Kathryn Reeves | March 11, 2021
The jury is still out on many so-called ‘rules’ of writing. In the advice below, our team reassure, inspire, and set you free from myths about writing at work that many people get stuck on.
We asked: What’s one language, grammar, or workplace communication myth you want to disprove?
Here’s what they said.
When I was 11, I thought it was the pinnacle of sophistication to wield a thesaurus as a mighty marker of intelligence. Buoyed by teachers, who encouraged elegant variation, I’d switch out everyday words for wild synonyms. I mispronounced them and misunderstood subtle differences in meaning or context.
I look back and cringe.
Today, I go for familiar, everyday words that everyone understands in the same way. They’re usually short, specific, and concrete. And I needn’t worry about not seeming like a clever clogs — a 2006 study at Princeton University found that people perceived writers to be less intelligent if they used long or complex words needlessly.
The researchers concluded: write clearly and simply if you can, and you’ll be more likely to be thought of as intelligent (or brilliant, well informed, enlightened, knowing, bright, astute, quick-witted, ingenious, learned, erudite … stop it!).
‘I have to give people context before I can tell them the point of my email.’
The more important the topic, the more we believe people won’t understand or care unless we lead them in with a good paragraph or two (or three!) of context. But our instinct is wrong here.
Tell them what, then tell them why (context is usually ‘why’ information). For example, which opening sentence below seems more compelling?
In 2020, we found our newsletter click-through rate was falling, even though we were doing everything right.
Kaia has created a gorgeous new look and feel for our newsletter!
Give me the context first, and I’m falling asleep before the second sentence. Give me the point first, and I want to read more.
Try this formula next time you’re tempted to start an email with context:
At Write we have the greatest respect for teachers and the challenges they face. English teachers, in particular, seem to be renowned for being misheard, misunderstood, or misremembered. They have a tough job — we all speak colloquial English without their help, but they have to try to instil some idea of grammar and punctuation and syntax into us.
If you are clinging tenaciously to a ‘rule’ you learned in high school English, we just ask you to consider it critically, or perhaps check to see if it is relevant to business writing in the 21st century.
Some rules are absolutely valuable, so don’t discard them just because I said so. But if they say things like ‘Never split infinitives’ or ‘Never end a sentence with a preposition’ … just think of them in the category of your mother’s pronouncements on things like ‘Don’t pull faces in case the wind changes’ or ‘Blue and green should never be seen’.
I’m asked so many questions about writing and grammar, and almost always the answer is ‘It depends’. We’re wired to remember soundbites, especially when they contain absolutes like ‘Never’. But language changes and evolves, and part of our work is to adapt as this happens.
So, God bless English teachers — but don’t feel you have to stick faithfully to every rule they ever gave you. Star Trek’s ‘To boldly go where no man has gone before’ says what it means, and no matter what you were taught, split infinitives are not a language crime!
You absolutely can use ‘they’, ‘them’, and ‘their’ to refer to a single person. It’s fine! Writers have been doing it since the 1300s, and you’ve probably used it in your everyday life as well — ‘Someone left his or her bag behind’ just doesn’t sound right.
Using ‘him or her’ or a similar mealy-mouthed construction isn’t more formal or grammatically correct — it’s just awkward clutter in your writing. If the singular ‘they’ is good enough for Austen, Chaucer, Dickens, and Shakespeare, you can use it as well.
Your writing will be more elegant, and you’ll be more gender-inclusive to boot.
It’s a myth that using plain language means you’re ‘dumbing down’. After all, no one ever complained that a document was too easy to understand.
Yes, you’ll find certain academic fields that you can’t write about in-depth without using specialist terminology — nuclear physics, for example. However, I’m happy to put my neck on the line and say that 99% of business writing can be put across in simple, everyday words.
You just need to be ready to take a different approach.
Advice on how to write reports or proposals often suggests you write the executive summary last. The thinking is that you can’t know what to say up front until you’ve written the whole document.
But write the summary first, and you have to figure out what the whole document needs to say. This technique helps you write an effective executive summary. And that summary helps you map out the rest of the document.
So, you get a two-for-one deal: a crisp summary, plus a clear document outline.
You can find out how to build a clear summary and a document outline at the same time in our guide to The Magic of Threes.
Many of us agonise over when and how to use the semicolon. It does have its uses, to be sure. Mostly, it serves to separate two equally important parts of a sentence.
But here’s a radical idea — why not give each of those parts its own sentence? Make the humble full stop your favourite form of punctuation.
Using full stops instead of semicolons will lift your writing in several ways. Full stops invite the reader to pause, and we all know how powerful pauses are when we’re writing. They add light and shade to the pace of writing, giving it more texture. And shorter sentences are easier for readers. They can grasp one concept or idea at a time.
Full stops also help your writing to achieve the pace and rhythm of spoken language — something that will help the tone of your writing to be more appropriate.
So, whenever you feel the need for a semicolon, try using a full stop instead.