You’ve Got Questions About Web Content. We’ve Got Answers!
Ask and ye shall receive! Here are the answers to the questions we get asked the most about content. Hopefully they answer some of the questions weighing on your mind! But if you’ve got a question that we didn’t answer here, please feel free to fill out the contact form on this page or call us at 888-886-0939.
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What topics should I write about for my estate planning website?
Content-packed websites are a great solution for estate planning attorneys because there is often so much information to communicate to your clients and potential clients. Featuring a mix of in-depth educational content, quick answers, and interesting guidance actually saves you time in the long run, while still helping engage and convert the people who visit your site.
At Foster Web Marketing, we are big believers in planning out content strategies ahead of time. When you have a content plan, you have a roadmap that will help you cover all the most important topics in ways that make sense for you and your website’s users. Whether you are building up all your content from scratch with a new website or just auditing an older site’s content, here are some suggestions for topics that will help you accomplish your goals.
Step One: Cover All the Basics
Your first priority is to provide basic top-level content targeted toward your perfect clients. This means providing answers to the most basic questions that they may have about who you are, what you can do for them, and what they can expect from you.
Think about this content as the “bones” of your site. What kinds of information do you expect to see on an estate planning website? What are the most common questions you hear from clients? What kinds of general information would be helpful to link back to when you need to talk about more complicated or specific issues?
Not sure what we mean? Here is an example of what a plan for top-level topics on an estate planning website might look like:
- Wills. What is a will? What are the types of wills? Can my spouse and I draft a joint will? What happens if you die without a will? How can I execute a will? How should I pick an executor? What does an executor do?
- Advance directives. What is a durable power of attorney and who should hold mine? What is a living will? What is a health care proxy? Do I need a DNR (do not resuscitate) order?
- Trusts. What is a trust? What are the types of trusts? What are the benefits of a trust? Do I need a trust if I have a will? What do I need to know before naming a trustee? Do trustees need attorneys?
- Special needs trusts. What is a special needs trust? What should I consider if my adult child needs a guardian? Can I use a special needs trust for a spouse with special needs?
- Gifts. What is the maximum gift I can give without being taxed? How does the Uniform Gifts to Minors Act work? What is the Uniform Transfers to Minors Act?
- Probate. What is probate? How long does probate take in your state?
- Litigation. How can I challenge a will? Who can challenge a will? What can I do if I have been unintentionally left out of a loved one’s will? How do courts decide on ambiguous wording in a will?
- Estate taxes. When is an estate taxed? What is the generation-skipping transfer tax? What is a step-up in basis?
- General. Why should I work with an estate planner? What is the fee arrangement? What documents do I need to bring to our meeting?
As you can see, we’ve first broken our ideas into major topic areas, then into questions that can be answered in individual articles under the major topic. To apply this method to your own website, sit down and determine your major topic areas, then write out the kinds of questions you need to answer. Plan articles that will answer each of those questions, and schedule them on your content calendar.
Don’t worry if it takes months to create and publish everything you need at this stage because the investment is worth the timeline. Ultimately, all of this is “evergreen” content that will be useful and relevant on your site for years to come.
Step Two: Give Them Something Extra
Once the basic topics are established, you can do a little research to further flesh out your content.
One great way to do this is to do a Google search for a generic term related to your practice, like “estate planning law.” This gives you several options for developing topics. First, you can look at competitors’ sites that rank highly and see what kinds of content they currently offer, as well as what more education-based sites (like Wikipedia) might have to offer when your potential clients perform a search. Google also gives you several options for digging deeper right on the search page.
First, you will see a “People Also Ask” box on the search page:
Second, you will see a “People Also Search For” box as you click through results:
Third, near the bottom of the results, you will see some suggested related searches:
What all of that means is that, with a single Google search, you get essentially four different springboards for content ideas.
Still Need Help Coming Up With Content Topics for Your Estate Planning Website?
Ultimately, there are lots of ways to come up with new topics and ideas for content, and lots of those methods will work for anyone in any industry. Learn more about how to find topics for online content.
Are you concerned about being able to do it all yourself? Do you need help planning a content strategy or writing online content to fit your perfect clients’ needs? You can always contact us today to talk about our coaching and content-writing services and how that might fit into your overall marketing plan.
How can I use my website's content to build trust with potential clients?
When potential clients search for an attorney or doctor online, they are usually confronted with a problem and confused about whom they can trust. That means that the content you choose to feature on your website—and how that content is presented—can have a big impact when someone needs your help.
Does your content make you seem trustworthy? Are you offering what your potential clients need? Here’s how to make sure the content on your website is ready to make a positive impression.
