How a Comma Costs You Thousands of Dollars

In a previous post, I picked some nits. I said that there are little things that stand out to me as errors, and, while not everyone might agree that what I pointed out was important, at least you could have agreed that those things were wrong.

But so what? Why does it matter if your blog post, or your campaign landing page, or your direct mail letter is perfect? What does it matter if you misuse “their” for “there”, or have the wrong “it’s” when you really needed “its”? Who cares, besides grammarians? Who bothers to count the 7 bullet points you’ve listed, to see if that matches the 8 you promised in your headline?


Everyone cares about it. It’s inherent. It’s inside. It’s deep within our subconscious. It goes to trust, it goes to authority, it goes to whether or not I should even keep listening to you.

Because when you make a mistake, and I notice it, even if I don’t notice it notice it, it affects me. It sets off a little counter in my brain. And when my counter reaches my limit, I’m done.

I stop believing you. And what’s worse, I stop reading. I stop listening. I step out of the universe of potential clients (or donors) and join the 98% who don’t give. And I’m not alone. Everyone does it.

Everyone has their own limit on how many errors they’ll accept before completely rejecting you. And that boundary may be different for each piece. But it exists. And it’s costing you. Because when your audience reaches their limit, they check out. They’re done. They’re not going to give, they’re not going to volunteer, they’re not going to tell their neighbor.

It costs you authority … time … sales … donations.

Again, you might think I’m being picky. Perhaps I am. But even the scientists at NASA recognize a need to reduce errors. Their post, How Many Decimals of Pi Do We Really Need? illustrates this very well. They have determined that 15 decimal points of pi (3.141592653589793) is enough. This gets them the precision they need for virtually everything they do. They’re not losing spacecraft around Venus or Pluto with that kind of perfection.

NASA recognizes the need to eliminate errors. That’s why they use a more precise value of pi than the 3.14 virtually all the rest of us will be able to get by with. Because they don’t want to make any mistakes along the way and destroy their mission. If they did, if they allowed imprecision to flow through their work, they wouldn’t be working very long.

So what happens when you allow it?

Let me bring this back to copywriting. To nonprofit donations. To your audience and how they perceive you.

Let’s say your e-mail contains just 3 little errors. You spelled “performance” as “preformance”, you had an extra “,” at one point, and you used the word “reigns” instead of “reins”. Suppose 5% are turned off by the very first one. And 20% are turned off by the next, and the last 25% by the third.

These three errors might be completely missed by 50% of your audience. Okay. Only then do they have a chance to be influenced by your offer. Only then do they get a chance to take action. This is your effective audience.

Had you fixed only one error, your effective audience would go from 50% to 75%. Fixing 2 is 75% to 95%. Fixing all three means that everyone gets a chance to hear your whole message.

Suppose your 3-error mailing has a response rate of 2%. That 2% of the total is, in effect, 4% of the effective audience. That means, had you fixed even one error, you’d expand the effective audience, and your overall response rate would be at 3%. Fix all 3, and it’s up to 4%. Now you’re talking.

Put some numbers to it.

Let’s make-believe for a minute. Imagine an acquisition campaign that costs $50,000, with a 2% response rate, garners $65,000 in donations. Not bad! A $15,000 positive campaign. Suppose you went through your letter with an additional copy review, and caught all 3 of those errors. Let’s say you invest $1,000 in this. What’s the total cost now? $51,000. And the return? $130,000, because your effective audience doubled. A $79,000 positive campaign.

What’s the ROI of that copy review? Pay $1,000, get $65,000. Pretty amazing.

Okay, maybe these numbers are a little facetious. But might it be worth it to spend a little more time critiquing your copy in order to get a lot more return? How much would you have to invest to see a positive ROI on that review? Just $1 more than the cost. It wouldn’t be hard to get $1,001 in additional responses. That 2% has to improve only to 2.04% in order to get there. Is that reasonable? Absolutely.

And if it improves to 2.4%, that’s a $76,000 campaign, and a $10,000 ROI on that copy review. Pretty easy to see how small improvements can be very valuable.


Grammatical errors, far from being something that your audience just ignores, build up over the course of your communication. They break down trust, and they reduce your effective audience. Ultimately, this reduces donor confidence, degrades your reputation, and erodes donations. It’s in the best interest of your nonprofit for everything you do to be as clean as possible.

craft, Writing improvement

Think the “Experts” are Perfect? Think Again

While reading and studying some famous direct mail samples, I found some things that stood out to me as errors. I admit, I might be picking nits here. Yet I think it’s important, and I’ll leave the explanation of why to another post.

