How to Deal with the Grammar Police with Denise Cowle

Well hello there, and welcome.Today I am joined by one of my favourite people in the world. Her name is Denise Cowle.

Denise is a freelance proofreader and copy editor based here in Scotland. While Denise’s work is primarily in the humanities and educational publishing sector, Denise does the most incredible job on her blog helping content creators just like you and me on how we can make small improvements and adjustments to our writing style, which of course has a huge impact on our ability to serve our community and our customers and our readers and all that good stuff.

How I like to think of Denise is a superhero that saves us from the grammar police. Today we’re going to be learning a little bit more about her superpowers and how we can get our hands on those. I hope you enjoy.

 

Resources Mentioned

 

How To Create A Style Guide

Sign up on Denise’s blog: http://www.denisecowleeditorial.com/blog

 
 

Connect with Denise

 
 

Transcription

 

Good, good. I’m super excited to speak to you because, like I was saying in the intro, I feel like you are the superhero that saves us from the grammar police and I’m hoping that you’re going to share some of your superpowers with us today.

How are you?

Denise:

Very well, thank you. Yes.

Chloë:

Good, good. I’m super excited to speak to you because, like I was saying in the intro, I feel like you are the superhero that saves us from the grammar police and I’m hoping that you’re going to share some of your superpowers with us today.

Denise:

I’ll do my best. That’s really kind of you to say that. I’ll do what I can.

Chloë:

I’m sure it’ll be great. The first question I had, though, was, when we met I knew you as a proofreader and copy editor, but in actual fact you started out in the health care industry, which is really quite different.

Denise:

Totally different.

Chloë:

Yeah. Could you maybe tell us about why you made that transition and what it is that you love about what you do and the gift that you share with the world?

Denise:

Sure. Well, I was in the health care profession for a long time. I was a physiotherapist for 25 years. I absolutely loved what I did, but over the last few years of that I was looking around thinking if I should have maybe a slight change of direction. At that point I was still thinking of within health care. Then it just got logistically really difficult for me to actually make it to my work on time. Some things changed in my working practice. I had three young children. It was logistically very difficult to get them all where they should be, get me there, and often do that on my own because my husband travels a lot.

It was just getting more and more difficult, more and more stressful because of the rigidity of working in a system where you’re based on appointment. There was really no flexibility. It wasn’t an option for me. After a lot of chatting with my husband, we realised that proofreading was something that I had been doing for quite a long time anyway for him. He works in sales and marketing, so I had spent years proofing marketing materials for him, catalogs, e-mails, all that sort of thing, without actually realising that was what I was doing. He said, “I actually think you would be quite good at this.” We looked into it. I thought, “Yeah, actually that looks really interesting.”

I’ve always had a strong interest in language and I’ve always read a lot. That in itself doesn’t necessarily make you a good proofreader, but I did some training, some exploratory training, and I thought, “No, actually, this is what I really enjoy doing.” I really enjoy working with words. I’ve got a really good eye for detail as it turns out. It wasn’t something I’d ever particularly realised about myself, but I notice things. I pick up small things. I like consistency in writing, so I spot where things are hyphenated one place but not in the other. Bigger picture, I’ve got an ear for helping things flow properly when they’re writing.

This has all been discovered really quite late in my life, really. What’s nice about it now is that I’ve found that and I can use it to help people with their writing. It’s worked out really well, actually.

Chloë:

Yeah. It’s such a cool journey, because it’s really like you found it from your circumstances and your lifestyle. It sounds like something that was really, really important to you and I think is important to a lot of people who start businesses or are exploring the world of entrepreneurship, is being able to create a lifestyle where what you do fits into and it’s more about who you are and how that can fit into the kind of life that you want to lead, which is really, really interesting.

You also picked up … You said a few things there which I thought were really powerful about being able to keep things consistent and fluent and having an eye for detail, things like that. They seem like skills that we all need to work on and grow, and if we can do that through our writing, or it starts with writing for you, it probably translates throughout your business. Do you find that to be the case, especially with the consistency?