Trustworthy Online Content Brings Potential Clients Through Your Door
Trust converts. Even Google has urged businesses to pay attention to what motivates potential clients when they search for answers online. If you are looking to establish your credibility and build trust with your online visitors, here are some things your online content should offer:
- Helpful answers. Most of your potential clients will find you because they had a question and typed it into a search engine. Think about the most common questions you hear from new clients, and put yourself in your potential clients’ shoes. Create content that provides answers and points readers toward the next step. If you can provide helpful and relevant answers to their questions, then they will be more likely to trust you and turn to you for advice. You’ll also be more likely to show up in search results for people who need your help.
- Relevant video. Don’t underestimate the power of video content! This is your chance to let clients know that you are a real human being who is available to them if they need help. Videos can do a lot to show clients what your brand is all about, who you are, and how you can help them solve their problems. With videos, you can get a lot across to viewers in a short amount of time, which is especially great for mobile users.
- An idea of what to expect. Many potential clients who are facing legal or medical troubles are anxious about what to expect and how long it might be until they see some resolution. Offering this information up front can go a long way toward making your potential clients feel more comfortable and in control. Let them know what your first meeting might be like. Show photographs of your office and staff. Explain what they might need to bring with them or what they might be expected to do. Explain your payment policies. Let them know what kind of timeline to expect. Being straightforward and transparent with your potential clients from the start helps them feel at home and positions you as a trustworthy professional.
- Prompt responses. You need to be quick to respond online because people won’t wait around. Your content pages should load quickly, both on desktop and mobile. If a current event or change in the law is making waves in your community, providing more information and immediate responses to questions can establish you as the authority to turn to with legal problems. If someone reaches out to you after reading your online content, you should be there to answer him. Let people know that you are paying attention and that you are there for them exactly when they need you.
Finishing Touches That Keep Potential Clients Engaged and Coming Back for More
How you present your content matters, too. Make sure that you write with the reader in mind. Make your content easy to scan and understand. Break up “text walls” with headlines and relevant images, and make sure everything looks great on the page. Your most important content should be easy to navigate to from your homepage, and it should also be easy to get to related content on your website. Overall, aim to create a positive user experience on your website that lets your potential clients know that you care about them.
If you’re a DSS user, you’re probably already taking advantage of our sidebar modules that point readers toward relevant content. For example, if someone finds an article on your website about truck accidents, they’ll also see suggestions for related content:
There are also several ways to include in-text links that point readers toward other information on your website that helps clarify or expand on the ideas you’ve presented:
Connecting relevant content on your website helps establish your authority and lets readers know that you have much more to offer.
The more you allay fears, show your human side, and demonstrate your expertise in your online content, the more likely it is that your potential clients will feel at ease and trust in your legitimacy. If you need help writing attorney website content that establishes your credibility, contact our digital content experts for guidance or sign up for a free marketing analysis.
How do I develop a digital content strategy?
Stop writing online content just for content’s sake! You need a plan if you want to succeed.
Google has been clear that it is looking for online content that is:
- Useful and informative.
- More valuable than the content on other sites.
- Credible and high quality.
- Engaging for readers.
If you aren’t hitting the mark with your online content, then your search rankings will suffer. The good news is that you can avoid problems by planning a content strategy to help you better provide exactly what Google and your online audience want. Then, add an organized calendar that keeps you on track toward your content marketing goals. That’s it! You’re ready to create more effective content for the Web.
What Is a Content Strategy?
A content strategy is simply a plan for how and why your content will be created and managed.
It may seem like a daunting task, but it doesn’t have to be as hard as it sounds. We like to break it down into a few simple steps so you can start laying the groundwork for your content strategy right away:
- Identify your perfect client. What kinds of clients and cases are you trying to attract? Who is your target audience? If you aren’t sure who you’re writing for, you can’t create an effective strategy to attract them. Want to get started? Find out how to identify your perfect client.
- Define your goals. Why are you creating content? What do you want to achieve? Some examples of common content goals include brand awareness, increasing traffic, generating leads, converting leads into clients, improving client retention, or driving new referrals. Putting a laser focus on your goals and your perfect client are the two most important things you can do for your marketing.
- Develop list of topics. The topics that you write about should be important to you and your perfect client. Think about common questions and things you’d like your potential clients to know before they meet with you. Not sure where to get ideas? Find out how to find topics for online content.
- Document your strategy. Write down your goals, topic ideas, and vision of your perfect client or clients. Keep an ongoing content calendar—we’ll walk you through that below—to help keep you on track. Check your progress by gathering and analyzing hard data on content performance. As you continue to plan ahead and adjust your content strategy, this kind of documentation will be worth its weight in gold.
Once you know what you want to achieve and why, it’s time to create a content calendar to make it all happen.
