Ands & Buts: Why conversational copywriting needs to break the rules

Andrew Boulton is a senior lecturer on copywriting and creative advertising at the University of Lincoln. He’s also a copywriter with over a decade of scribbling experience at top creative agencies in the Midlands and once for a man who carved dolphins out of cheese.

He was nominated for the Professional Publishers Association Award for Business Media Columnist of the Year despite having little or no grasp of the semi colon. You can follow him on Twitter @Boultini.

Do you know what happened to the last person who told me I shouldn’t start a sentence with the word ‘and’? I filled a pillow case with snooker balls and soup tins and beat them to death. Actually I just muttered something surly under my breath and had a tiny, angry cry.

If you’re a copywriter I’m sure, that like me, you encounter these kinds of objections with surprising regularity. Strange as it may be, there still seems to be a powerful body of resistance to conversational language even in marketing communications.

Personally, I would happily toss all forms of grammar and language pedantry (and all that hold them dear) into a big, raging volcano.

Copywriting is at its most persuasive and dynamic when left unrestricted. Already constrained by brief, brand and tone of voice, to then further burden the writer with a restrictive (and frankly redundant) purist approach to language is doing a disservice to the creativity and impact of a campaign.

It seems that there is still an unwillingness in pockets of the industry to abandon the lessons learnt in primary school English. I’m by no means advocating all copywriters to trample over everything we know about sentence structure, wording and grammar. But the fundamental principle of copywriting is to write for your audience and to your audience.

Time and time again I have encountered brand guidelines where the tone of voice instructs me to write as if I were talking to a friend. It’s a fine line between writing in a friendly way and writing in an overly familiar way, but there is no doubt that such messages should be written as one would speak – namely in a relaxed and informal manner.

And an environment of rules, restrictions and pedantry is not at all conducive to this kind of comfortable conversation. As far as rules go, I’m a subscriber to George Orwell’s tenet (of which he insisted a writer should only turn to if their ‘instinct’ fails) that rules of writing should always be broken sooner than the author ‘say anything barbarous’.

This applies in copywriting more so than any other written medium. If a copywriter is forced to start a sentence with ‘And’, ‘But’, ‘However’ or any other number of mythical grammar crimes, in order to deliver the most compelling message possible, then they must do it. Their responsibility is to their client, not to those who fail to recognise or accept that the English language is (and has always been) a fluid and malleable instrument.

And if anyone ever questions that, just let me know. I’ll bring the snooker balls.

@Boultini

Andrew Boulton is a copywriter at the Together Agency. He rarely actually throws anyone into a big, raging volcano.

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