It was printed on the wall in brilliant block letters. “What is popular is not always right. What is right is not always popular.” This phrase is burned into my brain for good, filed at the top of my mental rolodex right next to the last burrito I ate and my first kiss. Perhaps I missed the purpose of the poster, but what I got out of it was that some rules are meant to be broken, and grammatical guidelines can be just about as arbitrary as the conventions they follow.
That’s about the only thing I remember from my 5th grade language arts class. That and Mrs. Nasier’s habit of spending half the day swapping ghost stories with the kids who were really into bigfoot. But I’m not here to discuss the existence of bigfoot, or talk about a 51 year old English teacher who’s afraid to look under the bed at night. I’m here to tell you why Hemingway’s rules for writing are dated and overrated.
First the Apology, Then the Trial
I’d like to think I’m polite. I try not to exaggerate or stick my opinion where it doesn’t belong but the owner of this blog approved this topic, so here it goes. Before I get started let me say that theoretically speaking, boundless creativity can coexist peacefully with Hemingway’s rules for writing with a bit of linguistic gymnastics by way of recursion, aka “infinite use of finite means.”
Yet at this very moment, zealot editors all over the internet are quashing the juvianilia of promising copywriters by subjecting them to half-baked, hamfisted golden rules. Anyways, I’d still like to apologize if what you are about to read comes off as pretentious and ambivalent (which breaks rule number 3). On that note, I’ll let Walt Whitman’s ghost finish justifying the style of this diatribe, “Do I contradict myself? Very Well then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes.).” Now that that’s out of the way, let’s go through each rule one by one.
1. Use Short Sentences
The reality is that people get bored quickly and run-on sentences tend to send readers running for the hills. But as long as it’s unboring, I have no problem nixing this rule. Below is a passage from Tom Robbins’ book B is for Beer that breaks rule number one in fine fashion. Sure you could cut it in two but you’d be nixing half the fun.
“Does it sometimes seem to you that there is the familiar world you wake up in every morning and another world to the right or the left of this one, just out of reach, where interesting things (some wonderful, some rather creepy) are occurring that you can’t quite describe or put your finger on: a world where your Hello Kitty tick tock clock refuses to obey rules of time, where mommies and daddies don’t work all day; where trees, certain rocks, and maybe even shoes live secret lives of their own?”
2. Use Short First Paragraphs
I’m a fan of minimalism and eco-friendly copy. I have no qualms with this rule because it makes things easier on the reader. More often than not, my goal as a business writer is to send a message that grabs your attention long enough to help you part with your hard earned money or serve up useful, interesting information. I try to keep things brief and concise.
On the contrary, here are three trademarks of this style that go hand and hand with the spirit of brevity that I do like to break:
Always use contractions – I AM SAM. SAM I AM. I DO NOT LIKE CONTRACTIONS IN MY GREEN EGGS AND HAM. I’m not Dr. Suess, but sometimes it just works better if you skip the contractions.
Don’t use “that” – I’ve been making liberal use of this word so far and I don’t think that it’s that terrible of a thing.
Get rid of “really” and “very” – I quite like my adverbs thank you very much! They are really important to me.
3. Use Vigorous English
In my professional experience, this rule often means that equivocal language is a no no. The problem is that all too often, people with a poor understanding of a subject will make hyperbolic statements without any real authority to back it up. That’s not a confession but it’s as close to one as I’ll get. The series Mad Men comes to mind here.
Plus, the word “vigorous” is a historically masculine term that leaves a bad taste in my mouth. I don't find it offensive but it’s dated and politically exclusive. Again, I’m not here to offer a revisionary critique of post World War II American literature. If you are interested in the subject, maybe start with Howard Bloom’s Anxiety of Influence or look into écriture féminine.
4. Be Positive, Not Negative
Marketers prefer to use positive language. Unfortunately, I’ve noticed most marketers are afraid of using words with negative connotations. It’s because we know better than anyone that arousing discrete positive or negative emotions has an ambient effect on the perception of brands and products. Babies, dogs, literary hot dogs. They all stir positive emotions en masse that linger far after people forget the details of what they’ve read. Which is a beautiful thing and a tactful way to sell stuff if it’s done in an ethical manner.
On the flipside, you’ll undoubtedly come across dubious copy that was written with kid gloves on in an attempt to condition the audience as if they were lab rats participating in an experiment run by Pavlov or Hans Seyle. You are getting sleepy…very sleepy. The truth is, that kind of thing works like a charm when the audience is suffering from decision fatigue or in very “high spirits.” Take a trip down the self-help section in your local bookstore, you’ll find a ton of this.
I say, you don’t have to treat your audience like puppies, and positivity isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. This goes without saying but if I’m writing a whitepaper for executives on safety in the workplace, you’d better bet your life I’m going to use a copywriting formula that contains a strong dose of realism.
Creative Copywriting That Sells
In the end, any decent writer will tell you that none of us are above these principles. They embody accessible, pragmatic ideals that bode well for most types of copywriting, including this blog. Here comes my pitch. However, decent writers are getting harder to find (or bad writers are getting easier to find).
Don’t get stuck with a stickler who’s got great grammar, AI, and zero ability to generate interest or stir emotion. If you need a proven copywriter who knows how to sell, get in touch (if you want to). Arrivederci!