Why we sometimes break the rules (of writing)
In creative, rules are boundaries at best, and inconveniences at their worst. Here's an ode to all the writing/learning rules I've had a chance to break, in order of being remembered. By me.
For reasons unbeknownst to me, I looked through my tenth-grade marks sheet yesterday.
The ICSE board offers five grades ranging from 1 (brilliant work) to 5 (you’re sitting this one again). In English, I got a grade 3. Unimpressive. Wildly contrary to my teacher’s expectations. Heartbreaking.
The irony of now finding myself in a communications role is never lost on me.
Speaking of academic adventures, some of the best times of my life were spent in 12th-grade chemistry class. In all fairness to everyone else also in that class, this was basically my professor and me riffing on each other’s ideas and conjectures for a good two hours at a time.
Curiously, none of this ever translated into me being able to crack any competitive exam. Ever. Remotely. And when I finally did, only through the skin of my teeth.
Recently, as I was preparing to apply for an IGNOU certification, my husband very kindly pointed out the number of times I’ve signed up for formal education since graduation and failed miserably at seeing them through.
He was also, by virtue of being a good person, kind enough to point out how well I seem to do in settings where I get to test and hypothesize my harebrained schemes with great gusto. Group discussions. Writing. Podcasting. Having a good mentor. Why, just yesterday, I had the best time discussing the mechanics of buoyancy with my dive instructor, who allowed me my wild extrapolations.
Some of us learn with more than our minds, and this is a reality that many at the workplace seem to forget.
Most of my early insecurities about the workplace were born from these failures. If I don’t fit into a system, I cannot succeed. I suppose we all feel this way sometimes, but this was the defining feature of my twentysomething working life.
I look back now, though, in my thirties- a more stable footing in the work I do, a more balanced perspective about the fact that I am and will forever be 50% short of perfect, and a generally better sense of my mortal nature than I possessed at twenty.
I realise that a lot of rules and guardrails are designed to be broken. I use the word ‘designed’ with a lot of intention here. It is almost as though every rule and playbook came with an invisible statement that goes ‘But you can, of course, do it however you please’.
And we learn and express ourselves in very different ways. No two people following the same playbook are ever going to end up with the same outcome.
The connection I am now going to make about rules and writing is potentially unique to me, in that this is me reflecting on my lived experience. And the only real question in every workplace should be, “What is unique to you?”
On writing headlines for a webpage
In a certain podcast episode, I have committed to one idea for writing webpage headlines as a good way to write them. Curiously, this is the one recommendation I ever made that gets quoted back to me the most.
Also, I almost never follow it myself.
The advice itself goes like so, and here’s the episode link in case you’d like to hold me accountable for some of the other things I also said.
When you’re writing a landing page headline:
Start by writing ‘Now you can’
Follow this up with what people can do/be/have because of using your product.
Remove the ‘Now you can’
That said, I just submitted work with not a single headline that follows this format. Not one.
In fact, one of the page’s headlines reads ‘The next logical step’ mainly because I watched Frozen 2 for the fifth time with my daughter just last week.
So why did I say what I said, and why do I do what I do?
I (try to) avoid similarity
It took me a while to realize that people who want to work with me, want to work with me, specifically. And if I have the opportunity to paint these projects with any brushstroke, I’d want to paint them with the idea that this has never been seen before.
In other words, if I could look back someday and find a signature in my work, I’d hope that that is to introduce some variety so not all of my work reads exactly the same.
I think many copywriters and designers try and find that signature at some point. Some designers in fact get so shoehorned into how they do things that it is impossible to get them to do anything else.
Even agencies do this- we get known for a certain kind of work, a certain approach, more than we ever do for an outcome.
So my hope, having grown up with a healthy dose of insecurity around my work, is that I always remember to try something new, and see where that might potentially take everyone involved.
So to conclude that particular topic, Now You Can works, but it is meant to be used by people whose day job is not copywriting.
Business owners, startup founders, and small marketing teams with frugal budgets- this is a framework to get the job done and get it done well. Please follow it. Conversions will improve usually, and they double in my experience.
But if you have the urge to do something else, follow it! It usually leads to some very beautiful places.
Thank you for riffing with me today on some wild extrapolations. I’d love to hear from you if this meant something to you. You can find me on LinkedIn or leave me a comment using the button below.