A copywriter attacks their work very differently than a novelist or poet.
While it’s tempting to think that anyone who can write well can write copy, at the end of the day, copy is a business – a form of writing that balances factors very different from those that guide, say, a professor of literature.
Because of these factors, copywriters are often confronted with a game of creative chess centered around grammar.
When writing strong creative copy, they need to make choices that might make a grammarian cringe. Clarity is prioritized over correctness. A relatable sentence structure sometimes beats out academic standards. After all, we’re talking about writing ads – not term papers.
Of course, it should be said that a writer’s first instinct (and first responsibility) is to write right. You have to know the rules to break them and, in general, it’s just no good for our clients’ brands to sound unintelligent.
But there are two key factors that can checkmate grammar when we get down to writing ads: Aesthetics and Brand Voice.
A writer’s job isn’t done once they send the copy to the art director. In any piece, the copy needs to grow right alongside the design. One of the most common examples of this balance is in punctuation. Maybe that headline technically calls for a colon… but maybe that colon looks horrible in layout. Change it. See if a comma looks better, or perhaps – an em dash. Maybe it doesn’t want any punctuation at all.
Or you might find that the grammatically correct phrasing results in a widow or uneven bullet points. Time to dive back in and rework.
Sometimes, saving that extra semi-colon from the art director’s backspace feels like a hostage negotiation – but a copywriter needs to be flexible enough to look at the bigger picture.
Accuracy in grammar and punctuation won’t get a person to buy what you’re selling. What will is a piece that sounds and looks good.
Always remember: it’s not just about sounding good. If it doesn’t also look good, don’t write it.
The primary goal of ad copy is to connect with the target, be that through laughter, tears or recognition of a need. It’s also to communicate with that target as the brand – not as a writer.
To that end, it’s sometimes necessary to exchange formal structures for a more colloquial approach.
But it all depends on the brand: If we’re talking about a high-brow newspaper or a renowned university, you wouldn’t end a sentence with a preposition. But if it’s a quirky, local cookie joint, people may be looking for that more casual voice.
That’s why writers have to be listeners, above all else. Listen to the textbooks and the rules – but also listen to the well-postured man beside you at the bar, or the group of kids taking selfies on the subway, or your NASCAR-obsessed aunt at the family picnic.
We all have the tendency to bury our heads in the ground, considering our specific crafts before the business or the brand, thinking we know what’s best.
But sometimes, what’s best has little to do with the “rules” of the craft. Instead, it’s about understanding the people who consume your brand and speaking to them in a way that makes them feel at home.
For example, properly using the past subjunctive tense might feel cold and stilted for a casual clothing brand. A few run-ons or sentence fragments could be more relatable to kids looking at a community center ad. And those purists who champion the accurate differentiation between “bring” and “take” will be heartbroken to discover that many consumers just don’t care.
A watch company serving a mostly wealthy, highly educated clientele might have the headline:
Time is relative. A good watch is not.
A more modern, colorful watch targeted at tech-obsessed Gen Z’ers, on the other hand:
The real tick-tock to watch out for.
Copywriting is communication. And communication grows and sways within every community.
A copywriter’s words don’t exist in a vacuum. They work alongside images, animation and interactive elements, and they speak on behalf of a company with its own voice and concerns.
So the challenge in writing good copy isn’t nailing all the grammar rules. It’s knowing when – in balancing all of these factors – it’s time to break some rules.