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How sloppy copy can cost you half a mill

Posted by Dan Hatch on 3rd June , 2020 in The Write Fit
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This is an excerpt from the twenthieth edition of The Write Fit, a fortnightly newsletter about writing, editing and proofreading, content marketing and good editorial practices for business, from Sarah Mitchell and Dan Hatch at Typeset.


Ever made a $500,000 mistake?

You wanna hear a horror story?

It’s G-rated. I promise. But it’ll give you chills.

This is how you lose half a million dollars in three simple moves.

As they used to say on the Freaky Stories cartoons, this is a true story. It happened to a friend of a friend of mine. It happened just last week.

It was a day like any other day in lockdown. Teams working remotely, keeping in touch via Zoom, trying to keep a big project on schedule.

Everyone was under pressure. The delivery deadline was looming. Half the team had been furloughed. Everyone had taken a pay cut to keep their jobs. No one’s home internet connection was working at corporate speed. Group work by distance was proving challenging. Most worryingly of all, the pipeline of future work was bare. This one big project was keeping people busy but… what next?

There are probably elements of the above scenario that will feel familiar to you. What happens next could so easily happen to anybody. Perhaps it’s happened to you?

Tender shoots

But good news! The company was invited to tender for a new project by an old client. The work was worth half a million dollars — just what they needed to keep the business afloat and the team employed.

The boss asked one of the team to reply to the tender and send it off. He expected the employee to do this at the same time as he did his usual job. After all, with everything going on, neither of them could afford to be pulled away from the main project.

Under stress and fearing he’d lose his job if the company didn’t win the tender, the employee squeezed this task into his day. To make it easier on himself, he cut-and-pasted great passages from an old submission for another project and tinkered with it a bit.

With the job done, he fired it off to the client.

Mistakes were made

You’re probably ahead of me here and can already see what happened.

When “tinkering” with the copy, the employee didn’t pick up everything that needed to be changed. In fact, at one point he actually left in the name of the original company.

You wanna know how that went down with the client?

As we used to say in the playground, “like a cup of cold sick.”

Not only did the company not win the tender, the client felt completely disrespected. It damaged a long-standing relationship. Will they ever be invited to work with this client again? I don’t know. But that’s about the quickest and silliest way I know to lose half a million dollars.

Three lessons to take away

Now, I’m sure there are management lessons here, but I’m not a management consultant. I do, however, know a lot about editorial quality-control processes. These are three simple moves that could have stopped the mistake being made and prevented the loss of the tender.

  1. Writing takes time. And writing that is meant to “convert” should certainly not be rushed. It requires your full attention. You don’t dash it off during a lunchbreak while you’re working on something else.
  2. Cut-and-paste is a formula for disaster. Show your audience (whether you stand to make money out of them or not) respect by crafting copy especially for them, with messages tailored to their expectations.
  3. Never, ever, skip the quality control. Always read your own work. Then have someone else read it. If literally anyone had read this document, they would have spotted the errant company name. Better yet, use a professional proofreader — an expert outside your organisation who is trained to pick up errors.

Now if you remember Freaky Stories, you might think perhaps this tale is just another urban legend — a scary campfire story designed to make the blood run cold. But this is a true story.

It happened to a friend of a friend of mine.

Dan Hatch
3 June 2020


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