3 Things that Irritate Readers

Can we agree that there is no shortage of material explaining the wisdom of why you should include a healthy amount of content into your marketing strategy? There is also an equal amount of how-to information. I know I’ve handed these strategies out to my readers numerous times.

What seems to have slipped through the cracks are the nuts and bolts of fundamental content construction. Emails, the do-it-yourself blog posts, the occasional sales letter, fliers, press releases, announcements–these are basic communication materials required of all of us. Yet it amazes me how often good information is buried under simple errors.

Writing errors are attention traps. Instead of flowing with the message a reader gets stuck trying to navigate through an aggravating obstacle course. Over the past few years I’ve noticed an alarming increase of the types of errors that irritate readers. I’ve culled out the three biggest hot spots where the most common offenders lurk…


Readers love bullets. Short and explosive, bullets have serious firepower. However, if used incorrectly your reader will only see fragmented shards of your message. Here are two ways to bang out quick and easy bullets.

1) Start the introductory sentence with a dash, colon or the ellipsis points (the trailing off of a thought or a significant pause)…

  • These are easy to write
  • Always start with a capital letter
  • End punctuation is not necessary

2) If you have a list of action items, bullets are perfect. Start with the beginning of your sentence. Make sure you:

  • Keep each phrase in the consistent tense.
  • Start each phrase with the same type of word (i.e. noun or verb).
  • Check each phrase so it completes the initial prompt.
  • Include a period at the end of each sentence.

So what kinds of bullets rub readers’ patience raw? Inconsistent ones. Too often bullets are employed by writers who use the action item format but start each bullet with a blend of nouns and verbs, end punctuation with a mixture of periods and nothing at all, use random capitalization, and jumble phrases and complete sentences. But not you…at least not anymore.


The Chicago Manual of Style has over 75 entries on how to use quotation marks. I want to draw attention to the abuse of a single type of quote called, “the scare quote.” Why did this phrase earn the right to be placed in quotation marks? First, it’s an unfamiliar phrase to most readers. Second, it’s not my term. And third, I’m repeating the phrase directly from my style guide. From this point forward you won’t see quotation marks used around the scare quote term. It’s no longer unfamiliar to you.

A scare quote implies a phrase of sarcasm or alerts the reader that the term is being used outside of its usual application. The problem arises when they are overused. The current trend of conversational writing has people abusing the scare quote. If the phrase is well-known or the tone is obvious, scare quotes are not necessary. When overused they simply lose their force and irritate the reader.

Hint: one way to get around using quotation marks for out-of-context phrases it to precede the phrase with the term so-called. For example:

 “Health foods” include potato chips and ketchup.

So-called health foods include potato chips and ketchup.


This one is easy. I’ve provided a list of yes-no questions that pinpoint exactly when capitalization is appropriate. If the answer is yes…capitalize. If no, don’t.

Is it a proper noun? Yes.

Is it an official title? Yes.

Is it an internal word in a headline? Yes, but generally not prepositions.

Is this something I want the reader to interpret as screaming? If yes, have at it.

Is it an internal word in a subtitle? Depends. If it’s short and consistent with all your subtitles then go for it. It gets a little subjective here but if a subtitle reads like a sentence then treat it as a sentence. Just be consistent. All your subtitles should be either capitalized or treated sentence style.

Is it an important concept? No. Capitalizing something that you want to emphasize is grammatically inappropriate and irritates the reader. Don’t do it. Here’s an example (slightly modified from the website where I found it):

 Join us for an exciting new special Webinar next week! 

Is webinar a proper noun, an official title, or a headline? When I read this I get stuck wondering what I missed and why the generic word webinar is capitalized. The effect feels uneducated and doesn’t encourage me to learn more about the actual program. Probably not the effect the writer intended.

You now have three valuable editing tricks you can apply to your own content. Your readers will appreciate your extra effort…even if they don’t notice. After all, isn’t that the point?

Photo attribution: Sybren Stuvel

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