Grammar Rules for Freelancers: An English Teacher’s Dirty Little Secret

The Dirty Little Secret About Grammar RulesDo you ever feel conflicted about grammar rules?

I do. When I teach university English and when I write for freelance clients.

I’m torn between the need to follow all the grammar rules taught in school, and the need to break them. It’s like I’m living a double life.

On one hand, it feels like being a concert violinist, sitting stiffly in a black tuxedo on a black metal chair, violin wedged against a black bowtie, playing full concertos in the key of E minor. It’s lovely…

But I’d rather be down at the pub. Fiddling hornpipes, reels, and jigs. Stomping my foot. Jammin’ with mates on guitar. Mandolin. And whistle.

Expressive. Emotional. And free.

But if you’re always stuck on grammar rules that hold you back, you’ll never be that kind of freelance writer.

I may be a university English teacher, but if you want to be a better freelance writer, you need to know this dirty little secret about grammar rules:

An English teacher’s grammar rules confession

Grammar Rules: Joe Nattress

Joe Nattress

I’m not a musician. I don’t play in a symphony. And to be kind, I’ll spare you the pub stories…

I’m a university English teacher in Japan. I teach students to write academic research papers. Dry, conservative papers that, to be honest, aren’t written for the reader.

My students need to learn how to write them to thrive at the overseas universities they wish to attend.

But I’m also a freelance writer. For me to thrive, I need to break the very grammar rules I teach.

You can see the conflict.

Are old-school grammar rules you learned from an English teacher are holding you back?

If you want to sound more like a copywriter than an academic, and attract more freelance writing clients, let me fill you in on a dirty little secret. You should ignore these five grammar rules:

1. Write long paragraphs (please, stop)

Academic paragraphs are long. This allows for detailed topic support. And it may be useful for explaining complicated topics and analysis, but nowadays, readers have too many choices available.

Fail: Most content readers won’t spend time reading long paragraphs, especially online or on a smart phone.

As a freelance writer, your first job is to grab the reader’s attention. You need to immediately let the reader (or the editor you’re pitching) know that your content will be easy to read.

Win: One of the quickest ways to do this. Use short paragraphs.

Short paragraphs leave white space on the page.

White space is inviting.

It tells the reader that this piece of content will be quick to read and easy to scan.

2. Write long sentences (you’re killing me)

Similarly, in academic writing, long, drawn-out sentences with multiple clauses that continue on, line after line, connected by a variety of conjunctions and transitions, are acceptable, as long as the grammar is correct, and the message is relatively clear. (40 words, was that long enough for you?)

Long sentences can also be hard to follow. This is especially true for the perpetually-distracted reader.

Some of my better students experiment with long, complex sentences. This is good for them as they improve their English grammar. But even with correct grammar, readers can get lost in long sentences long before the end.

Fail: If someone has to read and re-read your writing to try and figure out what you’re trying to say, you’ve failed.

Remember trying to make sense of the writing in academic textbooks and research papers?

Me, too. And it sometimes gives me nightmares.

Win: Shorter sentences are easier to read.

3. Use academic vocabulary (Zzz…zzz…zzz)

Many academic writers admire an extensive vocabulary. After all, why would use “walk” when you could just as easily use “perambulate”? Good heavens, that’s going to put the reader to sleep.

To be fair, I’m an academic to a certain degree. I admire scholars for the depth of their knowledge.

But I wouldn’t hire most of them to write marketing content.

Fail: Most readers aren’t going to reach for a dictionary to read our content. And certainly not several times in the same sentence.

In direct response copywriting, they talk about the “greased slide” based on the type of writing you’re doing, such as:

  • The sales page. You want your reader’s eyes to flow smoothly from top to bottom of the sales page without stopping for a moment. When a reader stops, the spell may be broken, defense mechanisms may kick in, and the sale can be lost in an instant.
  • The magazine article or blog post. It’s similar in a magazine article or blog post. If your reader must stop to figure out the meaning of a word, it may snap the reader out of the story.

This presents an opportunity for outside thoughts of daily life to rush in. Your reader may remember it’s time to get back to work or pick up the kids. They may never finish your article.

Win. Using everyday language does not mean dumbing down your content. It means explaining ideas in simple language. Even the most complex ideas can be explained using common vocabulary.

This helps to hold your readers’ interest.

4. Use formal language (epic fail)

As an academic English teacher, I tell my students not to use casual language and contractions in their writing. Written language is different from spoken language.

Fail: Formal language often does not develop the connection between writer and reader the way casual language does.

Imagine meeting someone for the first time. Most of us bond more quickly with someone who’s relaxed and easy to talk with.

