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The First Rule of Copywriting: There Are No Rules

copywriting rules

One of my all-time favorite figures in the advertising industry is Luke Sullivan, an award-winning copywriter with decades of experience at some of the country’s top agencies. His popular book Hey Whipple, Squeeze This — now in its fifth edition — has been a mainstay on my desk since I started working as a full-time writer more than 12 years ago.

When I was first starting out, I saw Sullivan’s book as a collection of important rules and sage advice from one of the best in the business. Through the years, however, I’ve come to realize that the only rule for putting pen to paper is that there are no rules. In fact, Sullivan quotes Ed McCabe, another famous copywriter, at the end of the first chapter: “I have no use for rules. They only rule out the brilliant exception.”

It may sound counterintuitive, but I believe this no-rules approach to copywriting is actually a best practice in and of itself. Of course we agree there are certain basic guidelines and standards for language and usage — but some of the most compelling writing I’ve ever encountered was conceived and presented in this rulebreaking spirit.

The other benefit of this approach is how liberating it is. Instead of focusing on conforming to any number of conventions and checklists, the writer is free to do what’s most important:

Writing to be clear.
Writing to shine a light on the most essential truth about a product or brand.
Writing to engage, then hold the reader’s attention to compel a response.

As Sullivan says, “Build a small, cozy fire with the rule books. Start with this one.”

Writing for B2B? Check out how writing for B2B is different from writing for B2C.

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