Why It’s Best Not to be Perfect

AWAI Member Nate has a crucial question this week:

One thing I come across again and again is advice to edit, to clean up grammar and spelling. That's a fantastic goal, but I come to copywriting with only a high school English class worth of grammar knowledge. This means I have no idea how tight my writing is, even after a few passes.”

Nate has a good point. He wrote me about his “problem” after reading my first Golden Thread note to you. In it, I told you the number one secret to successful copywriting is to write. Every day if you can.

Then, I told you to polish what you’ve written, to make it as tight as possible.

Do you really need more than your high school English class to be able to do this? How exactly can you tell if your writing is “tight?” And, if it isn’t tight, how do you tighten it?

I’m going to answer these three questions over the next few weeks. But today, the big one:

Is a high school English education enough to be a good copywriter?

A high school English background is not enough to be a successful, six-figure copywriter.

It’s too much!

What I mean by this is simple. You don’t have to have a degree in English to write effective advertising copy. You don’t even need to have finished high school. Effective copywriting is not about grammar, punctuation, and pleasing your high school English teachers.

Don’t take my word for it.

Michael Quinion is a highly-respected, Cambridge University educated British word expert and author. With those credentials, you’d expect him to be a stickler about grammar. Here’s what he says:

"A writer who fixes too much attention on the correctness of his punctuation, or a reader who does the same, is missing the point. The job of text is to communicate, not satisfy pedantic [finicky] rule makers."

Your job as a writer is to communicate. And as a copywriter, your job is to communicate that you (your client) has a solution to one of your prospect’s urgent problems. You’re not out to be complimented on your great command of the English language.

You’re a problem solver.

"Perfect grammar — whether written or spoken — never solves a problem. It doesn't make a person more creative or a better thinker. It can't turn a bad idea into a good one, or an unclear thought into a clear one. It doesn't guarantee that we will be understood."

This is from copywriter Stuart Froman, whose clients include Chevron, Levi Strauss, and many high-tech firms.

How to silence the voices of your English teachers

You’ve just heard two writing experts tell you that perfect grammar doesn’t ensure perfect copy. You’ve been hearing this message all along from AWAI. But still … you have this image of all your English teachers standing behind you, looking at everything you write. In my case, it was the sisters at St. Brigid’s School who taught me in 7th and 8th grade. Talk about a burden!

But, I did quiet those voices. How can you? Here are five strategies that should help:

  1. Choose one of the two quotes you just read. Print it out. Tape it near your computer monitor. When you get stuck worrying about being perfect, look at the quote. These experts are giving you permission to communicate … and not to have to achieve perfection.
  2. Know when to strive for a “kind of perfection.” Like we’re saying, you don’t have to have perfect grammar and punctuation in advertising copy. But, you can’t have errors that’ll slow (or worse, stop) your prospect from reading. Do not worry about these problems while you’re writing. Catch and fix them when you edit.
  3. Know if your copy is tight by learning about and using the Flesch-Kincaid system. (Next week!)
  4. Learn specific strategies for editing copy to make it tighter. The best place to learn these strategies is where you are right now: AWAI.

    I’ll be talking about some of the easiest, most effective ones in The Golden Thread. You should also pick up the classic (very small) book Elements of Style by Strunk and White or Bob Bly’s Elements of Copywriting.

  5. Get your copy read by supportive readers. (Do this after using the strategies mentioned in #3 and #4). You want two types of readers.

    First, have friends and family who’ll be really honest read your writing. You want them to give their honest assessment and not just say, “This is great.” Ask them to point out rough spots, places where the copy doesn’t say what you wanted it to. Also, ask them to point out any obvious problems with grammar and construction.

    Second, get your copy reviewed by fellow copywriters in peer review sessions.

    But, avoid the nitpickers. People who love to point out the smallest errors in grammar. Or, who’ll tell you to use “whom” instead of “who.” That type of person. They’ll only revive the voices of the English teachers you’ve banished and make you doubt yourself.

The finicky grammar nitpickers might be correct. But, as you’ve just learned, being correct about grammar doesn’t mean you’re communicating best. As you go through all your AWAI programs, you’ll learn those best ways.

Be sure to come back next week when we’ll talk about an easy system for knowing if your writing is tight.

The Professional Writers’ Alliance

The Professional Writers’ Alliance

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Published: February 6, 2012

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