How to Create a Content Calendar to Support Your Digital Content Strategy
We recommend that you start by developing a three-month content strategy and creating a content calendar that contains all this information in one place. To help you get started, here’s an example content calendar for a personal injury attorney:
Having a pre-planned content calendar lets everyone on your team know what’s happening and when. It helps keep you organized and focused, and it streamlines the content creation process. The bonus is that it’s also easy to go back and see what you’ve covered in the past and what you need to do in the future.
You content calendar should include:
- Monthly topic themes. Choose one or more general or “big picture” topics to focus on for each month of the plan, which you’ll support with more focused individual pieces. You should also choose an appropriate call to action to use throughout the month to help encourage your readers to take the next step.
- A list of individual content pieces to support monthly topics. Variety is the spice of your online content marketing. Keep your readers engaged by creating different types of content that support your monthly theme. Decide how many pieces of content you’d like to create each month, and come up with detailed topics for each one. Along with your blog posts and website articles, you should also include a plan for any other content you plan to create during the month, such as email or print newsletters, drip campaigns, email blasts, and guest posts.
- Planned publish dates. Decide on publication dates for each piece of your content. We recommend that you schedule content evenly throughout the month so that you are consistently releasing new content and encouraging repeat visits. This is also the time to determine if and when your content will be shared on social media sites.
Once you have a strategy and calendar in place, it’s time to start writing. Be sure that you always aim to write original, interesting content that you’d want to read if you were in your potential clients’ shoes. Don’t forget to proofread and edit your content before publishing to the Web!
Do you need help planning or creating online content that will wow your perfect client and boost your success? Start by signing up for a free marketing analysis that will help you identify what’s working, what’s not, and how to create a better strategy for the future.
How can I create better website content to attract the patients I want?
Most medical professionals who develop websites want content that attracts the perfect patient and presents their practices in a positive light. They want content that sounds professional, yet personable, and they want their staff to appear knowledgeable and skilled. Writing in a way that accomplishes those goals can be challenging and requires language that “hooks” a potential patient and keeps him reading about your professional intelligence and expertise.
Because people come to your website seeking information, you want to provide content that offers that information in a clear and understandable way. If potential patients are confused by your content, they may be less inclined to contact you for an appointment. Writing in a way that builds trust and showcases your experience can help attract the patients you want most.
Content That Attracts Potential Patients to Your Website and Keeps Them Reading
Here are some important points to help you provide content that attracts potential patients to your website and keeps them on the page long enough to read your material:
- Remember that the attention span of the average person is eight seconds. Like most people, web users want to find information quickly, so you want your content to get to the point. Put the most critical information up front, and leave the details for later.
- Make it personal. Tailor your message to your perfect patients. For example, if you’re targeting people with diabetes, be sure your headline and subheads pose a question or address an issue that diabetics may be dealing with.
- Use the ‘less is more’ rule. When people search for information about a medical condition, they don’t need a lot of content—they just want the ‘right’ content. Avoid presenting an overload of generic medical content or a ‘wall of text’ that makes it a challenge to read through. Use short, focused pieces of text that present your information in small, readable chunks.
- Use bullet lists. Help your website visitor stay on your page by giving information in quick, brief statements that capture a specific point in a clear, succinct way.
- Use headlines to your advantage. Speak to your desired patient. Pose a hypothetical question or address common issues. Use your headlines and subheadings to capture the readers’ attention by letting them quickly know, “What’s In It For Me?”
What Not to Do
You can also keep a potential patient on your website and interested in your content by avoiding certain techniques, including:
- Being clever or anecdotal. Telling long stories, being cute or clever, or providing unrelated information are sure ways to lose your website visitor.
- Using jargon and complicated medical terms. You want to educate your website visitors, but be sure you’re not talking over their heads. Write to potential patients the way you would speak to them in your office if they were your patient.
- Using too much background information. Stay away from text that gives broad background information or long narratives that bury the point or never get to it.
Writing for Your Perfect Patient
Some medical professionals want to attract a generic set of patients; but most want to attract their perfect patient. Ideally, your website should speak to those people directly. The words you choose and the approach you take in presenting yourself and your practice are critical in keeping potential patients at your website and turning them into actual patients.
If you’d like more information on how we’ve helped many medical professionals provide effective website content, feel free to browse our testimonials page.
You keep nattering on about how bad grammar and spelling in website content hurt my business. Where’s your proof?
The road to success is littered with the broken remains of companies that couldn’t finish the trip. When you pick through the rubble of their websites, you’ll see horrible misspellings, tortured word choices, and grammar that doesn’t belong in any English sentence. It’s obvious that most of this wretched website wreckage wasn’t made in the United States, and that the webmasters tried nefarious SEO techniques to attract customers.
