If there’s a major theme about grammar rules in Stephen King’s memoir On Writing, it’s this:
Understand the rules of grammar…then stuff them in your trunk.
The best way to use grammar rules is first to master them. Then never think about them again (at least until you’re ready to complete your draft).
You don’t need a degree in English composition to write good copy. In fact, “good English writing” can hurt your ability to write conversational copy.
Any English dropout can write a winning ad that pulls massive conversions.
But I’d argue that grammar rules weren’t created to desecrate the organic writing process. Like any discipline (whether it’s sports, music or writing) there are guiding principles built over time to help you succeed faster. Grammar rules give you a decent framework to help you get your message across faster and with more clarity.
(Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links [gasp!]. That means – at no extra cost to you – I may receive a tiny commission if you purchase something I recommend. That said, I only recommend things I’ve personally used and find to be valuable. There…I said it.)
“Ugh. Why do you have to say it like that?”
There’s a difference between writing and speaking that gets lost in transcription:
How many times have you sent an email or text message and realized your tone was off? I’ve sent many of these texts before. How about:
My wife: What do you want to watch tonight?
Me: I don’t know. You pick.
My wife: Ugh. Why do you have to say it like that?
My message came across with a clipped and blunt tone. Not soft and inclusive…like I’d intended.
This may be an issue if you’re making transcripts of your VSL or video content. You may have seen this. Have you ever read a video transcript? Wow. Boring.
That’s why it’s so important to edit your video transcripts before making them available to your audience. Adding the emphasis back into your transcript will make reading your repurposed content a joy.
I’ve used a video transcription service before and was very satisfied with the result. But you can’t expect them to include style and emphasis to the transcript. Some transcription services might have an option for that. Even then, you should review your transcript to make sure the tone of your message hasn’t changed.
The 1 thing perfect grammar LACKS
In his memoir On Writing, King is adamant about throwing grammar in the backseat:
”The object of fiction isn’t grammatical correctness but to make the reader welcome and then tell a story…”
As King points out here, perfect grammar isn’t the goal of good writing and storytelling. The main goal is to welcome your reader into the story.
Even the most refined grammar can’t fix the problem of reader disengagement. Your reader needs to be present and stay present to give your writing a chance to persuade.
To drive this point deep, here’s what perfect grammar LACKS:
A primary concern about reader engagement.
If you’re writing to serve the grammar lords first, your loyalty is divided. As Jesus said, “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other” (Matthew 6:24, ESV).
You must first, above all else, serve your audience and keep them engaged.
So if grammar isn’t important—why study Stephen King’s grammar rules?
I’ll say this first—King’s grammar rules aren’t groundbreaking. He’s not opening a paradigm in written English.
But what he’s giving us is inside knowledge of his most valued grammar rules…fundamental rules he’s found useful enough to include in the memoir of his craft.
And King is a damn good writer (all preferences aside) and knows how to tell a story millions of people will buy and love.
A quick review of his most valued grammar rules definitely won’t kill you—especially if you want to write persuasively.
That said, King lays out several ways to make use of grammar without surrendering creative freedom:
Grammar Rule 1: Size Matters
If there’s one thing that draws readers into a sentence faster, it’s varying the length of sentences. But how?
According to King, the power of short and simple sentences keeps your reader from “getting lost in the tangles of rhetoric…” In short: avoid boring the hell out of your reader with too many long-ass sentences.
Here’s an easy way to vary the length of your sentences—it’s called the Road Runner Tactic. Yes, that’s Road Runner from Looney Tunes.
The tactic involves 3 phases:
1. The Stand Still
2. The Foot Dance
3. The Rocket Bolt
When writing paragraphs in your ad copy, the Road Runner Tactic helps you break up paragraphs into 3 distinct lengths. The result: your copy draws in readers…over and over and over again with each new paragraph.
Before I explain how it works in copywriting, watch this clip at 0:31 to 0:34 to see the three phases of the Road Runner Tactic:
Did you notice how the Road Runner observes the coyote without moving (The Stand Still), then jumps into the air and twiddles his feet (The Foot Dance), then bolts into a fast run (The Rocket Bolt)?
This is how it works:
The Stand Still is the part of your paragraph that includes the longest sentence. This long sentence is usually the first sentence (or the topic sentence, which I’ll discuss later). But not always. With The Stand Still, you’re taking some time to describe a major point, a new idea, or an interesting observation.
The Foot Dance is the part of your paragraph that’s shorter than The Stand Still—but noticeably more concise. The Foot Dance is a single idea expressed with moderate description.
The Rocket Bolt is the fastest part of your paragraph. Quick! Run! It’s where interjections live. Your reader will bolt right through it like a hot rocket…and land on the doorstep of the next sentence.
The Road Runner Tactic is a framework that doesn’t fall into a single formula. The goal is to be mindful about the word count of each sentence in your paragraphs.
