Talking shop #1: Grammar and style

Today I’m starting a series of posts on a subject I’ve never really brought up here, or at least not in a serious way: writing. As my fellow bloggers know, writing isn’t exactly easy work. A lot of care goes into the process, and though we all have our own approaches and methods, I think the effort we put into our work always comes through in the final result.

It’s enough work, anyway, that we probably wouldn’t be writing at all if we didn’t enjoy it, and that’s especially true considering that most of us don’t make a cent off of our amateur blogs. If I could afford to do so, this is what I’d try to make a living on. However, my obligations and my unfortunate lack of a massive pile of money both force me to work at a different profession.

And while legal work pays the bills, and I do take pride in that work in some sense, I’d be lying if I were to say I love being a lawyer. No, my real love is writing.

Okay, writing and my waifu, fine. (Original Holo by Juu Ayakura, another favorite artist)

But while I love writing, I don’t love following writing rules. I mean that in both the sense of strict English grammatical rules and looser but generally accepted (by English teachers and professors, at least) guidelines on style. Of course, there are a ton of rules I do follow — otherwise my writing would be a jumbled and unreadable mess of characters. So perhaps it’s more accurate to say that I’m not a pedant or a stickler, except when I am. I follow the rules I like and ignore those I don’t.

This attitude is one of the reasons I think I started this blog. When I first logged onto WordPress in 2013 and came up with the dumb name for my site and the dumb first article I posted, I was still doing some freelance copywriting work, mostly for small business and lifestyle/travel sites. Certainly much less than I’d been doing the few years before — I was just starting at law school at the time, and as any 1L can tell you, that first year occupies nearly your entire schedule with reading cases and writing summaries, briefs, and outlines. But I kept working a bit on the side, as much as I could manage.

And that wasn’t much at all, because while copywriting work has some benefits (working from home being the greatest, and this at a time when working from home was not a standard situation as it is now) it also comes with serious annoyances, one of which is the prickly client and/or editor who puts your work through a rigorous grammar check and yells at you for having one comma out of place or for putting a preposition at the end of a sentence.

The life of a copywriter at least half the time

Of course, I understand having high standards for the writers you employ. Even when it came to my fluffiest, least substantial jobs, I would not forgive myself for producing crap. I always wanted the reader to be informed and/or entertained in whatever proportion seemed appropriate for the subject matter. In that sense, I didn’t mind the fact that some editors could be strict — but some of them were strict on those fixed rules of grammar and style guidelines, even when strictly following those rules made no sense at all.

But when wouldn’t it make sense to follow these rules? When you’re writing a piece with a casual tone, and that’s exactly what you’re doing as a copywriter most of the time, at least in my experience. Clients and editors hammer these points into your head — be friendly and conversational, put in a call to action at the end, and for God’s sake cram those SEO keywords in, especially at the top so Google-senpai notices your article enough to get it on page 1 when those keywords are searched.

When it comes to pieces like these, my approach was always to, big fucking surprise, write in a conversational and easy tone. To me, that means being a bit loose with grammar rules. My writing flows better that way, and people honestly, genuinely don’t give a shit if you don’t have your comma placement down — chances are most of your readers won’t even know those rules or remember them from their elementary and middle school English lessons. And in fact, outright breaking a few of the strict rules of grammar can give your writing exactly that conversational tone you’re going for.

But then, every so often, I’d run into someone ready to jump up my ass about my approach, perhaps thinking that my not following every rule in the Chicago Manual of Style or MLA Handbook or whatever reference they wanted me to follow meant I was a lousy writer. In almost every one of these instances, I wouldn’t be able to convince them of my reasoning, and I’d have to go back and hammer my draft into a different, and in my opinion less effective, form.

Typically poor copywriter-editor relations. Which side you think represents which depends on where you stand.

To be sure, I’m not saying students shouldn’t learn said rules — you have to know the rules before you know how and when to break them, after all. And I’ll bet some of those editors would have enough to say about uncooperative, temperamental writers like me anyway. But then, that’s partly why I left that field behind forever (also because the work was extremely uneven — it’s hard as hell to exist as a freelancer in America unless you don’t mind being uninsured for the rest of your life and living in an apartment the size of a walk-in closet, but that’s a different matter.)

No, I’m quite happy to keep writing as an amateur, getting most of my actual stress and headaches from the work I get a regular paycheck for. I’m sure my writing style on this blog would give any editor a fucking heart attack, but thankfully for both me and them, they don’t have to edit my writing here. And truly, absolutely, fuck Chicago style* and double-fuck MLA.** The only style guide I’ve ever read that wasn’t an irritating mess is The Elements of Style by our old friends Strunk & White, and even then, I don’t follow their rules religiously or even close to it, though I do appreciate their more casual approach in providing more tips than set-in-stone rules.

