William Safire, who died last September, was, among other things, a longtime columnist and clever commentator on writing issues. Enjoy these pearls.
- Do not put statements in the negative form.
- And don’t start sentences with a conjunction.
- If you reread your work, you will find on rereading that a great deal of repetition can be avoided by rereading and editing.
- Never use a long word when a diminutive one will do.
- Unqualified superlatives are the worst of all.
- De-accession euphemisms.
- If any word is improper at the end of a sentence, a linking verb is.
- Avoid trendy locutions that sound flaky.
- Last, but not least, avoid clichés like the plague.
(From Great Rules of Writing by William Safire)
Although direct-response legend Herschell Gordon Lewis once said, “Grammar is our weapon, not our god,” a quote I’m fond of, writing does require rules, even for those of us who occasionally take creative license in order to sell an idea, product, or service.
Following are three rules to apply in every writing situation. In fact, I’m going to call them sacred.
1. Subject and verb agreement.
Whether you’re writing an infomercial or War and Peace, singular subjects take singular verbs and plural subjects take plural verbs. Always. A simple rule, execution is sometimes problematic. The key is to clearly identify the subject of the sentence.
2. The active voice.
If you want your copywriting to have maximum punch, use the active voice at every opportunity. Active voice: I wrote the sentence. Passive voice: The sentence was written by me.
3. Use of Modifiers.
Modifiers can cause a variety of problems. There are the questions of which and how many modifiers to use. My advice is to not overload copy with modifiers. Let clarity be your guide. Also, poor placement of modifiers results in confusion, your enemy. To make comprehension easy, put modifiers near the words they’re modifying.