“The Most Important Rule of Grammar for Becoming a Successful Writer”–Forget the Rules!

For advice that is unconventional, contrarian, pithy and uncannily spot-on, the go-to guy for me is Dr. Gary North.

Dr. North has made his living for nearly the last four decades as a professional writer and editor: books, articles, manuals, websites, speeches, ads, etc..  (Having a background as a Ph. D. in history, recognized author, economist, publisher, speaker and path-breaking theologian, I’m sure, helps.)

He is also a very successful marketer.  His free website, Tea Party Economist, is now, after just one year online, one of the top websites in its ideological, thematic category (libertarian, free market economics).  The Facebook page for that site has well over 3,000 likes now and growing.

His penchant for being contrarian and provocative while at the same time eminently practical and clear-headed comes through even when he’s offering basic writing advice.

The article reprinted below is a case in point.

It should ruffle the feathers of plenty of English teachers, majors, tutors and “purist”, non-commercial English writers!

So be it. Here is the voice of wisdom and experience in the marketplace speaking.

The Most Important Rule of Grammar for Becoming a Successful Writer

Gary North

Nov. 16, 2012

This is the most important rule for successful writing: ignore grammar when you are writing.

The question has come up regarding the number of hours that someone must practice to gain mastery of skill. This number is going to be considerably lower than the number of hours that it takes for someone to become a virtuoso. The fact is this: virtuosos require at least 10,000 hours of dedicated practice, but 10,000 hours of dedicated practice do not generally produce virtuosos. The question of the required number of hours of dedicated practice has to do with that which is necessary to an outcome, but not sufficient to achieve that outcome. The individual doing the practicing has got to have the innate gifts, as well as the opportunities, to become a virtuoso.

Let me give an example out of my own life. I write very fast. I did not always write as fast as I write today, but I always wrote better than most of my peers. I began writing at the age of 13, and I have never ceased writing. By the time I was a junior in high school, I wrote better than most of the people in my English classes, and I took an advanced English class. My superior performance had to do with an innate skill that I possess.

This is even more true with respect to my speaking ability. I could speak in public better than most adults by the time I was 16. I think I am a better speaker today than I was at 16, but I cannot prove this. I don’t have tapes of my speeches at the time. I do know this: it is taken me far less time to develop my speaking skills than it has taken to develop my writing skills. I do not speak in public that often — maybe a dozen times a year. On the other hand, I write extensively every day. I crank out about 50 articles a week.

Sometime in the 1970s, writing became almost innate with me. I had to work on my writing skills from 1955 until the early 1970s. I was able to write effectively after 1965. I was able to get published in a number of national publications are but it still took me longer to write an article that was fit for publication than it does today. In the 1970s, the process sped up.

The biggest thing that changed my writing ability in the last 35 years is writing advertising copy. That enabled me to communicate better, faster, and more effectively than anything else I ever learned. In this case, necessity was the mother of invention. I learned the art of writing advertising copy by copying one of the masters in the field, Joe Sugarman. I did not take a course in writing advertising copy until I took a two-day session in the mid-1980s from a man I have known for over a decade, Dan Rosenthal.

In terms of the amount of writing behind me, is far more than 10,000 hours. It is probably closer to 40,000 hours. On my economic commentary alone, I spent 500 hours a year every year from 1977 until early this year.

I have the basic skills, and today I probably would be considered a virtuoso, in the limited fields in which I write. I could not do it in the field of fiction, but I can do it in the field of journalism.

I do not think about my style when I write. I quit writing from an outline when I went to work for Ron Paul in 1976. Before that, I outlined an article. Then then I wrote it out in longhand. Then I then I re-wrote it when I typed it. When I went to work for Ron Paul, I began ghost writing the articles for his newsletters off the top of my head. I used an INB Selectric III typewriter. That was a major change in my writing career.

In 1981, I use my first word processor: a predecessor to WordPerfect. That fundamentally changed the way I write. I doubled my output in a week. It made correcting my mistakes far easier, which made it easier for me to write faster, because I did not worry about making a major mistake that would be difficult to correct later on. That relief of fear of the cost of retyping fundamentally change the way that I write.

Now consider what I do in comparison with some woman who was spent her life teaching English grammar to seventh graders. She does not know how to write. She knows all the parts of speech, and she uses those horrible diagrams that English teachers use to make life miserable for students. She cannot write fast. But when she writes one sentence at a time, or when she draws diagrams of sentences, she innately knows all about parts of speech.

