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The rules of copywriting. And why they suck

Andy Maslen has been persuading people to think, feel and act differently since 1986, when he first started working as an in-house copywriter.

He is managing director and head copywriter at Sunfish, the writing agency he founded with creative director Jo Kelly in 1996, and the author of five books on copywriting, including the best-sellers Write to Sell and Persuasive Copywriting.

Rules? Schmules!

Once I wanted to be a rock star.

At the time that did not mean someone who wrote blog posts.

Instead I played lead guitar in a band. My playing was OK. The band was better.

But ultimately, or in fact in very short order, my dreams of filling arenas and driving white Rollers into hotel swimming pools turned to ashes and I became a marketeer.

Now, maybe it’s the thwarted rocker in me, but I hate rules.

No. Start again.

I love knowing the rules for a particular activity. I just hate being told I have to stick to them.

Take writing.

It’s a subject fenced in by rules like thorny brambles around a castle housing a slumbering princess.

Our sleeping beauty is something every writer worth their salt cherishes. Truth.

For a copywriter, that truth should have something to do with purity of purpose.

I look for the purpose of a piece of copy in the client’s brief.

In my field of expertise – direct response, or to give it its contemporary name, conversion copywriting – the purpose is usually expressed in terms of a measurable financial result. At most two and frequently one step away from the P&L.

But it may be that for a corporate brochure, an ad or a piece of internal communications, the purpose is different. To encourage trade partners, investors or employees, perhaps.

Having read the brief, it’s all I care about as I begin the process of writing. And here’s where the rules, or should I say the “rules”, get in the way.

If a rule prevents me from writing the line I think will achieve the client’s stated commercial goal, do I shrug my shoulders and say, “Oh well, rules is rules” and write something else? No. I ignore it and carry on regardless.

Twitter is a good place to go looking for rules. It’s full of strictures, diktats, ukases, commandments and edicts. Often dressed to impress in infographic format that lends a spurious authority to what are often nothing more than opinions.

“You must...”

“Never…”

“Always…”

“Don’t…”

“You ought…”

“The only…”

Many of the so-called rules touted by the soi-disant “grammar nazis” (repugnant term) are nothing of the kind. That great eminence of the English language, H.W. Fowler, refers to them as “cherished superstitions”.

Where grammar is concerned, there are very, very few rules that you really have to obey. Subject-verb agreement is one of them. And I never break it. (Or do I?)

Then there’s George Orwell’s famous hexalogy from his essay, “Politics and the English Language”, which has attained the status of gospel among the writing crowd.

Here are the first five of his rules for writing, followed by a brief exegesis:

Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

Never use a long word where a short one will do.

If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

Never use the passive where you can use the active.

Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

A closer reading of Orwell’s rules reveals his own ambivalence. They are larded with get-out clauses, literally:

“…will do…”

“If it is possible…”

“…where you can…”

“…if you can think of …”

In other words, if it won’t do, don’t do it. If it isn’t possible, don’t worry. Where you can’t, fugeddaboudit. If you can’t think of, relax.

Yet it’s in his sixth prescription that he reveals his deepest feelings on the subject.

“Break any of these rules sooner than say anything barbarous.”

He placed beauty above adherence to his own rules.

And copywriting itself has bequeathed to us a great many rules. Here are three.

“Ads must have headlines.”

“Benefits are better than features.”

“Longer copy is better than shorter.”

Try breaking a rule – grammatical, stylistic, Orwellian or Ogilvyan (is that a word?) and see what happens.

People dressed in black will not invade your home at three in the morning and beat you to death with a vintage Smith-Corona.

You will not get fired then marched naked through an open-plan office full of laughing co-workers.

Parents will not hustle their small children away from you, grimacing and admonishing them sotto voce to “stay away from the bad writer”.

One of only three outcomes is possible.

Your copy will perform worse than whatever you test it against.

Your copy will perform the same as whatever you test it against.

Your copy will perform better than whatever you test it against.

Far better to abandon rules and focus on principles.

One might be to keep your reader before you at all times.

Another, to remember that nobody pays to read your copy.

A third, that somebody, somewhere really needs what you’re selling. Pitch it to them.

Finally, in a world drowning in unsubstantiated opinions, follow the evidence.

Break any rule you like, but measure what happens when you do. And compare it to what happens when you don’t.

Then you’ll know. Definitively. And the guardians of the citadel wherein the rules reside are stuffed.

Because to quote from one of my favourite films, Spinal Tap, “money talks and bullshit walks”.

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