You know you want to – so what’s holding you back?

It’s summer, the sun is shining and it’s time to hit the beach. OK, let’s back up here. If you’re in the UK, it’s raining, it has been since April, and summer is the technical name for the season we’re in – but the weather isn’t playing ball, on the beach or anywhere else. And yet, and yet. It’s still that time of year when people shrug off their worries, pack up the car and the kids, and spend a couple of weeks ‘chillaxing’, à la Cameron. No more schedules, no more jam-packed days, and no more rules. So let’s join in the fun, and forget a few rules ourselves. Forever. I’m talking about the ‘rules’ of ‘good’ writing. If you’re a regular reader (and I hope you are) you’ll know that I have a horror of unnecessary quotation marks, so I use those 0nes advisedly. Because there are no rules. Good writing is writing that works, by whatever means necessary. It gets its point across as clearly, effectively and briefly as possible. And that’s especially the case in marketing copy, where you don’t have the luxury of time or an indulgent reader. So what rules would I break? Well here are three I regularly break, and am regularly picked up on. But I break them for a reason – because the rules cloud the message, complicate the process and can stop the sale. And you don’t want that. 1. Don’t start a sentence with ‘and’ This one seems to be programmed into our DNA. We may forget (if we ever knew them) the basics of punctuation, the ‘i before e, except after c’ rule and the rule about writing out numbers in full (up to nine, then digits from 10, by the way). But this rule we never forget. And it’s a pity, because starting a sentence with ‘and’ (as I just did) is a way of linking to the previous one, and keeping the writing flowing. In a copywriting scenario, that’s crucial. Anything that makes your copy flow more smoothly is something you can – and should – use. And if it’s good enough for Shakespeare, Dickens and the King James Bible, it’s good enough for me. And you. 2. Don’t use slang/informal language Here, we’re not talking about being rude, or crude, or inappropriate. We’re talking about words that don’t traditionally sound business-y. Hassle, pain, and hitch are three I sometimes use. Along with ditch, dump and scrap. Not too liberally, and not, as I said, inappropriately. But when the occasion calls for it. When I want copy to sound less formal and more friendly. Or, put another way, when I want to write like people really speak – a rule you should absolutely follow if you want to connect with your reader. Informal language tends to be Anglo-Saxon in origin, and often consists of short, punchy words. They’re very effective, and make you sound decisive, direct and can-do. So employ them with impunity. Sorry, I mean go for it. 3. Don’t end a sentence with a preposition I did exactly this earlier – did you notice it? Probably not, as your eyes flitted over the words and you took in the sense. I was writing as I talk, and probably as you talk. But if I printed out this blog entry and put a red pen in your hand, you might very well put a squiggle next to the following:
Here are three I regularly break, and am regularly picked up on.
Why? Because I’ve dared to boldly go (a split infinitive – yet another rule you should break) where your English teacher told you not to. Not only that, I did it twice, for good measure. And yet, the ‘correct’ version would have created an altogether different impression:
Here are three I regularly break, and up on which I’m regularly picked.
Come again? Yes, my point precisely. It’s correct, but it’s verging on a bad joke. It causes me to wince, and the reader to stumble, re-read and reach the conclusion that I’m incurably pedantic. My response to people who point it out is the same as Churchill’s, when somebody picked up a similar ‘mistake’ in a memo he wrote:
This is the kind of tedious nonsense up with which I will not put.
Though obviously, I’m a little more diplomatic than Mr C when it comes to clients. No, really, I am – I promise.

Rules is rules

The overriding concern of all writing, but especially sales and marketing copy, is that nothing, but nothing, should get in the way of the message. Writing that stands on ceremony and conforms to some rigid, unbending set of rules, is like a stilted conversation. If you wouldn’t talk to a customer that way, don’t let yourself write that way. As a test, look at some of your written marketing material, and ask yourself the following question: if I were struck dumb in a meeting, and my customer/prospect had to read my brochure or website instead of talking to me, would I be happy that it does the job as well as I could? If not, rewrite it. Rules may be rules, but they’re there to be broken. George Orwell put it best in his 1946 essay Politics and the English Language. His six rules were:
  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
The only one you really need to remember is number 6. Now back to the beach (dream on). Find out more: