maybe it’s customer service, maybe interior design. For me, it’s grammar. For you, it’s probably something else.

The point is we all now have the privilege of being picky. And we expect the very best. If you’re going to create something you want the world to see, you’ll need to acknowledge one simple fact:

Presentation matters

Your lawyer probably doesn’t wear flip-flops. And she probably doesn’t go before a judge in a T-shirt. But does that affect how she does her job? Of course not.

On the other hand, my mechanic doesn’t need to have a clean garage (maybe yours does, though). But his waiting room better be comfortable. Otherwise, I’ll take my business elsewhere, thank-you-very-much.

These days, quality is not optional; it’s a prerequisite. If you want to compete in today’s marketplace of ideas and services, you had better go above and beyond.

But what does this have to do with craft, with doing what you do the best you can? Quite a bit, actually.

Although the food at the restaurant was great (I opted for dessert), the bad grammar hurt my trust in the brand. It disappointed me. Why did I care? Because somebody was paid to write that menu. And somebody did a bad job at it.

Learn your craft

If you’re a writer, you need to spend time learning how to write well. You need to practice and take your work seriously.

This is not optional.

Whether you like it or not, you need to learn about the less-exciting aspects of what you do, such as grammar and punctuation. (Well, those are fun and exciting for me, but not most people.)

This includes other aspects of what you do. For example, if you’re a freelancer, you need to learn about running a business and marketing. You may need to brush up on networking and connecting with people.

There’s no way around it. If you want to be good at something (anything), you have to learn your craft.

Either you do it or pay somebody else. But the job needs to get done. And it had better be done well.

Otherwise, what’s the point in doing it?

This is not license to be a perfectionist

As you know, I’m not a fan of perfectionism. It kills art and prevents us from shipping.

And if you read this blog regularly, you know that I sometimes let a typo slip (which is easily remedied after publishing). I’m not perfect, and neither should you be.

What you should do is be obsessed with quality — doing the best work you can with the time you have. You shouldn’t be lazy; you should always be learning. And always getting better.

Many writers get the first part of this right — the presentation — but neglect the second part. You need to do both. Because now, everything is craft.

You need to do quality work, and you need to present it well. Doing one without the other is like putting a cherry on top of a meatball sundae. It just doesn’t work.

What bothers you when it’s not done well?

*Photo credit: US Army Corps of Engineers (Creative Commons)

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102 thoughts on “The Most Neglected Writing Tip

  1. My friend and I notice stuff like this all the time, including menu typos which bother me a lot. We recently saw a chalkboard menu that said “Today’s Speials”! I don’t understand the excessive use of quotes: Enjoy a slice of our “apple” pie–is it sarcasm or emphasis that should really be in boldface?
    –C. Holland

  2. Interesting how you tie this into a greater point about learning your craft. Proper grammar may not get me out of bed in the morning, but the idea that anyone who I might hire as professional ‘know their stuff’ is certainly a fair expectation. Nice share Jeff.

  3. Bad grammar…and especially on menus, is not a good thing, but sometimes I enjoy it.  I live in New York City and we have a lot of Chinese restaurants here, and if one looks closely at their menus, you’ll find them riddled with not just mispelled words, but grammar as well.  There really are some things so riduculous that one has to laugh.  But, that doesn’t excuse the menu writing done by American schooled people.  I graduated high school in 1968 and college in 1972.  Unfortunately, grammar and spelling has gone to hell since then.  I think it’s a sign of the terrible educational systems that we have today.   Students just aren’t properly trained. 

    1. Just for fun, read the documentation that comes with imported computer parts. One of the funniest things I’ve read in a while was the data sheet that came with a laptop battery. Of course they do better in English than I would in Chinese . . .

      1. Yes, Mark, manuals are much the samething since they come from China (some from Japan). It’s both frustrating and funny with manuals, especially frustrating when they leave out parts or steps, but as with you I know about two words of Chinese and not one character. So, for me to write a manual or menu in Chinese would both sound like the Pentecostals speaking in tounges (I grew up with that) or would look like the scribblings of a three-year old.

