Grammar for Booksellers

by Gen Kazdin

#128, 29 September 2008

When Words Are All You Have
to Make an Impression

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It has become my habit to follow a number of book blogs. This morning I was reading and came across this little bit:

"... but if your good you'll have a much better chance at getting published."

"If your a writer, which one would you choose?"

Now. This may not seem important. Everyone makes typos, right? (Twice?) But it does speak to the care of the writer. Was the article proofread? Was it a careless error or did he simply not know the difference between "your" and "you're"? I don't know the answer. The intent of the writer was for someone to read what he wrote. C'mon now, would you take advice about writing from the person who wrote those words?

I do know that in this world of internet communication and commerce we have only one way to present ourselves: In writing. In an open store, would we show up for work in dirty, ill-fitting clothes, unbrushed hair and teeth? What impression would that give to customers? Would they want to do business with us?

Our use of the language in our mail and listings is the same thing. It is what the customer sees of us. All the customer sees! Why not present ourselves the best we can?

This is discussed often on other boards. The consensus is "... ahhh, it ain't important"; "Who cares? They just want the book cheap"; "This is me, don't like it, don't buy from me."

So I don't. I look for dealers who are literate, articulate, and present both the item and themselves well. I think if we want others to take us seriously, trust us, do business with us, we need to respect ourselves enough to wear proper clothing in the store and use proper spelling, grammar, and punctuation in our writing.

Where do many sellers have errors? The basics: "i" before "e"; possessives; plurals; apostrophes. Another bad usage is "would of." That should be "would have," folks. And we now have text-message language: "Y R U going" - not the best choice for business mail.

Is all of this important on message boards? Only if you want it to be. We are all busy, have responsibilities other than our businesses. We type and go. We make mistakes, typos, semantic goofs, but we are not seeing each other specifically as customer and dealer on the boards. There is a very real difference.

If you are not confident with these aspects of writing, there are a few good aids you might want to read through. The classic, of course, Elements of Style by Strunk and White. And some charming books on language by Karen Elizabeth Gordon. (The Transitive Vampire, for one.) These can often be found at book sales and are worth owning. There are others, but these are fun.

I'm not here to give a remedial English class. I'm here to suggest that this is important to those of us who make our livings in online commerce, and even for hobby sellers. Perhaps it is the online equivalent of dressing for success. I might write a listing while wearing a ratty old robe, but if my language is good, a customer may be more apt to think it is worth risking a lot of money to buy a book from me. It is all that customer can know of me. And that is worth taking a little time to get it right.

I want that customer to see me as professional, literate and intelligent and therefore more apt to be knowledgeable about the books I sell. How do you want to be perceived?

Lest you believe you can rely on spell-checkers, you cannot! The spell-checker checks a word, not the context in which it is used. Therefore. the above-mentioned blog writer would never have known he had errors. "Your" is a perfectly good word, correctly spelled. But he meant "you're."

By the way, his sloppiness was so annoying I sent a comment to the blog. It wasn't published, but the corrections were quickly made. Out of respect, the writer is not being identified. But wait 'til next time!

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