So much effort wasted to so little effect. Makes you sad, doesn’t it?
Even if we gave you names of some of the companies, medical practices, and law firms that failed, that’s not the sort of evidence you want, is it? Anecdotes are fine for stories told around the campfire, but proof comes in the form of scientific results that anyone can reproduce. The question is, do we have the evidence you want, or not?
Yeah, we’ve got it. Pull up a campstool, Bucky. This will take a little bit of time.
A Proof by Counterexample
Bad grammar and incomprehensible spelling usually don’t draw a big fan club. Frankly, it’s not believable that website readers have been sending feedback to complain, “Oh, man, this site is far too informative, helpful, and clearly written! We demand more incomprehensible bilge, like we get from your competitors!” Our experience has been that when a business owner starts complaining about the burdens of good word usage, that’s a sign that some other game is being played.
You can bet that “other game” is about money.
Now, we know that good grammar and interesting, informative content really doesn’t cost any more than weak and incoherent gibberish. Your staff members can learn to write fantastic content as part of their regular job duties. But money can become part of the equation when an unethical web marketer tries to sell a bargain package to a naive business owner. The long-term result is always unfortunate for the business.
So if you’re really asking for our permission to neglect all ethical considerations and try to fool Google into giving you a leading placement in search engine results, we have one answer: it’s your business. We don’t get a vote, and you don’t need our permission. If you manage to prosper over the next year or two, please come back and tell us about it; you definitely will have beaten the odds.
Do you really feel like wagering the future of your business on one roll of the dice? If so, we wish you good luck.
Globo Lingo Captures Evidence From the Field
But we promised you hard data, and we haven’t forgotten that promise.
Hard data’s not so easy to come by, as you’ve probably realized. We can’t do double-blind testing because we can’t set up two identical law firms or podiatry clinics or some other company, create two complementary websites, and test whether good grammar attracts and retains more business. We can’t even create two websites—one grammatical, one not—for one company, because the existence of the “bad” site will potentially skew search engine results and contaminate the data.
But about a year ago, one company, Globo Lingo, figured out a way to extract some valid statistics in a real-world social experiment. Although news links change over time, you still may be able to find contemporary news reports of the experiment. Globo Lingo’s researchers found that 59 percent of its participants would be less likely to use a service or product if there were obvious grammatical or spelling mistakes on its website or marketing materials.
Fifty-nine percent. Much more than half. If this were an election, they’d be calling it a landslide.
Now, the study wasn’t perfect. The sample size was fairly small (just over a thousand people). Globo Lingo is a translation service based in the United Kingdom, so perhaps its results don’t translate perfectly to U.S.-based business websites. But we probably can trust the overall direction of the results—the qualitative data—because they align so well with what we’d expect based on reasoning and the real-world anecdotes in case after case.
Don’t Buy Pandora’s Box
If someone is trying to sell you on a marketing system based on promises that grammar, spelling, and even content itself doesn’t matter, think again. Remind him that anecdotes don’t count. Demand to see his hard evidence and statistics before you pick up that black hat.
High-quality content writing is easier than it looks, and a bargain at almost any price. Why? Because your website content is at the heart of your marketing strategy. You’ve heard us say it time and again: Content is king, and there are no signs of an abdication any time in the near future.
Don’t just take my word for it: read what the best minds in the marketing business have to say. Take the time to download our FREE book, The Foster Web Marketing Clients’ Guide to Great Content. It may change your life; it certainly will open your eyes to possibilities you haven’t considered before.
Who gets to decide what proper usage and grammar is? You? Why should I believe YOU?
In America, we have a proud and defiant tradition of resisting authority. It’s not at all obvious that you should obey the instructions of some “cranky grammarian” just because he has a regular forum for his views.
In fact, this question—“Who gets to decide about grammar?”—has been the center of the target in a long-standing dispute about language: the conflict between prescriptivism and descriptivism. This struggle is mostly waged in academic halls, but now and then, it engages public attention, often when dictionaries issue new editions.
- Descriptivists argue that dictionaries and grammar guides should collect the way the people actually use words, without making judgments about correctness. In their view, it’s perfectly okay—valuable, even—for a dictionary to include the word ain’t, or to add the latest popular Internet slang, or to say that one meaning of the word literally is “figuratively or metaphorically,” because those are all examples of how English is truly used. In summary: English is a living language that constantly changes, and we must adapt to today’s words, meanings, and grammar.
- Prescriptivists believe that dictionaries and other reference works have an obligation to mark the acknowledged boundaries of English by pointing out when usage isn’t considered standard. Sure, prescriptivists say, languages change over time, but if something is not yet fully accepted as conventional English, it’s important to tell potential users that a word may be obsolete; limited to a region, dialect, or subculture; slang; or roundly rejected by a panel of usage experts.
