Clients, copywriters and correct writing

29th November 2012 | Posted in Editing

Now here’s something I never thought I would write. It’s certainly something that my children would be disturbed to see me say, given their strict use of English upbringing.

The truth is I now believe it is possible to be too correct about grammar.

This is a bit of a revelation, as I also believe that it’s the correct use of language that makes our written words clear and accessible to our readers. I stand by that.

Why then am I relaxing the rules?

This week I was asked by a marketing agency to copy-edit another copywriter’s web site content. That’s not an easy thing to say yes to as I also believe that dissing another writer’s work is not the way to get on. The agency is a good client though so I agreed.

I expected something perhaps verging on the horrendous that didn’t explain, inform or encourage the reader to buy the proposition. It was nothing like that.

It turned out that the client was a stickler for correct grammar and punctuation and was not happy with the relaxed approach that the copywriter had adopted. She saw this as sloppy work that needed reworking at the agency’s expense.

I could see her point, and yet I don’t think she was right.

Here are her major gripes.

  1. Too many short sentences which began with “and” or “but” or just didn’t have verb.
  2. Too many extraneous commas before “and” and “but” in the longer sentences.

I totally agree that when you’re writing an essay, a thesis or a non-fiction book these can be considered crimes of grammar. A web site though, and any marketing materials, are about capturing attention and making the content an easy read for busy people. Copywriters know the rules but they break them for effect. It’s very easy to overdo the effect but a little goes a long way. We write variable length sentences and use punctuation carefully to help our audience follow the flow and maintain interest. I’m writing this blog with complete sentences and minimum use of commas or dashes. It would actually be a much livelier read if I broke those rules.

Coincidentally I’ve also been involved in the recruitment of a trainee researcher/copywriter for a client. To help test the candidate’s skills I provided her with a link to a story that I wanted to follow up for the client’s blog. I asked her to research the background to the story and then write a piece that was geared to the interests and needs of the blog’s readership.

What came back was well-written. The candidate had great understanding of how to put a sentence together, which is a major plus for anyone aiming to get a job in marketing. What she hadn’t managed to do was get to the heart of what mattered to our readership, write in tone that was appropriate, or put together a news story. I’m not planning to turn her down on this basis. These are things that a trainee will learn. What the experience did enforce was that great essay writers are not naturally great content writers. Journalism and copywriting are skills that need to be learned.

My advice to aspiring copywriters is always to watch and learn. It’s the same advice to marketing specialists too. Copywriters will write in different ways for different media and different audiences. Far from making them wrong, that makes them skilled.

Do you agree? Do you care about grammar or do you see it as an antiquated book of rules that should be thrown away? Have you noticed anything that irks you about my own use of grammar? Do tell by commenting on the blog.

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