Does Copywriting Have to Follow the Rules?
Updated: Dec 1, 2022
My favorite book, until I was like 25, was Strunk and White’s Elements of Style. If you’re not familiar, or not a total nerd, some people (most people) might describe it as a textbook. And sure it is on the list of most frequently assigned texts in college courses. It is technically an “educational book”. But don’t all books teach us something? The point is, I know I’m a nerd, but I’m a nerd for something cool, writing. So, yeah! (See, super cool!)
The Elements of Style is a book simply about writing. E.B. White (who also wrote Stuart Little and Charlotte’s Web!) and William Strunk Jr. put together a guide over several decades, teaching generation after generation how to write, how to compose a story, common word usage errors, rules of grammar and punctuation, matters of form, and the general best practices for writing. I loved that book. If I start on my second favorite, the Hodges Harbrace, I’ll really date myself. Three of you will get that joke.
Nowadays, if you ask me what my favorite book is, I honestly couldn’t tell you. I can tell you my top five, ok maybe top seven favorite writers though. And when I find a writer I like, I tend to read every book they’ve ever written. So, I have a lot of favorite books.
I love different things about different writers, too. Some are better at descriptions, some at storytelling, and some are more thought-provoking.
One of my favorite qualities in a writer is when I can hear the writer’s actual voice in my head as I read her words. If you’ve never experienced this, listen to a clip or watch a video of Luvvie Ajayi Jones or Busy Phillips, then read something written by them. They both do an amazing job of writing in their true voices. Once I heard either of them speak and knew their voices, I could never read their words again without hearing their voices. This makes them each two of my favorite writers.
I guess I have favorite writers, instead of favorite books for the same reason people have favorite bands, instead of favorite songs. You know, I don’t think I can pick a single favorite song out of every song in the world; but I do love me some Rush! Or with art, I definitely can’t pick a single favorite painting, but I love Van Gogh.
Speaking of art (watch this clever segue..), I love this Picasso quote...
Is It OK To Break the Rules in Copywriting?
“Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.” - Pablo Picasso
This applies to so many things in life! Obviously, to art! I was never crazy about Picasso’s style, but I did always appreciate his hustle and creativity. He was definitely not afraid to forge a new path and do things differently. He knew that the idea of doing things because “that’s how it’s always been done” was not how he wanted to be remembered. And it sure wasn’t. Love his art, hate it, or somewhere in between, you probably at least agree that his work defines a genre of abstract art that wouldn’t otherwise be known without him. Picasso knew the rules of the art world. What else did he know? He knew just which rules to break that would have people still spending millions of dollars and talking about his art half a century after his passing.
Copywriting is an Art
For me, that “art” is writing. A good copywriter knows all the rules, all the dos and don’ts, the whoms and who’s, and a good copywriter definitely has a strong opinion on the Oxford comma.
A good copywriter also knows how to break. Every. Single. One of those rules. (See what I did there?) Any form of writing requires creativity, but the main purpose of copywriting is to communicate clearly your (or your client's) what, why, and who. The trick is adapting that to changing audiences or topics, as needed. That takes some out-of-the-box, creative thinking. I like to think that Strunk and White would be proud. Yes, rules are important. Yes, rules should be followed, when they matter!
No, I am not here to take on the grammar police. I love the grammar police. I am a badge-carrying alumnus, myself. I have a background in technical writing. I majored in secondary education - English in college. So, although I changed my mind about being a high school English teacher, I did pick up a thing or two in school. I’m just saying that when it comes to copywriting, and storytelling, it’s ok to have a little style.
Why Break the Rules in Copywriting?
• Copywriting should be succinct. I’m just going to say it, people have short attention spans. We’re all busy, or distracted, or have fifty-eleven other reasons that we prefer information to be consumed in smaller, easy-to-digest snippets. It’s not an insult, it’s just a fact. It’s why I’m making this list in bullet points and not one long paragraph. It’s just prettier, huh? “The rules” would dictate a paragraph.
• Copywriting is conversational. If I add a comma here, what do you do? You, wait for it, pause. Barney Stinson could not be written without commas. The things we can do with punctuation or formatting to make copywriting conversational definitely do not follow the rules.
• Copywriting has a personality. Most successful business owners and marketers know that a well-developed brand is job one when it comes to creating a meaningful connection with your audience. Your copywriting personality, along with your voice and tone are a part of that. I hope our personality comes through with our copywriting. We want to communicate that we’re real people, with real experience in building businesses. We’ve seen what it takes to build a company from a bedroom to a multi-billion dollar IPO….twice. We’ve also seen what that kind of work can do to a person. It’s a lot. So, we try to keep things light. There’s plenty of terrible in the world. There’s no reason our tiny corner of the internet can’t add a little humor here and there while we talk about marketing small businesses online, or at least our version of humor. Who says we can’t have both? That’s our personality in a nutshell. I hope it comes through in our copy.
• Copywriting should be helpful and kind. Google’s latest “Helpful Content Update” focuses on a people-first approach. People don’t want to be sold to in this day and age. There’s no need to get all formal and uptight unless your industry dictates that, and so few do. Just write like you’re talking to a person. Anticipate questions that you think someone may ask on a phone call. Answer questions without fluff, but with enough style that it’s clear a robot didn’t write your copy and, equally importantly, that it wasn’t written for a robot. Don’t be afraid to use exclamation points, contractions, or silly puns if you want. If it helps communicate what you're trying to explain, there's no reason not to use it. Gone are the days of buttoned up perfection on every page of a website. Sure, you still want to run your copy through a free tool like Grammarly to check for basic structure and silly mistakes. After all, nerds like me will probably still judge you if you get to, too, and two confused. But I'll also judge you for trying to sound like someone you're not and so will your potential customers. People are smarter than you give them credit for. Give your potential customers the benefit of the doubt. Talk to them like real people, because spoiler alert - they are!
When you read great copy, it should flow. You shouldn’t have to stop and think about when to pause or for long. It’s easily digestible, should leave you with warm fuzzies, having learned something, and yes, good copywriting can absolutely break the rules a little.
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