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That sentence – I do not think it means what you think it means.

Submittal Requirements:

  1. Firm Information: Indicate the location and size of all employees.

Well now, let’s see. Pam is sitting at her desk; she’s about 5’6” and I’d say about 120. Jim’s over talking to Karen in the break room. He’s gotta be what, 6’2” or 6’3”? Tall drink-of-water. Wait, why are you asking again?

The preceding was a dramatization but the consequences are real.

Submittal Requirement #1 was taken from a solicitation to provide services for some project or another. If you’ve dealt with this sort of thing before, you’ll know that the solicitor wants to know where your office is located and how many employees work there. But if you’re a strict literalist (see, Greg Brady) and/or a smartass, you’re going to respond as I did.

So is this a big deal? If everyone understands what the solicitor was trying to say, does it really matter if it’s written to mean something else?

In last week’s edition, I mentioned how the writing process involves transcribing the sentences that we hear in our heads and how this can lead to some embarrassing, but totally forgivable grammatical errors when they’re made by me. Well, another problem that can occur when writing by ear is that some times what sounds perfectly sensible to you, can sound confusing or incomprehensible to others.

Because you know what you’re trying to say and the context in which it exists, it’s easy to forget that the reader may have to rely solely on the words that you provide in order to derive meaning. That’s why really intelligent people can write some really unintelligible things, especially when in a hurry.

Considering the perspective of the reader is one of the most important things that a good copywriter will do. The more that you know about the likely reader, the better you can tailor the copy. If you assume that the reader knows more than they actually do, then these gaps in knowledge will result in confusion that will muddle the message. However, if you leak too much ink explaining simple things that the reader already knows, then the copy will seem tedious and boredom will drive them away. It’s tricky. It’s why people hire copywriters.

So how will you know if your copy means what you think it means?

In this situation, proofreading it yourself may not help to uncover any troubling sentences or unclear meaning. Better to have someone else give it a read-through for some outside perspective. Maybe you could ask Ryan – he’s never doing anything. Oh, he stands about 5’6”, can’t be over a buck-fifty and you can probably locate him in the annex with Kelly.

About this BLOG

I’ve been a professional business writer for over 20 years. It’s what I do best and I’ve learned some things along the way. I’ll share them with you here and you’ll do well. You may still want to hire me to do some writing when you’re busy doing the things that you do best. I’ll be happy to help out.

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