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“Never start a sentence with ‘and’ or ‘but’,” said every English teacher who ever lived.
But read through any piece of copy and you’ll see this ‘rule’ broken many times (I just did it then). It’s one of the many things copywriters have to unlearn when we start out. Despite all the writing we do in school, so many of us enter the world of copywriting unprepared.
And reflecting on my experience as a primary teacher, the insights of current secondary school students (my delightful nieces), and good old-fashioned research, the reasons for this soon become obvious.
The university funnel
While the National Curriculum may claim to prepare kids for adult life and the world of work, I believe its real aim is to prepare them for university. Education is skewed towards funnelling kids down this academic path, and this seeps into the way we teach writing.
This means many ‘good’ writers are actually very good at the sort of writing required for essays and exams – formal style, objective language, rigid structures, facts and evidence, critical analysis and all that. But of course, writing for the real world is very different. Copywriting revels in personality, emotion and ideas.
Sadly, schools shepherd kids down this academic path from an early age…
Complexifying the simple
There are copywriters whose words have generated millions for themselves and their clients who boast of never having much flair for writing. So how does that work?
Well, powerful copywriting is more about how you think than how you write. It’s about aligning ideas, message, and audience. Language that’s too complex and elaborate gets in the way. Simple and concise wins.
But from a young age, school kids are taught the opposite. As soon as they can write a sentence, they’re told to stick ‘and’ on the end and join it to another one. Then it’s adding adjectives to every noun. Then come the similes, the relative clauses, the dreaded fronted adverbials. And by year 6, a piece of writing without a semi-colon or two is unthinkable.
This gives kids the false idea that complicated writing equals better writing. This problem has been smouldering away for years – see Philip Pullman’s scathing critique of education from twenty years ago – but more recent developments have poured petrol on it…
What makes ‘good’ writing?
Every copywriter makes an impact by deploying an arsenal of grammar and language devices. But the idea of a copywriter’s work being judged by the variety of punctuation or the correct use of the subjunctive clause (whatever that is) is absurd.
However, this is what’s happening in our schools. Primary children must demonstrate correct usage of a vast array of grammar features. What’s more, the Year 6 SATs include a grammar paper with fifty questions testing their recognition and recall of grammatical jargon. Teachers are not to blame – they risk losing their jobs if children don’t acquire this knowledge. Therefore it engulfs the teaching of writing in primary schools.
The consequence is that writing often becomes a box-checking exercise to demonstrate grammar usage. And worryingly, many kids believe their writing is ‘good’ as long as it includes the specified range of grammar features.
While kids do need an understanding of grammar, little thought is given to their writing’s ability to hold attention, the power of its ideas, or whether it has the desired effect on the reader. And this, of course, is the essence of copywriting.
What’s the point of writing?
Writing can delight and dismay, harm and heal. It’s a window into the human soul, a portal to far-off places and times gone by. It shapes our view of the world and connects us to everyone in it. Sometimes, it even gets us reaching for our credit card.
But in secondary school and beyond, it seems kids write for one purpose only – to demonstrate their reasoning. Balanced arguments, critical analyses, and logical explanations. Formal language and rigid structures. I was saddened when my elder nieces told me they stopped writing stories after year 8. They feel that writing is something they need to do to pass exams.
So at first, kids write to demonstrate grammar skills. Then, they write to demonstrate reasoning. It seems they’re simply not shown the many ways writing can have an impact in the ‘real world’. My nieces have never been encouraged to explore careers in writing. They couldn’t recall doing any writing related to business or sales. This doesn’t appear to be an isolated case. Andrew Boulton, formerly a lecturer on one of the UK’s only degree courses to teach copywriting, suggests it’s a widespread problem.
Writing like robots
The other problem with this narrow use of writing in schools is that it stifles creativity. When schools began to complain about pupils using ChatGPT, I marvelled at the hypocrisy. They encourage children to write like robots anyway!
The best copywriting is a splash of colour in an ocean of beige. A unique and novel angle into a dry subject. A distinctive tone of voice. Levels of insight no one else has looked for. The best copywriting flows like a chat between friends. The reader feels seen and understood on a deep level.
Rigid, robotic and emotionless may work for GCSE, A-level and university writing. But it’s woefully unsuited to copywriting. As advertising legend David Ogilvy said, “You can’t bore people into buying your product.”
This is why experienced, professional copywriters can work wonders for your business. These rare specimens have broken free from the shackles of school writing, to harness the true power of words. If you’d like to see how our team can harness that power for your business, get in touch.