For now, I’ll point out a few errors that I noticed, and give a little insight to why they stuck out to me.

These materials are all part of AWAI’s Accelerated Program for Six-Figure Copywriting. Included within the program is the AWAI Hall of Fame: 50* best-performing sales letters (and space ads) from the past half-century. Winning promotions for The Wall Street Journal, American Express, The Nature Conservancy, and more are collected here for study and edification. I am grateful for the chance to learn from the best, and see how my skill matches up. And yet, even within this list of “best of the best”, I still found errors. Hopefully at the end of this post you’ll see what I see.

First up: Wall Street Underground.


Wall Street Underground

This was a promotional letter for Nick Guarino’s newsletter Wall Street Underground. I’ll point out 2 errors here:

#1)         The commentary from AWAI starts like this:

This is one of their best offerings. You’d be hard-pressed to find another pitch like it. Especially worth noting — the writer locks his sites on a “Common Enemy” message.

Did you see it? It’s in the last sentence. “the writer locks his sites” [emphasis added]

This throws me off a little as I’m reading. Wait a minute, I think. You can’t lock “sites”. Shouldn’t it be “locks his sights”? Locking “sights” is something hunters would do, to ensure that they are fixed on their target. You can’t lock a “site”, because that is a location. It’s meaningless in the context of aiming at a “Common Enemy”. So when I read that, I’m tossed out of the flow just a bit, and it takes a moment for me to get back into it.

#2)         About halfway through, I find this sentence:

If the truth about skyrocketing inflation were to appear on the front page of the Barron’s or Wall Street Journal, it could trigger another crash – all by itself!

Now, maybe this is just a little bit of esoteric knowledge, and maybe it’s not. But the publications mentioned there are Barron’s and The Wall Street Journal. Check their websites if you don’t believe me. You’ll see that Barron’s is not modified with “the”, and The Wall Street Journal clearly has “The” as the start of its name. What’s wrong is a misuse of little “the”, yet it caused two twitches in my mind as I’m reading. Instead, it should have been written like this:

If the truth about skyrocketing inflation were to appear on the front page of Barron’s or The Wall Street Journal, it could trigger another crash – all by itself!

There are more, but I’d like to move on.


The Oxford Club

This letter invites potential members to join an exclusive investment advice club called “The Supper Club.” Again, I’ll point out 2 errors:

#1)         One statement about a stock of a gold mining company reads like this:

Consider these facts … It’s selling more than three times cheaper than Placer Dome ($90 per ounce to Placer’s $290 per ounce).

The problem here is that to say something is “three times cheaper” means there must be two comparisons – one that demonstrates the “cheaper”, and another to be “three times cheaper” than that first comparison. So, suppose that Masterworks is selling at $230 per ounce. This would be “$60 cheaper than Placer Dome”. Now, once that is established, the target can be described as “a $200 discount, more than 3 times cheaper than the Masterworks discount!”

To be a more clear, more effective statement, it should probably have been written like this:

Consider these facts … It’s now selling at less than a third of the price of Placer Dome ($90 per ounce to Placer’s $290 per ounce).

You just can’t have a multiplier on “cheaper” without having multiple comparisons, one to be the baseline and another to be the reference. With only one comparison, it needs to be something like “a third of the price” or “a 60% discount”.

#2)         A headline reads as follows:

A Full Compliment of Wealth-Building Benefits

And right away, Microsoft Word is on the task! It’s underlined “Compliment” for me. It must have noticed the same thing I did, that the spelling with an “i” means a nice thing to say about another. The word necessary here is “Complement”, with an “e”, meaning an element which “completes”, or adds on to, a primary element. So if you’re looking to describe these benefits as completing a wealth-building arsenal, so to speak, you’d want this headline:

A Full Complement of Wealth-Building Benefits

Again, you may find this nit-picky. Sure, it is. But it’s also important. A fuller explanation is forthcoming.



These are just a few examples of how even the best may make mistakes at times. Yet, despite some small errors, these were included in the Hall of Fame. Perhaps everything else was overwhelming enough to counteract these little deficiencies, or perhaps they really are small enough that they didn’t make a difference.

For me, I’ll strive to eliminate any such errors in anything I write, and I hope that this post demonstrates not just what, but how as well.


* P.S.: I can pick nits with modern businesses, too. Though the Hall of Fame says it includes 50 direct mail classics, there are only 49 samples included. Worth is #8, while Rogue Trader is #10. What happened to #9?

craft, Writing improvement

AFWAAASN, or A Few Words About Acronyms, Abbreviations, and Short Names

So we’ve all seen it – that undefined acronym. UI/UX; SAAS; PCP. Your reader might ask, “Are you writing about illicit drugs or a primary care physician?”

