This post comes out of a conversation with a client on Friday that had me thinking again about why I write, the way I write.
As I said to her: “I prefer to write the way that people speak, because radio is a conversation with the listener, and people don’t speak grammatically correct. At least none of the people that I know do.“
I know what I write would not make my High School Teachers or University Professors proud.
But the thing is – I am trying to write to sell – not win an award or get an “A” grade.
In short “I DO take some liberties with the English language, and I am okay with that!”
I had a lecturer at University who said (and I later found out it was from direct-response legend Herschell Gordon Lewis), “Grammar is our weapon, not our god.” The lecturer added that “You can choose to live by it or die by it.”
Yes it’s all well and good to know the grammar rules, but only so you can break them.
Next time you face a Grammar Nazi, ask yourself this question: “Which word or sentence will be clearer to the listener and why?”
My Golden Rule = choose clarity first. Usually it’s for no other reason than it is shorthand and enables ‘fast comprehension’ in a commercial script. Why spend 3 words saying something that can be said in 1 in a script?
While I do agree that literacy must prevail – and I have sometimes been guilty of dropping some clangers into live read scripts – but – the unexpected does help to stand out in peoples minds.
So here are 3 simple rules that I try to live by (but don’t always do so) for the Grammatically Challenged like me:
An Active Voice. Always, and I do mean ALWAYS, your radio scripts should be written in the active voice. For example: Active voice: I wrote the sentence, or I am writing this sentance. Passive voice: The sentence was written by me.
Subject & Verb Agreement. No matter what you are writing, from a 10 second credit or a 60 second commercial – singular subjects take singular verbs and plural subjects take plural verbs. There is no exception to this rule – maybe. While it’s a simple rule, execution is sometimes problematic. The key is to clearly identify the subject of the sentence. Sometimes, it’s not that easy when you are writing ad copy.
Use of Modifiers. Modifiers can and do cause a variety of problems. Sometimes I have had people ask me which modifiers can they use and how many modifiers can they use. My golden rule: Let clarity be your guide. Also, poor placement of modifiers results in confusion, your enemy. To make comprehension easy, put modifiers near the words they’re modifying.
Rules to Bend or Break
While ‘The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’ by Mark Twain ushered in a new era in American literature. I think that one of the main reason’s why he took a firm grip of the imagination was Twain’s use of the vernacular and persepctive.
I recently have been going back and re-reading his stories to try to teach myself again how to write conversations because it is such a weak point of mine. Remember that when Mark Twain was writing Huck Finn, he wrote not only the way people talked which was a departure from the stiff, formal English which was common during the Victorian period and other books of the era, but he also wrote in the voice of different classes and groups – and his writing worked so, so well – because he had an ear for conversations and voices.
It was also his perspective of giving our young hero a voice, one that changes as it goes along and evolves as he does in the story. This is something that has always stuck with me.
Most importantly though, for radio copywriters, writing the way people talk is absolutely essential.
Because our copy should always try to be conversational, friendly, and informal. That way our conversations stands a better chance of getting prospects to click, call or buy a product or service.
This is why sacrificing the following conventions can be in a radio copywriter’s best interest.
Ending Sentences With a Preposition. I am waiting to be shouted down on this one – yes some people say that this is a no-no, BUT hear me out – ending a sentence with a preposition can warm up your copywriting, it’s how people talk!
Which sounds friendlier to you: “Here is the information you requested” or “Here is the information you asked for“? I know which one I would pick.
Also when I record myself reading my scripts – I often find that I will naturally contract words, and alter a script as I go – usually I end up trimming about 3-5 words as I go through a 30 sec script – now that’s a big plus in my book!
Beginning Sentences With a Conjunction. Beginning sentences with conjunctions (and, or, but, nor) is more common these days, even in modern journalism. Not only is it the way people talk, it can shorten sentence length, a plus help in delivering sales messages.
Other Informal Devices. Use contractions to warm up your message. Also, use sentence fragments. Not only do they shorten average sentence length, they add rhythm. And drama. Giving a beat to what you read, when you read that sentence out loud.
Punctuation. My favourite thing to use – and maybe overuse. Use punctuation in your writing to your selling advantage. I’m inclined to use more dashes and an occasional exclamation point and ellipsis to add drama and excitement to the sales message. Commas can be pretty subjective, so I like to record my scripts… just to show the reader, what I want, how I want it read, and then they can follow the script.
Finally: While I do keep a grammar book, stylebook/guide, a dictionary and other writer’s references on or near my desk at all times (I can highly recommend POWER SALES WORDS by Vicky Oliver for example), you shouldn’t ignore them totally. After all, they make great places to rest coffee mugs!
“Just kidding!” You are still going to need them… Occasionally.
But don’t let grammar be your god, write like people speak, connect with their ears, win their hearts then their minds with your message.