The Best Writers Break the Rules

The best writers break writing rules and stray from the common path.

Mark Duffel on Unsplash

The group around the conference table was considering taglines for our new corporate brand. One option in particular was heatedly discussed. I probably shouldn’t disclose the actual line, but it was similar in construction to Apple’s “Think different” tag created in 1997. One member of the group was particularly adamant that we could not use it because it was “grammatically incorrect.”

Ridiculous.

“Think different” also suffered from the same scrutiny, many claiming that different is not an adverb so it should be “Think differently” to be proper. Is “proper” what you want in your writing?

Lawyers are really good at proper writing – dotting every i and crossing every t. They also create mind-numbing text, heavy with clauses, commas, and clutter. I fought little editing battles with corporate lawyers for the last two decades of my corporate career. I wasn’t creating legal documents. I wanted to attract readers and build awareness among investors, employees, and customers.

The tagline example shows what happens when people who think they know a lot about writing get in the way of true writing pros.

Writing is not about rules. It’s about clarity and the sound of the writing. Yes sound. The best writing is lyrical like music, making it flow with a cadence that enhances readability. (Stop yourself now. Legible is not “more correct” than readable.)

The best writing has life. It’s surprising and memorable, not proper or written to please your eighth-grade English teacher.

In fact, I was mistakenly placed into a basic English class in eighth grade. I couldn’t wait to get out of the useless sentence diagramming and spelling exercises. In a few weeks, the class assignment was corrected and I moved back to advanced English. For the rest of middle and high school I was in either advanced or honors English classes. We practiced writing and studied great writers. We never diagrammed sentences.

I’ve made a career out of writing. What does that tell you?

Some writing rules to break

You’ve probably heard the following long-standing, often-repeated “writing rules.” All were either never rules in the first place or should be routinely ignored if it improves your writing.

  • Never end a sentence with a preposition. In fact, the Chicago Manual of Style (preferred by publishers) has never prohibited a preposition at the end of a sentence in any of its versions and editions since 1906.
  • Never begin a sentence with a conjunction, like but or and. Don’t overdo it, but this is often a good tool to emphasize an opposing point.
  • Don’t use contractions. Maybe when you’re writing to an international audience. Otherwise, why sound like a robot rather than writing in a way that humans actually speak?
  • No one-sentence paragraphs. This is a great technique for pulling a key point out into the “open” where people are sure to see it, rather than burying it in a longer paragraph.
  • Write in complete sentences only. If it adds emphasis or cadence, please break this rule.

The fundamentals still have their place

This is not to say that you can throw out every writing rule. Musicians can improvise better riffs when they study music theory. Artists can create more moving pieces when they are grounded in the basics of line, form, light, and perspective. The best writers know structure and composition fundamentals so they know where to break away from the rules to make prose instead of text.

Writing a lot helps you get better, but doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll become a great writer. Malcom Gladwell is credited with conceiving the “10,000 hour” rule in his book Outliers. Widely misunderstood is that it doesn’t mean automatic mastery with 10,000 hours of practice. It does not say geniuses are made, not born. Gladwell has clarified that the rule means that it generally takes that long for natural talent to fully manifest.

I was an ice hockey goalie. Though I probably spent 10,000 hours on the ice, it never made me into Martin Brodeur. The point is that the best at anything have more talent to start.

Writing is a rare skill and takes years to acquire. Unless you are sure you’ve got that level of skill, hire a professional to help elevate your messages above the rest.

Surprise your reader

As Chip and Dan Heath found in their studies of ideas and messages, “unexpected” is a key element to engaging your audience. Their bestselling book, Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, explains that the best way to get attention for your message is to break a pattern. That’s just what we’re talking about here. Break a rule and jar your reader from what they expect is coming next.

Arthur Plotnik, author of Spunk & Bite: A Writer’s Guide to Bold, Contemporary Style, said it very well:

“When too tightly leashed, writing chokes and loses its vitality.”

 

How Much Does it Cost?: A hard one to answer, but here’s the ballpark

How much to write a book? Hard to answer, but here's the ballpark.

Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

When I get asked this question, there is no easy answer. People probably suspect I’m being cagey, but that’s not the case. Writing projects come in a full spectrum of scopes and sizes. It’s like asking how much a computer or car costs without any parameters around how big, how capable, or what features it includes.

Before we can begin to set a price, I’ll have to ask you several questions. For example, what is your purpose in writing, how much have you developed your themes or ideas, is it a one-time project or a series, will you write the first draft or will I?

