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What the most important writer you’ve never heard of can teach you about copy

Have you ever had a brilliant idea in your head but, when you try to explain it out loud, you’re met with a blank stare?

Whether you’re writing a market update for your clients or playing Pictionary with your family, it can sometimes be tricky to properly express what you’re thinking.

One of the most important lessons that I’ve learned here at the Yardstick Agency is that choosing the right language can have an incredible effect. A simple rephrase often has the power to transform an unremarkable piece of writing into something gripping.

To explore this idea further, we’re going to take a look at the 16th century writer, William Tyndale. While you won’t see his face on stamps or banknotes, his mastery of the English language made him one of the most influential figures in British history.

The reformation in Germany inspired William Tyndale to translate the Bible into English

Our story begins, as many historical stories do, with two men having an argument.

What had started as a friendly discussion about politics and religion quickly gets out of hand and it leaves one of them fuming. He curses his companion, hotly remarking that “If God spares my life, before many years I would cause a ploughboy to know more of scripture than you do!”

This was the young William Tyndale and as you can see, he felt very strongly about matters of religion. It was this passion for all things spiritual that led him to the writings of a firebrand monk called Martin Luther, including a German translation of the New Testament.

The book got Tyndale thinking and he decided to do the same thing but in English. This was a radical decision, since translating the Bible into the vernacular was banned. Ever since the days of John Wycliffe and the Lollards (which would be a great name for a band), the act was punishable by death.

Unfortunately for the Catholic Church, Tyndale was not a man who was easily deterred once he had made up his mind on something.

Naively, he brought his proposal to John Colet, the Bishop of London, to ask for permission. But while the prelate was known as an open-minded humanist, he was horrified at Tyndale’s plan and sent out a warrant for his arrest. If caught, the writer would be burned at the stake as a heretic.

Tyndale’s brilliant use of language captured his audience’s imagination

Despite the authorities’ best efforts to snare him, Tyndale narrowly managed to escape England. He spent several years on the run but, in 1526, he published his landmark work: The newe Testament as it was written and caused to be written by them which herde it.

While his title could probably have been a bit snappier, the content of the book was electrifying. Tyndale had an undeniable talent for writing and his work practically pulsed with energy.

Take a few examples of his religious language – “let there be light”, “knock and it shall be opened unto you”, and “lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil”. And it doesn’t stop there.

This work also gave us many of the phrases we use in everyday conversation too – “the powers that be”; “the salt of the earth”; “under the sun”; “pour out one’s heart”; “the apple of his eye” and countless others.

His brilliant use of language gave the translation an incredible allure and people soon jostled to buy their own copy.

Even many of Tyndale’s critics bought one just to see what had captured people’s imaginations so strongly. In just ten years, 16,000 copies had been sold – not bad for a time when less than a third of people could read!

His translation would go on to heavily influence the King James Bible

Unfortunately, like many dissidents throughout history, Tyndale couldn’t outrun the authorities forever. After many years of living as a wanted man, he was ultimately captured by the Catholic Church in 1535 and sentenced to death for heresy.

But while they may have taken his life, his ideas were not so easy to snuff out. This was the time when Henry VIII broke from Rome to form the Anglican Church, and one of the king’s first actions was to print a new edition of the bible for each parish.

Given that it was one of the most famous and well-written translations of the scriptures, Tyndale’s work provided the mainstay of the 1539 “Great Bible”. Furthermore, his apprentice, Miles Coverdale, was even one of its editors.

Tyndale’s work would go on to influence later editions too. According to a 1998 analysis, his language accounts for more than three-quarters of the Old Testament and four-fifths of the New Testament in the King James Bible.

Given how much influence the KJV has had over the past four centuries, it really is difficult to overstate the incredible contribution Tyndale made to our language.

Choosing the right phrasing can transform how readable your writing is

When it comes to communicating a message, the phrasing you use is incredibly important. As the writer Joseph Conrad famously said, “He who wants to persuade should put his trust not in the right argument, but in the right word”.

If you want to be able to communicate clearly, here are three simple tips that can help you:

Address your reader

When writing, it can be useful to focus on what the reader wants to know and how it will affect them. This can make it more engaging for an audience and can hold their attention more effectively.

Keep it simple

As I discussed in a previous article, it’s important to speak to your audience in a way that they’ll understand. Avoid jargon wherever you can, and the quality of your writing will often improve.

Be positive

Using positive language can be a very effective way to make your work more engaging. People like to feel inspired and so it’s much easier to read a piece of writing that does so, rather than one that makes you anxious.

Get in touch

If you want to improve your communication, we can help. Our experienced team of copywriters can work with you to craft interesting, informative, and engaging content to resonate with your target audience. To find out more, email or call 0115 8965 300.

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