  4. It bothers me when I see an image in a post that is not centered just right or the wrap is off. It sounds picky, but I try my best to make a great presentation. After all, the first impression always matters. Whether it’s fair or not. 

  5. Hi Jeff. Thanks for sharing – your advice is helpful and insightful. (recently shared your piece on doubt. I know it’s from last January, but it spoke to where I’m at 🙂 

    I smirked upon reading, “Some people care more about one thing more than another”. Clever example? I agree, of course. Typos – especially on high-end restaurant menus – bother me. I’m willing to pay high-end prices, but presentation is essential at that point… Thanks again! 

    1. Some people care more about one thing more than another.
      I also had to smile about that one.
      I have a hard time seeing my own mistakes so I try to be gracious.
      But I know Jeff can handle this.

  6. Misspelled words, often with apostrophes in the wrong place, or not used at all when they should be always stand out to  me, too.  It makes me think the person doesn’t know how to spell and gives me a negative first impression. 

  7. I think many writers sigh when they see incorrect grammar or spelling in a public place (and sometimes not public–like e-mails or messages from friends and family, but that’s another battle altogether). It’s certainly one of the first things I notice during a presentation or while looking over an advertisement or (as you mentioned) menus at restaurants. It’s a pet peeve that irks me and makes me want to whip out the white-out or red pen and correct it myself…but alas. 

    I agree that it’s definitely important for writers to learn all about their craft–included proper spelling and grammar. I’m irked when I see those kind of typos in public, but it’s even worse when you see it online on an aspiring writer’s blog or something to that effect. The occasional typo happens, but when it’s obvious that someone hasn’t learned the rules yet, it can be much more painful to witness. 

  8. On a menu? C’mon. The owner probably wrote that menu and sent it to Vistaprint. Be glad he spent more money on tasty ingredients than an editor. You’re right about presentation, though, and I’m glad you wrote this post for my own selfish reasons (my blog is riddled with typeos and terrible grammar), but cut the folks who cook, clean, and serve all day some slack. They’re the ones writing the menus and special boards (said the gal who waitressed and tended bar through college). As for writers: you’re absolutely correct. I stink at this proofreading stuff and need to get better.

      1. Touché. Even better – a college student majoring in English who works at or frequents the restaurant. Free meals and copyediting experience.

  9. Ah, the apostrophed plural is one of my grammar peeves. I think it comes from panic or a lack of confidence when non-writers write. Just write, folks. Your words are enough. You don’t have to decorate them. 😉 

    In all seriousness, attention to details matters, and finding help with things that are not your strengths is easier than ever. Somewhere, there’s a beginning copywriter who could’ve added that proofed menu to his credits, and saved the restaurant owner some credibility. 

  10. Tell me about typos in menus. My favorite one was on the fancy window display menu  at a place I worked at on Ninth Avenue in NYC, where one of the ingredients on the Antipasti plate was listed as—I kid you not—Parma Prostitute instead of Parma Prosciutto.

    1. Maybe the word processor did an autocorrect and the writer (obviously) didn’t bother proofreading it after? I can’t imagine anyone including that in the menu willingly. Or maybe they were offering *very* unique menu options you weren’t aware of at the time (kidding!).

      1. No idea how this “typo” came about. All I know is it was on public display for months, and it certainly reflected the mindset of the owner, given he had a new babe every week and showered them with gifts.

  11. You didn’t menti0n spelling. I think I was born a naturally good speller so when something is spelled incorrectly, it drives me crazy! I’m sympathetic because I have many very intelligent non-spellers in my family. I say…get someone to edit your work (spell-check doesn’t catch everything).

      1. I hope you agree with Karen since you were the winner of your spelling-bee in sixth grade.  (Am I right about that?)

  12. I think I can relate. I was at a restaurant New Year’s Eve. I tend to like to read the menus especially if there’s a story on the back on the restaurant’s history. And there it was… They used “were” instead of “where.” 