Win: Write as if you’re talking to a friend, and you’ll draw the reader in.

One way to do this is to use contractions.

That’s how we speak.

I laugh when I edit my freelance writing and put in contractions. My inner student still loves to break the rules, even when they’re my own.

5. Obey grammar rules (rules were meant to be broken)

To really write like we speak, we need to…break grammar rules.

There. I said it.

Keep that between us, okay?

Please don’t tell my students I said that. I’ll never live it down.

If they saw how I write online and for clients, I’d lose all credibility in my Writing Academic Research Papers classes.

They’d never want to write a research paper again.

Despite what English teachers have told you, it’s OK to break grammar rules.

Really.

Because, again, that’s how we speak.

This doesn’t mean we can disregard all grammar rules. It means we can strategically break them when it enhances our writing with:

  • Sentence fragments
  • One-word sentences
  • And sentences starting with conjunctions.

All are acceptable if your audience understands and your ideas flow smoothly.

Break the rules to be a better freelance writer

It was hard for me at first to ignore these five grammar rules. I imagined hearing my English teachers complain whenever I dared to disregard their instructions.

But if you learn to ignore these grammar rules, you’ll be a better freelance writer. You’ll engage more readers. You’ll get a better response rate from pitching editors and marketing directors. And you’ll land more assignments.

What grammar rules do you break? Let’s discuss in the comments below.

Joe Nattress is a freelance writer and English teacher who divides his time between Kyoto, Japan and Northeastern Thailand. He writes marketing content for social enterprises, B Corporations and nonprofits.

Double your writing income: Coaching for working freelance writers. Freelance Writers Den 2X Income Accelerator. Freelance Writers Den - A Writing Community

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45 comments on “Grammar Rules for Freelancers: An English Teacher’s Dirty Little Secret
  1. Interesting and relatable piece.
    As someone who has also taught a fair bit of academic writing in Asia whilst freelancing on the side, I have at times felt quite guilty about insisting that my students follow certain rules, before heading home and breaking them myself.

  2. Awesome post, Joe! See, this is why writing was my LEAST favorite subject in school. I did eventually become really great at writing papers in college and grad school, but in K-12 academic writing was a real struggle in part because it seemed so out of touch.

    So when I started writing professionally for businesses, the switch wasn’t terribly hard for me. I didn’t like things like diagramming sentences and using big stuffy words. It seemed like there was this huge gulf between the “right” way to communicate and how real, everyday people actually do communicate with each other.

    In my mind, what makes grammar and technique “correct” and “appropriate” is entirely contextual. Language isn’t something written along with the music of the spheres by some angels and handed down to human beings. It’s a living, evolving medium. It’s only natural that the rules change over time.

    Thanks for sharing your story. What an amazing double life you live. 🙂 Appreciate you stepping away from being undercover for a bit to tell us about it.

  3. Paul says:

    I enjoy writing while maintaining formal and academia format. I receive comments and remarks from high profile individuals appreciating the vocabulary I use, and manner in which I use it. There is a natural finesse required to appropriately strategize and implement text book grammar according to context. A great professor will identify these individuals; encouraging and assisting the student to harness these strengths of procedural writing, making the practices habitual by second nature.

    • Carol Tice says:

      Paul, we’re not students writing for professors around here — we’re freelance writers writing for clients, usually in a very conversational style and around the 9th grade level. That’s how marketing works! Glad your style is working for you.

  4. KL Snyder says:

    Hey, weigh kool! How many rools ken us brake? U’ve simplified our riting efurts 4 sher, but due us has two git sumthin rite? I has herd that editers iz pikky bout grammer an stuf, but youse thinks we ken git bye flowting da rools?

    Btw, spel chek ain’t likin it.

  5. Kathy says:

    Pleased to read this…two days ago, I got a comment that my blogs would be better if I fixed some of the grammar. I write like I talk. Thank you.

    • Joe Nattress says:

      Hi Kathy,

      You’re welcome. I’m glad the timing was good.

      My favorite writers have a strong voice. Some are conventional, and some not at all. Either way, when I read their words, I can hear them speak those words in my head, in their unique way.

      For example, I just re-listened to a couple of classic books on writing read by the authors: Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg, and Bird by Bird by Anne Lamont. Their styles are completely different, but both are so good. Natalie is wise and polite, and Anne is irreverent and funny. And both are wonderful teachers of writing with distinct voices.

      I’d say keep writing like you talk. We can’t please everybody, but we will find people who love what we write.

      Cheers.

  6. Ved Vineet Gautam says:

    Thnx alot Sir/Mam for your suggestions. I will definitely remember these instructions in my future contents. N kindly provide me suggestions in future as well so that I can grow and present better contents.

    • Carol Tice says:

      My suggestion for the future is — don’t ever address anyone as sir/madam! There are pictures of me all over this blog. There’s a tagline to this blog post that says who wrote this. Figure out someone’s gender before you start speaking to them online.

      • Ravi says:

        Yes, but in India, it is common to call a person sir/madam. Mostly we would be shy to call a person by his/her name unless he/she is a friend, family member, or a well-known person.

        • Carol Tice says:

          OK… that explains why so many of my spam emails say that. But seriously… you’ve got to know enough about your prospect to know if they’re male or female to have a prayer. Dear Sir/Madam isn’t going to get you any response in any English-language countries, because that’s not how we ever address anyone.

          • Ravi says:

            I agree with you. Actually, I could manage to behave as per the situation.

            Whenever I comment in a forum that is not from India, or the members are not from India, I don’t use Sir/Madam.

            In fact, whenever I get a reply calling me Sir, I treat him/her he/she is from India or its surroundings.

  7. This was excellent advice. As an aspiring writer, I’m glad I came across this article. I’ve taken copywriting courses and this was a timely reminder. We writers forget that our message has to be easier to read than the ideas jumbled up in our heads. Thanks!

    • Joe Nattress says:

      Hi Regine,

      I’m glad the post was helpful. Yes, we’ve always got to keep our readers in mind.

      Good luck. Keep writing!

  8. Richard Hershberger says:

    This discussion would be improved by recognizing that most of these aren’t grammar rules. They are closer to style rules. They aren’t quite even that, in that no one has ever put out a style guide mandating long sentences.

    The next problem is that the advice is good in some contexts and bad in others. Use short sentences? Tell that to William Faulkner. We are still reading his work, many decades later. Of course most people shouldn’t try to write like Faulkner. As a first approximation, no one should. Let the exceptions sort themselves out. But the point here is that the issue isn’t short versus long sentences. The sentence should be the right length for what it is intended to do. The artistry lies in knowing what is the right length.

    The linguistic term for the distinction I think you are aiming for is “register.” The register might be formal or informal, and each come in innumerable versions. Use the appropriate register for what you are trying to do. Writing formal academic prose when it isn’t called for is like wearing a business suit for a day at the beach.

    For the record, only your fifth section actually addresses grammar. Only the rule against sentence fragments is a real rule of English grammar. It also is a pretty good one for most purposes. Dialogue is the notable exception. Spoken English elides a lot, and written dialogue does well to reflect this. Are one-word sentences grammatical? Yes. And is it grammatical to begin a sentence with a conjunction? Also yes. It always has been. Some usage manuals claim otherwise, but they are making an objectively false factual claim.

  9. Claudia says:

    Hey, Joe! Thanks so much for this. As a journalist who’s done a good deal of writing and editing in both academic and nonacademic settings, I’m still getting comfortable with breaking the rules. But it’s getting easier.

    I would like to know your thoughts on one area that struggle with (formally put, ‘an area with which I struggle’ :). Subject-verb agreement.

    I’m a stickler for this rule, but it makes conversational writing extremely challenging, especially in this age when the choice of pronoun can be very sensitive. I just can’t get comfortable with referring to a singular subject as ‘they’ or ‘them,’ but sticking with singular pronouns in these cases gets really clunky and often necessitates more “stiff” sentences. I try to get around it by pluralizing my subjects when possible.

    Any thoughts on that? And also on my ending a sentence with a preposition? That’s another nightmare to work around.

    Cheers,
    Claudia

    • Joe Nattress says:

      Hi Claudia,

      It all comes down to knowing your audience.

      I try to write using the grammar used by my audience. Nowadays, it’s common in spoken American English to end a sentence with a preposition. So that’s how I write much of the time.

      The rare times that I stick to the archaic rule not to do so are when such rules are important to my audience (such as in my day job).

      Language evolves. The modern style used in content marketing and popular publications is “breezy” and relaxed. Most audiences connect with this style of writing. Connecting with our audience is the goal.

      It’s the same with personal pronouns. But I must admit, I struggle with this one, too, trying to read my audience’s take on it.

      To certain American audiences, using “they” as a singular pronoun works because it’s gender neutral. But to other American audiences, or those in other English speaking countries, it sounds like bad grammar. Language evolves at different rates in different groups and in different places.

      It all comes back to knowing where your audience is from. (Ending preposition intentional 😉

      Cheers,
      Joe

  10. James Nguma says:

    In life, you will be remembered by the rules you break, right? And so is true for freelance writing. Thanks for the awesome post.

  11. Ravi says:

    One of the reasons I stayed away for all these days is Carol always simply discourages non-English people. I don’t ask her to encourage however they write, but you should not discourage when people are interested to write in English.