Denise:

Yeah. It’s something that I think you can learn. I think there are tools that you can use to help you be consistent. In other parts of your business, you probably do use these tools, whether it’s using a tool like Buffer to be consistent in putting out your social media posts or tracker tools that are consistency things that you use in other areas. I think it’s just the thing that people maybe don’t think about applying to their writing, that there are things that you can do to help yourself be more consistent, to iron out these little ticks that you might have in your writing which you don’t notice because you’re too close to them, but somebody else, they can literally jump off the page at them.

There are different ways of making sure that you’re addressing these things without having to take up too much of your time. A lot of people really struggle with this sort of thing. It doesn’t come naturally to some people and they do need help. Sometimes it’s just pointing them in the right direction of, “Actually, have you tried this? Have you thought about that?” Not everybody needs somebody like me to come in and do it for them. Some people do, but not everybody does. There are things that you can do to make it easier on yourself.

Chloë:

Yeah. I think that’s a really good point, because I think people are scared. I know from my own experience the fear, the fear of, “I’m not a good writer.” I know when I was at school my English teacher terrified me. I was always in a good class and I always got good grades, but I am terrified to writing. I know that for a long, long time, and even now I’m hesitant of blogging or putting social media posts out there. Yesterday I put out something and I was like, “I don’t think that’s right. Do I delete it? Do I just leave it?” It was doing well so I was like…hmm.

This idea of fear I think is instilled in a lot of content creators, and it can stop them from putting it out there because they’re fearful of, like, “I can’t write well.”

Denise:

Well, exactly.

You’ve brought up a really good point there, Chloe, that often our own experience of having our writing judged is from school, and it was judged on a very strict criteria: Did it fit all the parameters that they set down for what is a good piece of writing in order to pass an exam? It didn’t necessarily encourage you to speak with your own voice, to be particularly creative, other than perhaps when you had to write a story about something. Because of the restrictions of an English curriculum, people get boxed in, and you’re very early identified either as somebody who’s good at it or somebody who isn’t.

That can stay with you for the rest of your life, which is sad, really, because I’ve seen it myself with people saying, “I can’t write,” and when you actually get them to do it, they can tell an amazing story. Now, their grammar may not be perfect, their punctuation may be all over the place, but the essence of their story is really powerful. It’s getting people to have the confidence to do that which is really important, because otherwise they’re holding back from sharing that with everybody. That goes for blogging or even writing a piece of marketing material for yourself or writing for pleasure. It’s a shame that people feel inhibited to do that.

The thing is, it doesn’t need to be absolutely perfect. I think this is the thing that people do worry about: Has it got to be every little thing absolutely perfect? If you look at some of the best writing, it breaks rules. It doesn’t all have to be perfectly grammatically correct. To be absolutely honest, a lot of the things that we learned at school that were hard and fast rules are actually just style decisions. That’s the thing I’ve learned more and more the longer I do this job, is the fewer and fewer hard and fast rules there actually are. Yes, there are some, how to structure a sentence, but even that, you can play with these things.

I think, unfortunately, on social media you get grammar trolls, the grammar police sent. They pile on every little thing, and it is really unhelpful. The sad thing is a lot of the time all they’re doing is reinforcing out-of-date things that they learned from school that their teacher had learned from school. Language is like anything else. It moves on. People shouldn’t feel bound by, “Oh, I was taught that at school, and I can’t do it, so I won’t.” It’s a shame, really.

Chloë:

Wow, yeah. That’s huge. That’s huge. One thing you said there that was like, “Whoa,” is about using our voice and being able to share that. Really that’s I guess why we’re putting out content. We’re trying to share our message and our story with the world, and that isn’t about full stops and commas and all of this. It’s more of an emotional connection that you’re trying to create with your reader.

Denise:

Yeah.

