4 Rules You Can Break (in Writing) and 1 You Still Can't
I’ve been speaking English my whole life. I studied it as an art form for 7 years. And I taught it for 6. So what I’m about to tell you needs to stay between us. Because if any of my former teachers, or students, read this they would be ashamed (and probably annoyed).
Here is my very non-scientific list of 5 rules you can break in business writing:
Commas. Yup, no one cares. Well, some people care. I care because I’m a former English teacher and I know all the rules (or at least most of them). But even I don’t follow all the rules when it comes to my commas. Now, if you, were, to ya know, throw in, a bunch, of random commas, people would notice. And on the flip side if you decided to just remove all of your commas like I had one student do in a class because he said it was safer that way then that’s going to read weird as well. Just be smart. Don’t over or under do it.
Contractions. You may have been told by a former English teacher (it might have been me) that you shouldn’t use contractions in formal writing. Well, I take it back. Now if you’re crafting a legal document, probably not a good idea, but outside of that it’s completely fine to use your normal speaking voice in your emails. That being said…
Emojis and LOLs are OK too. I wouldn’t use these right off the bat with a new client or prospect, but once you become familiar and comfortable with someone, there is no reason why you can’t use these. Even my dad, who I’m pretty sure doesn’t know what “lol” stands for has used it in his business emails. And I know he’s not the only old white guy doing it. Our language has become more lax, and professionalism is still very important, but if something is genuinely funny or you are making a small joke (and you know your recipient has a good sense of humor) then some LOLs and winking face emojis can bring some character to another business email.
Forget about the BCC: I’m taking a stance on this one. When I worked in previous corporate positions, I found that the Blind CC was necessary in a lot of instances, and it was always a little icky feeling when I had to use it. Since starting a business, I have only used it maybe a handful of times (and that was only to protect the person from too many “cc’s” by someone else in the email). In the corporate world, however, it seemed you were BCC-ing someone because you were either trying to cover your butt, or trying to kick someone else in the butt. Now, there is absolutely no reason why I can’t CC someone on an email. If I’m talking about them in the email - they’re going to see it (whether they want to or not). If I’m tackling a request, I’m CC everyone I know on the team. This is part common courtesy, and part of symptom of working alone in an office with teammates scattered through the city.
Language is becoming more relaxed in business, and communication is a little more feel-good than it used to be (of course, I’m in marketing and most marketers appreciate the artistic slant to our industry). However, there is 1 rule that I still think is, in my completely biased opinion, a sin to break: Cursing.
I’m not getting on a high horse about cursing in general. I do nearly every day. (I usually do it more when I’m sitting in traffic on I77). But I keep it out of my business communication. Even the more PG-13 curse words, I try to keep completely out of my vocabulary. I always act as if my clients, teammates, prospects, and acquaintances are toddlers just learning to speak: I don’t want them repeating anything I’ve said. I do have to catch myself sometimes. Especially if I’m really struggling with a conversation and I feel on the defense, a good ol’ h-e-double hockey sticks would help explain my frustration.
But the second I hear someone else do it (even if I know them pretty well), I immediately latch onto that word. Because you rarely hear it in business. And if you hear it too quickly, for instance, a person you met at a networking event drops the f-bomb within the first 45 seconds of your conversation, you are going to get completely side-tracked from what they were saying and later only remember them as “that person with possible rage issues.” (True story, because it happened to me. I still couldn’t tell you what that woman did for a living).
Some industries and some brands can get away this. But most of us really can’t, because we need to appeal to a vast majority. With my other rules, if you decided to follow them, no harm done. With this one - if you break it, at best it’s the most memorable thing you do; at worst - it’s a huge turn off.