    So instead of saying “where we got started” it said “were we got started.” I couldn’t help it. It was bugging me, big time. Maybe I’m just picky, sure. But that’s dozens of menus with the same freakin’ typo. How could no one have noticed? Why didn’t anyone proofread the darn thing? 

  13. I’m certainly not Grammarian the Great. But what I struggle with is being ruthlessly obsessed with quality in my own work, yet choosing to let go of it in more relaxed situations. 

    Like writing this comment and pressing post without going over it 4 more times (only 2). Like listening to someone speak and not being obsessed with their incorrect pronoun usage, so that I can actually get the message. Or overlooking some typos in books so that I might receive that message. 

    Unfortunately, I don’t do this so well. And if there are too many typos/mistakes it affects my trust in the message.

    I come from the sign business and their are some great ones there too, but I don’t know that I could beat Cyberquill’s!

    1. It comes with practice and a lot of reading. Which comes first is up to you. We may never be as great as some writers are, but we can be greater than we were.

      If, even that, we can’t achieve, it is probably better to wield a hammer than a pen. But there is never a guarantee that you won’t hit your finger instead of the nail.

  14. As in any creative (artistic) venture, you have to learn the skills before you can let loose. 

    In writing, you can break the grammar rules to create a feeling – but you need to know those rules first, so you know you’re breaking them. It’s only after you know the structure that you can play outside the walls!
    P.S. I too get “excited” about grammar, spelling, sentence structure, punctuation…. 😉

  15. AGREED. I’m admittedly kind of a grammar nazi, and I know not everyone is. But when articles on CNN have typos or don’t even follow basic rules of news writing I learned in college…really?? 

  16. The frozen yogurt place in town won a people’s choice award presented by the local newspaper.  The certificate provided by the newspaper, which I think may include some people paid to write and edit words correctly, declared that this frozen yogurt establishment won the vote for “Best Desert”.  Not sure what fro-yo and deserts have in common, unless they add a cactus flavor.

  17. I am not great at grammar but when something is misspelled it kills me. I often wonder how a book can be published with spelling errors.

  18. If you’re dumb, proofreading won’t help.  Plus, it’s “fun” to “bedazzle” your word’s!

  19. I always believed that before you learn another language you have to know your own. And for correcting people’s grammar, wether in my own language or English (which I own just as well), they call me arrogant. I also write on a website and belive it’s unacceptable to misspell or have incorrect grammar when anyone else is reading. It doesn’t matter wether they don’t know that themselves. So I’m kind of obsessed with that too. And again,when commenting what’s wrong and why (I always add the “why”) they call me…arrogant. 🙂 Is it just me?

  20. I’m with you here, Jeff! Bad grammar, poor proofreading gets me every time. As someone who also finds punctuation and grammar to be exciting, mistakes trip me up and slow down my reading. Yesterday I got a text message with a misspelled word, and it completely changed my understanding of the message. It matters!

    I saw a joke once that looked something like this:
    “Let’s eat, Grandma.” Not “Let’s eat Grandma.”
    Punctuation. It saves lives.

    Katie
    PS: I also am a fan of second dinner.

  21. Jeff,
    If there is one thing I’ve learned in business it’s if you are not improving you are going backwards. The speed at which the world is changing requires everyone to get better at anything they do just to keep up with the competition. If you are not continually improving you will not be around too long. Mistakes are tolerable, but maintaining the status quo is not. Keep up the good work.

    Dave Filon

  22. I’ve seen typos everywhere. It’s quite common here in our country. Not just with punctuation marks, but with spelling as well. Huge difference in the  meaning. It’s really funny to see, but it saddens me a little bit.

  23. This article is beauty in simplicity. And yes, your are right. I don’t know how many blogs I’ve read that could make me puke like watching a monkey’s scalp taken right on top of my dining table.  Worst than a lemon squirt into your eyes – isn’t it?

