There’s no getting around it: Journalism is at the heart of everything I write even when it’s advertising copy for Well Done Marketing’s clients. I spent 20 years in the newspaper business, and it taught me the fundamentals of storytelling I use every day.

But plenty has changed, including the industry I’m in, the type of messages I’m writing, and my status as a grammar geek.

Starting at square one in newspapers was all about getting the story right and telling all sides of it. As a reporter, well before I thought about crafting perfectly punctuated sentences, I learned to be obsessed with finding facts and truth. Sure, grammar was important. But it was secondary back then, especially because there were lots of copy editors to fix grammar gaffes. They turned paragraphs cobbled together on deadline into actual prose with perfect Associated Press style. They wrote the story’s headline for you, too.

Starting at square one as a copywriter, which is what I did a couple of years ago, is nothing like that. First, the goal is different. When you’re writing copy, you’re crafting persuasive messages for radio, television, digital ads, billboards, newsletters, and a lot more, coaxing the reader into buying what you’re selling.

Next, there’s less real estate to play with—a lot less. Instead of having hundreds, even thousands, of words, you’ve got maybe a dozen, and that’s if you’re lucky.

That makes grammar, punctuation, and crafting a clear sentence every, single time a whole lot more important.

The clarity of my writing is what I had in mind when I decided to spend my 2021 professional development budget on a 10-week online grammar course: Grammar Lab, offered by UC San Diego Extension. The course description says it’s a refresher for professional writers, a place to start for beginners, and the first in a four-class program toward earning a copyediting certification.

The Point is to Get to the Point

Although I use the eight parts of speech daily, it had been some time since I’d really studied nouns, pronouns, verbs, adverbs, adjectives, prepositions, conjunctions, and interjections. A brush-up on the latest changes to the ever-evolving English language—gender-neutral pronouns, for example—seemed like a fine idea, too. In addition to making my writing clearer, this course promised to improve my proofreading skills—another good thing, since nothing goes out the door here unless it’s proofed, maybe by two or three editors.

My takeaways from those 10 weeks? In addition to a refreshed understanding of the mechanics of sentence structure and the proper placement of commas and colons, I’ve also determined that knowing how to cleverly use the rules of grammar is a linchpin for turning a background in journalism into a future in copywriting.

Why? Because good grammar and the right words modifying the correct things let you make your point fast, which is important to a great news story but vital to a great ad. And knowing when and precisely how to break the rules—using sentence fragments, for example—is often the lifeblood of brilliant advertising.

Consider some of this Well Done Marketing copy.

  • Solar Power? Easy Breezy.
  • Save the Cookie Cutter for the Kitchen. Singular, one-to-one, customized, dedicated: Women’s health care at Hancock Health is all about you—just you. Find out more.
  • Ready, Set, Vote!
  • Vote by Mask or by Mail

Now consider those same ads without the smart use of punctuation and clever rule-breaking.

  • Solar power is easy breezy.
  • Save the cookie cutter for the kitchen and get singular, one-to-one, customized, dedicated women’s health care. It’s all about you, just you, so find out more.
  • Get ready. Get Set. Go vote!
  • Put your mask on and vote at a polling place or mail in your ballot.

Sure, that second batch delivers a message. But the first batch does so with engaging wordplay and smart punctuation.

As I continue to evolve as a copywriter, there’s no doubt I’ll grow as a grammarian. (With apologies to journalism and its AP Stylebook, I’m even a card-carrying member of the Commanist Party.) With a lot of work and a little luck, I’ll also continue to mature as a storyteller—even if most of my stories are 10 perfectly placed and punctuated words long.