Good grammar doth not a copywriter make
The English language is amazing and astonishingly complicated when it comes to rules around structure.
Every day we use it to communicate and, if we didn’t obey the rules, consciously or not, it would be pretty hard to make sense of what someone was trying to say.
So if everyone kind of knows the rules, why isn’t everyone great at copywriting?
Good copywriting is one of the most essential elements of effective marketing. The written and spoken word is a powerful tool. You get it right, you connect with your audience and influence their mindset or behaviour.
As brands place a greater emphasis on building meaningful, long-term relationships with their audience, the language and way they talk to their audience is becoming increasingly important.
And this is where being able to produce good copy comes in. And it requires more than knowing the rules of writing.
When it comes to writing well, I would suggest that it is irrelevant whether you can identify an antonym, a compound noun or a subjunctive clause. What makes the difference is being able to use the right words in a way that not only means something to a reader, but also makes a connection.
For me, good copywriting is not necessarily about rules – what’s right and wrong. What sets it apart is style and a deep understanding of the audience.
It is perfectly acceptable now to split an infinitive and start a sentence with ‘And’, and a writer knows instinctively how to use language.
Good copywriters will use consistent grammatical form when offering several ideas, without identifying it as “parallel construction”. If they start a sentence with an incomplete phrase or clause, instinctively it will be followed closely by the person or thing it describes, such as ‘While crossing the street, she was hit by a bus;’ as opposed to ‘While crossing the street, the bus hit her.’
Concrete rather than vague language (such as saying ‘Yorkshire had unusually wet weather over Christmas’, rather than ‘The weather was of an extreme nature in the North’) and an active voice will be a default setting for copywriters when they start to draft a piece of work.
These grammar rules are not something we think about. We don’t stop and consider why we are putting words in a certain order, we just know it works that way.
What takes it to the next level is using that instilled knowledge and combining it with an understanding of people.
When you understand the audience’s voice, it allows you to create compelling content and copy that will influence their perceptions and behaviours, because you talk to them as an equal.
This is where good copywriting is invaluable to a brand.
It’s no secret: the better you know your audience, the better you will be at engaging with them. The better you are at engaging with them, the stronger the relationships you will build. And the stronger the relationship, the easier it will be to establish loyalty.
That’s why conversational language in marketing communications is more important than structural rules. If content doesn’t connect with an audience, they won’t be back.
‘Tastes good like a cigarette should’. ‘Think different’. ‘Got milk?’ They’re all examples of grammatically incorrect, yet incredibly successful, advertising slogans.
And it goes to show: copywriting is at its most influential when it’s unrestricted.
I’m by no means advocating that to produce compelling copy you should forget everything you know about sentence structure, wording and grammar. But the fundamental principle of producing great copy is to start with your audience and write for, and to, them.
Nowadays, sticking religiously to perfect grammar can often come across as arrogant and, instead of creating a connection, you alienate readers.
A great example is ending a sentence with a preposition. I have no idea where this rule came from. If I said, correctly, “from where this rule came” I’d sound like I’d swallowed a Jane Austen novel. So in in my view it’s quite alright to end a sentence with a preposition.
The trick is balancing proper grammar with a style and tone that your audience will understand.
And while I will undoubtedly have broken several grammar rules in this piece, I will continue to split infinitives and start sentences with ‘But’ and ‘However’ if it will make my copy more meaningful to the audience I’m writing for.
It’s all about word choice and this is where I believe style and instinct become more important than rules.