To help frame the pricing discussion for you, here is some additional information:

  • Rewriting your first draft will usually cost less, but depends on the quality of the draft.
  • For me to write a first draft it will typically include time to interview you, then transcribe and rewrite to produce it.
  • There’s more time involved in producing a quality project than just writing, such as communicating with you, outlining, researching, etc.

Quality writing sets you apart

Many, many people want to produce a book, but you do have to be willing to invest a bit up front to do it well. And doing it well is important if you want to be a successful author.

Recently, I went to a presentation by Cevin Bryerman, publisher of Publishers Weekly, and more than once he reiterated the point that writing quality is vital in making a book stand out from the thousands and thousands of titles published each year. PW, a key resource in marketing books, won’t even consider reviewing or listing a book that is poorly written in terms of deficient grammar, typos, and clunky prose.

Your credibility is on the line, and writing quality can either be a facilitator to getting your ideas across to your readers or a barrier that will turn them away.

I’ve been writing for decades and can count on one hand the really good writers I’ve met. Many people think they can write well, but only a rare few have exceptional ability.

Market pricing for collaborators and ghost writers

To help you get at least a high-level view of project costs, here is some market pricing information:

  • According to Writers Market, collaborator flat fees range from $5,000 to $100,000 with an average of $36,000 (for 200-250 pages)
  • If you want to look at it from a price-per-page perspective, $150-$250 is a typical fee range

Google this topic and you’ll also see that virtually every article will state, “you get what you pay for…” So beware of lowball estimates.

Let’s talk first about your writing project

As you can see, the price is not trivial. Most projects will take many hours over a few months to complete. Also, for most non-fiction authors, your book will be part of a complete marketing plan, so the investment should be seen in that light.

The bottom line is that I want to work with authors like you who have great stories to tell, but need some help sharpening their ideas and getting it done. I work with each individual based on what they need and what resources they have. I’m willing to take on your project for a fair fee, and you’ll still get the highest quality writing.

Let’s talk one-on-one and work from there.

 

For other writing services and less comprehensive projects, see my Writing Services and Rates page.

Long-Form vs “Snackable” Content: No, shorter is not always better

People read and value long-form articles, despite their busy lives.

Photo: Anna Dziubinska

“I don’t know what happened where every marketer thinks their content has to be shorter and shorter.” – Joe Pulizzi, founder, Content Marketing Institute.

Have you heard the shorter-is-better “wisdom” in your marketing meetings? Odds are you have, because it has become one of those things that people repeat as an obvious truth. Yet despite our busy lives, data shows it to be false.

Before I left the corporate world, I know I heard it from supposedly-informed colleagues. Along with these equally false statements:

  • Young people don’t use Facebook anymore
  • Email marketing is dead
  • No blog post should be more than 500 words

That’s not the end of the list, but the point is made without compiling more.

The true value of long-form articles

What’s the truth? The Quartz Global Executive Study discovered something quite different. Quartz calls it a survey of the media habits of the world’s smartest, busiest people. The 1,357 executives participating reported these results when asked which type of content they are most likely to share:

  • 84 percent say they share long-form articles more than any other content
  • Charts and data came in second at 47 percent
  • Videos were cited by 37 percent and breaking news stories by 36 percent

As you can see, there is no ambiguity in these results. People read long-form content and place a very high value on it. (Perhaps equally important, note that written articles are ranked well ahead of video.)

Mr. Pulizzi’s comment at the beginning of this post was made during Episode 180 of the This Old Marketing podcast (at about the 36 minute mark) that he produces with co-host Robert Rose.

Talking to Rose during the episode, he continued with these remarks. “You and I have been ranting about the whole ‘snackable content’ thing. You know, ‘We’ve got to get shorter and our videos are about 3 seconds long now because executives are busy and they don’t have any time…’ What we learn from this study is that executives love long-form articles – long, meaty, informational articles.”

Think before doing the same old marketing things

An often repeated point by Pulizzi is that we should always be asking why we are doing what we‘re doing in terms of marketing. Ask if sales collateral, trade shows, video, and other common tools are really the right tools for your market and product or service. Don’t just plow ahead with marketing activities that you know (or think you know) and are used to using.

And don’t believe marketing “truisms” just because you’ve often heard them.

Effort spent trying to do more of the same old things, may actually be more profitably spent doing new  and different things. The right things, based on what your customers truly consume and value.

So don’t blindly accept that short content is always better. From this study you can see that if you provide real information, with new data and insight, it’s going to be valuable to your customers. If you don’t have time to produce longer articles, find someone who has the experience to research and write on your behalf.

It will be another way to differentiate you and your business, with everyone else on another specious marketing bandwagon. One of so many that marketers climb aboard without thinking.