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How small mistakes can improve your copywriting

January 15, 2013 | By | 7 Replies More

I make mistakes in my writing.

Everybody does.

Thing is, some of my mistakes, I don’t mind.

In fact, I sometimes make them on purpose. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that I let some of my mistakes remain.

I’m not talking about misspelling their as there, or your as you’re – they’re unfortunate mistakes that I try not to let slip through the net.

But many grammatical mistakes I don’t mind. Because the truth is, I don’t talk in proper English all the time and therefore, I don’t believe I should be writing in it either.

As much as possible in my copywriting, I try to write as the sentences form in my mind. Mostly that’s how I talk. But sometimes, it’s not even that.

It’s actually how the creative side of my brain talks.

What do I mean?

Well, I guess if you could put a microphone to the part of my brain that is thinking this stuff up and record what it says before it’s filtered through the more logical part that forms those thoughts into more coherent and grammatically correct sentences… it’s what would be recorded that I’m trying to write.

At least, I guess that’s what I’m trying to achieve.

(I say ‘trying’ as it’s far from an exact science. It’s more just a thing you have to get a feel for.)

But why do I write like this?

Two reasons:

One; it’s faster. Easier even, once you get the hang of it.

But more importantly, I do it because it makes my writing more engaging for the reader.

I don’t believe our brains work ‘grammatically’. Or at least, subconsciously most regular people don’t give a crap if your writing would be highly commended by Strunk and White.

In fact, I think subconsciously we are more drawn to writing that is personal, or rather… writing that is more internal.

By avoiding strict grammatical (traditional?) rules, you’re also able to write with more freedom and more urgency and in turn, more of your personality will come through in your writing.

This is key. You see, it’s my belief that regular readers don’t engage with writing in itself – they engage with the writer through the writing. So if the writing is formal and has no personal flair, it is harder for the reader to connect with the writer.

Interestingly, this idea is echoed by David Byrne in his book How Music Works.

He explains how mistakes that a musical artist makes – ‘the lurches and hesitations’ – which depart from the expected form of a song eventually improve the performance of that song.

People better engage with the song because of the mistakes.

Byrne writes:

“When Willie Nelson or George Jones sing way off beat, it somehow increases the sense that they’re telling you the story, conveying it to you, one person to another. The lurches and hesitations are internalized through performance, and after a while everyone knows when they will happen. The performers don’t have to think about them, and at some point that becomes part of the band’s sound. Those agreed-upon imperfections are what give a performance character, and eventually the listener recognizes that it’s the very thing that makes a band or singer distinctive.”

This is something I’ve believed in for a long time.

It’s difficult to test in direct-response copywriting, but I have tried by split-testing more freely written passages versus passages that are much more formal from a grammatical point of view.

Invariably the nuanced writing wins.

Sadly, it’s an idea that many writers often snub. Instead they prefer to walk a much more pretentious line that mocks writing that isn’t necessarily correct from a grammatical stand-point.

I don’t know why. A campaign for more freedom in writing is surely a good thing? And, so what if someone splits an infinitive? It doesn’t matter.

Seriously…

It. Does. Not. Matter.

Worse than that: such old-fashioned grammatical errors don’t have ANYTHING to do with making a sale. So, as a direct-response copywriter writer, why the hell should you worry about it?

You write to sell.

Not to acquire a GCSE in English Language.

So, what I advise you to do…

In fact, what I hereby give you permission to do…

Is make more mistakes.

You’re allowed to. Trust me.

Indeed, not only are you allowed to – it could actually improve your copywriting.

If you start to write your copy in a more natural style and worry more about expressing your ideas clearly, as opposed to dealing with grammar correctly, you’ll see that your copywriting becomes much more personal and eventually readers will not only forgive you your grammatical nuances…

They’ll recognise and respect you for them.

Best,
Glenn

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Category: Technicals

About the Author ()

Glenn Fisher is a professional copywriter, founder of AllGoodCopy.com and author of Write Better Copy. He is an expert in long copy sales letters, having written copy that has so far generated more than £10 million in revenue. Born in Grimsby, he now lives in London.

Comments (7)

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  1. B M Halpin says:

    ‘Such old-fashioned grammatical errors don’t have ANYTHING to do with making a sale.’

    Well, actually they do. Error-ridden copy turns me off, turns many people off. I don’t want to read the copy and I don’t trust anything they’re trying to sell me, if they can’t get that right.

    You’re not Willie Nelson or T.S. Eliot (who was famous for his poor spelling). You’re selling stuff.

    This is such a silly and time-worn argument. And an open invitation for even more abysmal writing than already exists out there and everywhere.

    • Glenn Fisher says:

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts, BM. However, I think you’ve missed my point.

      I agree that spelling and obvious grammatical errors, such as using ‘there’ instead of ‘their’, should be avoided.

      What I’m really talking about here is sentence structure and using turns of phrase that have more in common with how we actually speak than with how we’re supposed to phrase them in writing.

      Good copy should be personal and reflect the individual writing it – not fall in line with a regimented structure. Don’t you agree?

      • Anonymous says:

        ‘Good copy should be personal and reflect the individual writing it – not fall in line with a regimented structure.’

        I’m not sure at all what the ‘personal’ and ‘individual’ have to do with good copywriting The reader, surely, is interested in the product or service – not who happens to have written the copy. I would expect the copywriter to be invisible.

        The ‘regimented structure’ you talk about is what holds the English language together, makes it subtle and expressive, enables each of us to understand the other.

        To me, the best writer of any kind has technical mastery of the language s/he uses, and may choose to subvert convention if they wish. The worst is s/he who indulges their own idiosyncrasies.

        You seem to think there is an excess of grammar amongst copywriters. I think you would struggle to find one who knows what a split infinitive is.

        • Glenn Fisher says:

          Thanks for your comment, Anon, though I’m not sure I agree with some of the points you make.

          I believe the best copy doesn’t sell a product or a service – it sells an idea. As the successful newsletter publisher (and copywriter) Bill Bonner said: no one wakes up in the morning and thinks, hey, I need to subscribe to a financial newsletter. But tell someone about the next Apple and how they could invest at the ground floor and it’s a different matter.

          As for the copywriter being invisible – I do agree. The copywriter should be invisible, but the author of the copy should not be. It’s the copywriter’s role to bring the creator of the product (or rather, the guy/girl who’s got the great idea) to life through their copy. That’s why I recommend copywriters add personal flourishes to their copy to make it more individual.

          Not sure if you see what I mean, but hopefully that puts what I’m saying into a bit more context.

  2. Mags says:

    I understand the point you are making and I’m sure you are not proposing ‘error-ridden copy’ as a way of generating sales.

    The main problem is that, although it may be forgiven in blogging and other forms of creative writing, it is distracting.

    Allowing for copy that does talk to, rather than down to its audience and even occasional slang, inconsistency and my personal bugbear ‘I was sat’, or “he was stood’ grates.

    While smugness over the absence of an otherwise helpful comma, or the introduction of an unnecessary exclamation mark may come back to bite us, we will generally be forgiven an occasional lapse if we are generally able to keep the flow going without becoming careless grammatically (for the split infinitive fan above).

  3. Lesley Kemp says:

    Fascinating article Glenn. We write to communicate. Sometimes this is best achieved through grammatically correct, English class perfect text. But other times it can only be achieved with personality, pause, and ‘mistakes’ that would never make it past the red correction pen. It all depends on the audience, the purpose and the required result.

    (Interestingly this is a discussion I often have when clients want perfect prose but their products/audience need more natural language.)

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