Do you need permission to break the rules?

Do you need permission to break the rules?
May 30, 2016 Beth Nyland

You are smart and capable, and very much prepared for the job you do today.

Except the writing.

Somehow, the rules and ways you learned in the past aren’t doing you any favors when you face the blank page or screen of the business world.

In grade school, you learned grammar and punctuation; now those lessons are vague memories. In high school, you padded essays to meet minimum word counts; now your boss tells you to cut the fluff and get to the point. In college, you wrote papers according to MLA style; today you never write endnotes or citations. Along the way, if a person of authority said you were doing it wrong, you took their word for it.

Guess what. Those people aren’t in charge any more. So when you sit down to craft that email, presentation, or proposal, give yourself a break. Let go of rules and ways that no longer serve you—or your reader.

Need permission? Take it from me:

Yes, you can start a sentence with But or And or Or.

A grammar teacher told you never to do this. And she meant it. But you’re not in her classroom any more. Starting a sentence with a conjunction creates emphasis and rhythm, with a touch of surprise. Try it.

Yes, you can end a sentence with a preposition.

“In what did you step? “ That’s one stiff question. Rigidly adhering to this rule can create a distracting air of formality. If you’d rather keep a natural tone, familiar to everyday ears, loosen up. I hope you get from where I am coming.

Yes, you can avoid rules you hate or can’t remember.

Let’s say you never mastered when to use “who” versus “whom,” but find yourself writing to please a grammar stickler. You could (a) research the rule and pray you get it right, or (b) revise the sentence to avoid the issue altogether. Swap a word or two, and “Whom shall we include in the strategy session?” becomes “Which team members shall we include in the strategy session?” So much easier.

Yes, you can write incomplete sentences.

Every sentence needs at least a noun and a verb. Right? Not true. A well-placed sentence fragment saves words, strengthens a point, and brings energy to the page. It’s a creative choice. Not a sin.

Yes, you can write a one-sentence paragraph.


Yes, you can write your first draft in crayon.

You may be writing serious ideas, but you’re not limited to serious instruments. If your fingers freeze over the keyboard, liberate them with playful tools. Use glitter gel pens if you want. Write on a cocktail napkin or the palm of your hand. My best drafts begin with a 12-pack of colorful Sharpies and a stack of neon sticky notes.

Yes, your first draft can be a disaster.

If perfectionism is keeping you from getting past the first sentence, relax your standards. Stop agonizing over spelling and commas and parallel structure. Get the words down. Then you can go back and clean up the mess—or hand it off to someone you trust to fix your sentences without judging your skills.

Yes, you can ask for help.

Like a poet or novelist, you can write in solitude. But you don’t have to. When writing for work, you’re probably surrounded by potential collaborators and editors. Even if you’re self-employed, you can give your writing the benefit of teamwork. Invite a few friends to brainstorm persuasive points. Ask a family member to listen as you read your message aloud. Have your neighbor proofread before you click “send.”

Yes, you can question feedback.

Suppose you send a carefully crafted message to a client or superior for review. The comments come back, and your heart sinks. If you accept the changes, these sentences will be wordy, and that one will be harsh. Take a deep breath. Read the feedback again. Rather than defend your original version, find three new ways to revise those sentences. Chances are, you’ll land on even stronger language—and be prepared to engage your reviewer in meaningful conversation about the message.

I hereby grant you all this permission …

And I do so with just a tiny bit of caution. Three bits of caution, actually:

  1. Know your audience.
  2. Know your reviewer.
  3. Know your organization or industry’s style.

Play within those bounds, and let your writing live a little. Break a few rules. Get the job done. Write your way.

Consider yourself permitted.

Photo credit: Michael Dorausch via flickr


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