Some of my favorite teachers throughout school were my English teachers. After all, I went on to major in English/Journalism. I was in for a surprise when I entered the business world. Some of the rules that were drilled in my head no longer applied. Social media bent those rules even further. When we’re all competing for the attention of readers who are bombarded with emails, blogs and social posts, what can we do to stand out? The first thing? Let’s unlearn some lessons.
Spacing twice after periods: Can I just get this one out of the way? This was so ingrained in our brains that it’s one of the toughest rules to break in business writing. Space once at the end of a sentence. I know it can be a hard one to give up, but trust me on this.
The five-paragraph essay: Ah, the infamous five paragraphs. I firmly believe learning to write essays in this format was instrumental to making us learn to write well. But in the business world, you’re likely to lose readers if you don’t snag them with your headline and opening paragraph. I would argue that there’s still a place for organizing content with supporting points that could be used as subheads or bullet points. Just make sure you give the reader a reason to keep reading at the top of your email, blog, letter or proposal.
Starting sentences with a conjunction: Some of my favorite sentences begin with “and,” “but” and “or.” (I just used one in the paragraph above.) In fact, they’re a must when you want to make a strong point, pull the reader in or expand on a thought. Don’t go crazy and use conjunctions throughout your copy. But it’s perfectly fine to use a few!
Vocabulary: Using big words won’t cut it. If you mean dense, don’t use impenetrable. If you mean large, don’t write corpulent. Get what I’m articulating….er, saying?
Drop the formality: Unless you’re writing to an academic audience, write the way you would speak to the particular audience you’re addressing. If you’re blogging or writing for social media, it’s important to be conversational. If it makes sense for your audience, be informal and inject some personality into your writing. It may have worked when you inserted complex language into your English class compositions, but why risk losing readers?
Ending a sentence with a proposition: How awkward is it to write, “She is the friend with whom I am meeting for dinner.” versus “She is the friend I’m having dinner with?” You end up with a strangely twisted sentence that is cringe-worthy. Or, “I have no idea who this gift came from.” Wouldn’t it be odd to write, “I have no idea from whom this gift came?” I’m not saying there isn’t a place for neatly tucking a preposition into a sentence. Just make sure by doing so you aren’t playing Twister with words.
Paragraph length: Do you remember writing a paper at school and being worried your paragraphs weren’t long enough? You desperately searched for filler so your teacher would be bowled over by your linguistic gymnastics. That’s not going to cut it in business writing. If you have a separate thought that can be expressed in two sentences, by all means—go for it! And here’s a gasp-inducing tip: a one-sentence paragraph is not a crime! In fact, it can help you make a thought stand apart from the rest. If you have long paragraphs, shorten them. You will lose those readers with short attention spans.
“They” is now acceptable: In one of its most momentous decisions, the Associated Press made a change in 2017 that was greeted with an enormous collective sigh by writers. Now, instead of having to use the clumsy “he” or she” and “his or her” when the gender of an individual is unknown, simply write “they.”
- “If a child chooses this toy, they will enjoy the sound it makes.”
However, it is generally preferable to reword to use a plural pronoun.
- Old: When an individual takes the writing test, he or she should come prepared.
- New: When an individual takes the writing test, they should come prepared.
- Preferred option: When individuals take the writing test, they should come prepared.
One-word or so-called incomplete sentences. I love these as a tool to make a bold point or to set a particular cadence in a paragraph. Consider the following:
- Hurricanes. Tornadoes. Floods. I have experienced every one of these natural disasters in my hometown. And I survived.
- Have you ever had the feeling someone was watching you. Like right now? Still?
See what I mean? This works!
You will feel freer as a writer when you can relax some of the old rules. So with our hats off to all the English teachers who made us better writers, break free of these restrictive rules and write on.
Do you have questions about editing, content development or other strategic marketing issues? Please contact Cindy Spitz at 440-449-6800 or email Cindy.