Steps Beyond the Dictionary
Every dictionary will express its editor’s viewpoint on the prescriptivism vs. descriptivism debate. But English is more than the static word lists trapped in dictionaries. For grammar and usage, the equivalent references are the stylebooks maintained by various publishing organizations. Many newspapers, for instance, follow the rules of the Associated Press Stylebook. The University of Chicago publishes the Chicago Manual of Style, which is widely used in the book publishing industry. Many academic papers follow the rules established by the Modern Language Association (MLA). I’ve always been partial to the U.S. Government Printing Office Style Manual.
You know what? Each of these sets of rules flatly contradicts all the others at one point or another. And yet the editors of each stylebook can cite a long list of historical examples to show that esteemed authors preferred the usage rules this book favors. We have a case of many emperors issuing contradictory laws: the result is anarchy.
Does the English Language Exist?
So, what does it mean when the very best experts we can find can’t agree on how words should be defined and used? I think that we can draw three important conclusions:
- There’s no such thing as definitive English. No one individual—nope, not even a grumpy content editor for the best U.S. web marketing company—has the exclusive right to determine what is or is not good grammar and usage.
- Nevertheless, chaos does not rule. Most people who have made a serious study of English will agree on the rules of grammar most of the time. You can make an analogy with a map of a partially explored land. Some of the borderlands may be fuzzy, but there really is a discrete English language that is our common heritage.
- In the end, English belongs to its users. If you’re a writer with a special fondness for run-on sentences, then you’re free to use them and to garner support from other writers. Perhaps you’ll be so persuasive that run-ons will become conventional English usage a generation from now. Perhaps you’ll be dismissed as a crackpot. But it’s your language, your freedom of expression, and your opportunity to try to rewrite the rules.
Ultimately, then, those are my credentials too. I’m a writer, a lover of English, and someone who has taken the time to study grammar and usage enough to be able to teach others. I will necessarily be taking stands on issues that do not have universal agreement. Readers who disagree are welcome to respond by adding comments to blog postings, clicking on my contact information, or by reaching out to the Foster Web Marketing content team by phone or email. We always welcome the vigorous and lively exchange of viewpoints.
I believe that many of the people visiting my business website have weak reading skills. What’s the most important thing I can do TODAY to make them feel at home?
We’ll get to the answer to that question in just a moment, but first: a test. Grab a piece of scrap paper and a pen or pencil. I’m serious. Do it now, before you read any farther.
There will be some mathematics involved, but you are not allowed to use a calculator.
This is a high-stakes test, too. If you don’t pass it, you’re probably not going to get any value out of this essay. In fact, there’s a good chance you’re learning the wrong lessons from every page you’ve been reading on this site.
You have only thirty seconds. Time starts…now.
- Write down the number 12. This is the first number in the series.
- The rule for writing down the next number is as follows: double the current number, then add one.
- As quickly as you can, write down the next three numbers in the series. Hurry up! Your time is running out.
- Finally: circle all the even numbers you wrote down. How many numbers did you circle?
What This Test Reveals
As you will already have deduced, the purpose of the test is not to grade your ability with arithmetic. Although, come to mention it, if you circled more than one number—the starting number, 12—then you made a mistake somewhere; all the subsequent numbers must be odd, not even. No, the purpose of the test is to push you a little off-balance and then make you complete a task under stressful circumstances.
So, to ratchet up the stress, we told you that the test would be about mathematics—probably not your strongest skill area—and then hinted that the level of math might be challenging (“you are not allowed to use a calculator”). We said you only get half a minute to finish, and then reinforced this with commands to work even faster. And we told you directly that successful completion would have profound implications for your future success (and I don’t think that was too much exaggeration, as we shall see).
Did you feel anxious? A little sweat on your palms? Good. That was the purpose of your test.
This Is What Your Clients Experience When They Visit Your Website
Let’s be honest here: many people hate to read. A widely quoted figure is that about 15 percent of the adult U.S. population is fully literate, roughly equal to a college undergraduate level. Another 20 percent or so are functionally illiterate. That leaves a huge majority, on the order of 65 percent of all adults, who can read at a lower level if they must, but who prefer to avoid reading when possible.
These are your potential clients and customers.
Only desperation could drive such a person to your website for information. Only a driving need to know something in your area of expertise could make a non-reader force himself through the agony of puzzling out the text on your site. These people crucially need answers to potentially life-changing questions, such as:
- Do I have to lose my life savings to pay for my medical care after the accident?
- Will I be going to prison?
- Is it cancer?
- Will I ever walk again?
- Can my husband walk out and leave me and the kids penniless?
