Why you should break these 6 rules in writing

***There’s plenty of information around on how to write correctly for business and social purposes. But if you follow those rules, you risk writing like a clone of everyone else. With so much of ourselves being shared in text form online, how can we get across who we really are as individuals?

Why you should break theses 6 rules in writing

It helps to learn writing rules first before you can break them effectively

The answer? Learn how to break the rules so you can express your own personality – as well as communicate your essential messages. Here are some ideas to help start you off on that journey…

Rule breaker #1: learn the rules first before you break them

That’s one of the hardest things to come to terms with. There is a big difference between stepping beyond the rules and tweaking them a bit, as opposed to not knowing them in the first place and just making a mess of things.

There are are many things I could advise here about which rules you can break and which rules you can’t.

But there is one over-riding factor that must direct all attempts at flipping the bird to proper grammar: you need to make sure what you write is easily understood.

Because, quite simply, whatever you’re writing and wherever it is to appear, there is no point in writing stuff people can’t understand.

So whatever eccentricity you weave into your writing from here on, make sure it nonetheless conveys the information you intend clearly and simply.

Rule breaker #2: prepare to ignore us grammar fascists

Much as we pro writers, journalists, editors, proof-readers et al may rant and rave about the “rules” of the English language, as traditionalists we have to confess that if the English language did not evolve, probably we would all be speaking in the way people did thousands of years ago.

Languages need to evolve whether the grammar fascists like it or not.

And never before has there been a greater need to express ourselves via the written word. *** We may try to share our thoughts via video and that’s easy now. But videos longer than about two minutes give rise to boredom even faster than text information does.

Why you should break these 6 rules in writing

Never before has there been a greater need to use text to express ourselves.

Given that the average speaking speed is around 150 words per minute, the maximum amount of speech you’ll get in a two minute video is about 300 words. That’s roughly from the first group of three stars above, to the second group of three. And that’s not even enough for Google to acknowledge as a blog post, so some Googlegurus tell us.

Of course text can be boring too, but not if you spice it up – and break some of those grammar fascist rules.

Rule breaker #3: write conversationally

Write as people speak, not as you learned at school.

This is the most important lesson to learn about modern writing, especially online. I’ve been saying this for more years than I can remember but it still holds true unless it’s basic spelling and punctuation which do still matter…because of the need for clarity and accurate interpretation.

What about business correspondence? Surely that has to be formal?

If you are writing to the taxman or a very expensive firm of lawyers, perhaps it does. But think back to the last email you received from a, shall we say, older-fashioned professional person …

Dear Mrs St Maur
(Blah, blah, blah, message content)
Thanking you for your attention, we remain
Yours faithfully
Messrs Joe Bloggs and Partners.

Doesn’t that just look plain silly? All the modern streamlining of email correspondence bogged down by a salutation and signature straight out of a Dickens novel?

Staying with the, er, older-fashioned lawyer for a moment, you wouldn’t write as follows to her or him, would you?

Hiya Madeleine
Got your note thanks. Love the contract – awesome shit. You lawyers rock.
Will be in tomorrow to sign it.
Hive fives

There’s more to writing as you speak than you might think. Just as you adapt the way you speak to the circumstances and people involved, so you should with your writing, too.

Rule breaker #4: writing sparingly, with lots of clear space

Originally we digi-writers would recommend this for writing that’s read on a screen: to this day, many people find reading from a screen harder on the eyes than when they read from paper.

Why you should break these 6 rules in writing

Unbroken blocks of text are hard enough to read on paper, never mind on a screen

However, the lessons we learned from on-screen reading and its challenges are percolating through to paper-based reading now, too. Whereas in days gone by we were used to reading endless blocks of uninterrupted text in books, newspapers, etc., today many of us find that daunting.

At the same time, we have become scanners; with increasingly busy lives often we don’t have time to read 2,000 words in an unbroken block. Provided that the paragraphs are short and plenty of subheadings (sometimes called crossheadings) are peppered throughout it, the gist of what those 2,000 words are saying can be absorbed much faster and more easily. Readers can go back and read the smaller print but this time it’s optional, not essential.

The KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid) is perhaps a rather rude way of remembering this rule breaker … but it works.

Rule breaker #5: use unconventional punctuation

I have ranted quite a bit about punctuation being abused but I must admit, I do break the rules in a few ways. You might like to consider them, too:

Exclamation marks: the purists sniff loudly and say “well, perhaps an occasional exclamation mark is acceptable” and Lynne Truss, author of best-seller book “Eats, Shoots and Leaves,” goes so far as to liken double exclamation marks to “a dog’s b*ll*cks.” In casual online conversation, though, a couple of exclamation marks won’t hurt and in the absence of a winking icon, indicate that you mean something in a humorous way.

Leader dots: (also called ellipses) were originally intended as a way of showing a gap in a quotation. However they, too, can indicate humour, satire, sarcasm and more at the end of a sentence.

Capital letters: widely opposed on the internet because words all in capitals are considered as shouting, sometimes you do want to shout. As long as you don’t overdo it, the odd shouted word will express your feelings quite plainly. You can also use italics to emphasise a word (e.g. the word “do” in the previous sentence) but it’s not as powerful.

Wrongful capitalisation: capitalising every word in a headline or title is not something I recommend because I think it makes the line hard to read. However used in moderation it can add emphasis, and sometimes humorous emphasis, to words which otherwise would not deserve to be capitalised, e.g. “we were told to tidy up our desks because The Big Cheese was due to visit from head office that afternoon.”

Rule breaker #6: go back and make sure it’s YOU who wrote this

As a final reality check, go back over what you have written and ask yourself if that really reflects what you think and want to share.

Why you should break these 6 rules in writing

Congratulations, rule breaker. It’s the real you writing.

OK, you may have decided to tone down your true thoughts in your writing, just as you would if you were speaking to the person or audience concerned, out of good manners or professional image.

But are those the words you truly would use in F2F conversation?

Would you use those expressions, that jargon, even that humour?

Is it truly what the real you would write, rather than what you think someone in your shoes should write?

Then congratulations, rule breaker. It’s the real you writing.

Questions? Drop Suze a note on suze@suzanstmaur.com




  1. Hiya Suze
    Great article. #1 and #2, especially. Did you really write that email to your lawyer? You rock.
    High fives

    • No, I didn’t write that to my lawyer, it was an example of inappropriateness! Actually my real lawyer would think it’s hilarious. There are some lawyers who manage to be human beings, too…