This is why grammar should not be taught to anybody after the eighth grade. Frankly, I think it should not be taught to anybody after the seventh grade. You get grammar when you’re young, and then you hone your skills by writing. The best way to learn grammar is to be in a home in which both parents speak grammatically correct English. My point is this: it is not knowing the parts of speech, or the rules of grammar, which makes a person a good writer. He becomes a good writer when he pays no attention to the parts of speech or grammar. He innately knows grammar, and so he concentrates his attention on the flow of the words, not the rules of sentence making.

Anybody who is still worried about sentence structure is not a writer. He is still laboring under the illusion that writing comes from a mastery of grammar. Writing uses a mastery of grammar, but it does not come from a mastery of grammar. The ladies who are masters of grammar do not know how to write. If you are instinctive in knowing every part of speech and every grammatical rule, you’re probably an English teacher.

I know a few of the rules, and sometimes I can even remember what some of the parts of speech are called, but basically I have paid no attention to grammar since I was 12 years old. I concentrated on learning how to apply grammar in written essays.

I think Dorothy Sayers was correct in her tripartite division of grammar, logic, and rhetoric. I also think she was right when she said that grammar is usually confined to children who are under 10 or 11 years old. After this, they begin to specialize in logic. Sometime around the mid-teens, the ones who are serious and who have the opportunity to practice their writing do develop their rhetorical skills. Once you have developed rhetorical skills, you pay almost no attention to grammar.

A virtuoso on the piano probably practices his scales every day. This is a physical skill. You have to keep working at a physical skill. But a mental skill, such as writing, is very different. In this case, if you spend a lot of time doing the equivalent of practicing scales, it will eat up your time, and there will be no benefit in terms of improved writing ability. Don’t get sidetracked with the peripheral issues. Don’t worry about grammar when you are in the middle of writing a great novel, or an editorial, or an advertisement. Fix the grammar when you do the final editing of the paper, not before.

© 2005-2012 GaryNorth.Com, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Reproduction without permission prohibited.

Reprinted with permission.  Subscribe to Gary North’s website:  http://www.garynorth.com

Posted in Communication, Copywriting, Gary North, General, Writing | 1 Comment

“Can Jane Austen Really Help Me Improve My Copywriting?”

That’s the question I asked myself after watching a 3-part video presentation by copywriting legend Drayton Bird.

Drayton offered a lot of very useful and practical tips and ideas in that video series.  But, for me, his most intriguing one was this: he said that “all good writing starts with good reading.”  And his recommendation for “good reading” was for all copywriters–especially those who wanted to really stand out in the crowd–to make it a point to read classic works of literature.  This, he said, would contribute to “a well-furnished mind.” (I don’t know about you, but as a writer, I am very interested in having a “well-furnished mind”.)

Specifically, he referred to “the great authors.”

And by that he meant (which he mentioned on his short list of representative examples), F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Evelyn Waugh and Jane Austen.

Now, in all fairness, Drayton also said to be sure and read the best of the best of the contemporary copywriting greats, too–Ogilvy, Hopkins, Caples, etc..  But before you do that, he said, start with the literary greats first.

And so, ever since that intriguing bit of advice began rattling around in my head, it has prompted me to be on the lookout for any of these great authors.

Well, this morning, there I was with my wife at Costco, buying food stuffs and things for the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday, when, lo and behold, as I walked past the book tables on the way to the teeming lines at the cash registers, I paused to see what titles might be offered there to the reading public–those who still actually read physical cardboard-paper-and-ink BOOKS–when, what to my wondering eyes should appear, but a stack of Jane Austen library hardcover editions of her four greatest novels.


Now, before that Drayton Bird recommendation, I would probably have never, EVER thought of buying–let alone reading–a Jane Austen novel.  My daughter was a HUGE fan of her books when she was growing up.  But me?  Give me something more masculine, more manly… like a G. A. Henty novel. Or a Stonewall Jackson biography.  Or even Robert Bly (the poet, not the copywriter!).

Nonetheless, after that visit to Costco, I am now the owner of a four-novels-in-one, hard-back, gold-leaf edition of the finest in Jane Austen literature.

And so, I ask once again, “Can Jane Austen really help me improve my copywriting?”

Well, when a marketing icon and industry titan like Drayton Bird says that it will, then, by George (and by Northanger Abbey), I’m going to read it!

And I do not think that I shall be disappointed.

So, here goes…  Let’s start with Sense and Sensibility, chapter 1.

“The family of Dashwood had long been settled in Sussex…”

I’m trusting Mr. Bird to be right about this one.