- Will my husband be okay in the nursing home?
- Will my deadbeat brother-in-law take over my business after I’m gone?
The analogy between the stress suffered by readers looking for answers to life’s gravest problems and the stress that you felt when suddenly hijacked into a math test isn’t perfect; it’s only suggestive. But if, right now, you do not feel compassion for your website users who are attempting the hardest thing they know—reading—in order to find the help they thirst for, then you’re numb to the purpose of your website and your marketing plan. If you don’t have empathy for these forlorn and despairing people, they will soon scatter off to your competitors.
Step One: Leave No Acronym Unexplained
The first step when dealing with lower-skilled readers is to give them every bit of help they may need. That means you must offer them help with reading, along with offering to help them with their problems. If they can’t understand your website, how will they decide to hire you?
We have written elsewhere about how a great marketing writer will take pains to explain professional jargon in context in order to strengthen communication. Now take that one step further, and look at the common abbreviations and acronyms that are used in your line of work. Every page on your website on which that term appears must explain what it stands for: not only by giving a word-by-word description, but also by telling the reader why this term is so important and so often used that it has a short form.
For example, if you are an attorney who frequently deals with disability cases, you probably explain on your home page or practice area landing page that SSDI stands for the Social Security Disability Insurance program. That’s good, but not good enough. You cannot guarantee that a new reader will land on one of those pages the first time he visits your site; indeed, those pages may not be among the first dozen he encounters. If you leave him bewildered, he will seek out another lawyer, one more helpful. So don’t let that happen: explain every abbreviation and every acronym in context the first time you use it on every webpage.
I would actually go one step farther and suggest you don’t use routine abbreviations at all. Write Avenue instead of Ave., November instead of Nov., and Tuesday instead of Tue. Show your readers that you are willing to take pains and want to meet them more than halfway to make sure your message gets through. That’s never a bad marketing strategy.
If you found this article thought-provoking, please take the time to read more of our collected pieces on writing professional web content. You may wish to begin with our related articles referenced on this page.
Is it okay to start a sentence with a conjunction?
For years and years, English teachers at elementary and middle schools across the United States would have been astonished by that question. Mrs. Beedle, my fourth grade teacher, would have turned from the blackboard to glare at any student who asked such an absurd thing. (Yeah, blackboards were still being used when I went to school.)
“Of course you may not begin a sentence with a conjunction,” she would have snapped. “Why, the very idea!”
We believed her. Back then, we trusted Mrs. Beedle. We loved how she could explain the rules of English so there were always definite answers, in crisp black and white, with no ambiguity whatsoever. Grammar was rational, comforting, and precise, while the real world was messy and complicated. And Mrs. Beedle was our guide to that land of certainty.
I’m sure some of my classmates went on to become English teachers themselves, and they taught their students the lessons Mrs. Beedle gave us, and their students’ students passed on the same message to later generations. Chief among those lessons was the prohibition against starting a sentence with a conjunction.
But Mrs. Beedle was wrong.
English Contains More Myths Than the Land of Oz Does
In plain fact, most of us have been taught from a very early age certain “rules” of English usage—syntax rules, as they are called by grammar experts—that aren’t legitimate rules at all. We’re talking about rules such as these:
- Never end a sentence with a preposition.
- Never split an infinitive.
- Sentences in the passive voice should always be revised to include active verbs.
- A conjunction may never begin a sentence.
- A paragraph must be at least three sentences long.
No widely respected modern guide to syntax endorses these principles. Even though most publishers and media outlets still discourage using the passive voice, nobody bars it completely from their publications. These rules-that-aren’t-really-rules linger on, however, because they are still passed down between generations in schools and in popular (mis)understanding of what constitutes fine writing and speaking.
Let’s take a close look at what are called the seven coordinating conjunctions: and, but, for, nor, or, so, and yet. These are the words that join or connect two or more items.
Thanks to the popularity of the Schoolhouse Rock animated educational videos, millions of Americans know that the purpose of conjunctions is “hooking up words and phrases and clauses.” That tune never mentions that the coordinating conjunctions can also link up independent sentences. Of course, we know that you can always take two sentences, change the final period of the first to a comma, add “and,” and attach the second sentence to form a compound sentence. But is it really, truly okay for two separate sentences to exist where the second one begins with a coordinating conjunction?
It sure is. People have been doing it since at least the tenth century. Classical and contemporary authors with impeccable credentials have begun sentences with and, but, and or, and nobody has complained. It’s not clear from the historical record when the notion arose that beginning sentences with a conjunction is not to be tolerated. The majority of top usage authorities for each generation has accepted conjunctions at the start of sentences.
