Style or substance. How much does presentation matter?

I freely admit I might be a little bit of a pedant when it comes to spelling and grammar. I can generally spot a mistake a mile off and it really irks me.

Walking past a sandwich shop the other day I saw a sign in the window for ‘Fresh Baguetts’ and it did not get the day off to a good start.


Recently a similarly minded journalist pointed out the disgrace that was the decision by a council in Devon to ban the apostrophe from its street signs.

The policy seems to have been based along the lines of ‘rather than get it wrong, let’s not bother at all’.

Surrounded by such lackadaisical attitudes, perhaps it is not surprising that my students have a general tendency to be a little slapdash on spelling, grammar, punctuation – you know the boring stuff.

It’s not that they don’t know how to do it, it’s that they are busy concentrating on getting their words out and think they can worry about that bit later, then get distracted.

Just to put my old lady hat on for a minute, it can’t help that most communication these days is done in a hurry. Text speak, emails with no punctuation, shortened sentences to fit the 140-character Twitter rule.

While truncated, unpunctuated slang has a place in quick fire messages between friends, it is definitely not okay when writing news, features, or opinion.

Is it readable?

Presentation really is key. Of course you need to get the substance right too but if anything prevents the reader following what you are saying, they will give in.

The job of the journalist is to make it easy for the reader, not tie them in knots.

That’s not to say the professionals always get it right. The Grauniad earned its nickname back in the day for frequent typos.

Mail Online drives me to distraction with constant spelling mistakes, duplicated sentences, and general glaring errors. I’ve spotted mistakes (without trying) in place names, people names, baby genders, ages – the stuff that you really need to be getting right.

And it is particularly a problem in the world of social media and blogging. There is a lot of poorly executed stuff out there.

Maybe I have highly tuned ‘error antennae’ after years of editing copy.

But people do notice mistakes, and happily point them out, and it makes you look unprofessional. Most of the time your byline will be on the offending article and there is no hiding from your error.

And don’t go thinking the subs can sort it out. For much of my time at the BBC we edited each others copy, and even if you are lucky enough to have a fully staffed subbing desk you are not going to further your career by turning in half-assed stuff.

Spellcheck again is a great tool for the odd mistake but over-reliance will be your downfall.

You shouldn’t need a little wavy line to tell you when something isn’t right, and trust it too far your work will be americanised before you can say ‘zee is for zeeeeeebra’.

So as my intrepid band of first-time bloggers get ready to put their stuff out into the world, now is the time to check, check, and triple check.

It may not be the most exciting of jobs but I trust me it is a very important one and you need to get into that habit now.