You’d be forgiven for seeing the letters “SPaG” and thinking of one thing: that classic Friday night dinner staple, spag bol.
Sadly, though, there’s not much of a comparison to be drawn between the two. After all, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who embraces spelling, punctuation and grammar in the way they embrace a bowl of pasta and meat sauce. Unless, of course, the person in question is a copywriter like me.
I’ve only worked as a copywriter since 2014, but if you’d met me as a child you might well have guessed where my career would lead. All the signs were there early: the love of reading, the notebooks filled with stories, and – the biggest giveaway of all – a general dislike of the outdoors.
Growing older, my love of reading and writing came with a heavy burden: an acute aversion to the misplaced apostrophe. Where other people can laugh it off, or even ignore it entirely, I crumble – seeing one after the e in “strawberries” is enough to turn me off fruit salad for a year.
It’s not just apostrophes, though. It’s run-on sentences and colons where there should be semi-colons; it’s too many adverbs and not enough Oxford commas; it’s, in essence, a flat-out refusal to engage with the peculiar (and, in my opinion, delightful) whims of the English language.
All apostrophe angst aside though, my aversion to bad SPaG has proved invaluable in my time as a copywriter. Here’s why.
People pick up on errors – even when they aren’t aware of it
If you’ve ever watched a Hollywood movie where the studio has demanded re-shoots months later, you’ll know that the human eye is surprisingly good at detecting things that aren’t quite right.
In the case of the re-shoot, it’ll be an actress’s bad wig or the leading man’s new beer belly – more often than not, though, it’s a general impression of “wrongness” that leaves you feeling off-kilter. In the case of poor content, the same rules apply: sometimes we’ll spot a typo, but sometimes we’ll just get the feeling it’s been sloppily written.
In simple terms, you don’t have to be a SPaG enthusiast to pick up on bad writing. This stuff is just instinctive.
The Google algorithms are watching you…
Ah, the Google algorithm – the one thing that hangs over the head of the freelance copywriter more heavily than an unpaid invoice.
Yes, we’re all paid to engage with the intricacies of SEO. However, our knowledge of these algorithms tends to be fairly basic, mostly relating back to Google’s Panda update of 2011.
The main takeaway of this update was that Google was now seeking websites with trustworthy, accurate, original content that was rich in relevant information, and didn’t cannibalise other pages on that site. As referenced in this blog by Google whiz Amit Singhal – and this is the bit to pay attention to – the update came with the message that “spelling, stylistic, or factual errors” must be avoided at all costs.
While the odd typo is unlikely to send your page into the deep, dusty vaults of the SERPs, if you make bad SPaG a habit you can definitely expect Google to notice.
Sloppy writing can (quite literally) send the wrong message
Cast your mind back to the Christmas of 2004 and you might remember that the must-have stocking-stuffer was a non-fiction book entitled “Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation”. The book captured the public imagination with its wry take on the modern state of the English language; at its heart was a particularly memorable example of misleading punctuation that gave the book its name.
What I’m getting at is that the English language is a fickle beast, defined by complex rules that have left it vulnerable to easy misinterpretation. Insert a comma in the wrong place, mistakenly use a homophonic spelling for the word you really want, or even miss a capital letter (“Polish” means something very different from “polish”) and you can send your reader entirely the wrong message. In sales copy, that is really bad news.
You’re leading by example
If there’s one thing we can all agree on, it’s that the English language is not easy to master. By keeping your own copywriting standards high, you’ll be putting good spelling, punctuation and grammar out into the world – and the more of that people consume, the better their English language skills become.
Good SPaG, in other words, is a copywriter’s gift to humanity… along with hyperbole.