Or how Henry finally discovered that he didn’t need to learn how to write (by reading Strunk & White’s, The Elements of Style, Fourth Edition)
As part of my ongoing struggle to become the greatest copywriter EVER, today I picked up a copy of William Strunk Jr. & E. B. White’s, The Elements of Style from Homerton library.
The reasons were twofold:
- There isn’t a great selection of instructional books about writing in Hackney, and
- My sister, an English grad, keeps telling me that my blog posts are complete hokum (she uses big words because she’s super smart).
At 85 pages, the book’s small, but appearances are deceiving as it’s jammed with loads of life lessons that are meant to make you better at writing.
The edition I borrowed was really old, published in 1979, but the English language is ancient and definitely hasn’t changed since then, so it probably didn’t matter.
Having now finished the book, I can confirm six things:
- My writing will forever be hokum (whatever that means).
- I was always right to tell everyone that they should never use exclamation marks!!!! (thanks Fitzgerald).
- Business words are been purposefully designed to help people feel better about their life choices.
- Some of the most common words in advertising are portentous and should never be used.
- SEO, search engine optimisation, is ruining the written word for everyone.
- Copywriters are the lowest, seediest, and most despicable people in the world.
All six of those lessons came as a bit of shock.
I’ll explain exactly why they are definitely true below.
1. Why my writing will always suck
The book’s first four chapters are dedicated to lessons about proper grammar and punctuation.
After reading them, I decided to ignore them. That’s because:
- I didn’t really understand any of concepts (what the hell is present participle?)
- None of the lessons seem to apply to writing on the internet.
The book also emphasised that Copywriting, apparently, is about writing improperly; aka, in a way that the plebs understand, which I understood as an instruction to ignore everything it said.
If you, the reader, don’t think I made the right decision, get ready to be surprised.
You’d think I was an idiot if I started doing anything of these things (adhering to proper grammar):
- Omit the s after apostrophes that follow conscience. The correct vernacular being, “for conscience’ sake”
- You can’t use a colon to sunder a sentence in two like a garden worm, instead that a full sentence must proceed it, for instance “A shrink needs: a degree, psychotic patients and a lot of patience.” is incorrect. It should instead be, “A shrink needs three things: a degree, psychotic patients and parents to blame.“
2. No one should ever use exclamation marks, ever! (except sometimes)
The book agreed with me and said no one should ever use exclamation marks.
Between the lines it also said we should murder anyone who does, unless they’re being dramatic!
I’ve adapted this lesson for 2019 and now confirm that you can also use them when you’re being ironic too.
But that’s it.
You can only ever use an exclamation mark if you’re being dramatic or ironic!
Have you guessed what I’m being?
3. Corporate language is designed to make business sound like it’s about slaying dragons rather than counting paper clips
Here’s what the book said about business chat:
Portentous nouns and verbs [like deprioritise, action those reports, relations with the secretary] invest ordinary events with high adventure; executives walk among toner cartridges, caparisoned like knights.”p.82, The Elements of Style
The book goes to length about how these words are about expressing the user’s dreams, rather than the explicit meaning of what they’re doing.
So, I learned that when writing for business people, you need to make the banality of their lives seem more like jumping the shark; full of exciting cliches that they think are new, definitely not overused, and completely non-applicable to their lives.
4. Words that I now know you should never use
There are a load of words you should never use. Here’s a few of them and why:
- Meaningful is a bankrupt adjective. In place of meaningful you should shoot yourself.
- Chaired is not a verb (or even a word). You should instead write, “the iguana acted as chair of the meeting.”
- Personalise,“A pretentious word, often carrying bad advice.” Which means it’s still applicable for your mobile data plan.
- Pistons thrust, restructuring programmes do not. (You’re not allowed to use the word thrust in business, even when you’re, you know, talking about sex)
- Unique means ‘without like or equal’, so you can’t have a unique coffee machine. Looks like William Strunk Jr. & E. B. White’s were the forerunners of introducing the modern term, snowflake generation. So, um, Chuck Palahniuk, maybe you should publicly admit that coining the term wasn’t that special an achievement?
5. SEO is ruining writing for everyone
Ok, so the book didn’t come up with this one, I figured it out by reading it instead.
We all know what SEO is, right?
It means optimising your written, online content so that search engine algorithms will list it higher on their results pages.
It’s pretty simple. Here’s how to do it:
- Consider what you’re writing about and how you can make it relevant to what people search for on the internet.
- While thinking, write down a list of keywords (both long and short) that are related to your content and people are likely to type into google (sexy, porn, why my mother won’t stop crying every time I call her).
- Delete your previous article or other written content and write some monstrosity indiscriminately littered with your new keywords.
In doing this, I’m confident that everyone is probably just inserting phrases that do not belong in the articles they’re writing. Which, I learned from The Elements of Style, is how you write badly.
Great one Google. You made writing shit for everyone.
6. Copywriters are soulless
Deep down, I knew this one already.
I can’t express why Copywriters are the scum of the earth without it sounding really pretentious though, so I just copied the quote below:
“Your whole duty as a writer is to please and satisfy yourself. The true writer always plays to an audience of one. Start sniffing the air, or glancing at the Trend Machine, and you are as good as dead, although you may make a nice living.” (p. 84)p. 84, The Elements of Style
Evidently, proper writers hate copywriters.
So, now I’d finally read something about writing, I’d learned that what I was trying to do by becoming the greatest copywriter EVER, was completely selling myself out.
I also noticed that nice living was pretty much guaranteed.
Well, at least it was a better choice than working in a corporate environment.
If you think I’ve completely misinterpreted the lessons of the book, please let me know.
Then I can tell you exactly why you’re wrong (now I know that I don’t need to write adequately to communicate).