There’s only one “style guide” I pay attention to that much, and it’s not quite a style guide but more a short list of don’ts: George Orwell’s “six rules” in his 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language”. While these six rules are directed at political and journalistic writing, they can easily be applied to other forms, including writing about anime or games or whatever else you like. I’ll admit that I don’t always follow all Orwell’s rules (especially the one about cutting out unnecessary words — I basically agree but am also too lazy to edit all that much.) But my favorite, one I try to always follow, is his final one: “Break any of these rules sooner than say anything barbarous.”

To me, that’s the real heart of writing for any kind of audience, even if it’s just an audience of one. Style is important, but if the substance is lacking in integrity and genuine sentiment, it may as well not exist. Anyone on Earth can create mere content — that’s simple enough. But the best style employed to create the worst kind of mindless drivel, provocative clickbait, or incendiary hate speech is wasted. There are different kinds of trash, but in the end, trash is trash.

Because I’m trash. Wait, this isn’t how I meant to end the post. Fuck.

I have more to write about writing once I sort my thoughts out, but for now, that’s all I’ve got. I’d like to say I hope I didn’t offend anyone with anything I wrote above, but if any offense was given, it was honestly meant. Especially if you’re an editor who yells at writers for not following the MLA Handbook 9th Edition to the letter.

 

* To be clear again, I mean the style guide, not the city. I’ve never been to Chicago but I’m sure it’s very nice.

** And triple-fuck the Bluebook, but that only applies for law students and law clerks who have to actually cite cases. Even law clerks don’t really use it, or at least I didn’t, since Westlaw and Lexis do all those pinpoint citations for you. Guess I’ve just gotten lazy.

5 thoughts on “Talking shop #1: Grammar and style

  1. Effin’ A. I’m leading your former life here in England, a copywriter working from home. Thankfully, in my current role I’m in an international business with few native English speakers. So I’ve been able to set the rules. *evil laugh*

    I’m not too fussy about style guidelines. But having content managers and clients having hissy fits over things gets very annoying. Like, you can have a preposition at the end of a sentence. That’s not illegal.

    I also remember one client telling me to change a CTA to “COMPLETELY FREE!” As opposed to partially free. Of course. Tautology is a big annoyance for me. But having clients who know little about English lecturing copywriters how to do their job is always an interesting one.

    And excellent on the George Orwell mention, I always follow him. One of the big changes to my writing since 10 years ago is I don’t aim to use “big” words anymore to show off. Just keep it simple. Innit.

    Anyway, you’re an excellent writer. Keep going! That’s an order!

    • Nice! Yeah, I think there are some benefits to working as a copywriter with people whose first language isn’t English. The preposition rule always annoyed me, though. It’s even debatable how much of a rule it is (but then we get into how or even whether you should define a certain style of English as “proper” and that’s another rabbit hole altogether.)

      I remember getting requests like that one asking for me to write a tautology or a similarly clunky/illogical phrase. It is annoying for sure. I usually assumed it was an SEO thing and went along with it, but you really have to grit your teeth when writing something like that.

      I first read Orwell in school (Animal Farm and 1984, the standards over here that I really hope continue being assigned) and have been interested in his stuff since. And I can definitely appreciate that kind of simple, straightforward writing more now than I used to. “Simple and elegant” is a good approach to take, though with all my cursing I don’t know if I hit “elegant” so often. I also use a few of those foreign phrases that he might not like, but maybe that’s the lawyer side of me. You know us with all our old Latin and French pretentious nonsense.

      And thanks! I don’t plan to ever stop, no matter what happens.

      • Aye, well I hated SEO at first. Now I’ve come to like it as it does wonders for my blog. Although at work when you get a list of 30 keywords and have to stick them in a post… not so much fun.

        With Orwell and style guidelines, it really depends what your content manager is like I guess. And the business you work for. Some are real fuddy-duddies. Others more relaxed.

        I prefer the relaxed approach, as 99% of people don’t care if you’re writing in active voice or not. For example.

      • I can definitely appreciate SEO from a practical standpoint, yeah. Not that I really use it myself on my blog. Probably should, I guess. And I do remember those damn keywords — some jobs ended up being like a puzzle, complete with those awkward phrases you had to piece together while somehow still making the copy sound natural.

        Agreed on active vs. passive and some of those old guidelines too. I think I get where Orwell is coming from there, especially in the context of political writing, since using passive lets you weasel your way out of assigning responsibility for actions among other tricks. But we’re not using it like that, and if I ever do, I hope someone slaps me and brings me back to my senses.

  2. Pingback: Month in Review – December – Frostilyte Writes

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