There is another class of conjunctions, called subordinating conjunctions, which are clearly designed to show connections and relationships between clauses. Among the subordinating conjunctions are the words although, because, if, since, unless, until, when, whether, and while. Your own familiarity with English should make it easy for you to recognize that these words can be used at the start of sentences. Nobody objects to them there.
However, there is one special rule that applies whenever a conjunction (of either sort) starts a sentence: the conjunction shouldn’t be followed immediately by a comma. Consider these examples:
- A car accident can cause terrible injuries to your bones, joints, and soft tissues. And, unless you act quickly, you may end up paying for the hospital bill even if someone else was responsible for the wreck.
- Diabetic nerve pain is a difficult problem to manage. But, with the care and attention of our team at the Coeur d’Alene Clinic, you can be assured prompt attention to your changing medical condition.
- Are you content to save for your retirement by adding a dollar or two to your savings account whenever you think about it? Or, do you need a systematic investment plan to ensure a secure retirement income for your golden years?
In each case, that comma after the conjunction disrupts the connective function that and, but, and or so ably provide. This is one of those places where you need to take special care not to let extra commas creep into your writing. The exception, of course, is when the phrase right after the conjunction is not essential to the main meaning of the sentence. Consider the final sentence in our examples above, which would normally be correctly written without commas: “Or do you need a systematic investment plan to ensure a secure retirement income for your golden years?” Add an additional clause that isn’t vital to the main thought, though, and you will need commas to set it off: “Or, like so many other people your age, do you need a systematic investment plan to ensure a secure retirement income for your golden years?”
One last issue before we close. I notice some of you grumbling already that when sentences begin with “However,” the word is invariably followed by a comma. “How are you gonna explain that, Mr. Smarty-Pants?” you ask.
Here’s how: many people assume that however is a conjunction because it seems to be an exact synonym for but. But Mrs. Beedle, my fourth grade teacher, taught that however is an adverb—specifically, a conjunctive adverb—and, like other sentence adverbs, it must be followed by a comma when it starts a sentence.
The byways of English can be awfully tricky, even for experienced writers. To hold the attention of visitors to your professional, legal, or medical website, you need to write informative and interesting text that is expressed clearly, grammatically… and sometimes, artfully.
Like it or not, content is king for Internet marketing, as we have told you time and again. Reach out to Foster Web Marketing if you need help generating excellent content or if you’re interested in our content writing service for business professionals. We can educate your team or provide work written to your specifications. Even Mrs. Beedle would approve.
I’ve hired a proofreader to look over the website content I write. What next?
Good for you! We have done our best to stress that an editor or proofreader is an essential resource for maintaining a professional website. You need someone who is good with the nuances of expository writing, of course, but this also must be a person whose judgment you trust. Week after week, as you add new content to your web pages, your proofreader should review each piece for grammar, spelling, and usage irregularities before it goes live for all the world to see.
You’re at the Controls of the Conveyor Belt
As the owner or manager of a law firm, medical practice, or professional business, getting the proofreader or editor in place is the last essential step in creating a website content machine. Members of your staff—possibly even you, yourself—will evaluate the needs of your potential client base and write engaging, informative articles that address those interests. Your editor will review the work and make any changes needed. Then, using Foster Web Marketing’s revolutionary Dynamic Self-Syndication (DSS) software, you can arrange for new articles to go live at the exact time and day that suits your business schedule.
Regular publication of informative website content is a proven method of maintaining reader interest in your site and brand, as well as a way to attract attention from major search engines. A dynamically growing business website often earns a higher placement on search engine results pages. Of course, a higher search engine score tends to drive more readers your way, which also improves your Google ranking. This positive feedback loop can propel your brand recognition upward as long as you maintain steady publication of excellent, relevant content from your office.
Another Use for Your Proofreader: Implement a Quality Check System
Of course, when your proofreader or editor signed on to the mission, the flight was already underway. You already had content published on your website—maybe a lot of content. Is it helping you or hurting you? Just as great content can establish your dominance over your competitors, weak or inferior writing can drive away potential clients and customers.
Beginning in the early spring of 2014, Foster Web Marketing became a program of taking a second look at material that had already been written and published for our partners. Under our new Quality Check program, an editor is assigned to look at the custom web content that has been published over the past three months for a particular client. The objective: search for patterns of errors in grammar, idiom, topic development, and word use that had been overlooked by the original writers and editors. The reviewing editor will produce an extensive report of any defects found, carefully highlighting any areas where similar mistakes have regularly been made.
Of course, this report is just a first step in the process. A report is useless if it’s not read and not used as a tool for action. Following up on the Quality Check, the management team in charge of that client’s website—in conjunction with the current writers and editor—will assess the report’s conclusions. They are responsible for developing an action plan to make sure patterns of errors do not repeat in the future. The older content that was identified as flawed will be evaluated, and either revised to meet English standards or replaced with new content.