    This kind of posts help people who are not perfect in English. I wish I could find more articles like this.

    • Joe Nattress says:

      Hi Ravi. Thanks for your comment. There’s a fine line here, though. All grammar rules can’t be broken. There’s a difference between bad grammar and grammar that is breaking certain rules, naturally. The trick is to break the rules that native speakers do when they speak. This requires a clear understanding of the grammar rules before you break them. The best way to learn how to write this way is to listen carefully to the way native speakers speak. Often.

      • Ravi says:

        Hi Joe Nattress

        Thank you for the reply.

        I understood your point. I will apply and start listening to native speakers.

        I wrote a story in English, and the readers appreciated it, and another writer Angela Booth encouraged me to write regularly, but Carol Tice almost suggested not to write in English.

        Perhaps my English is basic, but I improved a lot for all those days. Maybe I have to learn some more words, but could not be confident to start a writing career in English.

        What do you think about my English? Can I write fiction or non-fiction in English? And also suggest good movies/shows to listen, and books to read and learn.

        Sincerely
        Ravi

        • Joe Nattress says:

          Hi Ravi,

          I think you’re on the right track. If you really want to write well in English, read a lot, write a lot, listen a lot, and speak all you can if you have the opportunity. Learning any language well is correlated to the amount of time you put into using it. And paying attention to how native speakers use it.

          It’s similar for native speakers. We need to read and write a lot, and pay attention, too, to improve our writing.

          As for what to read and listen to, find what you enjoy the most. Then it’s not like studying. Also check out TED.com and use their subtitles and interactive transcripts to read as you listen. Great stuff.

          Good luck!
          Joe

        • Carol Tice says:

          Ravi, feel free to write any fiction you like, for your own enjoyment, in any language you like. That’s not really part of freelance writing, so open fields there.

          • Ravi says:

            Is having some mistakes okay for fiction?

            What’s the difference?

            • Carol Tice says:

              In fiction, you’re not trying to get hired to write for pay for someone. You’re trying to get published…usually, by an imprint that HAS an editor to help you. So sort of a different scenario.

              • Ravi says:

                Understood.

                In fiction, journey stats with talent, grammar secondary.
                But in non-fiction, the journey starts with talent and grammar simultaneously. Right?

                A bit happy though for giving me green signal to write fiction.

    • Carol Tice says:

      Ravi, I don’t discourage non-English people.

      I only discourage people who aren’t fluent in any language from trying to earn a living writing in that language…because it’s not going to work.

      Write in your own language, there are businesses everywhere that need help!

      P.S. In English that would be “This kind of post helps,” NOT ‘posts help.’ Perfect example of all the small tricky things in English grammar that make it difficult for those semi-literate in English to do this for a living. Be an SEO expert, a coder, a designer — something that doesn’t rely on writing! There, perfect English is less of a critical issue.

      • Ravi says:

        Carol,

        Yes, I have to agree that I did a mistake. But what my point is we can correct them before sending to clients.

        [“This kind of post helps”, yes, but we can write that in plural too, “These kinds of posts help”]

        Writing here is just a comment. So we would not focus much on mistakes or typos. But if we work for serious work, it will be different case.

        This post’s author gave me tips, he didn’t suggest me to stop. This is what I expected every time from you.

        I have read many stories of non-English people who are not fluent. I found mistakes in those people’s blog posts.

        Besides learning ourselves, there is an additional solution, i.e., hiring a proofreader.

        I take your comment as a challenge (just in a positive sense, don’t mind), and I will write and send an article to get published. And I will let you know if I win.

  12. This is so true. I am also an academic English teacher and editor in Japan—and a remote international freelance writer. Was just feeling schizophrenic the other day when thinking about this. Great piece!

  13. Bosede says:

    Thank you so much for this article. I have spent a great deal of my life writing research or academic papers, as a result, I try to make my writings “proper” and that ca be hard especially with blogging and creative writing. These strategies will surely loosen the yoke of propriety.

    • Joe Nattress says:

      I’m glad you found it useful, Bosede. It took me a long time to break out of that yoke, too. But writing is much more enjoyable once your free from it.

  14. Bron Hogan says:

    Great read! 😉 I call myself a ‘Storyteller’ so that people do not expect excellent grammar!
    I write as if I am chatting to a friend most times.
    It is great fun and I like to think I connect with the people I am writing for.
    It is refreshing to read your blog post here, gives me a “phew” moment.
    Thanks

    • Joe Nattress says:

      Thanks, Bron. The best stories are the ones we hear from our friends. It’s hard to lose yourself in a story written in formal language, isn’t it? It’s just not the same.