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Writing Clear Copy: The Only Rule You Need to Worry About

Blue Room

So many English teachers shoved complex sentences down my throat that now a simple sentence almost makes my skin crawl.

That’s Tim Biden during a conversation about writing for the web.

He was responding to a tweet where I shared a link to my first Copyblogger post: “The Disgustingly Simple Rule for Web Writing That’s Often Hard to Swallow.”

He retweeted the link and said “I hate that he’s right.”

Clueless as usual about anything not immediately in front of me I asked, “Why you hate?”

Then he dropped that heavy weight comment above.

I responded with: “I was fortunate to skip most of school as a lad so as not to be brainwashed. But I didn’t learn how to write either.”

In fact, it wasn’t until I went back to college in my late twenties that I learned how to write. My last year in school I even won an essay contest.

THAT is a major achievement for a guy who equated good writing with jungle juice and symbolic (read: obscure) poetry.

But even college rubs a rigid style of writing into your bones. It wasn’t until I started my career as a direct response copywriter that I got my act together. That I loosened up and wrote to persuade and entertain.

Part of me wishes I was a better student in high school English (it didn’t help that our teacher–part-time PE instructor to boot–slept behind his newspaper during class).

On the other hand, if I had had the brainwashing in high school I would’ve had to learn how to break free of that condition, as Tim had.

The Clear-Copy Writing Rule

Tim ended our Twitter discussion with “If everybody were as lucky as you we’d have more creatives and fewer lemmings.”

The thing is I had to learn the rules.

Eventually.

Because I refused to conform (and called it creativity) I retarded my own progress as a writer. I eventually had to go by the book–master the fundamentals–before my creativity made any freaking sense.

And that’s rule number one when it comes to web writing: what you write must be clear.

So how do you write copy that makes sense? That is clear? Stanley Fish in “How to Write a Sentence” put it this way:

…there is only one error to worry about: the error of being illogical, and only one rule to follow: make sure that every component of your sentences is related to the other components in a way that is clear and unambiguous (unless ambiguity is what you are aiming for).

Listen. Many of us are afraid to write because we fear committing just one of the hundreds of syntactical sins our English teachers warned us about.

Relax.

The task is simple: get the first sentence right and everything else will follow.

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Comments

  1. I just got my first big project writing web copy for a pretty big client. I’m going through the usual stresses and insecurities that a rookie goes through, but am totally LOVING the process.

    Being a newbie, I’ve been studying the usual classics – Caples, Hopkins, Halbert, and Carlton, so I’m used to the longer form stuff. Whittling that down to fit above the fold and get the message across super fast is a challenge. You’ve been the best resource out there so far and it’s because of posts like this. Your PAS formula has saved my life. Thanks, man.

    • That PAS is a gem. It has saved mine a many time, too. You are on the right path with you book reading. Keep it up.

      By the way, I think you asked me if AWAI’s Accelerated Six Figure program was worth it (you asked this somewhere–G+ maybe)–sorry I’m finally getting around to answering.

      Yes, it is worth it. I also coach to if you are interested.

  2. Awesome Demian, was sorta waiting for this one.

    I’ve always thought about that moment in a blog post were we lose attention. Like where the reader clicks away, loses interest, loses focus…when does that happen?

    When I write, it takes like 4 edits to streamline things to where (I think at least) people can follow every word.

    What’s your method for making entire posts (like this one) readable?

    And on schooling…ya know, I remember my 9th grade English teacher being such a b*tch. But she left me with “your writing will never be good enough” and in some ways I think that’s helpful.

    • The first rule is to keep it short. Not meaning you can’t write a long post (because I do plenty of them over at Copyblogger). What I mean is to maintain a manageable chunk of content.

      I had less than two days to put this post together and publish it this morning. I had a lot more I wanted to say–with a lot more great quotes and resources to add. I made an executive decision to limit the size–and that limits the content.

      Like you I like to work through a document half a dozen times or more. But can’t do that if I don’t have the time. You can make the time by limiting size.

      And that advice from your ET is brilliant. I’m stealing it.

  3. Nice post Demian,

    I’m still learning this rule on clear writing. It’s better in my work writing. I’m much more controlled. However, in my personal/professional writing I’ve had to learn I do not have to hit “publish” right after the first draft. That has given me the ability to actually think more on the message, and less on me rushing to spit out the message.

    I authored a lot of obscure poetry in my young life – why you hate?! : – )
    We gotta start somewhere!

    Nice read, as always. Keep’em coming.

  4. OK, I’m going to sound old saying this, but back when some of us went to school we had to actually learn spelling and grammar because there were no computers prompting and correcting us. Have you ever read the writing of school-age youngsters back in the 1800s and early 1900s? (no, I’m not quite that old…) Their writing is stunningly erudite. That was normal writing and the foundation of clarity. Unless we’re writing in the vernacular or hatching a new catch phrase I don’t think that misspelled words or poor grammar build clarity. It seems to me that our English teachers got it right. I am certainly grateful to mine.

    • No, you don’t sound old, and I totally get where you are going. I am super impressed with the level of writing talent from those time periods.

      By the way, my daughter (who is home schooled) and only eleven years old writes way better than I did when I was 25. No joke. But this is not because she knows the difference between a independent and dependent clause or can list subjunctives. It’s because she understands what makes a great article or story. And has a vivid imagination.

  5. Demian, if it’s not inappropriate, would you let me know whether you are using an online home school provider? If so, which one? My 12 yr old granddaughter reads constantly and writes well, but she is suffering in the public school environment. She’s begging for home schooling, so I’m looking for some options. Thanks.

  6. Kick arse post, as always, man!

  7. You know what…I think the fact that English is my second language is actually helping me to write simple sentences using simple words. I simply wouldn’t know how to write complex sentences, I had no formal education in English (it was all in French). It still feels weird a bit that ”native speakers” (Americans, Australians, English) now hire me to write their stuff…makes me smirk :)

    A detail not to overlook, simplifying your writing makes it more accessible to a world wide audience.

    Thanks for the post!

  8. Excellent blog! Do you have any tips for aspiring writers? I’m hoping to start my own website soon but I’m a little lost on everything. Would you advise starting with a free platform like WordPress or go for a paid option? There are so many options out there that I’m totally overwhelmed .. Any suggestions? Bless you!

Trackbacks

  1. [...] and compelling way. According to Demian Farnworth, it’s actually your only job as a writer. In this article, Demian says that you should forget about the complex syntax and structure you learned in college [...]

  2. [...] have busy schedules just like you and use blogs to satisfy the need for quick information. With direct response copy you can ask for feedback on what they want more [...]

  3. […] Farnworth tells us on Copybot “The Only Rule You Need to Worry About” is clear copy. That’s it. The rest will follow, he assures […]