The day I broke the rules


When I was a little kid, back in the good old days, I used to go to school and have my favorite lesson :  French grammar.

I would sit there listening to my teacher for hours.

She would teach us how to write and make good sentences. No need to tell that she did it for our sake.

She would repeat the same refrain over and over again till it got embedded in my brain:

“Your style is too confusing and heavy”.

“Your paragraph is not well structured: write the main idea, develop your argument and then, give an example”.

“Never begin a sentence with conjunctions. That’s not good French”.

Yep, that’s the way I learned how to write.

For years, I tried to respect those rules, but my results did not get better overnight. When I graduated a few years later, my level finally improved.

But it didn’t mean I was going in the right direction.

I was sticking to the same rules and … it still sucked.

I still hadn’t found my own style.

Two golden rules

Much later, when I started to write a few articles for a not-for-profit organization, I realized that copywriting was the kind of writing that suited me best.

Besides, I found out two major things:

Make your writing ‘conversational’ – when it comes to writing a copy, make sure that it’s grammatically correct. You can’t succeed without it. However, you have to strike a balance between a formal tone and an unprofessional one, full of spelling and typos errors. Instead, use a conversational tone, just as if you were having a conversation with your target audience. After all, you’re not supposed to lecture them.

Adjust your voice and … your grammar when needed – you may change your style according to your target audience. When you write a copy, the trick is to adjust your voice to match that of your target audience. So, with that adjustment also come changes in the grammar you use in your copy.

Good grammar skills go hand in hand with good copywriting. They are both institutions that you can’t disparage, as Frank Sinatra would say.

It’s just that not everything must revolve around those rules.

Writing is a lot more about grammar rules.

And at some stage, you got to break them.

The rules you can break

You can break any grammar rule in copywriting as long as your copy sounds conversational and appeals to your target audience.

Here is a list of the grammar rules I usually break:

Contractions – Well, if you have to be conversational in your copy, you’d better use contractions to make it sound more “informal”. It’s the basis for any informal speech. If you think it’s not correct, just think about it: don’t you ever use any contractions in your daily conversations?

Fragments – Fragments within articles allow you to “scan” short sentences and pick up snippets of information without having to read all the body copy. They create rhythm. And they go with the flow of your text.

One-sentence paragraphs – I can already see my French teachers spinning in their graves. Actually, I don’t  write novels. I write copies to tell a story and convert readers into buyers. For this, you don’t need to write big blocks of texts. Paragraphs are usually used to make a single argument. And that’s it. It’s also a good way to give your reader a mental rest between sections or longer paragraphs.

Conjunctions – Ah, this is my favorite part. My teachers told me so many times not to start any sentence with conjunctions. YES, you can. Starting a complete sentence with a conjunction (‘and’, ‘or’, ‘but’) is a good way to draw attention to it. Another reason is that they’re a useful way to break up long sentences. Remember:  most readers scan rather than read these days. Use it but as in all things, take it in moderation.

Slang words – It may be quite dodgy if you use it too much. Personally, I don’t use it very often, except if I have to write for a particular niche. If your target audience is quite specific, show them that you’re familiar with their jargon. That way, you’ll belong to their community. Otherwise I would avoid it as much as possible.

Passive voice – My mother tongue is French. Like in English, it’s not recommended that you use passive voice in your sentences. It sounds too heavy. But once again: Don’t you ever use passive voice either? It’s acceptable in a copy, and if you use too much, you can still rely on your WordPress plug-in.

So, please don’t stick to the old grammar rules just because your dear English (or French) teacher told you to do so.

Some copywriters even suggest that you break other rules.

Now, just do it.

Break them.

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