Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Please don't write your own copy

Successful business owners, particularly entrepreneurs, are amazing people. They fight the odds to get financing, get a business up on its feet and make a success of it. A business goes from nothing to something big by the sweat of the owner's brow.

Yes, these business owners are courageous, tough, capable and determined, and they can do almost anything they set their minds to. Note that I said, "almost."

Having just finished reading an advertorial supplement featuring local small businesses, I have learned interesting facts about some companies I didn't know existed. I also have learned that a few of their owners could use help from someone who knows their way around a sentence.

There is a rhythm and music to well-written prose, and the rules of English are intended to make your sentences sing on-beat and in tune. However, many brilliant and creative people have stored those rules in the basements of their brains, behind the unused exercycle and Great-Aunt Ellie's company china. As a consequence, their prose sounds more like a high school musical than a Broadway blockbuster.

In the advertorial supplement, one company's piece was a minefield of grammatical, usage and punctuation goofs. Not to mention one very weirdly structured sentence, a diagram of which would look like the zig-zag path "Billy" in "Family Circus" takes on the way home. Billy always makes it to his own back door in the end, but some of this advertiser's sentences veered off the path and became irretrievably lost in the woods.

Awkward sentence structure is a common pitfall for amateur writers. But improper punctuation comes in a close second, for example, being too generous or too miserly with commas. The phrase, "big black Labrador dog," doesn't require commas to clarify its meaning, ala "big, black, Labrador, dog." If you substitute the word "and" for the commas, and it sounds silly, you don't need the commas. Say, "big and black and Labrador and dog," and then delete the superfluous commas.

But you do need commas in a sentence like, "There ahead of the Jeep just a hundred feet away he saw a rhino and he was scared out of his wits." (Hemingway would have made that two short sentences, but that's another subject.) You need commas after "There," "away," and "rhino." The last one is needed because "and he was..." is an independent clause. The test for an independent clause is to substitute a period for the "and" and see if the following phrase is a complete sentence. This one is. The previous two commas are needed for clarity. I'm too lazy to look up the technical reason. Please, just trust me on this.

It isn't easy to remember all those picky, sometimes arbitrary-seeming rules of grammar, syntax, punctuation and usage. The good news is that you don't need to. Because some of us have heads full of that kind of stuff, and we can put it to use writing your copy. You've got better things to do, like run your business. Save yourself time and energy, and improve your company's image by hiring a professional copywriter -- me, for instance -- to write your ads and other communications for you. So your company will sound as smart as you are.

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