Start with The Rocket Bolt. Notice how the pace of your writing changes when you do that.
Here’s another way to understand this concept.
Sentence length is similar to the notations of staccato and legato in music. When your sentences are short and pithy (Rocket Bolts), they’re like staccato notes in a melody. When your sentences are long and connected with commas, they’re like stitched notes sewn in a long melody.
Here’s a short clip to help you hear and understand the difference between staccato and legato notes:
The dynamics of short and long notes create a sense of change and movement that demand our attention.
In the same way as musical notes, the varying length of sentences creates a melody that produces movement. This combo of melody and content continuously captures the attention of your reader. If you use it intentionally, it’s a powerful way to engage your readers.
Staccato notes also increase the sense of urgency and buildup before a chorus. You might notice in pop music how the speed of melodic notes increases as the song inches towards the chorus.
To illustrate, listen to this video of Michael Jackson’s song “Billie Jean” starting at 0:54 and ending at 1:28. Before I explain what’s going on in the verse and pre-chorus, listen to the clip:
I like to call this tactic The M. J. Burst.
First, notice the verse. Do you hear the 1-second spaces between the verse lyrics “…being the one…” and “Who would dance…”, and then again between “…in the round…” and “People always told me…”?
Now compare the verse lyrics to the tempo of his pre-chorus lyrics starting with “People always told me…” Do you hear a difference? It’s subtle (the mark of a true artist) but there’s a definite shift in pace between the verse and the pre-chorus. He’s building up the intensity…preparing to BURST into the chorus. There’s less and less space between sentences. And if there’s space at all, it’s filled with “hee-hee” or “hey-hey!”
Your marketing copy can use the same strategy. Just remember to vary the length of your sentences with either the Road Runner Tactic or the M. J. Burst to engage your readers.
Grammar Rule 2: Don’t Use These…Unless You’re Sure Your Sentence Will Self-Destruct Without Them
Adverbs and adjectives are necessary evils. You can’t rip them from the English language—but you can always try.
Here’s what King said so affectionately about adverbs: “The adverb is not your friend.”
If the adverb is not your friend, then it’s a stranger. And you shouldn’t trust strangers until they’ve proven to be trustworthy.
Now let me get one thing straight: in copywriting, using adverbs won’t make or break the success of your ad. Case in point—the End of America VSL. Arguably the highest grossing promo of all time, a few sprinkled adverbs didn’t tarnish its success a single bit.
But for the hell of it, I’m going to point out a sentence in the VSL that could do without the adverb. Here it is:
“I’m going to walk you through exactly what I am doing personally…”
Read the sentence aloud. Doesn’t the word personally make the sentence feel lopsided? Let’s take it out and hear how it sounds:
“I’m going to walk you through exactly what I am doing…”
You’ve said the same thing faster and with one less word. Perfection.
King isn’t the only writer to scorn the overuse of adverbs and adjectives. In the Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White, they describe adjectives this way:
“The adjective hasn’t been built that can pull a weak or inaccurate noun out of a tight place.”
To say “she tightened her face angrily” isn’t as stylish as saying “her lips tightened.” The second phrase delivers an immediate image on a platter. The first does it in a roundabout way…and asks the reader to do more work than they should be doing.
Here’s the problem: adverbs and adjectives don’t do a great job of pushing an ad forward. They only describe the quality of what you’ve already said. In essence, you’re stopping your reader to make a point about the quality of your description.
King says the reason writers use adjectives and adverbs too often is the fear of not being fully understood.
I agree with him on this point. Adjectives and adverbs (in essence) tell the reader, “Did you get what I just said there? Ok, how about I modify it so you can understand it better?”
Clarity is important. But if you’d said it right the first time, modification would be unnecessary.
Now don’t get me wrong. Don’t kill every adverb and adjective in your copy. The goal isn’t to annihilate these parts of speech, but rather to understand when to use them.
So when DO you use adverbs and adjectives? Only when they further your message or add color.
For example, the statement I can’t take you serious just doesn’t make sense. You might hear people say it that way in conversation. But in written form it’s almost nonsensical. The right way to say it is with the adverb seriously as in I can’t take you seriously. The adverb wins here because it furthers your message. Without it, the message wouldn’t come across the same way.
In another example, William Allingham used powerful adjectives to create a unique image in his poem “The Fairies”:
“Up the airy mountain…Down the rushy glen…”
Had Allingham said “the mountain surrounded by clouds” or “the water moved rapidly down the glen”…well…the whole image just dies, right?
You’re not trying to be a poetic copywriter. In fact, may it never be!
But pay some damn attention to adverbs and adjectives. Overusing them spreads molasses in your ad.
Grammar Rule 3: Stop Being a Damn Pushover…and Grow Some Cajones
I had a hard time understanding the difference between active and passive voice at first. But it started to make sense to me when I ran my documents through Grammarly.
