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Your job as a writer is to get your message across clearly and quickly.

One way you can sabotage communication is by laying traps for readers. They stop a reader’s flow as their eye scans over text.

Punctuation – as the name suggests – stops flow. This is why I leave out optional commas.

You can also slow down a reader’s flow when you use capital letters incorrectly. For the same reason you should never write a word entirely in capitals.

Likewise I don’t use the ‘&’ symbol – instead I write ‘and’. The exception to this rule is when the ‘&’ forms part of a company’s name.

The same applies to ‘+’.

It is also better to write out percent in full than use %. Although some newspapers, including one where I work, insists on using the symbol.

Never resort to phone text-style language in anything written for a wider audience. It isn’t funny, clever or useful.

Exclamation marks have almost no place in serious writing.Tabloids use them in headlines. You may use exclamation marks in reported speech or where they form part of a name or title.

And that’s it.

It’s no accident many newspapers and publishing companies ban exclamation marks.

They don’t add drama. They don’t improve poor writing.

Like laughing at your own jokes

Exclamation marks don’t tell readers a sentence was funny. They may tell readers a sentence was supposed to be funny. That’s quite different.

In the newspaper business, the exclamation mark is sometimes known as a shriek or screamer. This gives a clue to why they best left on the shelf.

It is often used to add emphasis to sentences. It’s versatile, you’ll see it used to show surprise, anger or joy.

Fake hysteria

The exclamation mark is the punctuation equivalent of raising your voice – maybe hysterically. Hence the name ‘shriek’.

Here’s why you should avoid them:

  • They distract readers.
  • They are an excuse for lazy writing – funny or dramatic writing doesn’t need propping up.
  • Once people start using exclamation marks, they usually overuse them – which makes writing look amateur.
  • They hint at a gushing bygone world of “what-ho Jeeves!”,  “lashings of ginger beer!” and “golly gosh!”. Your readers will wonder if they’ve stepped into a time warp.
  • They make your writing seem inauthentic.

As an editor, I told a reporter who used one in a story that was his year’s allocation gone. I was only half-joking. If you must use exclamation marks, use them rarely.

Writing great online headlines comes naturally to journalists. But you don’t need to have worked on a newspaper to make headlines sing.

Just write something that is:

  • short – cram the greatest amount of meaning into the least number of words. While there’s no strict guide to ideal word length, search engines only care about the first 64 characters. Make every word count.
  • clear – good writing is unambiguous, this is doubly important for headlines. Make them readily understood in any context.
  • straightforward – use mainly nouns and verbs. Remember your nouns will be keywords for people using search engines.
  • use simple words – short, Anglo-Saxon words are best. Everyone knows exactly what they mean and they help you cram more meaning into fewer characters.
  • active – use the active voice.
  • avoid – forms of the verb to be. Articles ‘a’, ‘an’ and ‘the’ are space wasters best left out of headlines. Use a comma, not the word ‘and’. Try not to use pronouns.
  • plain English – there are short clichéd headline words ordinary people never use – such as nix, slam, rap. It’s better to stick with everyday language.

You don’t always need to write flawless English.

Some grammar rules are optional. But others make you look dumb.

Poor grammar undermines your message. Readers will question your intelligence and professionalism. Clumsy English can stick around for a long time warning the world not to take you seriously.

Apostrophes are a danger zone for inexperienced writers. If you are not a confident writer, alarm bells should ring every time you hit the apostrophe key.

Five apostrophe errors to watch for:

1. The greengrocers’ apostrophe gets its name because handwritten shop signs often use apostrophes incorrectly. It’s unfair to single out greengrocers — the mistake is everywhere.

A greengrocers’ apostrophe happens when a writer turns a word into a plural with an apostrophe s instead of the correct plural ending.

For example: Macintoshes and PCs not Macintosh’s and PC’s.

2. It’s when you mean its.

Its is a possessive pronoun — like his or her. It’s is a compact way of writing “it is” or “it has”.

If this bothers you, make a point of writing it is out in full and never writing it’s. Alternatively try speaking the sentence and checking whether replacing its with “it is” makes sense.

And while we are on the subject, there is no such word as its’.

3. Confusing your with you’re. Your is another possessive pronoun. To check think of: his computer, her computer, its computer, your computer.

You’re is a contraction of “you are”, as in “you’re reading a column on basic grammatical errors”.

4. Muddling they’re, their and there. Another common apostrophe problem comes with “they’re” which is a shortened version of “they are”. Their is the possessive plural pronoun. As in; his computer, its computer, your computer, their computer. There is a place. It is the opposite of here. Their and there are particularly easy words to confuse when typing on a keyboard.

5. When to use who’s and whose. Another case of a possessive pronoun that doesn’t have an apostrophe being confused with a verb contraction. Think of: whose computer is that? Who’s using it?