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Know the Rules - I'm a Jelly Doughnut

Discussion in 'Copywriting & Sales Persuasion' started by Madhat27, Feb 16, 2015.

  1. Madhat27

    Madhat27 Newbie

    Apr 3, 2014
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    In the ever-changing world of marketing, adapting is key. Marketing strategies have to evolve along with trends, customer behaviour and technology. But content doesn?t change. Right?

    Think again. Content marketing has to be tailored to your audience just as much as any other aspect of your marketing strategy. The subjects, tone, length and style should all change depending on your demographic.

    For a while, text language became a huge part of content writing, even affecting brand names like Phones4U. At some point along the line, it became less prominent and was replaced briefly with the language of internet memes - a dead horse still being flogged in the U.K. by moneysupermarket's ad campaign with the tagline ?save money and feel epic?.

    Using language the way your audience might use it is a great way of building rapport and showing a personality behind the brand. But there?s a difference between intentional techniques used for effect, and plain laziness.

    Grammar Matters

    Clearly, changing the odd word or letter for aesthetic appeal is fine. But using ?text speak? throughout your content is annoying, not to mention outdated.

    Other rules, too, make a big difference to your content, even if they seem negligible. So-called grammar ?rules? which are so rarely obeyed in everyday situations may seem archaic and redundant - and many of them are - but it?s still crucial that you are aware of them.

    1. Semantics​

    In our day-to-day lives, very few of us will bother with the distinction between who and whom, or less and fewer. Nevertheless, when it comes to your copy, you should bother.

    Grammar purists are everywhere and they are always keen to let you know when you have made an error. Why give them the satisfaction? This doesn?t necessarily require using uncommon phrasing; ?5 items or fewer? instead of ?less?, for instance. In most cases, it?s possible to rewrite the sentence to avoid the grammar faux pas altogether. E.g. No more than 5 items.

    2. Punctuation​

    ?Always put a comma before which?. This rule for writing is actually new to me, and I can see why. In a sentence like, ?I?m not sure which word to use,? there is clearly no need for a comma before which.

    The rule actually refers to additional clauses. In particular, when ?which? is used for non-restrictive clauses, where the clause before makes sense on it?s own. In modern usage, there?s very little difference and the majority of readers won?t notice a comma missing before which. Nevertheless, as a copywriter, you should be maintaining a standard above common usage. Correctly applying grammatical rules like these proves an attention to detail and an expert knowledge.

    Again, this is a sentence structure that could easily be avoided in most cases. If you?re unsure, rewriting is the best way to go. With other forms of punctuation, however, accuracy is vital. A missing comma, or improper capitalization can change the meaning of a phrase entirely. The question becomes, when do we sacrifice grammar for readability and where do we draw the line?

    3. Syntax​

    There are many ways to get syntax wrong, and presumably many rules about it. Most commonly recited, and most frequently flouted, is ?don?t split infinitives?. Flagrant disregard for this rule is routinely justified with a reference to Star Trek: the immortal words, ?to boldly go where no man has gone before?.

    Admittedly, ?to go boldly? wouldn?t have been as effective, but is this the exception that proves the rule? Yes and no. This antiquated rule is actually borrowed from Latin and doesn?t really apply to modern English. It?d be difficult to track down a grammar guide that still supports this rule.

    That being said, splitting infinitives is something to avoid. In fiction, which the Star Trek intro most certainly is, splitting infinitives can be a useful tool. But for copy, it rarely works.

    ?To quietly cry? sounds awkward, as does ?to soundly sleep? and ?to fiercely fight?. Now consider doing so with adverbs which don?t end in ?ly?. To fast run, or to hard try. Now consider splitting infinitives with anything other than an adverb: to through the fields run. Suddenly the rule makes sense. Splitting infinitives has somehow become common practice and is a staple in copy and on Twitter accounts.

    I Am a Jelly Doughnut

    Using language without knowing the rules is foolhardy. Once you understand all the subtleties of standard grammar, you can play around with it to your heart?s content. William Shakespeare, Lewis Carroll, James Joyce, and Virginia Woolf have all ignored the standard rules, (they even created words and phrases in some cases) and are revered for doing so. Undoubtedly, this is because they knew the rules first. And let's be honest; you may be good, but you're not William Shakespeare good.

    Not knowing the rules, or just not considering them properly can be disastrous, particularly online where words and phrases have multiple meanings. In a famous example, J.F. Kennedy supposedly told the people of Berlin he was a jelly doughnut (Ich bin ein Berliner). Berliner means both somebody from the city of Berlin and the confectionery.

    While there is some debate as to whether or not he truly made a mistake, it may have been easier to avoid the sentence altogether. Knowing these grammar guidelines is vital in preventing exactly this kind of misunderstanding.

    Breaking the Rules

    As mentioned in a previous post, good writers will always break the rules to find new ways of getting their point across. But first you need to know why you?re breaking the rules and what effect you?re trying to have on your reader. You have to consider your audience, your brand image, and your message.

    It?s worth asking: are there any rules too sacred to break?
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  2. Trepanated

    Trepanated Supreme Member

    Sep 18, 2010
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    I write a lot and for a variety of purposes - sales copy, email marketing, business proposals, prose, poetry, high value tender documents, the lot.

    For formal business writing I always follow the rules, but for everything else I break multiple rules, multiple times a day. I do so because it adds impact, makes the content more readable, gives it a better flow, adds rhythm - many reasons.

    I know and understand the rules though and I think that's an important point - breaking the rules by choice is far different to breaking them through ignorance.

    My advice would be if someone is going to break the rules, learn them first.

    I liked your example about splitting infinitives by the way. It's better with the rule broken. It brought to mind another example from one of my favourite poems, where breaking the rule would have been far, far worse:

    Good example of breaking the rule: To boldly go (where no man has gone before)

    Bad example of breaking the rule: Do not gently go (into that good night)

    Dylan Thomas' line was actually 'do not go gentle into that good night', so although he didn't split his infinitives, he still broke a rule, which resulted in one of the greatest lines of poetry ever.
    Last edited: Feb 16, 2015
  3. EverestOnline

    EverestOnline Jr. VIP Jr. VIP

    Apr 19, 2013
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    Web services company
    Manila, Philippines
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    Trepanated -- You've got a good point.

    While formal writing requires writers to strictly follow rules, the less formal variety allows room to be more creative and affords the opportunity to break some rules. The kind of writing required is that which determines if the writer can break rules or not. But the writer should also know when and when not to mess with the rules. A good writer would know the difference.