Dear Business Builder,
My 12-year-old son has appointed himself “The crack cop” around our house.
The minute anyone allows his or her pants to slip a little low and then bends over, the boy gleefully shouts, “Say no to crack!” – and then collapses helplessly into spasms of laughter.
Happened to me just last night. In front of the nanny. Frickin’ humiliating.
Now, as your friend and mentor, I’d hate for anything like that to happen to you – especially when you present your copy to a client.
Showing your keester – proving that you played hooky the day they taught the rules of grammar and punctuation in Third Grade – is no way to put your career on the fast track!
No, I’m not picking on you. In fact, this issue is more about my health than your career.
See, I get tons of spec assignments and samples from writers who want to work with me. Plus, I edit reams of sales copy from both “A” and “B” level writers who work for my agency, Response Ink.
And if I have to correct one more dumb and/or careless blunder in grammar or punctuation, my head’s going to explode.
And so, in what I’m sure is a futile attempt to head off the heart attack or stroke I’m sure will strike the next time I see the same brain-dead mistakes in sales copy — here are 17 simple guidelines I found on an educational website that may help …
1. Verbs has to agree with their subjects.
2. Also too, never, ever use repetitive redundancies.
3. Be more or less specific.
4. Parenthetical remarks (however relevant) are (usually) unnecessary.
5. No sentence fragments.
6. Foreign words and phrases are not apropos.
7. Do not be redundant; do not use more words than necessary; it’s highly superfluous.
8. One should never generalize.
9. Don’t never use no double negatives.
10. Avoid ampersands & abbreviations, etc.
11. The passive voice is to be avoided.
12. Eliminate commas, that are, not necessary. Parenthetical words however should be enclosed in commas.
13. Never use a big word when a diminutive or minuscule one will suffice.
14. Use words correctly, irregardless of how others use them.
15. Understatement is always the absolute best way to put forth earthshaking ideas.
16. Exaggeration is a billion times worse than understatement.
17. Proofread carefully to see you any words out.
Now, I hear that in addition to the rules above, those of you with a sheepskin on your wall were also taught some stuff about communicating effectively in English that just ain’t true – like …
1. One-word sentences? Eliminate. No way! I’ve found that when used with discretion, one-word sentences and even one-word paragraphs in sales copy add emphasis and make the page look more inviting.
2. Who needs rhetorical questions? I do – that’s who! Rhetorical questions are a great way to stop prospects in his or her tracks and get them thinking. My rhetorical headline, “What’s Wrong with Getting Richer Quicker?” mailed for years.
3. Contractions aren’t necessary and shouldn’t be used. Baloney! Contractions should always be used when writing sales copy – unless NOT using them adds appropriate emphasis: “Don’t buy any stock today” is much less emphatic than “Do NOT buy any stock today”.
4. Prepositions are not words to end sentences with. Not necessarily true. Remember: Our aim is to write colloquially – and most of our prospects break this rule with wild abandon.
5. And don’t start a sentence with a conjunction. WRONG! Conjunctions are connecting words … when used at the beginning of a paragraph, they can be very helpful in promoting readership.
6. It is wrong to ever split an infinitive. Again – if you’re speaking to your prospect colloquially, it may sometimes be helpful to.
7. Avoid clichés like the plague. (They’re old hat.) That’s as dumb as a bag of hammers. Clichés, metaphors and other figures of speech are more than just colloquial and comfortable; they tend to paint vivid mental images. And as we both know, a picture is worth a thousand words.
8. Also, always avoid annoying alliteration. Some of the most effective headlines ever written used alliteration to make them memorable. Bencivenga’s legendary “Lies, Lies, Lies” “12 Smiling Swindlers” etc.
9. Comparisons are as bad as clichés. Who wrote these rules anyway? Comparisons are essential in sales copy. To make my case, I often compare something that’s happening in the economy or stock market today with something that happened in years past.
And to simplify things, I often compare something that happens inside your body with something that happens outside it: “This supplement is like a rotor-rooter for your arteries.”
And of course, comparing the high value of the benefits my product delivers with its low cost is a proven winner.
10. Analogies in writing are like feathers on a snake. Again – analogies are word pictures … they’re used in colloquial conversation … and they’re a quick way to drive your point home.
11. Kill all exclamation points! Not always! Judicious use of exclamation points when writing sales copy is helpful to emphasize important points! Overuse can kill, though!
12. Eliminate quotations. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “I hate quotations. Tell me what you know.” You can quote me on this: Waldo was a drooling moron. Quoting a top expert’s implicit or explicit endorsement of your rationale, theme or product is a powerful way to establish credibility.
13. If you’ve heard it once, you’ve heard it a thousand times: Resist hyperbole; not one writer in a million can use it effectively. Hyperbole is like art: No one can define it, but everyone thinks they know it when they see it. As the writer, you alone should judge whether your tone and word choices are appropriate or hype.
14. Puns are for children, not for groan readers. Tell that to Arthur Johnson: He knows that light humor – including puns – can be a powerful readership and response booster, especially in heads and subheads!
15. Go around the barn at high noon to avoid colloquialisms. Nonsense. Colloquialisms communicate. See above.
However, there is one more set of rules that I DO try to follow carefully – and that I see broken more than any other …
Use the apostrophe in its proper place and omit it when it’s not needed.
Ah, apostrophes. Those little demons seem to bedevil everyone I know. Problem is, the misuse of apostrophes is a pet peeve of mine.
Can’t explain why, but when they’re used incorrectly in copy I’m reviewing, critiquing or editing, they make me see red.
My blood pressure “skyrocket’s,” those little “vein’s” in my forehead bulge, a gallon of adrenaline “get’s” dumped into my blood stream and I have to resist the urge to throttle the poor person “whos” offended me.
In my humble opinion, nothing – NOTHING – makes your sales copy look more ignorant than misusing or abusing the humble apostrophe.
And wouldn’t you know it? Almost everyone in my office … every copy cub I work with … every vendor who sells stuff to my companies … every client I have … and even the top writers I copy chief every day … couldn’t use an apostrophe correctly if you held a gun to their “head’s!”
Look. This ain’t brain science or rocket surgery: There are three times – and ONLY three times when an apostrophe is called for …
Time #1 — To make a word possessive:
RULE A: If the root word is NOT possessive and does not already end in an “s,” adding an apostrophe followed by an “s” makes that word possessive.
“This is Clayton’s article.”
NOT “This is Claytons’ article.”
RULE B: If the word already ends in “s,” no additional “s” is necessary. An apostrophe at the end of the word is sufficient.
“That’s Martin Weiss’ newsletter”
NOT “That’s Martin Weiss’s newsletter”
RULE C: Words that are already possessive do not need an apostrophe, regardless of whether or not they end in an “s”.
“Is this yours?”
NOT “Is this your’s”
“Is this his?”
NOT “Is this his’?”
“Is this hers?”
NOT “Is this her’s?”
“Is this theirs?”
NOT “Is this their’s?”
“It said its product”
NOT “It said it’s product.”
And DEFINITELY NOT “It said its’ product.”
Time #2 — To combine two words into one using a contraction:
The apostrophe is used to replace a missing letter in the combined word.
It Is = It’s
Do not = Don’t
Will not = Won’t
Could not = Couldn’t
She is = She’s
He is = He’s
They are = They’re
Clayton is = Clayton’s
Time #3 – Colloquially, to indicate that a letter or part of a word or number is missing.
Clayton has been called “The Sultan of ‘suasion.”
Back in ’87, the stock market crashed …
I feel better.
I’ll never have to correct these things again – right?