Writing rules you should break

Should business owners learn to write content?

Business writing can feel like a balancing act.  On the one hand you want to get your point over in an engaging way, on the other you want to appear professional. So how do you get it right?

Here’s a quick guide.

Three writing rules you should break, (and three you shouldn’t.)

Rule 1. Write in proper sentences. Not a straightforward point, and I’m not advocating the death of punctuation. Rather I’m suggesting you treat your sentence structure with a bit of flexibility. I sometimes think of sentences as hand and footholds for the reader, as they climb their way through your writing. Sometimes it’s good to reach an easy one. A very short sentence, coming after a series of longer ones, makes an impact. Like this.

Of course ‘like this’ is not technically a sentence at all, but if it works to make your point, then why not use it? I don’t have a problem with one word ‘sentences’ either. If they contribute to the flow of your writing and help the reader understand what you’re trying to say, then throw a couple into the mix. Simple.

Rule 2. Metaphors belong in poems. Poetry is full of fabulously inspiring literary rule breaking and business writers can steal a trick or two. Metaphors are a quick win. Poets seek images that have an emotional resonance to make lasting connections with readers. Connection is your number one aim with a piece of business writing too.

“Connection is your number one aim.”

I don’t mean scattering your website with moonlit walks and hosts of golden daffodils. Rather that you think laterally and creatively when you’re writing. If an image comes to mind when you’re trying to describe a process, or an idea, (like my climbing metaphor in the first point) don’t be afraid to use it. Seek them out and give your writing more impact.

A word of caution. Because metaphors and analogies make real connections with readers, it can get confusing if you throw too many in, or keep switching themes. For example, if you’ve set up your writing with driving metaphors – full throttle, stuck in gear, hair pin bend – and then you change to sailing ones –full steam ahead, stormy weather, choppy waters– your reader will become disorientated. Sea sick, even.

Rule 3. Long words impress readers. Your English teacher at school probably gave you a big tick when you managed to wiggle some complicated piece of vocabulary into your essays, but you won’t get full marks for it in business. Simple straightforward words are better. Don’t say ‘cascade’ when you mean ‘tell’, don’t say ‘strategize’ when you mean ‘plan’, don’t say ‘empower’ ever. Just don’t.

And an even quicker guide to those you mustn’t break.

Rule 1. Spell it right. Although our language is flexible and evolving, you do need to spell everything correctly.

Rule 2. Don’t get your ‘it’s’ and your ‘its’ mixed up. People get awfully irate about it. (My rule – see whether ‘its’ could be replaced by ‘his’ or ‘her.’ If it can’t be, you need the other one!)

Rule 3. Punctuate properly. Don’t forget your full stops and capital letters. Your aim is to make your reader understand. Taking away the punctuation is like taking away the road signs – no one knows when to slow down and when to stop.

If you need help with shaping up your business writing, give Sharon Tanton a call on 07985 015300.

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  1. Vaughan Merlyn

    All good points and great advice! I am constantly amazed at the dreadful spelling I see everywhere. In these days, when just about every text editor has a decent in-line spelling checker, I find gross spelling errors to be inexcusable!
    As a consulting client said to me (of another consultant’s deliverable!) “At least it ought to look good and as though some care has been taken in creating it!”

  2. Sonja Jefferson

    Too right Vaughan! We agree with you (and your client).

  3. Peter Brill


    Good ideas well articulated! I agree with all of the above. I also believe that, first and foremost, content needs to be interesting. While this might be a statement of the bleedin’ obvious, clients needn’t be afraid to be provocative or slightly less formal in their language. After all, most content (particularly online) has to be immediately engaging and appropriate to the reader and this generally requires writing/reading it from their perspective rather than your own.

    There is also the current debate about credibility of the writer and mentioning brand names or products in content which is a ‘hot-topic’, http://www.net-mentor.com/blog/article-730-2011-01/paying-the-price-for-editorial, as well as the particular challenges of writing public health information which links very closely to your point about using jargon http://www.net-mentor.com/blog/article-732-2011-01/public-health-information-meeting-the-challenge

    Let’s keep the best practice flag flying.

  4. Sharon Tanton

    Thanks Peter, really good points. I

    agree that engagement is key – and I’m all for a bit of provocation if it grabs attention and gets your message across!

    I’ll look at your links now, and yes, let’s keep that flag flying high!

  5. Lee Frederiksen

    What a nice post to make an important point. I suspect that people do not realize how stilted,formal language reduces readership and connection with the audience. Perhaps if they did they would instantly change their style.
    I believe that it takes confidence to break the rules. When you write that way readers sense it and respond accordingly.
    My nominations for the rhetorical rubbish bin:think outside the box and low hanging fruit.
    Thanks again for a great post…lwf

  6. Sharon Tanton

    Thanks Lee. You’re right about confidence. People sometimes hide behind more formal language and jargon, because they think that’s the ‘right’ way to write. Far better to take a deep breath and just tell it as it is. And yes, ‘low hanging fruit’ and ‘thinking outside the box’ are definitely candidates for the business writer’s Room 101.



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