Skillset New Zealand Blog

Ideas to help your team develop personally and professionally.

Yes, know them, then break them.

Tell people who object that you’re breaking them to do a better job for your readers.

Some of the rules are nonsense anyway.

Some 'rules of writing' that you can ignore

Never start a sentence with ‘but’. Heard that one? The great guru of English usage Henry Fowler does it. The same goes for And. (Do it for emphasis, but maybe no more than once every six months.)

You must write formally in business. Please, don’t go there. The result will be the strange and artificial language of bureaucracy – not good communication or service, and certainly not plain English.

The proper language of technical writing is passive. It’s a strange myth based on the fear that active language would compromise the objectivity of the science by introducing humans. Where’s the compromise in, ‘We surveyed 10,000 students at the University of Auckland’? You might hold your reader through the passive alternative ’10,000 students at the University of Auckland were surveyed’ but carry on like that and your writing will be eye-crossingly dull.

Never split an infinitive. If you don’t know what a split infinitive is, don’t worry. It doesn’t matter. Just tell your accuser that Fowler says there are two kinds of people in the world: those who know about the split infinitive, and those who don’t. And those who don’t are the lucky ones.

The only rules that matter help our readers understand

Full stops make sense. Quotation marks tell our readers we are quoting directly or using a word in an unusual way. Commas separate thoughts and allow our readers to take a breath.

Just one caution in your new career as a guerilla fighter in the war on stuffiness...

Tone it down a bit for the sticklers. They’ll think you don’t know the rules. For many of them, the rules they learned a generation ago are more important than making sure that the text is easy to read, absorb and remember.

You'll know better.


Interested in a workshop on business writing for your team?