Posted in Communication, Copywriting, Drayton Bird, General, Jane Austen | Leave a comment

Don’t Wait Until You’re on an Elevator to Give Your ‘Elevator Pitch’

You know what an elevator pitch is, aka, an “elevator speech”.

It’s that quick little thumbnail sketch you’re supposed to give to somebody who comes up and asks what it is that you do.

It’s such a ubiquitous term in the business and work world, that it even has its own Wikipedia entry!

Presumably, it ought to be more than just a curt, perfunctory response like, “I sell cars”, or “I’m a real estate agent” or “I manage a health food store”.

The idea is to make it long enough to paint a concise yet appealing picture of what it is that you do (or have to offer), and yet short enough to be given on an elevator while it makes its way between floors.

Copywriter and business marketing success coach Steve Slaunwhite offers a nifty little formula that can help you craft your own complete “elevator sales pitch” quickly and easily to give to folks the next time you’re at a conference, networking event, business mixer or meeting where someone pops the question and you have precious seconds (but hopefully minutes) in which to answer.

Except that Steve takes the notion of an elevator pitch beyond the confines of the four walls of an elevator–I guess that should be three walls and a door–and from the formal (or informal) setting of a live, face-to-face meeting.  He says your sales “pitch” needs to be something that can be used and conveyed across all platforms, including electronic.

Here’s how he describes it:

Your elevator pitch is the core message that drives what you say on your website, in your prospecting emails, on your LinkedIn profile, and in other communications. It’s your brand.

I won’t give away Steve’s “secret formula,” so read his article here.

The point is, it doesn’t have to be clever.  It doesn’t have to be magnificent or brilliant.  It just needs to be clear, honest and inviting enough to your listener that he or she just might become your next prospect for your product, service or “value proposition” (after all, they asked you first)!


Posted in Business, Communication, Marketing, Steve Slaunwhite | Leave a comment

Enthusiasm and Loving Your Message

Nick Usborne asks “Do you love your message as much as this guy?”

He’s referring to Eddie Obeng, who gave a TED presentation on the subject, “Smart Failure for a Fast-Changing World”.

When you watch this, you’ll find that Eddie’s topic, dealing with change in our 21st-century world, is not nearly as engaging as how he delivers his message–with such fervor, it’s as if your life depended on what he has to tell you!

Nick’s point is this: if you love your message, your prospective clients will notice, and you will find it much easier to promote yourself and your business to them. And you’ll do it more successfully and confidently because “they will find your energy and enthusiasm irresistible.”

Read Nick’s article here.

Posted in Business, General | Leave a comment

21 Things That Bob Bly Hates About Modern Marketing

I always appreciate Bob Bly’s perspective.  His is the voice of authority, wisdom and marketing savvy in my business world.  That’s why I subscribe to his e-mail newsletter.

Here are 21 things that he says he dislikes about marketing today.

Read through the list and see how many of them you dislike, too!


Here are 21 things I don’t like about modern marketing:

1-Telemarketing calls from a robot.

2-Telemarketing calls from a telemarketer.

3-A direct mailer that is a challenge just to open.

4-Freelance writers who call themselves “content strategists.”

5-Having to make a separate version of web sites and e-mails for smart phones.

6-Ads that allow you to respond only by scanning a QR code and have no phone number or other response mechanism.

7-People I don’t even know inviting me to be their Facebook friend.

8-Online videos or audios that start as soon as you open a web page without giving you the option of choosing whether to view or hear it.

9-TV commercials from local business owners with the production values of a bad elementary school play.

10-Hype-filled long-copy landing pages where the marketer brags endlessly about how rich and successful he is.

11-Marketers who offer free tapes or other freebies in their advertising and then don’t send them — because they are doing a bait and switch.

12-Print ads with type that is 10 point or smaller.

13-Print ads and web sites with type that is approximately the same color as the background.

14-Body copy in reverse type (white on a black or other dark background).

15-Dynamic web copy that rotates before you have a chance to read it.

16-Branding consultants who advise clients that long copy doesn’t work.

17-Social media consultants who act as if social networking is the most powerful marketing medium in the world.

18-Graphic designers who think the design is more important than the words.

19-Marketers who don’t have an offer in their marketing.

20-Marketers who don’t have a USP in their marketing.

21-Marketers who haven’t read Hopkins, Caples, Ogilvy, Collier, Schwab, Sackheim, or Reeves – and in fact have never heard of them. Yikes!

What are your pet peeves about marketing today?

Posted in Advertising, Bob Bly, Business, Copywriting, General, Marketing | 1 Comment