Training Bulletin Issue 73
The most important rule in writing
I had a fascinating discussion with a delegate who attended a recent training course. We were talking about rules of grammar, specifically the one about not starting sentences with conjunctions, and I said it was one of those rules that many people broke nowadays. (See Bulletin 58 for a discussion of this.) He told me about a man he used to work with, who clearly had a bee in his bonnet about this rule and sent a document back to be rewritten because it started sentences with ‘when' and ‘because'. If this had been a bid from a would-be supplier, he would have rejected it outright despite any other merits it had, for no better reason than that it broke a rule he clearly felt was an absolute commandment.
This left me wondering how many times such a thing has happened: a report, business case or bid has been turned down because something in it, innocuous to the majority, offended one key reader. How would you ever know if this happened to you? My most important rule in writing, therefore, is 'Focus on your reader.'
And how the heck are you supposed to do that if you have very little idea who your reader is?
The readers you know…
If you're lucky, some of your writing will be for a few specific people whom you know well enough to let you avoid those little quirks that annoy them. Read emails or reports they've written to familiarise yourself with their preferences and style. Pay attention to any changes they make to your writing and adopt them in future: people are happier reading something that sounds as if they wrote it themselves.
…and the readers you don't
If you don't know who your readers are, there are still some things you can do rather than just close your eyes and hope. Find out what you can – are they more senior? Less senior? Likely to be familiar with the topic or not? More senior readers are broadly more likely to be after the bigger picture – how is your content going to affect the running of the business or project. They may prefer more formal rules of grammar. More junior readers might be more interested in lower level detail, more task-focused content, and they may be more likely to use more conversational English.
Consider people in similar roles to your unknown readers, but whom you do know. Better than assuming nothing at all, you could assume that they may have similar priorities or goals if they are in similar roles. This means working from stereotypes, but sometimes these exist for a reason – they are often sufficiently based on fact that they make better predictors than having no idea.
Note that these are very broad assumptions, and not guaranteed to be correct in every case but they have a better chance of getting you on target than just throwing your hands up and not trying at all.
Being all things to all readers
What about documents that are going to a very wide audience? These need to be pitched to the lowest common denominator, by which I mean those readers whom you think will know least about the topic.
- Avoid overly specialist or technical terms and make sure you define the ones you use
- Include some background or an overview of where your content fits in to the bigger picture
- Supplement written content with illustrations
- Use simpler vocabulary and sentence structure – you need to ensure that your content is understood by as many of your readers as possible, not just the experts
Who decides what's right anyway?
What about that annoying question of who gets to say what is correct usage and what's not? English is a living language and it changes. Only dead things keep still. The trouble is, the strictness of rules of grammar change as well and if your reader has a view of what is correct that is based on different rules from yours, it can be hard to know which rules of grammar you need to abide by and which you can gaily ignore. A previous bulletin looked at this question.
Generally, the more you know about the rules of grammar, the better placed you are to defend your personal preferences. If you don't know what the rule is that you want to either break or uphold, you are in a much weaker position arguing against someone who does.
Thank you Rick Nelson
To quote from the chorus of his 1972 hit song, Garden Party: "You can't please everyone so you got to please yourself." If you have no way to identify and familiarise yourself with your readers, then at least be true to your organisation and yourself by having defined style and usage preferences, and knowing enough about the language to be able to defend your choices.
Two of our courses will help you to do this:
- Perfect your Editing & Proofreading explains why a consistent voice and style is essential and gives you a lot of the information necessary to help you create one
- Brush Up Your English! will familiarise you with some of the most basic rules of grammar and punctuation, so you can make informed choices about which to adopt and which you can ignore.
You can also contact us on to discuss your requirements in more detail.