Chloë:

A lot of what you’re saying, it comes down to your mindset and how you approach the writing and how you see it, I’m guessing. Do you find that in the work that you do as well?

Denise:

Yeah, because if I work with people who struggle with this sort of thing, I encourage them to not check their work as they’re writing. I would rather that they got into the flow of it, they wrote freely about what they really want to say. Just write as it comes to you, and then we can tidy it up afterwards. If you’re too busy thinking about, “Oh, what I’ve just written there, I don’t know if that actually makes sense or if that’s the right way to say that,” it breaks your flow of thinking and it inhibits you from getting everything out.

I would always say write what it is you want to say, just get it on the paper or on the screen or whatever, and then go back and look at it. I would always advocate doing things in stages. One of the biggest things I would always say is write it and then let it breathe. Put it away, give it time. Go and do something else. I would say leave it for at least a day. I know a lot of people who like to maybe put things out quite quickly, and that’s fine, but if you’re writing stuff that you want to be out permanently, maybe on your website or anything or a blog that is going to be referred to again and again by people, you want to make sure that it sits well out there.

Give it time and then go back and use the tools at that point. Look at it with fresh eyes. Run your grammar and spell checks through it. Get somebody else to look at it. You’ll see things that you can cut. You can see things that you can change. Just giving it time to take your brain away from what it thinks it’s going to read freshens it all up and makes it easier for you to do that first stage of corrections yourself.

Chloë:

That’s so helpful. That’s so helpful. It makes a lot of sense as well, because you’re using different parts of your brain, if you think about it, like when you’re in your creative mode and you’re just trying to tell a story. Then, once you’ve had your chance to have your breath you’re able to come back and look at it from a different perspective …

Denise:

Exactly.

Chloë:

… and really hone in on, like … Because you’re thinking of it differently. You’re not then trying to tell your story. You’re just making sure that it sounds right and it’s written and you can be more analytical, I guess. That’s so, so helpful, Denise. Thank you.

One thing I did want to pick up on, you have style guide. You put out a style guide as a free ebook or PDF on your website. I know that I downloaded that and I found that really, really helpful. For people who don’t know what a style guide is and how they could use it, could you maybe talk about that just for a few moments? Because I think that’s a really great place to start.

Denise:

Sure. A style guide or a style sheet is just something that you use for your own reference which lays out how you manage certain types of things that you deal with in your writing, whether that’s how you spell certain words, which words you choose to hyphenate or not, which words you capitalise, how you deal with numbers, dates, times. Common words that appear maybe in your industry that you have difficulty spelling or you can make mistakes with, you put them on your style guide and you can refer back to them.

Because very often these decisions, there isn’t one correct answer, so whether you choose to capitalise spring and summer … if you’re in fashion it’s a spring/summer collection … or not, how you choose to write out your times of opening if you have a business that has a shop, how you deal with the numbers and the times, how you write dates, whether you spell with an -is ending or an -iz ending, again, it’s about bringing consistency to it.

The same goes if you’re writing a book. Commonly when I work on stuff that’s come from publishers it comes with a style guide that the publisher has so you know exactly the framework that you’re working in. It’s really easy for somebody to do that themselves. They just think about how they want to deal with these things. That’s what I’ve done in the ebook, is just give people pointers for what things to consider. It’s a completely individual thing. It would be tailored exactly to you. It’s just useful to refer to if you’re not sure about whether I should hyphenate that or did I spell that with a z or an s? It’s applying that consistency across everything that you put out there for public consumption.

Chloë:

Yeah. That’s so, so helpful. It always comes back to consistency, right?

Denise:

Definitely.

Chloë:

I think you’re right about the journey of the reader. You don’t want to interrupt the story. You don’t want to interrupt the flow. Because I think sometimes when you read something, it’s not even that you know what’s not right, it just interrupts your reading.