Instead of adding clarity and readability to your text, an undefined acronym does the opposite. It distracts the reader, throws them out of the flow, and sends them on a web search more likely to result in an hour browsing Urban Dictionary than reading your copy.

The point of an acronym is to create a shorter way of saying something, without having to spell everything out each time. It’s shorthand, and, as such, should be a way for the reader to understand what you’re saying without getting bored.
It’s not the only way to do it – but it is catchy. The U.S. Government is great at acronymizing our laws. The Affordable Care Act (ACA) is a good one. And I don’t think anyone has ever spoken the real name of the PATRIOT Act in public. Which, by the way, is the “Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001″. Imagine saying that five times fast.

Acronyms are good at conveying the same information in a shorter way. But there are misuses of acronyms, too.

It’s TTPs all the way down.


Below are a few mistakes I’ve seen regarding acronyms and shorter names.

1. It’s Undefined

The problem with writing for an industry publication is that many times certain acronyms are used so often it is presumed to be unnecessary because “everybody knows what that is.”

For example, UI/UX above stands for “User Interface / User Experience”. This is blindingly obvious to anyone who works in, for example, app development, software design, or social network programming. This is something they live and breathe sixty hours a week. Spelling it out is just a waste of time for those writers and readers.

However, for those of us who might be coming from a different part of the world, throwing something out without at least providing a link to a glossary is distracting. And likely to lower my perception of the writer; confuse me about the subject, and portray the industry as exclusionary, rather than inclusionary. For writers or groups hoping to expand their reach, this is a deal-breaker. Don’t do it. At a minimum, provide a link to a footnote or a glossary page (if online). Or provide a separate glossary as an appendix (if a written paper).

Even better, just write out the whole thing at the first instance within the text, then list what acronym you’ll use going forward. For example:

We recognize that the State Land Trust (SLT) is a vital resource for all residents. The SLT has been providing support for outdoor activities for over thirty years.

2. Unnecessary definition

An acronym is only necessary if there is going to be reference to it later in the text. If you’re writing a short blog post, about the State Land Trust for example, in which you only ever reference the Trust once, it’s not necessary to list the acronym. In this case, providing the acronym is a minor distraction. Yet it also conveys a sense that the writer doesn’t know what’s happening in the article, blog post, press release, or white paper.

Acronyms therefore are only necessary if there are multiple references within the same text. My rule of thumb is two or fewer, just write it out each time. Three or more uses and it’s worthwhile to introduce the acronym.

3. Unnecessary “.”s

Which is easier to read?

USA PATRIOT Act                     or

U.S.A. P.A.T.R.I.O.T Act        ?

Again, these “.”s are unnecessary. By the fact that you’ve defined the acronym after the initial phrase, we know each letter stands for something. Yet every “.” initiates a mental pause within the reader’s mind. Don’t interrupt the reader’s flow when you don’t have to. Just let it be and you’ll have greater connection with your audience.

4. Inappropriate use

This is when an acronym is used instead of a shorter name or nickname. For example, I recently completed a spec project for Catholic Charities of Tennessee. [The letter is here.] You might suppose that I would have done the following:


All of these are programs of Catholic Charities of Tennessee (CCT). Yet these are not the only ways we serve our community.

But I didn’t. In fact, I didn’t use an acronym at all. I did reference the charity multiple times. Each time, though, I used a shorter name, “Catholic Charities”. I did this for 2 reasons.

First, it’s shorter. I’m trying to save a few words for my readers. The less they have to read, the more likely they’ll follow through to the end. Plus if I economize on words in some areas, I have more space to give additional stories or data and make a more compelling push.

Second, it’s more authentic. I don’t imagine that anyone who works or volunteers with this group speaks of it as the CCT. Or CCTN. Or CCOT. When they talk about it, they speak of “Catholic Charities”. I would. Because, to them, the “of Tennessee” is irrelevant. They’re in Tennessee, so they don’t need to differentiate this from Catholic Charities of Minnesota or San Diego. Thus, speaking of “Catholic Charities” is what’s normal for this group.

What’s normal should be what’s written, no more, no less. It avoids confusion and matches the day-to-day experience.


When you’re trying to save space in your writing, acronyms and short names are a great way to economize. But make sure they’re defined, when necessary, and used appropriately. Your writing will look more professional and resonate better with your audience. Every time.

P.S. Closing the Loop

Remember how I said never to leave an acronym undefined? You might remember a reference to SAAS in the lead. It stands for Software As A Service. Now you know – and you’re not likely to forget.