It’s a funny thing about grammar and style.
Most everyone shudders at the idea. Prepositions, conjunctions, appositives—it’s like a different language. With a change of perception about these rules, though, you’ll be able to improve your writing.
When you’re writing content, what you learned in school about writing often doesn’t apply. But that doesn’t mean you throw everything you learned out the window. Effectively communicating is your ultimate goal. Sometimes grammar and style will bring you closer to that goal, and sometimes they won’t.
Here are a few content writing tips that might rub English teachers the wrong way, but will make you a better communicator.
1. You can use “you.”
“Using the Pronoun ‘You,’” a guide from Kent State University Writing Commons, says the use of ‘you’ is “considered inappropriate in academic writing, such as papers or journals.”
I couldn’t agree more. Yet there are still people who insist that the use of ‘you’ is equally inappropriate when writing content. That couldn’t be more wrong.
The Balance published an article titled, “The 15 Most Powerful Words in Advertising.” Spoiler alert: ‘you’ was number one.
David Ogilvy, one of the original Mad Men, said: “Don’t address your readers as though they were gathered in a stadium. When people read your copy, they are alone. Pretend you are writing to each of them a letter on behalf of your client.”
In the Copywriter’s Handbook, Robert Bly’s first of eleven tips for writing clear copy is to “Put the reader first, use ‘you.’”
Even some academics recognize the importance of using “you.” The University of North Carolina Writing Center said, in one of its writing guides, that using “you” helps create a sense of familiarity with your reader.
2. Go ahead and start sentences with “but,” “and,” or “because.”
I’ve encountered several people who believe that no proper sentence can begin with any of these words. For a while, I was fooled into thinking they were right. Turns out that this “rule” actually has no grammatical basis, but English teachers push it nonetheless.
The American Heritage Dictionary says that “but” can be used “to begin a sentence at all levels of style.
In The King’s English, a book about English usage and grammar, it says that it is superstition that “and” must not start a sentence.
Brian Klems, editor of Writer’s Digest exposes teachers everywhere by saying, “It’s not poor grammar to start a sentence with ‘because.'”
Again, if you’re writing an academic paper or journal, you may want to use these words sparingly at the beginning of sentences. But that’s only because this myth is so persistent that people perceive these words as informal when they’re placed at the beginning of a sentence.
Don’t ever hesitate to use “but,” “and,” or “because” to start a sentence when writing content.
3. Don’t be afraid to fudge a customer quote.
This rule shows why it’s so important to make distinctions between writers. If you’re a journalist or scientist, quotes are sacred.
The Reuters Handbook of Journalism says that quotes can “never be altered other than to delete a redundant word or clause.” But if you write content or copy, you’re allowed to exercise more judgement when it comes to including quotes.
I stole this tip for writing content from a colleague of mine, a long-time marketer. He believes that as long as you’re being true to the quote, it’s okay to shift some words around. And I agree. Just make sure you get approval from the client.
Chances are that your client will be glad that you’ve helped make them look better by using strong language.
The only caveat is that there is something to be said about maintaining the authenticity of your customer’s voice. As a rule of thumb, only change a quote when it makes the story more impactful or prevents your client from looking inarticulate.
4. Use sentence fragments (tastefully).
A sentence fragment is an incomplete sentence. The OWL Purdue English lab gives several examples of what this means. Sentence fragments are always technically wrong, but remember what I said in the beginning?
Sometimes grammar brings you closer to your goal of effective communication. Sometimes it doesn’t.
One of OWL’s examples of fragments reads:
The current city policy on housing is incomplete as it stands. Which is why we believe the proposed amendments should be passed.
The piece from OWL says that the second clause (the one beginning with “which is why”) is a fragment. However, OWL goes on to say, “This is a conventional journalistic practice, often used for emphasis.”
Content writers are not journalists, but like journalists, they need to emphasize certain things. It follows then, that content writers serve themselves well by making tasteful use of sentence fragments.
5. Use one paragraph for one thought
I’m a firm believer that being a good content writer is about even more than the words you choose. It’s about the reader’s experience.
That’s why I’m a big proponent of breaking up paragraphs in a way that schoolteachers would probably shudder at.
By fragmenting paragraphs, you can present your main idea in one or two lines, the meat of your argument in three to four lines, and the conclusion of your paragraph in another one or two lines. With this type of fragmenting, you give the audience an easier reading experience.
And you gain a powerful tool for indicating emphasis so you don’t overdo the bolding.
You’re constantly fighting for attention on the web as a writer. You can’t afford to give your reader another reason to skip your content. People generally only read a max of 28% of your writing on the web, according to the Nielsen Group.
Headlines and isolated text stand out. That visual emphasis helps you deliver value even to scanners, while giving you a better chance of drawing them further into your writing.
Use Good Judgement
Grammar and style are there to help you improve the way you communicate. If grammar and style are not doing their job, use your judgement and make the call. If your judgement is failing you, take a step back, or have someone else review it.
Just remember, effective communication is the only rule without an exception.