  24. Excellent post, Jeff.  I loved the examples and comparisons to other fields like law and medicine. I ache when I see so many common mistakes that “someone should have caught.”  What hurts  more is some do not seem to care about the details.  I beg “Please care!” 

    I shared this to our Facebook pages to encourage writers to learn the craft and care.  Thanks for this and all your posts.   

  25. I really enjoy your article but I hope native speakers or those with great grammar would understand our struggle of immigrants. I can’t assume all careless mistakes are from ESL writers, but as a person with less than perfect English background, sometimes, it is hard to express our emotions and thoughts in a new language and culture. The use of correct words or punctuation would make us look bad but I wonder if you have helped to point out the error? Or friendly suggest different ways to improve? I am sure we all want to provide the best, but how would we embrace differences and understanding our shortcomings in a multicultural society would be something i am striving to work on. Any suggestions anyone?

    1. I think one thing any business person can do is ask for help. Keep in mind that I don’t fault immigrants who speak English as a second language for not having mastery of the language. That’s understandable, and I appreciate anyone who tries. But if you’re running a business and trying to reach people who are native speakers with their own language, you need to make sure you do so with excellence. If you can’t do it yourself, ask for someone’s help. The impetus is on you, not the customer, in my opinion.

  26. You gotta love your audience. And if you love em how can you not run it through a proof read before posting. 

    Having said that I am sometimes inclined to overlook mistakes in language, grammar of punctuation if the writing has a passion. Passion overrules everything in my books.

  27. Tell me about it Jeff! But I am a master mason and if I got upset every time I saw shoddy workmanship, I would be in the loony bin today!

    But you are exactly right; why do so many people simply not do their job properly?
    Especially as the difference between mediocrity and excellence is often the tiny bit at the end, 10% of the job maybe!

  28. YES!!! Grammar MATTERS. Typos, spelling errors, etc.  seem to JUMP out at me when I’m reading online these days, whether it’s a blog or an article. You articulated why it matters so well.  Thank you! It’s nice to find a kindred spirit when it comes to grammar. 😀

  29. Do you think the tostada’s writer may have learned English as a second language? Just a thought that perhaps punctuation tolerance should be a bit wider for those who aren’t native speakers.  Having recently experienced this difficulty in another language (Deutsche), I feel for the tostada’s we all have to cope with. Nevertheless, I think your point is good: craft matters.

    Thanks for the great post.

    1. Lionel, good point. But no, I don’t think English was their second language. This was not an “ethnic” place; pretty standard, American pizza place. (FYI: it wasn’t “tostadas” they misspelled; that was just an example.)

  30. Hi Jeff, I came here from your entry in Leo’s blog. As far as I could tell (English is not my mother tongue) there is a typo in the title. Aside this, both content were delightful to read.

    Thanks

  31. Hi Jeff, I  discovered your blog browsing through twitter. And as an aspiring writer struggling to utilize this “gift” and sometimes “curse” of wanting to put my thoughts and feelings to a piece of paper, I found it quite helpful and inspirational. Thank you. Going back to your post, writing indeed is a craft, it is an art that demands your best effort.

  32. I just discovered your blog browsing through twitter. And as an aspiring writer struggling to utilize this “gift” and sometimes “curse” of wanting to put my thoughts and feelings to a piece of paper, I found it quite helpful and inspirational. Thank you. Going back to your post, writing indeed is a craft, it is an art that demands your best effort.

  33. An unnecessary or (less frequent) missing apostrophe is like a poke in the eye. Unfortunately, it’s also very common. Maybe it has something to do with out declining world ranking in education? Who’s fault is that? 🙂

  34. Jeff – an excellent post on a subject close to my heart.

    I’m a graphic designer as well as a writer and I can tell you that over the last 20-odd years, I have frequently been shocked — but, sadly, not surprised — at the standard of copy that has arrived from my clients. I create an extra job for myself by correcting their prose, whether paid for it or not, simply because I am not prepared to have something I am involved with be produced to a less than professional standard. It takes so little extra time to produce something that’s right, rather than wrong, so why *not* invest those extra few minutes?