Grammarly isn’t a foolproof system (no writing analysis tool is), but it saved me from the passive voice plenty of times to justify the cost. After a few alerts from the software, I started to see the passive voice naturally in my initial drafts.
The passive voice invades my writing like ants before the winter. It’s a pain in the ass when I discover it. But once I find it, I spray repellent.
King doesn’t totally condemn the passive voice—but he comes pretty close. He describes the passive voice as “weak…circuitous…frequently tortuous…” When you’re writing an ad, the last thing you want is your product or service to come off as weak, circuitous or tortuous.
The way I remember the difference between active and passive voice is recalling this little jingle: The Active Subject Acts, the Passive Subject is Smacked.
Not quite poetry but let me explain.
In the active voice, the subject of the sentence is performing the action. For example, *Sarah sits on the chair. Easy, right? Sarah (subject) sits (action) on the chair.
In the passive voice, the subject of the sentence is smacked by another subject. For example, the chair is sat on by Sarah (God that’s awful). You don’t know what the hell is going on in that sentence. What’s the sentence really about? Sarah? Or the chair? The chair (subject???) is sat on (action) by Sarah (subject???).
With the active voice, the subject is well understood. End result: clarity.
With the passive voice, the subject is hazy…and there’s more than one way to interpret the sentence. End result: ambiguity.
Here’s a quick reference to help you understand active versus passive voice.
Grammar Rule 4: Understand the Secret Method of the Paragraph
I started using this piece of advice and found it immediately helpful.
When writing paragraphs in ads, the general rule is to use 3–5 sentences in a paragraph. I agree with that, but King’s advice about paragraphs can help clarify that rule.
King describes the method behind the ideal paragraph as “a topic sentence followed by others which explain or amplify the first.”
Here’s an example of a paragraph that doesn’t follow this advice:
Never drink lukewarm water again with the Link Water Cooler. Do you like drinking day old water? Or water warmed in your car?
Here’s an example of a paragraph that follows the ideal paragraph method:
Never drink lukewarm water again with the Link Water Cooler. Remember the last time you had a mouthful of lukewarm water when you expected cold water? You might as well have gulped battery acid.
If you read these sentences side by side, you’ll notice a subtle but critical difference. The first sentence brings up the idea of drinking lukewarm water…then asks readers a few marginally-related questions about their preferences. The problem with this sentence is it doesn’t push the sales argument forward. This paragraph (although following the rule of 3–5 sentences per paragraph) doesn’t present a compelling argument.
The second sentence brings up the idea of drinking lukewarm water…then asks readers to imagine a time when they drank lukewarm water and describes how disgusting it is. Goal met: drinking lukewarm water is gross. This conclusion now allows the Link Water Cooler to become the magic solution for delivering cold water.
This is a simple example. But as you go back to review your ads, reread your paragraphs and see them as tidy units of related thoughts. Does each paragraph reach a specific goal? Does each sentence in that paragraph build or enhance the first topic sentence?
Grammar Rule 5: You’ll Never Sound Like a Human Being Without These
Sentence fragments are a broad subject with many variations. I won’t get into the different types of sentence fragments here (this is an excellent breakdown of the various types of sentence fragments if you’re interested). But in his book, King is pretty lenient on them.
Fragments aren’t the best way to make a compelling statement. But if you want to use them, at least know when and why you’re using them. If you write entire paragraphs in sentence fragments, you’ll look like a fool (even in the grammatically-loose world of copywriting).
But sprinkling them into your copy can add a conversational tone to your voice.
We often speak in fragments without losing comprehension. In speech, fragments are commonplace and usually show the extension of a thought.
In copywriting, standalone fragments can actually highlight important benefits extremely well.
Here’s an example with the fragment in the paragraph:
The Link Water Cooler keeps your water cold for up to 8 hours. No more ice dispenser trips every hour.
Now the sentence fragment in its own paragraph:
The Link Water Cooler keeps your water cold for up to 8 hours.
No more ice dispenser trips every hour.
There’s an oomph factor that happens when sentence fragments are in their own paragraph.
”But I hate grammar. Is there a way to learn grammar automatically?”
I get it. Learning the mechanical rules of grammar is as exciting as changing a light bulb on a ceiling fan with four lights. You can get away with three lights, but at some point, you gotta fix the fourth light.
In my opinion, the best way to learn grammar is to read a lot. Most books published by traditional publishing houses are reviewed by copyeditors and English majors. Reading good books will give you great content as well as a working knowledge of near-perfect grammar.
That said, these 5 grammar rules from Stephen King are a perfect place to start. Improve on these 5 rules and your copywriting will flow like a buttered water slide.
Above all these rules, On Writing reminds writers that the object of fiction (or writing in general) is “to make the reader welcome and then tell a story.” Writing like a 19th-century snood kicks your reader out the door like an unwelcome hobbit.