Why You Must Ignore the Fussy English Rule Makers


Will Newman

I often get asked what qualifications are needed to be a good copywriter. This is a classic example … AWAI member Nate asked a crucial question:

“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. Can I make it as a copywriter with only this background?”

Nate wrote me about his “problem” after reading an essay I’d written. In it, I said 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 need more than your high school English class to do this?

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

It’s too much!

What I mean 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 [picky] 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, the sisters at St. Brigid’s School taught me English in 7th and 8th grade. Talk about a burden!

But I did quiet those voices. How can you? Here are three 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 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. Get your copy read by supportive readers. (Do this after you’ve reread and re-edited your own copy several times.) You want two types of readers.

    First, friends and family who’ll give honest assessments 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. And ask them to point out any problems with grammar and construction that caused them to stumble or pause.

    Second, get your copy reviewed by fellow copywriters in the AWAI support forums.

    But avoid the nitpickers in both cases. 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. They’ll make you doubt yourself.

The finicky nitpickers might be correct in grammar.

But as you’ve just learned, being correct about grammar doesn’t mean you’re communicating best.

I’ve enjoyed visiting with you this week. And I hope to see you again next week when we talk about a core secret to successful copywriting. Until then, please comment below and let us know your thoughts about “writing perfectly.”

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Published: December 16, 2016

13 Responses to “Why You Must Ignore the Fussy English Rule Makers”

  1. Amen, Brother!

    Split infinitives is a rule I detest. As in:

    "My objective is not to go to Denver."

    If it's not to go to Denver, then what is my objective?

    My objective is to NOT go to Denver (because I don't want to). Clear enough?

    Cannot is not the same as "can not". (note also that the period is AFTER the closing quote because it belongs to the sentence, not the last two words. The British have it right.

    If I have a car in running order, I can go to Denver, or I can NOT go to Denver. It's my choice. But if the car won't run, I cannot (as in can't) go to Denver until I fix the problem. But to say I can not go to Denver until the car is fixed is INACCURATE and IMPRECISE, thus leaving an ambiguity.

    It's about CORRECT, ACCURATE communication that CANNOT POSSIBLY BE MISUNDERSTOOD, period.

    Good writing requires knowing how to break the dumb rules correctly.

    Never leave your reader wondering what you mean. RULE #1: Never leave an open am

    Guest (Clarke Echols)December 16, 2016 at 1:48 pm

  2. When in High School my teachers gave us two grades - one for the writing - one for the grammar and spelling. I always got A's in writing and B-C in grammar. (sometimes worse) I read a lot so communicate rather fluently on paper - grammar be damned - spelling? Yes, thank you spell check.

    NJDecember 16, 2016 at 1:51 pm

  3. I always compare the rules of grammar to the pirate's code. A number of grammar snobs I know always give me a hard time when I say that. But imagine what we would sound like if we spoke using correct grammar. And if copywriters are supposed to write how we talk, imagine what our writing would sound like then. It makes me shudder. Grammar is important, but only so far as it makes what you're communicating understandable and clear. Now, where did I leave that dangling preposition?

    swertzbaugherDecember 16, 2016 at 3:43 pm

  4. Dear Will,

    Usually your advice is great, but not this time. Telling people their grammar mistakes don't matter is not going to boost their self-confidence.

    Grammar is easy. I have written a book that will teach native speakers of English all they need to know about grammar in a month. It's called The Fairy Tale Grammar Book. The teaching section is only 38 pages long.

    This is not a sales pitch. I just wanted to tell you the book existed. It's better to master grammar than to wing it.

    Guest (Laird Stevens)December 16, 2016 at 4:16 pm

  5. Dear Will et. al.,
    Here's the thing: If an English teacher can forgo the grammar rules, then you can, too. My first drafts are horrendous! Sometimes I can't even figure out what I meant to write. But the idea is always there and it can be improved. My daughter is my "reader-editor" and she is ruthless. And I appreciate the heck out of her for that. There: I started a sentence with a coordinating conjunction!
    Sincerely, Taru
    (An English Teacher turned Copy Writer)

    TaruDecember 16, 2016 at 5:41 pm

  6. Hi Will,

    I agree that writers have enough self doubt without worrying about rigid rules. We don't need to be extreme about grammar.

    But I don't entirely agree with you on the rest. I cringe when I see copy that completely disregards spelling, punctuation, etc. When, say, a comma is used where a semicolon is needed, meaning and clarity suffer.

    Good English writing, and the degree to go with it, are what I have to offer.

    I don't have a marketing or corporate background, so my main asset as a catalog and content writer (except of course my AWAI training) is well-edited, literate writing that respects language and conveys a quality image.

    D.F.

    Guest (Diane Fanucchi)December 17, 2016 at 12:39 am

  7. Concisely, it occurs to me that I enjoy some open discussion free from excessive punctuation, but also love structure. As a poet, I do both and it works for me, getting my point across...thanks for the lesson all the same.

    Guest (Gregory Smith)December 17, 2016 at 3:20 am

  8. I guess I'm one of those fussy grammar people, because when I read copy for a product that has bad grammar, I would not think of purchasing that product. My feeling is that if you can't take the time to perfect your copy, you probably won't take the same care with your product. I do agree, however, that you should not stop and fix anything on your first draft; let it flow. That is not to say I am unaware of different forms of grammar for advertising vs. journalism vs. formal writing.

    rtistwritrDecember 17, 2016 at 5:44 pm

  9. Precisely!

    Simply, as long as the other understands exactly what you mean, you have effectively communicated.

    Yes, it's good to use good grammar and punctuation; but, the purpose of communicating is to be understood. If you are, you are good. Period.

    Guest (Victor Taylor)December 17, 2016 at 8:21 pm

  10. I am sitting at home...it's below zero...I am trying to decide how to get started...which program is best to produce immediate income (within the next 90 days)...I just ended a 90 day consulting contract to improve a companies websites, advertising and sales processes. I can write and train people with that information...I look at all that is offered here and have no idea where to start. How do I narrow the choice to begin. What do you suggest?

    Guest (David Kerchner)December 19, 2016 at 12:57 pm

  11. Thank you Will. This information is useful. Structure most certainly can get tricky for those of us who have been heavily educated by the public system.
    I agree with your thoughts. I feel that copywriting is about establishing and maintaining a credible relationship with the reader to stimulate a response. "Proper" written English is not an essential component to accomplishing this task. The writer should use the structure that expresses his/her intended voice.

    RavatiiDecember 19, 2016 at 4:21 pm

  12. The one quote made me think of Bill Clinton and to paraphrase him:

    "Perfect grammar never fed a hungry child."

    Scott GDecember 20, 2016 at 8:57 am


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