    Besides, with everything nowadays being written in some form of word processing software that features spelling- and grammar-checking (and even auto-correction), there is simply absolutely no excuse any longer.

  35. Oh my god, I so agree. I started reading a copywriter’s website and he had written there instead of their. In a friendly note I alerted him to the grammatical error. The next day he wrote an email to his whole base about uptight “spelling police” and insisted he leaves typos, spelling errors and grammatical errors on purpose. He says it makes the tone less formal. He said that only .1% of people would notice. So I did an informal poll. He couldn’t have been more wrong, on so many levels.

  36. Jeff,

    I am sitting here quite red-faced. The last time I wrote a comment to you, it had a blaring error.  If I recall correctly, I wrote the word different instead of difference. After posting it to your blog, I read my submission and realized it looked pretty dumb. I was embarrassed. We live in a hyper-critical world and we only get a nanosecond to get someone’s attention. If we live a bad impression, we’ll we have to live with that for a long time.  Thanks for your blogs. They are thoughtful and right on.

    Kelly Marshall

  37. i used to be the blogger who wrote like this. i didn’t care much for proper grammar…. well, actually i just didn’t wanna try because i knew i wasn’t good at it.

    I remember the moment I decided to make grammar a part of my writing habit. I know I still make mistakes, especially on those posts that are written in the dark hours, but I also know my writing has improved overall.

  38. There are times when I might be offended by  a post like this.  I process outward and unedited which is what keeps my writing.  However when your post is one that I follow, and then one that my amazing daughter, who is a writer, musician, singer, highly intellectually inclined, forwards this to me. I take notice.  She is my best and biggest critic. One night after reading something I wrote she texts me, “mom do you know what a comma is, punctuation is important.”  I am less offended, will work at better proof reading and perhaps someday I may get it right.

  39. I hate it when I find that I let something slip in my own writing. I write in a foreign language—I speak German—and mistakes happen. At times, neither automatic proofreading by the computer nor my own catch it, and months later, when I revisit the post, I see it. This is when I am embarrassed.

    I catch so many things, like typos, without focussing, just walking by a billboard for example. I see calculation errors, programming mistakes (or just bad style). And I correct or bring to light. I never do it to embarrass though, always to teach

    In a restaurant, I value great food and hygiene. I smile at typos in the menu, and point them out. A doctor that smokes is much more of a problem for me.

    Today, I was at the dentist. He talked to the assistant about my tooth in the upper left as 1-4. I corrected him that it was 2-4, and he responded that this could have easily turned out in a situation as if amputating the right instead of the left leg. And we both laughed.

    There is one underlying problem though. I demonstrate it using desktop publishing. We used to have pros lay outing, proofreading, and typesetting menus. Today, we do them on our home computers and print them online. And suddenly, a cook and restaurant manager needs to know grammar and design, or has to—even with all those great tools—revert to the pros anyway. But we expect them to do it for almost nothing.

    Specialization has its pro and cons. So does the democratization of complex skills. Typos in menus might just be one of the cons of the later.

  40. I go over and over it many times. I still find typos etc. Luckily for me I have retired journalist that lives in my building and he likes my writing and he proof reads it for me. Thank you for the article Jeff.

  41. Excellent post. I feel exactly the same about grammar & punctuation. I just finished reading a book that I truly enjoyed but a handful of typos throughout the story were blinding distractions from the plot.

    As I’m rediscovering & perfecting my own passion to write, I’m looking for resources to buff up on current punctuation & writing styles. Technology has certainly changed these things over the years. I also want to revisit some of these basic creative writing skills because I know that they are a bit different than the style I learned through my education in journalism.

    Do you have any suggestions?

  42. As is often the case Jeff, I agree with you. As I have said before most anyone can write, but that doesn’t make them a writer. I’ve been at this writer thing for more than 10 years with every day being a learning opportunity.For me, becoming a writer requires passion, a plan, and implementation.

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