Denise:

It may not even be on a conscious level that you’re registering, it’s just that subconsciously you’re aware of these differences. The other thing to say, and I don’t like to hammer this home too much, but if you have errors and inconsistency in your written content, it can be seen as a reflection on your business. People may equate what they see as sloppiness in that sort of thing with, “Are you sloppy in other aspects of your business?” Now, it doesn’t necessarily follow just because you’re not good at that, but people make assumptions, so you want to remove any of these barrier that people might have to working with you as early as possible.

If they’re reading introductory text on your website and they see it’s got lots of errors, they’re judging you on that. Now, you might be the best in the world at what you do, but you might not get them to come past that page on your website, and that’s just a shame, really.

Chloë:

Yeah. That’s huge. It’s something I don’t think a lot of us think about, but, wow, it can impact your sales.

Denise:

Definitely.

Chloë:

It’s true. I know I do this. There’s this group of people now that don’t write in capital letters. For me, when I’m reading it on … It’s fine if it’s Twitter, I feel like it’s a thing, but when it’s on a blog or a website it really makes me think they’re not an expert on what they do, and it’s not necessarily the case.

Denise:

Yeah, and sometimes you need capital letters to guide you through a piece of written work. You do. A capital letter indicates it’s the start of a new sentence. That’s helpful to your reader for them to know that, really.

Chloë:

Absolutely, absolutely. Thank you so much, Denise. I really recommend people check out that style guide. I’ll make sure there’s a link to it because it’s so helpful and such a good starting point for people who maybe aren’t sure and just want to make these small improvements over time. As you say, consistency. If you had to sum up … You shared so much wisdom I don’t know how you’re going to do it, probably the most unfair question of all, but if you had to sum up in a tweetable, what would that be?

Denise:

Right. Well, you did prepare me for this, so you did make me think about it.

It’s really hard, isn’t it? I’ll give it a go anyway. What I thought was: Write freely and naturally, don’t check as you write, use the available tools and tricks, and then get fresh eyes on your work for a final check.

Chloë:

Wow. Boom!

Denise:

I did that again.

Chloë:

You did it. That was amazing. That was amazing. I have one final question, unprepared question, but I always end with a random question I have to think of on the spot. I don’t even know yet. If you had to write for the rest of your life either with no capitals or you could use capital letters but you weren’t allowed to use full stops, what would you pick?

Denise:

I would pick no capitals, because you need a full stop to breathe.

Chloë:

That’s true. Otherwise you’ll end up like me trying to do anything. When I’m rambling on I’m like, “Take a deep breath.”

Denise:

Exactly, exactly. You need to breathe, Chloe.

Chloë:

Perfect. Well, I know that, whether people either listen to this or watch this, they’re going to be like, “Wow, Denise knows her stuff and I need to learn some more from her.” Where can people connect with you if they want to reach out after watching or listening to this?

Denise:

They can go to my website. Do you need the address now or are you going to put it up later?

Chloë:

We’ll put the link in the comments.

Denise:

I’ve got a website, and my blog’s got lots of useful advice on exactly the sort of things that we’ve been talking about today. They can follow me on Twitter. My Twitter handle is a bit odd. It’s @dinnydaethat. That was written before I was an editor/proofreader. They’re the two main places. I’m on LinkedIn as well, but that’s a professional, rather more straightforward thing. If you want to see what I do, my website, and I tweet a lot about this sort of thing as well, so they’re the best places to connect and send me a message and say hi.

Chloë:

Perfect. Denise, you’re always engaging with people on social media, which is what I love. Always a good conversation. We’ll be sure to include all those links so that you don’t have to remember them. Thank you so much for sharing your superpowers with us. I appreciate it so much.

Denise:

You’re so welcome. Thank you for having me.

Chloë:

Thank you, and I hope you have a beautiful day and a beautiful rest of your week. I know people are going to get a ton of value from this, so, once again, thank you for coming on the show.

Denise:

Thanks, Chloe.

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