Even small businesses can adapt the Quality Check process to assure that old content does not linger on the website when it’s no longer useful. Turn your new editor loose on your old website content and see what errors he can find. The results may surprise you; but if you follow through on making improvements to or discarding stale content, the strength of the reader response to your freshened web content may startle you even more.
A Quality Check may even be used as an annual event. Just remember that, for best results, you will want a different proofreader or editor to conduct the review process each year. Editors, as much as writers, become used to overlooking the errors they have made in the past, so you need a fresh set of eyes to look at the old material without preconceptions.
There Are Always New Ways to Innovate
Until now, the Foster Web Marketing Quality Check has been a process we’ve refined for our own use in maintaining this site and refining our work for our partners. Now that we know it works, we’re happy to share this idea with others.
You’ve told me that I need a proofreader for my website content. Why can’t I do it myself?
You deserve congratulations if you’re writing the content for your own business or professional website. It can be a daunting task, and—at least at the outset—there is a lot of anxiety in working outside your usual field. But maintaining a regular schedule of publishing informative, useful material for potential customers remains one of the best ways to attract and convert new clients. Kudos to you!
By all means, make the time to re-read what you have written before it’s published online. You may find an inelegant phrase, or a place where adding a few words can add enormous clarity. But our experience suggests that you should not be the sole editor or proofreader for your own writing.
It’s important to bear in mind that proofreading is not a quest for perfection. There are many pathways a writer can take to get to a desired destination, and editing does not select the “best” route. Instead, the revision process is designed to catch errors in grammar, spelling, usage, and diction before the work is published for its intended audience.
And, since we’re on the topic, the quest for writing perfection is an impossible goal anyway. People make mistakes. Those mistakes range from simple typing errors to habitual misuse of certain words. Your proofreader is there to catch these mistakes and patch them up before your work goes live.
There’s One Thing You Always Write Wrong. This Is Mine.
Even people with extraordinary talent for writing prose may have a handful of problem areas. Perhaps you find it difficult to remember when to use a semicolon, or you may forget when to use a dash rather than a hyphen, or you may be stumped whenever you need to choose between “effect” and “affect.”
My big problem has always been dealing with the words lay, lie, laid, and lain. I’m clear on lie when it means to tell a falsehood, but when the discussion turns to setting objects on surfaces or reclining one’s body on a sofa, I throw my hands in the air. I flip between reference book pages for a good ten minutes before I write down the word I think is right, but I’m never really confident in my choice.
So that’s the first reason why I need an editor to review my work (and you do, too): Chances are, you too have a persistent mental block when it comes to using some words or punctuation. Your proofreader is your reassurance that a silly mistake won’t be released to the disdain of the general public. Because of that mental block, you can’t be trusted to proofread your own writing, any more than I can effectively proofread my own work.
Your Errors Are Invisible (But Only to You)
Another reason why an independent proofreader is vital is that you cannot be trusted to spot your own mistakes on the screen or the printed page. You know too well what you intended to write, and your eyes will just skip past that point where you typed it’s instead of its. A proofreader doesn’t bring any preconceptions to the document, so he can spot those errors readily.
Spell Check and Grammar Check? Don’t Make Me Laugh.
Software has become amazingly sophisticated in my lifetime. Nevertheless, computer software doesn’t compare to an intelligent mind in correcting spelling, grammar, and usage mistakes. Spell checking programs don’t really understand language, so they can’t catch many word substitutions—podcast instead of podiatrist, for instance—that might show up in your text. Grammar checking software doesn’t appreciate the meaning of the words it scans, so it ends up reporting trivial errors such as split infinitives rather than conceptual mistakes. At least for the current decade, proofreading demands the concentrated attention of another human being.
Getting the Editorial Help You Need
One of the great benefits of Foster Web Marketing’s content management system, Dynamic Self-Syndication, is that it gives you complete control over your professional website. You can extend your online presence at any time, to whatever breadth you desire. At the same time, you assume the risk that a particularly egregious error in grammar or usage will undercut your influence or perceived authority.
But the more you write, the more you need the services of a proofreader. Where do you find one?
Potential proofreaders are everywhere. If you are sharing writing duties with someone else in your office, for instance, exchanging the work between you for editing is obvious. If no coworker is available, you may want to contact the modern languages or English literature departments of your nearby community college to see if instructors can recommend a talented student who might be interested in part-time proofreading work. Local employment centers and online job-search services can also be helpful in locating freelance editors and writers.
Here at Foster Web Marketing, we’re excited to respond to your questions about website content development and production. For specific guidance for your professional marketing, call us today or fill out the convenient contact form on this page.
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