Rules schmules: 11 rebellious ways to electrify your copy

October 23, 2009 by Dean Rieck
Filed under: Copywriting Tips 

My writing teachers tried so hard to get me to obey all the rules of grammar and style. But I was rebellious.

I’d always ask where those rules came from, and they’d say that great writers shaped the language and everyone else followed their lead to create “standard” English.

Okay, I’d say. I’m a great writer and I’m shaping the language too!

That was a bit arrogant of me. But while my teachers had a point (I really did need to learn the rules), I also had a point (I can’t let the rules stifle powerful communication).

Mark Twain once said, “The difference between the almost right word and the right word … [is] the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”

So with humble apologies to my well-meaning instructors, I hereby reveal a few rule-breaking tricks of the copywriting trade. Used wisely, they can help transform your sales copy from a dull glow into a brilliant flash.

Write in the second person. This means you should speak directly to your reader with words like you, your, and yourself. You can occasionally use the first person (I, my, mine, me, we, our, us) in letters and other one-on-one communications, but it should be used sparingly elsewhere. Unless you’re telling a story about someone, third person (he, she, they) is almost never appropriate.

Use command language. For direct mail envelopes write, “Look inside” or “Open immediately.” At the bottom of the first page of a sales letter write, “More,” “Over please,” or “Read on.” For order forms write, “Complete and mail within 14 days” or “Ask for your free issue today.” Don’t be a delicate doily. If you want people to do something, tell them to do it.

Avoid rambling sentences. According to readability research, your average sentence should be about 16 words and express a single thought. Once a sentence exceeds 32 words, it becomes harder to understand. When you have a long sentence with two or more ideas, break it into separate sentences. Of course, you should vary individual sentence length — some short, some long — for variety. (And by the way, the average sentence in this article is 11 words.)

Keep most paragraphs short. Ideally, they should be no longer than 7 lines, especially in letters. If a paragraph gets too long, break it into shorter chunks. Forget standard paragraph development. Your goal is to keep people reading. Short paragraphs are easier on the eye and make reading “feel” easier and more pleasant. Look at any newspaper and see how short most paragraphs are.

Drop in one-sentence paragraphs. They’re punchy and add variety.

Begin sentences with conjunctions. This includes and, also, besides, furthermore, likewise, moreover, or, else, otherwise, but, however, nevertheless, so, then, and therefore. They can help you break long sentences into shorter ones and still make your copy flow smoothly. This is particularly helpful when you have a number of items you want to include which are difficult to fit together logically. For example, “The new RX9 is twice as fast as the RX8. Plus you get 12 new features.”

End sentences with prepositions. This will send the persnickety into a dead faint. But to paraphrase Winston Churchill, the preposition commandment is a rule up with which I will not put. In ordinary conversation, do you say, “With whom are you going?” or “Who are you going with?” Allow yourself the freedom of putting of, for, with, and other prepositions at the end of a sentence. Strive to be natural, not slavishly correct.

Add occasional fragments. This helps add excitement. Urgency. Picks up the pace. And creates a firm tone. Don’t overuse this technique, though, or you’ll annoy readers.

Write like you talk. Use dialog and conversational writing. “People especially like to read anything in quotation marks.” Use pronouns: I, we, you, they. Use familiar expressions: a sure thing, rip-off, O.K. Use contractions: they’re, you’re, it’s, here’s.

Use intelligent redundancy. Free gift, actual fact, call anytime 24-hours a day, and other such constructions may get you poor marks in English class, but in the real world they help to emphasize your point and clarify your meaning.

Punctuate headlines lightly. Periods signal a stop, so you should avoid using them. To draw the reader into the body copy, you can use ellipses (…) at the end, but no punctuation at all is often best. Use colons and semicolons sparingly, because they also signal a stop and can feel too formal for most headlines. To separate thoughts in long headlines, use a dash — like I’m doing now — or use ellipses … both signal a pause, but don’t stop the reader.

Do you have a favorite copywriting rule-breaker? Don’t be shy. Let me know what it is. (Notice how I’m using command language?)

No related posts.

>>> Subscribe to blog by RSS or E-mail

Smart Comments

3 Comments on Rules schmules: 11 rebellious ways to electrify your copy

  1. Donovan Owens on Oct 24th, 2009 1:06 am
  2. First of all, I do have to say that I love your blog. The way you explain your tips makes them really stand out and make complete sense.

    You know what I mean?

    I’ll definitely be back to visit you often…just keep the tips rolling and making good sense.

    Fair enough?

    I guess you can tell that one of my favorite copy secrets is asking a question. When you do that, the person on the other end of the copy has to answer that question in their mind; right?

    Take care.

    Donovan Owens

    The Boot Camp Godfather

  3. Dean Rieck on Oct 24th, 2009 6:54 pm
  4. Thanks, Donovan. I’m glad you like the blog and find the tips helpful.

  5. Jack on Oct 25th, 2009 10:11 am
  6. I’m sorry Donovan, your “copy” reads very odd, and the two questions your asked (“You know what I mean” and “Fair engouh”) are out of the place here to say the least.

    Somehow, your comments can be used (as in “copy and paste”) for a tons of other blogs as well — You know what I mean?

    Maybe it’s just me